The X Files is a funny beast - it started out as a monster of the week show with a loose ongoing plot and developed into a series within a hugely complicated and intertwined world of Government conspiracies, alien abductions, ghostly encounters and freaky genetic mutations. It's widely thought that the series downfall was that it became to heavily tied up in it's own mythology and as the seasons progressed, it became apparent that the ongoing story would continue to become more and more complicated with very little in the way of resolution.
As this was happening it became quite apparent (especially during the preceeding two seasons to this) that David Duchovny was acting on autopilot - he was visibly becoming bored in his role as Fox Mulder, and at the end of the seventh season he stepped down as one of the principle actors (although still credited at the start of every episode, and shows up for around half of the total run). His role in the last two series therefore is far less pronounced.
Stepping into his shoes is Robert Patrick as Agent Doggett and this sees a change in dynamic - now it's Scully (Gillian Anderson) who's the believer and Doggett comes in as the sceptic. Thankfully this works well, as we've seen Scully's progression over the years and it's natural for her to believe in the conspiracies and aliens given all she's seen. It also returns the series to it's roots with far more questioning by Doggett and therefore more in the way of ambiguity - while there's no getting away from the complicated back story, we're able to view it from a slightly different perspective and this also opens up the opportunity to take a step away and bring in a few more of the 'monster of the week' stories that worked so well during the early years.
There are a number of standout episodes, and there are certainly more hits than misses overall. The mythology episodes are probably the weakest overall - mainly due to the fact that the series has got it into such a twisted mess at this point, it's near impossible to watch them out of context. Of particular note are the season's two part opener (Within and Without) in which a heavily pregnant Scully and new partner Doggett try to discover what exactly happened to Mulder and also see's the return of Gibson Praise and the Alien shapeshifter from earlier seasons. Medusa is a tightly told story in which the Boston underground system becomes the source of a strange disease, while Salvage is somewhat of a homage to Terminator 2 (which also starred Robert Patrick) with Doggett and Scully investigating a case where a man is apparently turning into metal!
In terms of 'mythology' episodes, other than the season openers, we've got the return of an apparently dead Mulder and the introduction of another new major cast member, Annabeth Gish, who plays FBI Agent Monica Reyes in another two-parter (This Is Not Happening and Deadalive) and of course the customary cliff-hanger season closing two parter of Essence and Existence, the story of which continues in to Season 9.
The X Files: Season 8 is packed in the familiar digipack and includes a short booklet. The menus are very easy to navigate with only limit animation - this is a very good thing!
The DVD transfer is a bit of a mixed bag. The positives thankfully do outweigh the negatives but this does mean that this is far from reference quality.
Firstly, the X Files has been intended for widescreen since Season 5, and this is preserved this season with an anamorphic 1.77:1 transfer. Featuring strong colours and good detailed black levels everything looks as it should. However the picture is challenging as it varies between being sharp and clear during indoor scenes, but as soon as we see outdoors the amount of grain increases quite dramatically. This isn't as a result of the DVD transfer, and may indeed be intentional - it does add to the cinematic feel of the series.
The main issue however is there is a little in the way of edge-enhancement visible. This isn't hugely distracting and can only really be seen in a few scenes, but it's there and I'd rather it wasn't.
All in all though, the picture quality is still strong with no further sign of gremlins creeping in during the encoding process.
The primary soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 and for the most part it delivers what you'd expect - specifically a broadcast quality sound mix with a little in the way of mono surround action. There's not really a lot to say other this is a solid reproduction without any unneccessary additional remixing or remastering.
The extras are somewhat disappointing - there are only two commentary tracks over the entire series, one on Alone by that episode's director Frank Spotnitz and one on Existence by Kim Manners. There's no sign of Chris Carter on either.
Next up is the usual 'Truth About Season 8' documentary (30 mins) that basically condenses everything down to a short segment and features the usual spoilers meaning it's safer to watch once you've seen the whole season.
There are profiles of the characters of Gibson Praise, John Doggett and Alex Krycek.
The rest of the extras are spread out amongst the episodes and consist of deleted scenes (on Surekill, Badlaa, Per Manum, Empedocles and Existence) which, for a nice change, can be branched into their associated episodes and watched in context, some pretty pointless 'International Clips' which are just extracts from certain episodes presented as they were in a variety of countries (quite why Fox have bothered with this is a mystery).
All of the deleted scenes are also available to watch non-branched with an optional commentary by Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban.
Finally, there are seven special effects clips with naration by Paul Rabwin and also 30 promotional trailers for various episodes of the season.
Season 8 of The X Files is something of a return to form. With the mythology of the series taking more of a back seat to good storytelling it's nice to see things get back to their roots. The loss of Duchovny for half of the season makes very little difference to the series and Patrick's character is a strong addition to the series. The recycling of plot ideas is unfortunate, but expected for a series that has run as long as The X Files had at this point.
The DVD release is more than adequate with good thoughtful presentation and a nice (if somewhat limited) selection of extras. Thumbs up.