This article contains spoilers for the first episode of The X-Files (2016).
Imagine a world where aliens are real, the paranormal is practically normal, and every single conspiracy theory is true. No, I’m not reading Infowars or listening to an episode of Welcome to Night Vale. I’m talking about a newly refurbished The X-Files, which premiered Sunday night to much advertised fanfare and the squeeeee! of Mulder/Scully shippers everywhere. As someone who was a believer when the show first aired (and also a fan) but is now a stout skeptic, I thought it would be fun to take a skeptical look at the new series.
The X-Files, when it originally aired, was in many ways a product of its time. Its hodgepodge mixture of paranormal pseudoscience, government conspiracy, and extraterrestrial visitation was real enough to strike a chord with an end-of-the-century audience not yet used to the Internet and still reliant on print media for most of their information. At the time, Agent Mulder’s dusty basement office filled with drawer after drawer of tantalizing clues pointing to the possibility of extraterrestrial life was all-too believable and created a rich backdrop for monster-of-the-week tales and the show’s long-and-twisted conspiracy mythology.
A lot’s changed since the show was cancelled in 2002, with the Internet fundamentally altering the way we receive, process and share information. Stories of paranormal phenomena nowadays gain instant scrutiny and vehement debunking, sometimes within hours of first reaching social media; basements full of dusty files have been replaced with digital repositories of information accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world; blogs and podcasts are filled with all manner of paranormal and conspiracy-mongering; and shows like Supernatural, Fringe, and Warehouse 13 have done to death the TV tropes that The X-Files established.
Returning to that oft-dipped well would have been the wrong move. Series creator Chris Carter, who penned last night’s premiere episode, seemed to know this, and so he upped the ante to help The X-Files leap into the 21st century. He did it by upending the whole government/alien colonization plot and ratcheting the conspiracy theory up to eleven.
To whit: the alien colonization plot that fueled all ten seasons of The X-Files was, we are now told, an elaborate ruse elegantly orchestrated to make Mulder and Scully chase a decade of lies. All of it was just a cover-up for the real conspiracy, the one where the Shadow Government, through such organizations as FEMA and the Bilderberg Group, are encouraging global warming and sowing the seeds of global conflict so that, at some point, they can overthrow global governments and establish One World Order under the pretenses of saving the human race, after which they will all move to space stations and watch the rest of us die off.
That’s right. The X-Files has gone full Infowars.
Or something like that. To be honest, the conspiracy talk was flowing so fast and furious last night, and the pacing of the episode was so frenetic, that we didn’t get a good sense of what exactly this new conspiracy was. As someone who regularly deals with conspiracy theories, I was able to follow most of the episode’s references (though even I needed to reach for Google occasionally, like when they brought up “dirtboxes”). I can’t imaging the typical viewer could make heads or tails of half the Gish Gallop of conspiracies that served as the episode’s core plotline.
It was all a little disappointing — not that they basically made ten years of continuity pointless (plenty of shows do that), but that Carter felt the need to do so in one sloppy, slapdash 42 minute episode. Had this revelation been given the entire 6 episode series to play out, with clues leading to Internet speculation and fan theories, it could have been an awesome end-of-series bombshell. That’s the way television works in 2016. Instead, the episode was just one sign of many that The X-Files, for better or worse, is still stuck in the 1990s, when episodic storytelling was the norm and people couldn’t go back and rewatch the episode the day after it aired.
Did the world really need a revival of The X-Files? Probably not. Even so, I freely admit that the fangirl in me was geeking from the moment that intro music kicked in, even as my inner skeptic was cringing at the ham-fisted attempt to make Alex Jones’s fever-dreams seem like tense, thrilling storytelling.
I referenced Welcome to Night Vale at the beginning of this post. I think that’s actually an apt yang to The X-Files‘ yin. The idea of aliens and government conspiracies have become so familiar to us nowadays that we laugh at them more than we fear them. While I’m happy to see Mulder and Scully on the air again, I hope this little reunion is just that: a little reunion. I can’t see The X-Files sustaining a whole new series once the rosy shine of nostalgia and fan service have worn off.