Be advised: this will go into detail about various plot elements of the episode, and there will be SPOILERS. Trust no one.
Mulder! Scully! Skinner! (to be said in the style of superintendent Chalmers on The Simpsons) Conspiracies! Yes, The X-Files is well and truly back. But is it a happy return for a beloved old friend? Or is it the awkward feeling of that acquaintance you used to think was really entertaining, but now you're just worried they haven't really moved on and are still talking about the same old stuff?
Unfortunately, for a lot of this initial episode of the new run, The X-Files falls much more into the latter category. Written and directed by series creator Chris Carter, it doesn't help that My Struggle has a lot of work to do. You've go to re-introduce, or simply introduce the series to those who haven't seen it in years and new audiences. You've got to catch us all up on what Mulder and Scully have been doing in the time since we last saw them (2002 for the TV series, 2008 for the second movie, I Want to Believe, which we'd probably all rather forget anyway).
The episode kicks off with a quick primer on all things X-Files, narrated by David Duchovny's Fox Mulder. We skip through his obsessions with the paranormal and alien in particular, his abducted sister Samantha, his work with the FBI's least wanted department, the X-Files and that pesky doctor/agent assigned to debunk his theories, Dana Scully, who ended up becoming his biggest ally.
While it's certainly fun to see some of the old moments, presented here in photograph form, it all feels a little rushed and sloppy, and hardly the most compelling start, aside from possibly a crashing UFO and of course the credits, which are are full-on nostalgia trip because they're exactly the same as the classic series.
From there, we're plunged into the episode proper, which somewhat awkwardly aims for a blend of flashback (to New Mexico in 1947, according to the familiar typewriter-style chyrons) and the present day, where both of our heroes have left the FBI: Scully to concentrate on medicine and helping with tough surgeries, and Mulder living off the grid, still consumed with his bitter quest for the truth.
In the past storyline, we see a young military doctor brought to the crash site to gape at the ship half buried in the ground from its losing fight with gravity. And there are more wonders to unfold through the episode, as he encounters an alien survivor trying to crawl away from the troops that are scouring the area. A few bullets later and the extra-terrestrial is an ex-extra-terrestrial, but our doc takes the body to... Well, that is never explored, but we have to assume he'll run a few tests and then wait for Voyager 2 to be launched so he can notify the alien's next of kin. More on him (the doctor, not the alien) later.
As for the main chunk of the episode, Scully and a scruffy, unshaven Mulder (we're going to assume the "Struggle" of the title is Fox's battle with personal grooming) are contacted by their former boss Walter Skinner and brought together in Washington D.C., where they're met by right-wing paranoia puppy and internet TV show host Tad O'Malley (Community's Joel McHale going for a smoother, younger version of US cable news blowhard Bill O'Reilly). Tad has an intriguing mystery and a big budget to spend, though it's not clear how running an online conspiracy show offers you the resources to fund a plush bulletproof limo and, later, a helicopter to swank about in. He recruits our main pair, explains a lot about what he believes is going on, and brings them to meet Sveta (Annet Mahendru), who has evidence, including a lot of strange scars, that she's been abducted multiple times. Falling in to old patterns, Mulder is almost immediately convinced, whereas Scully is much more skeptical. Well, it wouldn't be these two without that dynamic, right?
If you were playing a drinking game based around old catchphrases, you'd probably be in a coma by the end.
The old roles continue as Mulder digs deeper into what Tad has uncovered (including what looks like a stealth bomber crossed with something out of Flight Of The Navigator) that is supposedly an "Alien Replica Vehicle", retro-engineered and used by the government to fool people into thinking aliens are abducting and experimenting on people, while Scully is tasked with testing Sveta's blood and genes. The ship ties in with Sveta's next revelation: that she believes her abductors weren't aliens at all, but humans, as part of the grander conspiracy. Mulder's re-ignited passion for finding answers leads him to his old office, long since cleared out, but confusingly left with some of his old posters and those pencils he used to love to fling into the ceiling hanging around. Hasn't the FBI used this space for something else in the 14 years since he worked there? Or has Skinner, who angrily confronts Mulder, been keeping it safe all these years? It appears he's even been repainting the place after its many tangles with fires and conspiracy-sponsored vandals.
Next up, Mulder meets the latest in a long line of shadowy contacts who, we're told, he's been talking to for a decade. He's played by Rance Howard, and we quickly learn that he's the doctor from the flashbacks. Essentially he's here to be this series' version of Deep Throat or Mr. X, and we're already worried about his life expectancy. He's still alive for now, but then there's a callback to that other old X-chestnut, the Mulder speech. Gathering once again with Sveta, Scully and Tad, our talkative former agent lays out his BIG THEORY encompassing an even bigger lie than he's told in the past, the idea that the governmental and corporate elites have been slowly taking over America and the world through weather manipulation, pharmaceutical tampering and the appeal to good ol' human nature through fast food and consumerism.
Scully, thoroughly sick of hearing all this and back in full-on skeptic mode, calls it claptrap and refuses to listen any further. But, later back at the hospital and then at Mulder's, she's ready to believe again thanks to Sveta's medical tests, and her own, which have come back showing signs of manipulated DNA. Yet the dark forces ranked against them have begun to act to clear up the evidence, blowing up the high tech alien vehicle, having Sveta recant her stories in the press and forcing Tad offline. It all just pushes Scully to pick up the cause again, and both agents get a call from Skinner. the X-Files are re-opened! Black oil and flashlights for everyone!
Sveta, meanwhile, is one dangling thread about to be firmly tied as an "alien" ship shuts down her car, hovers above her and explodes the vehicle. Is she dead? We don't see her die, but it didn't look good.
And finally – one more spoiler alert for good measure – we cut to the back of a very familiar head. Yes, despite seemingly being blown to kingdom come himself by a rocket, it's William B. Davis as the Cigarette Smoking Man! "We have a problem," he says, sucking on a Morley through a tube in his neck. "The X-Files have been re-opened."
So are we glad about that? As fans, this is very much a mixed bag. Sure, it's good to have Mulder and Scully back doing the conspiracy cha-cha-cha, but it all just comes across as a truncated greatest hits of the series, without many of the actual hits. While the mythology episodes, those sweeping mini-epics about alien colonisation, bees, super soldiers, or whatever, started out fun, they ended up mostly frustrating, and that feeling carries over to this retread. How many times do we have to sit through Mulder and Scully debating conspiracies when both have seen more than enough evidence to convince any rational person that bad stuff is happening? This episode in particular, with its need to re-introduce everything, is weighed down with tropes and familiar elements to the point where you wonder what our heroes have even being doing in the years since the show's story left them. There's another conspiracy, one that tries to tie-up many elements of what has come before while also largely debunking chunks of it, Mulder meeting knowledgeable but reluctant informants, Scully as the level-headed medical researcher and the occasional bit of alien tech to keep us guessing.
With just six episodes to use for storylines, and only two planned as the mythology arc entries, there's an inevitable sense here of squashed and squandered creativity, something we're really hoping doesn't show up in the stand-alone shows to come before Carter returns for the finale in a few weeks' time. Like Mulder's visit to his old cubbyhole, it might have been a mistake to try to re-visit this series, no matter how much we as fans and viewers all want to see Mulder and Scully ride again. It's not-so-subtly loaded down with the need to have pertinent information for newbies (if you were playing a drinking game based around old catchphrases, you'd probably be in a coma by the end) and trying to tie-in everything including 9/11 just feels like overkill. McHale's Tad is fine but bland, and even Howard's informant feels second hand. Mahendru, who has done much better work on other series (particularly ace spy drama The Americans) is largely wasted here except for one scene with Scully.
So perhaps not the best start, despite some entertainment value. Let's all hope that the other episodes deliver the goods.
Read our celebration of all things X-Files here.