Advice for Ryan Coogler’s New X-Files
It Can Be Done Without Mulder And Scully…But There are Certain Things That Must Be Done
For several months there have been hints throughout the net that a new version of The X-Files is in the works. Gillian Anderson made it clear after the last revival she was done with the role of Dana Scully; David Duchovny said he was not entirely opposed to reprising the role of Mulder.
Finally this week Chris Carter gave us the big news. He told us that The X-Files was coming back but that neither Duchovny nor Anderson would be connected with it. It has also been leaked that the creative force behind it will be Ryan Coogler, the visionary mind that brought us the critically acclaimed blockbusters Creed and Black Panther, both of which have earned multiple Academy Awards nominations and wins the last few years.
Let’s get the first part out of the way. For those of you who are automatically saying: “How dare they try to do the X-Files without Mulder and Scully?” It’s worth noting that on at least three separate occasions — twice during the original run; once in the revival — Chris Carter and the writers made concentrated attempts to actually do so and in one key example followed through for two seasons.
In Season 5 just prior to the release of the first X-Files movie, Carter introduced the character of Jeffrey Spender, played by Chris Owens. Owens had made guest appearances the previous season as a younger version of the iconic Cigarette Smoking-Man, so it didn’t come as much of a shock that it was revealed he was his son. Jeffrey Spender quickly became a much loathed character because he hated everything Mulder believed in, though based on what we learned about his character, that’s understandable. After the X-Files began Season 6, Jeffrey Spender and the equally loathed Diana Fowley (Mimi Rogers) were assigned to the X-Files basically as cat’s paws to the Syndicate. Jeffrey Spender spent most of the sixth season essentially being hated by fans until the critical two-parter when he learned the full truth of his connection to the conspiracy that his father had been a part of for half a century and chose to betray his father. At the end of that two-parter, he told the leadership of the Bureau that they should do everything in their power to get Mulder and Scully back on the X-Files. But just as his character finally realized it’s potential, Chris Carter decided to have his father kill him off. Well, they didn’t actually kill him off, this was The X-Files, after all, but after this point Owens was no longer a factor in the series.
The more direct attempt at replacement was done out of necessity at the end of Season Seven when David Duchovny’s contract was up and the series decided to continue anyway. Mulder’s character was abducted by aliens and the man charged with searching him out was John Doggett, exceptionally well played by Robert Patrick. Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, Doggett’s energy brought something that had been missing from the show for at least two seasons and after he was reassigned to the X-Files his back and forth with Scully, now a reluctant believer, helped keep the series. Halfway through the season, we met Monica Reyes, played by Annabeth Gish. Reyes’ character grated on fans more in Season 8 but with the departure of Duchovny imminent, there was a clear way to move forward.
While Season 9 was basically a disaster that ended up leading to the series cancellation, in retrospect the problems had nothing to do with either Doggett or Reyes. Patrick remained superb throughout and while Gish took awhile to find her groove, she gave several performances. Indeed, you could have seen the series working had the show just continued with its Monster-of-the-Week format with Doggett and Reyes going through the country. The larger problem was that even though Duchovny was gone, the series continued to focus on Mulder even though his character left (there was never a good explanation why) and because Gillian Anderson was still around, Scully’s character suffered immensely by comparison. By far the biggest problem was the fact the series was still stuck on the idea of the mythology which by this point bore no resemblance to anything the series had spent the last eight years dealing with but the show was still insisting was connected to the larger plot. Those factors, along with understandable nostalgia for Mulder and Scully, ended up driving the series towards cancellation.
The last true hint at another set of investigators came in one of the episodes of the revival in 2016. In the episode Babylon Mulder and Scully met agents Miller (Robbie Amell) and Einstein (Lauren Ambrose), two characters who were clearly meant to be younger versions of Mulder and Scully, not only based on the clear resemblance of Amell and Ambrose to the agents, but their behavior (Miller was a believer, Einstein a skeptic) and the way they clashed. Some fans did not like them; I was amused and entertained by both performers and characters. The two characters were important factors in the tenth season finale and I honestly thought they might be the future of the series. But when the show returned in 2018, both characters (along with what we had seen in the season finale) was cast aside.
So there is precedent for a new team of investigators for the new version of The X-Files. And as those reactionaries who will say: “What if they turn out to be, gasp, African-American or other minorities?!” I’d say, why not? There were many problems with the X-Files over the years, and one of the more obvious was the clear lack of minority representation involving all the regulars in what amounted to eleven seasons over 25 years: the only two African-American semi-regulars we had were Steven Williams’ X, who was killed of in the Season 4 premiere, and James Pickens Alvin Kersh, whose only purpose in his entire run was to prove someone everybody should hate mindlessly. All the other female regulars, with the exception of Reyes, were viewed negatively because they were always paired with Mulder, and as we know, the shippers revolted. (It didn’t help the writers purposely made them one-dimensional.)
As an expert of The X-Files (I will continue my series of articles on it later next month) I think I am uniquely qualified to discuss what Coogler and whichever writers he recruits for this venture should definitely do and avoid like the black oil. So here are some hints that I think might make this new revival of the X-Files a better series.
We Can’t Just Have Two Leads: It’s kind of remarkable that for most of the run of the X-Files, the only names in the opening credits were Duchovny and Anderson’s. That was fundamentally more a habit tied to 1980s crime dramas than anything else at the time, most of which had three or four regulars at most. I have to tell you as great as Duchovny and Anderson were during the series, a lot of the time the fact they were the only leads hurt the series credibility. The most obvious example came during Season Four when Scully contracted what was supposedly terminal cancer. As extraordinarily gripping as that storyline was, it required a major suspension of disbelief because the viewer could not accept that one of the two leads would be killed off. (It didn’t help matters that the shooting of the first X-Files film was announced at the end of Season 4.)
So if Coogler wants to separate his X-Files from Carters, it might help if he created a division or department in the Bureau, a la NCIS or Criminal Minds. Not only would this allow the series to have more diversity in the cast, but it would also fit in more with the general milieu of today’s television where no one is safe, something that was never entirely easy to believe as the original X-Files ran on, and Mulder and Scully kept surviving but everyone around them died. It would also get rid one of the bigger problems that no one on the series could ever justify: why Mulder was never killed off if he was ever that much of a threat. In that sense, a regular being killed off in Season 1 (something almost expected in Peak TV today) would actually be fitting with the original’s mood: it would make very clear just how dangerous it was to get to the truth. That being said…
The Mythology Must Be Handled More Carefully: Honestly, it’s hard to imagine Coogler doing a worse job than Carter with the show’s backstory: it probably came as a shock to no one that Carter never had an overarching plan for the series mythology, and essentially was making it up as he went along. Still the fact that the mythology kept seeming like it was going to make sense and every season the writers either moved laterally or kept building an increasingly shaky house of cards pretty much damaged a lot of credibility the series ever had about the mythology: at a certain points most fans loved the show more for its ‘monsters of the week’ episodes and dreaded the mythology.
I’m not necessarily saying that Coogler has to design an X-Files with no mytharc. Admittedly that might give his series more of a wrinkle these days now that every show that comes out seems to be serialized (and let’s not kid ourselves, fewer people would be disappointed when it didn’t pay off) But if you’re going to do a mytharc, you have to do it better. And here are a couple of suggestions as to how to make it work.
Make the Most Interesting Monsters Human: Among the many problems with the alien mythology (I’ll get to some of the bigger ones below) was that in many ways, aliens are behind it all and they’re coming to take over the world is the most obvious one, which makes it, in the world of The X-Files, the least interesting explanation. While many fans are in disagreement as to exactly when the mythology went off the rails, there is universal agreement as to when they were sure it still might make sense. That was in Season Three when Carter and his writers decided to do one of the most daring things on network television, particularly for a show like The X-Files.
They opened the series making the blatant suggestion that there was no such thing as an alien conspiracy but rather that it was cover for something more banal and worse: that the government had spent half a century using alien abduction to run experiments on human beings. The men who did this were Axis scientists, both Nazis and Japanese recruited from America after World War II to help win the Cold War. Indeed, the most satisfying mytharc episodes may be Nisei-731 in which Scully’s abduction has been linked not to aliens but to a Japanese scientist who has abducted a group of women who will eventually all die of cancer. (They tell us as much when we first meet them and the series follows through on this.) Perhaps the most shocking moment in the entire series comes when we see what a concentration camp in Virginia is basically where the military is executed hundreds, if not thousands of lepers. At one point Scully actually tells Mulder: “There is no such thing as an alien abduction.”
If the series had been willing to follow on this arc, The X-Files would have been a different show but perhaps a more daring, darker and brilliant one. Every so often in the next couple of seasons Carter and his writers would occasionally try to make this argument. But during the third season, Carter introduced the black oil and made it impossible to deny alien existence going forward. He just couldn’t let it go and the series went downhill.
Given what we know about our government these days and keep learning, it honestly might be more interesting for this new X-Files division to track down government conspiracies and find rather than some kind of supernatural monster at the core, something far more evil and sinister at the center: how depraved man can be. In fact, this actually brings me to another point that might help the series:
Let There Be A Logical Explanation to the Monsters The Division Chases:
As wonderful as the Mulder-Scully dynamic was to watch over seven season, at a certain point the formula of Mulder’s supernatural explanation always being right over Scully’s realistic one became a little tiresome. Not just because Scully generally looked more foolish when she kept sticking to the realistic one week after week, year after year but because it’s kind of dull when you always know that at the end of the day Mulder’s going to be right. Yes we all want monsters to be real, but it might have been nice to occasionally find out that the ghost actually haunting the amusement park was an actual human being?
Indeed that’s where the mythology may have fallen down. For the first three seasons, there was a logical explanation as to why almost everything involving aliens had happened. After the black oil was introduced, it really like seemed like Carter and his writers were doing everything in their power to make sure Scully never saw aliens. (This was particularly blatant when Season 6 began when Scully had been rescued by Mulder from an alien spaceship but refused to verify Mulder’s account of it to an FBI Board. No fan of the series has ever liked that particular turn of events.)
So let the skeptic (whoever it is) be right everything so often. Maybe a third of the time, maybe just a quarter. Honestly it would be more fitting with how TV works these days by going against the formula. I’m not necessarily saying they don’t have to be aliens to be sure, but actually that brings me to what may be a more interesting point.
The New X-Files Needs More Interesting Aliens: For a series that argued that the aliens had begun to colonize, we really didn’t see a lot of them. Part of this was because of the idea that they were all either clones or ‘alien-human hybrids’ or ‘super-soldiers’ (boy I got tired of hearing those last two phrases over and over) but there were never that many. I think at the end of the day, there were maybe two different aliens and one was just called ‘the Alien Bounty Hunter.’ We saw what amounted to ‘faceless rebels’ but I have to tell you they all might as well have been Brian Thompson who played the Bounty Hunter.
I realize that so much of The X-Files was about never get backstories to any of the supernatural, and that was basically fine for the Monsters-of-the-Week. It’s kind of annoying that we essentially never got any for the aliens that were at the center of this colonization and invasion plot (where the date kept getting pushed back and never eventually happened, but that’s another story) Maybe the writers didn’t think it mattered what planet the aliens came from and maybe it doesn’t. But they should have done better than “aliens coming from planet to planet to colonize’ which by the time we learned that was essentially the plot of Independence Day.
Indeed, if we’re going to have aliens, here’s a novel idea: Make the aliens the good guys who the government is trying to hunt down. There is precedent for this. At the end of Season Three we met Jeremiah Smith, who performed what amounted to a miracle at a mass shooting, seemed to be essential the conspiracy because he ‘no longer believed in the greater purpose’. His character had enormous potential, so naturally he was killed of in the next episode, sort of reappeared four years later and basically had no pertinence having to do with the overarching story. The next alien rebels we met didn’t believe in the greater purpose either, but their solution seemed to be burning everybody, innocent or guilty, alive. The writers dumped that storyline too.
It might actually be more interesting for aliens to be part of The X-Files but not part of any vast government conspiracy. Hell, maybe some of them could be from different planets and therefore being different in their forms. (Essentially the Bounty Hunter and Jeremiah Smith basically appeared to be variations on the same species.) Maybe some of them know each other; maybe some of them don’t.
And hell, if we’re going to have to whole shape-shifting thing; here’s something that would be fitting in with the entire original story: make one of those aliens part of the investigators. Maybe he’s part of the conspiracy; maybe he’s a double agent, maybe he gets persuaded through the arc of the series. All of these would be far more interesting ideas than the original X-Files ever did with its aliens.
That Said, Remember The Past: A couple of the more interesting X-Files episodes came when we followed the story of Arthur Dales (memorably played by Darren McGavin) who in his own way led Mulder to the X-Files and got a glimpse of the original conspiracy as far back in the days of HUAC. It was originally intended to do more episodes like that but McGavin suffered a stroke in 1999 and could not make any future appearances.
Perhaps we could get sense of the past by doing flashback episodes to the original conspiracy. Maybe see how the original syndicate was founded, show us the relationship between the Mulder family and the Spender family as well as telling us just how all of this came to be. This might have done better to be its own its series, but it might not be the worst idea to visit occasionally. It also might resolve the issue of the absence of Mulder and Scully going forward. (Though who knows: maybe after enough time Anderson and Duchovny can be convinced to make cameos every so often.)
Perhaps Most Important, Get Good Writers: I’ll be honest it was not so much the return of The X-Files that made me tune in to the revival series; it was the return of Darin Morgan to the writer’s room that made me think it was worth it. It also helped that Darin’s brother Glen and his partner James Wong were back for the run.
I’m all for Coogler wanting to make his own path with a new X-Files but it wouldn’t hurt to try and get any of these three talents to come back for an episode or two. Maybe see if you can haul in Frank Spotnitz. (I think there’s a good chance Howard Gordon and Vince Gilligan are just going to be too busy to assist; they justifiably were for each revival of the series. Still you never know.)
Is the X-Files superfluous in an age when conspiracy theories are mainstream? I’d argue it isn’t. If anything I think the world would be a better place if there was another division for the FBI’s Most Unwanted following in the footsteps of Mulder and Scully. The Truth is Still Out There, and we need new people to find it.