The first new instalment of The X-Files on TV since 2002 has a number of boxes to tick.
It has to reintroduce the characters and the premise, reimagine the show for contemporary audiences and remind everyone why it was so popular back in its heyday – whilst also making an entertaining piece of television. But like the American Doctor Who TV movie broadcast at the height of X-Files mania, which was charged with many of the same tasks, no amount of nostalgia or wishing can cover up the flaws.
Nominative determinism has cursed this episode: it really is a struggle to get through.
Strip away the unbridled delight of having The X-Files back on TV and what’s left is a contradictory, barely comprehensible dog’s dinner that drags like an Open University lecture. Its heart is in the right place, but its brain is beyond the reach of everything except an alien probe. If it reminds the audience of anything, it’s of how the original show collapsed under the weight of its own mythos.
Mulder and Scully, no longer a couple and respectively a recluse and an emergency room doctor, are brought back to the world of alien abduction and global peril by right wing internet conspiracy theorist and UFO devotee Tad O’Malley – only to discover that aliens aren’t the bad guys after all.
It’s a fascist human cabal bent on using extra-terrestrial technology to destroy democracy and take over the world. Bush really did do 9/11. But all hope is not lost. By the end of the episode, FBI Assistant Director Skinner has summoned his former agents back to the Bureau. The X-Files have been re-opened.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The X-Files were closed down and re-opened on multiple occasions during the show’s original run and a shadowy group of nasty men conspiring against the rest of mankind was the backbone of its story arc (albeit a backbone that eventually slipped so many discs its spinal cord snapped).
Mulder even spent a whole season believing that aliens weren’t real, so why he starts ranting at this latest revelation is as much a mystery as why the FBI’s cleaners haven’t tidied his old office in the 14 years since it was closed.
But the lack of internal consistency is an irritant rather than issue. The script’s real problem is with the writing. Chris Carter hasn’t lost his propensity for overblown monologues delivered in voiceover and – more distressingly – the disease has spread to the dialogue.
Conversations between characters sound like competitions to find out who can be the most portentous or pretentious; even Mulder’s trademark wry asides are in short supply. The X-Files always had a hint of humour; this is as dour as a funeral on the moon. The poor pacing makes it even more of a dragging dirge.
Thankfully, there are some positives. Gillian Anderson remains as excellent as ever, still the Scully we know and love after all these years, despite (or perhaps because of) the excruciating rubbish she’s forced to spout.
David Duchovny isn’t quite Mulder yet – he sounds like someone set him at 33 rpm rather than 45, only coming alive when reeling off the history of UFOs or condensing seven decades’ worth of delirious, conspiracy theorist paranoia into one breath – but there are encouraging signs that he’ll find himself in the episodes to come.
William B Davis makes a welcome reappearance as the Cigarette Smoking Man, ripping off Ken Branagh’s Dead Again with carcinogic aplomb, but newcomer Annet Mahendru is markedly less convincing as apparent alien abductee Sveta and the less said about Mitch Pileggi’s unexpected beard the better.
Best of all is Community star Joel McHale as Tad O’Malley: the kind of approachable, affable libertarian conservative that simply doesn’t exist in reality. Maybe he’ll revert to type later in the series, but even so the Tea Party, Info Wars and the Society of Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beamers will be tripping over themselves to try and create a real world equivalent of O’Malley who might be able to give them the credibility they lack.
It’s impossible to make a silk purse out of a demented racist, of course, but The X-Files gives everyone licence to believe.
Aired at 9pm on Monday 8 February 2016 on Channel 5.
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