The X-Files: Chris Carter Retcons a Retcon in the Graceless Season Opener
(Episode 11.01)Photo: Robert Falconer/FOX TV Reviews The X-Files
Previously on The X-Files, Chris Carter ended his back-door reboot season by dangling the whole franchise over a cliff: Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), having discovered that her “alien abduction” way back in the ’90s was just a ruse for the government to infuse her with alien DNA (confiscated from the Roswell crash, the so-called “alien colonization” looming over much of the series’ “final” seasons revealed to be just a very human worldwide conspiracy), navigated a literal apocalypse, searched for a dying Mulder (David Duchovny) after the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) unleashed a plague, and deduced that the key to surviving such a contagion was to find their son, William, who, as Scully’s progeny, would also carry the alien DNA, the ersatz cure to the world-ending disease. It’s as difficult to describe as it is to read: Having initiated last season (its 10th) with a clever retconning of the increasingly befuddling mythology that made the eighth and ninth seasons of The X-Files such a chore, Carter appeared to understand where the series had gone wrong so long ago, essentially admitting that he’d run the enterprise way up its own ass. In response, he brought the storyline into the present, greatly simplifying it by re-establishing the government—the source of all world power—as the true villains to humankind. The aliens were just a little green herring.
Rather than continue to re-evaluate The X-Files’ legacy and re-imagine what the show can be in a post-Clintonite world — Carter’s life’s work is now an obvious classic and forebear to pretty much every prestige television show you love — “My Struggle III,” the premiere of a new 10-episode season, balks at its own recently established mythology. It swerves dangerously—as Mulder does on an East Coast highway, plot offered up with affectless voice over—into oncoming traffic—as Scully does, getting into a pretty horrible accident that leaves her bloodied, with no conception of whether or not she may have just killed somebody in the other vehicle, because action set pieces as directed by Chris Carter have no sense of space or stakes. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
After a cold open in which the CSM reminds us that his name is Carl Bush and that he’s been involved in government conspiracies since before his lungs were charred irreparably—and that he’s also the father to both Mulder and former Agent Jeffrey Spender (Chris Owens)—we perceive the events of the previous episode (“My Struggle II”) as a fever dream experienced by Scully after she collapses. Taken to the hospital, Scully is under the care of Dr. Joyet (Anjali Jay), who informs Mulder and A.D. Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) that her patient has “abnormal brain activity,” which Skinner, by looking at a blinking brain scan, realizes translates into a Morse code message, which reads, “Find him.” (It’s a sequence so ludicrous Mulder even calls it out.) Having watched “My Struggle II,” we know this means that Mulder and Scully need to find their son. But who is sending the message? And how?! Why does Mark Snow’s music sound like it was stolen from a straight-to-video Steven Seagal joint?
Most importantly, Scully tells Mulder all about the visions she experienced while seizing: that CSM is alive and will unleash a global plague in order to—ugh—reboot humanity, or something; that Mulder will get very sick; that the key to humanity’s survival is in the DNA of their son, William. Mulder’s all like, “Scully, that didn’t happen, silly,” and for what feels like an eternity the viewer wonders what the hell Chris Carter is doing. Did he just “It was all a dream!” this shit? Or is this an introduction to a Lost-like alternate reality plotline, plunging The X-Files deeper into the many realms of the paranormal that sci-fi TV can inhabit? By the end of the episode, we’re still not entirely sure, but it seems like the answer is the former.
Meanwhile, Carter indulges his absolute worst, most jarring tendencies as a director, slow-zooming on main characters (who are, according to the nostalgia-humping credits sequence, Mulder, Scully and Skinner) but keeping corresponding conversational shots stagnant, unable to establish any modicum of space or blocking in simple scenes, which leaves more complex sequences—like a surprisingly tone-deaf car chase seemingly out of nowhere—barely legible. Affectless voice over, consumed by high-school-grade poetry, abounds, which is a pretty X-Files-esque trope, but this time around the crap poetry of Mulder and Scully’s internal musings is barely tolerable next to the series’ best witty one-offs. It’s difficult to describe just how terrible some of these V.O.s can get, other than to point, continuously, to the stuff you probably wrote to only yourself in high school and then encourage you to imagine what that sounds like read by David Duchovny, who’s like at Timothy Olyphant or Keanu Reeves levels of incomprehensibly unique good/bad acting.
At some point during “My Struggle III,” as its plot loosely follows that of “My Struggle II” but without the meddling of Mulder, Jr. (Agent Kyd Miller, played by Robbie Amell) and Scully, Jr. (Agent Liz Einstein, played by Lauren Ambrose), one begins to resent Carter’s confusing stylistic wanderings. He may be aping the many sci-fi genres in which The X-Files dips its tentacles—varying between pulpy action and neo-noir—but that would only make sense if the fact that Scully dreamed last season’s closer actually meant anything purposeful about the way Carter tells stories. At the end of this episode, that doesn’t seem to be the case: Mulder meets new members of the Syndicate, Mr. Y (AC Peterson) and Erika Price (Barbara Hershey, just sort of there), and the Cigarette Smoking Man never goes through with his plague plan (yet, at least), thereby giving Mulder and Scully a season’s length of time to find their son and “continue [their] work” with the X-Files and not panic about the immediate death of the human race. Some surprises pop up throughout, but rather than further explain how the 10th season’s finale could so dumbly be a “vision” probably sent by William to his mom in order to warn her of the potentially catastrophic fate of the planet at the hands of a crinkly old guy who conspired to kill Kennedy and fake the moon landing, Carter lets the mystery be, using Mulder explaining to Scully that her visions aren’t real—replete with some sledgehammer-to-your-eyeballs hyper-visuals—to suffice for a decent resolution to last season’s cliffhanger.
Instead of plunging the viewer deeper into doubt about the reality of what they’re witnessing and the validity to Mulder and Scully’s idea of the conspiracy that’s served as the bane of their existences, Carter seemingly doubts what he’s presented before, vacillating wildly between appearing to understand exactly where and how his series petered out and stubbornly insisting that the show’s true fans will willingly follow the plot’s most opaque wanderings into the abyss. Rebooting a reboot—retconning a retcon—Carter’s new direction for The X-Files resets the series’ longevity but sacrifices narrative consistency, meaning that either everything is real or nothing is. The result hardly matters, anyway. Credit to Carter for envisioning the new X-Files in the era of Trump, for morphing the “alien colonization” plotline into a “space colonization” addendum (more on that in future coverage), for overtly plotting the show within modern times and embracing our migraine of a U.S. political climate, but “My Struggle III” makes clear what previous X-Files seasons only intimated: This beloved TV show ended because the breadth of its ideas surpassed the quality of its storytelling. I’m not sure if I want to believe anymore.
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. He’s been to at least one X-Files convention. You can follow him on Twitter.