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Monday, January 25, 2016

TV Review: The X-Files "My Struggle"

Wherein Chris Carter struggles to make his show relevant again.

Review by Brandon Wolfe

During the ‘90s heyday of The X-Files, fans (self-identified as “X-Philes”) would often proclaim series creator Chris Carter as the George Lucas of television. The label made a certain amount of sense. Both men had created sci-fi franchises that captured the hearts and minds of the world in a very big way, with central characters that were almost instantly iconic, and with the cultish influences from each man’s youth woven into the tapestries of each property. Both enterprises were visionary and crackled with innovation, inhabiting worlds that seemed carefully crafted and intricately thought out. But then the Star Wars prequels came out, concurrent with the creative implosion of The X-Files in its drawn-out final years, and people were still calling Carter the George Lucas of television, but now for entirely less laudable reasons. Both men had devolved into geysers of ill-conceived concepts and ultimately became clearly the worst custodians of their own creations. Star Wars, however, wound up receiving a new lease on life, divorced from George Lucas’ influence. The X-Files, unfortunately, experienced no such luck. It remains tethered inextricably to Carter, with no conglomerate waiting in the wings to rescue it. This is how bad Chris Carter is, where you find yourself wishing that some soulless corporation would come in and steamroll a property’s creator.

The 14 years Carter spent away from The X-Files (barring 2008’s unfathomably terrible film sequel, I Want To Believe) have not resulted in any changes to his deep-set blemishes as a writer. “My Struggle,” the first installment of the series’ six-episode revival, is positively awash in Carter’s most damnable traits. Have you longed for ungainly reams of droned exposition? Carter has you covered right out of the gate, with David Duchovny (whose natural monotone becomes noticeably flatter and audibly bored when saddled with a Carter script) as former FBI agent Fox Mulder, reciting a dry, seemingly endless recap of the character’s backstory and the premise of the series (which had to have gone over gangbusters with amped-up football fans nationwide). Then Carter weaves a tale that takes us back to the Roswell crash of 1947 (the dramatization of which is the episode’s one great visual flourish). A government agent is dispatched to the crash site along with a young doctor who has no clue what he’s walking into. When the alien pilot is found crawling away from the wreckage, it is abruptly shot, despite the doctor’s protests.

Then we catch up with Mulder and his former partner, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) to find that not much has changed since I Want To Believe, save for the fact that the two are, thankfully, no longer romantically entangled. Scully is still working as a doctor for a Catholic hospital while Mulder is still living in that same house in the middle of nowhere as a dejected recluse. Scully gets a call from FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) seeking to locate Mulder to put him in touch with Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale, turning off the snark), the controversial host of a conspiracy theory TV show. O’Malley, who is paranoid in the less enjoyably Muldery modern sense (he’s basically a Truther, though the show doesn’t spell that out), is, for reasons never made plain, looking for Mulder’s help in exposing a government conspiracy to the public. Mulder agrees to meet with O’Malley only if Scully accompanies him, which she does, of course, because she always does.


O’Malley introduces the former agents to an alien abductee named Sveta (Annett Mahendru), who claims that aliens frequently impregnated her and then stole her embryos through holes made her abdomen. While Scully tests Sveta’s DNA for proof of alien contact, O’Malley takes Mulder to a secret hanger to see an ARV (Alien Replica Vehicle) in action, powered by “free energy.” Mulder then decides to press Sveta for further information and learns that she was taken not by aliens, but by human beings in aircraft similar to the one O’Malley has shown him. This information shakes Mulder’s core belief system. Already feeling like his life’s work has been rendered a punchline, he now believes that every alien-related incident he has previously investigated has been part of an elaborate smokescreen put on by the U.S. government to conceal sinister, decidedly earthbound schemes.

All of this is absolute hogwash. For starters, Mulder has seen far too much irrefutably alien evidence over the course of the series to be so easily swayed into discounting all of it, and nothing he is presented with here is at all persuasive enough to spark such a seismic turnabout. In fact, Mulder had the exact same crisis of confidence all the way back in Season 5 (to make you feel extra old, that occurred in 1997) before shifting back into his believing ways. The notion that Mulder’s faith is so precarious at this point as to be promptly discarded upon the shaky testimony of one young woman has the effect of making him seem like a fool. He’s seen aliens before. We’ve seen them with him. Hell, this very episode shows us one. What are we doing here?

This leads us to another ceaseless, mercilessly talky bit of Carter jargoning, where Scully is invited to meet with Mulder, Sveta and O’Malley to hear their new theory. Essentially, everything Carter has grabbed off the news in the past decade—NSA wiretapping, climate change, even fast food consumption—is all a part of a plot by a shadow government to control the public. Watching this sequence play out over the course of five minutes (but it feels like five times that), it occurred to me that this is the first time in the history of The X-Files where I not only thought Mulder was an idiot, but a dangerous one. Conspiracy theorists are no joke anymore, with many believing frighteningly irresponsible things, such as that the Sandy Hook shooting was a false flag operation designed by Obama to take away everyone’s guns. This is the caliber of paranoia that the characters evince in this scene, and it’s not only foolish, but damaging. The X-Files used to weave its extraterrestrial conspiracy yarns into the real world in ways that felt creative and inventive, but this development takes the series, and Mulder, into territory that is actively uncomfortable. No one wants to think of Mulder as one of those goons who sits around arguing about how jet fuel can’t melt steel beams. It used to be that Scully seemed like a wet blanket when she shut down Mulder’s wild theories, but her dismissal of this line of thought comes as a huge relief.


Essentially nothing about “My Struggle” works. Anderson and especially Duchovny feel bored and withdrawn, as if they were forced back into these roles kicking and screaming. Skinner makes as little of an impression in his brief appearance as he did in the 2008 film. The wit and humor of the show at its best is wholly absent. And while the episode kindly spares us from the morass of complicated stupidity that the original alien mythology collapsed into, what it replaces it with is every bit as misguided and insulting, and gives one the impression that maybe the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of The X-Files no longer functions in the modern world the way it did in the Clinton era. The episode also feels repetitive in some crucial ways. Mulder meets with yet another Deep Throat figure (this time, the wizened version of the young doctor from 1947) only to rehash a scene we’ve seen far too many versions of before (but now with a character with whom we have no history). Mulder is quick to proclaim Sveta “the key to everything,” a phrase I think he’s used about one thing or another in just about every script Carter has ever written. Even a quick at-the-buzzer cameo by the Smoking Man comes off silly and unnecessary.

The one decent development is that the X-Files are reopened at the end of the episode, with Mulder and Scully officially back in the FBI. That seemed like something that should have happened in I Want To Believe, but didn’t, so it’s good to have the status quo finally reestablished. Of course, even that is sketchy. The reasons for the duo reenlisting in the Bureau are not at all well established, nor is it made clear why Skinner thought it was necessary, or how he could have had the authority to do it, or why he never did it before now. And does Scully just discard her now-longstanding career as a doctor as if it were a seasonal gig at a Spirit Halloween store? Is Mulder’s criminal past that easy to ignore (he was falsely indicted on charges and sentenced to death in the series finale; he was exonerated in the second movie, but you’d think that would be a stumbling block for resuming a career at the federal level)? Is it really as simple as Skinner opening up his desk drawer and handing Mulder and Scully their badges and guns like they were on a two-week suspension? Even when Carter does something right, he does it the wrong way.

But there’s hope still, at least for portions of The X-Files. The series was always at its strongest in its stand-alone paranormal adventures, where infinitely more talented writers than Carter (including Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul mastermind Vince Gilligan) were free to take the characters to fascinating places while Carter disappeared into the wilds of his laboriously moronic mythology. Had this revival been a six-part saga about the baloney established in “My Struggle,” it would barely be worth watching the five remaining hours, but half of the run will be devoted to the actual good writers (including the legendary Darin Morgan, whose contribution of his fifth script to the show’s canon would alone be worth enduring a dozen horrendous Carter episodes). Hopefully these upcoming installments will be enough to make The X-Files something to celebrate once more, or will at least provide a pleasant respite before Carter returns to burn his house down yet again.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.


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