The X-Files – Pilot

Who Wrote It?

Chris Carter

What’s It About?

FBI agent Dana Scully is assigned to work with Fox Mulder, a brilliant FBI criminal profiler who has become obsessed with the X-files, cases deemed unsolvable. In their first case together, they investigate a young woman’s death which Mulder believes is connected to extraterrestrials.

FBI’s most unwanted

A figure bathed in light holds an unconscious woman
Image copyright 20th Century Fox.

One sub-genre that I have always enjoyed is supernatural investigation. I believe the seeds for this genre were planted by Doctor Who. Since my earliest television-watching memories are of the Tom Baker era, stories about the Doctor investigating horror tropes were an early influence. Specifically, I enjoyed what I term plausible supernatural investigation, by which I mean the setting is recognizably our world, but the fantastic has begun to encroach. So, my early childhood was influenced by the Hinchcliffe/Holmes gothic horror in Doctor Who. My adolescent life, however, was shaped by The X-Files.

The X-Files debuted in 1992 on the Fox Network. It quickly became the cornerstone of Fox’s drama lineup. The show blended horror anthology with police procedural, in this case, FBI procedural. Chris Carter, the show’s creator, occasionally likened it to Kolchak the Night Stalker meets Silence of the Lambs. Criminal profiling was the rage in the mid-90s. This led to the creation of Fox Mulder, a brilliant FBI profiler who was obsessed with the supernatural due to his sister’s mysterious abduction when she was a child. She was never seen again. The pilot quickly establishes Mulder’s partner, Dana Scully, who was trained as a doctor before joining the FBI. Scully was assigned to the X-files (cases that are deemed unsolvable) to analyze and report on Mulder’s methods. Section Chief Blevins hopes Scully can report on the validity of Mulder’s work. Mulder, initially, believes she was sent to spy on him and debunk his work. He takes this in stride, however, as he quickly plunges his new partner into a case about a young woman who was found dead in the woods. No apparent cause of death was found, but she had two unusual marks on her lower back. She was the second body discovered with such marks. Mulder suspects extraterrestrial abduction. Scully is skeptical.

I have seen this episode quite a few times. It was one of the episodes released on VHS. Fox never released the entire show on video, only the popular episodes. When I was in high school I collected all the videos and watched them over and over and over. I have seen “Pilot” more times than I can count and can probably quote the episode as I watch it (well, the Mulder parts anyway). Rewatching this episode is a fascinating experience. Television has changed so much since the early 90s. When I watch old episodes of Doctor Who, I expect the show to look different. Episodes aired 50, 40, 30 years ago. Doctor Who produced episodes before I was born. Not so with The X-Files. This was a show that I watched when it was originally airing. I went on this journey with Mulder and Scully. But while I have changed, these early episodes are still rooted in the early 90s. While Fringe (a thematically similar show) is of high production values and navigates the supernatural investigation genre with panache, The X-Files forges new ground by adding supernatural elements to a show about FBI agents. Thus, this first season, the pilot especially, feels like a 90s cop show. There is still a human antagonist, but he is being controlled by aliens. “Pilot” is unsophisticated; Mulder and Scully are innocents not yet marred by everything they are about to endure. It is charming, in a way. And Mulder wins you over with his good-natured insanity, while Scully reaches you with her pragmatism. It is a wonderful dynamic in which both characters need each other, literally or symbolically: literally, because Mulder would probably go insane and become an FBI washout without Scully’s insistence to investigate by-the-book; symbolically, because Scully is searching for meaning in her life. This search for meaning is only hinted at in “Pilot” (Scully’s career change is the clue), but later episodes will explore this idea in more detail.
Perhaps the most unfortunate example of how The X-Files has dated is the government conspiracy theme. The X-Files is rooted in Watergate Era paranoia. Its seeds were planted in McCarthyism. But in 2013 the United States government doesn’t seem capable of running a conspiracy with the scope of The X-Files conspiracy. The US government seems inefficient. How could they hide agreements with aliens? The earnestness with which The X-Files approaches this subject no longer feels valid. It will be interesting to see, as I re-watch the show, if I find it more plausible. This early, however, the conspiracy is still run by the government. We haven’t yet encountered the Syndicate.

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