Resurrections of old franchises have colonized pop culture with the ruthless efficiency of an alien invasion, from Netflix’s Fuller House to the movie box-office conquest by The Force Awakens.
But while most of these projects feel driven mostly by the profit motive, The X-Files, which returned to Fox on Sunday as a miniseries, has perhaps slightly more claim than its peers to contemporary relevance. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) have come back to television at a time when conspiratorial thinking has a fresh hold on the American imagination.
Jacob Clifton, in a great column in the Austin Chronicle about how TV has gotten better and braver about naming specific people and ideas for contemporary problems, pointed out that a key characteristic of the series has aged less well at a moment when shows such as Billions and Mr. Robot are attacking real institutions and technological developments rather than vague and sinister forces.
“The truth: out ‘there.’ Advertising: evil. Naomi Klein: very upset about something. The bad guys? The real, actual, vile bad guys? Still not sure. It involved bees, I know that much. Goo, of various colors and consistencies, may have been to blame,” Clifton writes.
“So when The X-Files returns, will it be a Bernie Sanders: transparent, fire and brimstone, no-nonsense, utopian? A Hillary Clinton: all emojis and abuelas? A Vape-Smoking Man on a hoverboard like Fisher Stevens in Hackers? Or will it be a Donald Trump: red-faced, spooky, xenophobic, and babbling? I can see it going any way. What I don’t want to see is a return to the safe arms of a faceless conspiracy, with no financial interests and an unknown agenda, because we did that, and it didn’t work, and we know who the bad guys are.”
But if the elusive nature of the conspiracy in The X-Files indicated a lack of political courage, Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever suggests that the ability to project anything you wanted to onto the show was part of its appeal.
“The motto of The X-Files, ‘the truth is out there,’ first sounded like a clarion call to skeptics, scientists and kooks alike, who, it was assumed, could agree to disagree, so long as the result was the unearthing of fact,” he wrote in his review of the new series. “Today, in a world of birthers and truthers and other conspiracy wackos who find remarkable amplitude with the Internet, ‘the truth is out there’ sounds like a taunt to a people who can no longer agree on what to disagree about. Everyone is spooked by the very real notion that the most outlandish possibilities and rumors could very well be true.”
I’ve seen three episodes of the new run of The X-Files. The first lays out a new theory of alien activity and alien technology on Earth before the show scampers off to the sort of monster-of-the-week episodes it executed so deftly during its original stint on television. And while the third episode in particular is better than the first, The X-Files manages to make an oddly compelling case for the appeal of conspiratorial thinking.
In that first episode, we learn that Scully is now doing reconstructive surgeries for children born without ears, while Mulder has gone mostly off the grid and become a scruffy recluse. They’re brought back together by Tad O’Malley (Community star Joel McHale), an Alex Jones-like figure who wants to enlist them as he goes public with his theories about the relationship between the military-industrial complex and the existence of aliens.
At first, Scully and Mulder are suspicious of O’Malley — “Conspiracy sells. It pays for bullet-proof limousines,” Mulder tells O’Malley, a charge that also applies to everyone involved in resurrecting The X-Files. But after meeting a woman with mysterious scars (Annet Mahendru, used less well here than on The Americans) and seeing some very shiny hardware, they’re back on the trail of the paranormal.
Watching O’Malley and Mulder trying to convince Scully — drawing connections among hydrogen bomb testing, the Tuskeegee syphilis study and Henrietta Lacks, or among police militarization, conspiracy theories about Federal Emergency Management camps and a scenario in which banks collude to seize all our money — The X-Files makes a case for how emotionally reassuring it might be to find a theory that connects all sorts of seemingly disparate attempts.
Conspiracy theories may be a product of deep unreason. But in Mulder and O’Malley’s case, they’ve turned to conspiratorial thinking as a way to rationalize the world, to make connections between seemingly disparate events and to suggest that something ties the chaos of the world together. Conspiracy theories often lead to dark places, but they’re a way to avoid facing the much more terrifying chaos of the universe.
And more than that, they often suggest that our problems are fixable. O’Malley proves himself to Mulder by revealing the existence of a clean, free-energy technology that he says the U.S. government has known about since the 1940s. Ideas like this suggest that the solutions to humankind’s gravest calamities are either within our grasp or known to us already. It’s the venality of other people we have to overcome, not our own ignorance or situations that may be fundamentally unfixable.
Once again, the ideas may be grim – it’s bad enough to think that we fought wars for oil, but even worse to believe that we did so even though we could have been freed from our oil addiction decades ago – but the impulses are fundamentally optimistic to naivete. It’s much more frightening to think that some of our problems can’t be conquered at all than to think bad men are trying to keep us from obvious advances that would improve our quality of life.
In a way, the boldest thing “The X-Files” could do wouldn’t be to prove any of Mulder’s wildest theories, but to debunk them entirely, and force Mulder and Scully to simply accept that some things are mysteries, and some pain is unending. If Mulder’s sister, Samantha, was abducted first by aliens and then the government, that gives her disappearance and Mulder’s agony meaning in the way her simple vanishment and death would not.
If William, Scully and Mulder’s child, is chosen, rather than merely gone, that gives him significance that acts as a kind of tonic. “I want to believe,” Mulder says over and over again. But that desire can be a way to hide from the truth, rather than confront it directly.