Fox Mulder and Dana Scully have officially become the cloistered weirdos they used to investigate in the original X-Files series. Two weeks in a row, the FBI agents have encountered LGBT characters, with disastrous results. More representation of that community is expected on the series in 2016, but what’s out of place is the language that the characters use to describe the world around them. The Mulder and Scully we grew up with were curious about the world, always seeking the ever-elusive truth. Scully lives in the medical field, where even in the ‘90s she was always pushing toward new discoveries in science, and Mulder basically lives on the Internet. That's why it’s so odd to hear the outdated way Dana Scully refers to being gay in a new episode, and for Mulder to be a part of a punch line about the genitalia of transgender women.
In the second episode of the rebooted season, "Founder's Mutation," while investigating the death of a closeted man, Dr. Sanjay, Scully says aloud to Mulder, “It's hard to imagine, in 2016, that Sanjay had to keep his lifestyle preferences a secret.” Sis, it’s hard to imagine you in 2016 referring to homosexuality as a “lifestyle preference.” Dana motherfucking Scully? Nah. Never mind that her flawless red hair, zero-fucks attitude, and toleration of Mulder when he was at his zaniest inspired queer women and men in the ‘90s to achieve all levels of professional badassery; or that Scully has given birth to countless memes years after the series’ expiration date — it’s just odd that any television writer today would write a line of dialogue like that outside of perhaps a Tyler Perry situation comedy.
And then there's this week’s episode, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” which is being heralded as an amazing return to the greatness of the original series. It very much is a dope-as-hell episode, which is also why it’s so unfortunate that the first depiction of a transgender character on the series resorts to cheap stereotypes. There have been tone deaf LGBT references before (the gender-swapping first-season installment “Gender Bender,” the doctor who’s a cross-dresser for no reason besides a sight gag in “Syzygy”), but none was quite as egregious as drag queen Shangela Laquifa Wadley turning up as a transgender, crack-smoking sex worker attacked by a monster at a rest stop. She puts up a fight -- because clearly, don’t fuck with Shangela -- but damn, she couldn’t just be passing through on a cross-country road trip? She’s gotta be a trans Cardi B without a VH1 reality show?
When Mulder later describes what a transgender woman is to the lizard-man Monster of the Week (played hysterically by Flight of the Concords’s Rhys Darby), I’ll admit it seems as if writer Darin Morgan doesn’t intend any offense. In fact, the description begins pretty matter-of-factly:
Mulder: She’s transgender.
Monster: What?! You can’t transform into a different sex, that’s nuts!
Mulder: It’s not nuts, it’s actually a very common medical procedure. You don’t need the surgery, technically…
Monster: Maybe that’s what I could do! It’s a cure!
Monster: Well, I’ve gotta stop transforming. I’ll do the surgery.
Mulder: Completely different.
Monster: I don’t care how much it costs, I’ll do it.
Mulder: They cut off their genitals.
Monster: No … I’ll leave it. That’s a step too far, isn’t it?
But the need to make it a punch line at the end does away with any goodwill in that scene, and it ends up being a big old what was the point? moment. Was the intent to educate viewers on the definition of transgender, but then undercut it with a joke so it doesn’t feel like learning? I'm sure trans people aren’t dying for representation in The X-Files. They’ve got other shit to worry about. So why throw the issue into the episode if it’s just gonna be a gag?
But that gets to the heart of why the entire X-Files return feels a bit off. Mulder and Scully are in a sort of odd arrested development that you’d expect from television writers whose sensibilities seem stuck in the ‘90s, along with their show. That, however, is not who Scully is. She champions underdogs and educates herself on things she doesn’t know. When you have the experience of writers clashing with a character's fundamental nature, it makes you wonder why we have the series back on our TV screens. Is it because we missed it so much and it necessitated a comeback? Is it because there are still countless X-Files stories to tell? Sequels should get to the heart of why you enjoyed something once before, yes, but they should also feel modern, and it should feel necessary to revisit these characters. King Hedley II this ain’t.
Still, if you’re gonna bring back the series and use it to talk about how our relationships with technology and the government have changed since the original series ended, you might want to take some time to investigate how human beings are different 15 years later, too.