They Wanted to Believe

So, since the end of last year, I’ve been watching The X-Files. Or, rather, I was at first re-watching it, since I saw the first five or so seasons as they aired, and then I continued on into the seasons I’d missed. I thought I’d sum up my thoughts about it here. 

Watching the series has been strange for a lot of reasons. For one, it was a trip down memory lane. Man, the 90s were a different time; the world was different, I was different, TV was different… but I have to say, those first six seasons or so were solid, they were good TV. The seventh to ninth seasons… well, not so great, but it’s in the ninth where things get really disapppointing. 

Well, I soldiered through all those, into the revival seasons, which is what I’m watching now. And… they’re bad, really bad. I kind of expected it, given the massive amount of hatred directed at Chris Carter and the amount of criticism or the revival I’ve seen online. Still, nothing really prepared me for how bad they were. The dialog is stilted and the writing doesn’t at all capture the characters that made the earlier seasons so appealing. The story is hackneyed and the lore is just botched—I should say, the lore was just trashed and replaced with even more hackneyed and dumber lore. 

But something hit me as I watched the last couple of episodes of Season 10: it was a recapitulation of what had made so many people hate Season 9. See, in Season 9 Mulder is gone, and Scully is marginal, and the story focuses on these two other characters, Doggett and Reyes. The actors playing these characters are fine, but there are a few problems with them. For one, Reyes is kind of a Mulder caricature—she not just wants to believe, she does believe, and seems to jump randomly from one occult speculation to the next until, as Mulder put it at one point, “she hits something”—and Doggett similarly is caricature of Scully’s skeptical attitude early on, except he’s more “doggedly” (groan) skeptical. 

The other problem is that there’s a forced attempt to build a growing romance between Doggett and Reyes in Season 9, which isn’t earned. I’m one of those people that thinks it’s weird so many people wanted Mulder and Scully to couple up, of course, but I could live with it since their relationship developed over many seasons, experiences, and tribulations. Doggett and Reyes, on the other hand, are smushed together over the course of a season or so, and there’s all kinds of fourth-wall-breaks presssuring viewers to (a) accept Doggett and Reyes as the new Mulder and Scully, and (b) buy their ostensible romance. It’s all very forced, unearned, and lazy.

Thing is, there’s still a solid number of fans who can live with this, who see it as annoying but not unwatchable. And a lot of those people still hate the revival seasons. I suspect they hate the revival seasons for the same reason that so many people hate Seasons 8 and 9, especially Season 9. It’s one thing to see beloved, long-running characters caricatured by new characters who are added to take their place. It’s a whole different thing—and a much worse one—to see the characters revived as caricatures of themselves, which is the feeling I got from Season 10: Mulder and Scully aren’t really written in a way that captures their characters—or reflects what they’ve been through since the end of Season 9. Setting aside the binning of the conspiracy plot, setting aside the question of how they went from wanted by the FBI to working for the FBI again, they just talk wrong. They don’t sound like themselves, they sound like caricatures of what Mulder and Scully sounded like, caricatures of how they acted and treated one another.

I think that’s the real reason so many more people hate the revival seasons. People point at the lore and conspiracy, they point how Reyes was handled, they point at the cruelty of what’s done with the William plot. But I think the real reason people hate it is because Mulder and Scully feel like caricatures inserted to replace Mulder and Scully, just like Doggett and Reyes did in Season 9. But it’s worse because it’s the same actors playing the caricature characters. Somehow, that’s just infinitely worse. 

It’s not that there  isn’t the odd entertaining episode here and there in the revival. (Lists of which ones not to skip abound online.) It’s just that overall the revival feels like a failure and that’s largely due to the scripts, the way everyone’s written. It’s like a parody series made by totally different people or something. 

I’ll probably still watch through to the end of Season 11, just out of curiosity. Not exactly a hate-watch, but… certainly not a love-watch either. Unlike Twin Peaks, this revival was just not very good. That’s a shame, I think: the long-term fans deserved something better. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe everyone should have let the series die its natural death, at the end of Season… 7? 8? Fan preferences vary. But it’s not a surprise that Seasons 9-11 have no place in so many fans’ personal canon for the show, just as it’s not surprise what high hopes people had for the revival: Mulder and Scully were beloved characters, after all. 

The other thing is that this is a very weird series to watch in 2023-2024. The profusion of dumb conspiracy stuff in popular culture has made some of the dumb conspiracy stuff in the show harder to swallow. Even worse is the heroic treatment of an Alex Jones-like character in Season 10, and an episode featuring a vaccine conspiracy even dumber than the vaccine conspiracy theory that killed countless people during COVID. The revival predated COVID, of course, but having antivax-adjacent conspiracy theory as part of its canon lore is just kind of embarrassing. There’s more I could say, but all in all I think “the writing isn’t very good” sums it up. It also makes me think that the recently-announced reboot of the series is probably a very bad idea, even with a whole new set of writers on board. I suspect the X-Files’ day has passed, and it’s time for some other epoch-making new show to get made.  

4 thoughts on “They Wanted to Believe

  1. Back in the 90s I was quite a fan of X-files, but…but…You really hit the nail on the head, “The profusion of dumb conspiracy stuff in popular culture has made some of the dumb conspiracy stuff in the show harder to swallow.” Definitely conspiracy theories no longer have the panache they did back in the pre-internet era.

    1. Yeah. I should also say, that’s pretty much the hot-take consensus these days: I’m far from the first person to observe this. The more interesting question is to what degree The X-Files introduced this kind of conspiracy theory stuff to the mainstream and catalyzed the social change that led to its own datedness… and how responsible we can or should hold it for that change in society. (I want to say, probably not very, because how could they have known? But… maybe a little.)

  2. My theory (at the time when the series was aired on national TV) was that the US gov’t was backing the show, because by popularizing conspiracy theories as ‘entertainment’ it would misdirect people so they wouldn’t see the real conspiracies that were being perpetrated. Now as I look back, I think I really overestimated the gov’t and I underestimated the stupidity of the public, which is the real reason why stupid conspiracies circulate.

    1. Yeah, I think you’re right that you were overestimating the craftiness of the U.S. government while underestimating the gullibility of much of the public. Of course, I think there’s more to why conspiracy theories circulate, such as the void left by the failure of religion to continue making millions of people feel special and unusually connected, to the collapse of “reality” in a world where war has been waged on the idea of consensus reality, to the sense of powerlessness that so many people seem to feel across the spectrum these days… but that’s probably a much lengthier topic for another time and place.

      (Don’t get me wrong, I think a lot of conspiracy theories are stupid, and as Kenneth Hite observed, if you dig down deep enough into them you usually find some version of the antisemitic Blood Libel, albeit metamorphosed to suit a new audience. But I think there are also explicable reasons why these specific forms of stupid have gone from a mostly-fringe phenomenon to being on center stage in the culture at this point in history.)

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