Sunday 15 December 2019

Television: New Mulder and Scully series all feels a bit alien...

Things are getting strange: Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny return in The X-Files.
Things are getting strange: Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny return in The X-Files.

John Boland

The truth is out there, and the truth about the new rebooting of The X-Files (RTÉ2) is that they shouldn't have bothered.

When the series first aired in 1993, viewers were more than willing to embrace the notion of alien abductions and invasions, but in our post-September 11 world, the enemy without seems far less frightening than the enemy within.

Series creator Chris Carter is plainly aware of this, with Mulder's boss reflecting in the new series' opening episode that "since 9/11 this country has taken a big turn in a very strange direction" and with Mulder himself spelling it out: "They police us, they spy on us, and they tell us this makes us safer."

In fact, this clunky first episode was full of such cack-handed expository stuff, starting with a voiceover from Mulder that gave a potted history of UFOs and alien sightings and that ended with the solemn query: "Are we truly alone, or are we being lied to?"

Mulder and sceptical colleague are 13 years older than when we last saw them in the season nine finale, but the 55-year-old David Duchovny looks pretty good in a fashionably scruffy way, while the 47-year-old Gillian Anderson has acquired that gauntly glacial look familiar to devotees of serial crime drama The Fall and, currently, War and Peace.

They weren't the problem with this week's opener, the downside residing instead with a clichéd script, a who-cares storyline and an outlandish TV host subsidiary character who piqued their interest with the promise of "maybe the most evil conspiracy the world has ever known".

There was the hint, too, of Mulder and Scully rekindling the spark that ignited between them all those years ago, Scully recalling it as "one of the most intellectually and challenging relationships I ever had". But otherwise this six-part series will need to up its game considerably if it's to revive fond memories of the original - and, indeed, to persuade younger viewers of why it had been worthy of such excited loyalty way back when.

Real-life extra-terrestrials also featured in this week's viewing, especially in The Mad World of Donald Trump (Channel 4), which made no pretence of objectivity about the front-running Republican candidate, as was clear from even the title of Matt Frei's hour-long report.

Frei went on the campaign trail and met supporters who shared Trump's anti-Muslim stance ("They're coming to kill us") as well as with Muslims themselves, one of whom deemed Trump "a buffoon who has to be taken seriously". Republican strategist Stuart Stevens was no kinder, describing the billionaire as "a hateful figure".

We also heard about his business ups and downs, his views on Mexicans ("rapists") and on women ("fat pigs", "dogs", take your pick) and about the rape allegation made by former wife Ivana in a deposition, and while there was nothing new in any of this, the viewer's appalled attention was held, if for one simple reason: this guy might well end up as the next president of the United States, which would be shocking, though sadly not surprising.

Vladimir Putin seems not of this world, either, or at least not of the one in which most of us live, and we got to hear about his financial interests in Panorama: Putin's Secret Riches (BBC1).

His official income, reporter Richard Bilton told us, is about $100,000, and when asked about the vast wealth he has supposedly acquired, Putin said that the allegations were "simply rubbish - they picked it all out of someone's nose".

Others, mostly disaffected former cronies, disagree, yet though mention was made of a $35m yacht given to him by Roman Abramovich and of a Black Sea palace built from money intended for health services, nothing conclusive got said, beyond Bilton's insistence that, in terms of power and money, there was "no other world leader like him".

There were lots of them, though, among Putin's aristocratic predecessors and Lucy Worsley told their stories in Empire of the Tsars (BBC4), which chronicled the rise and fall of the Romanovs. Worsley can be annoyingly mannered and twee, but this three-part series was absorbing.

Also engrossing, if something of a slow burner, was the same channel's Storyville documentary, Chancers: The Great Gangster Film Fraud. With a Ray Winstone-like wide boy voiceover by Tony Carling, this told of how Northern Irish actress Aoife Madden and Iraqi-born businessman Bashar Al-Issa were jailed in 2013 for getting British government tax breaks for a movie that was never made.

Or at least the film, called A Landscape of Lives and budgeted at £19m, hadn't been made when the revenue people began their investigations, though subsequently an £80,000 version (somewhat ironically retitled A Landscape of Lies) was hurriedly shot.

That, the tax people argued, had only been cobbled together in a bid to evade the fraud charges.

The tax officials interviewed for the documentary were stern-faced and smugly self-righteous, and it was easy for the viewer to side with the wrong-doers, who were so amateurish (as was the movie they made) that giving them prison sentences seemed gratuitously vengeful.

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