Time has been good to David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who are as attractive and charismatic as they’ve ever been, perhaps even more so, partially because their appearances are tinged with an evocative resignation that speaks of experience, which they instinctively, logically channel into their career-defining characters, X-Files agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. After all, a decade’s worth of failed attempts at bringing about international government accountability for its involvement in an unthinkably vast extraterrestrial conspiracy can leave one feeling a little, well, alienated.
Mulder and Scully’s sex appeal, a mixture of rock-star ennui and white-collar-drone earnestness, is greatly depended upon in “My Struggle,” a self-consciously tepid attempt on creator Chris Carter’s part to introduce The X-Files to 2016. A tentative pall hangs over this season premiere/series reboot that distractingly boils down to: “Can we pull this off?” The X-Files originally ran from 1993 to 2002, and it’s a series that belongs very much to the 1990s, bridging Unsolved Mysteries with The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Twin Peaks, and many others to fashion a distinct mixture of political intrigue and paranormal wildness. It’s aged surprisingly well, but we now live in a time in which meta-event television is taken for granted as merely one cell among a larger media organism. How’s an old warhorse to compete?
By rendering said media organism the new villain, of course. The old The X-Files relied heavily on 1970s-era conspiracy-film tropes (most prominently meetings with rotating Deep Throats in shadowy hallways and parking lots) as a fashion for expressing post-Cold War anxiety about the vast amorality of our so-called public servants. In 2016, “anxiety” hardly covers the fevered hostility that most nurse toward their government, whether they’re conservative or progressive. In the films and TV of earlier eras, it was hinted that corruption lingered in high places, but that’s now accepted by everyone as a matter of course, leading to the sort of nihilistic fervor that spawns, say, Donald Trump’s infuriatingly relevant run for President of the United States.
So Carter updates his series by shifting the emphasis away from the alien invasion that drove the “mythology” episodes of the original run toward one-percenters, who are using alien technology to fashion a corporate takeover of the world while people watch Kim Kardashian on YouTube. The militarization of the country’s police? The drugs in our increasingly fake food and drink? The escalating instability of our weather due to global warming? All part of an organized assault on the increasingly fat and distracted global populace.
Or maybe not. Mulder wrestled with these possibilities before, when it was promisingly implied that his government kept him alive so he’d sway attention away from the banally corrupt truth with his genre-film fantasies. Veteran viewers will be primed for Carter to change this “truth” as he sees fit over the course of the new season anyway, as the “truth” is never decisively arrived at in The X-Files. Sometime over the course of this six-episode run, it might be revealed that—oh wait—it was an alien conspiracy all along, before Mulder discovers that, no, he was right the first time: Evil one-percenters and their moral pollution of the populace are the all-encompassing über-villains after all. What matters is the path that’s traveled while attempting to unearth any given discovery—a journey that isn’t compellingly dramatized by “My Struggle.”
The episode’s most obvious sign of desperation is its reliance on slide shows to orient viewers. “My Struggle” opens on images that will be familiar to fans of the series, including pictures of a human tapeworm from “The Host” and of classic villains, such as Tooms from “Squeeze” and “Tooms.” Mulder speaks over these images, reminding viewers that he and Scully once specialized in X-Files for the F.B.I., which were unsolved cases that Mulder took to have a paranormal slant. The U.S. government worked against him every step of the way (except not really, because they inexplicably refused to truly stop him), because Mulder was always on the cusp of exposing their corrupt dealings with an alien species. Mulder’s urgency is rooted in the childhood disappearance of his sister, Samantha, whom he maintains was kidnapped by aliens who resemble the classic oval-headed, black-eyed “grays” of urban legend. This is all recapped in a breathless voiceover, before the reintroduction of that iconic opening credits sequence, with the stock pictures of UFO sightings accompanied by a poignant, lonely series of whistles.
This isn’t the only slide show in “My Struggle.” Near the end of the episode, Mulder draws the aforementioned conclusions about a corporate conspiracy operating under the cloak of mass media distraction, which Carter, who also wrote and directed, unimaginatively dramatizes with news footage complemented by yet another Mulder voiceover as he fleetingly recalls Roswell, the Manhattan Project, the experiments on Tuskegee airmen, and on and on. “My Struggle” feels like an entire season’s worth of background context has been squeezed into 45 minutes, at the expense of any active narrative or much formal poetry.
The barebones plot pivots on a toothless contrast of Mulder’s presumably liberal politics against the isolationist values espoused by Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), a talk-show host in the key of Bill O’Reilly, though much milder so as to not offend viewers. The potentially good joke of Mulder and O’Malley ironically sharing the same values through the rhyming extremity of their polar opposition doesn’t carry any weight, getting lost, instead, in Carter’s relentless exposition and in McHale’s refusal to play his character’s politics with conviction. O’Malley is merely a shout-out to how dangerously charged politics have grown since The X-Files was last seen on the pop cultural stage, one of many such belabored references to the times that are changing. There are also obligatory mentions of Julian Assange, President Obama, the Patriot Act, and the National Defense Authorization Act, all of which are dropped so inelegantly as to suggest a 1990s-era X-Files script that was hastily updated in a round of Mad Libs.
O’Malley introduces Mulder and Scully to Sveta (Annet Mahendru), a young woman living in rural Virginia who claims to have been abducted by humans, who experimented on her with alien DNA in a manner reminiscent of Scully’s own abduction early in the original series. O’Malley then takes Mulder to see an alien replica vehicle, or ARV, which apparently proves that most UFOs are the work of the military riffing on alien technology that was discovered in a real spacecraft that crashed in the deserts of New Mexico in the late 1940s, which Carter also shows in hastily staged flashbacks. Mulder then meets this season’s presumed Deep Throat stand-in (Rance Howard) for an unsurprisingly brief and portentous pow-wow to discuss his findings, which are promptly erased by sinister forces so as to conveniently reset all characters back to page one for the next episode. And that’s it.
In truth, the broad strokes of this hugger-mugger aren’t much different from that of vastly superior episodes of The X-Files. What’s missing are the grace notes and the sense of play that one might associate with a script written by Darin Morgan, James Wong, and Glen Morgan, or Vince Gilligan, among others. Precious little is dramatized here. Mulder and Scully’s reunion after breaking up in the interim between this premiere and the last feature film, the obvious emotional crux, is peculiarly tossed off and taken for granted. Anderson’s nuanced line deliveries often imply subtexts—of longing, of simultaneous frustration with and love for Mulder—that barely seem to concern Carter. The X-Files honcho is so busy asserting his show’s relevance that he forgets to simply prove it.
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