Get out your plaid, your docs and your Nine Inch Nails albums, because the 1990s have returned on the new X-Files. There have been reboots and relaunches before in TV history, and certainly in film history, but after an absence measured in decades, here we are again with FBI Agents Mulder and Scully, still trying to find the truth about aliens, conspiracies and natural oddities. And the best thing is that, in many ways, it feels like we just left them.
The new X-Files miniseries, which debuted this past Sunday on Fox for a 6-episode run, certainly has creative integrity on its side. Not only is the cast back, but many, if not most, of the behind-the-camera people are back, docking this new season very cleanly with where we left off in 2002. Of course, we’ve seen Mulder and Scully since, most notably in the under-appreciated 2008 film I Want to Believe, but this is a true continuation of the series, right down to the same opening titles (with their original 90s hair) and the original Vancouver shooting location. The tone, mood, acting, music, themes are all the same as they were 14 years ago, and while stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson haven’t been immune to the passage of time, neither has one wrinkle you would take away. We’ve all aged, too, so this season has very much the feel of meeting old friends after a long absence. Even Skinner is back, sporting a smart grey beard, as well as some other old frenemies that we won’t spoil.
Creator Chris Carter writes and directs the first (and fifth and sixth) episodes of this season, with other Files veterans such as James Hong writing and directing the others. Obviously, some time has passed and the creators helpfully give Mulder a short voice over montage at the beginning of the first episode for those who might not be familiar with key events from the series’ history, including later events that casual fans may not be aware of, such as the existence of William, the child of Mulder and Scully. (William, or at least his memory, features prominently in the second episode.)
Times have changed a bit since the late 90s, but, in the world of the X-Files, nothing much ever really changes. Mulder is still paranoid and unstable, (this has led Scully to finally end their romantic involvement and he lives as a quasi-hermit), although he insists that he’s not a “believer”, but that he just “wants to believe”. Scully, on the other hand, is a true believer, at least in her Roman Catholic faith, now working full-time as a surgeon at a Catholic hospital. Events in the first episode involving a Glenn Beck-esque TV star conspiracy nut played by Joel McHale lead the FBI to officially re-open the X-Files, prompting Mulder to shave and put on the old G-man suit for episode two.
The X-Files was always about, in some ways, the power of faith, not always in the religious sense but in the emotional sense. This theme is front and centre in the two episodes broadcast so far. In the season opener, Mulder faces having his deepest theories confirmed, and comes within an ace of finally cracking the whole conspiracy, before everything falls apart and he’s left with no choice but to go back to the FBI and work cases as they appear. The second episode hits deeper emotional notes, testing Scully and Mulder in very personal ways in the context of their jobs and roles and once again raising the question of how much someone is willing to believe, and why. Even the villains in the X-Files have faith, if in nothing but their own manifest destiny to rule the world. The first episode makes it abundantly clear that the order of the world is at stake here, and Mulder and Scully are only now realizing how powerful their opponents are. By the second episode, Scully, too, is something of a convinced believer in the big mythic elements the show brings to bear in a way she never was before.
Without any major spoilers, it’s fair to say that aliens make an appearance in the premiere, but much more interesting things happen in episode two, which almost takes us from X-Files to X-Men. The look and feel of the season is spot-on, and benefits greatly from the old Vancouver locations and pulling from our city’s rich talent pool of actors, such as Aaron Douglas (who most will remember from Battlestar Galactica). Yes, there’s some CG work and better prosthetics now than 15-20 years ago, but most of the effects are wonderfully old-school, relying on simple makeup and performance rather than elaborate set extensions or morphing. (An interesting exception is a stealth plane featured in the season opener that’s fully justified by story elements and has a truly magical quality reminiscent of the glory days of Close Encounters.)
Finally what makes these new episodes sing is Duchovny and Anderson, who still have that old chemistry, playing two characters (and, one suspects, actors) who have the deepest love and respect for each other, and their differences. Duchovny leaves his Californication character firmly in the past, and embraces the droll Mulder with all of his awkward charm. (In a flashback photo in the opening montage we see an image of Mulder as a child, dressed for Halloween in full Mr. Spock regalia, which is utterly perfect.) Anderson, for her part, picks up Scully right where she left her, bringing warmth, weariness and intelligence after years of playing more icy characters on such shows as Hannibal and The Fall. It’s quite impressive, after having seen these two actors do so many other things, see them embrace the roles that made them famous rather than running from them.
The new X-Files is a true gift to the fans, and judging by the quality of the first two episodes, let’s hope they won’t stop at six.