The X-Files completed its brief revival run of six new episodes last night. Apart from a standalone film released in 2008, this was the first time its lead characters Dana Scully and Fox Mulder had investigated the paranormal since 2002. The opening and closing episodes directed by series creator Chris Carter attempted to advance the world of the series into the present and acknowledge the differences in conspiracy culture then and now, but the show still leaned heavily on nostalgia, and many episodes were hampered by their need to acknowledge story details from more than a decade earlier.
Fans were elated when The X-Files’ return was announced, most of all because of the full participation of its leads, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, who became less involved in the original series’ final years. Now that the new miniseason has finished, their presence and undiminished chemistry was the most enjoyable aspect of the series and the best argument for its existence.
Which made me miss the days when screen pairs stuck together through multiple projects rather than repeatedly sequelizing a single project. Anderson and Duchovny went on in the intervening years to individually head other TV series, but never again together. Their other projects saw varying levels of success, but never anything like X-Files. The pair weren’t the only thing that made X-Files a hit, but it’s not hard to imagine a new project reteaming them would have been at least as popular and probably more so than their separate work.
The great advantage of long-running screen pairings built around performers rather than characters—think Astaire-Rogers, Hepburn-Tracy, Bogart-Bacall, or Hope-Crosby—was the ability to repeat a pair’s chemistry without getting stuck with old continuity or confined to a single set of writers/directors/showrunners. Those screen pairings were very much franchises in the sense that we now use the word, but they were franchises built around the performers and their personas/chemistry rather than around intellectual property. When fans talk about the Astaire-Rogers movies, they generally refer to Fred and Ginger, not the characters they play in the various films, none of whom I can name, despite owning all the films on DVD and having watched them repeatedly.
Similarly, every X-Files fan I know speaks mainly about the leads’ dynamic, and while the characters as written are part of that, fans talk as much or more about Anderson and Duchovny—or Gillian and David among the hardcore—as they do Scully and Mulder. The performers were what fans were excited to be revisiting, more than the conspiracies or aliens or Chris Carter’s scripts and direction. It’s difficult to envision the new series being as anticipated if the roles had been recast; it’s unlikely it could even have been made.
Outside of a few comedy ensembles (the phenomenon belongs more to comedy in the first place, but the Bogart-Bacall example is a potential model), franchises today are almost exclusively built around intellectual property that can be leveraged across media and continued indefinitely. The movie star as a cultural figure has greatly diminished as a result, and specific pairings of performers has gone with it. That business model is so ingrained that Fox brought back a series whose best days are far behind it rather than bet on a new Anderson-Duchovny series that would be less immediately buzzy but potentially have longer legs.
I have no idea if a brand-new Anderson-Duchovny project that wasn’t tied to an already-beloved show from the ’90s would have gotten the same level of attention the revived X-Files has, or if Anderson and Duchovny themselves would have been interested. Had Fox presented a new series unrelated to The X-Files, but reteaming its leads, and made sufficient noise that this was a reunion of the parts of The X-Files fans loved most, I think there’s a chance. In its way, the first time Anderson and Duchovny play new leads opposite each other is as big a story as the latest time they play the same leads. In any case, I have no doubt it would have resulted in more interesting and almost certainly more entertaining television. It’s just not how Hollywood works anymore.