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The X-Files – Pilot (Review)

The X-Files is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’ll be spending Month X looking back at the first season.

There was a time, around the third season, when The X-Files became the show. It had grown from the quirky newcomer of Fox’s prime time line-up, through its status as a cult hit, into a bona fides pop culture touchstone. Looking back now, twenty years after the show first began, it is something entirely different. It’s weird to look back over a long-running television, divorced from the immediacy of broadcast, a sort of “if I knew then what I know now…” sort of thing.

However, looking back at The X-Files, it’s more than just knowing how it ends. It’s more than just knowing about the show’s slow and drawn-out two-year death. It’s more than knowing that the conspiracy plotline kinda (but not quite entirely) makes sense, if you look at it the right way and don’t over-think it. Approaching The X-Files now, twenty years later, is more like opening an old tomb, unlocking a time capsule. The musky smell of the past seems to seep out of the television screen, transporting the viewer to a time that really isn’t that far away, but feels like centuries ago.

The X-Files is, undeniably, a pop culture artefact from the nineties, a show that seems to slot almost perfectly between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror. It’s an exploration of a version of America that simply doesn’t exist any longer, the long and silent pregnant pause where the United States was the world’s sole unchallenged superpower. The X-Files really embodied that period of time, much like 24 managed to channel the anger and the rage of the post-9/11 era into piece of the zeitgeist.

And, to be fair, you can sense that sort of nineties existential anxiety even as early as The Pilot.

Beam me up...

Beam me up…

It’s worth noting that The X-Files was not created from whole clothe. Very few television shows are. Even fewer popular television shows are created from scratch, with many shows resonating with viewers precisely because they respond to particular sentiments or feelings. The X-Files is very clearly a post-Watergate mythology, a story about how the government is lying to the people and how easy it is to bury things that people simply don’t want to talk about.

However, apart from the show’s obvious political roots, creator Chris Carter instead drew from a wealth of heavy pop culture influences, fusing them together into an unlikely cocktail. At one point, staying in a cheap motel, Mulder jokes that he is Steven Spielberg. It’s a light gag, but one that betrays an obvious influence. The Pilot has more than a few overt similarities to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as a bunch of former alien abductees are all drawn and compelled to a particular location.

A chip off the old block...

A chip off the old block…

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the most obvious influence when it comes to the aliens of The X-Files. In the opening scene, as an abductee prepares to be taken, they are enveloped in a triangular light, evoking the poster design of Spielberg’s alien opus. It’s not a bad idea to draw on the film’s iconography. After all, it stands as one of the most popular and recognisable depictions of alien abduction in popular culture, providing an efficient visual shorthand.

However, Carter doesn’t just mine U.F.O. influence from the grand well of pop culture iconography. For example, the final sequence features a shirtless Billy Miles wandering through the wilderness in purple stretchpants, dazed and confused and not entirely under his own influence. It seems to call to mind the iconic design of The Incredible Hulk, another pop culture icon rooted in the paranoia of the post-war period. (Bruce Banner was irradiated during government attempts to design “a gamma bomb.”)

We have top men working on it...

We have top men working on it…

Similarly, the show’s closing scene, in which the Cigarette-Smoking Man neatly tucks away a piece of vital evidence in what appears to be a secret warehouse stocked to the brim with various articles the government would rather forget about, feels like an homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course, that final scene has taken on a life of its own, and I suspect that that short dialogue-less moment is part of the reason that William B. Davies would return to the show and become such an integral part of its mythology and framework.

However, one of the pilot’s more significant influences, and one quite removed from the alien-centred focus of this particular episode, is The Silence of the Lambs. It’s no coincidence that the first of the two regular characters we encounter is Dana Scully, reporting to a briefing at FBI headquarters. We might not get an introductory sequence of Scully running an obstacle course, as she appears to be a fully qualified agent, but the sequence seems structured to remind viewers of Starling’s first encounter with Crawford in the FBI.

The game's a foot...

The game’s a foot…

Chris Carter has acknowledged the influence:

Silence of the Lambs was an inspiration. It’s not a mistake that Dana Scully has red hair like Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

It makes sense. While the first two episodes of The X-Files focus on the folklore around aliens and unidentified flying objects in the United States, the show would also becomes something of a prime-time horror series. The Silence of the Lambs is generally regarded as the first horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar, so it feels like a fitting template for a show about delving into the disturbing and the uncomfortable.

Field (or forest) work...

Field (or forest) work…

Indeed, you could make a valid argument (and I undoubtedly will over some of the shows to come) that The X-Files is a “missing link” that serves to connect the serial killer films of the nineties (The Silence of the Lambs, se7en, Kiss the Girls, etc.) with the massive explosion in murder-related police procedurals on television a decade later (CSI, Criminal Minds). Of course, Chris Carter’s mostly-underrated and overlooked Millennium would be a more direct evolutionary link, but we might get to that in time as well.

For the moment, though, it’s worth noting that Carter very shrewdly identified The Silence of the Lambs as a horror template that could work on television in the nineties. One of the best aspects of The Silence of the Lambs was the was that it eschewed the traditional “damsel in distress” formula that plagued the genre, instead crafting a strong and compelling (and well-developed) female lead character. Although some of the procedural aspects of The X-Files owe a massive debt to The Silence of the Lambs, Dana Scully is the most obvious illustration of the film’s influence on the show.

X marks the spot...

X marks the spot…

You could construct a very strong argument that – despite the popularity of Mulder as a character and the fact that Duchovny’s name comes higher on the credits – Dana Scully is the real protagonist of The X-Files. This argument is rooted in more than the fact that Anderson stuck with the show until the (very) bitter end. Instead, we join the show as Scully joins the eponymous investigative team. Mulder has been doing this work for years, while we come on board with Scully.

We walk into the FBI building with Scully. Despite some interesting character work during the show’s fourth and fifth seasons, Mulder’s faith never truly waivers. He might get a little disillusioned, but he ends the show believing pretty much what he believes when we first meet him in the basement in The Pilot. All that has really changed for Mulder as a character between The Pilot and The Truth is his degree of knowledge.

Spooky, eh?

Spooky, eh?

In contrast, Scully has journeyed from sceptic to believer. She has seen things that she can’t explain and struggled to reconcile them with her understanding of the world. Mulder made that journey before the series began, as he confesses to Scully in the motel here. Of course, both leads carry the show and drive the narrative at different points in the journey, but I think you can make a strong case that The X-Files is Scully’s story more than Mulder’s.

And that’s why Scully is such a fantastic character. Carter was never the best writer on any of his shows, and I think that various writers wrote the two leads with varying degrees of skill and efficiency. However, Carter does an excellent job setting up Scully as a compelling character. If you are looking to create a strong female character, you can do a lot worse than to look to Clarice Starling for inspiration. Unless you read Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, but that’s a whole can of worms.

To Mulder, aliens always trump naked beautiful women...

To Mulder, aliens always trump naked beautiful women…

Carter even borrows several of the film’s cues here. One of the most memorable sequences in The Silence of the Lambs features Clarice attending the autopsy of one of the victims in a local morgue. The male police officers seem quite uncomfortable with a female character doing such work. Rather notably, as a medical doctor, Scully spends a great deal of The X-Files doing autopsies and the more grisly medical work.

Here, however, Mulder decides to exhume one of the bodies, and jokes about Scully’s possible reaction to that. “I’ve arranged to exhume one of the other victims’ bodies to see if we can get a tissue sample to match the girl’s. You’re not squeamish about that kind of thing, are ya?” Of course, Scully doesn’t seem perturbed or disturbed in the slightest, and Mulder’s mockery of Scully seems to contain a hint of sexism. One wonders if Mulder might have asked the same question of a male colleague.

Grave concern...

Grave concern…

Still, that makes it a little disappointing when The Pilot gives us the show’s only real overt attempt to sexualise Scully. When the power goes out, we’re treated to a shot of Scully taking off her dressing gown revealing a bra and panties. It feels disturbingly trashy, and it is somewhat telling that this is would be the most notable example of the show turning Scully into a sex object during the series’ ten years on the air. I sense the involvement of the network.

Hindsight is occasionally hilarious. Apparently Fox insisted that Carter give Scully a boyfriend. The character (played by Tim Ransom) pops up in a series of scenes deleted from the final show, and was never discussed or mentioned on-screen. However, this seems absurd in retrospect. Apparently the network felt that there wasn’t any palpable romantic tension between Mulder and Scully – something that seems absurd when you consider that X-Files fandom would create the phrase “unresolved sexual tension” to explain the duo’s dynamic.

Mulder likes to watch...

Mulder likes to watch…

Personally, I don’t feel too strongly one way or the other about the romantic dynamic between the pair of agents. In fact, one of the few things I like about the whole “let’s put Scully in a bra and panties” sequence is the fact that Mulder doesn’t really react to it at all. He acts entirely professionally, even when inspecting her lower back for abduction marks. (Which is a scene that would become quite ironic quite soon.)

Given that later years would characterise Mulder as something of pervert, it’s nice to see the show make an effort to establish the two as platonic. It also allows the show to establish Mulder – who has been quite confrontational and condescending towards Scully – to show a softer side and demonstrate that Mulder might actually be able to bring himself to care about this new partner, even if she’s been foisted on him by those in authority.

Through a glass...

Through a glass…

What’s also interesting about The Pilot is that it seems to suggest a version of Scully who is more ready to believe in Mulder’s theories. “You said it yourself,” she points out after outlining her theory. In a scene that looks weird in retrospect, Mulder has to convince her to remain a septic. “All right,” he tells her, “but I just want you to understand what it is you’re saying.” It’s strange to see Scully as one who needs Mulder to ground her.

Of course, the show would thrive off the sceptic-believer dynamic, so Carter seemed to realise relatively quickly that Scully couldn’t readily accept what Mulder was saying. Although the absurdity of Scully’s scepticism would occasionally be exaggerated (she was generally at least rational), Scully would spend most on the next seven years playing Doubting Thomas, a rather thankless role on a show that would feature aliens in its opening credits.

Weathering the storm...

Weathering the storm…

We’ve talked a lot about Scully, and not so much about Mulder. Part of this is because Mulder is drawn in a relatively broad fashion, and part of it is because Duchovny doesn’t seem to have settled into the role yet. Duchovny is an actor who can easily go on auto-pilot. It happens quite a bit during his last year on the show. Here, it seems like Duchovny either hasn’t got a proper read on Mulder as a character yet, or hasn’t fully committed to the show. He’d be a lot better during the rest of the show’s first year.

The show also makes nice use of location. Filmed in Vancouver, the damp forests excellent substitute for Baltimore. New England has always been a prime setting for American horror, serving as the setting of choice for writers like Poe, Lovecraft and even King. The episode’s setting is another effective way that Carter anchors The X-Files in the tradition of the American horror story, even if the show wouldn’t properly venture into horror until Squeeze. Not that it is too far away.

Strange bedfellows...

Strange bedfellows…

I noted above that Carter isn’t the strongest writer on The X-Files, and you can see that shining through here. Carter is a phenomenal ideas man, a creator with his finger on the national pulse and a canny understanding of the zeitgeist. However, when it comes to stuff like dialogue, Carter seems to struggle a bit. The Pilot involves a stunning amount of exposition for a show about two agents investigating crazy stuff. Structuring that exposition into an interview is smart, but the dialogue still creaks.

There are hints of Carter’s overly-purple prose here, the suggestion that he might have been well-served with a script editor to trim some of the fat. Mulder gets a number of long and rambling philosophical questions, which sound a little pretentious. “You know this Oregon female? She’s the fourth person in her graduating class to die under mysterious circumstances. Now, when convention and science offer us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility?”

Do you want to tell him he can't smoke in a federal building?

Do you want to tell him he can’t smoke in a federal building?

This is the sort of thing that The Simpsons would affectionately spoof with Mulder’s “the unsolved mysteries of Unsolved Mysteries” speech. To be fair, that dialogue sort of suits Mulder, even though Carter still occasionally over-eggs the pudding. Scully is mostly spared… for now. It’s not a massive problem here because Carter’s preference for flowery philosophical dialogue never gets quite out of hand, but there are warning signs.

The show is already hinting towards a grand conspiracy. The Cigarette-Smoking Man turns up. Mulder even explains all this to Scully. And the episode acknowledges one of the great mysteries of The X-Files – how is Mulder allowed to continue with his work? The series would suggest at least three possible reasons over the course of its run, and we get a mediocre one here. “The only reason I’ve been allowed to continue with my work is because I’ve made connections in congress,” Mulder boasts.

Flight of fancy...

Flight of fancy…

One of the great things about The X-Files was the way that it would occasionally follow up with these little nuggets in strange ways. That connection is pretty much ignored for the rest of the year, but turns up in the first episode of the show’s second season. Of course, this might suggest that somebody behind the scenes had some sort of plan for how all this would fit together. Instead, all evidence suggests that the next step in the grander scheme of The X-Files was divined by methods unknown to mortal men.

Of course, The X-Files is notable for being one of the first massive prime time television shows to make a serious stab at embracing serialisation. You can argue about how successful the show was at telling one long-form story, but the fact that the attempt was made (in the age before cable) is something the show and its fans should be proud of. Unsurprisingly, the show’s mythology was a point of contention between the network and the producers:

“There were notes,” Carter said. “It’s when [a network] needs a hit most that they make the beach landings. They’re always invading your space and trying to manufacture a hit instead of letting one evolve. They wanted closure. [We were told] `You’ve got to wrap up each one of these episodes.’ I kept saying, `We’re dealing with the unexplained. You can’t explain the unexplained. You can’t put the alien in jail at the end.'”

That mythology is established in The Pilot and would develop quite linearly throughout the show’s first year. I was – as were a lot of people – quite frustrated with the show’s central arc, which was often needlessly complicated and unnecessarily obfuscated, but I do appreciate what that arc represented. Serialisation is taken for granted these days, but The X-Files really demonstrated that genre television could tell that sort of story.

Night lights...

Night lights…

The Pilot doesn’t rank among the best episodes of the show. However, it is remarkable just how much of the show’s identity was quite clearly articulated in that first forty-five minute episode. It almost seems like Chris Carter had a clearer idea of what he wanted to do from the start than he did as he was actually going along.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The X-Files:

8 Responses

  1. Great article! Though I must say the X-Files pilot makes me feel old for no reason.

  2. fav show I own the big box set both movies and the lone gunmen and the masive xfiles book they put out in 2008 and I love season 10 in comics

  3. Nice! Great post! I was just a little girl when it came out, as I was born in 1983, but the whole series became a pivotal part of my formative years in my teens and opened my eyes, mind, and heart to the fact that there is so much more out there than we will ever know. Of course, I saw that episode later than the early 90s.

    • I jumped on, I think with the fourth season, which is probably why I’d consider it my favourite season of the show.

  4. I am not sure which one is my favorite season or if I really have a favorite season at all. I have an episode or two that I would say is a favorite. I do have to say, the fourth season was pretty good and if I had to pick a season, I would probably have to agree with you on that one. 🙂

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