For a decade, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigated the paranormal. They encountered many strange people and situations, but they found absolute, verifiable proof of the existence of paranormal activity hard to find. Many years later, they are tempted out of their new lives to investigate claims by an internet talk-show test and conspiracy theorist.
The X-Files ran for nine seasons between 1993 and 2002. At its height it was a pop culture phenomenon, drawing in enormous viewing figures and turning its two leads, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, into global stars. The presence of both well-crafted, well-written stand-alone stories and a long-running, intricate story arc attracted a passionate fanbase. Unfortunately, as the show went on producer and showrunner Chris Carter became more interested in spinning out the storyline than actually providing any hard answers. The audience grew bored and drifted away, as did the stars. Duchovney quit the show in its penultimate season, returning only for a bitty and unsatisfying finale. Two spin-off movies failed to resolve anything either.
Fourteen years later, Fox have resurrected the show for a six-episode mini-series, hopefully to lead into a recurring series. Laudably, they chose not to remake the show with a new cast, instead tempting back Carter, Duchovney and Anderson for new stories. Less laudably, the show builds on the tedious and unsatisfying storyline elements from the last two or three seasons of the original series, by which time a lot of the audience had checked out. The result is a bitty and unsatisfying mini-series which does manage to occasionally evoke the magic of the show at its best, but not consistently enough.
The first episode casts Joel McHale (Community) as Tad O'Malley, a right-wing conspiracy theorist with a talk show and a large audience. Despite being a tinfoil nutjob, O'Malley has stumbled across hard evidence of a wide-ranging government conspiracy that began with the Roswell crash in 1947. This is like catnip to Mulder, who is soon embroiled in his usual shenanigans, which involve constructing elaborate theories out of thin evidence (to Scully's eye-rolling disgust), running around dark buildings with flashlights and exasperated exchanges with his boss, FBI Deputy Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi, who does not appear to have aged a day in the intervening years). It's all very silly, deeply tedious and, in the more credulous modern days, falls horribly flat.
The second episode is better, featuring weird deaths caused by high-pitched sounds. It's nothing special, but is fine as a watchable, "standard" episode of The X-Files.
The third episode, Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-People, is outstanding. Written by the original show's finest writer, Darin Morgan, this episode deconstructs The X-Files brilliantly, is beautifully written, laugh-out-loud hilarious and really brings Duchovny and Anderson to life after some fairly restrained performances in the previous two episodes. Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-People may be one of the best episodes of The X-Files ever made, and by itself justifies the existence of this reboot.
The fourth episode is another solid, okay, mystery-of-the-week episode. It does gently revisit one of the more significant but forgotten story points of the original series, namely that Mulder and Scully had a child together who they gave up for adoption, but doesn't advance the storyline very far.
The penultimate episode of the season, Babylon, is weird. The tone is light and self-mocking, with elements include a young, next-generation version of Mulder and Scully (making the originals feel self-conscious) and scenes involving Mulder tripping balls with a vision sequence which is quite amusing in isolation. But the episode as a whole is about a suicide bombing carried out by Muslims in an American town, an event which in real life would raise tensions and be a serious, game-changing moment in the national consciousness. To see it featured as the catalyst for a comedy episode is serious tonally jarring, leaving the episode feeling off as a result.
The final episode of the season is supposed to be a big, epic moment representing the culmination of the "syndicate" storyline that slowly percolated over the course of the entire original series and the first movie, with the United States struck down by a devastating virus. But although Fox has clearly given this reboot a lot of money, it's not enough to sell the idea that the entire nation is on the brink of disaster. As a result there is no tension and the writing is dreadful. Just when things threaten to turn interesting, with the return of original recurring character Monica Reyes, the episode ends on an eye-rolling cliffhanger which may not be resolved for another year or two.
The return of The X-Files is, on one level, welcome. Duchovny and Anderson both still have a warm chemistry and charisma, although it takes a couple of episodes to resurface. The stand-alone episodes confirm that The X-Files is at its best when giving its two leads a puzzle to solve and watching how they unpick it from their two differing perspectives, and this remains fun. But times have moved on from the mid-1990s. Mulder's open-minded enthusiasm now comes across too often as tinfoil ranting (not helped by often being proven wrong) and Carter's insistence on picking up on storylines no-one cared about in 2002 means an awful lot of time is wasted on the exact same uninteresting waffle that lost the show its original viewership and saw it cancelled. If anything, the overwhelming success of Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-People highlights how silly and tedious these elements are. Whilst reducing The X-Files to a comedy show would be a shame, its over-earnest tone, which was getting a bit much by four or five seasons in, feels very overwrought today.
The tenth season of The X-Files (***, but ****½ for the third episode) works as a proof-of-concept, showing there is life in the old show and some ways it could come back on a more permanent basis and be watchable and interesting. However, it also highlights how other shows - most notably Lost and Fringe - have picked up the gauntlet thrown down in the interim and done similar things, only more consistently and with a higher level of quality (and not outstaying their welcome to anything approaching the same extent). Season 10 of The X-Files is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and US (DVD, Blu-Ray).