Once again, there is a brand-new season of The X-Files on our TV screens. FOX debuted the 11th season of the popular series in January of this year, giving us the return of Mulder and Scully for further adventures with monsters and aliens and government conspiracies. This is the second season of the brand-new revival that brought back the cast, including David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as Agents Mulder and Scully, for the first time on television since the show ended originally in 2002, and for the first time since the second feature film was released in 2008.
Reactions to the revival series have been mixed, to say the least. Many longtime fans have criticized its first outing last year as either boring or nonsensical, or focusing either too hard or not enough on the continued issue of alien conspiracy, depending on your personal preference. This latest outing, meanwhile, has been widely criticized for falling back into old tropes, abusing Dana Scully further after the character suffered so much of the same during the show's original nine seasons.
But even as we continue to debate the merits and issues inherent in these latest two seasons, I feel it is my duty -- nay, my responsibility -- to shift focus to the last time The X-Files shook things up. I am here to voice the unpopular opinion that, despite what you may have been led to believe, the final two seasons of the show's original run back in the early '00s, Seasons 8 and 9, were not all that bad. In fact, you might even say they were sometimes pretty damn good.
Who needs Mulder, anyway?
Seasons 8 and 9 of The X-Files are probably best known to audiences as the ones without Fox Mulder. At the end of Season 7, David Duchovny decided to leave the show, at least for a while, and so Mulder was abducted by aliens (or, at least, that's what we were led to believe) in the final moments of the seventh season finale, leaving a pregnant Scully behind to continue the mission.
Up until this point, The X-Files had largely been a show about Fox Mulder. He was the believer, the driving force behind their weekly investigations into the bizarre and unexplained. But while Mulder may have been the de facto protagonist, Dana Scully had long been the emotional and intellectual core of the series. Through the previous seven seasons, we had seen Mulder's journey to uncover what had really happened to his sister decades before, and his drive to prove the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, but it was Scully who had gone on a journey with the audience. She was the one who had started out on this adventure as a skeptic and who had been the voice and conscience of the audience throughout her tenure. Scully was the one who slowly built up a series of experiences and evidence that helped to turn her from full-on skeptic to reluctant believer.
Seasons 8 and 9 allowed the show to take Scully's journey to the next step, positioning her as the believer in her new relationship with Agent Doggett. Now she had to be the one to entertain the crazy theories and to offer explanations for the things they encountered, which she may never have done if Mulder were still there. In many ways, detaching herself from Mulder allowed Scully, and therefore the audience, to explore her true thoughts and feelings on the subject of the paranormal without her former partner whispering in her ear.
A new dynamic
Speaking of Agent Doggett, the final two seasons of The X-Files also allowed the show to explore a whole new partner dynamic between him and Agent Scully (and eventually, between him and Agent Reyes). Doggett was certainly a skeptic, but in a very different way than Scully had been for the seven years previous. Scully now had to serve as the believer, the one in the partnership to suggest maybe it was a werewolf or a ghost or an alien -- and she did so from a scientific perspective, calling on years of experience with strange and unexplained phenomena. While Doggett never would have suggested that perhaps they were trapped in a dollhouse or being haunted by the ghost of a pissed-off child, he wasn't as quick to disregard those explanations as Scully was when she'd been in his shoes. Scully was a scientist. Doggett was a cop, and though he may not have liked the idea of supernatural creatures or aliens, he also wasn't about to dismiss it out of hand if it meant they could save lives.
The Doggett/Scully partnership is a very different animal than the Mulder/Scully one, and that's probably the best thing about it. Seven seasons is a lot of pressure to put on a television relationship, especially one as intense as Mulder and Scully, and after all that time it's a nice reprieve to watch two agents mostly just work together. The deepest the Scully and Doggett relationship ever gets to be is on the level of good friends, or maybe a bit of a big-brother-and-little-sister vibe. Gone is the weight of every interaction, the desperate searching for subtext, and the endless debates with other fans about whether the relationship is or should be platonic. With the arrival of Season 8, we got to go back to the early seasons of The X-Files and just watch two agents solve crimes with mutual respect and some lively debate about monsters.
Speaking of mutual respect, any Scully fan has to admit to feeling at least a little better about the way Doggett treated his partner. While Mulder may be a great agent and an awesome dude, it's hard to watch the show and not feel a little bothered by the way he always treated Scully. Mulder was not very nice to her, often berating her for her refusal to accept his insane theories, belittling her own beliefs when they didn't match up with his own, and frequently gaslighting her when she came to him with concerns. Doggett never really did any of those things. He may have started out his relationship with Scully as an antagonist, but he always respected her as an agent and as a person.
Different doesn't mean worse
Season 8, the first mostly Mulder-less season of The X-Files, has always been harshly criticized, but fans of the show are much more willing to give it a pass over the one that would follow. For most fans, Season 9, which features even less Mulder than Season 8 -- and notably less Scully -- is often dismissed as outright bad. While I will give you that Season 9 is a very different show than the one we had come to love in previous years, the content of that show wasn't bad. It was just not The X-Files.
The X-Files is not the only show that has this problem. An immediate comparison would be the final season of Fringe, another FOX show about the paranormal that went a little off the rails in its final year. In both cases, it wasn't that the final season wasn't full of good stories. It was that those stories starred characters other than the ones we had been watching for years, the characters we knew and cared about.
In terms of The X-Files those characters were Agents Doggett and Reyes, two people who were notably not Mulder and Scully. We didn't really know these characters, and it felt very much like following their stories was a distraction from the one we were used to or looking forward to in the final season of a long-running series. If we had encountered the ongoing adventures of Doggett and Reyes as an X-Files spinoff instead, rather than as the final season of the show, it would have been much better received. By the same token, if those same episodes had instead starred Mulder and Scully, they would have been seen as perhaps no worse than anything else we'd seen since the show's fifth season.
Think what you will about whether the series should have continued without David Duchovny, or even if it should have been canceled with the fifth season, as was originally planned, but let's stop pretending the final two seasons of the show are bad. Seasons 8 and 9 are not bad. They're just not The X-Files.