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Monday, December 09, 2019

Fear Without A Name: ‘The X-Files’ Is Reborn In A Changed World

The X-Files, like so many beloved, bygone television properties of late, is catching a second wind.

Fox announced on Tuesday that the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning paranormal procedural will be revived for a limited six-episode run. The new season will go into production this summer and will include the participation of series creator Chris Carter and the show’s two leads, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

The bulk of the show, which ran for nine seasons and spawned two films, chronicled the investigations of two FBI agents — believer Fox Mulder (Duchovny) and skeptic Dana Scully (Anderson) — into crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated by supernatural forces. The show became a touchstone of ’90s culture: a series of allegories for our pre-millennial, post-Cold War angst. Surely something was lying in wait — in our stars, under the bed — waiting to close this parenthesis of relative peace. And for this fear-without-a-name, the show proposed any number of incarnations: viral pandemics, religious cults, a parade of horrifying trans-human mutations. But none was more ominous and more baroque than the shadowy cartel that had conspired with little green men to bring about the end of humanity’s reign on Earth.

In many respects the show was ahead of its time: The lush, moody cinematography, the grotesque special effects, and of course the portentous, hydra-headed narrative set the template for subsequent shows both successful (Lost) and not (Carnivàle). And like those shows, after all the twists and omens, X-Files could never bring itself to a proper conclusion, positioning the in-story culmination of the aliens’ plot several years after the show ended and leaving a heap of loose ends on the floor.

But the show ran out of steam long before it finally sputtered to an end in 2002. And it wasn’t just Duchovny’s departure, or the show’s relocation from gloomy Vancouver to sunny L.A. In place of the Pacific Northwest’s perennial fogs, an invisible but undeniable cloud of disillusion settled over the show’s latter seasons.

In Fox Mulder’s quixotic pursuit of the Truth, there was always the tacit conviction that once the Truth had been uncovered, the crimes that went into concealing it could somehow be answered: Americans would be informed of their government’s malfeasance, the planet would remain ours, the monsters, now revealed, would scatter away. In exposing the Truth, the country’s course could somehow be corrected, and the world could somehow be saved.

Is this notion the least bit tenable anymore, even in the most outlandish science fiction? No. The show didn’t think so, either.

The X-Files was a cartography of shadows. Like the best supernatural fiction, it achieved its impact through insinuation and suggestion. Turn on the lights and you lose the effect. As the show inched closer to pulling the curtain off its own last act, it became subsumed by the enormity of the horror it had always hinted at, as well as the fatalism creeping in from the world around it. The transformations the show alluded to but could never name could be said to have occurred offscreen; its portents of downfall finally realized. The last season debuted two months after 9/11. Since then, the surveillance state has been exposed, without repercussions. We’re on the verge of any number of cataclysms. And we don’t need aliens to put our species out of business.

It will be interesting to see whether the show can adapt to the times that it warned us were coming, and whether it can still convince us that two adorable nerds can do anything to fix it.

I guess I’d like to believe again.


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