The tenth season of The X-Files, screened in 2016, wasn’t just another run of episodes for FOX, it was – deep breath now – “an event series”, gilded in feverish expectation. Fourteen years off the air, the heroic return of one of the network’s most muscular brands was the TV equivalent of Led Zeppelin or ABBA getting back together.
We all chose, it seems, to forget how dreary and burned out The X-Files had become towards the end of its original run, how gnarled and knotted those mythology episodes had got and how repetitive the ‘monster of the week’ episodes were.
We chose amnesia over those bad years when the series had soldiered on with different, duller leads (Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish effectively replacing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, both of whom had scaled back their commitments in seasons eight and nine) to increasingly wilting viewing figures.
We decided instead to remember those ratings-conquering early years, when The X-Files had, it seemed, hit the world’s cultural G-spot. We chose to remind ourselves of Eugene Tooms, Deep Throat and Clyde Bruckman, Jose Chung and Duane Barry… We chose to look back to a time when we believed – oh, the naivety – that Chris Carter had a coherent plan for those mythology episodes. But that was a long time ago…
With FOX looking less and less likely to renew the reactivated X-Files for a 12th season, and the now departed Gillian Anderson openly scoffing about the 77% plunge in viewers, as well as joining the Twitter chorus mocking the season-finale twist, where does this leave The X-Files? How did we get from the hysteria of 2016’s “event series” to this?
When The X-Files debuted in September 1993 it really was like nothing else around it. Unusually smart for a network drama series of the time, it took the post-Watergate paranoia of movies such as All The President’s Men and The Parallax View and gave them an intoxicating science-fiction makeover.
But mistrust in the political establishment has a different flavour today. Conspiracies in 1993 didn’t then have the whiff of lunacy and cruelty about them that they do in 2018. Today, in the mainstream world, there’s a greater public queasiness over conspiracy theories.
When people now think of conspiracy theorists we don’t think Warren-Commission debunkers or harmless “Elvis is alive” cranks, but 9/11 ‘Truthers’ and Sandy Hook deniers. It’s got uglier and stupider. That Donald Trump seems to buy into much of it (he was an eager apostle of the Barack Obama ‘birther’ nonsense) really is Exhibit A for that argument.
Truth is, the audience has changed and The X-Files hasn’t. Chris Carter, the show’s creator and showrunner, may have garnished those new mythology episodes with burningly contemporary references to YouTube and Trump, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, but they still felt like relics from a different storytelling age, a little shaft of 1993 piercing the here and now. Like Lenny Kravitz crashing an Ed Sheeran gig.
Season 11 deserved the brickbats, but there were saving graces. Darin Morgan’s ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ was a reliably loopy treat from the series’ most idiosyncratic writer, while his brother Glen’s ‘This’ was a giddily propulsive episode that traded just enough off the series’ past glories and gave Mulder and Scully some relishable duologues.
But it’s Chris Carter’s growingly preposterous and and suffocatingly po-faced arc episodes that have come to define The X-Files.
Critics and fans alike roasted that season ten finale (Rotten Tomatoes assigns it a 32% approval rating), so the assumption was, going into season 11, that Carter might lighten up on the series’ ever more swollen mythology (which by now involved a doomsday virus and the pursuit of Mulder’s son-not-son Jackson, aka William – the shape-shifting teen conceived by alien DNA, Mulder’s dad-not-dad Cigarette Smoking Man and, oh yeah, Scully).
But instead of correcting course, season 11’s opener saw Carter doubling down, almost obstinately, on many of that previous season’s worst excesses.
Whether The X-Files returns or not, one thing’s for sure: Gillian Anderson won’t be anywhere near it. It’s aggravating that Dana Scully, and the show itself, was denied a proper, book closing send-off. With seemingly no other shows in development (all of his other TV ventures were short-lived), Carter seems stubbornly committed to The X-Files, continuing at whatever cost to its already scarred reputation.
If the series could haemorrhage 77% of its viewers over the course of a Scully-loaded season, what chance does it have without her? So, our wish is, give Chris Carter one last chance to wrap it all up. Gillian Anderson has said she’ll never do another season again, but might she say yes to a final episode that puts a giant big, black marker-printed full stop on the series?
The time has finally come to make The X-Files the Ex Files.
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