Television

We could do a lot of throat-clearing discussion about how much has changed in the world since “The X-Files” debuted in 1993. But for true-blue X-Philes, there’s only one question that matters: Is the new “X-Files” six-episode limited series any good?

The answer is no. And yes.

Sorry to sound evasive. But as FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) learned over the years, there are various kinds of truth out there. Flukemen may be more pitiful than frightening. Aliens may or may not exist. And governments keep secrets for complicated reasons.

In that light, it only makes sense that the new“X-Files” episodes are a mixed bag. So was the show.

At its height, “The X-Files” alternated between overarching “mythology” episodes about Mulder and Scully’s search for proof of aliens and conspiracies to cover them up, and “Monster of the Week” adventures pitting Mulder and Scully against mutants, shape-shifters, and assorted weirdos.

That eclectic, unpredictable variety of tones was a testament to the writers’ playfulness and confidence, as were the occasional comic episodes making fun of Mulder’s wanting to believe, Scully’s “I’m-a-scientist” skepticism, and the low-boil sexual tension between the two back in the good old early days.

As “The X-Files” has been absent from the airwaves since 2002 (let’s go ahead and pretend the second movie in the franchise, 2008’s “The X-Files: I Want to Believe,” never happened), creator Chris Carter had some heavy lifting to do in the new miniseries, which debuts Sunday, Jan. 24.

The first episode must plunge us back into the “X-Files” world, establish elements fans remember, and bring Mulder and Scully together again. Since the last (generally dismal) season of the show blew a lot of that up, “it was quite a tall order,” as Anderson said to journalists at the recent Television Critics Association Winter 2012 press tour.

Though Anderson thinks Carter brought it off, this X-Phile has to disagree. The first episode, titled “My Struggle” (the English translation of Hitler’s manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” which seems strange) starts off well enough. But then things go haywire.

We see that Scully’s still in medicine, and that she and Mulder have broken off their romantic relationship. He’s living in a cabin in the woods, and the old X-Files office in the FBI building’s basement has Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster on the floor amid the dustballs. Does the FBI not employ a janitorial service?

Mulder and Scully are improbably called into service when a conservative talk-show host, Tad O’Malley (guest star Joel McHale, enjoying himself), wants to tap the pair’s expertise in extraterrestrial investigations.

“I’m like you,” O’Malley tells Mulder. “A true believer.”

Mulder, in that distinctive dry, wry tone that Duchovny does so well, responds: “I only want to believe. Actual proof has been strangely hard to come by.”

Duchovny and Anderson’s effortless chemistry reminds us why Mulder and Scully represent one of TV’s all-time great partnerships. Their mutual suspicion of O’Malley, and his limousine lifestyle, speaks volumes about them. Whatever they’ve gone through, and however separate their lives are now, when it matters, they’re still a team.

So far, so good. But then Carter switches into conspiracy-plot mode.  O’Malley has made contact with a woman, Sveta (played by Annet Mahendru, from “The Americans”) who says she’s been the victim of multiple alien abductions.

Once Mulder hears Sveta’s stories about being taken, and he lays eyes on an alien replica vehicle, his seen-it-all sarcasm melts away. In no time at all, he inflates to windbag dimensions, declaring that society has “never been in more danger.”

Instead of his old beliefs that the U.S. government has been hiding the existence of extraterrestrials, Mulder’s now convinced that bad guys have been using alien technology to do everything from raising GMO crops to changing the climate. He stops just short of blaming them for getting Tom Brady to deflate footballs.

The switcheroo from jaded Mulder to Born-Again True Believer Mulder comes so abruptly, it feels like an “X-Files” parody. That only escalates when Duchovny is forced to spew out a brain-clogging litany of just how widespread this conspiracy is – which he seems to figure out in the space of, oh, 15 minutes – and what a menace it is to the world.

Listening with her beautiful expression of patience and exasperation, Scully finally speaks for the audience when she tells Mulder that he’s dishing up “fearmongering claptrap,” topped off with isolationist, techno-paranoia, “so bogus and dangerous and stupid, that it borders on treason.”

But of course, there’s another twist. You know that child that Scully and Mulder had? They mutually agreed to put their son up for adoption, for his own safety. But there may be a secret that threatens his life, which convinces Scully that Mulder’s on the right track.

Though the first episode has plot holes you could drive a UFO through — and that tedious cliché, the expert who drops hints of his secrets, but won’t come right out and tell Mulder what they are — the good news is that, according to Carter, only the first and sixth episodes are heavy on conspiracy mythology.

The second episode, directed and written by “X-Files” veteran James Wong, is a welcome step up from the first. And the third (only three were made available for screening), is a comic horror gem, from one of the show’s best writers, Darin Morgan (who wrote a handful of great episodes, including the classic “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.”)

The six episodes were filmed in Vancouver, B.C., which is also a good thing (the show was never the same after relocating from cloudy Vancouver to blandly sunny Los Angeles following Season 5.) Fans will recognize such “X-Files” veterans as Mitch Pileggi as FBI assistant director Skinner, and William B. Davis as the menacing cigarette-smoking man (who we thought died in the series finale, but oh, well), along with character actors from the original turning up in small roles.

The new “X-Files” episodes may not scale the heights reached by the original show in its terrific first four seasons. And it may feel like TV’s nostalgia wave is exploiting our fondness for favorite shows.

But when Mark Snow’s eerie theme rises, and Duchovny and Anderson play off each other like expert musicians, it’s easy to forgive the new “X-Files” its weak spots. These are old friends who, no matter their flaws, it’s great to see again.

“The X-Files” six-episode miniseries debuts Sunday, Jan. 24 on Fox (12.) It’s scheduled to start at 7 p.m., following the NFC championship game. The series moves to its regular 8 p.m. time slot Monday, Jan. 25.)

— Kristi Turnquist
kturnquist@oregonian.com
503-221-8227
@Kristiturnquist

 

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