No matter what I say as this review unfolds, it feels great to have The X-Files back. I spent the last year collecting all the rumors and news, plus every poster, trailer, and press release from Fox’s aggressive marketing campaign, putting myself on a dangerous path to X-Files fatigue. It never really happened because it was thrilling to see people reconnect with a beloved show that was so influential to the current golden age of television. Not to mention all the abundant and positive press surely encouraged new fans to enter the rich, paranormal world that Chris Carter created.
Even before “My Struggle,” the premiere entry of the six-part tenth season (as I’m unofficially calling it) aired, the idea of sitting back and watching Fox Mulder and Dana Scully re-open the FBI’s infamously hushed project is a huge win for a fan base unlike any other and for the legacy of the show. Having seen the episode at the US premiere during New York Comic Con, it took a long time to digest what Carter aimed to do with these six episodes and how the two mythology episodes would build on nine seasons and two feature films.
I watched it as a fan, with thousands of other fans, cheering along as the whistle of Mark Snow’s iconic theme played and the original title sequence was restored. The high of that moment slowly faded as the episode went on. For reasons I’ll begin to outline, I walked out of the Comic Con screening disappointed, but still hopeful.
Watching it again, this time with a more critical eye, my original reaction was likely harsher than the episode deserves. It’s still an uneven 43 minutes of flawed television, though I think there are enough positive moments that let the glow of The X-Files’ glory days shine through.
From the opening minutes, the major problem in “My Struggle” is a handful of mind-numbing exposition dumps that hold our hands through the 14 years the show was off the air. Carter, who wrote and directed the episode, chose to have David Duchovny narrate an “X-Files in a Nutshell” refresher course in voice-over. It looked great and tickled all nostalgia sensitive areas, but it’s not the most exciting way to open the highly anticipated revival. They do well to couple Mulder’s intro with one of the best-looking alien sequences the show has ever done. Throw in the original title sequence and boom, we’re off to a pretty decent start!
Then Tad O’Malley enters the picture. Mind you, this is a show that did episodes about a gender-bending Amish man and invisible circus elephants. It’s a franchise that cast Xzibit as special agent “Mosley Drummy” in a major motion picture for fucksake. Yet Tad O’Malley is my least favorite character name, and on the short list for least favorite X-Files characters. Not to discredit the work of Joel McHale, who plays the script fine, but it’s disheartening to see that this is the character that puts the Mulder-Scully reunion back on track. At least in part one of this two-part mythology, O’Malley is the monster of the week.
Putting my loathing aside, O’Malley awakens something in Mulder. Which is great because Duchovny looked pretty sleepy the entire episode. Scully, at a critical juncture in the episode, even comments “you look exhausted, Mulder.” For all the talk of the electric chemistry between Duchovny and Gillian Anderson during the press tour, there’s something off between the two former partners of work and life in the episode. Whether that’s the cold air seeping through Mulder and Scully’s fractured romantic relationship or Duchovny and Anderson losing the spark that made the series’ standout in the first place, I don’t know. Duchovny’s Fox Mulder the was one who was supposed to be believing throughout the series original run, yet it’s Gillian Anderson who never gave up on The X-Files, refusing to mail it in as the show had a few sharks to jump in seasons 8 and 9. Anderson said it took her a while to get back into Dana once she stepped on set, but it doesn’t come across as much as it does for Duchovny, who fails to channel the enthusiasm Mulder once had for unearthing “the truth.”
To be fair, it could just be Duchovny playing to a script that explicitly talks about Mulder’s “depression.” Maybe he’s just weathered from never solving a case? The “worst FBI agent” of all time as Duchovny quipped to the New York Times. Mulder will get his crack at solving this alien invasion thing thanks to what appears to be an even larger conspiracy within the government. Based on everything Mulder and Scully have witnessed, I thought it was odd they opened the episode by asking “are we really alone.” It develops into what could be a promising seed as it relates to the alien conspiracy, one that questions whether Mulder’s been manipulated into believing a certain extraterrestrial agenda, when in fact the real enemy is a sect of man plotting against humanity. I’m into that! Still, the concern for me is doing it in a way that doesn’t invalidate what’s really eight seasons of Mulder’s work. It’s also a big idea, one that can’t possibly be wrapped up in two hours.
The supposed key to all of this is a young woman named Sveta, who’s played by Annet Mahendru (The Americans, The Following). Sveta, who was abducted as a child and interviewed by Mulder, is a new character that wasn’t previously in the series. By the end, it seems like her only purpose is to get Scully back in the game for good by confirming what we already knew, Scully has alien DNA. The other key, the more important one, is the area 51 doctor guy, whose official character name I cannot find. Area 51 doctor guy is responsible for the two best scenes of the episode, one as a young man in Roswell, and when he’s essentially gifting Mulder a chance to reboot The X-Files as an old man. The scenes at Rosewell are beautifully done, cinematic in quality, and would have played really well had it been the basis for a third movie. These scenes will allow me to sleep well tonight as I dream for improvement in episode two.
As I said before, The X-Files was prone to bad episodes. Filling 22, 23, 24, and even 25 episode orders, as Chris Carter and Co. once did, leaves a production team vulnerable. The occasional mediocre episode is unavoidable. The X-Files comes back to a television landscape where episode commitments are more reasonable, but audience expectations are higher. Half-baked fillers, and the show had plenty of them, are one thing. But if you count I Want to Believe, then the franchise has given us two high profile duds in a row. That’s discouraging. Still, one struggle of an episode can’t erase the goodwill that the revival has done for the show’s legacy.
As of the publication of this review, I’ve maintained restraint by waiting to crack open the second and third episode that Fox has given critics access to, but by all accounts I hear they are a marked improvement over “My Struggle.” Luckily fans will get to find out tomorrow when episode two airs at 8:00 p.m. In the meantime, we’re putting together an easter eggs and references guide for season 10. I’ll be over here, still wanting to believe in the revival.