Monday, January 25, 2016

You and I Will Ruin X-Files

If one thing ruins this X-Files revival, it will be us. It won't be Chris Carter's zany and plodding scripts - you liked that twenty years ago. It's not the actors aging - Gillian Anderson has only gained more gravitas with time. No, we've changed. We've changed in a way that can screw this up for us.

I had a great time watching the premiere last night. It captured the unabashed hokeyness of the original series, a willingness to believe things that no one in my social groups does. It is once again a show about Belief and Plot getting along much better than they do in reality. It is once again an escape from the way things are, an itch only Welcome to Night Vale scratches for me these days.

But people got furious over the New World Order conspiracies that flooded the episode. They were angry that the show wasn't doing "better" than Alex Jones and Glenn Beck. Jones and Beck are contemptible in real life, but X-Files is not The Wire. It performs a different function. From the first episode when Mulder spray-painted an X on the street and gauged how much time a flash of light made him lose, it's been about indulging in tinfoil hat thinking.

Last night's premiere was remarkably faithful. The X-Files didn't change. We did.

Many blame it on 9/11, when the U.S. allegedly lost its cultural innocence. Somehow we hadn't lost it with the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, or the Gulf Wars. Somehow it was only in 2001 that we woke into cynicism and cultural pessimism so severe that we needed to coin "Othering" to describe what we were up to.

While I'm skeptical of the "lost innocence" narrative, X-Files feels like the product of another mainstream. The series thrived when audiences had enough imagination to say, "Aliens secretly running the government? How silly! It'll be fun to imagine a world where that's true for an hour."

Today there are slews of podcasts devoted to mocking and debunking belief in the paranormal. Skepticism is profitable. Post-9/11, Christians and New Atheists loudly decried believing anything other than what they did was killing people (with each other's beliefs as prime targets, when not attacking Muslims). This intellectual intolerance has mushroomed. Last month I watched two self-described skeptics bully a woman into leaving a diner because she was playing with what she thought was her "lucky coin." Never in my life have I seen so much hostility expressed toward people for holding even hobby-level beliefs.

In the time of the original X-Files, The Other was allowed to be benign. Mainstream culture often mocks minority views, but tabloids were considered harmless, or of so little harm in the grand scheme that you could let the believers have it. A fictional series about it wasn't inherently alarming.

We were wrong then, too. Anti-vaxxers are hardly the first conspiracy theorists to cause fatalities. Cults have tragedied off this earth for centuries. The mentally unhinged have failed to get help as they hid from imagined spies. The vast Communist conspiracy to infiltrate the U.S. government was more paranoia than fact.

But don't yell that a Zeitgeist Truther is being treated as correct, especially when you know he'll be revealed as up to something by the end, because for God's sake you've watched television before.

Rewatching X-Files on Netflix has been refreshing for me because it indulged in a zone we've since blocked off with yellow Caution tape. A zone we've all gone to, and all come back from perfectly adjusted human beings who are active in our communities, helpful to others, and generally not the brainwashed drones. We are living evidence that this show's romanticized conspiracy theories are not the problem.

If the show were telling people to seriously stock up on AK-47s and attack public servants, I'd be concerned. There are toxic messages in media. There's ample gross representation of minorities, unhealthy body images, and glorification of self-destructive behavior. There are patterns to watch out for.

The X-Files saying you should fear government super-science because they might death-ray you from their secret invisible triangle ship is not one of those toxic messages. It is a show shaped to be both convicted and preposterous. It is a fundamentally irrational piece of art. Those are the kinds of things that keep me sane.

Got it? Okay, now we can talk about all the retconning and the ridiculously bloody ear surgeries.


  1. I find it ironic to find people thinking of conspiracy theory as a right-wing thing since the left has provided such rich veins of the tradition. I think the momentum in the field tends to go from left to right and back in reaction to whichever side holds the presidency. Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes pushed it left, Clinton and Obama pushed it right. If the Republicans win this year, Democrats will rediscover the inner X-file. -Dave*

  2. We were in a different place back then. People are a lot more cynical now.
    I didn't stay up for it last night, but I'm sure I'll still enjoy it when I watch it tonight.

  3. The wife & I watched the original X-files series together back when, and I pretty much stopped watching TV altogether when it went away. We both started tuning out around Season 6, though, when the story arc seemed to break down.

    I had high hopes for the reboot, and we both chafed at the NFL post-game blather... "let the talking heads talk off-camera, we're WAITING here!" (Although it did give me time to get the wife a "fake coffee" and myself a beer.)

    Personally, I think the first episode paid off, even if it packed way too many subplot kickoffs into one hour. We had to work around a baby, but we'd do that anyway. The aging heroes thing worked really well, I thought, and it'll be interesting to see what they're willing to do as free agents as opposed to FBI agents. We'll be watching the 2nd part tonight, have no doubt.

    To your point... I think the cynicism was always there, but people these days are more comfortable about voicing it. Either that, or we're getting surly over learning about the actual damage we're doing to minorities and the planet. When we weren't forced to examine what we were doing, we could gave that oh-so-tolerant, "at least WE aren't the problem" nod and move on. "Turn on the light, and the roaches scatter" -- but if the roaches are in charge, wouldn't they mandate light bulbs that don't actually illuminate anything? That's my analogy for the Tad O'Malleys of the world...

  4. I think Larry has a point about yours and I'd like to add I think it's because it's waaaaaay easier to voice an opinion and find others like it now-a-days. Social media makes it so easy to find an echo chamber and block opinions we don't like.

  5. I hadn't heard all the negative about the first episode. All I'd heard was that it was dull, which wasn't an issue I found with it. They had to pack a lot of information in to fill in that gap, as well as modernize the issues so the current audience could identify with it. Things have changed. People have changed. And unfortunately, everyone has an easy sounding board with the internet, which wasn't an issue with the original.


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