I Still Want to Believe: Revisiting The X-Files Pilot

Over a quarter century later, the inaugural entry into The X-Files still stands the test of time.

X-Files Season 12
Photo: 20th Television

A car powers through a looming darkness as a chorus of critters clashes against the onset of steady rain. Inside the vehicle, newly acquainted FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are blazing a trail out in no-man’s land, a long stretch of road that cuts through a dense Oregon forest. Mulder looks down at his watch. 9:03. He peeks down again, this time at his compass. It’s spinning out of control. Suddenly a burst of light comes over the car, temporarily shutting down its engine. Mulder tries to accelerate. Nothing. He checks his watch. 9:12. Nine seconds, missing.

These government officials, reclassified as glorified ghost hunters, end up stranded in the same spot where just hours earlier, in broad daylight, the numbers on the radio sputtered in a noisy panic. Mulder, on a hunch, shook up a spray can and painted the roadway with a symbolic “X.” 

Never one to shy away from the darkness, Mulder exits the car and immediately finds his marking. The proof of extraterrestrial phenomena that has eluded Mulder was now tangible and Scully was right by his side to witness it. In an instant, nine minutes evaporated into thin air. Before questions of science derail his moment of clarity, Mulder’s knack for always expecting the unexpected is rewarded with a vital piece to the mystery that christened the inaugural entry into The X-Files.

“Time as we know it stopped and something took control over it,” he later theorizes. 

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Labeled as the inferior startup, or the “fourth” broadcast network, Fox debuted its first night of primetime programming in the Fall of 1987 and spent the end of the decade learning how to crawl. Early hits like 21 Jump Street, Melrose Place, and Beverly Hills, 90210 brought some legitimacy to Rupert Murdock’s $2 billion investment, but as the ‘90s progressed the network was still looking to forge its identity. 

Along came Chris Carter, a television writer at Walt Disney Studios, who showed up at the doors of Fox with a pitch for a series that would question the government and the stars that watch over our universe. After the network balked at the chance to pick up The X-Files for fear of the unknown, Carter went back to the drawing board. He returned to Fox with a revised pilot and the network took a gamble, betting on the science-fiction thriller to capture the imaginations of the coveted 18-49 demographic.

read more: The X-Files Binging Guide

The X-Files debuted on Friday, Sept. 10, 1993, and was seen by 12 million viewers, a massive audience share by today’s standards. It was the 57th most watched show of the week. The low rating could be attributed to the lack of big-name talent, with Carter yielding the lead roles to the relative unknowns David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Regardless of the slow start, Carter’s stated goal was to bring something “scary” to television. He made good on that, distinguishing The X-Files as the odd pick of Fox’s Fall 1993 lineup that included short-lived new sitcom Daddy Dearest, the more recognizable, The Sinbad Show, and western, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.

“The pilot episode, because it was so unexpected, got a lot of attention just because it was offbeat and like nothing else on television,” Carter said in a 2011 interview.

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Over the years, Carter has been adamant that there would be no X-Files without the 1970’s thriller Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the show that pushed the dimensions of space and time, The Twilight Zone. To Arlen Schumer, a Twilight Zone historian and author of Visions from The Twilight Zone, the sci-fi genre wouldn’t be what it is today without Rod Serling’s fantasy series challenging the boundaries of its medium.

“The creative revolution of the ‘60s is television assuming its place in the forefront of American culture,” Schumer said. “Science fiction movies were put down because it was lowbrow. That changed in the ‘60s along with everything else.”

Schumer asserts that The Twilight Zone is the forefather of America’s current obsession with science fiction. In 1970, Serling was quoted that networks have traditionally short-changed the science fiction audience, both “qualitatively and quantitatively.” He went on to surmise that he didn’t think networks had given the proper respect to science fiction as a legitimate area of “literary attempt.”

Now, as Schumer puts it, The Twilight Zone is seen as a gateway to today’s science fiction television boom and a series that changed perceptions of the genre, albeit the process was a slow one. “We will only know if it’s art if it stands the test of time,” Schumer said.

The late actor Shelly Berman put the appeal of The Twilight Zone in perspective as only a seasoned Hollywood veteran could when I spoke with him during a 2012 phone interview. Berman had his Twilight Zone turn as the lead in “The Mind and the Matter,” and he expressed an unwavering gratitude toward having a part of television history.

“Look at this conversation and how many years and years have passed,” Berman said. “It’s a memorable thing in TV Theater. To be a part of that? My god you can brag about it forever. There’s no reason not to.”

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A classic pilot episode, under the right circumstances, can become a marker in time. For a pilot to take on meaning as something more than a starting point, it has to bravely shift the network paradigm. It doesn’t hurt that for The X-Files, show’s longevity helped make its inception an unforgettable and important piece of its lure.

From the first flashes of light in its chilling opening scene, The X-Files set itself apart from the pack. This was a show that was going to try its best to startle you. It was going to ask you to believe in Mulder and teach you how to understand Scully’s rightful objectivity. The pilot succeeded in introducing everything that made the show great over nine seasons. X-Philes, as the show’s rabid fan base would soon be called, got a taste of what would become an ensuing love affair with the “Monster of the Week” stand-alone episodes and the series arc, or “mythology,” episodes. It carefully blended in a few key moments, the tent poles, which are essential to the series. Looking back now two decades later, it’s hard to not tingle inside when Scully enters the office and sees the iconic “I Want to Believe” poster. I couldn’t help but gush over Mulder and Scully’s first physical embrace, like I had no idea it was coming.

But what’s great about the pilot is that it doesn’t wait for you to catch up. Just as Scully was bullied by the FBI into taking on the X-Files, the show moves along at a lightning pace, almost as if to say you’re with us or against us. That aspect undoubtedly appealed to the superfan faction of the fan base, the people who bought comics, discussed the show at length on message boards and fan sites, and went to X-Files conventions.

read more: How To Keep Your The X-Files Fandom Alive

The obsession all started with the disappearance of a few teenagers in Oregon. To Mulder, the backdrop is an afterthought. The darkness is merely a place where he earned his nickname, “Spooky.” “You got to love this place, everyday is like Halloween.” Mulder says of the fictional town in northwest region of the beaver state.

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His mind exists to connect the dots and reach where he’s constantly told not to. If the truth is out there, Mulder was driven to pinpoint its location. Accompanying Mulder to Oregon is his opposite, a medical doctor named Dana Scully, named after longtime baseball announcer Vin Scully, who Carter says is the “Voice of God.” Scully’s initial hesitancy to follow Mulder’s leads previewed the level-headedness of a character that influenced a generation of women and young ladies to pursue jobs in the medical and law enforcement fields. To this day, it’s referred to as the “Scully Effect.”

“Scully is still having an impact on the choices young women are making in terms of where they see themselves in the world, and their potential impact and where they want to put their energy. To see that continue is extraordinary,” Anderson told Den of Geek for our 2017 X-Files cover story.

The marriage of skepticism and unwavering belief was consummated long before Mulder witnesses a beautiful, yet troubling flash of light in a clearing in the forest and runs to tell Scully. It predates The X-Files. It’s an ode to the lasting legacy of a show such as The Twilight Zone. Both Serling and Carter alike sought to hold audiences to a greater intellectual standard while asking them to suspend all prior convictions about the abnormal.

As Mulder and Scully pieced together the mysterious happenings out west, it sets up the bigger picture of the series. Whether it’s Mulder confiding the disappearance of Samantha to Scully, the first sight of the Smoking Man, or Scully laughing off Mulder’s assertion that Billy Miles has an alien impulse, The X-Files told us the truth was out there. Caught in a downpour that challenged the limits of space and time, Mulder knew something bigger than all of us was coming.


The X-Files came stumbling to an end in 2002. Its final season was devoid of Mulder until the finale and many longtime fans disapproved of the rushed apex of the beloved mythology arc. Though Carter insisted the series could go on for years with new agents put in charge of the FBI’s hush-hush project, a once great series ended on a sour note, as most do. In “The Truth,” the show’s 87-minute finale, Mulder and Scully ponder a bleak future in a musty Roswell motel room. In the face of a forthcoming alien invasion (thankfully 2012 has passed and we are all safe for now), Mulder still finds a glimmer of hope in the darkest shadow the show cast.

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In a way, the open-ended final minutes were another beginning. The X-Files restarted the science fiction renaissance that broke down barriers in ‘60s. Not long after Carter and company ceased production, Lost debuted with a pilot so earth shatteringly good it was named one of the top five best episodes ever by TV Guide. Even when networks didn’t hit it big, shows with lesser fanfare but a stable cult following—Firefly, Fringe, and Dollhouse to name only a few—also justified airtime. Breaking Bad, a series created by former X-Files and Lone Gunmen writer Vince Gilligan, made a serious push to become cable’s gold standard. While Breaking Bad didn’t exactly fit the sci-fi mold, it introduced a daring, norm shattering pilot that warrants as much praise as its sparkling finale received.

“There would be no Breaking Bad without The X-Files,” Gilligan has said in numerous interviews.

In an age of instant gratification, where we can dissect every aspect of a show through recaps, fan sites and endless streams of tweets, the science fiction genre has never been more appealing to viewers. Carter’s effort to bring thrillers that would invite intrigue and discussion back to television has fully come to fruition.

read more: The X-Files Darkest Episode Revisited

It’s no coincidence that his brainchild was one of the first shows that utilized the internet, introducing web chats with writers and producers during episodes in the second season. It was a show that grew with the internet and explored how the relationship between man and machine was shaping modern life when most of the country was still pretending to understand how dial-up worked. The X-Files did to the ‘90s and 2000s what The Twilight Zone did for television in the ‘60s and beyond. 

After over a quarter century, the unforgettable chemistry between Mulder and Scully still lingers in The X-Files season 11, which many consider a return to form. Whether this is the end or not, The X-Files‘ legacy will live on through its fans and newcomers who will find the show through streaming platforms. And when new audiences do find the series, they’ll always remember that moment when under the blanket of night, somewhere deep in the Oregon forest, The X-Files literally, and figuratively, stopped time. 

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Chris Longo is the deputy editor and print edition editor of Den of Geek. You can follow him on Twitter @east_coastbias.