After more than 200 episodes, two feature films, and countless
ripoffs loving homages, The X-Files is set to return to TV as a six-episode limited series from creator Chris Carter, with stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprising their roles as F.B.I. agents Mulder and Scully.
“I think of it as a 13-year commercial break,” Carter told Variety.
When The X-Files left the air in 2002, longtime viewers who had followed the series’ complex mythology for nine seasons were disappointed by a lack of closure. That frustration only grew when Duchovny and Anderson returned for Carter’s THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE, a 2008 theatrical spin-off some fans found narratively unfulfilling.
Whether The X-Files – which earned 16 Emmy Awards, five Golden Globes, and a legion of loyal fans – should return (again) is academic; it’s happening as surely as the next alien invasion. But why Mulder and Scully are coming back now has a lot more to do with the old episodes than with new ones.
In short, The X-Files in 2015 is an under-valued property. At a time when streaming platforms distinguish themselves with big-ticket exclusives, the original 1993-2002 series is unusually ubiquitous, streaming on all three of the largest subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms: Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus.
Yet none offer episodes in HD, not even for purchase nor is the series available on Blu-ray. And to make matters even more confusing, Netflix streams all nine seasons in 4:3 aspect ratio, Amazon Prime switches to 16:9 widescreen with season 5, and Hulu switches to widescreen at the start of season 6.
Update 9/11/15 – Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are now streaming 16:9 HD episodes for all nine seasons. And Electronic Sell-through/VOD services like iTunes and VUDU have apparently caught up as well, with all nine seasons available in HD.
Update 10/8/15 – Fox has finally announced that The X-Files will be available on Blu-ray on December 8. All nine seasons will be in 16:9, which means the original 4:3 broadcast versions are likely to disappear forever like victims of some shadowy government conspiracy.
Update 10/8/15 – Here is a meticulous comparison of all the differences between the DVD and Bu-ray sets.
A side-by-side comparison of the second episode from season 6 shows that Hulu is clearly streaming a native 16:9 transfer, while Netflix offers the same episode in a native 4:3 transfer (though neither are in high def). So what gives?
To help explain this inconsistency, it’s important to remember that the original run of The X-Files essentially bridges television’s two aspect ratios: square (4:3) and widescreen (16:9). When The X-Files debuted in 1992, widescreen TVs were still a decade or so away from mainstream acceptance, but Chris Carter already had his eye on the future.
“When we began filming the show in 1992, we actually (except for maybe the pilot) considered HD (widescreen) all along,” he said in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) chat last year. “And so there was image and opportunity to expand and modify the aspect ratio.”
As many fans know, The X-Files switched officially to a 16:9 shooting format (1.78 aspect ratio) beginning with season 5 in 1997 (though Fox didn’t begin broadcasting in HD until 2004, two years after the series had left the air). Subsequent DVD releases have maintained the original 4:3 aspect ratio for the first four seasons with seasons 5-9 in 16:9 SD.
In my day job as chief inspector of the Aspect Ratio Police, I’m almost always an advocate of maintaining the format the creator intended. But, if Chris Carter protected even the earliest episodes for widescreen when he shot them, that implies his blessing. So where are the HD remasters?
Apparently, re-formatted HD transfers have already been created (at least for the early episodes), and those transfers have aired on the German satellite TV network ProSieben Maxx. (There are some good 4:3 to 16:9 comparison screenshots here.) Here in the U.S., the El Rey Network has also aired some episodes in what appears to be HD. But streaming is still all SD, all the time.
One possible reason we haven’t seen The X-Files streaming in HD is that Fox has a timeline in mind, probably tied to the revival. A new series creates demand for both a definitive HD streaming option and a Blu-ray release, with original fans revisiting an old favorite and new fans discovering a binge-worthy obsession. And nothing helps a commitment to a binge like a definitive end, which is what the new episodes are likely to offer.
If Netflix was willing to pay $500,000 per-episode for exclusive streaming rights to Friends remastered in HD, and Seinfeld is expected to generate more than $100 million when it sells, what would Fox get for an SVOD exclusive to more than 200 episodes The X-Files in HD? The truth, and the money, is out there.
In the meantime, enjoy The X-Files in all its 4:3, standard definition glory at these sites:
Update 9/11/15 – The list below has been updated to reflect changed mentioned above. Note that M-GO is now selling both the SD and HD transfers for less than any other service and CinemaNow is still lagging behind with SD content only.
VOD Services ($1.99/episode or $19.99/season in SD or $24.99/season in HD)
iTUNES: Seasons 1-9 in 16:9 HD + SD
VUDU:Seasons 1-9 in 16:9 HD + SD
CINEMANOW: Seasons 1-4 in 4:3, Seasons 7-9 in 16:9 (all in SD, $19.99/season)
M-GO: Seasons 1-9 in 16:9 HD + SD ($15.99/$23.99 per season)