After two episodes, I am fully on-board with the new X-Files (read my review). However, io9’s Katharine Trendacosta made a fairly compelling argument yesterday that Chris Carter has failed to delve as deeply into modern age paranoia as he so easily could have. She even used his own words against him, pointing to an interview he gave to Sci Fi Now in which he explained just why he thought the world was ready for a return of The X-Files. Hint: It’s not merely about nostalgia.
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.
The X-Files and its wonderfully malleable format is precisely the type of show which can speak to our modern anxieties. We’ve moved past post-9/11 jingoism and returned to the assumption that the “man” is out to get us, tapping our phones, poisoning our water (poor, poor Flint, Michigan). In The X-Files‘ absence, Person of Interest stepped in to speak up against the NSA wiretappers, and Charlie Brooker’s brilliant anthology series Black Mirror continues to take fascinating looks at what it means to live in a world increasingly overrun by technology.
But, come on, Mulder and Scully used to do that kind of thing on a weekly basis. They got in on the ground floor, coming of age right as the internet age began. As such, in-between its more well-known stories of alien abductions and supernatural happenings, X-Files routinely told us about dangerous AIs (like in season 1’s “Ghost in the Machine), weird tech (like the digital appliances prompting townspeople to kill each other in seasons 2’s “Blood’), the sexual predators lurking behind online dating services (like in season 3’s “2shy”) or the potential for mind control through TV (like in season 3’s “Wetwired”):
It’s not so much that such stories need to be the focus of the new series since ranting about aliens seems quaint compared to the more tangible fears of living in a technological police state. The X-Files has to remain true to itself, and you could easily argue that the episodes I referenced are examples of what The X-Files was NOT good at. However, now that Mulder and Scully are back on the job don’t you kind of want to see what they think of the brave new world of 2016?
Well, Mulder knows who Edward Snowden is, and Scully’s heard of Uber. She also uses one of those fake internet search engines you only see in movies/TV shows, yet she’s quick to refer to herself as being smart in a pre-Google kind of way (her endless factoids come straight from her brain, not from the internet). Mulder proudly refers to himself as “old school” and makes sure to put a piece of tape over the webcam on his laptop. He’s still ranting about government cover ups and how we’re being spied upon. All of the crazy things that have happened in the world since the show went off the air are supposedly tied to the one percenters who have been using alien DNA from the downed Roswell spaceship. By the end of the first episode, all of the evidence is disappeared by mysterious soldiers dispatched by the conspirators.
It’s actually vintage X-Files, the type of thing we’ve seen time and time again. However, Trendacosta wonders if the show is missing an obvious opportunity to hold up a mirror to society the way it used to back in the glory days:
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 (Joel McHale’s O’Malley) 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.”)
Carter referenced that kind of thing in his Sci Fi Now interview, pointing to pervasive cell phones, computer webcams and the illusion of privacy on the internet as modern realities which could make for great starting points for X-Files stories. Instead, we’ve had a season premiere which tied everything to a shadowy organization using alien technology, and a second episode about a mad scientist using alien DNA to experiment on pregnant women and young children. Again, vintage X-Files, but should the show be trying harder?
Trendacosta sure thinks so:
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.
Honestly, she’s not wrong. By the end of the second new episode I was glad to have The X-Files back, and I look forward to the remaining four episodes of this truncated season, especially since critics have been raving about next week’s episode. It doesn’t feel quite as fresh as it once did, but how could it? When X-Files premiered in 1993, it was revolutionary. Countless would-be X-Files have come and gone since then. Heck, Supernatural, Eric Kripke’s horror movie version of X-Files, is halfway through its 11th season with no end in sight.
There is a comforting old-fashioned quality to the new X-Files, e.g., “Look at Mulder, still ranting about conspiracies and aliens, God love him.” Plus, if you’re like me you don’t so much care about the mythology but just want to see Duchovny and Anderson back together, him the believer, her the skeptic, encountering crazy new cases each week. As part of that equation, you simply accept the fact that sometimes the X-Files will overreach, and Duchovny will dare you to figure out if he’s actually genuinely bored or purposefully laconic.
However, is the old-fashioned feel to its current season robbing the show of a chance to offer some actual cogent sci-fi commentary? Trendacosta concluded:
There’s zero depth to the way the revival uses [its supposedly] 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.
Do you agree? Disagree?