This is weird timing: a speculation I made last weekend looks to have unexpectedly come to pass. In my post about the first season Blu-ray release of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I discussed how the success and viability of that project may lead to Blu-ray releases for other shows that were shot on film but edited on videotape. Out of all shows from the 1980s and 1990s that were produced this way, I named The X-Files as a candidate for the next wave of shows rebuilt for HD. I wasn’t terribly optimistic though.
What a difference a day (or two) makes. The Digital Bits reported on Tuesday that they’ve heard Fox have decided to remaster The X-Files for Blu-ray and may have already started work. Although this was in their “Rumour Mill” column, The Digital Bits is so well connected that while they tag anything not yet officially announced as rumour, their sources are so impeccable that it’s almost certainly going to happen. If it doesn’t, it’s because the studio changed their mind or something stopped them, not because it was never true. The Digital Bits were the first to report that CBS were remastering The Next Generation, and a few months later the official announcement appeared.
So we can start getting excited about this as a near certainty, and what an unexpected development it is. There’s been a lot of talk about the long-term viability of Blu-ray as a commercial format. Some cite that it hasn’t been taken up as rapidly as DVD, or assume that the parallel rise of online streaming options will inevitably put the nail in the disc’s coffin. But this ignores the fact that an increasing proportion of units sold of a title are on Blu-ray rather than DVD, and often the majority. Plus, the required online infrastructure to stream 1080p high definition to huge numbers of customers is not even imminent in America, let alone a smaller country like Australia. For a reliable, pristine HD experience, Blu-ray still can’t be topped.
What has been demonstrably true is that catalogue TV sales on Blu-ray have not been terribly strong. Even new shows have sometimes underperformed. Shows like Damages and Grey’s Anatomy had one or two seasons released on Blu-ray before the studio switched back to DVD only. Even though that was several years ago and Blu-ray penetration is higher, the notion of a studio spending the vast amount of time and money required to rebuild a series from the original negatives to facilitate a Blu-ray release still seemed improbable for most shows. Even the restoration of The Next Generation is largely perceived to be motivated by ongoing syndication sales, even though the Blu-rays are coming out first. That show continues to be highly lucrative in repeat runs.
The X-Files, however, has not been so fortunate. Whereas Trek has a healthy afterlife, partially thanks to its dedicated fanbase, The X-Files feels like it’s been forgotten by the mainstream (it doesn’t seem to be airing in syndication anywhere in the US that I can find). Because of dissatisfaction with the resolution of the mythology and the later seasons, the show is seen by too many as a product of its time rather than an enduring work to enjoy into the future. This is pretty unfair, because The X-Files was a pioneer in so many respects and it still holds up as an immensely engaging series regardless of whether they had the mythology planned out from the start.
The decision by Fox to remaster the series suggests that the show’s afterlife is a lot healthier than we might have assumed, and that it hasn’t been forgotten by its studio despite the underperforming second film, 2008’s I Want to Believe. That film is commonly labelled as a bomb, but this overlooks the handicaps imposed upon release.
A $30 million budgeted slow-burn moody thriller, I Want to Believe was not a summer blockbuster by any stretch, but it came out in July 2008. (I was under the impression that the film was originally set for a more suitable October release, but brought forward when X-Men Origins: Wolverine had to be delayed for a year, but I can’t find a source to verify that). And what film opened one week earlier? The Dark Knight. A moderately-budgeted TV series adaptation was always going to be a fart in that particular hurricane, so the film was less lucrative than it might otherwise have been. But it’s presumed to have failed because not enough people care about The X-Files anymore.
But even that doesn’t seem to have deterred Fox. Perhaps sales of The Next Generation have been so strong, even compared to the DVDs, that there is now evidence of a market for catalogue TV shows on Blu-ray. And perhaps an HD version of the show will be more attractive to syndicated markets that were previously indifferent.
Whatever the reasoning, if this release does eventuate, the transfer will be light years beyond what we now see on the DVDs. The first season of The X-Files was actually the first complete season ever released on DVD in one package, at a time when that wasn’t even done on VHS. However, that age shows when you watch the discs. The transfers are serviceable but murky, faded, and overly grainy. The soundtrack is only in Dolby Stereo, when a creepy, atmospheric show like The X-Files positively demands to be heard in 5.1 surround sound. We may even get an epic documentary split across the nine seasons, as with The Next Generation, that tells us the story of the show’s development and success in a more candid fashion than the promotional fluff that gets produced while a show is still on the air.
Given the time and money that Fox will need to invest in this, we can expect a pretty impressive release that may bring some departed fans back into the fold. And it certainly couldn’t hurt the chances of a third film, which fans have campaigned for relentlessly since 2008. Given that I‘m only halfway through the first season of my rewatch of the series using the massive complete series box set, I’m pretty pleased with the timing. Sure, I’ve spent money on the DVDs (well, it was a bargain) and I’ll have to wait a while to see more of the show, but it’s absolutely worth it if the transformation of The X-Files is even remotely comparable to that of The Next Generation. Hopefully lapsed and new fans will be similarly intrigued and check out a show that helped shape the golden age of television that we enjoy today.