When season ten of The X-Files was announced, I was ecstatic. The X-Files was one of the few shows that I watched from series premiere to series finale. I absolutely identified as an x-phile and the fandom was a very, uh, educational place to be in the late 90s. So, like a dedicated fan, I came back for season ten. While I loved seeing my favorites back on the screen playing the characters who meant so much to me, for some reason it felt like it didn’t have the magic of The X-Files. It had all the components of what should have made it great, and yet, somehow, it still felt like a disappointment.
It’s too early to call season eleven a success, especially since we have yet to see the episodes penned by the season’s new writers (including the three women added at the last minute), but at the same time, the first four episodes have been a marked departure from season ten. Season eleven is what I wish season ten had been. Every episode brings back some aspect of what was great about the original X-Files, and while all of these episodes are timely in the sense that they are clearly set in 2018 and not 1998, they also have a timelessness that makes them feel like they could have been episodes of the original show. The strangest part of this mystery is that the episodes that have aired and have been fantastic are written by Chris Carter, Darin Morgan, and Glen Morgan—all of whom were also involved in season ten.
So how have they made this season of the revival the best revival ever? From where I’m sitting, it’s all about two things: 1) Refocusing on season eleven as a collection of episodes rather than one narrative broken up across several episodes; and 2) Remembering that those episodes need to serve a purpose—and that purpose is not necessarily narrative. When people talk about fan service, it’s usually in a derogatory sense, with the implication that creators did what “the fans wanted” instead of staying true to their “vision.” Season eleven is a perfect distillation of an X-Files season, and in that way, it’s a kind of structural fan service that is beyond anything I’ve seen in a revival before.
So what exactly did they do?
- Reduced the number of mythology episodes to two. Just like the longer seasons, the mythology is limited to being the focus only in the premiere and the finale, with mythology elements threaded throughout the season in subtle ways.
- Got rid of the other FBI agents we don’t care about, like Monica Reyes, John Doggett, Nu!Mulder and Nu!Scully. I know they have names, but I don’t even care enough to go look them up, which probably tells you a lot about how successful they were in getting me invested in them in season ten.
- Put Mulder and Scully back on the X-Files. Why they’re on the X-Files is not exactly explained but does that matter? Does anyone care? Of course not.
- Reunited Mulder, Scully, and Skinner right away. Not only is Skinner back, starting with the very first episode, but he seems to be reprising his role as their supervisor even if he’s not really their supervisor. Is it logical? Probably not, but again, who cares?
- Went back to the monster-of-the-week episode structure. One of the best strengths of The X-Files was the blending of genre and procedural. It’s paranormal Law & Order. You get your mystery (that usually involves deaths) and a side order of character development and it is deeply satisfying.
- Structured each episode as a Tropes Sampler. I could write a whole article just about the tropes that are found in The X-Files, but I’m just going to focus on the ones I’ve picked up on so far that they’re reprising here: Corporate and Government Conspiracy (“This”), Fan Fave Guest Stars (“This”), Mindfuckery (“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”), Genre Meta-Awareness (“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”), Psychic Powers Are Scary (“Plus One”), Antagonists Attracted to Mulder and/Or Scully (“Plus One”), and throughout it all, Understated Mulder and Scully Relationshippy Goodness. I know that’s not a word but I don’t care. It’s a feeling. It’s like the narrative description equivalent of “mouth feel.”
It’s the last point that I feel is the real key to season eleven’s success thus far. Not only are we experiencing familiar tropes from past X-Files episodes, we’re getting several tropes in a single episode. Is this too much of a good thing? I don’t think so. I only hope that the episodes left to come share this same sense of familiarity. These episodes are familiar and new at the same time, wrapped in affection for the nostalgia that made the show so enjoyable to begin with. There’s a scene at the end of “The Lost Art Forehead Sweat” where Scully decides she would rather keep her nostalgia for her favorite childhood dessert intact than chance it being ruined by eating it again, which is, of course, a brilliant and subtle reference to fans and The X-Files revival itself (and revivals in general). Sometimes I feel the same way, but this time, it’s different. Carter and the other writers have finally figured out how fans can have their nostalgia cake and eat it too.