TV (and pop culture more widely) runs in 20 year cycles. Once a show concludes and enters the world of syndicated repeats, DVD/streamed relics, and almost distant memories, it has at least ten years of laying fallow and being just a little on the nose. Unless you were deeply in love, an oft-watched show begins to feel like an awkward one night stand that compels you to brush off the experience and move on with your life. But eventually nostalgia kicks in and that seems to be at the 20 year-mark. Recently we’ve seen renewed interest in Twin Peaks, Seinfeld, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and The X-Files.
When it was mentioned by new Fox executives Dana Walden and Gary Newman at a recent Television Critics Association panel that they are considering bringing back The X-Files as an event limited series, it felt right. The world is ready again for The X-Files in a way that it most certainly wasn’t when Fox attempted to revive the property in 2008 for the movie sequel I Want To Believe.
In considering The X-Files, it needs to be remembered that the shows latter seasons are not remembered fondly. This is a show that defined what TV could be and played a significant role in maturing the medium, but eventually the wheels fell off the bike. Even the most die-hard of fans found their devotion tested once David Duchovny left the show with the conclusion of season 7 of the series.
A recent revival of the Fox Keifer Sutherland show 24 brought back much of the remaining cast and crew for a limited run series which highlighted the reasons as to why audiences had fallen out of love with that show initially. The X-Files deserves a better fate.
What can Fox do to safeguard The X-Files to keep it as a viable property for many years to come?
I) It cannot be an event mini-series
The absolute strength of The X-Files is that it is traditional TV with a monster of the week and a new story every week. Building an event mini-series around the property will build into it an expectation that the show will focus on a larger ‘mythology’ storyline and not where the show excelled, which was in telling stories about humanoid flukeworms in the sewer systems, a New Jersey sasquatch, and limb-extending serial killers.
Recently we saw Aaron Sorkin conclude his series The Newsroom, which many fans of the show considered to be the best of the three seasons of that series. What made the show start to work is that Sorkin brought back a feeling of network television to his writing. The X-Files needs a similar feeling. Sure, one can attempt to dress it up with longer arcs and a more streaming-friendly approach, but that isn’t working to its strengths. Be the network drama series that we all want it to be.
Besides, the prevailing attitude today when people are asked about The X-Files is that the episodes they remember fondly are the monster of the week episodes and not the ongoing ‘mythology’ episodes to do with the conspiracy around an alien invasion.
It needs to look and feel like an ongoing TV series.
II ) Mythology cannot be the bulk of episodes. But it needs to exist.
The X-Files established the ongoing mythology approach that has driven so much crime, horror, and sci-fi TV over the past 20 years. There would be no Lost without The X-Files, most certainly. Viewers, however, remember the stand-alone episodes more fondly with stories of the Cigarette Smoking Man and the disappearance of Mulder’s sister no longer favourable. And fair enough. When one goes back to re-watch the series, these episodes don’t hold up particularly well.
But to lose an ongoing narrative would be a mistake. Viewers today do want a more complex narrative built into the shows that they watch. It provides connective tissue to the episodes, compelling viewers to tune in weekly. For the show to feel modern, it will require the same narrative techniques almost all other TV dramas employ – techniques The X-Files pioneered in the mid 1990’s.
III) Keep away Chris Carter. And any of the former writers.
Chris Carter was never the strongest writer on The X-Files. While he certainly developed a great framework for the series to excel within, his creativity never drove the shows success. Rather the strength of the shows writing came from writers like Jim Morgan and Glen Wong in the early seasons, with Frank Spotnitz and Vince Gilligan as the show continued in later seasons.
To bring back Chris Carter would be a mistake. He’s not a strong writer and his attention always diverts from the narrative strength of the series. Consider the film I Want To Believe, which he penned. The screenplay keeps apart the two protagonists for much of the film, sidelining Scully with a dull storyline set in a hospital. The film, instead of exploring notions of faith in a compelling and meaningful way as intended, felt like a charmless wet blanket.
Chris Carter is well-meaning, but its simply time to hand over the reins and give the show a fresh new take. Bringing back any of the shows other writers (and yes, this includes Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan) may deliver some good episodes, but it needs a new attitude and point of view.
Bring in a new showrunner with a very clear direction for the series. A direction that builds upon the original series, but is also willing to embrace elements that will contemporise the series. Consider the approach being taken with JJ Abrams on the new Star Wars films.
IV) Expand the team.
The Mulder/Scully dynamic was the driving force behind The X-Files and it was what made it the special series it was. But a new series needs to be bigger. If Mulder and Scully are still the only two people fighting for finding ‘the truth’, then their work until now has been for nought.
Rather than see The X-Files return for one or two limited run engagements, it would be preferable to see a framework established which creates a future for the franchise that extends beyond the willingness of Duchovny/Anderson to be involved. Their dissatisfaction with committing to the show longterm was a factor in the shows decline in the final seasons run. Bring in a team of agents to work under and with them. As would be the case with any successful law enforcement unit.
V) Keep It Prestige.
US Network TV is dying a horrible death. Within just a decade, US broadcast went from offering progressive and deeply engaging drama series on a regular basis to being a wasteland of generic formula-driven procedurals. The only hour-long drama of any value is The Good Wife. So if one is to bring back a beloved prestige broadcast show like The X-Files, it is important to make sure that the show is given the tools it needs to stand above the other series on the air. It needs a strong creative team, appropriate budget, and creative freedom.
This cannot look and feel cookie cutter like any old episode of NCIS or CSI.
VI) New beginnings.
Viewers want to be reminded of the joys they experienced with the original series along with the thematic core that kept them returning back week after week. Viewers want scares, questions about the hidden secrets that exist around them, and restrained interplay with the series leads. Bringing back any of the accoutrements that hung off the original series will feel tired and too much like fan service. This means no Smoking Man, no Skinner, and above all, no Lone Gunmen (unless it’s a new publication with a new staff).
VII) Keep the theme.
It isn’t The X-Files without Mark Snows theme song. And it can’t be a remix of the original – we had enough of that in the 90’s at peak X-Files. That novelty has been well and truly worn out.
But keep the theme shorter. That opening titles sequence is a bitch to sit through nowadays.
The villains of yesterday still exist. We still fear government control. We still fear those that operate within the shadows of power. But that power has shifted. We have large corporations that are now firmly entrenched in our personal lives that never quite had that level of involvement in the past. Our collective fears are now less entrenched in the corridors of power, but more firmly in what technology and those who control it can do to us. Xenophobic fears related to terrorism and terror cells within Western society also runs through society in a manner more reflective of the Twilight Zone cold war paranoia than The X-Files initial Bush/Clinton era.
Mulder & Scully investigate the monsters that are really controlling Google Now? It sends shivers down my spine.
The X-Files has already stripped away the unresolved sexual tension that led to the creation of a thousand Geocities shrines. Mulder and Scully had a kid – that seems like some pretty strong resolution right there. This is a big part of why the show will need a younger generation of agents involved in the show. Introducing a sense of URST among the younger cast can drive some of the URST that the show will now be missing. And if you don’t think URST is important to the success of The X-Files as a format, just consider how dull the show became with the sexless Agents Doggett & Reyes who led the show during those final two seasons.
X) Vancouver Locations.
Let’s be honest with ourselves – The X-Files solving mysteries anywhere other than that one Vancouver forest really doesn’t feel right. For The X-Files to continue to feel like the show we have in our hearts, it needs to return to Vancouver.