At the beginning of the new “X-Files” miniseries, two old characters can be seen exchanging some fresh banter.
“It’s always good to see you,” Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully says to her former partner.
“It’s always good to find a reason,” replies Fox Mulder, the truth-seeker played by David Duchovny.
That spirit of reunion might also be applied to the larger “The X-Files.” The landmark series returns to Fox for six episodes beginning Jan. 24, nearly 14 years after the show was last on TV. (A poorly received movie arrived in 2008.) Creator Chris Carter is back at the helm, serving as director and writer on three of the six episodes, including the mythology-heavy first and final installments, which bookend four stand-alone shows.
On Saturday afternoon at New York Comic-Con, Carter, Duchovny and co-star Mitch Pileggi offered the skinn(er)y on the new show as Anderson sent her regrets via video message. As the first episode screened, there was a familiar chemistry among the characters but also a sense that they, and we, had changed plenty in the interim.
“We wanted to be true,” Carter said at a post-screening panel, “to the passage of time.”
[Some spoilers follow; skip the next six paragraphs if you’re rather be surprised come January.]
The show kicks off with a Roswell-esque framing device, as a mysterious spacecraft lands in the desert circa 1947. The action will return there several more times, but the focus is soon onto contemporary events, with Mulder, long-haired and out of the FBI game, living a life of country isolation while Scully works as a surgeon at Our Lady of Sorrows hospital -- a setup that roughly parallels the start of the 2008 film.
The two are not together romantically or professionally. Yet they’re mobilized to reconnect when an off-camera Walter Skinner recommends they meet the Internet media sensation Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale, far from his Jeff Winger days). With a slick manner and money to burn, O’Malley is a kind of Frankensteinian combination of Bill O’Reilly (an O’Reilly comparison, and diss, even makes its way into the episode), Sept. 11 “Truther” and alien conspiracy theorist.
O’Malley is soon taking Mulder and Scully to a woman who says she has been abducted (the “Sveta” of earlier marketing materials) -- a narrative and philosophical flashpoint here -- with some good alien stomach-holes to boot. Skinner soon turns up too, in a tense scene with Mulder that gets in a good ceiling-pencil joke while Mulder tramples -- literally -- on an “I Want to Believe” poster. Yes, “The X-Files” has been through so many pop-cultural cycles it has now become a postmodern comment on itself.
But what could quickly become a furthering of the alien mythology that filled -- some would say overwhelmed -- the series in its first nine seasons is deftly turned in another direction: toward post- 9/11 conspiracy fiction. Mulder soon comes to believe that the aliens were not a colonial threat after all but a ruse by humans for a more insidious plot, hinted at in a montage suggesting everything from Patriot Act surveillance to mall-and-McDonald’s consumerism.
And while it can be a little muddled as to what exactly that nefarious plot is -- are we talking NSA-style oversnooping here or Naomi Klein-esque cultural hegemony? -- it’s clear Carter has more up his sleeve than the otherworldly and supernatural. He has moved from the world of early-Internet conspiracy theories into which the show was born to the one of government and corporate overreach that it is re-entering. Yes, “The X-Files” has gone political. Even Presidents Obama and Bush make archival appearances, “Homeland” credits-style.
Still, sci-fi is never far from “The X-Files,” and whether aliens are just a ruse or something more -- they almost seem like victims in the Roswell scenes -- remains to be seen. The interstellar was certainly on display Saturday when an audience member asked panel members about their own views regarding life on other planets.
“Oh, I totally believe in extraterrestrial life,” Pileggi said.
“I want to believe,” noted Carter.
“I’m a Belieber,” volleyed Duchovny.
Where exactly it will go will be revealed in the follow-up finale episode. (The middle four, from the likes of “X-Files” veterans James Wong and Darin Morgan, will deal with other mysteries and threats.)
The “X-Files” miniseries does need to strike a balance between new fans and old devotees. And while there are certain new elements meant for the former (fresh characters and a catch-up back story explainer at the top of the episode), the first episode of the new “X-Files” mostly plays to the hard-core fan, right down to a bit that shows The Smoking Man is not only alive but back, and offering a new spin on his trademark habit.
“We did this show for the hard-core fans, and even though we tried to make it accessible to viewers, [the devoted fans] are the reason we did it,” Carter told reporters after the presentation.
How viewers of various kinds will respond remains a question.
As she finished watching the episode, New York Comic-Con attendee Dana Strype said she liked it but wasn’t sure how much enthusiasm she could work up.
“I guess I’d watch,” said Strype, 28, who didn’t watch the original series but whose father and friends are fans. “It feels like a lot to catch up on so I’m not sure how into it I’d get.”
Nearby, Max Cernigliaro and his mother Nicole offered a look at the other end of the spectrum. Max is just 17 -- he was born when the show was already five years into its run and not even in kindergarten when it ended -- but has seen nearly every episode thanks to his mother, 48, and streaming media. “I can’t believe it’s coming back. It’s just so exciting to be able to watch it on television,” he said.
“And a chance to remember all the original great episodes, which I can’t believe were so many years ago,” Nicole Cernigliaro said.
So many years, in fact, that Vince Gilligan has gone, started and completed a phenom of “X-Files”-level proportions in the interim with “Breaking Bad.” (His absence on the miniseries is notable, though it also contributes to the feeling that this is Carter’s baby.)
Also marking the passage of time are the intervening legal battles, including Carter’s 2006 lawsuit against 20th Century Fox Television over syndication revenue that exactly didn’t have anyone rushing to reunite. All seemed copacetic Saturday as Carter recounted how Dana Walden and Gary Newman, the former chiefs of 20th Century Fox TV who now run the Fox Television Group, came a’courting in recent years.
The new miniseries how comes as another 1990’s-era genre breakout, “Twin Peaks,” comes back for its own limited run, joining Fox’s own “24” and other modern reboots.
Carter says he was willing to return because he felt there modern ideas to explore. And though he didn’t say he hoped for a corrective to his 2008 “X-Files” film, subtitled “I Want to Believe,” he did offer an explanation for it. “We did a little movie in 2008 because that’s what Fox asked us to do,” he told reporters. “I took at it as a lesson learned -- that if you do an ‘X-Files’ movie it has to be big.”
After all, big is what plays, as evidenced by the Comic-Con attendees going nuts at the spectacle and insider tips Saturday. (Yes, the Lone Gunmen will be back, Carter confirmed, sending the crowd into ecstasy.) But he and the cast also said the new series was more than fan service.
“It’s gratifying that people liked the show,” Duchovny told reporters after the panel when asked about the fan reaction. “But I don’t want to just trade on that. We didn’t come back just to have six in-joke episodes.”
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