The Return of ‘The X-Files’: Surprisingly Perfect for a New Century of Paranoia

“I’m familiar with Edward Snowden,” observes Fox Mulder acidly during the second episode of the resurrected X-Files, in response to a nameless governmental apparatchik reminding him of the consequences of revealing things he’s not supposed to. It’s a knowing nod-and-wink to the fact that this is The X-Files in the 21st century, but also an acknowledgment of the fundamental question with this whole exercise: in a world that’s already overflowing with conspiracy theories, and one in which our government really is spying on us, why do we need The X-Files?

There’s a lengthy essay to be written about the influence of The X-Files and its ’90s spiritual contemporaries on post-millennial conspiracy theorism, but this isn’t it — not, at least, until we’ve seen all of the new episodes, rather than the first three, which are what Fox provided to critics. Still, there’s plenty of emphasis put in those episodes on the protagonists’ awareness of the fact that the world they inhabit is very different from the one in which we last saw them, which makes for both interesting dramatic tension and some decidedly clunky moments.

The first we see of (former) Special Agent Fox Mulder, he’s sitting in a basement staring at a website that bears a suspicious resemblance to YouTube, watching an Alex Jones type expound on all manner of outlandish conspiracy theories. “My life,” Mulder laments, “has become a punchline.” The Internet crops up as a source of theories repeatedly, and perhaps the best X-Files-in-the-21st-century moment comes in the third episode, when Scully sighs, “Mulder, the Internet is not good for you.” It’s not, and thank god Fox Mulder 1.0 never had access to Infowars.

Still, we know that underlying Mulder’s more outlandish outbursts is a very real conspiracy. One of the curious things about re-watching the original episodes of The X-Files is that, in contrast to modern TV dramas, the big reveals happen relatively early in the the episodes. There are exceptions, of course, but on the whole, the question those original seasons asked wasn’t so much, “What sort of weird shit is going on here?” as much as it was, “How long is it going to take Mulder and Scully to work out what we already know, i.e. that there is some weird shit going on here?”

So it goes with this new season. Without spoiling too much, the first episode lays its cards on the table, much as the original series pilot did all those years ago. The aforementioned Alex Jones-esque right-wing demagogue, who makes a living ranting on TV about the New World Order and black helicopters and all that, contacts Agent Scully in search of Mulder, setting off a sequence of events that lead to the reopening of the X-Files. As in the original series’ pilot, we’re left with little doubt that there’s something nefarious going on, and we know this long before the inimitable William B. Davis turns up in the episode’s last scene, smoking a cigarette through the hole in his throat with the, er, aid of an aide.

No, the question is, as ever, the exact nature of the conspiracy Mulder and Scully face, because there are plots within plots within plots. This will, no doubt, be revealed (or, more likely, partially revealed) as the show goes on, but for now we’re left with the same half-formed clues and allusions that the show did so well first time around: alien (?) abductions, classified experiments carried out on unsuspecting poor people, military secrets, half-truths and smokescreens and the Lovecraftian idea that there are some hideous truths that should never be known.

At its best, The X-Files taps into a very real — and, crucially, a very justifiable — paranoia, one that has a distinctly American flavor. The new series’ second episode — the best of the first three, in my opinion — concerns off-the-books genetic experimentation on the babies of poor women, carried out via an oh-so-well-meaning Catholic hospital. The idea that our poorest and most vulnerable citizens might be treated as guinea pigs is one that resounds throughout American history, so much so that Mulder almost doesn’t need to cite the Tuskegee experiments as a historical parallel (although, for the record, he does, just to make the analogy crystal clear).

Of the three episodes we’ve seen, this one has the most in the way of emotional impact. It throws back to the fact that Scully and Mulder had a child of their own, one they gave up for adoption, and whose fate neither has ever really stopped worrying about. The first episode is entirely X-Files mythos, concerning things like abductions, and the third… well, you’ll see for yourself, but let’s just say it concerns a mustachioed New Zealander who turns into a monster that looks awfully like something out of 1970s Doctor Who, and is full of allusions to Twin Peaks. It also pulls the sort of Scully-as-believer/Mulder-as-skeptic inversion that the original show did every so often, which feels too clever by half — surely we need to get more than three episodes into a new series (even if that series is only six episodes long) before we get to ironic self-referentialism?

On the whole, though, it’s surprisingly good to have The X-Files back. In its own way, it always felt like a show ahead of its time — a show that pretty much admitted it was never going to give us all the answers, for the simple reason that it was never going to give its protagonists all the answers. As Mulder and Australian lizard bro recite together from Hamlet in Episode 3, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Now, we’re in the midst of an era when we’re not so much suspicious of our government as we are entirely aware that they are watching our every move. That’s scarier than all the noise about HAARP and chemtrails and false flags and alien DNA, right?

The X-Files premieres Sunday at 10pm on Fox.