Former FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) looks haggard in the new season of The X-Files — and can you blame him? He and his ex-partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) have been consumed by a hydra-headed conspiracy ever since Chris Carter’s sci-fi potboiler debuted back in 1993; that was 46 years after the Roswell crash, 30 years after JFK’s murder, the year of the first World Trade Center bombing, and two years before Oklahoma City, in case anybody cares to place it on the paranoia timeline. The duo’s investigations into the secret lives of monsters, some of them all too human, flushed a virulent strain of conspiratorial Americana from the murky swamps of Usenet and zine culture and gave it a mainstream platform. Alas, even after nine fitfully brilliant seasons, our heroes still couldn’t dig to the bottom of the grand unifying “mythology” of the series, much less beat back the Smoking Man with help from the Lone Gunmen and stop the men in suits who were trying to implant abductees with alien embryos so that the black oil could enable the bees with the DNA to hoard magnetite or whatever the hell. The Truth remained stubbornly Out There; meanwhile, the show’s innovations and embellishments were absorbed by the pop-culture gene pool so completely that you can legitimately ask if this new six-episode mini-season of The X-Files is really and truly necessary.
The answer is an enthusiastic maybe. Fox declined to make more than one episode available for review. Did it not trust critics to protect plot twists or the torrent generation to resist the urge to distribute it all over the internet? (The pilot has been circulating since the New York Comic Con last October.) I hope so, because the debut episode is so curiously lackluster that even die-hard fans might fear the worst. It opens with a flashback to the Roswell crash, intercut with an extended monologue by Mulder summarizing the premise of the old series and alluding to a few of its major events; then he brings us forward to 2016, where Tad O’Malley, a Fox News–type pot-stirrer played by Joel McHale, asks the team to interview a terrified young woman (The Americans’ Annet Mahendru) who claims to have been abducted by UFOs and implanted with alien DNA. You’ve seen this sort of thing before, of course, along with Roswell-related shenanigans, and they are not the only elements Carter, who wrote and directed the first episode, has up his sleeve. Still, it’s unfortunate that he’s decided to lead with more “mythology” plotting rather than the generally more cohesive, equally exciting, and funnier “Monster of the Week” episodes (we will reportedly get a few of those, too), and that he’s once again trying to add new strands to the web he’s already woven instead of untangling or removing ones to give us a clearer picture.
Between the mandatory furtive meetings in parking garages and murky side streets, Mulder’s morose babbling, and O’Malley’s Mr. Smith Goes to the Twilight Zone monologuing, the premiere is a veritable Dumpster of sub-Reddit subjects: Area 51, eavesdropping “dirtboxes,” Faraday cages, petrochemical conspiracies, toroidal energy, ununpentium (a.k.a. Element 115), the Venus Scenario, the Fifth Extinction, 9/11 as a false-flag operation, the Patriot Act, and fema “camps.” It’s all tied together through a scheme that O’Malley describes as “a venal conspiracy of men against humanity” and Scully dismisses as “fear-mongering isolationist claptrap paranoia” until she learns a few more details, does an about-face, and joins Mulder on his quest to prove … well, what, exactly? It’s impossible to say right now, and it may always be impossible to say, because this is The X-Files, where, as Mulder tells Scully, you want to believe, but “actual proof has been strangely hard to come by.” Now Mulder tells her that he’s digging into a metaconspiracy, unveiling the puppet masters behind the puppet masters, the guys behind the guys behind the guys. “What if everything we’ve been led to believe is a lie?” he asks her.
Good question, but the show had better not be cavalier in answering it, otherwise the audience might feel as if it’s wasted nine seasons (minus the monster episodes) on mainstream science fiction’s most protracted game of three-card monte. It’s wise not to give away too much more about the latest iteration of the show’s Über-conspiracy; suffice to say that it feels like a setup for a doubling-back fake-out non-twist, in the manner of Carter’s most brazen pirouettes from the ’90s. The writing is alarmingly clunky, less a coherent story than a pastiche of beloved catchphrases, iconic images, and exposition dumps, as well as blatantly gif-ready moments (including McHale’s phrasing the question “Testing yourself for alien DNA?” so that it sounds like a pickup line, and an argument between Mulder and Mitch Pileggi’s Skinner that feels like raw material for a homoerotic fan video, probably scored to “Let’s Get It On”). Updating the story to the present moment results in some unexpectedly charming images, though, such as a close-up of Scully’s iPhone heralding an incoming call from “Mulder,” and the net effect is less exuberant than poignant. Duchovny, Anderson, and Pileggi have aged so well that you may suspect them of paying for alien DNA injections, and yet, as in the legacy-movie sequels Creed and The Force Awakens, which derive much of their emotional power from casting veteran actors whose age is embraced rather than downplayed, the mere sight of characters we’ve been obsessing over for decades invests even the sunniest moments with a chill. These heroes are tireless warriors advocating for the revelation of a truth that, for various reasons, may never be fully clarified, much less completely revealed. It’s all very noble but not much fun. Bring on the monsters. No — the rubber ones.
The X-Files. Fox. Sundays. 10 p.m.
*This article appears in the January 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.