Note: spoilers for all of X-Files, new and old, follow. Read at your own risk.
Few television show themes can claim the same fame as The X-Files. It’s one of the most recognizable themes ever, with people being able to pick up on it only a second or two in. It was a show that helped reshape television in the ’90s, airing from 1993 to 2002. It was the longest running science-fiction television show until it was eclipsed by Stargate SG-1. It holds a special place in many people’s hearts, myself included. I can credit the show with being a major part of the reason I’m a fan of the horror and science-fiction genres.
But that was then. And this is now.
Ever since the news about the show’s revival, fans have been patiently waiting to see how it would all turn out. Other shows had been given the revival treatment and done well afterwards, heralding what many believed would be a return to form for what they consider one of the greatest shows to ever grace their screens.
I found myself underwhelmed by this new season. It’s hard to fight the feeling that it might just be too late for X-Files.
Let’s start off by discussing the format they decided to take with this season. They were given six episodes to work with, which doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for having filler content. So what ends up happening is this: we get four standalone episodes and two episodes that deal with the overarching plot. The standalone episodes are sandwiched in between the serialized episodes. It’s what would you expect from the X-Files back in the ’90s.
And that’s exactly the problem.
X-Files debuted in a time when suspicion of the government was a common thing and conspiracy theories were widespread. It sat comfortably in an era where the government was not to be trusted. But things are different. And now, the show feels like it’s trying too hard. In the second episode, the dead person Mulder and Scully are investigating is revealed to have had a secret gay lover. That’s fine. It’s a real thing that happens, and served as a decent red herring leading to an amusingly awkward moment. But later on in the episode Scully makes a pointed remark about how strange it is that the man would have to hide his sexual preferences in the year 2016. That’s when it started to hit me. The writers were deliberately saying to the audience “hey look, we’re topical…look at us we’re still relevant!” And it became even more obvious in the next episode when Mulder and Scully interview a transgender person about a monster they saw. At that point, I said to myself “you guys aren’t even trying to be subtle anymore.”
Then they did the Muslim bomber episode. Because apparently you can’t have an investigation show without an episode about Islamic terrorists…
Not to mention that the episode is easily the weakest of the bunch. The tone of the episode veers off all over the place. First it’s about the debate over Muslims in the United States. And then it’s about two quirky FBI agents who are basically younger versions of Mulder and Scully. And then it’s about the allure of revenge, of getting back at the terrorists who commit such acts. But hey, look over there! Mulder’s tripping on some magic mushrooms ha ha ha let’s laugh at that for five minutes straight (it is admittedly amusing).
But wait no, that’s all wrong. The episode is REALLY about the power of love vs. hatred or some other philosophical hoopla. It’s like here’s point A, here’s point B, and the line in the middle is a scribbled mess similar to a child’s early attempt at drawing.
You know what? I’ll draw it out for you.
But I digress. All of this topical stuff wouldn’t feel so out of place if it wasn’t X-Files. X-Files was about supernatural mystery. It was about conspiracy. It was about the pursuit of the truth. It didn’t need to shine a light on the issues of its era. It didn’t need to be so heavy-handed. In essence, it seems that the show is playing catch up, trying its best to handle all of the big subjects that passed it by when it was off the air.
This becomes increasingly evident when you look at the mythology episodes (the episodes dealing with the serialized story arc).
If you were a fan of the show back in the day, you’ll likely remember that the main story arc of X-Files dealt with a massive government cover-up of the existence of alien life. As the show got deeper and deeper into its run, a main antagonist was revealed in the form of a cabal of super-rich people with ties to the government. Their main goal was to ensure their survival in a post-alien invasion world. They agreed to cooperate with the aliens to ensure a smooth colonization of Earth as long as they and their families were spared the aliens’ wrath. And all of this, as the series finale revealed, was set to happen in December of 2012. The show ended without resolving the major plot, promising (or at the very least implying) that all would be brought to an end in a future movie.
And then they made the movie and it had nothing to do with the overall alien plot, leaving the fans unfulfilled.
But now, with the new season, the writers apparently decided “screw all that” and completely rewrote the entire mythology of the show. I wish I was joking. Basically in the first episode Mulder stumbles on this revelation that all their years on the X-Files were just an elaborate ruse to cover up an even greater conspiracy. Apparently the aliens never wanted to invade at all. They were only showing up because humanity finally had the capacity to wipe itself out with nuclear weapons. They were worried about mankind, and the government used technology and medical data obtained at the Roswell crash to set up this elaborate conspiracy to wipe out all humans except for a chosen few.
And the plot starts sounding so absurd. “They’re using satellites to control the weather,” the characters say. “They’re militarizing the police force! They’re controlling the food and water supply. They’re controlling us with healthcare! They’re using the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act to oppress the poor! They’re slipping things into our vaccines! They’re using microwave towers as a means to trigger a super virus, destroying our immune systems and culling the planet!” It’s like they took all the conspiracy theories they could get their hands on and threw them in a blender. In all fairness, part of the problem is that they only had two episodes dealing with the main story, so it ends up feeling rushed because of that. Honestly they should have taken the entire six episodes and wrote one long arc for the entire season instead of trying to cram a bunch of standalone plots in there as well. People don’t want that anymore. People like their serialized shows. They like Breaking Bad. They like Game of Thrones. By comparison, X-Files‘ structure ends up feeling archaic.
In a lot of ways, the new X-Files is a shambling zombie, limping behind its livelier counterparts in the television world. It’s ironic, because X-Files helped define the kind of serialized storytelling that modern TV shows employ. But now it’s caught between evolving and holding on to the remnants of its past. It tries to be topical and deal with modern subject matter, but it also retains too much of the ’90s quirk (especially in the third episode, which while funny can be seriously off-putting for some). Television is different now. A show like X-Files can’t find great success in the same way it did back then. If the show wants to stick around, it needs to evolve. It needs to show audiences that it has something new to offer. Granted, it’s hard to judge from only six episodes, but if the trend continues it could be bad for the show.
And yet, despite all that, I don’t hate the new season. I never found myself overcome with an urge to simply stop watching. Part of that might be due to my nostalgia, but I’d like to believe that the show still has a lot of life in it. Despite my gripes about the new mythology and how it basically ignores a lot of what occurred in previous seasons, it still has a compelling atmosphere to it. I found myself intrigued about where it will go from here. And looking at how the season ends with a giant cliffhanger (that, fittingly enough, would feel squarely at home in a ’90s television show), it’s obvious that the creators have plans to keep the show going for a little while at least.
X-Files was revolutionary back in its heyday. Let’s see if it can’t recapture some of that magic.
Thanks for reading! Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.