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The X-Files Re-Opened: A Roundtable Review

on January 19, 2016, 1:30am

The truth is still out there, and, sadly, we can still trust no one. The X-Files has been re-opened for a six-episode mini-series event on Fox, furthering the investigations of Special Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Consequence of Sound‘s Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman, Film Editor Justin Gerber, and contributing writer McKenzie Gerber obsessively watched the first three episodes and have some thoughts to share.

Michael Roffman: I don’t want to believe. I do believe. Eight frustrating years later, The X-Files has returned to its proper home: television. Following 2008’s underwhelming monster-of-the-week feature film, I Want to Believe, Chris Carter has turned the focus back on the long-storied alien mythology, picking up where the series finale left off way, way back in 2002.

Much has changed, though, from Mulder and Scully’s ever-strained relationship to the political climate at hand. The most obvious of all is the rampant technology: We have smartphones, we have wi-fi, we have Reddit, and we have YouTube. It’s easier than ever to dispel myths and unlock the truth, or so we’d like to believe. The fact of the matter is that we’ve never been more lost.

That’s an exciting place to start for The X-Files, and first chapter “My Struggle” does an admirable job rounding up the preceding narratives and looking ahead to the future, where there’s now an even bigger fight. I was a little reticent on how they’d handle such a heavy story with only six episodes — two of which are devoted to the actual arc, mind you — but I’m still a true believer.

What are your initial thoughts, Justin?

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Justin Gerber: Yeah, Mike. “Admirable” is the best way to describe (can’t believe I’m writing this) the season 10 premiere. I’ve wracked my brain over the past week to try to figure out another show that had to pull off what Carter attempts to do here. Let’s look at the following:

— Introduce the show to people who have never seen one of the 201 episodes or either movie.

— Re-introduce the show to people who watched all 201 episodes during its initial run (and both movies), but haven’t watched since it left the air back in 2002.

— Re-introduce the show to people who watched all 117 episodes of the five Vancouver seasons, but bailed after production moved to L.A.

— Push the show forward for all of the dedicated followers who have watched all 201 episodes multiple times over the years, as well as both movies.

And he had 45 minutes to do so. And the mythos is complicated as hell. That’s why S10E01 (again, can’t believe I’m typing this) feels rushed at times. There is a lot to do, and not even Duchovny settling back into Mulder-mode can slow down the pace of the episode. Having said all that, the true indicator of how good this revival will go will likely begin with returning champ James Wong’s “Founder’s Mutation”– the season’s second episode.

Mac, what were your impressions of “My Struggle”, the 10th season premiere (!) of The X-Files?

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McKenzie Gerber: The what? Oh, that episode that flew by faster than a speeding U.F.O? I thought it was very entertaining and, yes, fast. It’s important to note that The X-Files was always at its best when events would slowly unfold, creating the most suspenseful atmosphere imaginable. I have to agree with you two that I thought the task would be impossible to deliver. As it turns out, “My Struggle” is the setup episode that everyone out there needed in order to establish itself among today’s viewership.

After the first minute, I found myself just as skeptical as Scully was earlier in the series: There I was, age 32, not as willing to take the leap of faith I once could as a kid inches away from the TV. However, as the episode continued and characters fell back into place (especially with the appearance of A.D. Walter Skinner), my inner Mulder began to climb out of the black oil that was my doubt. It’s been 14 years since the show left the telly, and as Justin already stated, we had every right to be as skeptical as we were.

Mike, what were your impressions of Annet Mahendru and Joel McHale?

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Michael Roffman: Having never watched The Americans, I’m not as familiar with Mahendru’s talents as you two, though she does her best with the very little she’s offered. Carter’s task manager is in overdrive mode, as we’ve already detailed, so Mahendru’s Sveta is underwritten to say the least. She’s a pivotal MacGuffin crudely masked as this tragic victim, and Carter’s way too transparent about this, which is why her story hardly resonates.

The same goes for McHale’s confusing Tad O’Malley, whose motives are supposed to be questionable, only that murky constitution translates into a rocky character for us — and that’s disappointing. One of the more enviable strengths of this series used to be its uncanny ability at carving out unforgettable faces, especially the smaller roles and one-offs, ranging from season one’s Brad Dourif (“Beyond the Sea”) all the way to season six’s Bryan Cranston (“Drive”).

Both n00bs didn’t do much for me. Although, I am intrigued by Rance Howard’s character.

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Justin Gerber: I’m also curious about Howard’s character, who looks to be in the vein of Deep Throat, X, and Marita Covarrubias. It’s a shame they had to kill off X, because Steven Williams was great on the second season of The Leftovers, but what can we do? Oh, right. Just because you’re “dead” on The X-Files doesn’t mean you stay dead. Exhibit A: The Cigarette-Smoking Man (who will forever in my heart be known as “Cancer Man”). William B. Davis is back to his evil ways, albeit now with severe burns and what looks like a Phantom of the Opera-style mask. Glad he recovered from that firestorm that appeared to wipe out his face in the episode formerly known as the series finale. Sarcasm aside, while the lack of CSM didn’t affect the underrated eighth season of the show, a lack of near-omniscient villain marred the ninth.

While the new characters didn’t have time to breathe along with most viewers, it was a joy to see the return of A.D. Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) in all of his serious glory (nice addition to the opening credits, too). His appearance is brief in the premiere, but it was great to see an old-fashioned standoff between Skinner and Mulder — something we haven’t seen since, what, season eight? They seemed pretty chummy in “The Truth”, and ol’ Mulder was woozy in I Want to Believe. Now that the table is set, I look forward to seeing more interactions between the A.D. and his favorite agents.

Mike, you alluded to the new plot twist, which I thought was a smart move. It doesn’t undo the past or lazily contradict former storylines. Aliens exist, but the evil lies within. I’m sure we’ll catch allusions to this new thread in the upcoming “Monster of the Weeks” before coming to a head in typical X-Files fashion during the season (series?) finale.

Mac, what were your impressions of Mulder and Scully, and will it be difficult for this season to be worse than season nine?

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McKenzie Gerber: Again, I was hesitant approaching this episode. It’s so hard to recapture chemistry or even attempt to revisit a character you’ve created but haven’t been for years on end (ask Bruce Willis). However, Duchovny and Anderson slide back into their roles effortlessly and in a satisfying fashion. Carter left the two characters in a very solid place at the end of I Want to Believe — that is, if you count a row boat steadier footing — and to shake that up again was the best thing he could have done. The ride isn’t over yet, and it’s clear from the new plot twist we still have a ton of stories coming our way. By the end of “My Struggle”, it’s clear that Mulder and Scully are still as strong a duo as they’ve ever been, both in their roles and as actors.

Will this be another season nine? It’s almost impossible to sink that low, what with the writing talent being pulled from the strongest alums (James Wong, Darin and Glen Morgan), so I find it highly unlikely we’ll have another dud of a season. And while we were all hoping for a full 24-episode season — do they still even have those these days? — a strong six-episode collection could be just what we need to secure another season going forward. Looking ahead, it’s a relief this season’s first episode races off with a good start. It’s maybe not the best or the most ideal form of storytelling, but certain things had to be streamlined in order to set us up for another round of The X-Files.

Mike, do you think they’ve recaptured the feel of the show?

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Michael Roffman: I was a little shocked at how literally bright these three episodes are at times. I’m of the camp that felt the show was never the same after production left Vancouver — though, I stuck around until the end and loved every minute of it — so I was stoked to see them returning to the original shooting grounds. But, so much of the action takes place during the day, and unlike the earlier seasons, it’s not very misty and gray outside; it’s sunny and almost delightful. Maybe that was Carter’s intention, to juxtapose the illusion of a happier America with the disturbing underbelly of truth we’re hit with throughout the series. Or maybe that’s looking way to into it and it’s just the simple fact that they shot the new season during the summer.

Actually, it’s probably because none of the original directors returned. Instead, every new episode is shot by its respective writer, which isn’t exactly new for The X-Files, but it’s not exactly ideal, either. The only names behind the lens in this season are Carter, Wong, Darin Morgan, and Glen Morgan, and out of those four, only two have ever had experience shooting an actual episode of this series. In fact, Wong only shot one (“Musing of a Cigarette Smoking Man”), while Carter was responsible for 10 episodes total, not counting the feature film, I Want to Believe. What’s funny is that you could easily argue Duchovny is more up to the task, given that he lensed three himself in the series, which is a staggering thought.

We know the late and great Kim Manners passed away in 2009 — and look out for a wonderful homage in Darin Morgan’s “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” — but what about Rob Bowman? R.W. Goodwin? Was David Nutter too busy filming another pilot? It’s baffling how none of the original directors returned, which makes this mini-series feel like its own island, no different than I Want to Believe. A part of me wonders if that’s Carter’s own doing, or if it comes down to budgeting, but similar to Twin Peaks or Miami Vice, The X-Files insists upon a style and a look. Out of the three episodes so far, Darin Morgan’s fresh eyes surprisingly handle the proceedings best, nailing the feeling of the hammy, tongue-in-cheek episode to perfection.

The other two? It’s a tad messy.

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McKenzie Gerber: I agree, Mike. Darin Morgan’s third installment is by far the best. However, let’s dial back some and chat about James Wong’s “Founders Mutation”. Coming off the heels of the mythos-heavy “My Struggle”, it was actually quite refreshing to see them jump right into a Monster-of-the-Week episode, considering so much of the original series was based in that arena. Here we have a doctor who begins to hear a strange, high-pierced noise that not only causes him pain, but speaks to him, and his death (obviously) tips off Mulder and Scully.

The cold open of the episode was extremely intense, and I couldn’t help but smile as we crashed into the opening credits. Doug Savant plays the part of August Goldman, a man accused by his own wife of experimenting on their own child in search of a cure to the world’s most eclectic diseases known to man. Unfortunately, they soon realize the cause of the deaths surrounding Dr. Goldman can be traced to his own child, who now has powers he can’t quite control.

The story works off a great idea that’s slightly hindered by a glut of exposition. What’s more, it seemed as if there were two episodes wrapped up in one: a boy with powers and a man responsible for them. Each would have proven excellent as stand-alones. And given that Carter threw a ton at us in the season premiere, a slow, character-driven storyline would have sufficed as a follow-up. Wong was close, but should have scaled back a smidgen.

Justin, your thoughts on this story?

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Justin Gerber: Well, they’re right back at it, aren’t they? In a perfect world, we’d get a two-hour opener, followed by a “we’re back” episode, and then “Founder’s Mutation”. But guys, we don’t live in that perfect world. This is the world we live in, and these are the hands we’re given, and other Genesis-related lyrics. As was mentioned, “Founder’s” marks the return of X-Files all-star James Wong to the series, and he’s even rewarded by getting the chance to direct. It’s a stylish episode to be sure, from the pre-credits freak-outs to the tinted flashbacks, and though the story has slowed down considerably from the first one, there seems to be one thread too many.

I was happy to see Hannibal’s Kacey Rohl back on the small screen, but excising her sub-subplot could have made for a more succinct piece of storytelling. After watching the original run, I’ve been reconditioned to how things used to be in the good ol’ days, and I’m certain that’s affecting my viewings. Network TV has changed so much over the years that pacing is more of a street race as opposed to a slow burn.

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I think these first two episodes will be better digested by the non-diehards a bit more than the X-philes. Mike, you mentioned that in a way it’s on its own island, and I’d liken it to when Star Trek came back after a decade off. The wardrobes changed, with cinematography and pacing along with it. It’s technically the 10th season of The X-Files, but this isn’t the winter following the fall. It’s like 14 winters following one particular fall. It’s tough to get used to.

We discussed this briefly in person, but there’s a certain sequence in “Founder’s” I would have bumped up to just after the opening credits. This would have led to an episode structured with concrete bookends and less clunky exposition a la Han and Leia in The Force Awakens. At the end of the day, I thought it was a stronger episode than “My Struggle” if only because most of the past has been established. We’re back to teasers, whadda-we-got establishing, a Skinner dressing down, and Mulder in physical pain. It’s a perfectly inconsequential episode of The X-Files: not great, not bad. You know, like a quarter of the original run.

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Michael Roffman: “Founder’s” has some jarring moments, too. I eat oatmeal every day at work, and I still can’t get that blubbery mess out of my head. (Trust me, you’ll know what I’m referring to when you see it. Good fucking god.) That was a relief of sorts, especially since it’s harder and harder to legitimately shock audiences these days, what with The Walking Dead, Hannibal, and American Horror Story: Ryan Murphy flooding our DVRs every other month. So, yeah, seeing those messed-up kids put a smile on my face, as if Carter and his team were like, “The boys … are back in town.”

Still, I’d argue earlier episodes, specifically of the Monster-of-the-Week variety, weren’t nearly as reliant on exposition. I’ll give Carter some respite with “My Struggle” given the hurdles at hand, but there’s no reason for the glut of on-the-nose imagery and explicit storytelling that strangles some of the scenes in “Founder’s” — the whole “You’re not my sister!”/”You’re my sister!” scene was cringeworthy. Also, I couldn’t agree more with Rohl’s excision. What was that about? Clearly, Wong needed a little more of “Take out the papers and the trash!” and less “Yakety yak!” How about them Coasters?

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Speaking of being silly, how about we finally start talking about Darin Morgan’s “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”. Let’s not forget Darin’s responsible for two of The X-Files’ greatest episodes — the Emmy Award-winning “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and the genius meta parody “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space“, both of season three — and it’s clear he hasn’t lost a skip in his step over the years. This was a hilarious 45 minutes that brought me back to the series’ peak era, and so much of it works from the unlikely chemistry between Duchovny and Flight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby.

But also because Morgan knows better than anyone how to balance comedy and intrigue. Such a trick requires a clever hook, and damn does he have one, subverting the ol’ werewolf storyline with a witty punch line that bites its thumb at our daily lives. True to his style, the story’s framing and sequencing also come off as very smart, offering a layered joke that keeps delivering. Granted, we’ve seen this kind of episode before, whether it’s “Small Potatoes” or “Bad Blood” or “Hollywood A.D.”, but they’re always a welcome departure. And yet, this is the first time the new season truly clicks and captures the aura of The X-Files.

I can’t even begin to fathom how many GIFs will pop up come February 1st.

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Justin Gerber: Going in, Darin Morgan’s batting average was a robust .800 (“War of the Coprophages” was even dismissed by the writer himself), so of all the stand-alones, I was looking to his the most. Once the joke is officially delivered, I was either laughing out loud or had a smirk on my face for the final 25 minutes of the episode. The younger Morgan’s strength is not only in telling the joke, but giving that joke a sense of pathos. “Clyde Bruckman’s…” is actually a “funny” episode with a melancholy denouement. “Jose Chung’s” is a little more heartfelt than some people remember. Who are the real freaks is explored in “Humbug”.

Here, Morgan sympathizes with the “other” again. Unafraid to use anyone or anybody in the name of a joke (something he will no doubt get shit over), he employs a character to go on a 10-minute rant about how dumb we are as a people. All of us. Race doesn’t matter. Sex doesn’t matter. He comments on the bullshit we all worry about. I was guffawing and reflecting in equal measure. I’m interested in seeing what his big bro does next, as well as Carter who still has a stand-alone and finale to come.

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McKenzie Gerber: I have to agree with you, Justin. Morgan really hits today’s culture hard and using an absurd episode of X-Files to do so. It’s very disarming when you have no clue it’s coming, but that once again is credit to Morgan’s storytelling ability. I found myself laughing out loud (a feat in itself) for the last half of the episode, and not only was I enjoying it, I found myself realizing something. I was finally watching The X-Files. Who thought it would take a comedic episode for the new series to hit its niche?

To be quite honest, I was never a fan of the comedic X-Files episodes when I was younger; instead, I was always ready for the next UFO or Flukeman. As an adult, however, I’m consistently surprised when I’m able to fully appreciate the message of those episodes. We need the break from the intensity, and after “My Struggle”, and especially “Founder’s Mutation”, it’s a welcome one!

In a perfect world, to borrow Justin’s phrasing, the episodes that would follow such a witty parody like this would be something terrifying, followed then by a further 18 episodes of brilliance, but to continue quoting Genesis: “This is the world we live in.” Rest assured, though, Glen Morgan and Chris Carter will undoubtedly have something up their sleeve for the remaining three episodes, threads and ideas that I hope, and I’m sure you do too, will ultimately lead to more and more and more X-Files in the years to come.

At least … I want to believe.

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