The burden pop culture places upon a new episode of The X-Files is heavy — crushing, perhaps. To recreate the magic of the 1993-2002 show’s mantra, “I want to believe,” it must contend with intervening years of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and conspiracy theories, along with an entirely altered political culture, and still give us moments between Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) that will make our geek hearts flutter.
Alas, the flutterings are few during the new X-Files episode, “My Struggle,” premiering Jan. 24. It’s not the fault of Duchovny and Anderson. They slip back into their roles with a gratifying conviction, if not quite enough to make you forget their recent prominence in Californication or The Fall or Aquarius or Hannibal.
The revived, six-episode X-Files as conceived by show creator Chris Carter is set (mostly) in the present day. Its initial pleasure is simply in seeing Mulder and Scully together again. Scully has returned to her original training and vocation as a medical doctor; Mulder is — well, he spends a lot of time alone in a room on the internet. Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) contacts Scully, who contacts Mulder, and they agree to meet with a popular conspiracy theorist with a large audience, played by Community’s Joel McHale. He leads them into a plot whose details no one involved with The X-Files wants me to tell you about. What I can say is that the series has been updated in obvious ways. There are jokes about Bill O’Reilly and Uber. There’s a lot talk about the “post-9/11 world” in which we now exist.
What strikes you very quickly in Carter’s first new X-Files script is that he’s using Mulder in particular to go over much of the same paranoid ground the show explored in the ‘90s. On the other hand, even Darin Morgan or Vince Gilligan, who wrote some of the original run’s most imaginative, quirky episodes, could not have conceived of a present-day world in which a Donald Trump Presidential candidacy seems viable. Carter tries to grapple with this in creating the Joel McHale character, but, as smoothly as McHale plays him, this guy just can’t carry the dramatic weight Carter needs to anchor his show.
The fault in the new X-Files is in some part our own fault. After all, Carter might not have executed his wish to get the old band back together for a reunion tour if there wasn’t an audience perennially agitating for it. This aspect of Nostalgia Culture — the one that is inspiring the returns of everything from Full House to Twin Peaks to Gilmore Girls — is both understandable and regrettable.
Why can’t we leave well enough alone, re-watch the episodes we love and let the phenomenon rest? Because nostalgia is powerful; it summons up rich emotions and memories, but it’s not often the fuel for vital creativity. The new X-Files hour is fine for what it is, but it lacks the kick of minty-freshness, in favor of the musty tang of mythology. It’s a mythology excavated and renovated to do 2016 work its mostly 20th-century original apparatus wasn’t designed to sustain.
“We’ve moved on with our lives,” Scully says early on in the hour. Perhaps the audience for the new episodes will end up feeling the same. Or maybe the next five — the second, not made available for review, airs the very next night, Jan. 25 — will be better. I want to believe that. Sorta.
The X-Files airs Jan. 24 at 10 p.m. on Fox.