Technology-based horror is nothing new for The X-Files, which had FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully confront their first murderous AI back in the 1993 episode “Ghost in the Machine.” But technological threats have always had the same status as other monster-of-the week problems on the show, which used to give futuristic fears the same weight as the series’ multiple episodes about killer fungus.
That’s changed since The X-Files returned for its 10th season in 2015. In that season’s premiere episode, Mulder (David Duchovny) learned that the alien invasion he feared for decades isn’t happening, and may never have actually been planned. The revelation helped cut ties with the series’ original nine-year run, and the extremely convoluted mythology it developed from 1993 to 2002. But it also moved the show closer to the focus of one of its most popular successors, Netflix’s horror anthology Black Mirror. The X-Files’ primary conflict is no longer with mysterious extraterrestrials, but with humans who are using cell phones and space travel to their own terrible ends.
That shift has become even more acute in the series’ 11th season. In the season premiere (airing at 8PM Eastern January 3rd on Fox), Mulder discovers a second conspiracy, set up in opposition to his longtime antagonist Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). The second group is preparing for the possibility that CSM might actually succeed in using an alien virus to wipe out most life on Earth. To prepare, the new conspirators plan to colonize space, and they’ve already started building Dyson spheres and other habitable structures that will house a chosen elite.
The space-race group, led by Erika Price (Barbara Hershey), have access to alien technology they’ve kept out of the hands of the rest of humanity — even though it could have ended fossil fuel use and stopped the planetary degradation CSM uses to justify his actions. That alien tech presumably provided the head start the group needs to get to space. But the real source of those technological leaps is revealed in the new season’s upcoming second episode, “This.” A dark reflection of Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning episode “San Junipero,” “This” starts with Richard Langly (Dean Haglund) of the Lone Gunmen calling Mulder from a digital afterlife he helped design. Glen Morgan co-wrote the episode that introduced the trio of hackers, so it’s fitting that this season, he’s found a way to resurrect one of them.
It turns out Langly helped build a repository for the intellects of dead geniuses, and when he died in season nine, his consciousness became active in a paradise of his own making. But he wants out. He knows his surroundings are a lie, and he says he’s become a “digital slave,” forced to develop space colonization science that the elite will use to leave Earth behind.
That’s an eerie, compelling story hook, combining the dark edges of “San Junipero”’s questions about what parts of us could digitally survive death, and the use of The Attic’s residents in Dollhouse as organic computers. But it’s a shame that Morgan doesn’t explore it more. Instead, “This” is packed with intimate moments between Mulder and Scully (Gillian Anderson) as they try to honor their friend’s wishes, and learn that “The X-Files” are no longer purely physical files. Russian operatives have accessed the files’ secrets via the digital versions, a nod to present politics, and an acknowledgment that cybersecurity is much more important now than it was 15 years ago.
How did Langly figure out his world wasn’t real, since the truth has apparently evaded other dead geniuses, including Steve Jobs? Why doesn’t the episode bother to explain its throwaway claim that a living consciousness and the posthumous simulations can’t coexist? Maybe it’s for the best that the new season of The X-Files doesn’t get too deep into explaining its computer science. Like Charlie Brooker with Black Mirror, the current X-Files team is more interested in how technology affects individuals than it is in dwelling on what made that technology possible. Morgan proved he knows how to make an unsettling episode about technology when he co-wrote the season two X-Files episode “Blood,” where the Lone Gunmen help Mulder and Scully investigate a series of murders committed by people who received subliminal messages via electronic devices. The X-Files has traditionally relied more on strong characters and the ability to evoke mood than on hard science or real-world technological issues.
But even by that standard, Morgan’s explanation about how Langly’s simulation would work is ridiculous. “We can upload a mind now through any smartphone,” Erika Price explains. “No one’s even aware we’re doing it. We can take a piece of your mind any time you make a call. It’s painless.”
It’s also pointlessly simple, since she also says she bribes people to upload themselves by promising they can live forever with their loved ones. (Which again recalls “San Junipero.”) Either way, she claims, she isn’t doing anything horrific or non-consensual. Do people have a choice about whether to get uploaded? “Sure you do. You could not use your phone,” Price says, with a dismissive laugh.
The danger of surrendering power to technology for convenience, comfort, or fun is one of Black Mirror’s dominant themes, and Price’s comment cuts right to it. When she reveals her space-colonization plan in the season premiere, she tries to temper Mulder’s outrage by offering him a spot among the elite. It’s another reminder of the point Black Mirror makes in episodes like “Fifteen Million Merits,” of the ways technological advances in the hands of a few powerful people can reshape society, and warp anyone who wants to share their power. Her reveal about her brain-uploads is just as telling. Mulder is famously paranoid, but he still uses a cellphone and a laptop, and even learning about the dangerous downsides of those technologies doesn’t change his behavior. The convenience trap is powerful: when society relies so heavily on technology, it’s hard to be the first one to walk away from it.
Which leads back to one of The X-Files’ most famous mottos, “Fight the Future.” Black Mirror questions humanity’s willingness to do that — and so does the new season of The X-Files. The Cigarette Smoking Man and other X-Files villains were traditionally seen as despicable for collaborating with aliens bent on subjugating humanity. But the aliens were always mysterious outsiders. Technology is a more intimate and hard-to-resist enemy. In an age where the differences in health, wealth, and access to technology continue to grow, CSM’s conspiracy no longer needs extraterrestrial backers in order to make monstrous choices. They’ve changed with the times.
And that shift is a smart one for The X-Files, giving the creators a chance to make the show relevant to a new generation of viewers who aren’t watching out of nostalgia or habit. Alien abductions no longer have the same power to inspire nightmares that they once did. The X-Files used to center on manifestations of post-Cold War paranoia and secrecy. Now it’s shifting to address the sensation that technology is rapidly changing the world, and only a lucky few are likely to benefit.