The Problem with Dramatic Conspiracies


This is in response to The X-Files recent return to television which, let’s face it, was great. It was fantastic, it didn’t feel like nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. The unflinching direction that hallmarked the nine years of television we all watched in the 90s (and we all watched it, even if we didn’t like it) was not emulated, not homaged, but continued. As far as television has come along in quality of drama, direction, technology and writing, it’s amazing that something that really petered out around sixteen years ago still worked so well today.

There are obvious reasons why but all of them boil down to good material and the wonderful work of Duchovny and Anderson, both of whom bear no typecast or shadow from the original’s time. In episode five, Mulder goes full Hank Moody and in several episodes, the fun side of Scully is matched by her proportionate intensity to counteract the inevitable. As the series has aged there is something that now sticks out like a sore thumb and, ironically it is the show’s original premise.

If you watch all of The X-Files from the beginning, the story is very apparent and is, arguably, very dated. The U.S. Government is hiding the truth about extraterrestrial life on Earth and using what they’ve learned or pillaged for their own nefarious needs, or are being manipulated by an order of wankers who have united to do whatever is needed for a greater good (nefarious needs). The story stops there because I don’t want to spoil anything and like most conspiracy theories they die rather flatly in the face of empirical evidence. But if things get strange, you start to worry that this could be a case for Mulder and Scully.

Such is the power and cultural relevance of the way The X-Files delivered its fiction that it’s become an production trope, utilised by everything from hilariously implausible documentaries to the endless entertainment of heavily effected stock footage of people in suits with torches in dark basements between dramatic narration and eyewitness accounts that barely register any usable sentences, and presumably were filmed in a diner toilet off the I-25.

The problem we have watching this now and why, in my opinion, the two conspiracy episodes in the new series and a lot of the previous series are the weakest episodes is thus: We are unable to viably believe the scale of such an event or misdirection in a production and introspectively small environment as a television drama.


In the end, The X-Files themselves were about one thing, mysteries to be solved. But the show became about something much more important to us as humans (which is weird given the importance of the shows subject) and that is the relationship between Mulder and Scully. The show, whilst driven narratively by Mulder’s self destructive approach to find out the truth and Scully’s skepticism, became a story about how we want love and affection to still blossom in the face of alien apocalypse, death by our own capitalist implosions, deals with the devil, or anything – The story was about a connection that never needed the words to be said because we saw something pure come to light. In the new series with events that have previously occurred, we see this come to the fore and it’s wonderful and painful all at once. Even after sixteen years of their on-screen absence in the roles and their drama, it makes you wonder and realise how so many of us can’t get our shit together.

But it was pure. Sure, it was a man/woman dynamic which in the land of entertainment only leads to sexual tension, but this wasn’t a show about that. It was about scary monsters, untrustworthy bureaucrats and world domination, and as the millions of viewers who were watching were adults and children, the prospect of two people copulating was really a precedent only set by the media that covered it. For the viewers we knew what it was, it was a genuine love that wasn’t guided by physical attraction but by less carnal desires.

The conspiracy works of course and is entertaining as a thread but to say it has lost its lustre in a larger, more connected day an age isn’t accurate. Utopia had the same problem for me and it’s a problem with the medium of television. The scale for us to appreciate such an impact that results from the conspiracy cannot plausibly be conveyed with the production budgets afforded to the small screen, no matter how big those budgets are. In Utopia, we had two series of five friends and a few other people associated by a grand conspiracy to release a virus that would lower the population strategically to ease the burden on dwindling natural resources and food production. But for most of it, we followed a small group of friends, with an average age of around 23, around colourful fields, empty estates and homes, whilst avoiding practically any technological contact with the world. Sexual tension was there for no other reason but to dramatise affection and as a viewer the impact of the conspiracy (in threat or practice) is never realised.


The X-Files does a lot more than many have and can in this regard but even so, when your story is about your leading pair, a middle management servant in Walter Skinner and the face of the evil, the Cigarette Smoking Man, the wider world really gets lost. In the new series we have Tad O’ Malley, a conservative talk show host and politician who has also been able to find out things relating to these conspiratorial secrets. But even so, our only avenue to broadcast coverage of a serious problem is limited to the screen time of the O’ Malley show’s segments and regardless of how good Joel McHale is, he can’t convey the drama of an entire country, or an entire planet, slowly discovering its own pre-determined destiny by these conspirators.

Whilst we are entertained as viewers, it is never by the wider threat but more the impact it has on our two characters and, after ten years of television, The X-Files has finally realised that and does as much as it can to resolve the giant alien elephant in the room and get to where the real story is – Mulder and Scully. In truth, nothing can scare us anymore thanks to rolling news and the entrenched fear we are all programmed to live in by it. No longer does the narration of Orson Wells cause panic at the news of martian attacks, nor do the characters of Michael Crichton attempting to stop a deadly disease brought to earth by a fallen satellite, or Bernard Quatermass apologising to the world for what has become of Astronaut Victor Caroon and the danger he has caused. I even remember a made for TV B-movie (although the name escapes me) that was the apocalypse being broadcast as rolling news with reports all over the world coming in as the presenters know their sign off will also be the sign off of mankind.

The thing is that the conspiracy stories can work, and do work in books and even in movies. The first X-Files movie is a testament to that. But the limitation that TV has, not only for production costs but practicality behind everything and most importantly time to produce, edit and sell a series, sadly renders at times a bigger picture in a largely undramatic way. Thankfully The X-Files became more than that and its return should be a lesson to all: Never lose sight of where the drama truly is. Unless things are getting strange and you’re starting to worry…

I’ve already done that pun.



Oh and episode three was fantastic, it was the payoff for every comedic big monster episode ever and was funny, transcendent and just beautifully shown, especially with the mementos to crew and colleagues now departed. So shut it.

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