This feature contains spoilers.
Sitting down to watch a new episode of The X Files in 2016 is weird. I get nervous about reboots, especially of shows that mean a lot to me, but this time around my state of alien-conspiracy deprivation outweighs my reservations. If Mulder and Scully are coming back to rally us to believe that the truth is out there, then I will be there, snacks in tow and blaring the show’s quintessential theme, believing.
Chris Carter’s The X Files was – is – a cultural phenomenon that had some of the most ludicrous plot discontinuity and drawn-out romantic/platonic relationship between male and female co-stars to ever blot television history – a debate which, incredibly, continues – but is as surely a household reference and academically appraised as contemporaries like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With four episodes already having aired on FOX, the alien-centred procedural is no longer just iconic sci-fi in the past tense, and its post-9/11 reincarnation heralds its original theme and graphics and fanservice galore, embracing its canonical habit of supplying shrewd commentary on the social issues du jour.
“It’s amazing, going through these archives with fresh, if not wiser eyes,” Mulder remarks to Scully in their first scene of the third episode of the mini-series reboot, ‘Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster’. In response, Scully, who’s been apologizing for her aggravatingly juvenile partner in public since 1993, patiently inquires whether he’s been taking his meds, because for him to be the sceptic in their interactions (instead of prancing around with photographs of potential UFOs spilling out of his jacket and instantly befriending every conspiracy theorist they encounter) is almost as rare an event as them tackling a genuine extra-terrestrial case.
If you make it past the nostalgic 90s special effects and the crew’s apparent incomprehension of lighting (necessitating a lot of squinting/speculating at shadows), you’ll be captivated enough by the nostalgic sci-fi aesthetic and the Mulder-and-Scully dynamic that you’ll overlook how the alien conspiracy at the heart of the show is fragmented at best and get used to the idea that MSR probably have the poorest case resolution rate on television (they come up with more questions than answers in their investigations, by a wide margin). Any conspiracy theorist old-timer will tell you that what the show did best was variety; series creator Chris Carter has, thankfully, not strayed from these tenets of the X Files tradition so far.
The show’s writers are acutely aware that 2016 called for a revamp of the show’s ideology: the six-episode season features an ultra-right-wing TV host and 9/11 truther (Community’s Joel McHale) crusading to prove the most slapstick government conspiracy ever conjured, committed to strand viewers blinking at their TV screens. Carter has catered to loyalists’ whims and tapped into the show’s mythological résumé to have his older, wearier protagonists play out their leaden, paranoid expositions in the age of smartphones. The new-and-improved version of the show, though, has given no satisfying answers regarding Season 9’s loose ends yet (what became of the 2012 alien colonization of Earth? And whatever happened to William?) and instead rewards us with a blip of transmisogyny when Mulder has to explain transitioning to a perplexed reptilian-alien-turned-human, in some of the show’s more questionable writing.
Without getting too political, one of the more rewarding facets of the X Files was that it gave us a very short heroine who, yeah, rolled her eyes at her partner a lot and wore those epochal over-sized dusters that predictably earned her the title of the ‘X–Files anti-style hero’, but who also never broke stride with her intellectualism yet let herself challenge her beliefs, and whom viewers could attribute genuine significance to and maybe justifiably prop up on a pedestal the same way Mulder does. I can draw easy parallels between Carter being my pop culture deity of choice the same way Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin or even Steven Moffat are to many of us today: evasively misogynistic and unmissably problematic, but you’ll find it tough to contest that they radiate talent and charisma as content creators.
Carter has given us a character almost impossible not to respect and develop a pure and genuine connection to in Scully, but ironically what still bugs me about this show is the internalized – or not so internalized – misogyny that’s as much a part of the X Files canon as the fact that episodes more often than not end with Scully sighing over a keyboard as she writes up another report of a case they couldn’t close. What springs to mind first is Scully’s lack of sexual agency, oft interpreted as a (detrimental) testament to her character; there’s also how Gillian Anderson was offered half of Duchovny’s salary when the revival negotiations began, an absurdity that hasn’t received enough media attention and still makes me flail in disbelief.
Leaving the archetypes of the problematic fave that manifest themselves across the span of 208 episodes and 2 films aside for now, Carter and his team have again locked onto what has made the show a prototypical classic of the retro-futuristic tradition, and we’ve still got reason, for a few more weeks, to cheer on the fact that the truth is out there.