We’re two episodes into the X-Files revival, and what we’ve gotten is pretty much a throwback to the show’s 1990s glory days. Which is a problem—because instead, this show should be taking advantage of everything that’s changed since it went off the air in 2002.
As an X-Files fan, I’ve become resigned to not agreeing with Chris Carter, the show’s creator, about much of anything. But I do agree with him on this one thing: 2016 is the perfect time for the X-Files to come back.
In an interview with Sci Fi Now earlier this month, Carter said:
In about 2001 or 2002, after the Twin Towers, we put all our faith in the government to protect us. We gave up rights and liberties, and we put our absolute faith and trust in the government to insulate us from a threat. In doing so, I think we’ve given up more than we bargained for, especially in terms of our privacy.
In fact, the government has admitted that they are spying on us, so we’re now living in a time where there is a sense that there are conspirators afoot. It’s a perfect time in which to tell X-Files stories, which is much like we suggested in the Nineties, because there may be people working against your best interests.
All of this is true. The X-Files is a show that breathes paranoia. The more distrust of authority there is, the more perfectly this show fits in with the zeitgeist. Since the show went off the air, our prevailing feeling has changed from “the government is doing things to protect us” to “the government is watching us, all the time, everywhere.”
But this new X-Files miniseries isn’t even about that. Mulder talks about this notion a lot, but we don’t see any actual evidence that anything’s changed. Or that the secret conspiracies have grown more insidious. Mulder talks about being spied on all the time, but that’s always been true. There’s no more spying or cover ups than there used to be. No one’s playbook has been updated. The cover up in the first episode is the usual thing of Men in Black showing up and disappearing evidence. Which happened all the time in the old show.
The X-Files could be playing off our technological paranoia in new and interesting ways. Instead, we have a character who is a 9/11 truther and who talks about how the government is coming for our guns. Nothing is new or interesting.
If anything, this show’s conspiracy should be one step ahead, with all the spying they’re supposedly doing. If anyone types anything on a computer, the shadowy conspirators should know instantly, and we should see this happening. We don’t. Maybe because this is less cinematic than having a literal person sit in a room watching Mulder and Scully report to Skinner. (Which is what happens in the second episode, “Founder’s Mutation.”)
In the same Sci Fi Now interview, Chris Carter also said:
We live in a media-saturated world now. We live in a technologically different world to the one we lived in 23 years ago. Remember, when Mulder and Scully would talk to each other, they would do it with giant cell phones. Now, the cell phones are so small that we actually had to use slightly bigger versions so they didn’t get lost in their hands. Simple things like that have changed.
You have a camera on your computer now, so people could be looking at you through your computer, which is something brand new to our world. Plus, everything you write on your computer is not necessarily something that can be kept private – and that’s something new, too. The X-Files grew up with the internet, but it had to. Now, we have to be mindful of what the internet has become, as well as the power of the internet and social media.
Oh man, the new X-Files really should be all about social media. Mulder should be tracking the appearances of monsters via Twitter. Combing the wild and weird corners of the internet for evidence and theories. Or expanding on things like Facebook’s weird psychological studies—instead of the usual dime-a-dozen mad doctor from “Founder’s Mutation,” we could have had an episode about experiments people “agreed to” by signing up for a social media account.
Back in the old days, Mulder was a big deal in the UFO community. If he still is, then the internet should play a big role in the information Mulder is sent and the evidence we see. If he isn’t, having fallen off the grid, then they should meet that kind of resistance, too. The FBI—or any government agency—isn’t going to be trusted by the people Mulder and Scully visit.
And yet, the new X-Files still seems incredibly dated. The first episode, “My Struggle,” clearly just doesn’t get the internet. Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale) is supposed to be some sort of internet Bill O’Reilly—that’s the reference that keeps getting dropped. He has a set that’s reminiscent of many a cable TV blowhard. The Fox News references give the game away. However, he’s supposed to be an internet guy, not a cable guy. O’Malley is clearly more Alex Jones than Bill O’Reilly, but that’s a reference too far outside the obvious.
There’s also the way that the show refers to the “‘Net” and Scully’s weird blurting of “Uber?” when Mulder shows up. Mulder jokes that he hitchhiked—but a better reference for this show would be Mulder going off about the data Uber collects, the security breaches it has, and the casual suggestion of digging up dirt on journalists.
Cell phones are another area that’s ripe for plumbing. The original show actually had cell phones relatively early, and Mulder and Scully obviously still have them in the new show. We hear constantly about how insecure they are and—back before everyone actually carried a computer everywhere—the X-Files did episodes about AIs and weird tech. Why aren’t cell phones more controversial to Mulder, the ultimate paranoid conspiracist?
The extent to which the X-Files has capitalized on our renewed distrust of the government seems limited to just random references, sprinkled through scripts that otherwise feel as though they could have been sitting around since the show went off the air. That’s how little has changed. Mulder is told it’s a crime to release classified documents, and he snarks “I’m familiar with Edward Snowden.” Who isn’t?
There’s zero depth to the way the revival uses these topical references. This show doesn’t need to educate its viewers on the existence of 9/11 truthers and drones and Edward Snowden. Instead, The X-Files should have been capitalizing on that knowledge to build more fascinating stories. Mulder (and O’Malley’s) rants aren’t that interesting, filled with the kinds of things that filled the internet a decade ago. But the random references to things like Uber and recent Supreme Court decisions seem to be there solely to make it “current.” Which has the perverse effect of making the show seem even more dated.
The revival, as it is, is fine. It is perfectly watchable, especially after the first episode. There are even moments that approach greatness. But this is also a huge waste of an opportunity to do so, so much more.
Top image: Ed Araquel/Fox Middle image: Ed Araquel/FOX Bottom image: Screencap from “My Struggle”