By: Judd Livingston
About a year ago I decided I should get into podcasts. The first season of Serial was winding down, and I was hearing about Marc Maron and WTF, Radiolab, Love + Death, and I started thinking maybe I was missing out on some cultural touchstone. So I googled, and I talked to friends and curated a nice little list of podcasts for myself, 99 percent of which I stopped listening to after one or two episodes. During my short-lived obsession with this millennial form of media, I did however stumble upon a show that revolved around a cultural touchstone of a different era: The X-Files-Files.
Finding Kumail Nanjiani’s podcast, which critiques and reviews the series episode-by-episode with guest hosts who are either connected to the show in some way or just super-fan friends of Nanjiani’s, triggered something in me. I began to spend hours watching old episodes and reading tribute sites online to garner greater insight into the show’s mythology, as well as the conspiracies upon which so much of it is based.
I was only a couple short months into my 12th year when The X-Files started. TV wasn’t as segmented then as it is now. There were no “hidden gem” TV shows that flew under the radar because they were on some new cable network like AMC, IFC, or the like. You had the big 3 (ABC, NBC, CBS) and Fox and HBO. A show either made it, or it didn’t. You didn’t have The Wire-esque sleeper hits that started to take off after a first season DVD release. So finding The X-Files wasn’t a particularly difficult task. I remember my father saying to me, probably a few weeks before the first episode, “There’s a new TV show coming on about UFOs and stuff. You’d probably like it.” And, then I saw the commercials on FOX. (On Fox29, WUTV to be specific, the Buffalo affiliate.)
TV was a much more universal experience back then. If you were a 12 year old kid, you were watching the same shows at the same time as a large percentage of other 12 year old kids. So within a few days, my friends at school were on-board as well, probably seeing the commercials during The Simpsons or some other show that everybody watched. That was the great thing about TV back then: it had a schedule. There were no spoilers because you either saw the show or you didn’t. If not, you weren’t going to have the opportunity to “watch all of them at once” or check it out On Demand. As a result, TV shows were almost like current events for kids. You would talk about it on the playground the next day. And if you were one of the unfortunate to have missed it, you’d try and suck all the information out of your friends so that it could be recreated, even if in piece-meal form, within your brain.
For the first season, I watched The X-Files in our basement, with the lights dimmed, an afghan on the futon to keep me warm, and a bowl of chips beside me. It wasn’t news yet. The stars weren’t on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and my family didn’t really show an interest. That would change by Season 3 when the show was becoming a bona fide hit. Then I would watch it upstairs, with the rest of the family, with the lights on and some of the magic gone. But for those first two seasons The X-Files was decidedly mine. It was something I engaged in completely on my own. And that was certainly where some of its power came from. Watching it was almost an act of independence. That is, until it scared the bejesus out of me and I had to run upstairs and turn all the lights on. Do you remember the episode where the biology teacher is a devil worshipper and her eyes go black?? Slept with the lights on that night, that’s for sure.
The X-Files was also a beautiful show. Watching it now, on Netflix, in HD, the gorgeous B.C. backdrop is even more present than it was back in ’93 when I was watching on a 27” Tube TV. Somehow, and I feel like this was purely a happy accident, the show’s score just melded perfectly with the location. This show is the perfect example of the sum being greater than the parts: The writing, acting, cinematography, locations, and score all coming together to form this perfect atmosphere. It created a mood that would envelope you whole and was perfect for watching from your couch late at night.
The first day I went back to The X-Files, over a year ago, couldn’t have been a more perfect day. At the time, I was working a schedule which gave me Wednesdays off. This Wednesday morning couldn’t have been a more perfect day to hunker down and get in deep with some conspiracy action. The sky was overcast, a light drizzle was misting down over the city and I decided to dive in and focus solely on the “Mythology” episodes. Those are the ones that dealt exclusively with the incredible government conspiracy involving clones, alien DNA, the Kennedy assassination and all that jazz. That was a mistake. So many of The X-Files episodes that I remembered where the one-offs, or “Monster-of-the-Week” shows that really helped form the series’ character. They also helped offset the generally high-anxiety, fast-paced, intense mythology episodes which, when viewing back-to-back, can grow tiresome and raise questions like “How the hell are these people still working for the FBI?” When seen in the context of the series as a whole, you can appreciate that Mulder is a bit of a genius and regularly solves murder cases while staying well within the bounds of FBI protocol. Over the last few weeks I’ve been re-watching some the series as a whole, and focusing more on the stand-alone episodes. It holds up much better under those circumstances. (Just a little caveat, anything past Season 6 is a crap shoot, so most of my comments are referring to S01-S05. Although, some of the greatest X-Files ever came from later seasons, it’s just not as consistent.)
And now, 13 years later, it’s back, complete with David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and creator Chris Carter. Now, the big question is, have they maintained that feeling? Is the new X-Files a reboot? Revival? Reimagining? Or perhaps a continuation? I’ve only seen the first two episodes, so who’s to say where they may go from here, but I’m generally feeling very positive about it. Somehow, they’ve maintained that 90’s feel: it’s not incredibly slick; it doesn’t rely on heavy CGI; some of the support acting is not the greatest. The flashbacks to Roswell in particular could have been plucked out of the original series. The first episode, My Struggle, is a little frenetic, a little too high-energy, but I’m hoping that may be simply a result of only having six episodes to deal with things and a desire to get back into it hard and fast. They smartly avoid playing catch-up or providing significant backstories for the main characters, assuming the viewers are fans and know who’s who and what’s going on. But they do try and play catch-up with the conspiracies. The second episode was paced a little more like a regular show, so I’m hoping they maintain this pace throughout.
A lot has happened since 1993. One of the interesting things about re-watching the original series is the lack of internet and cellphones (or at least cellphones with decent coverage). The United States at the time was in a position of relative peace: The Berlin Wall had come down, Communism was in shambles, terrorism had yet to take over as the threat-du-jour and, as a result, we turn to the unknown to look for our boogie-men. Instead of Russian super spies, now the Alien super soldiers were our enemies. I read somewhere that sociologists say this is quite a regular, natural phenomenon within the life cycle of an empire: once stabilized, the populace can begin to look to either a) the unknown or supernatural; or b) it’s own society, for its enemies. The original X-Files came about at a perfect time to take advantage of the first scenario, looking to an otherworldly threat, which has been hidden from the public by its government.
Now, 13 years later, the script has flipped. There was, indeed, a drop in interest in these shady extra-terrestrial threats by the mass media post-9/11. The people were less interested in invaders from another planet as they were with invaders from their own, be they terrorists or their own government. Today, instead of aliens attacking us and the government hiding the fact, it’s the government attacking us, using weapons stolen from benevolent aliens who had been sent to steer Earthlings away from the path of destruction we were set upon with the advent of the hydrogen bomb. The government is still the bad guy, but now in a much more sinister way. I like that. I think it’s appropriate for the times, and an exciting narrative. They do lay it on a little thick, but we’ll see where they take it over the next few weeks.
The one aspect that I found absent in this episode that was prevalent in the original series, was the simple notion of hope. The new X-Files is dark and cynical in a way the old wasn’t. It makes sense that Mulder would lose some faith; but where 13 years ago he seemed to be fighting for the truth and a greater sense of enlightenment for the people, now he seems to be fighting against this militaristic juggernaut that is very much a defined enemy. There was a sense of wonder in the original run because we were dealing with extra-terrestrials and there was always the possibility of learning from them, for growth and exploration of the greater universe. Now it’s very much a battle for Earth. That changes the vibe of the show slightly, and I’m not sure if any of the episodes in this miniseries will have the staying power of the original ones or if they will simply be closure for a series that ended with too many loose-ends. Either way, it’s entertaining and I’ll be watching the next four episodes, under an afghan, with the lights dimmed.