Getting Back Together with the X: Reactions to the X-Files Miniseries – Episode 1, “My Struggle”

thexfilesAlmost 14 years after it ended its original run, The X-Files is returning to the small screen with a six-episode miniseries this winter. To welcome it back, Jeff and I will be writing responses to each episode. Here’s the hook: Jeff is a pretty hardcore X-Files fan and I haven’t seen a single episode of the show. How we’ll respond is anyone’s guess, but as always: The Truth is Out There.

This post covers the first episode of the miniseries, “My Struggle.” It probably contains spoilers for this episode as well as the entire original run of The X-Files.

********************

Jeff
“My Struggle” is an apt title for the first episode of The X-Files miniseries, because I think it’s going to be a struggle for me to put this miniseries into the context of the original 9-season run of the show that I loved so much.

This feels a lot like a late-series mythology episode, complete with period flashbacks, info-dump, JFK-esque montages (including Mulder’s own Mr. X…not to be confused with The X-Files’ previous Mr. X), and a final act that frustrates our heroes’ quest by continuing the cover-up. We also have the familiar faces of Mulder and Scully, as well as Walter Skinner and an unlikely, or impossible, appearance by the Cigarette Smoking Man. We have the basement office, UFOs, Roswell, a parking garage, Scully in scrubs and even a Reticulan. The pieces are in place, but this episode is saddled with introducing an all new conspiracy, which is problematic to say the least.

vlcsnap-2016-01-30-09h07m45s674The titular struggle is series creator Chris Carter’s as well. I previously mentioned the original series’ mythology becoming too convoluted and collapsing under its own weight. It’s a huge ask for us to want Carter to wrap that up in a 6-hour miniseries, and still have room for some “monster-of-the-week” fun. Even if it had another full season, the task of tying up the loose ends in a way that was entertaining instead of just perfunctory would be difficult. So, it makes a certain sense that there’s a new conspiracy. If anything, it allows new viewers a point of entry, and it thankfully doesn’t make these six episodes entirely beholden to the mythology that has come before.

As a big fan of the original series, however, this new conspiracy is where my frustration lies. It’s not that it’s more ridiculous than anything we’ve seen before, but that it’s adding a level to the ridiculousness that we’ve come to accept (or come to terms with). I’ll lay it out as far as I understand it:

In short, as I understand it: Aliens exist, but the government/syndicate/bad men hijacked alien technology and DNA to perform abductions and experiments. These bad men blamed it on aliens and invented an alien-human conspiracy (complete with a war between different alien races) to cover up the fact that it was just men being awful in order to somehow take over the world. But, they also took pains to cover up this cover up, making sure that people like Mulder (or mostly just Mulder) didn’t get too close to finding out their allegedly fake alien conspiracy story.

Essentially, by telling us that the alien conspiracy was never real, that it was men all along, this episode is telling us that much of what we saw and heard throughout 9 years of the show did not actually happen or was not actually real. I don’t think I want to live in a world where shapeshifting alien bounty hunters, faceless alien firestarters and giant UFOs in the middle of Antarctica are all made up as part of an elaborate setup to fool one guy who almost nobody believes anyway. I mean, come on, aren’t alien abductions hard enough to take seriously in the first place?

I’m sure there’s a way to write all of this stuff back into the new conspiracy and have it make sense on some level, but what’s the point? But maybe we don’t have to resort to such mental gymnastics. What if this new conspiracy is a lie? What if everything in the original series is actually true and this new conspiracy of men is just another effort to blind Mulder, and whoever else, into not seeing what is actually happening (or what actually happened)? This too seems like a lot of work, but if it gets Mulder and Scully out of mothballs for a few episodes, without betraying the original mythology (as frustrating as it was), it could be fun.

vlcsnap-2016-01-31-08h46m42s612I’m picking a lot of nits with this episode when it’s not the worst the series has offered us. To be honest, this episode met my (admittedly lowered) expectations in most respects, and exceeded them by not being full of fan service. Even if I’m not a big fan of this “everything was a lie” conspiracy angle, at least it’s trying something “new” instead of getting bogged down in the old mythology. This isn’t an amazing return–and time will tell if it was worth bringing back–but it’s still entertaining enough.

Now that I’ve written in circles trying to understand the new conspiracy, and trying to be a fan while not sounding like a huge hater, let’s get a fresh take on the episode. What are your thoughts on “My Struggle,” Patches? Were you lost? Were you on board? Most importantly, were you entertained?

Patches
Wow… I don’t think the enormity of what I agreed to really landed until now. I just started a television program at episode 203 and now I need to find worthwhile things to say about it. I imagine this is sort of like a Star Wars fan starting a writing project with a newbie who has seen none of the movies and only watches the Ewoks dancing at the end of Return of the Jedi. “Hey, there’s some people dancing. Aaaand, uhh, that orange guy did a great job shaking hands with people.” Except that wasn’t an orange guy. It was Wedge Fucking Antilles celebrating being the best pilot in the universe. How do you get a sense of anything without understanding where it came from?

Anyways, in “My Struggle,” Mulder and Scully find evidence of a World War I defeat. Mulder believes it’s part of a vast conspiracy where German civilians, Jews in particular, “stabbed” the German Army “in the back.” As the skeptic, Scully decides it’s probably something more reasonable, such as attempting to fight a two-front war or making the least competent nation in Europe your closest ally.

How am I doing so far, Jeff?

Jeff
Perfect. That’s why I invited you here. You have a knack for unearthing subtext. Also, your Star Wars analogy is beautiful. Even so, reboots, remakes and revisits shouldn’t have to be completely reliant on what has come before. Sure, they only exist because of the success of the original, in most cases, but there’s always the need to attract a new audience. It makes some sense that this short-term X-Files miniseries could be mostly for the fans, but considering the quality of the franchise since say, Season 8, FOX wouldn’t have sprung for it if they didn’t think there was a great chance of success. So while you may be coming in just for the “Yub Nub!”, you’re not going to be left scratching your head about those cute little bears. Now, back to your take on the inter-war ramblings of a once-aspiring artist.

Patches
Wrong “My Struggle.” Sorry.

Awful title decisions aside, my first X-Files experience was mixed, but mostly positive. There were elements of an awesome show, but I think I got a sense of what you were talking about when you said the later “mytharc” seasons dropped in quality.

First things first, “My Struggle” definitely hit all the right nostalgia buttons, which is odd since I have no warm X-Files memories to bring back. The one-minute, bare-bones introduction was nice and it definitely set up the new season in a way that engages newcomers. I think this desire to draw in viewers both old and new was the cause of our biggest difference of opinion.

I LOVED the new conspiracy angle. If my rudimentary knowledge of the rest of series is true, earlier seasons presented viewers with two basic options. There were aliens or there were not. There was a conspiracy or there was not. Maybe it got more complicated and maybe the viewers knew more than Mulder and Scully did, but that was basically it.

This new wrinkle is amazing because it introduces a third option. Maybe there’s a conspiracy, maybe there’s not. Or maybe the conspiracy is the conspiracy. A skilled showrunner could mess with viewers for seasons, leading them in one direction or another. It’s a neat wrinkle and one that introduces a lot of possibilities going forward. Who knows if Carter and Co. have the time or the desire to actually go in that direction, but the opportunity is there.

vlcsnap-2016-01-31-08h35m43s153That said, it’s easy to see where you are coming from, Jeff. It’s 200 episodes and two movies and then Episode 203 saying “But maybe none of that mattered in the way you thought…” Hey, it’s their series and it’s a perfectly defensible artistic decision. However, it’s also a kick in the groin to anyone who devoted serious time and energy to the first nine seasons and believed for over a decade that the X-Files that ended in 2002 (err, 2008) was the final version of the story. You can defend an episode where we find out Mulder and Scully were figments of an autistic kid’s imagination, but that doesn’t make it the right decision, especially given the decade layoff.

But enough about your issues with the episode. What about mine? I got the distinct impression that David Duchovny, and to a lesser extent Gillian Anderson, is a lot more comfortable with “sarcastic” and “subtle” than “passionate.” Both sleepwalked at times, particularly the exposition shouting at Sveta’s house. To be fair, the dialogue wasn’t doing either of them any favors, but that scene had all the qualities of two people, supposedly with deep ties and a child, loudly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at each other. I don’t know if it was the writing or if they just don’t have great range, but that scene was pretty off-putting.

My biggest problem was with the godawful politics of “My Struggle.” For the record, I don’t mind politics in my shows and I’ve enjoyed programs all along the political spectrum from the utopianism of the Star Treks to the moral ambivalence of The Shield to the cynicism of The Wire to the “torture’s cool!” stylings of 24. However, all the politically-tinged shows I’ve enjoyed share two traits. First, they are subtle. They don’t beat you over the head in a manner that insults your intelligence. 24 was never known for its deft touch, but “My Struggle” makes Joel Surnow look like David Simon. Who the hell writes “uber-violent fascist elites” with a straight face in 2016? Somewhere there’s a “militiaman” in Oregon who’s still stiff from this episode.

The other trait they all share is that they are smart enough to show, not tell. If you want the viewer to know that a government conspiracy is evil, show the government conspiracy being evil. Revealing your grand conspiracy through clunky exposition is a lazy shortcut that turns your message into soapbox polemics. Look, I understand distrust of the government and corporations. There’s a hell of a lot to complain about and most of the criticisms are at least partially true. Just don’t be lazy and stupid about it.

By the end of the episode, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on things, although anything deeper than the surface level likely sailed right over my head. I was entertained and I’m definitely on board for the rest of the season. But it didn’t move The X-Files any further up my list either, if that makes sense.

Jeff
You mean you’re willing to stick around for 5 more episodes? Thank you for making that sacrifice!

Just kidding. I’m glad you’re on board, but this definitely isn’t on the short list of episodes I’d show someone who I was hoping to bring on board the X-train. Still, your clear-eyed optimism and embracing of the Russian nesting doll of conspiracies and NONspiracies are a good reminder for me to pull the stick out of my ass and simply enjoy the fact that one of my all-time favorite shows is back on the air, for a limited time only. I can relish the good, forget the bad and remember that I’ll always have Clyde Bruckman.

Quick Hits
Patches: Who’s lived harder the last decade? Mulder or Duchovny?
Jeff: He does look rough, doesn’t he? Probably both. Mulder has been holed up in a cabin probably watching porn and reading Wikileaks. Amazingly, he hasn’t grown a beard. Duchovny spent 8 years starring in Californication, a reality television series about his life that may inconceivably prove to be the most consistent of all Showtime originals.

Jeff: If this miniseries is a success, what are the chances of Mitch Pileggi hosting a revival of Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed?
Patches: There were 18 episodes of that series and 8-10 tricks were explained in each one. Are there more magic tricks than that? I don’t know how magic works.

Patches: Have you ever seen The Simpsons episode “The Springfield Files?” I think drunk Homer telling Scully “And then I So I says, blue M&M, red M&M, they all wind up the same color in the end” is probably that episode’s highlight for me.
Jeff: Weirdly, that Simpsons episode aired in January 1997, about a month before my hazy memory says I kind of started watching The X-Files regularly, yet I specifically remember making a point to watch “The Springfield Files” because it was an X-Files crossover. Maybe I just caught a rerun of “The Springfield Files,” or maybe my X-Files fandom began earlier than I recall.

Jeff: Okay. Is Chris Carter seriously referencing Hitler by naming this episode “My Struggle?”
Patches: He was probably just trying to come up with the most anti-Semitic Scrubs episode of all time. Given the politics of the episode, however, I’m not totally sure.

Patches: Thanks to good ‘ole findersypder.us, Scully discovered that O’Malley’s website was taken down. What would your fake search engine be called?
Jeff: Netcomb.

Jeff: What would the heretofore sequestered Sveta’s on-air confession denying the veracity of things that presumably were never publicly said in the first place mean for anyone? What would the headline of that Onion-worthy story be?
Patches: Woman Retracts Things She Never Said; World Forgives Her Because She’s Quite Attractive

vlcsnap-2016-01-31-09h13m10s204Xuestions and Xnswers
(Where Patches asks why things are the way they are and Jeff pretends he knows a lot)

Patches: I remember the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully as being a big part of the show. What caused them to get together? Heroic stress relief? Alien experiment? Narrative convenience? Just wanting to?
Jeff: While you could say that a physical relationship was always bubbling in the background, I think the show did an admirable job of making these two characters loyal partners first. I won’t go so far as to say they were great friends, because we almost never saw them off the job. However, they were always on the job, so they were essentially best friends. By Season 7, when the hookup was first implied, they had both lost so much, so it was natural for them to look to each other to fulfill that part of their lives.

Patches: So where does The X-Files finale leave things? Or the movie if that makes for a better answer?
Jeff: Here is where I have to admit that I have only seen I Want to Believe one time, so my memory might be rusty. I don’t think it makes for a better answer, because it’s a standalone story that doesn’t really touch on the mythology. That’s too bad, because the finale, after being a Mulder-as-Seinfeld-on-trial-style clip show for its first hour, leaves Mulder and Scully fugitives from justice, holed up in a Roswell hotel room and contemplating whether or not continuing the quest for the truth is hopeless.

Patches: In your introduction, you discussed the show’s “mytharc” as being something separate from much of the rest of the show. Could you explain that to me a little more?
Jeff: Sure! The X-Files was a pretty cool series because it sort of helped to bring serialized storytelling into the realm of good/mainstream TV. Somewhere around 30% of the episodes are mythology episodes, contributing to the ongoing “mytharc” involving the alien conspiracy and things connected to it. The rest of the episodes are “monster of the week” episodes which find Mulder and Scully investigating other unexplained or paranormal phenomena, like clones, reincarnation, telepathy, the Bermuda Triangle, vampires or any number of weird creatures. Viewers could get hooked on the mytharc, or just tune in once in a while for the weirdness. There was crossover here and there, and like any good procedural, the lives of our investigators was at least somewhat important, but you could honestly enjoy The X-Files as two separate shows if you wanted (which may be why they released 4 volumes of only the mythology episodes on DVD).

Patches: In the limo, Mulder says he “wants to believe,” clearly making a distinction between himself and those who do believe. Have they never found hard evidence of extraterrestrial life in over 200 episodes?
Jeff: Yes and no. They’ve seen and heard a lot of things over the years, but they’ve never been able to grab something and hold on to it. Proof has always been elusive with constant cover ups, destruction of evidence and mysterious deaths and disappearances.

Patches: Why is it so important that Mulder figure it out on his own without the old guy finishing it off for him?
Jeff: Because drama! Mulder has had several “guides” on his journey who have always known more than he does, but who have never been willing to go as far as they expect Mulder to. I think it goes back to the need to find and retain proof. They can tell Mulder where and how to find it, but he has to be the one to bring it out.

Patches: Jesus. Was The X-Files always this overtly political?
Jeff: I’d say no, but I’m not overly political myself, so sometimes things have to hit me across the face for me to see them. The show was always a little left-ish, with its mistrust of an all-powerful government, but I don’t think it bled into the episodes enough to be a distraction. Chris Carter’s liberal use of melodramatic, he-must-have-spent-all-night-with-a-thesaurus voiceover monologues was a problem, however.

Patches: What’s the deal with The Smoking Man? Is he the head of the evil cabal or something?
Jeff: Where to begin? I’ll just say yes. Throughout the original series he was both leader and lackey, monarch and mercenary. He was a step ahead of everyone, and the smartest guy in the room. Even if he wasn’t nominally in charge, he always seemed to know more than anyone else who was. He was sort of a “guy behind the guy,” until the guy and all of the other guys were immolated by faceless aliens in Season 6. He ducked out for season 8 and 9, only to be definitively killed off in the finale. Oh, and he’s Mulder’s dad.

vlcsnap-2016-01-31-09h14m08s169

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s