Despite the fact that Chris Carter’s seminal ’90s TV show The X-Files is most certainly a product of its time – The X-Files most certainly could not have been made outside the ultra-paranoid peacetime post-Cold War milieu – the show is indeed returning to the airwaves in January of 2016. The show, in case you’re too young to have run across it during its heyday, follows a pair of FBI agents, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), as they investigate the bizarre, paranormal, extraterrestrial, supernatural-themed cases on the Bureau’s books, cases typically filed under “X.” Mulder was the believer who saw aliens and creatures everywhere, while Scully was the skeptic who was always looking for a more scientific explanation. Mulder was always right.
To celebrate the show’s return, the gurus at Fox have released the entire series on Blu-ray, just in time for Christmas. I suppose it’s always time to stoke your paranoiac conspiracy theories.
To offer a brief editorial on the show itself: The X-Files (1993 – 2002) is a pretty excellent show. Although it most certainly took its setup from other shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The X-Files took a lot of the wilder paranoid theories of the day and made them seem palpable and probable. It’s entirely possible, The X-Files argued, that the government is hiding aliens from the populace. It’s probable that they are experimenting with alien technology and mind-control viruses. It was all told in a somber fashion (a few “silly” episodes notwithstanding), assigning a strange weight to liver fluke men and brain-eating addicts. The show had a funereal score (music by Mark Snow) and the photography was gray and damp; every shot looked like a fog bank.
Today, The X-Files feels dated like crazy. It could only have been made during the Clinton years. The hard-edged War on Terror that broke out under W. pretty much killed the shadowy spy paranoia toward one’s own government, replacing it with brutality, sadness, and weary cynicism; we didn’t have the energy to worry about aliens after 9/11.
But we can always look back on an excellent show, no matter how dated it may be. Now we have Blu-rays to pore over, we can revisit every last conspiracy to see how they hold up, and how they look in a crisp new digital format. How does that aforementioned visual fog bank look on Blu-ray? The short answer: Great and not great.
The makers of the Blu-rays, to ensure a clear and full look, went back to the original film masters to make these Blu-rays, and elected to change the show’s aspect ratio from its original 4:3 (for the first four seasons) to the now-standard 16:9 (which the show started using in 1997). As a result, the picture is expanded on the left and right, making for an entirely new visual experience. The aesthetic is, as a result, altered, which may upset some purists. I personally don’t mind. There was a bit of an uproar when Netflix began streaming the updated episodes in HD earlier this year, but the end result is actually really nice-looking. Plus, show creator Chris Carter has said that they planned out a wider screen upon initial shooting anyway. So it’s even been sanctioned.
This meticulous expansion to HD, however, is the only real advantage this new Blu-ray box set has over The X-Files: The Complete Collector’s Edition, the DVD complete series release from 2007. While DVDs lost their luster when people began upgrading from CRT TVs, the DVD set is actually far superior to this version.
For one, the Blu-ray set has neither of the X-Files feature films. This is especially frustrating as the 1998 film tied very strongly into the events of the show. The DVD set included the first film only (as the second, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, hadn’t been made yet). Indeed, the Blu-ray set is little more than a fancy box containing all of the standard Blu-ray editions of the individual seasons. For those of you who like unique packaging (and who doesn’t?) you’ll be ponying up $270 for a box. You could piecemeal out each season and save money.
To be fair, the Blu-ray box contains an empty slot for the eventual release of the new 2016 season, so you’ll have a place to store it when the time comes. But additionally, there is an empty box glued to the interior of the case. Why not include the movies in that slot?
Also – and this may seem like a petty quibble, but I feel it’s significant – in the upgrade to HD, the producers of the show elected to change the font of the show. Each episode featured a specific typewriter font that was unique to the show to explain settings and times of day. The well-known X-Files font has been inexplicably replaced by a new font. What’s more, that practice extends into the show’s iconic intro sequence, where the credits, and the ubiquitous “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE” now look different.
Another disadvantage to the HD upgrade is its distinct alteration of the show’s style. The new HD imagery looks great from a technical perspective, but it looks… too good. The X-Files was shot on film and broadcast on CRT TVs, so I’m used to seeing look wet and foggy. The new HD photography takes the uniqueness of the show’s photography, and makes it look like any other well-lit HD show. It’s clear, crisp, and looks great. And that’s kind of a problem.
The special features are, mercifully, pretty special. There are new commentaries, a new convention appearance, and, as the press releases like to brag, a complete 23 hours worth of original material. None of these new features are any more insightful than the old special features, but at the very least you won’t be shelling out a huge amount of cash for the exact same set you got before. The DVD’s features were paltry in comparison, and tried to pass off “international clips” (read: dubbed scenes) as special. Those are fun, but there’s not much to them. The Blu-ray still has those, but it also has more.
So the choice is between a great set with a pure look but old-fashioned tech, and a new set that looks good, but is little more than a box to hold discs in. For the time being, I’ll stick with the former.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, The Robot’s Voice, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.