Revisiting The X-Files season 1: Pilot

Review Jennifer Cates 30 Jan 2013 - 07:27

It's the first in our new weekly series looking back at the story arc episodes of The X-Files' first season. This week, the pilot...

This review contains spoilers (though admittedly, for an episode that aired almost twenty years ago)

1.1 Pilot

Here it is, the very first episode of The X-Files. I admit, I was excited to start the series up and revisit this beloved story of two intrepid FBI agents searching for the answer to the question “are we alone in this universe (and who is covering it up)?” The pilot episode is essentially the entire series, all handily packaged into forty-seven minutes. We have aliens, we have flirty repartee, we have small town and big government cover-ups. Hell, we even have the smoking man! The story is engaging with a bit of suspense, disbelief and finally, revelations. It’s rare for a series that captured our imaginations for fifteen years to be able to say “watch the first episode, you’ll know what it’s all about”, but here, you really can.

We begin, as most stories do, at the beginning. Scully has a meeting with a few upper management fellows at the FBI, including one unnerving and quiet man, smoking in the corner. She is assigned to the X-Files in order to bring a scientific mind to a series of unexplained cases currently being researched by a brilliant but wayward agent. As she goes to meet her new partner, Scully is all business with no visible snark, despite what she is walking into. She is genuinely interested in working with Mulder, a man with a brilliant and “spooky” reputation. Mulder is everything we remember, all wit and sarcasm overlaying a smart and sincere interior. Not to mention dashing good looks.

Mulder introduces his new colleague to their first case together in Washington State, and he’s already able to make her smile. Don’t we love that? Throughout the episode, they build trust in one another. Scully thinks Mulder might be crazy, but also sees an observational and logical mind. Mulder sees Scully as a spy and is frustrated by her skepticism, but is willing to go with her to find the truth for herself. They both share a platonically intimate moment where Scully fears for her life and Mulder tells her about his sister’s abduction.

The pilot's plot is engaging and surprisingly relevant. We’re given some suspense from the moment the pair travels to Washington when their plane almost crashes and moves quickly through a possible abduction zone with radio and clock malfunctions, an alien/monkey body in a coffin that was supposed to contain a deceased twenty year old man, a threatening medical examiner, nine minutes of lost time (that Scully can’t substantiate), and an obvious cover-up which includes the burning of Scully’s hotel room a little later on.

In the final acts, we see Mulder witnessing the aliens take and return the final two graduates while Scully is left on the fringes, and a group of FBI superiors who try everything possible to dismiss our team’s experiences and shut down the X-Files. Of course, Scully manages to produce one piece of evidence out of the cover-up and the X-Files are allowed to live another day despite the smoking man’s interference, burying the evidence somewhere deep in the Pentagon.

I find myself genuinely impressed that they managed to create such a long and exciting series using the exact elements they introduce in the pilot. For a third party character like the smoking man to be menacingly introduced here, and for him to be the central point around which all of the main story arc episodes revolve, well that’s something special. The immediate chemistry between our two main characters was obviously a selling point way back in 1993, and it still holds the same appeal so many years later. All in all, it’s a really excellent kickoff to a spectacular series. I’m looking forward to mining through the rest of season one's gold and examining six more of its story arc episodes with you. Next week: Deep Throat.

Best scene of the episode: No contest. It's the soaked-to-the-skin rain scene that established the Mulder/Scully dynamic for years to come.

Mulder’s 'spookiest' line: That's the reason the kids come to the forest, because the forest controls them and summons them there. And, and, and the marks are from, from some kind of test that's being done on them. And, and that may be causing some kind of genetic mutation which would explain the body that we dug up.

Scully’s (Il)logical breakthrough:

Scully: That kid may have killed Peggy O’Dell! I don’t believe it, it’s crazy! He was in the woods.

Mulder: You’re sure?

Scully: This is the same stuff I took a handful of in the forest.

Mulder: Okay, then maybe we should take it and run a lab test on it.

Scully: We lost the original sample in the fire, what else could it be?

Mulder: Alright, but I just want you to understand what you’re saying.

Scully: You said it yourself.

Mulder: Yeah but you have to write it down in your report.

Scully: You’re right, we’ll take another sample from the forest and run a comparison before we do anything.

Mulder’s slide show moment:

Scully: The girl obviously died of something. If it was natural causes it’s plausible that there was something missed in the post mortem, if it was murder it’s plausible there was a sloppy investigation. What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond science. The answers are there, you just need to know where to look.

Mulder: And that’s why they put the “I” in FBI.

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Amazing show which sadly lost the plot as subsequent seasons went on. The Samantha storyline deserved a far better denouement than the one that eventually came, but this pilot ties with The West Wing for best ever.

Season 1 was by far the best season, a definite classic.

I'm currently working quite quickly through it again... Just starting season 5... But yeah season one is probably the best... Sooooo many of the eps I remember are season one eps...
Actually I jus bought (on a whim) a "I want to believe" saucer poster mulder has :-)

I personally prefer the second season to the first. Gillian Anderson's pregnancy resulted in a need to write the amazing "Dwayne Barry", "Ascension" and "One Breath" episodes which showed the writers what they could do. The mythology episodes in this season were unbeatable culminating in the final episode "Anasazi". I remember seeing this with a friend and just thinking it was the greatest episode of anything. Ever! Almost twenty years have passed since that episode aired. Now that's a spooky thought...

Loved all nine seasons (yes, all nine!!). The sense of humour and intelligence the show had was evident right from its pilot :)

I totally agree! I stuck with it from beginning to end. There are as many good episodes in later seasons as there are in earlier seasons. Too many people get hung up on the "not the same without Mulder" issue - personally I think it improved once he'd gone as Duchovny's bored attitude was coming though in his perfrformance. I loved the addition of Doggett and Reyes and so wish they could've had at least one more season.

The end of Colony in S2 is possibly the best cliffhanger of any tv series ever.

The X Files was - at its best one of the best genre shows ever and at its worst (the later arc episodes) bloody awful. I think after the (very underrated) season 8 Mulder and Scully should have gone and left the X FIles to Doggett and Reyes who had real potential. As it was - like Fringe recently - the creators simply trod water at the end with no real purpose and the final episode is an insult - a real lets make it up as we go.

But stepping back, there are early episodes (season 2 being my favourite) where the hairs on the back of the neck stood up at what was some of the best TV sci fi ever. The leads were fantastic and the episodes mini marvels. The Scully is kidnapped arc starting at the top of season two was must-see TV. Episodes like the Tunguska two parter and Krychec's nasty loss of an appendage still look great.

I like the films immensely but the invasion plot became so convoluted that no one even the writers knew what was what and who was who.

Id still welcome its return however

The X-Files is my absolute, number one, favorite TV show of all time! It's great to see it getting some love still, almost 20 years after the pilot. And like Abomination, I loved all nine seasons!

I have been a huge fan since this first aired and despite the X files being 20 years old (god is it really THAT old??) this show still holds up brilliantly...remember squeezee man from this season ....what a great idea for a villain...or the tapeworm monster from season 2 etc etc many great "monsters of the week" wrappped in with an interesting (if somewhat convoluted) arc plus great lead actors (and yes I liked Doggett in seasons 8 & 9).....what isn't to love :)

You should finish revisiting next gen and dwayne johnsons career before starting a new one lol

Great article.

I agree, the original intent by Chris Carter was to end the series after five seasons then make one or more movies... but the show was too profitable for FOX and they wouldn't let it end, so they gave Carter mega-bucks to keep it going and let him do the first 'X-Files' movie between seasons.

I really wish they had wrapped it up after Season 5, it just got tiresome and repetitive after that, became a literal parody of itself, and it was obvious even to a blind man riding backwards on a galloping horse they were making the ongoing mythology arc up as they went along with no clear outline or idea where they were going with it and how they could ever hope to satisfactorily resolve the multitude of plot threads they had continuously added to over the years.

The first film should have resolved the ongoing alien conspiracy storyline (when they had the budget to pull it off) whilst the second film should have been the resolution of the Samantha storyline, bringing not only Mulder's lifelong quest to a satisfactory (for him and the audience) conclusion, but to end the whole 'X-Files' saga the only way it should have ended, alas...

I loved seaon 1, A lot of Sci Fi Series have season one as its best season, after that it gets serialised or boring. Examples include, Smallville, Supernatural, Sarah Jane Adventures , Revived Doctor Who and Fringe, each of Those shows had Amazing first seasons.

The damn third movie should have come out last year to wrap up the series. If an XFiles movie is released, how they gonna explain the date of the invasion not being 2012 ??????????

I used to love the series, but as others have said, when it became painfully clear the arc episodes were just being made up as they went along it all started to fall apart for me.

Bringing in new blood to the cast did freshen things up, but it was too little too late by that point.

Movies can always be set in the past you know ;) In fact I think a movie chronicling the build up, incursion and aftermath of the invasion might be more satisfying... set over 2011, 2012 and 2013 or something. It'd be brilliant for a 2014 release, marking the 20th anniversary of the series I believe :D Get Mulder, Scully, Doggett, Reyes and Skinner involved, allow the plot to be enough of one for the fans and I think this could be a real winner. The X Files: The Truth Is Out There :D

There's very few programs that get the pilot episode dead right, but The X-Files really hits the mark. The Pilot is one of the best pieces of television ever produced. Who cares what happened at the end, this episode shows why The X-Files was brilliant. (Shame they abandoned the idea of Scully getting undressed during the episode ;) ).

I was in a charity shop the other day and picked up the second and third series dvd box sets, really, really cheaply, great, great show, I think I got up to series 5/6 and lost my way, but i think I may have to sit down one day and try and watch it to the end.

Good article

...and let's not forget that the pilot is the only episode we get to see Scully in her underwear!

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