Revisiting The X-Files season 1: Pilot

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

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