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Is ‘The X-Files’ relevant in the age of terror?

The 1990s TV classic is back, but the US government has become scarier than any conspiracy theory

January 24, 2016 2:00AM ET

As the closing credits rolled on the first episode of the “X-Files” reboot, I asked myself, Is it possible that the show, which originally aired from 1993 to 2002, was always this bad? Everything in the new series felt familiar. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) offers laconic and matter-of-fact litanies of conspiracy indicators. His former partner, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) remains skeptical and competent and then is surprised when some of the theories turn out to be true. Plot twists turn conspiracies inside out and back again, until we’re not sure what’s true. There are flashbacks, secret groups working to uncover the truth and others working to cover it up and sympathetic characters who turn out to be dangerous and vice versa. By the end, we don’t really know what to believe. It’s a familiar ride containing all the elements I remember, but none of it really works for me.

I went back and watched a handful of my favorite episodes, trying to recapture the magic. I was relieved to find that they remain good television, notwithstanding that anything made before the rise of the smartphone now feels like a period piece. I remembered how they used to dominate my Sunday nights, after “The Simpsons” and whatever fare Fox tried to sandwich between them.

So what’s changed? One problem is that the new show expertly tries to re-create the Mulder-Scully dynamic without really acknowledging their shared past, beyond a few meaningful silences and looks. The bigger flaw, though, is that it’s hard to tell stories about conspiracies in the age of Edward Snowden.

Our sense of what we should fear has changed dramatically since the original “X-Files” went off the air. The new episode refers to 9/11 and the National Security Agency but doesn’t really deal with the fact that so many secret government activities are now out in the open yet nothing has changed.

Since 9/11, America has been at war against enemies that cannot be defeated on the battlefield. Our government has been given and has seized broad powers to infiltrate our lives. Perhaps even more significant, we grant access to our most intimate secrets and desires to corporations that turn around and use that data for advertising. As Bruce Schneier says, “Surveillance is the business model of the Internet,” and the government ensures that it can access private data whenever it needs. There are no safe secrets.

Against that backdrop, does it really make sense to fear a government conspiracy with advanced technology trying to control our lives? The technology is here. Moreover, the cabal trying to run the world isn’t secret either. Charles Koch and David Koch regularly and openly invite it to their California oceanside retreat and decide which political candidates to buy. We don’t get to see the guest list, but that’s just so we don’t boycott any products our corporate masters control, not because the nature of their power is secret.

The post–Cold War era was a perfect time for a TV show to tell us that there were answers, that there was a meta-narrative and that the truth was out there.

Then there are unidentified flying objects. The latest episode makes much of UFOs used either by aliens or the government in order to terrorize civilians. The story goes back and forth about who is in control, but in the real world, the U.S. government doesn’t need UFOs to bring terror from the skies. It has drones. North Dakota has even authorized the use of weaponized drones domestically. UFOs don’t seem so scary anymore.

“The X-Files” debuted early in the post–Cold War era, when we weren’t quite sure what we were supposed to fear. Many had the sense that conspiracies were at work in pursuit of political power and economic gain, and the contours of good and bad were less clear. This was the perfect time for a TV show to tell us that there were answers, that there was a meta-narrative and that the truth was out there. It was nonpartisan, casting equal suspicion in all political directions, and it made sure to quickly undermine any answers we thought we had found.

It was also just really entertaining, or at least the best episodes were. Show creator Chris Carter and his team of talented writers, many of whom went on to run their own shows, such as “Breaking Bad,” adapted the formula of the detective procedural to fit a supernatural premise. The show was at once episodic — willing to forget whatever horrible events took place last week in order to start the awful discovery anew — and continuous. It was among the first shows to intersperse episodic monster-of-the-week episodes with longer, multiepisode storytelling, which before had been used mainly by soap operas. Along with its contemporaries “Babylon 5,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The X-Files” paved the way for our current golden age of TV by proving that you could spend years, rather than just 42 minutes plus commercial breaks, developing a narrative.

Those tricks no longer seem fresh. Does the series have anything new to show us? Fox allowed critics to see only the first episode of the six-part series. That makes me nervous. Usually critics are given a couple of shows to watch, so what if this is a sign that the next ones are worse?

Still, I’m optimistic. Carter has brought in a lot of the old writers and given them the ability to tell new stories rather than yoke them to his UFO plot (which will return in episode 6). Mulder and Scully remain great characters. The premise of “The X-Files” — not the big alien conspiracy but the believer and the skeptic going out to solve odd crimes — remains compelling.

So will the show be worth watching after a premier that felt both forced and irrelevant to 2016? I want to believe.

David M. Perry writes on language and power at How Did We Get Into This Mess? He is a history professor at Dominican University

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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