I loath reboots. Nine times out of ten a reboot is a blatant attempt to grab cash from a built in fanbase. Studios see a languishing property and they just can’t leave well enough alone. That’s how we keep getting terrible Terminator movies. It’s the only way to explain the travesty of the Transformers movies and TV shows. However on the other end of the spectrum are reboots like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Battlestar Galactica (2004-09) that not only honor the original premise, but expand and reinvent their source material into something wonderful and original. So in that vein of thought, I’d like to suggest a new show that’s in desperate need for reinvention: The X-Files. More and more, the series manta is what I say to myself to keep watching.
The case for a reboot
I never would have thought that I would be advocating for a reboot of The X-Files. I’ve loved the series ever since it aired, and it’s formula (for better or worse) has peppered my expectation of network procedurals ever since. Mulder and Scully are two of the best characters (archetypes really) ever devised for television, and the way in which they evolved over the course of the story was wonderful. I never wanted to see a reboot, and when I heard of the revival of the series I was stoked. Finally I would get answers to some of the most nagging questions that season nine left dangling.
The problem is, that even after thirteen years off the air, The X-Files didn’t change – and I mean at all. Even the theme sequence was the exact same. I appreciated retaining the same flavor as the original series, but all the bad things about the original series came rushing back. The dialogue was cumbersome and unnatural, much of the acting was wooden or phoned in, and the conspiracies … if you’ve never seen the show it’s hard to explain. I’ll go into more depth later on in this piece, but my main problem with the series was just how conventional it was. To understand why that’s a complaint you have to go back to when the series first came out. Back in 1993 the top drama was Murder, She Wrote. The X-Files, with it’s penchant for super close ups, eerie digitally crafted music, and it’s neo-noir cinematography set it apart from it’s contemporaries as something new and different. Even the dialogue at the time was considered “Carter’s dialogue is fresh without being self-conscious,” according to Variety. It should be no surprise that the show garnered huge critical appeal, when you look at the group behind the camera you’ll see a cross section of TVs best writers, creators, producers, and showrunners. The X-Files was so influential that it changed the way TV was made, and you don’t have to look further than procedural stalwarts NCIS and Supernatural to see that they stole the X-Files visual aesthetic. That’s why now, years after it went off the air, The X-files has lost many of the things that made it special. The core of the series, however, is still good, which is why a reboot should be in store.
Update the Cinematography
The first and easiest step should be to make the series do daring things visually, like they used to. As the series wound down we started the golden age of television with The Sopranos, and it was quickly followed by the likes of Deadwood, The Wire, Dead Like Me. The second wave saw Breaking Bad entered the mix (Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad worked on 128 episodes of The X-Files in addition to creating the spin-off The Lone Gunman). Now we have Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and Outlander all changing the nature of what TV can do, and the types of stories it can tell. With the amount of talent out there, it wouldn’t be hard to find a way to retain a noir aesthetic and still do something new with it.
Fix the Mythos
My biggest problem with the revival season was the plot. What made the series so good in the 90s was how unnerving the far reaching grasp of the Syndicate, combined with the subtle sense of distrust in the government. It was a sense that was bipartisan. Now, however, when you see a white guy in a suit yelling at a TV screen on the internet about government conspiracies it screams of Glenn Beck (and don’t tell me that’s not what they were going for with Joel McHale). It takes the joy out of watching something fictional when you basically put the heroes into the same group as 9/11 Truthers and Obama Birthers. In the insanity of the finale, Joel McHale was screaming about how Chemtrails (which are NOT REAL) and radio waves from cell phones were activating a virus that was planted in vaccines that people took in order to cause a mass extinction event. Seriously, Chemtrails, anti-vax, cell phone radiation. It felt like a greatest hits of baby boomer paranoia, and all these things were thrown in with no delicacy at all. That, however, is the ultimate problem with the mythos of the series. It was never fully formed to begin with, and the creators continuously kept moving the goal posts on finding out the answers to anything. When you combined the lack of answers with the fact that the series continuously retconned the answers they did give and the fact that you could never really trust if what you were being told was true, there was never a feeling of resolution.
A new series would have to start with a clearly established grand conspiracy, know who the players are, how they’re going to interact, what their ultimate goal is, and most importantly, don’t make it a series breaking scenario. What I mean by this is that the conspiracy needs to be solvable, and if it is solved, it ultimately won’t derail the series. Take the end of season 10. At the end there is a global pandemic. People are within minutes or hours of death, and the only cure they have takes hours to create. Do the math. Even if they do, somehow, manage to find William (Mulder and Scully’s child), there is pretty much no way other than magic to save Mulder, much less everyone else in the world. In addition, now that the world’s most massive conspiracy has been uncovered, quite publicly, there’s no way of putting that genie back in the bottle and it be believable. The whole hook of the series is that you never know with 100 percent certainty if what they are investigating is true. The unexplainable should remain unexplainable. It’s like in LOST, where they explained so much about what the island was and what was at the heart of it that not only was the mystery (and the viewers awe) lost, but it just made everything else look so silly and illogical.
Change the Format
So the thing that always bothered me with the series was that there was this massive, grand conspiracy that threatened to kill the world, but Mulder and Scully always dropped the plot for four to six episodes to deal with other random and weird stuff going on. Doing that always took away the forward momentum of the series and made it feel like either the mythos wasn’t really that important or that the main characters were pretty stupid for not following up on these leads.
I would suggest making the series shorter, to say 10 to 13 episodes, and have them explore one conspiracy a season, with only one or two monster of the week episodes. This would not only flip the formula, but also keep driving the plot. After all, it would be weird if in Breaking Bad Walter White stopped every other episode to explore high school hijinks instead of seeing him on the next step of building a meth empire.
It can still be relevant
The best part about the series is that it can still stay relevant today if it explores the hot button issues of today. The internet and cell phones were in their infancy when the series was on the air, now they’re ubiquitous. Combine that with the new surveillance state and you can mine a whole series of stories exploring that. We also have a rise of Islamic Fundamentalism abroad and xenophobia at home, as well as climate change, and the ability for us to alter human DNA. These are things the new series can explore. I know the revival toyed some with these concepts, but it was more in the background and didn’t take any of these new ideas and run with them. Even the episode with the suicide bombers was dedicated to how to communicate with people in a coma. I mean, you don’t have to look much further than the debate between Apple and the FBI to find material (and that debate has been going on for years).
If the series was created with more urgency (and if Chris Carter was pried away from behind the camera and the keyboard), we could actually see a good iteration of The X-Files, but until then, the series is just going to get more byzantine, until season nine looks like it was groundbreaking by comparison.
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