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Is The X-Files’s Old-School Paranoia Still Relevant?

When it comes to TV reboots, nostalgia can be a deadly weapon.

Ed Araquel/FOX

In this age of television reboots, the challenge for showrunners is to tap into what made an original series so popular while successfully updating the story for a new generation. Some, like Star Wars, do this by gently phasing out beloved characters of old while introducing a new crew cast in their image. Others, like The Hobbit movies, flounder in trying to match its predecessor too closely. Nostalgia can be a deadly weapon, and it’s easy to make excuses for poor storytelling when it’s so delightful to revisit a familiar world.

The pilot of the new X-Files, premiering on Fox this Sunday after over a decade off the TV airwaves, so effectively taps into this nostalgia that the plot seems almost unimportant. But a successful reboot cannot subsist on fond memories alone, and based on the first episode, “My Struggle,” it seems unlikely that the new six-episode season can do more than remind fans of the good old days. This X-Files tries to avoid the nostalgia trap by updating the quintessentially ’90s story to today, but in doing so falls into a different trap: that of trying to fit a conspiracy story to the digital world.

“My Struggle” picks up where the ninth season and second movie left off in 2008, though it doesn’t delve into all the specifics of the various conspiracies that had been uncovered by that point. The X-Files—cases deemed unsolvable by the FBI— have been shuttered, and Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) have broken up, though both are still hanging around D.C. As the episode opens, Mulder is living partially off the grid with a burner phone, and Scully is working as a surgeon amidst blood-splatters and stainless steel gurneys. The two are thrown back together after a call from FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi): Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), a conservative news personality, thinks he has the proof that will finally—finally—blow the alien conspiracy wide open. But first, Mulder and Scully have to pay a visit to Sveta (The Americans’ Annet Mahendru), a beautiful alien abductee squirreled away in a cabin in rural Virginia.

In some ways The X-Files appears better suited for rebooting than many other franchises caught in the recent wave of television resurrection. The sense that the government is keeping something from the American people has only increased since Mulder and Scully first started digging into fetus harvesting and the Kennedy assassination. Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have, for better or worse, shown the world the consequences of being a whistleblower, and Mulder’s essential goal was always to be a whistleblower. The specifics of today’s paranoia may have changed—Islamist terrorism, drones, satellite surveillance, Putin’s Russia—but it’s merely a transposition of the same paranoia that imbued the series two decades ago, steeped in fears of domestic terrorism, surveillance, and the new Russian state.

But although the international political atmosphere’s current parallels make the reboot so tempting, the defining aspect of our contemporary reality—the internet—makes updating The X-Files while keeping its original charm impossible. It’s what doomed the show back when it was still in its original series; the show’s decline tracks exactly with the rise in the internet, even though it was one of the first shows to gain a loyal online following. The internet makes plots that center on conspiracy difficult to manage—information travels too quickly, people are constantly online instead of in the field, and keeping secrets is exponentially harder. It is possible to have a realistic show about conspiracies in the internet age (see Mr. Robot), but that requires devoting a lot of screen time to the internet itself. Although The X-Files did have hacker characters in the past, it’s most exciting moments came when Mulder and Scully met sources in car parks or discovered farms raising smallpox-carrying bees. In the new X-Files, the internet is an awkward presence. For example, Scully uses a website called “MindQuad” that’s clearly supposed to be YouTube, and it’s not clear why Mulder and Scully—now out of the field for so many years—are still the people most qualified to find out what the government is hiding.

Some details in The X-Files have been better updated to 2016 than others. Mulder covers his laptop camera with duct tape, a clever detail that emphasizes how his technoparanoia expresses itself in 2016. As O’Malley, McHale captures the perfect hair, teeth, and smarm of a FOX anchor so ubiquitous in our age of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin. But Scully is inexplicably back in her FBI power suits. (What doctor spends all day in scrubs and decides to change into high heels for the drive home?) The most disappointing shift comes from the atmosphere of the show itself. The HD cinematography illuminates too clearly scenes that in the original were so dark that it was difficult to tell what was happening—an aesthetic that duplicated the show’s feelings of confusion and fear. 

The best seasons of The X-Files hit on the magic blend of fantasy and reality that propels the best science fiction. The world that Mulder and Scully explored, in the emerald rainforests of the Pacific Northwest and sandblasted Navajo reservations, was pure escapism. But gradually the show became bogged down by its own labyrinthine mythology. The new show tries to escape all that by hitting the reset button, but it resets too much, and too clumsily. Die-hard viewers might be alienated by the new conspiracy, the claim that this time we really will uncover the answer, while new viewers will likely be underwhelmed. If the rest of the series follows the pattern of earlier seasons, later episodes will complicate the explanation, and it was the complication rather than the answers that was always the most compelling part of The X-Files. But the magic that dissipated after the sixth season hasn’t returned. The comforting familiarity of Mulder and Scully’s back-and-forths, the sources hiding in creaking cabins in the woods, and the alien ships hovering overhead is pleasant, and a reminder that the best thing 2016 brings to The X-Files isn’t a new series, but the technology to watch the old series any time you want.