clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Review: The X-Files is back, but the fight for the future is over

What happens to paranoia when we welcome surveillance?

Frank Ockenfels/FOX

The very first episode of The X-Files I saw was called "Eve." That was in 1993, when The X-Files still aired on Friday nights, where first season shows go to die. In the episode, two little girls — clones, as it happens — murder their foster fathers, as well as another clone. It gave me nightmares. I didn't miss a single episode after that.

It may be hard to remember now, but the '90s were a paranoid timeBefore The X-Files was a cultural phenomenon, it was a strange rejiggering of The Twilight Zone. Early episodes — the first two seasons, really — had very clear budget constraints. (Most of the "alien" effects were essentially tarps and strobe lights.) But they were tightly written, expressing through paranormal phenomena the anxieties of their age. And there was always some humor in how incompetent Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were as field agents: How many times did Mulder have his gun taken from him? How many times did they lose their evidence? How many times was Scully kidnapped?

It may be hard to remember now, but the 1990s were a paranoid time; it was like all the anxiety tied up in the recently ended Cold War had seeped into society at large. Conspiracy theories bloomed, from JFK's assassination, to the Clintons' role in Vince Foster's death, to — yes — aliens and alien abductions. The X-Files distilled the anxieties of the age into excellent television, at least in the early seasons. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is better-recognized for its paranormal representations of real-world fears, The X-Files dealt with cultural anxieties about technology, knowledge, and surveillance — but also with motherhood, family, belief, community, and sexuality.

The series eventually toppled under the weight of its own mythologyAs we all know, the show became popular, moved to Sunday nights, and became more popular still. The X-Files' popularity ultimately drained the show of its vitality; as its budget expanded, the writing got lazier, relying more heavily on special effects. There were fewer episodes exploring mundane, creeping horror — the everyday awfulness just under the surface of the good ol' USA. Instead, writers began to spend more time on a convoluted internal mythology of alien abduction and less time on the one-off Monster of the Weeks that dealt with the horrific in the ordinary. The playfulness, sense of wonder, and — yes — fun disappeared. The series eventually toppled under the weight of its mythology, which, by the time John Doggett replaced Mulder as Scully's partner, had suffocated the genuine weird edge the show had at the beginning.

I still watched it all. I even watched the abysmal second movie. And now that Fox is airing a miniseries bringing Mulder and Scully back for six episodes, I'll watch it, too. But that doesn't mean you should.



The first episode of the new miniseries moves at a somnolent pace The first episode moves at a somnolent pace, and is primarily concerned with retconning The X-Files mythology to match modern concerns. Which means there isn't a monster of the week, and little attendant humor or liveliness. What there is, instead, is a great deal of exposition, which Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny do their best to deliver with straight faces. Scully and Mulder had a romantic relationship, but they've now broken up. Joel McHale, clearly having fun as an Alex Jones-esque internet personality, has brought them back together to help him confirm what he believes to be solid evidence that aliens are real, and the government is lying. This is only the first episode — all that I've seen. I want to believe it gets better. I have my doubts.

These days, we are far less paranoid than when The X-Files first aired, though we are far more surveilled. The first episode of the miniseries makes several ham-fisted mentions of September 11th, which makes sense; September 11th led to much more widespread government spying. But the more important thing that changed between The X-Files' original airings and now was the rise of corporate surveillance. Most stores now have cameras; many outside locations are also monitored. Even streetlights have cameras to catch the license plates of anyone who runs a red.

These days, Facebook and Google are arguably the largest agents of surveillance in the world. People give these companies all kinds of private information — willingly. (J. Edgar Hoover could only dream of the depths of information people add to their Facebook pages.) In the 1990s, surveillance was a fear; now people happily participate without a second thought. That's an enormous shift in attitude, when fear of surveillance gives way not merely to tolerance of surveillance but actual participation in one's own surveillance — to sousveillance, in other words. Being monitored is now so normal that when Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which the US government spies on its own citizens, said citizens essentially shrugged.

Fear of surveillance gave way to active participation in one's own surveillance The X-Files nods to infosec — Mulder has a post-it over the camera on his computer — though it's clearly inexpert (neither Mulder nor Scully remove the batteries from their cell phones while they have sensitive conversations, for instance — or while they're visiting remote hideouts, where GPS might track them; instead we get some laughable thing about surveillance from planes overhead). But the new episode hasn't quite grasped the massive cultural change around surveillance and the internet — weird, from a show that gave us The Lone Gunmen.

It's a shame that a show that once dealt so well with symbols of cultural anxiety has retreated into trying to figure out how to fit aliens into the modern consciousness. The point of The X-Files was never the aliens, not really; it was the inexplicable phenomena of ordinary life, the feeling you never quite knew your neighbors or your own family as well as you might like, that the world was even stranger than you had imagined. The humdrum components of paranormal activity were what made Mulder and Scully's adventures so rich and resonant. It was the anxiety about our new technology — "Ghost in the Machine," "Sleepless," "Blood" — but also about nature — "Ice," "Darkness Falls" — and faith — "Beyond the Sea," "Miracle Man." The first episode of this miniseries is far more limited in scope, and doesn't have the same resonant pull; we see a replica of an alien spacecraft and we're told Scully has "alien DNA." (What does this mean? She's got a letter other than A, T, G, or C as part of a base pair?) It's not clear to me how this addresses our numerous anxieties about the way our culture is changing.

Fortunately, The X-Files' popularity ensured it would have successors — Black Mirror and Orphan Black come immediately to mind. I just wish that instead of exploiting my nostalgia, the new X-Files episode had given me nightmares — just like the old episodes used to do.