How the world has changed since 2002, when "The X-Files" ended its flashy nine-year run on Fox. But "Trust no one," the tagline that so succinctly embodied the ethos of the series on posters and other promotional paraphernalia, is just as relevant today — probably more so.
And so the reboot that arrives Sunday night is one I welcome with open arms. The paranoia and national jitters that Chris Carter's landmark series so expertly tapped in the 1990s have only deepened in the new millennium.
Carter is one of those elite TV creator-showrunners who know that as nice as it is to have actors like Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in the lead, nothing gives a TV production energy like stories that connect to the deeper cultural currents of its time.
The scene that helps viewers make that connection comes about two-thirds of the way through the pilot for what Fox is calling a "six-episode event": Fox Mulder (Duchovny) and FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) go down to the abandoned "X-Files" office to find documents that Mulder left behind when the unit was shut down in 2002.
Only, of course, the files are gone. "They" — the elites — are always one step ahead, trying to keep you from finding the answer that will allow you to unravel their conspiracy.
"A decade of my life I spent in this office," Mulder says bitterly. "And all that time, I was being led by my nose down a blind alley to a dead end — exactly as they planned."
"Since 9/11, this country has taken a big turn in a strange direction," Skinner replies.
"Now they police us and spy on us and tell us that makes us safer," Mulder adds. "We've never been in more danger."
"Then do something about it, Mulder," his former boss says.
It's a brilliant little scene in all the goals it accomplishes with the different audiences that come to a reboot of a much-loved series like this.
By setting it in the abandoned remains of the space where Mulder and Scully once worked, it instantly evokes the original series and all the intimate moments hardcore fans feel they shared with the agents as the two searched for shards of truth among the untold lies and conspiracies of 20th-century American history. Devoted fans who never missed an episode and want a couple of stiff pops of nostalgia are well-served in the pilot with scenes like this.
But even as the setting and the personal dynamic between Mulder and Skinner throws the viewer back to memories of the original series, the "since 9/11" dialogue drives this reboot forward as it gives viewers a way to understand the political landscape of today.
"They spy on us and tell us that makes us safer" succinctly encapsulates everything from the Patriot Act and NSA's mining of big data, to Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Big Brother gone digital and drone.
Skinner's call for Mulder to "do something about it" launches a new narrative and helps make this production more than just an exercise in nostalgia, as so many reboots are.
But original or reboot, it is all richly textured in the sense of darkness at the heart of America's secret political life. Scene after scene reinforces it — from Scully leaving a Washington hospital at the end of a long day and walking alone through an underground garage, to Mulder meeting an informant on an eerily quiet National Mall late at night. As his contact starts to speak, a low-flying plane passes overhead, and they both look up at its blinking lights in silence.
The interface between our great national monuments and the treachery that surrounds them is sublime in the hands of Carter's team.
The informant is presumably going to tell Mulder whether he is on the right track — just like Deep Throat did with Bob Woodward when they met in parking garages late at night during the Watergate era. The informant has some inside information on Roswell, N.M., circa 1947.Does anything matter more in the world of "The X Files" than that alleged UFO crash that the government allegedly covered up?
Or does it matter at all? Even true-blue fans will be surprised, I think. In fact, the truest and bluest might be most surprised by the answer.
I love the dark cultural touchstones this series explores. But that's me. Take me to the river, and wash me in our darkest national deeds. "The X Files" tells me "the truth is out there," and I want to know it.
Not that Carter and his crew can't write with a lighter touch.
One story line features Joel McHale as a right-wing, Web-TV talk-show host, Tad O'Malley, who believes in conspiracies as fervently as Mulder ever did.
Mulder, practicing the "trust no one" credo, accuses O'Malley of only acting like he believes because it's good for ratings.
"I think you're 'The O'Reilly Factor' with a shopworn little gimmick," Mulder says accusingly, referring to the controversial real-life talk-show host on another Fox channel.
"What Bill O'Reilly knows about the truth would fill an eyedropper," the talk-show host responds.
But I am guessing many devoted fans of this show will be back in front of a screen Sunday night mainly because they love Scully, Mulder, Anderson or Duchovny.
Let me stipulate: Anderson is an outstanding actor. She alone is worth a tune-in.
Duchovny is not an outstanding actor, but he is a compelling presence. And he has never been better than opposite Anderson. Her minimalist approach to Scully creates the room for all the emotional excesses of Mulder to fill the screen. Anderson's superior talent is seen in the fact that even as Mulder is bouncing off walls and riding waves of emotion, the viewer's eye is drawn to the cool, taut, edgy Scully.
I can't imagine anyone who followed this series not wanting to at least see how Scully and Mulder are doing 13 years later, apart and on their own.
Short answer: not so well.
But that's the point, isn't it? Neither is the kind of person for whom life is simple and easy. They are both in their own kind of pain. That's one of the reasons we care. Trust me.