The X-Files Brings Back the Conspiracy-Industrial Complex—and Gets Better as It Goes

In 1961, Dwight Eisenhower famously left the White House with a warning to the American public about the rise of the military-industrial complex. When Barack Obama exits the Oval Office next year, he wouldn’t be remiss in cautioning the nation about the conspiracy-industrial complex, which has dug its tentacles into both the extremist and mainstream media during his presidency.

Since The X-Files‘ debut two decades ago, conspiracy theorists have devolved from (mostly) harmless kooks with UFO fetishes into birthers and Sandy Hook truthers. The show’s six-episode revival, which will kick off with a two-hour debut on Sunday, Jan. 24, places itself in the awkward position of asking viewers to align philosophically, if not politically, with the kind of loathsome nutjob who’d declare, as guest star Joel McHale’s Alex Jones-esque TV host does, that “9/11 was a false-flag operation. It was a warm-up to World War III. . . . It’s all part of a conspiracy dating back to the UFO crash in 1947 in Roswell.”

Newcomers to the series—still about two FBI agents (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) who investigate seemingly paranormal events while uncovering a government plot to conceal evidence of extraterrestrials’ presence on Earth—might very well wonder if the mass popularity of The X-Files itself is an elaborate hoax. I wouldn’t blame them, given the deeply silly self-seriousness that courses through the show’s veins. Prepare for the tonal and narrative whiplash of the first three episodes, each of which operates in a different mode: paranoid social commentary, horror procedural and mocking self-referentiality.

As a former fanatic, I wanted to believe that Mulder and Scully could make a comeback. But my skepticism—which I partly learned from the series—was right all along. The world has changed, and The X-Files has frustratingly stayed the same. As a result, the reboot’s first two episodes feel like a rundown of the series’ biggest faults: its unconvincing portrayal of government as a hyper-efficient Orwellian machine, its failure to treat its two main characters as logical and emotionally believable people, its inept stabs at serialization and its subtle but pervasive sexism. But the searchingly existential and wittily ironic third hour—written and directed by Darin Morgan, who has penned some of the show’s most iconic episodes—finally makes the return not just worthwhile, but welcome.

It’s not easy to pick up a story after nine seasons and two feature films, especially when the original structure was built on sand and red herrings. (The X-Files’ first run featured at least three different types of aliens, all with ever-shifting agendas involving abductions, medical experiments and plans to colonize the planet.)

Easily the weakest episode of the first three, the season premiere attempts to streamline the series’ convoluted, decade-long backstory into something more comprehensible. Unfortunately, there’s even more crowding at Exposition Junction to come: getting Mulder and Scully back in the FBI, dealing with the fallout of their romantic breakup, exploring the consequences of Scully’s possibly alien DNA (long story), hissing at yet another informant who’s coy to the point of uselessness and sounding the alarms of government overreach. And that’s not counting the actual plot, which finds anchorman Tad O’Malley (McHale) attempting to enlist the two agents’ help in exposing “the most evil conspiracy the world has ever known.” Apparently he’s never heard of the Nazis.

The X-Files has always relied on Mulder and Scully failing; success would mean proving definitively that alien and other supernatural phenomena exist, an outcome that would negate the premise of the show. Moody atmospherics, earnest doubt and the playfully sparring banter between the two investigators have traditionally made up for that formula, but the premiere strikes out on all three counts. Once the standard-bearer for creepy TV, the show is conspicuously tame compared to the rest of the blood and gore on the small screen today. Duchovny and Anderson have a few getting-the-band-back-together kinks to work out, but the real problem might be with series creator Chris Carter’s direction.

Would-be applause lines such as Mulder’s post-9/11 critique—“They police us, they spy on us, tell us that makes us safer. We’ve never been in more danger”—sound plausible (if probably untrue) out of context, but asinine and unhinged when applied to the specifics of the preposterous “venal conspiracy of men against humanity” that the two agents crusade against. It’d be one thing if The X-Files existed in its own universe, but the show has always strived to connect its social and political critiques to our world. That only works, though, when the target is recognizable, and no one who paid attention to the bunglings of Operation Fast and Furious and the Iraq War—or, hell, who has ever been to the DMV—would find The X-Files’ version of a well-oiled, omnipotent government credible.

At least the show has kept its bone-dry sense of humor. Scully’s autopsy diagnosis of a suicide—that the “probable cause of death is the introduction, self-propelled, of a letter opener into the cerebral cortex by way of the ear canal,” delivered as she’s staring, head cocked, at a knife handle sticking out of a dead man’s head—is the only reason to catch the humdrum second episode’s case of the week. That hour also attempts to reckon with the many ludicrous tragedies the two agents have faced: Scully’s kidnapping, the theft of her ovaries (really long story) and the baby that the agents secretly gave up for adoption for his own safety. Graceless and generic, the episode dashes through stories that could comprise, on most shows, season-long coping arcs of their own. (Presumably the one thing this all-seeing, all-knowing, all-killing cabal can’t do is ransack the files of an adoption agency.) After all these years, The X-Files still hasn’t learned how to treat its main characters as emotional beings, which is why Mulder and Scully are allotted a couple of fantasy/nightmare sequences before it’s on to the next monster.

Still, Morgan’s “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” is a near-perfect short film on its own, as well as an in-joke-stuffed bouquet of rewards for fans. An exquisitely considered and blithely misanthropic examination of what we consider “monstrous” and “absurd” and “necessary,” it centers on a mystery too delicate to wilt with descriptions here. Suffice to say, it’s a showcase for the flummoxed charms of the terrific Rhys Darby, who plays a character as memorable as Morgan’s other two standouts: Peter Boyle’s Clyde Bruckman and Charles Nelson Reilly’s Jose Chung. The hour is the most “’90s” of the three—directed by Morgan, it’s visually utilitarian, and a recurring transgender joke definitely clanks of a different era—but it’s also the only one of the bunch that made me remember what made The X-Files not just a pop phenomenon, but one of the most important TV shows of its time. If The X-Files’ UFO paranoia has aged badly, its alienated melancholy proves timeless. 

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