Yes, the premiere of the new X-Files is awful (airing January 24th). It received terrible reviews in the past couple of days, and it largely deserved them, as a dull, exposition-filled, politically-incoherent, dramatically-inert beginning to the new six-episode season. I cannot stress enough how poor an introduction it is; it manages to take David Duchovny and Joel McHale, two of the most charismatic TV actors of the past few decades, and make them boring with one another — and then make Gillian Anderson even worse. It’s monumentally misguided.
But there was always hope for the rest of the season, for one simple reason: Chris Carter seems to always do this with season premieres. Even at its best, The X-Files liked to drop narration-heavy premieres on fans. Its third season — its best — started with an eye-rollingly problematic collection of Native Americans healing Agent Mulder and spouting cliched New Age philosophy. Its fifth season began with a bunch of narration about how everything the agents (and fans) knew was wrong over b-roll of Mulder walking through a file warehouse. It’s normal for these to be bad.
The test was always what was going to happen in the other episodes, but the real test, the one that fans would have been salivating over, is this: is the Darin Morgan episode good? Fox released the second and third episodes (scheduled for January 25th and February 1st) of the season to critics after the negative reviews dropped, and the third, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” is that episode. And yes, it is damn good.
Why is Darin Morgan such a big deal, though? The man only wrote four X-Files episodes (and two Millennium episodes). But those four episodes were arguably the most influential for the series, itself one of the most influential shows leading into the “Golden Age” of modern television.
Morgan made two crucial additions to The X-Files: he made it funny, and he made Scully an equal partner to Mulder at an emotional level. And, perhaps most importantly, he made all four of his episodes utterly fantastic.
Comedy is baked so much into the concept of The X-Files that it’s difficult to remember that it was relatively rare in the series’ first two seasons. Yet David Duchovny is a great comic actor, and Gillian Anderson is an especially good straight woman (“Her name is Bambi?”)
So there were always comic moments, but Morgan accented them: hitting the ridiculous in “Humbug,” then highlighting the quiet absurdity of Mulder’s quest in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” going full-on comedy in “War of the Coprophages,” and finally devastatingly, but lovingly, satirizing the series itself in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” Talk to an X-Files fan and chances are pretty good that one of these is their favorite episode (mine is “Coprophages”) because they successfully intertwine the serious aspects that made the series great with a fantastic sense of irony.
“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” captures that feeling well, especially in its first half. The episode makes superb use of classic X-Files references, but also combines that with its own sense of humor and actor/superfan Kumail Nanjiani, host of The X-Files Files podcast. It declines a little in the second half, overwhelmed by a too-cute, too-long storytelling monologue and a dubious, but probably well-intentioned, discussion of transgender issues. But compared with the dismal first episode and the pretty good, but too-serious, second episode, “Were-Monster” is a marvel of comic energy.
Morgan’s adjustment of how The X-Files viewed its second main character, Dana Scully, proved even more long-lasting and influential. In the first two seasons, Mulder is the main character, and Scully is his foil — she is an obstacle that must be overcome in order for his to follow his quest to find the truth. But in Morgan’s episodes, Scully is an equal partner, as in “Coprophages” when she serves as Mulder’s sense of wisdom from afar before joining him for the final leg of his journey. Or in “Clyde Bruckman,” where Scully’s senses of skepticism and curiosity make her the main character, with Mulder’s belief in whatever ridiculous happenstance is near is actually treated as properly ridiculous.
Scully’s portrayal in Morgan’s episodes (and, above, a scene he wrote in the Season 3 episode “Quagmire”) quickly became the default mode for the show: Her personality and her journey were given equal priority, leading into the most creatively fruitful era of the show, Seasons 3-5. And, to be honest, one of the most disappointing aspects of that awful season premiere is how inert Scully is and how she’s given little more to do than run tests. The second episode grants her some agency, but there’s no fire there, and little chemistry between the show’s two leads. “Were-Monster” fixes that in a hurry, with the two stars instantly falling back into hilarious old patterns.
But what makes the third episode of the season so special is that it redeems Mulder’s character in the way that Morgan’s original episodes redeemed Scully. Once cast as a clown, it became difficult to see Mulder as anything else, and The X-Files struggled with making his personal, Ahab-like quest relevant and intense once Morgan had punctured its mystique. Not that Scully is treated poorly in “Were-Monster” — she gets some brilliant scenes — but the crucially sympathetic scenes are Mulder’s/Duchovny���s. A monologue where he analyzes and predicts the story of the episode is both a genius comic turn on its own and a demonstration of how much Mulder has grown as a character since his dangerously obsessive beginnings.
Before The X-Files revamp, if you’d told me that there was going to be a Darin Morgan episode as one of the six, I’d likely have said “The rest of the season is whatever, as long as this one is good, it will have been worth it.” And it is good — not quite the medium-reshaping levels of great of his original episodes, but it’s damn good. So The X-Files reboot is worth it, at least at that level. And that’s a damn relief.