A while back, I wrote about the often troubled journey of turning an ongoing television show into a movie (i.e. same/cast and crew, not a complete reboot like The Flintstones or Mission: Impossible) and the two primary approaches the film can take: Exaggerated Episode and Continuation. Last week, it was announced that The X-Files would be returning to FOX for a 6-episode limited series run overseen by creator Chris Carter. One of the most popular shows of the 1990’s not starring Craig T. Nelson, The X-Files tried for big screen glory twice and “failed” each time. In recognition of the imminent return of Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, let’s take a brief look at their big screen adventures, and why they didn’t arrest audiences.
Airing from 1993 until 2002, The X-Files attempted both the Exaggerated Episode (a movie that functions as a larger version of a traditional episode) and the Continuation (a movie that takes the story and the characters into new and different directions) approaches when hitting the silver screen. Surprisingly, it probably adopted the wrong tactic each time.
The first movie, the mid-run The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998) felt more like a Continuation than an Exaggerated Episode because its plot was centered mostly on the ongoing mythology that involved alien invasions, implantation, mysterious black oil, and all the other stuff that we never really got a satisfactory explanation for even after the show ended. However, by focusing so heavily on this nigh-decipherable-by-even-the-most-hardcore-fan aspect of the series, the movie failed to achieve the balance for fans and newcomers that is necessary for the TV-to-Movie venture.
In the series, this ongoing mythology was mostly in the background. Sure, it was exciting for viewers to delude ourselves in believing that there was a plan in place so that we could waste our time coming up with intricate fan theories far more involved than anything to come from the show itself. (And it still is fun, as we’ve learned with Lost and its ilk). But the “mytharc” episodes were a small part of the show. The vast majority of the time, The X-Files was stand-alone episodes. The big reason for the show’s overall success wasn’t its “mythology,” but the chemistry between Mulder and Scully. Their rapport – combined with the neo-noir atmosphere, dark humor, and creative villains – enabled the show to rise above being a standard procedural and become a cultural phenomenon.
Fight the Future unwisely decided to make this relationship secondary, an act which ended up losing less dedicated members of the crowd, as well as genuine fans. Even more damningly, the movie didn’t lead to significant changes within the show or the characters, as a Continuation ought to do. Despite being on an alien ship, Scully remained a skeptic once she made it back to the small screen, which led many to believe the show was going to run in circles (as it eventually did).
Ironically, it was The X-Files: I Want to Believe from 2008 that returned to the Monster-of-the-Week format that comprised the majority of the series. For a second time, the movie was mostly for fans, and for a second time it handled it the wrong way. It was nice seeing Mulder and Scully back in action again, and the movie featured elements that were representative of the show itself rather than from a cliff notes version of the series (e.g. the return of Scully’s religious convictions and crisis of faith); however, it was little more than a decent-if-unexceptional regular episode overall. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but after more than six years since the final episode and no guarantee of it becoming an ongoing film franchise, it was definitely a letdown. Unlike, say, the original Star Trek film franchise, which grew the universe and its characters and constantly presented something bigger than would be possible on television, Believe was the equivalent of something you could easily see on FOX.
In retrospect, Future should have been the Exaggerated Episode – giving fans the show they love on a larger scale while showing mass audiences the chemistry between the leads that made the show such a hit – and Believe should have been the Continuation that followed the larger story after the final episode. Per show canon, the world was to end in 2012, which would have made 2008 a prime year for an epic adventure with Mulder and Scully attempting to stop the apocalypse, not working yet another humdrum case. It didn’t even have a looming sense that the world was five years from destruction.
The X-Files limited series has the potential to remedy the mistakes of its past cinematic endeavors by being the Continuation/Conclusion the show needs and deserves. Despite everything David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have done since, it’s their FBI Special Agents who remain not just their most famous roles, but among TV’s most famous characters. The series itself was a major force in ushering in the “Golden Age” of TV with its deeper storylines, offbeat sensibilities, character ‘shipping, and ability to play towards the then-newfangled Internet community. It encouraged audiences to become smarter and more active viewers, a trend which remains the standard for any show that people care about. And unlike something as enigmatic and involved as Twin Peaks (1990-1991), it welcomed the occasional tourist who could drop in for an episode without needing to know the entire canon.
The limited series itself has seemingly become a more popular alternative than the feature film route for shows looking to return (e.g. 24, Twin Peaks), and for obvious reasons. Television has advanced enough technologically so that many shows look as cinematic as most movies, which gives these series the opportunity to play on a bigger canvass than they were able to even a decade ago. Having multiple episodes to maneuver around provides the writers with more time than a feature could offer to craft an intricate storyline, rather than just film a basic adventure story. Furthermore, without the added concern of box office receipts, this relaunch allows the series to focus on what made it special without needing to become watered down to attract unfamiliar mass audiences. As long as The X-Files limited series utilizes this potential, remembers to cater to the fans without devolving into pandering, and appreciates us as more informed viewers who desire more than simply seeing two actors on screen, I want to believe that it has the capability to finally end the series on a high note.