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TV Waffle - THE X-FILES Episode 1: My Struggle

The cult sci-fi show returns after a 14 year hiatus.

Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Had you buried a time capsule in the mid to late 1990s, you would have had to have included a VHS tape of The X-Files. The show bridged a gap between the traditional 'story of the week' TV format and the cliffhanger heavy shows so popular on US cable networks today. It amassed a rabid cult following, but until its later seasons it was equally embraced by the masses; imagine Game of Thrones with the viewing figures of NCIS and you'll have some idea of just what a cultural phenomenon it was. In this nostalgia obsessed era of ours, when studios and TV networks are hesitant to take risks on original properties, it was inevitable that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson would return to the roles that made them arguably TV's most recognisable partnership.
The first episode in a six-part 'event series' (the Fox network is seemingly refusing to refer to this as Season 10), My Struggle feels very much like the show's equivalent of The Force Awakens; the stars may have gained a few crow's feet around their eyes, but the beats are all too familiar.
While The X-Files gave '90s TV some of its greatest moments, it was never consistent enough in its quality to truly call itself a great show. Having binged all original nine seasons over the last year, I found myself struggling to make it through several swathes of episodes, but the knowledge that roughly one out of every five episodes ranked among genre TV's best kept me going. The show featured two distinct types of episodes; you had the 'myth arc' stories, which followed Mulder's quest to discover the truth behind the childhood disappearance of his sister, and the 'monster of the week' episodes, which gave the show's writers a freedom to experiment with one-off tales that at their best, played like mini horror movies. Most viewers would agree the show's best work came from the latter, and for me the mythology episodes felt like being forced to eat my greens, with the promise of sweet dessert in the form of a one-off case in which Mulder and Scully come face to face with some outrageous supernatural villain.
Most of the myth arc episodes were written and directed by showrunner Chris Carter, and that's the case with this new series opener. You have to give Carter props for masterminding the show, but during my binge my heart sank every time I saw him credited as a writer, as it usually meant I was in for a two-part episode heavy on exposition and low on the sort of ghoulish thrills to be found in the one-offs written by the likes of Vince Gilligan, Darin Morgan and the ace writing duo of Glen Morgan and James Wong. My Struggle is indeed a two-parter, but it seems as though Carter knows how his audience feels, so the second part has been left for the season finale.
The episode opens with a quick refresher course in the show's lore, as photos of some of the iconic villains of the past are set alight, backed by narration from Mulder. Then we're taken back to 1947 New Mexico, where an alien craft has just crash landed, its extra-terrestrial pilot gunned down in cold blood by shady military types. Back in the present, our heroes are reunited by a libertarian talk show host, Tad O'Malley (Joel McHale), who introduces them to Sveta (Annet Mahendru), a young woman who believes herself to be the victim of multiple abductions by aliens. It's at this point deja vu sets in; how many times have we seen Mulder question some alien abductee in their suburban living room? The twist comes when Mulder is brought to a remote location by O'Malley - a facility housing a captured alien craft, one capable of invisibility. Mulder becomes convinced by O'Malley's theory that there is no alien conspiracy but rather a sinister group of fascists here on Earth refining alien technology to one day rule the planet. Given everything Mulder, and the show's audience, has seen over the past couple of decades, it's extremely difficult to swallow his sudden change of mind.
While the aesthetic of the episode takes us right back to its heyday (it was one of the first TV shows to employ backlighting, which greatly helped its noirish tone), My Struggle mostly consists of scenes shot in close-ups as characters try to blurt out as much information as possible. Perhaps this is a means of getting all this out of the show's system so we can move on to the monster of the week treats that await us over the next four weeks, but regardless, this opening of a new chapter is very much a case of being force-fed your greens. If this iss Chris Carter's cabbage, let's hope James Wong's second episode proves to be a tasty trifle.