Re-opening The X-Files

The conspiracy theories in the cult TV series opened my mind to the possibility that neither science nor religion had the answers to everything

Of all the little surprises that came along with the new year, there was none more pleasant than the return of the cult television series, The X-Files.

Yes, the small basement office filled with files on paranormal activity has been reopened. FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are back in their jobs investigating these cases and linking some of them to a grand conspiracy theory involving the United States government and alien activity.

I watched with bated breath as the opening episode of the 10th season aired about a month ago, more than 13 years after a two-hour finale in May 2002 was supposed to have "explained everything" and ended the long-running series for good.

My face may not have shown it, but a huge cheer erupted in my heart when Mark Snow's iconic instrumental theme boomed out from the TV set that I had turned up way too loud, together with the original title sequence which had been left entirely intact.

I had, after all, felt much the same way when it boomed out of my tiny Nokia phone speakers - being my very first ringtone purchase all those years ago.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

There was much to take in: the 90-second summary of more than 200 episodes and two full-length feature movies, the recreation of a 1947 alien spacecraft crash in Roswell made true-to-life with today's graphics technology and, of course, the first meeting between Mulder and Scully.

When Mulder pulled up near FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. to meet Scully, he got out of an Uber car. A few lines of dialogue later, we learn that they have sadly broken up.

In the 2008 movie I Want To Believe, they were a couple living together in the same house. Now, in 2016, when Scully tells Mulder that it is good for him to "get out of that little house every once in a while", his pensive reply is "it was certainly good for you".

The bittersweet smiles on both their faces reflect the sad truth that the break-up was inevitable, but also underline that the passage of time has healed the wounds of the past and brought a newly mature perspective to them.

To me, this is part of the genius of the return of The X-Files. From 1993 to 2002, millions of faithful X-files fans tuned in every week to the series. They followed every case, every new clue in the big alien conspiracy story arc and, of course, the slow blossoming of the romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully.

Now in 2016, Mulder and Scully are 13 years older than where we left them in 2002. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, the actors who play them, are also 13 years older and look it. We the viewers are 13 years older.

It is like reconnecting with old friends on Facebook. You look at the pictures of how they've aged and try to find visual traces of the old pals you remember.

You wonder what they've been doing all this time and whether they've changed (Answer: Scully has become more "emo" and sentimental like the old Mulder, and Mulder has become more sceptical like the old Scully).

And when they look back at the events of the 90s, you look back too to the 90s. It's rare that a television series is scripted like this, but it underlines how much the series was part of people's lives.

Of course, looking back in real time at days gone by is something that any good television series can do. It is a clever device for the series' revival, but it certainly isn't central to its significance in popular culture.

To most people, the significance of the The X-Files is in its main story arc - that seemingly unconnected events and people all added up to a giant government conspiracy involving aliens. In the 1990s, it was the ultimate purveyor of the conspiracy theory.

For those who need a quick summary, grey-coloured aliens plan to colonise Earth in 2012 but, alas, one of their ships crashed in Roswell in 1947, alerting the US government to this.

A deal is struck at the highest, secret-est levels with the aliens to allow the human race to continue as a slave race in the form of alien- human hybrids, for which experiments on humans are performed.

Meanwhile, humans also try to develop a vaccine against the alien virus that will be unleashed by killer bees as the primary means of alien colonisation.

In its comeback season, The X-Files has taken this one step further.

It seems that whole alien conspiracy theory was itself part of an ever bigger conspiracy, cooked up by fascist super-dictators to rid the human race of all dissent and align everyone in true Orwellian "1984" fashion.

In other words, the US government builds and randomly flies planes that look like UFOs and seeds the theory that it is all part of an alien invasion.

When people claim they were abducted by aliens, they were in actual fact taken by humans for experiments to create a new slave class that will be completely compliant to the powers that be.

It's all very Edward Snowden, very post-Patriot Act and very 2016. Conspiracy theories still very much abound - just look at the sheer number that attempts to explain the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 (yes, at least one has to do with alien abduction).

And maybe this is why the common perception among the more serious-minded is that The X-Files is nothing more than a flaky sci-fi show with exceptionally creative script writers.

For me, the value of The X-Files lies not in its fantastic conspiracy theory, but in all the other episodes that did not have anything to do with aliens at all.

Take last week's episode, for instance. A suicide bomber survives the blast but is in a vegetative state, and the race is on to try and somehow communicate with his still sentient brain. Scully tries to ask him questions and read off MRI signals. Mulder takes magic mushrooms, citing studies that show that the dreamlike state they induce breaks barriers between objects and people, allowing him to talk to the terrorist.

Mulder eventually succeeds, but that is not the point. Now that it is possible in 2016 to Google each strange phenomenon an X-Files episode brings up, you will find that it has some basis in real life - in some little-known experimental field of science, or obscure folk practice and belief.

In fact, the show's science consultant - Anne Simon, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts - eventually wrote a book titled The Real Science Behind The X-Files in 1999.

As a young man brought up in a Catholic household, the arrival of The X-Files coincided with a questioning phase in my life.

It made real to me the competing claims of science and religion in making sense of the world.

But, more than that, it also opened my mind to the possibility that neither of the two had the answers to everything. That, in addition to knowing what we don't know (and trying to figure that out), there is much out there we don't even know that we don't know.

That eventually inspired me to do philosophy as my major as an undergraduate, abandon organised religion and think what I think today: that there are no absolute truths in the world, least of all absolute moral truths. Everything is relative and anything is possible.

At least that is what I Want To Believe.


• Follow Ignatius Low on Twitter @STIgnatiusLow


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'Re-opening The X-Files'. Print Edition | Subscribe