clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The X-Files premiere: 5 big questions about a messy first episode

How can Mulder be so gullible?

Mulder and Scully are back, everybody. Go team!
Mulder and Scully are back, everybody. Go team!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The first new X-Files episode since 2002 is better than the show's series finale, at least.

The finale — which the writers probably didn't expect would ever be followed by a six-episode miniseries, let alone one set more than a decade later — was a lengthy David Duchovny monologue, an attempt to wrap up the series' ongoing story (or "mythology") about aliens coming to colonize the Earth in 2012. (In case you haven't noticed, they missed the deadline.)

But this first new episode is also kind of a mess. Scripted and directed by series creator Chris Carter, "My Struggle" attempts to catch up new viewers on a lot of X-Files backstory, while simultaneously simplifying the show's outrageously complicated mythology. In the new X-Files universe, aliens (or maybe Russians) crashed at Roswell in 1947, yes, but then the government took their technology to set up all manner of horrifying extralegal experiments, all the while reverse-engineering that alien tech to build its own flying saucers.

Honestly, this is a better reboot of the X-Files mythology than the several attempts the show made during its original run. (The low point involved military experimentation to create so-called "super-soldiers," a term that never stopped sounding stupid.)

The problem is that Carter, who's never been a particularly graceful writer, conveys the new premise through lead-footed exposition, counting on his actors to make it work. There's even a scene where Scully tells Mulder, "You want to believe!" and then Mulder later says, "The truth is out there!" as if Carter was worried we might forget the show's most famous catchphrases.

Fortunately, he's got Duchovny and Gillian Anderson at his disposal, and they're old pros (as you'd expect). Guest stars Joel McHale and Annet Mahendru (Nina from The Americans) struggle more — as you'd also expect. And Carter can still create an arresting visual or two, as when he depicts the sad fate of the alien who crashed at Roswell.

But this new chapter of The X-Files is decidedly a mixed bag — with more duds than hits. Future episodes are better (I've seen three out of the six), but this debut still leaves us with several big questions about the mythology's long-term health.

1) How on earth can Mulder be so gullible?

X-Files Mulder
Get it together, Mulder!

Mulder meets Tad O'Malley (McHale), an online talk show host who's like a more charismatic combination of Alex Jones and George Noory of Coast to Coast AM, and Sveta (Mahendru), an alien abductee who's just the latest person who may contain proof of what's happened to her somewhere on her person.

He then goes from making fun of O'Malley's fearmongering to deciding the host knows the truth after all (which is roughly the rebooted mythology described above) over the course of about five hours.

As a longtime fan of The X-Files, I can come up with an explanation for this. The alien invasion not proceeding in 2012 must have shaken Mulder's faith to its core — leading him to wonder if he hadn't been barking up the wrong tree all those years. And Mulder's also always been a sucker for an attractive woman, which would explain why the episode spends a lot of time trying to set up weird romantic attachment between him and Sveta (as well as between Scully and O'Malley — which makes much less sense, as you'd think her huckster radar would be pinging like mad).

But there's just no way Mulder would buy this new theory so easily, especially since he already did way back in the show's heyday, when he similarly decided the government was behind seeming alien abductions (in the show's fifth season).

If there's anything Mulder would be immensely skeptical about, it would be that his life's work was all for naught. He's seen lots and lots of things that would almost certainly have to involve aliens to make any sense in terms of the story. He'll believe in anything, but he's not an idiot.

There was a way to make all of this work, but having it happen so quickly just makes Mulder seem gullible and a little stupid. I kept waiting for the reversal where he revealed that O'Malley was a government stooge or something. But nope. Here we are.

What's obviously really going on: O'Malley is a government stooge, duh, and he was sent by the old conspiracy (headed up by the Cigarette Smoking Man, whom we see briefly at episode's end) to divert Mulder from whatever the truth has mutated into. There's no way Carter is going to make a guy who thinks 9/11 was a false flag operation into one of the series' new heroes.

2) What the hell is Skinner up to, anyway?

Skinner X-Files
Get it together, Skinner! (It's good to see you have the same job.)

My guess is that the answer to why Skinner is suddenly so keen to reopen the X-Files resides in the season's second episode, which has been shuffled to air as its fourth, on Monday, February 8. Such a switcheroo would normally be a sign of behind-the-scenes chaos (and still might be), but I've seen the new second episode (originally produced as the fifth, but now airing January 25), and I'm guessing it simply made for a stronger second hour, with some great, scary moments.

That doesn't change the fact that Skinner's desire to put Mulder and Scully in bed with O'Malley doesn't really make sense. Skinner's been watching conspiracy theorist shows online? Does he miss his old workplace buddies that much?

What's obviously really going on: Skinner, as always, knows more than he's letting on and has realized that O'Malley is going to find Mulder sooner or later, so he might as well be the conduit for that information. At least then he can have some contact with Mulder's new search for the truth. Or he's been co-opted by the alien conspirators. Or he just wanted somebody to clean out the old X-Files office, which has been sitting vacant and filled with junk all these years.

3) Who's the old guy Mulder meets late one night?

Roswell. The X-FIles
In the words of the immortal episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," "Roswell! Roswell!"

Okay, we get an answer to this one. He's the older version of the young doctor who was present at Roswell and watched as the alien (and/or disguised Russian) who crawled out of the crashed saucer was shot down before anyone had a chance to try to establish contact.

And we learn that he contacted Mulder 10 years ago to say he didn't want to take his secrets to his grave — then forced Mulder to do the legwork to find answers, promising that he'd confirm them once Mulder had put the picture together. (Not really efficient, is it?)

But on a show that has long been known for quickly sketching in the utterly mundane faces of evil conspirators, this guy leaves a lot to be desired. He shows up, spouts a few platitudes, and mostly leaves us wishing he were any of The X-Files' original crew of baddies or informants.

He exists solely to suggest that Mulder has been working on this question for years and years, so that when Mulder changes his mind about aliens, it will have some weight to it. But because we don't see the relevant investigations, the doctor is character shorthand that doesn't really work. As such, we're left wondering what his agenda is.

What's obviously really going on here: He's clearly also a stooge of the conspiracy, duh.

4) Does Chris Carter spend all of his time on conspiracy theory subreddits?

Tad O'Malley on The X-Files
Everybody thinks Tad O'Malley is the best. EXCEPT FOR ME.

One of the best things about The X-Files was that it never really leaned into some sort of grand unified conspiracy theory. It would dabble in JFK assassination conspiracies, or in the idea that a shadowy cabal was rigging the Super Bowl, but mostly as a one-off gag here or there. The show was, for the most part, heavily focused on alien conspiracies and military experimentation therein. It worked.

However, this episode's big climax involves Mulder and O'Malley going all in on every conspiracy theory you can think of, trying to tie them together into some sort of gigantic web of information, up to and including a staged alien invasion of the US that begins as a forced bank holiday. It's unclear just how much Carter wants us to buy into this stuff.

He presents it mostly straightforwardly, then has Sveta recant her statement of being abducted before killing her by blowing her up with a (presumably government-owned) space laser. On the original show, that would have marked her as a true informant. On this one, we still don't know, because Carter has shaken up the playing field so thoroughly.

What is clear is that this sequence is labored, unconvincing, and hard to swallow. The original X-Files built its conspiracy in increments. It didn't try to convince us of everything at once. And that made it easier to buy into its lunacy.

What's obviously really going on here: Chris Carter spends all of his time reading conspiracy theory subreddits.

5) Who was taking all those photos of Mulder and Scully?

Gillian Anderson in The X-Files.
This article didn't have nearly enough pictures of Scully, so here's a picture of Scully.

"My Struggle" opens with Duchovny offering a monologue that recounts the basics of The X-Files' original story — kidnapped sister, alien abductions, etc., etc. Throughout, someone keeps tossing photographs onto a pile of old X-Files meant to be destroyed. But most of the photos are of Mulder and Scully alone, in situations where no photographer could be present. Who was taking these photographs?!

What's obviously really going on here: It was the on-set photographer. It's all a good reminder that you can't overthink everything on this show, even though you will be sorely tempted to do so. (Take it from 16-year-old me: Most of it is dead ends.)

Agree? Disagree? Want to fight? Tell me about it in comments. I'll be here at noon Eastern to discuss this episode and other cultural topics.

Or else!
The Cigarette Smoking Man hopes you can attend.

Please ask me anything. And I've got a question for you: What was your favorite X-Files monster? I find it hard not to pick Flukeman. That dude was creepy.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.