I’ve been delving into the popular sci-fi series The X-Files for a while now, making many attempts and failures to engage with its first season. Now it’s summer, and I’ve been weaving in and out through the series various episodes, trying to piece the gigantic enterprise together. It may seem strange for me to go back and recap an over two decades old television show, in some ways that type of thing is what the blog was built for. Join me this week as I review/recap the pilot, uncovering bright white lights, handheld camera moves, gender politics of the early nineties, and the scientific method (and bear with me as I figure out this whole TV show thing).
Pilots can be tricky. As a viewer, they’re sometimes hard to take because they aren’t always working at the standard we expect of the rest of the show. From what I remember of my first experience of The X-Files pilot over a year ago, I found it kind of uneven, but ultimately satisfying enough to go onto the next episode. However, I’m pretty sure that after that second episode I waited six months to a year before going to episode three. As such, going back to the pilot after getting much farther into the series has been wayyyyyy more satisfying than I remember it being the first time around.
In this episode, we do a lot of standard pilot stuff. Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) seems to serve in some aspects as an audience stand-in. In many shows the entrance of a particular character in the show’s mileau serves as the kick off point of the series, the audience is new and that character is new, so it makes sense that the show explain how its environment works both to the newcomer and the audience. In this case, that environment is what our other lead, Special Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) calls “the FBI’s most unwanted,” so unwanted that they shoved the division down in the basement so it’ll never see the light of day. This division is called “the x-files,” the cases so strange and unknowable that the FBI doesn’t even want to think about them anymore.
Though our story starts with an ostensible alien abduction and/or just a really weird murder, I’m gonna cover our characters’ backstories first. Scully is assigned to the x-files because of her background in medical science, she has an MD but never practiced because she was recruited right out of medical school. She’s been at the bureau a couple years, but still seems pretty green and generally unsure of herself. Her superiors (all old white dudes, one ominously smoking a cigarette in the background and saying nothing) hope her assignment to the x-files will keep Mulder’s crazy theories in check, maybe even discredit the project altogether. She’s supposed to file reports on the validity of his methods. Scully knows Mulder by reputation, gifted criminal profiler out of Oxford who distinguished himself in the violent crimes section catching serial killers. Apparently his success has allowed him to choose where he works, and always being thought of as “Spooky” (his nickname at the academy), he chose the X-files.
Scully’s first case on the job is the murder shown at the beginning of the episode of one Karen Swinson. As Mulder introduces the case to her (via slideshow, a presentation that will become a tradition on the show), he notes the similarities to other cases, two identical marks on the victims bodies, and the tendency of the Oregon victims to belong to the graduating class of ’89. He suspects aliens, she counters with any number of possibilities, the marks are needle pricks, the investigations might have been mishandled somehow which could account for the lack of other physical evidence. Whatever the case may be, they’re headed out to Oregon the following morning to check it out. This scene, Mulder and Scully’s first meeting, has more than a touch of nostalgia when you look back on it. The best part is, they’re not exactly confrontational about their differing points of view as they sometimes would become in later episodes. Scully says she’s excited to work with Mulder, despite not being on board with the alien thing, and it’s hard not to smile at that.
When they get to Oregon they experience a lot of weird stuff. There’s turbulence on the plane and on the ground, and the clocks seems to jump ahead nine minutes when crossing a certain spot. They get the idea to exhume one of the previous victims, and not only does the medical examiner try a little too hard to talk them out of this, but the body in the grave doesn’t appear to be human. There are strange white lights in the woods, and a unidentifiable powder left behind. Their main suspect is in a coma, a persistent vegetative state, yet somehow allegedly got himself and his former classmates into the woods and killed them. In true x-files fashion, and something that irritated me about the show early on, a definitive conclusion about the events can’t really be reached. The boy in the coma does appear to have committed the murders, acting under alien forces exerted through some kind of communication device inserted in his nose. These are all tropes the show will return to again and again, and the lack of closure and explanation at the end is just as textbook.
Going into The X-Files, I was aware of two things. The show is notable in television history for alternating between different story structures in various episodes, some would be “monster of the week” episodes that stood alone, differing from the “mythology” episodes which were continuous. The other was that it tried for a reversal of gender stereotypes, making Mulder “the believer” of unprovable mumbo-jumbo and Scully “the skeptic” holding fast to scientific explanations for things. (I guess I also knew a lot of people shipped Scully and Mulder, but I didn’t know the historical implications of this until reading specifically about the series after I started watching it. Sidenote: idk if I buy that this was the origin of “shippers,” I’m pretty sure Star Trek did a roaring fanfic trade back in the day, but that’s beside the point.)
I’m not really a science person, though I really do love examinations into how people figure things out. While I hardly ever feel the need to carry out experiments to be certain of basic facts in my everyday life, it’s interesting to think of how people decide they know the things that they know, especially when this comes to the type of “unexplained phenomena” that The X-Files loves to tackle (aliens, monsters, God, etc…). Looking at these issues in this show is especially fascinating because there is an intersection of the believer/skeptic dynamic with the male/female dynamic of whatever gender politics were like in the early ’90s (and beyond). It is really rewarding (sometimes disheartening) to track these interactions over every episode, and that’s going to be a main focus of mine going forward.
In this episode, there are two scenes I want to point out that focus on this. First is when they are examining the exhumed body. Scully is just trying to do her autopsy, and Mulder is frantically swirling around her and the body flashing photos and talking about aliens in a sustained handheld shot. Scully is taking notes via tape recorder on mundane scientific measurements, while the handheld shot is broken up by insert closeups various details of the body. Mulder demands x-rays and further tests, thinking it will reveal the body’s extraterrestrial origins, and Scully is pretty sure the body is not an alien, and has just been swapped for that of a monkey as someone’s prank. Aside from how it’s shot and edited, which cleverly and directly shows the maniacal certainty of Mulder’s belief and the steady certainty of Scully’s belief in the scientific process, it’s notable because Mulder is the one demanding more tests. He uses what is considered the skeptic’s approach in favor of his own beliefs.
The second is in the hallway after they have examined the comatose boy for the second time. Scully has found what seems to be the same powder that she saw in the woods, and all signs point to the fact that comatose boy is the killer (aside from his medical condition). I love how Anderson plays this scene, as the episode continues on Scully seems to get more and more hysterical, simply overwhelmed with everything that is going on and how correct Mulder seems to be. Going forward in the show, the two of them don’t always respect each other’s skeptic/believer identity, and it becomes something that seems to box each of them in rather than get results. In the pilot, like the most satisfying episodes of the series, sees them working together and being open-minded enough to each other’s approach to figuring out what’s going on. As Scully is all ready to board the “I can’t believe it but the kid in the coma is being controlled by aliens to kill his friends” hype train, Mulder pulls her back:
Mulder: “I just want you to understand what it is you’re saying.”
Scully: “You said it yourself!”
Mulder: “Yeah, but you have to write it down in your report.”
I’m a huge fan of this exchange, both as written by Carter and delivered by Anderson and Duchovny. The obscurity in the language (pronoun “it”) of what exactly it is that they are referring to shows how far from base they have both wandered in their thinking. This is where Mulder lives, but Scully can’t believe that she herself is making this leap. She is though, because the evidence points to it so far. However, Mulder reminds her again that they can and should test it more, especially because he already understands that Scully needs more if she’s going to put her name on that conclusion in her report. He respects her and her “skeptic” way of thinking enough to remind her of it, instead of just being like “I’m right.”
There’s a ton of other stuff to talk about in this episode, the establishment of the classic sci-fi style of cold beams of light, that shipper-friendly scene where Mulder checks Scully for the tell-tale marks, or that awesome Indiana Jones throwback of CSM hiding the evidence in the Pentagon. Hell, I didn’t even mention the other significant part of Mulder’s backstory (I promise I’ll circle back in the next episode where it’s brought up). Not a perfect outing for my first X-Files recap, but I’m approaching 2,000 words so I really gotta go. I’m going to try to do these once a week, as it would happen were this show actually on TV now, so I’ll be back next Friday for S1, E2 “Deep Throat.”
“..What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
Click here to read the review of next week’s episode, “Deep Throat”