For many fans, the excitement that greeted last year’s announcement of a 10th season of The X-Files couldn’t help but be mixed with some skepticism. After all, it had been 13 years since the series went off the air, and in the meantime there had been a feature film, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, that had been widely panned by most critics and X-philes, especially coming on the heels of the show’s much-disputed last two seasons. With the announcement coming not too long after the news of David Lynch returning to Twin Peaks, the fear was thick in the air that The X-Files would feel like little more than another nostalgia object in our current nostalgia-obsessed entertainment landscape (witness, too, belated movie sequels like Zoolander No. 2 and even, yes, Star Wars: The Force Awakens).
And yet, if ever there was a show that could weather the passage of time, it was The X-Files. Not that you would necessarily know that from the mixed reviews that greeted the six-episode 10th season, when it finally made it to the airwaves earlier this year. It’s the nature of that complicated reception that’s worth noting, however. For the most part, the bookend mythology episodes came in for the hardest knocks, while most of the standalone installments in the middle—save for the controversial “Babylon,” with that goofy scene of Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) tripping on mushrooms while investigating a suicide bombing in Texas—were more warmly embraced.
But then, it was always ever thus with Chris Carter’s creation, with a split between serial drama and anthology encoded into its DNA from the start. The reactions to the 10th season weren’t all that different, really, from those that greeted The X-Files in its first nine seasons, especially its later ones. Even as some fans began losing interest in its overarching storyline revolving around alien factions, government cover-ups and the seekers in the middle aiming to discover and expose the truth, there were always those freaky one-off mysteries to keep one diverted—episodes that allowed for a wider variety of sensibilities and a greater level of invention than the mytharcs’ more immediate plot-advancing concerns. This was even the case in Seasons Eight and Nine, when Mulder became a less prominent character and Carter tried to pave the way for a second generation with new investigators John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish). Though that ultimately didn’t take, one could at least bask in some of the exuberantly weird cases they investigated in those last two years, ranging from human bats and Christ-like slugs, to childhood monsters come to life and even God Himself donning Hawaiian shirts and a deck of cards.
That micro/macro split was certainly a stroke of genius on Carter’s part: a clever way to keep viewers invested in the moment, even if the larger vision didn’t always stimulate. But considering how closely it hewed to that template even in Season Ten—in an era in which so-called “peak TV” is dominated more by serial narratives than standalone compendiums—it’s worth considering this structure as more than just a calculated gambit, but as an expression of deeper themes and even a broader worldview.
There were always timeless ideas driving The X-Files: faith versus reason, suspicion toward forces in power, a desire to explore a world beyond mortal perception. Even as the circumstances of the world we live in change, these profoundly elemental and human themes never really die away. That’s why it’s not so much that the time was right for a revival of The X-Files, but that that sense of powerlessness and distrust that the series stoked so resonantly back in the 1990s has never left, and in fact has only intensified especially in light of the recent Edward Snowden wiretapping revelations and other such topical global issues. Paranoia—at least, in the reasonable sense of digging beyond what authority figures tell the general public—will always be a cornerstone of thinking human beings living in this world, no matter the time period and the country.
So, in addition, is faith. There’s a reason why Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) have endured in the public consciousness even as many of us forget the details of which shadowy organization made which deal with which extraterrestrial group and why. Their dynamic—Mulder’s believer to Scully’s skeptic—touches on a fundamentally human dichotomy that, all by itself, binds all the show’s disparate elements together. What is the search for God, after all, if not a quest for something unseeable and unknowable—a wholesale leap into the irrational? Substitute “God” with “aliens” and “the truth,” and that’s The X-Files in a nutshell: a series that articulates a pop spirituality that still strikes a chord even today. Perhaps even the series’ deliberate all-over-the-place structure could be seen as an expression of this grander vision: its embrace of both serial and anthology elements reflecting a vision of the world as a literal and emotional mishmash—surely truer to the way we all experience the world than, say, Christopher Nolan’s carefully fussed-over puzzles or Charlie Kaufman’s inventively miserablist surreal narratives.
Sure, any TV series worth a damn throughout the medium’s history has been taken seriously because of such things as universal themes. But it’s that seemingly schizophrenic but strangely truthful way The X-Files continues to explore its own ideas that gives it the particularly special appeal it still maintains, even now. No matter what new dastardly revelation of government intrusion pops up in the world, or what new scientific development that either confirms or denies the existence of unearthly phenomena, there will always be reasons to be distrustful… and reasons to be faithful. Most importantly, there will always be Mulder and Scully, with their back-and-forth parrying of belief and disbelief offering one of television’s most indelible illustrations of that eternal conflict.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.