Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis. This year it wasn’t even the debut of a trailer for the Jodie Whittaker-fronted, Chris Chibnall-era new series of Doctor Who—which is going to almost certainly lead to a Star Wars-esque online tirade from grown man children at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. 2018 had another major female figure from popular culture waiting in the wings get people talking: Buffy, she of the vampire slaying.
More specifically, the fact that Joss Whedon is overseeing, though likely not directly show running, a modern reboot of his legendary 20th Century Fox series which remains one of the bastions of 90’s pop culture, female empowerment, and genre storytelling. Note the word here that is crucial: reboot. Not revival. Not continuation. A reboot.
Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television.
The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.
Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.
It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.
The X-Files, one of the most recognised and beloved television properties of the last three decades, lies once again at a fascinating impasse.
‘My Struggle IV’, which I discuss here in depth, was billed as a finale, but it soon became clear Chris Carter only intended Season 11 to serve as a season rather than series finale. Despite Gillian Anderson’s claim this was her last time playing FBI agent Dana Scully, Carter has steadfastly refused to write a true ending for Scully and her erstwhile partner Fox Mulder. What many considered could well be the final time we saw these iconic characters, fates were left unresolved, storylines nebulous, and our two heroes were left staring down at a crossroads of two different paths: domesticity with the chance of a new family, or continuing their work investigating the paranormal. Their choice depends on many factors which lie beyond any decisions made by the two intrepid FBI agents in the show.
WILLIAM: I know the truth can only come from my father, a man I’ve only seen in my visions, but who I already know I hate…
How do you end The X-Files? This is a question fans have been asking themselves for quarter of a century, ever since Chris Carter’s show premiered in 1993 on the FOX network and helped define popular culture across the entire decade. ‘My Struggle IV’ proves, without any shadow of a doubt, that the truth is you don’t. The X-Files is a phenomenon that will never truly come to a close.
Season 11 of The X-Files has been overshadowed, to some degree, by Gillian Anderson’s announcement last October—with several months of shooting left to go—that this was her final go around playing FBI agent Dana Scully, the role she will be immortalised for, as much as David Duchovny will never truly escape her partner, FBI maverick Fox Mulder. Anderson stayed with the original series longer than Duchovny—who jumped ship as a forefront character at the end of the seventh season—so it’s difficult to truly blame her for deciding, after twenty-five years living the part even in the long period she didn’t play her, that Anderson wanted an end for Scully. The revival series, which arrived in 2016 on the trail of a nostalgic comeback tour for various TV shows which were iconic in the days before streaming and cable changed the paradigm of television, was one millions of fans hoped would provide some sense of closure.
The end of the original series, Season 9’s ‘The Truth’, came as a disappointment to many fans at the time. Contextualising a mythology many had (falsely) claimed made no sense, and reintroducing the long-absent Mulder, made what fans hoped was a climactic thrill ride for the alien mythology more like a clip show, with an ending that reflected the ‘Pilot’ but left Mulder & Scully in nebulous waters; were they fugitives? Were they out of the FBI? Were the X-Files shut down? What about Agents Doggett & Reyes, who had taken over the department and failed conceptually to replace the dynamic duo we had followed for seven seasons together? Were the aliens still about to invade? So many questions were left unanswered, far more indeed than ‘My Struggle IV’ has left unanswered – and this latest attempt at a finale is, in all honesty, no real *finale* at all.
MULDER: I’ve always wondered how this was gonna end.
Originally the eighth episode in the ten hour run of The X-Files’ eleventh and almost certainly last season, ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ was switched around with last weeks ‘Familiar’ and you can understand the decision. Karen Nielsen’s script has an undulating sense of finality about it, as if Agents Mulder & Scully know the end of their journey is in sight.
We have, of course, been here before, more than once. Season Five cheekily concluded with ‘The End’, ’Requiem’ at the end of Season Seven was mooted as being the final episode to segue into a cinematic franchise for the show, before eventually Season Nine’s ‘The Truth’ brought back an absent David Duchovny and proved to be a hugely divisive (even to this day) mixed bag of a *series* finale. That was back in the age when a series, certainly in American television, concluded without any real chance of reprisal. British TV has long had a tradition of ending a show and then reviving the property years down the line, but American TV didn’t tend to do it until the advent of streaming services and the full embrace of digital TiVo changed the paradigm of how we digested television. The X-Files itself is proof that while nothing lasts forever, where beloved properties are concerned, we should, to borrow another phrase, never say never again.
Nonetheless, Season Eleven does, at this stage, appear to be the final curtain. ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ therefore, should that be the case, will go down in X-Files history as the last ever standalone episode. I’ve discussed the importance of the standalone story versus the ongoing mythology in previous pieces—indeed in last week’s ‘Familiar’ I touched on the subject—but to fans the difference has more sharply moved into focus with the revival series. Arguably, many felt we simply didn’t have enough episodes where Mulder & Scully investigated strange goings on across the American landscape, and episodes such as ‘Plus One’, ‘Familiar’ and here ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ have worked hard to remedy that. ‘Familiar’ goes the furthest to position itself akin to a historical episode of the original run of the series, but ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ stands out as a stranger brew than anything else the entire revival run over both seasons has yet given us.
“It’s not me! It’s the world! The world has gone mad!”
There have been several back and forth opinions regarding the latest season of TheX-Files as to whether or not the show has too often tried to layer its fantastical stories with too much overt American political commentary. ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ will definitively put that argument to bed – not only is Season 11 now almost certainly going to be the final run of this iconic show, Darin Morgan’s comedic entry is a pointed response to the Trump, Fake News, Post-Truth era. It is also, as you may expect from the man, a minor work of brilliance.
Darin Morgan’s comedy episodes have become their own sub-genre within The X-Files since very early on in the second and third seasons, delivering gems such as ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’ or ‘Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space”, episodes which took the essential concept of Chris Carter’s series–two FBI agents investigate the paranormal–and inverted it into a comedic romp filled with one-liners, flashback gags and histrionic, heightened levels of reality. Some have argued The X-Files was so successful precisely because each writer brought a different canonical sensibility to the series – Carter’s arch grasp of symbolic theme, Glen Morgan & James Wong’s fusion of pulp and thriller stylistics, or Vince Gilligan’s blue-collar horror tales, but Darin Morgan’s stand out the most for being almost non-canonical, a pocket universe of wry, format-breaking, ‘meta’ stories which shine an alternative light on The X-Files and prove, without a shadow of a doubt, it has a remarkable elasticity of tone.
SCULLY: “This is a mass phenomenon!”
MULDER: “Which is why you and I are gonna jump on I-95 south this morning and get back to our bread & butter…”
Bread and butter indeed. There is a strong argument brewing that ‘Plus One’, the third episode of The X-Files’ eleventh season, is the purest example of a ‘classic’ X-File since the year 2000.
I’ve discussed previously how we need to start thinking of the first nine seasons of The X-Files the way we do 1960’s Star Trek, as the ‘classic’ series of the show. The revival seasons have proven The X-Files, in order to adapt to an evolving and changing television landscape, has found for better or worse (and fandom are strictly divided as to the answer) the need to reinvent itself, to some degree. Season 10 was filled with episodes which reconceived the series’ legendary ‘mytharc’, indulged in the nostalgia of the show’s comedy episodes, and fused both ‘monster of the week’ stories with character journeys for Mulder and Dana Scully, alongside a bizarre experimental piece from creator Chris Carter. Not one of those episodes, truly, felt like the ‘classic’ series.
‘Plus One’ is the first episode since the show returned to buck that trend. Season premiere ‘My Struggle III’ bravely took the mythology to controversial new places and ‘This’, Glen Morgan’s follow up, pitched Mulder & Scully in the middle of a breakneck Hitchcockian conspiracy thriller with shades of that same mytharc. ‘This’ had plenty of touches to please any ‘classic series’ fan but equally engaged in action stylistics and storytelling choices which kept it firmly in the realm of ‘revival series’. You can see why Carter would have wanted to write ‘Plus One’, because for the first time in years he has the space, breathing room and position to create a true ‘monster of the week’ tale, even if that term can sometimes be used too broadly. ‘Plus One’ doesn’t have a Tooms or a Pusher or even a Rob Roberts. Yet at the same time it’s the most standalone piece The X-Files has given us in a long time.