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Somewhat unexpectedly, The X-Files is deeply relevant again in 2018

Lots of TV shows like to say “fake news.” Only The X-Files really knows what that means.

The X-Files
Mulder and Scully are back to lurking in cemeteries. This is a good thing.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A lot of TV shows in the Trump era have tried to use the term “fake news,” but only The X-Files seems to have the institutional backing to truly make it count. The series, after all, has been chasing fake news since 1993, whether in the form of things that go bump in the night, or vast alien conspiracies, or the pabulum we are spoon-fed every day to blind us about the truth.

What’s striking about watching The X-Files in 2018 is just how rejuvenated it feels. While it’s never going to hit the heights of the third or fourth season from the original series (which aired from 1993 to 2002), the 2018 iteration is a damn sight better than the 2016 one, which boasted some solid installments but also felt like a show in danger of chasing its own tail so rapidly that it might burrow straight down into the Earth.

Now, even the obligatory check-in with the alien conspiracy, while still a muddled mess, at least feels like it has drive and purpose. And once the conspiracy storyline is set aside after the season premiere, The X-Files unleashes a set of standalone episodes that compare favorably to episodes from its fifth or sixth seasons — when it had lost a step from its creative highpoint but was still inventive and fun. (I should know, too; I co-wrote a book about the show, coming out this fall.)

What’s most remarkable, however, is the way our own reality has circled back around to The X-Files. In early 2016, the show’s take on Alex Jones and other paranoiacs of the internet felt slightly musty, as if it had no idea how to update its paranoia for an era where, for a lot of people, not believing what the government said meant believing a racist supposition that President Barack Obama hadn’t been born in the US.

In 2018, The X-Files isn’t so much paranoid as it is scared. It’s a show about how the end of the world has already begun, and everybody behind the scenes is deciding who gets to survive — by moving to another planet, or vaccinating themselves against an alien virus, or moving into the cloud. And do you really think you or I will have any say in our own survival?

The news is fake, but your feelings are real

The X-Files works best when it presupposes that something awful is being covered up. In its best seasons, it was a metaphorical grappling with the sins that America committed during the Cold War, made “safer” by filtering them through the lens of an obviously fictional (or was it?!) alien conspiracy.

The shift that season 11 makes is one that the show has tried to make several times before but often struggled with — it’s not just that something awful is being covered up, but that something awful is already here. The apocalypse is already in motion, and even if aliens were involved at one point, the darkest actions have always been undertaken by humanity (represented, as always, by the enigmatic Cigarette Smoking Man).

The X-Files
Mulder and Scully are back to exchanging meaningful looks, and nothing could be finer.

To be clear, the 2018 conspiracy storyline is still full of nonsense, nonsense that will tax even longtime X-Files fans who know their virus-carrying bees from their green-bleeding alien bounty hunters. The show attempts again to simplify this story by eschewing a lot of what it no longer needs, but creator Chris Carter and his writers can’t seem to find a way to boil it down to something more manageable, which leads to some pretty strange maneuvering to escape the seemingly apocalyptic story promised in the season 10 finale. (Ending the world in a season finale, then suggesting that what happened wasn’t all that bad in the next season premiere is something Carter has actually done before.)

The writers do, at least, seize on one big idea in season 11: the hunt for Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) son William, gifted with special powers by some sort of alien DNA and long ago given up for adoption. Where the FBI agents’ pining nostalgia for the child they said goodbye to for his own well-being felt well-meaning but clunky in season 10, The X-Files now animates this story with the sense that only William knows enough to stop whatever horrors lie ahead.

And there are, indeed, horrors ahead. With the end of the world in its early stages, the rich and powerful are looking to hop on board any ark they can find, not to try to stop the worst from happening. The government is no help, deluded as it is by its own paranoid fantasies. And the media? Forget it. If nobody — from those who report the news to those who consume it — can agree on the same set of facts, how can they agree on the same sources of information?

That leaves season 11 in a pleasingly fascinating place — it consists of mostly standalone episodes, but they all circle the same question of how on Earth we’re all going to get back to the same baseline reality. In past seasons of The X-Files, genius writer Darin Morgan (about whom I wrote so much more here) stood out as an iconoclast, writing brutally funny episodes that questioned the underlying premises of the show itself. But his season 11 outing, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” (episode four of 10), ends up being a Rosetta stone for the season as a whole.

Morgan takes the idea of the “Mandela effect” — in which people have very clear memories of an event that contradicts the memories of others, to say nothing of the factual and historical record — and runs with it to suggest a world where reality is constantly being manipulated, where even the TV show you’re watching might have once starred a different cast of characters. At first, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” winks toward Donald Trump in a somewhat clumsy fashion, but Morgan is building to something, to the idea that once you agree to the unraveling of one strand of reality, you’re drifting out to sea.

Fake news is only fake if you realize its fakeness — which is why it’s such an effective concept for propagandists. We all have our own fake news to believe in now, our own variations on the shadowy alien figures running things behind the curtain. Those figures may not always be visible to us, but we know they’re there. And times like these — times of uncertainty and weirdness and horror — are times when The X-Files can thrive.

The X-Files, season 11, debuts Wednesday, January 3, at 8 pm Eastern on Fox. Previous seasons are streaming on Hulu.

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