In one of Chuck Klosterman’s various books about pop culture, he recounts the story of how Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy taught him about the divide between fan and performer. While preparing a SPIN article about Wilco’s latest album, Klosterman asked Tweedy why he didn’t play any of his old songs anymore, the more punk rock stuff from his old band Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy honestly didn’t know if he could physically play those songs anymore. That would mean strumming a guitar faster than he had in over a decade, and he feared his wrists could no longer handle the abuse. As a fan, Klosterman never paused for a moment to ponder whether or not Tweedy could still physically play those old songs. However, as a performer Tweedy is just a normal guy with understandable apprehensions and limitations.
I was reminded of that anecdote this week when I watched David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson attempt to find their way back into Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the first new episodes of The X-Files in nearly 15 years. The last time they played these characters was in the 2008 movie The X-Files: I Want to Believe, and simply slipping back into things is easier said than done. Jeff Tweedy could play an old Uncle Tupelo song and not technically mess up any of the notes, but it probably wouldn’t sound quite the same as it did back in the day. Something about it would just be a bit off, and that certainly characterized most of Sunday’s X-Files re-pilot “My Struggle.”
REVIEW – The Re-Pilot, “My Struggle”
As THR‘s Tim Goodman argued:
Maybe it’s dulled the memory a bit, but was Duchovny, famously laconic line delivery always this sedated? Anderson seems equally placid and unhurried on her part, which makes the whole affair seem (as it did when a sneak preview was shown to critics in the summer) slightly off. Out of context in the summer, the clip seemed like a spoof. A large portion of the room was laughing because we thought that’s what it was. Turns out, no, but at least in context there’s less wince-inducing hilarity to the first episode. And yet, nearly every scene seems stunted and out of any kind of dramatic rhythm.
Goodman was but one of many in the industry trades to dole out the hate. To some degree, the negative reaction is down to an inability to remember what an episode of The X-Files actually looks and sounds like, ever-present incidental music and all. Even though it features two performers straining to find their way back into character, “My Struggle” is quintessential X-Files in full-on mythology mode.
Mulder, whose line deliveries have indeed always been this sedated, discovers through a conservative talk show host (Joel McHale) and an abductee named Sveta (Annet Mahendru) that the alien invasion conspiracy which dominated the first run of the show might have actually been masterminded by a group of elite men utilizing alien technology stolen from the Roswell UFO. The end game is to bring about a complete global collapse to pave the way for a world takeover, beginning with the United States.
What the hell you say, Chris Carter. Longtime viewers of the show have seen way too much concrete visual evidence of the ongoing war between two rival alien factions to have it all waved away now, especially since that particular conspiracy was resolved halfway through the sixth season. I mean what the heck was all of that business with the black ooze about? Actually, wait, it’s been a long time since I watched X-Files‘ big conspiracy episodes. I genuinely don’t remember the specifics of the ongoing black ooze story line.
That’s because I was never overly fond of the X-Files mythology. As my fellow WMIF writer Julianne broke down in her recent top 10 lists, there are X-Files fans who prefer standalone episodes, and those who prefer mythology episodes. I’m in the former meaning “My Struggle” is not really my favorite version of this show. It felt like a necessary first step to reset things and get the ball rolling again, its various failings made all the more annoying by the fact that there will only be 6 episodes in this season. I did, however, greatly enjoy Scully’s summation of Mulder’s new theory as being “fearmongering claptrap isolationist techno-paranoia so bogus, and dangerous, and stupid that it borders on treason.”
Oh, Scully. Welcome back. Gillian Anderson finally found you again when she delivered that line. Let’s agree to never again speak of that porch scene from earlier in the episode, when you can actively see Anderson acting instead of actually being Scully, flailing about as she delivers lines like “You want to believe! You so badly want to believe!” with a cringe-worthy lack of assurance. That’s likely the scene Goodman referenced as eliciting unintentional laughter when it was shown to critics out of context over the summer.
In that same scene, Duchovny’s lackluster reply of “The truth is out there, Scully!” isn’t much better. However, once he goes into full crazy mode, laying out a conspiracy which wraps up pretty much every paranoid-seeming aspect of the world since the show went off the air into a convenient “These bastards are responsible for all of it” bow, that old spark is back in his eyes. Hello again Mulder, Mr. True Believer.
As Vulture’s X-Files superfan Keith Ulrich argued, “My Struggle” ultimately works best if you don’t focus on the actual specifics of its new conspiracy, “It’s like the great whatsit in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly — a mystery box whose makeup doesn’t matter as much as the ineffable (and literal) bright light at its center. In this case, that light is the enigmatic relationship between Mulder and Scully.”
Just understand that Mulder has something to fight for again, visiting the empty office that used to house the X-Files and lamenting to still-Assistant Director Skinner, “I was being led by my nose through a dark alley to a dead end.” Moreover, on Scully’s end she can’t help but be drawn back into it, recognizing that Mulder is like an addict, and while his addiction is why they are not together romantically anymore it doesn’t mean she doesn’t still care for him deeply.
REVIEW – The 2nd Episode, “Founder’s Mutation”
By the next episode, “Founder’s Mutation,” you sense that all involved are closer to being back into the swing of things. It’s not just Duchovny and Anderson who are finding their way back into all of this, of course. Show creator Chris Carter has to mastermind this rather peculiar 6-episode miniseries and ease us back into the show’s slightly schizophrenic habit of changing what exactly it is from week to week (e.g., first episode was alien conspiracy, second episode a body horror show, third episode will be a monster comedy). The only old writers/directors from the show’s heyday who were actually available to take part in this relaunch – specifically James Wong, Darin Morgan and Glen Morgan – similarly have to remember how to make a proper episode of The X-Files.
Wong, along with his writing partner Glen Morgan, started with the X-Files from the very beginning before leaving after a couple of seasons to create shows like Space: Above and Beyond and the Final Destination film franchise. He returned during the show’s fourth season and co-wrote the legendarily creepy classic “Home.”
His episode (“Founder’s Mutation”) of the mini-series relaunch is a bit of a different beast than the cannibal hillbillies of “Home.” Instead, it involves a somewhat standard mad scientist story about a doctor named Goldman (Doug Savant; yes, the same Doug Savant from Melrose Place) performing questionable experiments on pregnant women and young children. However, it is full of the type of squirm-inducing imagery you can’t unsee, like when a Doctor (Christopher Logan) tortured by a high-pitched noise only he can hear puts an end to his misery by shoving a letter opener through his ear, or when a wounded pregnant woman uses a shard of glass to perform her own c-section to deliver her full-term baby in the likely event that no one arrives in time to save her.
Plus, there’s that hall of horrors where Mulder and Scully witness a parade of Goldman’s most severe patients, particularly one child struggling to force oatmeal down his elephantine face.
Mulder thinks Goldman’s experiments are a part of the alien-human hybrid program from the original run of the show, and that it must have been re-started by the same people he implicated in “My Struggle.” Again, I was always partial to the more standalone episodes. I don’t completely remember the original alien-human hybrid plot. So the dramatic resonance of such a reference meant nothing to me, but “Founder’s Mutation” did enough to help me understand what it meant to Mulder and Scully. In fact, even with its notable instances of horrific imagery “Founder’s Mutation”‘s two standout sequences revolved around Mulder and Scully imagining what it would have been like to actually raise their son William. They gave him up for adoption to protect him, but now they fear he could have been a victim of the alien-human program.
Their separate visions of what it would have been like to be a parent both end quite tragically. Scully imagines herself as a doting mother, walking her son to his first day of school, watching him grow up and stepping in to tend to him after he breaks his arm. However, she is left helpless when he mutates into something straight out of one of Goldman’s experiments. Mulder pictures himself as the type of dad who would use model rockets to teach his son about space travel. They would watch Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey together and debate the meaning of the monolith. In the end, though, Mulder fears he would lose his son exactly like he lost his sister, walking into his son’s room to find him elevated in the air above his bed, head-turned and crying out for help before completely disappearing as if abducted by aliens.
In each instance, we pull out of the vision to find the lonely agent sitting alone at a table, solemnly staring at the only picture they have of their child. It’s a reminder that there is a greater loss at play here than “Oh, no. Mulder and Scully broke up as a couple after the 2008 movie.” They had a child together, and then they lost him due to extreme circumstance. Coming into the new series, there was some question as to whether or not the show would revisit the mystery of Mulder’s sister, mostly because the explanation they offered (stardust anyone?) was deeply disappointing. However, “Founder’s Mutation” makes a convincing case that William should now be Mulder’s new white wale. Moreover, the episode triumphantly declares that this is a show which still knows how to mix nightmarish imagery with heartbreak.
It is after this episode I feel I can finally say: Welcome back, X-Files. I missed you.