Same as it ever was. With its by-now-familiar scenes of alien abductions and government-conspiracy theorizing, not to mention the barely changed opening-credits sequence, that may be the first impression one gets from the first episode of the new mini-season of The X-Files. But that’s not so much an evaluation of quality as it is a statement of fact. With distrust of the federal government at an all-time high, in part due to the revelations made by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden in recent years, the show’s preoccupation with paranoia is more relevant than ever.
It’s fitting, then, that creator Chris Carter takes that distrust to a whole new, and even more subversive, level. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) may be brought together again to investigate the alien-existence claims of right-wing pundit Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), but Mulder soon makes discoveries that suggest the government is involved in something grander and more dangerous: a wholesale staging of incidents and abductions in an attempt by a powerful few to control and manipulate the U.S. population in general for their own purposes.
The danger, as Carter points out in some of his more heavy-handed lines of dialogue, may be greater than ever, but Mulder and Scully retain their challenging yet affectionate skeptic-versus-believer dynamic, one of the crucial elements that helped the series maintain an emotional coherence throughout its mythology’s unwieldy twists and turns. From their first scene together here, Mulder and Scully exude the rapport of old friends, as if, despite their time apart, nothing has changed between them. But things are indeed very different for them: They’re not only older, but more world-weary and regretful.
These emotional shadings are gratifyingly brought to the fore in the subsequent two episodes, both only tangentially connected to the broader mythology. “Founder’s Mutation” may be about genetically modified children and nefarious goings-on behind the scenes at a major eugenics corporation, but as with some of the series’s finest standalone episodes, the stakes are made deeply, painfully personal for Mulder and Scully, with the investigation bringing up a well of sorrow in the duo about William, the baby Scully felt forced to give up for adoption in season nine in order to ensure him the normal life she couldn’t provide for him. Writer-director James Wong, who, with frequent collaborator Glen Morgan, penned some of the most emotionally operatic episodes of the show’s early run, illustrates this with two poignant dream sequences, speculative fantasies of life with a teenaged William (played at various ages by Hannah, Aiden, and Rowan Longworth), both of which end in tragedy.
Regret is also at the heart of “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” but as was the case with his previous contributions to The X-Files, writer-director Darin Morgan mines it for exuberant black comedy instead of mournful drama. Mulder’s confession early on that he’s finding himself less enthusiastic about his return to the X-files than he thought he would be paves the way for a delightful lark involving a monster (Rhys Darby) who, when he suddenly finds himself assuming human form during a full moon, becomes horrified at the lifestyle of an everyday human being living a soulless nine-to-five existence—thus offering a hilarious counterpoint to Mulder’s own burgeoning midlife crisis.
In the whopping 16 years since Morgan’s last script for Carter’s series Millennium, his cynicism hasn’t dulled, but neither, thankfully, has his compassion. It’s precisely this vision of pessimism laced with empathy for outsiders that continues to animate the series as a whole—a perspective that finds great value in small personal triumphs even as the wider world around us is going to hell.