Despite season eleven of The X-Files having a disappointing and unsatisfying start, it quickly recalibrates and becomes something far more worthy of the show’s legacy
The Show: The X-Files
The Network: FOX
The Genre: Science Fiction
The Challenge: Give a show four episodes with which to draw you in, impress you, challenge you, make you feel something deeply. Four episodes for the chance to find out if you care what happens to the characters you’re watching enough to become invested in the story. If after all that, it does none of those things for you? Then no biggie. You gave it a good shot and you can move on. But if you love it, you’ll be glad you stuck around.
The Premise: The X-Files follows FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as they investigate the paranormal, extraterrestrial, and other strange, unexplained phenomenon. Collectively, these unexplained cases are known as the X-Files. Together, after years of work, Mulder and Scully uncovered a sprawling, worldwide conspiracy headed by the Syndicate, a powerful group of nameless men and women who made an agreement with an advanced alien race to prepare Earth for colonization. Despite the Syndicate being destroyed, one of its former masterminds survived. This man, known only as the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), has his own designs for the future of humanity.
The eleventh season starts immediately where the previous season left off. After contracting the deadly Spartan virus, which is a modified alien pathogen, Mulder was left dying as a UFO appeared above a surprised Scully. In a major twist, the tenth season finale was merely a vision Scully received from her son William, who has alien DNA and superhuman abilities. The season premiere set the stage for Mulder and Scully to prevent the Cigarette Smoking Man’s deadly alien pathogen from being unleashed upon the world and wiping out most of humanity. The key to the future is William. The problem? William’s location is completely unknown.
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Traditionally, episodes of The X-Files have been broken down into two types of episodes: the monster of the week episodes and mythology (or “mytharc”) episodes. The monster of the week episodes usually tell standalone stories. The mythology episodes advance the main story. After years of increasingly complicated and convoluted additions to the mythology of the show, FOX‘s The X-Files entered its eleventh season with far more questions than answers. Due to this sprawling conspiracy, the season premiere had the next to impossible task of making sense of the seemingly endless plot threads of the mytharc while also making it accessible to new viewers and giving it a new focus. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, you’re not far off.
At the center of the new focus in the mytharc is the search for William. William is the key to the Cigarette Smoking Man’s plans for wiping out humanity. This search only enters the very early stages in the first four episodes and for that reason, it’s difficult to know how that will play out over the rest of the season. The real strength of the first four episodes comes from the professional and personal relationships of the two series leads and how they work together to solve cases. The classic Mulder and Scully dynamic is fully back. With the show’s mythology in a somewhat questionable state, are there still enough reasons to tune in to The X-Files every week?
The X-Files mythology: retroactively rewriting subplots and character motivations that had already been retroactively rewritten (wait, what?)
Black oil. Alien bounty hunters. Rebel aliens. Alien super soldiers. Modified smallpox vaccinations. The alien colonization of Earth. The release of a deadly alien pathogen to wipe out humanity. The Syndicate. The New Syndicate. Alien abductions. Mysterious, unexplainable pregnancies. Lost time. UFOs. All of these concepts have been part of The X-Files mythology at one point or another. Some have co-existed with other seemingly contradictory subplots. In other cases, entire subplots have been discarded or written out of the show for a wide variety of reasons. The mytharc has a long, complicated history that started out being based on real UFO, shadow government, and similar conspiracy theories.
As the show progressed over the years, new twists and layers to the conspiracy had to be added to keep the main story moving forward without ever giving viewers all of the answers. Each new layer and twist added to the complexity and coherence of the story arc that was unfolding. Real world issues, such as David Duchovny having a contract dispute with 20th Century Fox, added unforeseen complexities and story requirements. Mulder was abducted and was then later returned once Duchovny and 20th Century Fox settled. Despite season eleven being separate from season ten, it inherited all of the new mythology introduced in season ten.
“It’s the Fourth Turning, Mr. Skinner. Civilization is in its final stages. Alliances are crumbling. Truth is fluid and alterable. The only truth left is it survive it. [Scully and her son will] survive with a select few.”
‒ Cigarette Smoking Man
As such, the mythology of The X-Files has become increasingly incoherent, illogical, and downright contradictory. Some of that can be explained away as Mulder and Scully simply not having all of the right information. The Cigarette Smoking Man and others involved in the Syndicate also have a history of lying and obscuring the truth. But those explanations no longer hold up. Season eleven’s mythology has all of the problems of the later seasons of the series along with the new problems the show’s revival in 2015 created.
The largest and most jarring change to the mytharc is the removal of the alien colonization subplot. The original run of the series spent episode after episode unveiling the elaborate plot of an antagonistic alien race to colonize Earth at the expense of humanity. The human Syndicate was created to help prepare the planet for their arrival in exchange for special perks (such as staying alive). That storyline has been removed by saying that global warming and climate change caused the alien colonists to abandon their plans. The new “true” version of the mythology involves the Cigarette Smoking Man wanting to wipe out most of humanity to pave the way for an elite group of humans.
The alien colonization plot was part of what made The X-Files‘ mytharc unique. Its removal renders much of the story throughout the series irrelevant. The one high point of this change is that the mythology has been consolidated and simplified into a much more focused story. Still, fans of the alien colonization plot will likely be disappointed and/or infuriated by such a casual disregard of a full decade of build-up.
The Scully and Mulder dynamic that defined the series for so much of its run is finally back and stronger than ever
Ever since the premiere of the very first episode of The X-Files way back in 1993, the series has focused primarily on its two main characters, Mulder and Scully. Fox Mulder was portrayed as a “true believer” in the paranormal, alien life, and other unexplained phenomena. Dana Scully, on the other hand, was introduced to balance out Mulder’s easy acceptance of the unexplained. Scully is a medical doctor, scientist, and skeptic. Her worldview is informed by what can be observed through the scientific method. The “believer” and the “skeptic” became central to the series. They not only became strong partners who learned to trust and rely on each other, but also good friends and eventually more than that.
If we fast forward to later seasons in the series, the Mulder and Scully dynamic had to continue shifting and changing out of necessity. When David Duchovny left the series and became an intermittent lead late in the show’s original run, the series had to adapt. It introduced new partners for Scully to balance out Mulder’s absence. Mulder eventually returned but never as a full-time partner for Scully. The reception for those changes was mixed. Season ten reunited the old partners for a limited run of six episodes. The characters were together again but much of the magic of the earlier seasons was missing.
Mulder: “I’m gonna X-File this bran muffin, get to the bottom of why it’s so friggin’ good.”
Scully: “I don’t care if it came out of an alien’s butt. I’m gonna eat the whole thing. Mmmm.”
Where seasons seven, eight, nine, and ten saw major changes to the character dynamic at the center of the show, season eleven is a clear return to the height of the show’s Mulder/Scully relationship. Throughout the first four episodes, Mulder and Scully are repeatedly forced into situations where they need to rely on each other to survive and solve the case of the week. Agents Miller (Robbie Amell) and Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) briefly return but have much more limited roles. Even in the more uneven season premiere, “My Struggle III,” much of that old dynamic returned despite the two characters being separated for large portions of the episode.
But it’s the subsequent episodes where Mulder and Scully really shine through. A wordless look here. An immediate understanding of what’s required to back each other up there. Scully and Mulder have a relaxed, professional, and immediately engrossing relationship. They’ve been through so much at this point in the series that they crack jokes about their hang-ups ‒ Mulder’s deeply ingrained desire to believe in conspiracy theories, Scully’s more analytical and scientific approach. Their limitations complement each other and produce a formidable and entertaining investigative team. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s chemistry and years of experience working together enhance the already rich characters. There’s a restored sense of fun that’s been missing from the series for quite some time. This is The X-Files we remember.
The mythology is carefully woven throughout but it’s the monster of the week episodes that take center stage
While the mythology episodes of The X-Files have historically been a major part of the series and have helped define it, the show is perhaps even more well-known for its monster of the week stories. The mytharc is often referenced or slowly advanced each week, but often times the show will go for several episodes without doing either. Instead, the focus is usually on Mulder and Scully encountering a strange or otherwise unexplained case. Sometimes they receive a tip. Other times they’ll follow up on a case in the X-Files. Many cases go unsolved or present several possible explanations for the strangeness the FBI agents encounter.
The strength of a given season of The X-Files greatly relies on the strength of its standalone episodes. With less than interesting standalone episodes, the series suffers. The revival in 2015 also came with multiple standalone episodes. Despite some of them presenting interesting (“Founder’s Mutation”) or entertaining (“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”) stories, the other half either fell flat (“Home Again”) or outright bombed (“Babylon”). When combined with the convoluted mytharc episodes that did little to advance the story or answer questions, season ten lacked the kind of intriguing stories we had come to expect from the series, which greatly impacted the season overall.
“It was like old friends getting back together. We had to shake some of the stiffness out. […] I think that we’re all in fighting shape now.”
‒ Chris Carter (creator and executive producer)
Season ten revived the series and brought back the monster of the week format the show is known for (along with Mulder and Scully’s teamwork) but season eleven took what the prior season did, polished it, and then perfected it. The second episode of the season, “This,” is connected to the show’s mytharc but the story itself introduced other elements that are usually more fitting for the monster of the week episodes. It raised interesting questions about living on after death in a massive computer simulation and found a creative way to bring Langly (Dean Haglund) back from the dead (sort of).
The third episode, “Plus One,” delved more into the paranormal and supernatural by introducing psychic, mentally ill twins both portrayed by Karin Konoval. Together, the twins are able to cause victims to see and be killed by their doppelgänger (evil double). Finally, the fourth episode, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” is arguably one of the best episodes the series has ever produced. It explores the Mandela effect (collective false memories), paranoia, conspiracies, and directly addresses and comments on the current political climate in the United States all while delivering hilarious dialogue and nonstop references to earlier seasons of the show and other sci-fi shows. It’s all highly entertaining and thought-provoking stuff. With such a varied and strong set of opening episodes, the show feels more like a refined version of its earlier seasons, and that is a really good feeling.
The X-Files has fully embraced the current political climate, the rise of conspiracy theories, and the fluidity of the truth
Conspiracy theories, shadowy clandestine organizations, and obscuring the truth have been at the heart of The X-Files since the very first episode. The show has always fully embraced those types of things. The X-Files has always been right at home when dealing with paranoia and conspiracies. Politics, on the other hand, have rarely been so directly referenced. Fans that are well-versed in the series will likely be able to pinpoint exceptions to this but the show has often been more interested in the conspiracies embedded in many different presidential administrations rather than taking on specific presidents.
Despite not usually taking a direct political stance, The X-Files has always been mistrustful of governments. After all, a global conspiracy wouldn’t function as a storytelling device if the characters could trust their federal employers and others in positions of power. The Syndicate itself was effectively a Deep State embedded in the U.S. government (among others) to push an agenda that directly conflicted with the overall goals of the federal government. Exposing the conspirators and lies pushed by that Deep State has been central to series for 25 years.
Skinner: “I had the director speak with the executive branch, call this off. But the, uh, Bureau’s not in good standing with the White House these days.”
Mulder: “How do ya like that? The FBI finally found out what it’s like to be looked upon as a little spooky.”
Given that history, it shouldn’t be too surprising that season eleven of The X-Files has also fully embraced the current political climate in the United States. With the current White House administration pushing conspiracy theories, attempting to undermine institutions, firing an FBI director, talking about a Deep State undermining their administration, and constantly lying about significant and insignificant things, The X-Files is uniquely positioned to take full advantage of that climate. Mulder and Scully are right at home in that kind of environment. After all, it’s where they’ve lived for almost three decades. That kind of climate also helps fuel the Cigarette Smoking Man’s plans, much to his glee. Thematically, we can’t think of a better show to inject current political trends into.
The X-Files taking on the current political climate is a double-edged sword, however. While most of the episodes have only made passing references to the current White House and the way it’s conducting itself, it’s been a plot point in multiple episodes. “This” found Assistant Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) hitting a roadblock due to the FBI not being in good standing with the White House. “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” dropped all subtlety and had an alien directly quote President Donald Trump while saying that Earth isn’t sending the universe its “best people.” All of this is good material for the show to address but there’s also a big risk of potentially alienating viewers for getting too political in such a hyperpartisan environment. For the most part, politics have served as more of a backdrop for other aspects of the story. Still, the politics are there in the background and may not be well-received by everyone.
Final Verdict: After a shaky season premiere, season eleven of The X-Files almost immediately course corrects and delivers some of the strongest episodes in over a decade
When The X-Files first appeared on FOX almost 25 years ago, it made major waves in the world of television. The series may have eventually become a victim of its own success as its main story became increasingly incoherent as it struggled to continue stringing viewers along past its prime. The series finale, “The Truth,” left many of the core questions at the center of the series unanswered. The show’s revival in 2015 raised even more questions and answered even fewer. So when season eleven was announced, fans had several reasons to be somewhat hesitant to embrace it.
However, season eleven has returned to the series’ roots by focusing heavily on smart and unique standalone episodes. “My Struggle III,” despite retroactively changing major parts of the mythology, does give the series a much cleaner, easier to follow focus that it had desperately been lacking for many years. “This” continued the main story arc but without having to worry about a decade of mythology cluttering things. “Plus One” furthered the monster of the week format and “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” might be one of the most creative tributes to the legacy of the series to date. But at the center of it all are Mulder and Scully, working together with their irresistible chemistry.
Unfortunately, despite the return to form, the initial mythology episode, “My Struggle III,” is a master class in retroactively changing continuity in some of the most frustrating ways possible. The episode is filled with stiff dialogue, rushed monologues to quickly get viewers up to speed, and the discarding of the alien colonization plot, which had been central to the previous ten seasons of the series. It’s a clunky start and not Chris Carter’s best work, to say the least. But it also isn’t his worst.
If we look past the flaws with the season premiere, The X-Files dramatically improves immediately with “This.” Glen Morgan masterfully balances the new phase of the mytharc with a classic Mulder and Scully team up while creatively giving Langly a way to still be relevant. Chris Carter may have had a weak initial installment but he quickly managed to redeem himself with the creepy and highly entertaining “Plus One.” Mulder and Scully are important in that episode, but it’s Karin Konoval who really shines by playing not one but two criminally insane, murdering psychics. Little Judy and Little Chucky are delightfully evil, over-the-top, and downright terrifying.
But those two episodes were just a warm-up for the real masterpiece in the first four episodes: “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.” Darin Morgan has often had a unique approach to storytelling for this show but he outdid himself with the fourth episode. It’s an incredibly difficult episode to describe that deals with truth, paranoia, memory, and is full of little nods to fans. Both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were enormous fun in the episode and Brian Huskey made a highly memorable appearance as the paranoid and (allegedly) mentally ill Reggie.
The season premiere may have left us somewhat unsatisfied and with a bad taste in our mouth but the other offerings early in the season more than make up for those deficiencies. With Gillian Anderson leaving the series, season eleven may end up being the show’s final chapter. If the rest of the season is even half as good as these early installments, season eleven of The X-Files should be an amazing ride and one that’s worthy of the show’s legacy.