Did the X-Files revival work?

In the 1990s, I was a huge X-Files fan, watching old videos over and over again, trying to catch the show when it was live, recording it when I couldn’t. I have many fond memories of sitting around my friend Sara’s living room watching X-Files episodes and trying to untangle their complicated plots and layered conspiracy theories. Chris Carter was a god, and we worshiped at his altar, complete with being highly active on forums, transcript crowdsourcing sites, and more. The house was filled with X-Files gear.

So when Fox announced that they were doing a remake, I was highly skeptical. Some things are best left in the past and I’m a bit grumpy about the slew of television remakes and revivals in recent years — I’d much prefer it if we focused on developing new and interesting television rather than repeating formulas that worked in the past. The X-Files was a great show and also a product of its time, something that fit in with the cultural zeitgeist of the 1990s, the trends, the fears, the worries of that generation — if nothing else, the show’s handling of technology conflicts rather significantly with what’s available to us now. In the 1990s, people couldn’t resort to a library of tech to rapidly resolve mysteries and problems, which forced us to get to know Mulder and Scully as people as they doggedly pursued the answers to mysteries the old fashioned way, in a setting where so many things could remain unexplained.

That’s changed now, and I couldn’t figure out how a revival would cope with that. What do you do when people can swiftly turn to tech for answers, and old-fashioned hoofing it would feel anachronistic and weird? How do you update something cultured for 1990s sensibilities for a 2010s crowd that expects different things from television while facing down different social and cultural issues? Modern viewers should try picking up a few old episodes sometime: Unless they’re die-hard fans with a deep affinity and love for the series, they’re probably going to find them pretty archaic.

Thus, I entered into my initial viewing of the revival with considerable trepidation. And I’m really glad that the X-Files proved me wrong in a way that most of the recent television revivals have not. There are a couple of reasons for that, but, critically, they aren’t reasons that other creators can necessarily replicate, so I stand by my position that television really shouldn’t be resuscitated after it’s dead and gone. Sometimes it really is best to leave characters and stories where they are rather than trying to fight the inevitable.

Here’s one critical reason why it worked: From the start, it was presented as a miniseries. The goal wasn’t to attempt to recreate the social phenomenon that the show had been in the 1990s, but to present a tight, beautiful, organized miniseries with a clear plot arc and a definitive beginning and end. I’ve mentioned before that I am a big fan of miniseries in general along with shorter television seasons and this is why. Rather than bumbling around the screen without a definable goal or trying to draw out plots in a desperate bid for another season, they told the stories they needed to tell and kept it crisp and interesting.

They also stuck with the hardcore X-Files tradition of making this about character development. This is a show with so much rich, complex history to draw upon and I’m not sure new viewers caught everything, but they really did consistently keep the focus on exploring who Mully and Sculder were and who they were becoming as a result of interacting with the world around them. While they couldn’t rely on tools like old-fashioned investigative tactics to give us a glimpse into their world, they still spent a fair amount of time in procedural mode just like the old days, with just enough technological balance to make it feel plausible (inasmuch as a show like the X-Files can feel plausible, that is).

Additionally, they used tech to their advantage. They exploited modern developments in technology but also pushed the notion of alien technology to further limits to hypothesise a whole new set of advances that lay beyond the kenning of the characters. It was a smart and delicate move as the show also made sure to keep the focus of each episode on the creature of the week — but this time, the show could access DNA analysis and other tools to learn more about the weird and utterly confusing creatures the characters encountered.

About those creatures. One of the things I loved about the first run of the show is that it was straight up creepy, in a way that no other television really is. I don’t like horror as a general rule, though I don’t dismiss the genre out of hand, and the X-Files is one of the few exceptions, though it’s also not quite horror. It’s something sinister and unsettling and just like in the 1990s, I regretted watching it in the dark more than once. It’s harder to creep jaded audiences out, even with better CGI and other technologies to make creatures feel realistic, and I have to give them props for that.

The miniseries managed to retain the flavour and tradition of the original series without making it too bound to fanservice, although there was an awful lot of that. (To the delight of many of us.) That’s a really difficult balance to strike, as fans had their own expectations of the revival while new viewers needed a reason to tune in. Not everyone loved the new X-Files, including old fans who felt it didn’t quite work for them, but it was definitely much, much better than I expected when I first heard the announcement.

Image: x files tattoo, Meg, Flickr