Screen Test

Conspiracy theories aren't what they used to be

During the original run of The X-Files from 1993 to 2002, the show's suggestion that there was a secret government plan to conceal the existence of aliens was so fanciful that it seemed a thoroughly harmless idea and one that the writers got a lot of mileage from poking fun at.

When juxtaposed with a Twilight Zone-esque procedural element, where the two main characters - FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) - would investigate different paranormal phenomena each week, The X-Files took on a sort of kooky yet knowing charm that made this variety of quirky paranoia seem almost cool.

Since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, however, the lunatic fringe is no longer quite as cute and cuddly.

The new theories circulated now by "truthers" who think the United States government was behind 9/11, "birthers" who question where President Barack Obama was born or those who claim that evidence of global warming is fake, do not seem benign or amusing, especially as they seep into the mainstream.

This is the new reality The X-Files reboot, a six-part miniseries that began last month, had no choice but to contend with. It needed to somehow acknowledge the Wikileaks and Edward Snowden revelations about actual government secrets, as well as breakthroughs in science and technology that make it much harder to get away with hoaxes now.

The strain of trying to fill it is painfully evident in the pilot, a hot mess written and directed by series creator Chris Carter, who seems to be trying to come up with an even more outlandish conspiracy-within- a-conspiracy for Mulder and Scully to uncover.

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It does not help that the first episode groans under the weight of far too much exposition, a lengthy voice-over recap and update by Mulder, followed by several hurried revisions to the original "government cover-up of aliens" mythology.

After three episodes, the finer points are still murky, but the broad strokes seem to be as follows: Mulder and Scully are in a dark place, having split up since viewers last saw them 14 years ago, probably because they never got over having to give up their son William for adoption, which they did to protect him.

They are thrown together again as FBI assistant director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) reopens the X-Files, having received new information suggesting that "multinational elites" are plotting a military take-over of the US, possibly using a simulated alien invasion as a pretext.

Oh, and those little green men: turns out they may have not been responsible for abductions or invasion plans after all. A scientist who was at the Roswell crash site in 1947 hints that alien DNA was harvested by a group of men who used it to experiment on unsuspecting people in order to create human-alien hybrids, among them, possibly, Scully and her son.

Mulder thinks this sinister group may have duped him and Scully all those years they were investigating the aliens, which is fine and dandy.

He seems to have come to this conclusion after very little prodding and some of it by a character so obviously shady (a right-wing media host named Tad O'Malley, played by Joel McHale) that it makes "Spooky" Mulder seem rather gullible.

One reason the original series worked so well was while Mulder was always ready to suspend his disbelief when it came to the unexplained, you never got the sense he suspended his intellect too.

And now, when he spouts his latest conspiracy theory, he sounds like a crank on one of those Reddit threads where people deny climate change or the theory of evolution.

Scully tells him this new theory of his is "fear-mongering claptrap" and "isolationist techno-paranoia so bogus and dangerous and stupid that it borders on treason".

But apart from this one bright moment, there is little in the pilot to remind fans why many of them fell in love with The X-Files in the first place - the delicious friction between these two characters, Scully challenging Mulder with her science-minded scepticism, and Mulder urging her to keep an open mind and question the official line.

Instead, by this point, X-philes may be reminded of something else - how insufferably convoluted that conspiracy arc had become by the latter seasons of the original series.

They may also recall that many of the best and funniest episodes were the "monster of the week" ones penned, not by Carter, but writers such as James Wong, Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan.

Wong and Morgan wrote the second and third episodes of the new miniseries, and that is when things start looking up for the reboot.

After the overstuffed pilot, Episode 2, where Mulder and Scully investigate a bio-engineering firm whose founder may be conducting illicit experiments on mutant children, provides much needed breathing room for viewers in the form of a self-contained case for the duo to solve.

They are back to their wise- cracking, snarky selves, although there are baffling woeful flashbacks to their son.

There is none of that, thankfully, in brilliant Episode 3, which finds them on the trail of a were-lizard played by Kiwi comedian Rhys Darby from Flight Of The Conchords, a story that ends up being an unexpected satire on the human condition and how it is often stranger than any paranormal tale.

With only two more episodes to go before the finale, however, the show will have its work cut out for it if it is to avoid presenting a resolution to the central mystery that does not feel either too glib or too complicated.

And one hopes there is more to the big reveal than evil humans, not evil aliens, being behind it all - unless, of course, this is part of a conspiracy to bore viewers to tears.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2016, with the headline 'Conspiracy theories aren't what they used to be'. Print Edition | Subscribe