From 1993 to 2002, a strange show that played off of well-worn tropes from The Twilight Zone, monster movies, and classic detective serials grew from a cult hit into a mainstream phenomenon. Now, twenty-two years since it first aired, The X-Files has been resurrected in the age of the reboot. The iconic sci-fi show feels so familiar, it’s almost as though it hasn’t changed at all. The chemistry is back, thanks to a reunion of the cast, writers, and directors. So is our affection for the conspiracies, the paranormal activities, and the overarching mythology. Even the cheesy special effects haven’t changed since the 90s.
So why does The X-Files feel so bad? How has this previously self-aware and campy series become so serious and out of touch?
The problem isn’t with the show itself. They’re a bit rusty, but Mulder and Scully get right back into the swing of things, and I still believe the chemistry between them. And the series was always completely unbelievable, so it’s not like our incredulity at a universe in which just about every cryptozoological monster can coexist with alien-human hybrid super soldiers makes the reboot feel off. Instead, the issue is how the society around The X-Files has changed since it was aired in the last millennium.
When the show launched, the publicly-accessible internet was still in its infancy. Conspiracy theories about alien abductions, black ops, and the Illuminati were reserved for a small number of isolated tin foil hat wearers who traded “information” through obscure radio shows, crude web forums, and infrequent meetings. These bizarre, mostly harmless ideas were a goldmine for a unique brand of science fiction that combined tried-and-true stories of little grey men with the thrilling paranoia that infused a niche segment of society. The resultant X-Files universe was one filled with fun creatures, as well as an unending spiral of intrigue that could never be resolved.
Since the 90s, however, a strange thing happened: Those conspiracies have moved from fringe beliefs to ideas held by a large chunk of the mainstream population. With the internet fertilizing whole communities devoted to obscure hobbies and ideologies—however odd or ugly—every manner of conceivable conspiracy theory seems to have attracted its own devoted adherents.
As a result, the quirky and mysterious plot lines of The X-Files are no longer representative of niche tin foil hat wearers. They are representative of a dangerously misinformed segment of the US citizenry that frequently overlaps with climate change deniers, 911 truthers, and birthers. The Illuminati isn’t a fascination of just one specific subculture, but something YouTube viewers associate with with Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Blue Ivy, on a central, public platform.
Since the revelations of Edward Snowden, some of the paranoia we might feel towards the government has turned out to have been completely justified. Many world governments, in collaboration with certain corporations, are indeed spying on their own populations. However, most of these conspiracies just fuel an anti-big government sentiment that is increasingly used as a tool of large corporations and politicians to increase the wealth of the rich at the expense of social welfare programs.
There’s an ideological overlap between those that both believe that aliens are real and that the government is trying to control them. In turn, they tend to believe we should shrink government powers. Today, prominent politicians seize on fears surrounding immigrants (the real-life illegal aliens), taxation, and the federal government taking firearms from gun owners (their means of protecting themselves from invasions of various stripes). It’s no surprise then that the same (wealthy) presidential candidates that demanded to see President Obama’s birth certificate are also in favor of building walls to keep Mexican migrants from entering the United States.
The X-Files has been resurrected in a time in which its ideas propelling the show’s narrative are no longer simply fun for their mystery, science fiction, and drawing from an interesting subculture. The ideas are verging on mainstream, heavily mirroring right-wing ideologies that have led to an expansion of power for right wing ideologues in a time in which inequality is at its highest, democracy is at its most fragile, and government regulation of financial institutions and polluting corporations are of the utmost importance. And because economically vulnerable groups are more susceptible to proposed solutions to end their economic woes, as occurs during any depression (including Germany after WWI) these ideologies could foment a very dangerous tide of racism combined with patriotism that makes the rise of Donald Trump terrifying.
So, The X-Files has survived, but it’s survival may be toxic. It’s easy to imagine that the show’s creator, a registered Democrat with stated progressive beliefs, had no intention of appealing to such an audience when reviving the show. And it may help explain the tepid reception it’s received. But, regardless of the creators’ sociopolitical leanings, plot lines surrounding Islamic extremists and chemtrails—in addition to transphobic jokes and arguments against vaccination—can’t be considered entirely innocuous. The show is no longer harmless fun, as it was twenty years ago.
It’s a reflection of the paranoia that has, like the show itself, once again found itself in prime time.