After complimenting a girl on the Dana Scully patch on her tote bag, we struck up a conversation about our devotion to The X-Files and our mutual anticipation for the upcoming revival of the show. Midway through talking about how excited and nervous we were for the show’s return, I said, “I watched the show when it originally aired!” to which she responded, “Oh… I’m not old enough for that.” There was an awkward moment, then I quickly said it was nice to meet her and walked away.
Beyond the mild offense I took at the ageist nature of her comment, I was pulling the ultimate fan snob card—feeling superior to someone who hadn’t been a fan as long as I had and therefore could not possibly love the show as deeply. Which is ridiculous, but hey, I started watching the show at eleven years old, and there are very few things or people that have been in my life that long. I get protective.
I started regularly watching the show from season four, which aired from 1996–1997, Sundays on FOX at 9 p.m. I’d record every episode on VHS and label tapes carefully with each episode’s name. Each week, I’d pore over the family TV Guide Magazine subscription for The X-Files advertisements and any potential articles on the show to cut out for my scrapbook. I had all the official and unofficial guidebooks to the series so I could read reviews and interpretations of each episode. I wrote fanfiction (though I did not know it was called that yet) in my three-ring spiral notebook during study hall period.
I was not alone in my obsession. In middle school, I had a girl gang that worshipped The X-Files with me. They, too, had cute pics of the series’ stars Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny on their binders, and we felt truly alienated (pun intended) from all the girls around us who were crushing on current teenage heartthrobs like Leonardo DiCaprio or Jonathan Taylor Thomas. We only had eyes for the then thirty-six-year-old Duchovny. We dressed as FBI agents for Halloween, and I remember freeze-framing the show’s opening title sequence to draw my “Special Agent Kristen Felicetti” badge as accurately as possible. Of course, we all went to see The X-Files: Fight the Future movie in theatres together and tried to plot ways we could travel to one of the official show conventions, even though they happened in places like Los Angeles or Seattle, and we lived in a suburb of Rochester, New York.
Most of these memories are built around watching seasons four, five, and six, and catching up on the earlier seasons one, two, and three via reruns or special VHS three-packs that were released of the best episodes. Then, like many fans, I fell out of love with The X-Files. The show’s mythology got way too convoluted, the relationship between Mulder and Scully turned into a soap opera, the funny episodes verged on self-parody, and worst of all, I had a falling out with the clique of girls that I obsessively watched the show with. (Several years later, I became friends with two of them again; we remain good friends today.) Duchovny wasn’t in most of the episodes during the last two seasons and Anderson played a backseat role to two new agents (Doggett and Reyes) that proved the magic of The X-Files was never in flying saucers or creepy monsters; it was in the chemistry between Mulder and Scully.
Six years after the series’ slow death came the second movie, The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Any hopes that this movie might redeem the end of the series were snuffed out by the movie’s lazy dialogue, a case worse than some of the series’ most mediocre episodes, and a homophobic plot. I resigned myself to pretending the last few seasons and second movie never happened, and occasionally enjoying the glory of the older episodes via Netflix.
Then the announcement of the revival hit. Would this be the time the series finally got it right? A lot has been said about how the nature of the show might change if it took place today. Some of its less supernatural aspects, like global surveillance, political conspiracy, and distrust of the government seem even more relevant in 2016. Culturally, it makes a lot more sense for The X-Files to come back than, say, Full House. Series creator Chris Carter knows this. In “The X-Files: Reopened,” a twenty-minute preview of the revival, Carter says,
One of the reasons I was excited about coming back is we’re dealing with a world that has changed completely from the time the series ended in 2002, which was not long after the World Trade Center bombing… So much has changed in the world and The X-Files now gets a chance to tell stories from that perspective.
The world has changed, but so has the landscape of television. When The X-Files debuted in 1993, popular shows were Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Home Improvement, Diagnosis: Murder, and Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman, to give you an idea of what kind of offerings were out there. When it ended in 2002, The Sopranos was only a few seasons in, The Wire would premiere in a month, and we were still a decade away from the rise of streaming series and binge-watching. The cast and crew of The X-Files had to adhere to a punishing twenty to twenty-five episodes a season, and that meant there were bound to be duds. Compare this to today’s leading series, which often have the luxury of producing only as many episodes as it takes to tell the strongest story. But this time, The X-Files will only be doing six episodes, a mini-series length that is more True Detective than network television.
If the success of The X-Files was less about the supernatural and more about its two leads, than the biggest change will be confronting the aging and mortality of Mulder and Scully. The preview hints that there will be a few jokes about them not being able to run up stairs anymore, but those are unnecessary; evidence of their aging is seen so clearly on their faces. Don’t get me wrong; Anderson and Duchovny are still attractive people. Duchovny will be my first crush forever, though the feminist in me now really only has hearts in her eyes for Anderson’s Dana Scully, but in either case, it’s still striking and poignant to see how both of them have aged in clips from the revival. I’m not sure why. I’ve kept track of both actors in recent years, so I know what they look like in 2016, but seeing them playing Mulder and Scully is different. Maybe it’s the timelessness of the show, including its ability to be re-watched on Netflix, or the endless memes/gifs of their younger selves that flood my Tumblr and Facebook feeds—all of these make it quite easy to forget those early seasons of The X-Files happened twenty years ago.
And yes, if you’re doing the math, that means I’m thirty now, older than the age Gillian Anderson was for a good chunk of the original series. I teach middle school students in an after-school program and while the shows they love are different, their commitment and devotion is the same as mine once was. It’s not The X-Files; it’s Sherlock or Dr. Who or Teen Wolf. While I have no idea what Teen Wolf is about, I can recognize the intensity of writing “Teen Wolf season premiere!!!” over and over again in pretty cursive writing in your planner, or carefully selecting a Dr. Who photo of Matt Smith for your iPhone home screen. Do not underestimate the comfort that immersing yourself in the world of your favorite television show can bring when you’re a lonely teen or preteen. Maybe this is the reason for all the revivals/reboots/sequels—a deep-rooted nostalgia—but it’s also their undoing. In reviving The X-Files, Full House, Arrested Development, Twin Peaks—hell, in the middle of writing this piece I just heard Friends might be coming back—you can bring back the shows that comforted you in your youth, but you can’t bring back your youth. Watching a revival of your old favorite show may stir fond memories, but it will only emphasize that you can’t go back to that time.
Yet if there was ever a show that could wrestle with anxiety about aging and mortality in a new way, it’s The X-Files. When I watch the finest episodes of the original series, I’m not thinking about ’90s nostalgia, I’m loving how they were excellent pieces of storytelling that dealt with timeless themes like life, death, faith, fate, narrative ambiguity, fears both supernatural and very man-made, and what it meant to be an outsider or alone. There are high expectations for the show’s return; it’s inevitable that it will disappoint. But I’m hoping that there will be scenes or a single episode that will be as sublime as some of those original episodes were to watch for the first time. As a grown woman, I’m not that interested in having Mulder and Scully action figures or an “I Want to Believe” poster hanging in my bedroom, but I’ll always be an obsessive fan of the rare story or work of art that makes life a bit more magical or strange, that makes you feel a little less alone.
Images provided by author.