Fourteen years after its series finale, “The X-Files” is back on FOX, and it’s … well, I wish I could say it’s great. Between the deafening hype and the murky track record of series creator Chris Carter’s late-period creative choices, I adjusted my expectations for the revival series to be accordingly low. Even if the rebooted “The X-Files” were just a welcome reunion between me and my two all-time favorite characters, with nothing else redeemable, I told myself I’d be satisfied.
I wish seeing Scully and Mulder was enough. “The X-Files” has some addictive alien substance in its DNA that makes it irresistible to fans and the perfect receptacle for cult worship, which makes it impossible to write about the show without bringing myself and my experience with it into the fold. While I love “The X-Files” to death, I’ve always kept a Scully-esque skeptic’s attitude and a critical eye toward the flaws that have been there since episode one. The show is wildly uneven, with some of the cases and episodes deserving a spot in the Great TV Canon, and others so forgettable they burn themselves into your brain (I’m looking at you, “First Person Shooter”).
“My Struggle” doesn’t fall into either of these two categories. It contains all of “The X-Files” ’s most dangerous trappings, yet also maintains vestiges of what made the show so great two decades ago. The episode’s intro sequence, featuring resident supernatural enthusiast Fox Mulder (David Duchovny, “Californication”) narrating the events of the previous nine seasons, is creative shorthand meant to catch new viewers up to speed. While stock photo images and newspaper clippings flash by, Mulder clues the audience in on his fascination with aliens, but also hints at the psychological ennui that will be revealed later in the episode. As pictures of UFO crashes and monstrous aliens flip across the screen, Mulder sounds bored and disengaged. He sounds a far cry from the passionate zealot that fans remember from the previous series: “We must ask ourselves … Are they really a hoax?” He doesn’t sound convinced. Just like that, the viewer’s curiosity is piqued, and Duchovny has sent us on a mission to figure out what’s wrong with Mulder.
Sure enough, Mulder has grown depressed and worse for the wear since the X-Files division closed. Without his passions or his case partner to guide him, Mulder’s belief is waning. Duchovny is game for this graying and cynical character bent, but he keeps a spark of the bright old Mulder in his performance. This spark intensifies whenever he shares the screen with his former partner, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson, “The Fall”). In the years since we’ve last seen her, Scully also appears to have grown colder and more cynical (though this might be the aftermath of Anderson’s brilliantly detached “Hannibal” performance). Thankfully, the two jump right back into their gently combative relationship, and Mulder sets a million ’shipper hearts aflame when he cracks a sly smile and tells Scully “Don’t pretend I’m going alone.”
But even great performers can’t save bad writing. The miniseries’ new case is frustratingly scattered across the episode’s 43-minute runtime. Political conspiracist talk show host Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale, “Community”) inspires Mulder and Scully to investigate Sveta (Annet Mahendru, “The Americans”) ’s claims that she was abducted by aliens, has alien DNA and had aliens hole-punch circles in her abdomen. Despite Mahendru’s best efforts, Sveta is a ridiculous character, made even more so by the fact that Mulder is convinced she is the “key to everything” and just a few minutes of her testimony is enough to make him question his entire worldview. The introductions feel rushed, and the episode doesn’t spend enough time dissecting Mulder’s weakened beliefs or desperation to justify this sudden switch.
The episode also suffers from some horrific dialogue writing and direction — bad even by the standards of a show that has never been known for its subtle character work. In one scene that takes place on Mulder’s porch, Scully and her former partner utter every “X-Files” poster epithet within the span of two minutes: “You want to believe! You so badly want to believe!” “I do believe!” “The truth is out there, Scully, and Tad O’Malley is gonna broadcast it!” As Mulder and Scully trade fan-service quotes, they grip the other’s shoulders and shout with their faces inches from one another. Of course, Sveta is standing right at the door watching them, and interrupts to ask if everything is OK. I laughed out loud. It’s not OK.
I really want to believe that “The X-Files” will get back on track and deliver five great episodes after this middling premiere. I want to believe that the reboot isn’t back solely for nostalgia’s sake, for money or for network ratings. I want Mulder to make sense again, for the Cigarette Smoking Man to scare me shitless and for the story to justify the fact that “The X-Files” was pulled back out of the cabinet drawer and resurrected from the dead. “My Struggle” doesn’t quite live up to the heights set by previous seasons or merit the reboot on its own terms, but it’s worth holding out hope that the show will justify its own existence. After all, we’ve still got five episodes — and the truth is out there.