Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Original Airdate: September 10, 1993
Pity the pilot. So many are messy, unfocused, priorities all askew, footing all wrong, network notes sticking out all over. They’re raised as sales tools then sent out into the world as entertainment, leaving you and me the fans to indulge them. Lie back, smile righteous smiles, advise our friends to give it a few episodes, because better times are to come. And The X-Files, that noted game-changer, that first-in-a-line-of, surely it didn’t start strong, right? Probably the first episode has a thing about how aliens are responsible for scrunchies or grunge or whatever else was going on back then, right?
BUT: NO. The X-Files pilot doesn’t need your pity! It doesn’t need your indulgence! The X-Files pilot is, in fact, pretty okay! Here’s Chris Carter, 1993, trying to sell Fox on a scary show with oblique plotlines and very little sex and you know what he does? He just does that, delivering a neatly written episode that bears all of the show’s early trademarks without confusion or crowding. It’s pretty great.
First off, we’re introduced to Agent Dana Scully as she is brought into what I think is known as the FBI’s Office of Divisional Exposition. She sits up straight in a room full of furrowed brows and tells us what we need to know about herself (doctor, recruited for the FBI out of med school, has parents), Agent Fox Mulder (Oxford educated psychologist, best analyst in the violent crimes division, nicknamed “Spooky”), and the X-Files (something something unexplained phenomena). Scully also says that she sees the FBI as a place where she can distinguish herself, prompting the furrowed-brow men to take their brows and furrow them further. What a nice young woman, they think. She wants to impress us and therefore she’ll absolutely always entirely do what she’s told! Pleased with their own brilliance, the brow-furrowers drop the other shoe and inform her that she’s been assigned to work with this Mulder fellow on the X-Files. Our nice young Scully cuts straight to it: “Am I to understand that you want me to debunk the X-Files project?”
Their answer of course, is no. First of all, no one calls it the “X-Files project.” Second, they picked her for her science! You know, science! And of course she’s meant to file reports on every case, but it’s not at all like she’s part of a vast conspiracy to silence the truth. Scully accepts this explanation, but not without a glance over her shoulder at the taciturn, cigarette-smoking man lurking in the corner of the office. You know. The one looking somehow so completely evil and so completely unconcerned.
By the way, this is all just in the first few minutes. Way to go, pilot!
Down in the FBI’s Department of Most Unwanted, Fox Mulder squints at some slides and sasses at Scully. He doesn’t trust her presence and he copes with that in a hugely mature, Oxford-educated way: by getting all up in her face, demanding to know if she believes in extraterrestrials, and scoffing when she says not so much. Also he asks her to identify wounds via slideshow and waves around a copy of her senior thesis which, at least, he claims to have liked. You want to hate him a little bit, but David Duchovny does a nice job indicating that his problem is less with Scully and more with the men who sent her. He doesn’t yet know that she doesn’t know. And neither of them know, yet, how much they have in common.
Their first case together is in the very plausible state of Oregon, where four teenagers from the same graduating class have died. Mysteriously. Mulder is straight-up, straight-off convinced that it’s an alien abduction situation; Scully is straight-up, straight-off convinced there is a very reasonable explanation for this. Their investigation turns up a grab-bag of alien abduction lore bright lights shining through the woods, a two-legged figure with big eyes, turbulence, radio interference, missing time, nosebleeds, a mysterious wound, a nasal implant, and a guy who is apparently in a coma but who is actually being controlled by unseen forces. It’s somehow all as creepy as it is familiar, and herein lies the show’s game: to take on pervasive legends and to present them not as reality unquestionable but as a reality possible; one that you might find if you just believed.
Layered over top of all this is a healthy dose of interference from the local sheriff and medical examiner. Turns out their favorite activities include speaking pissily to Mulder and Scully and also hiding/destroying/burning/denying evidence that anything bad is happening, at all, ever! They’re also first in what will be a long line of folks reacting badly to “the fantastic as a plausibility.” Structurally, they inject a little doubt into the show’s confident acknowledgement of the supernatural. The bad things, the creepy things, they’re not always alien. Maybe the real threat is at home. After all, aliens might leave your kids for dead, but these men might burn down an entire motel, dig up some corpses, and shotgun-whip a federal agent just to get this whole thing over with.
Now, ultimately, this is an episode about a man and a woman becoming partners, right? So maybe it’s inevitable that there would be one whopping miscalculation of a scene involving Scully in her very sensible underpants and Mulder spilling his guts by candlelight. Not sex! No! But possibly worse! See: Scully finds some suspicious marks on her back and goes running to Mulder for assistance. She throws off her robe and stands quivering as Mulder identifies them as mosquito bites (Doctor Scully), and she throws her arms around him. Inspired by her partial nudity and sudden lack of professional demeanor, Mulder confesses that his dedication to the X-Files stems from his belief that his sister (who he doesn’t name, here, but let’s call her Samantha) was abducted by aliens. It’s all very sweet, I guess. And I suppose it shows how deeply Scully is affected by the case. But all that robe-throwing and soul-bearing reads as clumsy and forced. Mulder and Scully will have, someday, a complex relationship to rival them all. There’s time enough for development, but the pilot doesn’t know that.
By the end of the episode, the truth is definitely out there. There isn’t a clean resolution there rarely will be instead, the loose ends give us room to imagine what’s to come. Mulder watches coma-kid stand in a pool of light, holding another classmate while leaves swirl around them. Scully misses it because she got whacked on the head by the desperate, bad-choice sheriff. Back in DC, Mulder makes a late night call to Scully because he can’t sleep and also probably she’s the only person whose phone number he has. Scully takes the call, mumbles something, and feels uneasy. And the only surviving piece of evidence an implant is taken by the Cigarette-Smoking Man and filed in a Pentagon room with lots and lots of files. Good job, pilot. You’ve flown true.
Next week: “Deep Throat”