Mulder and Scully are back, but are they relics of the past at this point?
The X-Files recently returned for its eleventh season, which is premiering (thanks to breaks in its schedule) some 24 years after its debut. Mulder and Scully are largely familiar to us all, and paranoid government conspiracies about UFOs have become de rigueur thanks in part to the show’s popularity. (Read our review of The X-Files Season 11 premiere here.)
The X-Files, however, could only have become popular right when it did, and it most certainly has to fight for relevance in a changed world. The X-Files was – more than we might realize – a product of the 1990s. Chris Carter’s popular paranoiac brainchild, to this day, still represents interests and ideas that were only relevant during the decade of its inception. As such, The X-Files, even more than any recent pop culture revival, is nestled firmly in the bosom of nostalgia. We love the show – through its highs and lows – but its politics are most certainly dated.
The X-Files debuted in September of 1993, the same year Bill Clinton took office, and only four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a time of optimism and uncertainty in America. The economy was good, there were no major wars (Desert Storm was over), and a generation of young people struggled to find an identity in… well, anything really. The Cold War was over, and the previous generation’s modus operandi – that of constantly having an international “enemy” – needed to be rethought. I was in high school in 1993, and I distinctly recall my own generation’s need to find something, anything to unify us. That lack of unity – and the angst that springs from it – ended up being our unifying factor.
This need to find unity naturally spread into the pop entertainment of the time. In the 1980s, during the last days of the Cold War, one could easily find films and TV shows about evil international baddies silently infiltrating an otherwise strong America and strong Americans fighting them off; films like Commando and Rambo III and especially Red Dawn reflect this directly. In the 1990s, though, that machismo had become stale, the international bad guys had to get back on their feet after crippling coups, and America had a big handful of leftover resentment and paranoia they didn’t know what to do with.
Enter The X-Files, a show that provided us with a new enemy: our own government. The central subject matter of The X-Files – alien abduction and other unsolved mysteries – was already floating around the mass consciousness for a few years before creator Chris Carter took a hold of it: Whitley Strieber’s book Communion was published in 1987, and Time-Life published their best-selling Mysteries of the Unknown book series that same year (track those down if you can). The pseudo-documentary TV series Sightings was already airing on Fox in 1991, and the debut of The X-Files was preceded by the film Fire in the Sky by only a few months. The time was right.
At the beginning of The X-Files, Mulder and Scully are working for a shadowy FBI who have stuck all their weird, supernatural cases in a file cabinet in the basement, assigning only the least credible agent to them. Mulder and Scully’s immediate superior, Skinner, was cantankerous and only barely had time to listen to them (which would, of course, change later in the series). It was Skinner’s superiors that we had to watch. Who was the mysterious cigarette smoking man? What was being covered up? Why was the U.S. government so eager to hide the truth? The real antagonist of The X-Files was not a monster or an alien or a liver flukeman, but all-too-human American conspirators who aimed to shield the world from the truth. Mulder and Scully sought not to kill monsters, but to reveal “the conspiracy” to the world.
This anti-establishment notion – that a U.S. institution needed to be taken down from the inside – was a concept that was ripe for exploration in the 1990s. It was a generation of mistrust, a generation that was happy to embrace its own paranoid fantasies about a government that just may be working against them.
The political landscape changed abruptly with the election of George W. Bush and the catastrophic events of 9/11. The self-obsessed search for identity suddenly seemed like small potatoes in the face of real-life violence, and America became more concerned with war and destruction than with aliens and UFO conspiracies. The government was no longer a secret enemy, but a player in a war machine we could become more involved with or outraged by.
The X-Files had no place here. You may notice that the show’s eighth and ninth seasons – the famously shabby ones, and the last before the revival – aired from 2000 to 2002. The comedy spinoff to the show, The Lone Gunmen, tanked pretty hastily in 2001. Even while it was still airing, The X-Files seemed to have outlived its usefulness. One may also recall the awkward moment in the 2008 feature film The X-Files: I Want to Believe when Mulder and Scully, hauled out of mothballs, were made to wait in a hallway at the FBI, facing a portrait of George W. Bush. They made no verbal comment, but gave each other a knowing glance. The world has changed, they seemed to acknowledge, and we’re now a footnote.
The X-Files returned, of course, for a tenth season in 2015 and just debuted its eleventh. What sort of conspiracies did the American people believe in at the end of the Obama administration, or at the beginning of Trump’s? Can Mulder and Scully even find a place in those worlds? The 1990s politics of the show are now but a distant memory, and we, the audience, revisit The X-Files for simpler, purer reasons: We simply like Mulder and Scully. We also want to see them close the book, as it were. Maybe look back over their lives as paranoid alien hunters – and products of the 1990s – and come to a conclusion as to whether or not it had all been worth it. They are avatars for their young Gen-X and Gen-Y fans who have to grow up. The old conspiracies may be dead, and now, in their 50s, Mulder and Scully are being left behind by a new generation of conspiratorial chaoticians they don’t quite fit in with.
Of course, the government just opened their UFO files in real life, so Mulder and Scully may have more to look at after all…