Sense8 and the Power of Representation in Television

Today, June 1 — the first day of Pride Month — Netflix announced its decision to cancel its original series, Sense8, after two seasons. The announcement has been met with outrage, multiple petitions (including one that has reached over 100,000 signatures), and open opposition over social media.

I thought it was a joke at first. The show, which received critical acclaim for its unadulterated display of diversity in race, culture, gender, and sexual orientation, had its ratings increase significantly between the first and second season (79% in Season 1 to 86% in Season 2 on RottenTomatoes, for example — both seasons considered a significant “fresh” tomato). The choice to end it abruptly leaves me reeling and begging the question: When will television outlets — primetime, digital, or otherwise — recognize the importance of diversity in the 21st century?

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Review: “X” Marks a Solid Premiere

SPOILERS AHEAD! Read at your own risk…

It’s finally here, Philes! Around 16 million people tuned into The X-Files Season 10 premiere on Sunday, January 24th–despite the fact that it began 24 minutes late due to the football game. The long-awaited return of this sci-fi classic continued to blow up Fox ratings on Monday the 25th with the second of the two-part premiere (it rated higher than all the episodes of its 8PM timeslot predecessor, Gotham, put together!). The numbers should say it all, really.

And yet, apparently, they don’t quite. While most fans are flocking to Twitter and Tumblr to pour out their love for the new episodes, critics aren’t as enthused. Many consider the first episode, “My Struggle,” to be rushed, confusing, and full of conspiracy-related jargon. The Entertainment Weekly recap essentially called it a failure. Vanity Fair essentially assured viewers that “it gets better.”

I skimmed a couple of these reviews before I watched “My Struggle,” and I wish I hadn’t. I did not make the same mistake with last night’s episode, “Founder’s Mutation.” Regardless, I will try to present my ideas here with the least outside influence as possible. Here’s my two cents: It may be new. It may even be a little jarring. But especially after last night’s episode, it is The X-Files through and through.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 2.42.32 PM.pngPart of what makes “My Struggle” quintessentially X-Files (which critics took issue with, ironically enough), is that it does not dip its toes in the metaphorical water–it dives right in. Whether you’re a longtime fan or just starting out, the new X-Files takes you immediately on a wild ride without holding back. Lots of speeches made by Mulder about government conspiracies, lots of assumptions and little references about the show’s history–and, as critics pointed out–the episode leaves you with more questions than you had going in.

But isn’t that always what The X-Files does? How many episodes in the original run made you lean back and say, “Wow. I really understand 100% of what’s going on with this alien mythology. Thanks, Chris Carter!” That’s just the thing. Carter, the show’s creator, is notorious for leaving us hanging in many aspects. Are aliens on our side, or against us? Do they even exist at all? To what extent can we trust our government? Frankly, I don’t expect any of these questions to be answered fully in this new season. Why should any fan? That’s part of the fun of the show. It keeps you guessing.

Despite this, the show put forth a couple of established answers they were teeter-tottering on before, which was great to see. For example, we see clearly in “My Struggle” that Walter Skinner is entirely on the side of Mulder and Scully and the discovery of the truth. In the original series, his stance was often very ambiguous til the end, and one might have wondered if time apart from the duo would have turned him to the dark side (read: the FBI’s side) once more. That’s not the case. “There were so many times I wanted to pick up the phone and call you, and I couldn’t,” he laments to Mulder. We also see established very early on that Mulder and Scully have slipped back into their roles as Believer and Skeptic, respectively–though of course there’s always room for development there.

“My Struggle” was also criticized for being too plotty–which I would counter with five simple words: we’ve only got 6 episodes. While “My Struggle” probably isn’t an Emmy-worthy episode on its own–it is necessary to establish the tone and mythology of the season to come. This new season exists, as Carter and Gillian Anderson have reiterated, in a post-9/11 world in which everything we take as fact about the government, about America, about the world is up for debate. In “My Struggle,” we’re introduced to Sveta, an alien abductee, who sets up a series of questions Mulder and Scully will have to attempt to answer this season. Mulder’s beliefs, his trajectory of understanding what his government is hiding, come into question. What does Mulder want to believe in? Is the government deliberately hiding the existence of aliens, or their misuse of alien technology? And how does this all relate to the world we live in today, with its conflicts and wars and inconsistencies? At the end of the episode, Scully vows that she and Mulder have to “get these sons of bitches” who are hurting victims like Sveta, Mulder’s sister Samantha, and, of course, Scully herself. We have a motivation for them both to return to the X-Files despite all they’ve been through investigating them. And that, to me, is a great place to start, especially with such a limited number of episodes.

We’re led from “My Struggle” into “Founder’s Mutation,” an episode which to many critics increases in quality exponentially from the first. I wouldn’t say it it necessarily improved on quality, writing, or acting–those factors were strong in both episodes to me. However, “Founder’s Mutation” represents the true essence of the show: a bit of camp, a decent amount of gore, and engaging from beginning to end. The episode, unlike the first, is fast-paced and has a very “original series” feel, in that it’s a case-of-the-week episode with undertones of the overall mythology of the season. It’s also confirmed that Skinner is 100% Team X-Files (he outright lies to one of his colleagues to cover Mulder and Scully’s tracks followed by an enthusiastic, “Welcome back, you two”).

Perhaps the most important component of “Founder’s Mutation”–that which seemed to resonate most with fans–is the personal aspect. In probably some of the most moving scenes on the show to date, Scully and Mulder, in their respective imaginations, explore what it would have been like to parent William had Scully not given him up for his safety.

What I love about these scenes is that they aren’t just simply an expression of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” on behalf of William’s parents. Rather, they illustrate Scully and Mulder’s separate fears for their son, as well as their separate interpretations of the kind of child he is. Scully, obviously, spent more time with William before she gave him away (Mulder, if you recall, was in hiding). Her made-up memories of William as a child, then, illustrate simple, human things–taking him to school, holding his hand. Despite his “alien” side, Scully, in the short time she raised him, saw him only as her baby boy. Mulder, on the other hand, holds his son close and talks to him about the extraterrestrial, the supernatural. He imagines himself launching a toy rocket with him–always thinking outside of human comprehension.

And when their daydreams take a turn for the worse, we see how they reflect their respective characters. Scully is afraid for William ever having to reconcile his humanity with his extra-terrestrial side. imMulder, on the other hand, fears the one thing he’s been fighting for decades–the secrecy of his government–would take William away from him. In a sequence eerily similar to that of Samantha Mulder’s abduction through her brother’s eyes, we see this fear, this guilt for not keeping William safe, manifest itself.

What a brilliant and moving insight into each character and where they stand in terms of their child together–it’s definitely something I wish had been explored in 2008’s I Want to Believe, that was only touched upon very briefly. Bravo!

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 2.10.35 PMA general critique of both episodes seems to center around the Mulder/Scully dynamic. Fans have expressed their annoyance over Twitter and other social media outlets that the pair’s relationship isn’t quite resolved and feels forced. I’d disagree with this as well. While I’d say the fans probably know more about “MSR” than even the actors do, perhaps it’s best to take a step back before we make too many judgments. Seven years have passed between the last time we saw this couple (in I Want to Believe) and now. Realistically, lot can change for any relationship in that amount of time. Furthermore, we found these two a bit rocky in I Want to Believe to begin with. To me, the logical trajectory would be that Mulder and Scully spend some time ]truly finding their roots again, within themselves and with each other. Remember in the early seasons of the original, when just Mulder’s hand on Scully’s shoulder was enough for fans to analyze? We have that dynamic again–except this time, there’s years of history and emotions attached. I see nothing wrong with that.

Others say, particularly in regard to the second episode, that Mulder and Scully slip all too quickly back into their old rapport. Again, it’s important to keep in mind the time frame. We don’t have 24 episodes to flesh out Mulder and Scully’s dynamic like we did before. So, we are given their fundamental friendship and trust in each other–which will never truly go away. Isn’t that better than starting out the show with them despising each other? There’s resentment and tension, sure (the scene where Scully storms back to her car in “My Struggle” is so tense, I was squirming in my seat as I watched)–but all that will drive new changes in their relationship. I don’t think this season is the death of Mulder/Scully. Conversely, I think it’s a new, exciting chapter to carry the necessary character drama through the season.

I’ve only watched the first two episodes once through, but in short, I’m optimistic about this revival series. Of course it’s different–seven years since I Want to Believe have changed our characters, our actors, our writers, our world. But in my opinion, these first two episodes alone feel so much more like The X-Files than did the choppy, disjointed I Want to Believe. It’s a new age for the show, and anyone who’s expecting what plays on their Season 4 DVDs word-for-word has another thing coming.

I, for one, can’t wait for more.