Written by Dylan Arnold
The truth is out there. These are the words imprinted upon a poster hanging above FBI Agent Fox Mulder’s desk. The X-Files was driven by this idea that the truth was hidden behind the status quo. Presenting a world virtually indistinguishable from the real one. The X-Files set about to undermine our reality week after week, never in some Earth shattering way but always significantly. Throughout its run Mulder and fellow FBI Agent Dana Scully encountered a bevy of bizarre phenomena; aliens, artificial intelligence, mutants, ghosts, mind control, monsters, and maybe even the Devil itself. On top of this they faced a shadowy enemy in the Syndicate, corporate and political villains that kept the truth from the public eye for their own ends. Recently the Fox network and The X-Files creator Chris Carter announced that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson would be returning to this world of thinly veiled abnormality as Agents Mulder and Scully in a six episode limited series revival of The X-Files. But does The X-Files still have a place in the world?
In the decade since the show’s cancellation in 2002 there has been a shift in the political and scientific landscapes which, along with the spiritual, formed the bedrock on which The X-Files stood. Firmly rooted in the zeitgeist of the 1990s The X-Files traded off political banality for the sinister echoes of the Nixon administration, the Kennedy assassination, and the lingering horrors of World War II. This dichotomy allowed for The X-Files to operate at serious and ironic levels while maintaining a fluid genre status; though always sci-fi it often presented as a comedy or a horror, sometimes bringing all three genres together. It also presented progressive gender representation by grounding Scully in rationality and science while Mulder was more hysterical and interested in pseudo-sciences, a reversal of hereto established patterns for male and female characters. Building on that The X-Files also provided an interesting and multifaceted debate on science versus religious faith. For all his blind belief in theories regarding the paranormal Mulder finds religiousness as truth to be inconceivable while Scully is of Catholic faith despite continually demanding tangible evidence from Mulder of his theories. These nuanced characterisations contrasted with more or less black and white portrayals before The X-Files and importantly did not hinder Mulder and Scully’s personal or professional relationship with each other, even if they did occasionally cause conflict it was never for conflict’s own sake. It was the progressive presentation of its core characters and thematic issues that turned The X-Files from a weird television show about aliens and monsters into a cultural phenomenon.
Owing to its strong characterisations of people and ideas is that The X-Files’ legacy could withstand its increasingly labyrinthine central narrative. While the specifics of the overarching story of alien colonisation of Earth, the part of the Syndicate in that plan, the importance of the Black Oil, and the fight against these things is only half-remembered it is the characters and themes that remain important. At its height The X-Files featured in television shows like The Simpsons, as in fan favourite episode The Simpsons Files that featured Anderson and Duchovny as Mulder and Scully, as well as referenced in the lyrics to songs such as Bad Touch by the Bloodhound Gang and One Week by The Barenaked Ladies. Furthermore its iconic theme tune has been exported time and time again as an easily recognisable touchstone for the weird and bizarre, identifiable even by people who have not seen a single episode of The X-Files. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani only recently started a podcast called The X-Files Files where he and other celebrities discuss episodes of the series in depth while reflecting on how it affected their lives, their careers, the world, and how the world affected it. Perhaps most importantly its influence can also be felt in many television shows. The conflict between faith and science as well as a long serialised and complex narrative were major elements of LOST, FBI Agents investigating bizarre science was the premise of Fringe, and Supernatural mimics certain narrative structures popularised by The X-Files. It surpassed predecessors like The Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks in longevity but also arguably in broad appeal and cultural relevance. Fox therefore has good reason to reboot The X-Files from a specifically monetary angle, they did so with 24 to great ratings success, and The X-Files fan base is just as dedicated ensuring a hoard of built in viewership. However the aspects that lead to this appeal were, again, a product of its time period and its proximity to the tragedies in previous decades. While still discussed and studied these tragedies are less in the modern consciousness than they were in the 1990s. As such a return of The X-Files would need to find new anchor points.
The X-Files did show continued reflexivity to modern events, particularly in its Monster of the Week episodes. Likewise Carter has said that he has been paying attention to current events and gathering stories he could use for a new series. It would be interesting to see what monster might be born of a post-9/11 world with threats like ISIL and a surge in Eastern European conflict. Given the core themes of secrecy and truth though it might be better to see it driven by a different event; in 2006 Julian Assange co-founded Wikileaks, a website dedicated to the leaking of classified government documents that found worldwide notoriety in 2010 after publishing United States military and diplomatic secrets. This act was particularly controversial due to the risk these documents posed to United States government employees that were suddenly identifiable to their enemies, stoking the fires of a debate on the right to truth versus the need for secrecy. Later in 2013 an NSA contractor by the name of Edward Snowden leaked documents that detailed global surveillance programs allowing for the monitoring of ordinary citizens. Assange and Snowden have become notorious figures in the public eye with popular opinion divided as to the moral character of them and their actions. As government whistle blowers they are in stark contrast to the likes of Deepthroat who assisted in the Watergate scandal and, by extension, the shadowy informants that assist Mulder and Scully. These figures are vital elements of The X-Files and its mythology so a revival of the series would likely see such figures adapted for the present day. Setting the new series in a post-leak world could dramatically change the drive of The X-Files. What role does the villainous keeper of secrets known only as the Cigarette Smoking Man have in a world where information is no longer a guarded commodity? Whether they choose to follow an uplifting beat by having Mulder vindicated and his theories proven to be accurate, or they show a world where public apathy and ignorance means that the Syndicate still wields power despite evidence of their actions being made public knowledge, The X-Files can make a comment on the contemporary world. Through addressing these new sensations The X-Files could also put a clever twist on the phrase that drives it; for better or worse the truth is out there.
Science fiction, horror, and comedy have always worked best as a twisted mirror to contemporary issues. At the time of its original airing The X-Files garnered a lasting popularity for its sophisticated handling of its core themes and characters, something a six episode revival season could focus even further while refining its overly complicated central narrative. There is also plenty of material to be explored through the representation of modern horrors and scientific advances through Monster of the Week episodes as well as exploring the actions of people like Assange and Snowden for the myth arc. While bringing back a series so built upon the time in which it was made does seem risky the nature of The X-Files makes it perfect to contrast then and now, to contrast a time of relative peacefulness enduring shadows of a dark past with a time of relative unrest with memories of the placidness of two decades ago. Not only might The X-Files have something to say upon its return it may even be important. The truth is out there, and The X-Files can show it to us.
*A special thank you to Dylan for writing this week’s article. You will see these guest spots pop up from time to time when circumstances keep me from writing. Given the vastness of the pop culture sphere being able to call upon different wells of knowledge means 1Up Culture can cover a greater range of interests, and it also allows different styles of writing to shine through.