I was too young for the original run of The X-Files, but I binge watched it as a teenager with my dad one summer after my mom had gone to bed at night. (Which suited her just fine.) It was a miraculous show that played with the question of truth versus fiction and madness versus reality, and I loved it for that. It made the fantastic plausible by fixing it in the ordinariness of real life – including but certainly not limited to: offices, bureaucracy, difficult family, friendship, and neighborhood associations.
And it gave us Mulder the believer and Scully the skeptic, who traded their roles as needed in their search for the truth in a way that always maintained that delicate balance between belief and disbelief.
And in the same way, that search never gave them answers without qualifications. At least, not without taking it all back and pulling the rug out from under them down the line. The people they thought were authorities were shown to be frauds or pawns. The events they believed took place were shown to have been psychologist-tampered memories. In the event they saw a spaceship or aliens, it was through “deep regression hypnosis”, or a doctored photograph, or planted evidence. Nothing was real. Everything was real. It only mattered what they believed and their reasons for believing it – and so that belief made itself the star, front and center. The Truth Is Out There.
But where is the truth, and what is that belief? Scully the skeptic was still a devout (if lapsed) Catholic, who believed she’d encountered seraphim, stigmata, and saints. Mulder the believer believed in anything and everything but that.
We’re in a time of national crisis right now over our national and personal identities, both of which come down to how we conceive of ourselves. What do we believe? Why do we believe it? Are larger forces maliciously manipulating us into either? Everything is real, or nothing. Both are true all at once. We have skeptics and believers everywhere vying for their own souls and for the soul of the nation. The spirit of The X-Files is alive and well.
And yet the usual explaining-away you see for the general not-greatness of the last movie and season of the show is that the spirit of The X-Files was so thoroughly tied to the 90’s that it can’t be brought into the current moment. It’s passed. It’s a relic of 90’s cult television.
If that were actually true, it would be a damn shame. What’s actually true is even more of a damn shame.
I won’t go into the details of the awfulness of the reboot, particularly starting in Season 11, because there’s too much of it and it makes me too sad. What I will say is that the show started to go off its rails in Season 8, when Scully became an unqualified believer in everything, and there was only John Doggett’s skepticism to balance her. The relic of that decision to rebalance means that you still have a relentlessly paranoid Scully in Season 11, with none of the steady, fond, and scientific pragmatism she brought to offset the incomprehensible wonder of the fantastic. That might be okay, except it’s not coming from anyone else, either. And then you also have obscure (and frankly terrible) plotlines Chris Carter started writing back in 1999 that he’s recommitted to in full force in 2018. Even if those plotlines weren’t the pinnacle of gross and overcomplicated, there’s been no care to establish and flesh out an ordinary real life to situate them in. And so the show is radically overbalanced. There is not even a hint of plausibility to any of it.
The result? It’s made itself ridiculous, a awful parody of itself. A relic of 90’s cult television.
For me, I will begin my rewatch of the original show, and pretend this is all a bad dream. The X-Files version 1.0 had a lot to teach us about the nature of the fantastic and how to see it, and even more to teach artists about how to render it into our creations. The truth is (still!) out there, friends.