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An old, recognizable poster is visible on the wall of Fox Mulder’s office during the new X-Files miniseries. It shows a blurry image of what appears to be a flying saucer hovering over a forest. Printed in bold type below the shot: i want to believe. It serves as a testament to Mulder’s earnest faith in extraterrestrial or paranormal beings and a deep skepticism towards a heavy-handed federal government that suppresses and obfuscates their existence.
That the iconic image still hangs in the same spot since The X-Files pilot aired way back in 1993 is a little wink to longtime fans. But in 2016, it’s also a cringe-inducing, laughably outdated relic—both because of events that have occurred over the last 23 years in Chris Carter’s beloved sci-fi universe and, more importantly, what’s transpired in our own world.
The gap in The X-Files‘s internal logic is the size of a black hole, and it’s the most glaring problem that drags down the six-episode miniseries. (Episode four airs tonight.) The show asks viewers to be smart enough to follow its dense plots and labyrinthine conspiracy theories while also demanding they turn off their brains long enough to swallow the idea that this pair of FBI agents and ex-lovers still question the existence of otherworldly beings and strange phenomena after being exposed to a lifetime’s worth of crazy in the original pilot alone.
The show’s writers have taken great pains to muddy the supernatural waters with fake-outs and red herrings; it’s part of the purpose of Dana Scully’s character. By playing the rationalist Clarence Darrow to Mulder’s William Jennings Bryan in all things unexplained, she plants seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind. But presumably the duo has witnessed far too many slimy aliens, werebeasts, and shadowy men in black during their tenure to remain incredulous. As a spook-hunting sleuth, Scully’s been abducted, impregnated by aliens, and made out with a shapeshifter—just to name a few indignities. (The 401k and health benefits at the FBI’s X-Files division must be amazing.) After all that does she really still think all this nutty space shit is a product of psychosis and natural phenomena?
Still, The X-Files has bigger problems than the amnesia of its characters: the show’s core premise has aged much worse than its attractive lead actors. The Roswell incident is a fun diversion, but there’s something hopelessly quaint about being obsessed with the cover-up of a gaggle of big-eyed aliens that crashed in the New Mexico desert 60 years ago when measured against the insanity of the present.
Consider that we currently live in a world where nation-state superpowers prepare for the possibility of a proxy war in space and our own government openly spies on us by scanning our e-mails and listening to our phone calls (“I’ve heard of Edward Snowden,” Mulder quips during the first episode, but offers no further commentary). It’s hard to give a shit about UFOs when our own military employs drone fleets to shoot missiles at foreigners for associating with suspected enemy militants, and is now experimenting with building a robot army for the ground war of the future. The biggest cover-ups in our government are not conducted in some secret government lab—they’re out in the open. Lobbyists and super PACs backed by massive corporations cast doubt on the irrefutable truth about climate change and ensure no new federal gun regulations are passed. Who’s afraid of a few ghosts when we’ve got the ghosts in the political machine?
And conspiracy theories? Those things are a dime a dozen these days. It’s hard to buy 2016 Mulder as some sort of fringe personality because of his views of American government when a significant number of us have adopted some version of those same views.
In 1958, 73 percent of Americans trusted the government, according to a Pew Study. But by April 1980, that number had cratered to 28 percent. In Ronald Reagan, we elected a president who positioned himself as someone who shared that same outlook, who saw overgrown government as “the problem, not the solution.” There were plenty of legitimate reasons for the mounting disillusionment towards Washington—Watergate, Vietnam, the Cold War, the excesses of the CIA and FBI, you name it. But some suspected that we were only seeing the tip of the iceberg of government overreach and power, and they concocted ideas that the feds covered up JFK’s real killer or faked the moon landing or concealed an alien spaceship near Roswell.
By the time that The X-Files debuted in 1993, it tapped into a certain breed of paranoia that didn’t just expand but went mainstream, especially on conservative talk radio. As the top syndicated talk show host in country, Rush Limbaugh was unafraid to spout off conspiratorial theories about, say, the death of White House deputy counsel Vince Foster. During The X-Files‘s peak later in the decade, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News institutionalized and legitimized a more virulent strain of American thought about the nature of the entities that govern us.
Today when Republican presidential candidates offer crazy theories about President Obama—that he was born in Kenya or is secretly instituting Sharia law in America or will authorize an obscure, 20-year-old nonbinding United Nations resolution that will abolish private property—that person isn’t straitjacketed and given a tinfoil hat to wear. That person wins the Iowa caucus and pushes on against the tyranny of better health care.
Not that conspiracy theories are relegated to the right. The left is increasingly rife with batty ideas: “9/11 was an inside job!” “Vaccines cause autism!” “There are toxins in all my food!” “The Koch Brothers control everything!”
Perhaps that’s why midway through the first episode of the new miniseason of The X-Files, the showrunners rip up decades of the franchise’s mythology to unveil the “real conspiracy” that drives world events, one that scratches the left’s anxieties just as much as those of the right. A faux Fox News commentator Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale) clues in Mulder to an elaborate plot that somehow incorporates climate change, the prison-industrial complex, agribusiness, the NSA, and more. Turns out that extraterrestrials were benevolent do-gooders come to earth in the prime of the nuclear age to save us from ourselves. But the government killed them and has spent the last several decades exploiting and developing their technology and driving world events to a coming moment where this elite top 0.1 percent will take over the world.
It’s like a postapocalyptic horror movie coauthored by Occupy Wall Street and Ayn Rand, and it’s certainly a lot to put on a poster. But I’m sure Fox Mulder will find a way; after all, every man of faith needs an icon.