Sunday, 13 October 2013

THE X-FILES, 1.1 - 'Pilot' - the truth is out there

Sunday, 13 October 2013


FBI agent Dana Scully is assigned to partner quirky FBI agent Fox Mulder, to investigate the disappearances of high school classmates in Oregon...

It's 20-years since The X-Files debuted on Fox, and today's date (13 October) is also notable, as creator Chris Carter's production company Ten Thirteen took its name from this day (his birthday). So what better time to look back at the pilot episode of a truly ground-breaking television show, that came to dominate the 1990s sci-fi genre?

Inspired by Chris Carter's love of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, watching The X-Files premiere also reminded me of the debt it owes to Twin Peaks (which David Duchovny also appeared in as a transvestite) and Silence of the Lambs. There's a permeating sense of mood to this pilot that would come to characterise the show, helped along by Mark Snow's omnipresent music (which wasn't the norm for television in the early-'90s), and that was very much the flavour of Twin Peaks a few years before. Lambs's heroine Clarice Starling was the basis for FBI agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), and one feels that that Bureau backdrop was favoured because of its links to Thomas Harris's novels and successful use in, again, Twin Peaks. Fox Mulder (Duchovny) even has an comestible quirk (nibbling sunflower seeds) to rival Peaks' Agent Cooper's love of pie and coffee.
Scully: Do you have a theory?
Mulder: I have plenty of theories.
As you'd expect, this premiere deals with alien abductions, and is consequently the first building block of an extra-terrestrial mythology many would argue became untenable over nine seasons. But back in 1993, this would have all come across as relatively fresh—and the horrifying nature of abductions by 'little green men' skewing away from how the general public had been taught to love aliens, in movies such as Close Encounters of The Third Kind and E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (both directed by Steven Spielberg, who is name-checked here).

Compared to most episodes, this hour isn't particularly enthralling and deals with some very standard alien tropes (missing time, cars suddenly losing power on lonely highways, bright lights in woods), but the plot was a great deal more winding than I recalled. It also manages the difficult challenge of introducing its two opposed leads (paranormal believer Mulder and medically-trained sceptic Scully), outlining the show's whole "X-Files" conceit of unexplained cases the FBI keep in their basement, and telling a fairly knotted story about teenagers vanishing from some Oregon woods and being returned with curious marks on their flesh.
Scully: 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.
Mulder: That's why they put the I in FBI.
While the story is engaging and the investigating well-plotted, what strikes you is how fully-formed both Mulder and Scully are from the very beginning. Duchovny in particular has his character nailed down from his first scene, while the less-experienced Anderson already has the recognisable tone and demeanour you associate with Scully. The only real changes that occur is something of a makeover for Anderson to accentuate her sex appeal (which became an unexpected selling point by season 3 in particular) and a reddening of her hair. In terms of on-screen chemistry, the famous Mulder and Scully relationship is already there and one of the pilot's biggest pleasures. You already can't wait to spend more time watching these pro's investigate another paranormal case; thanks to their mutual respect for each other's views, dry repartee, and subtle sexual frisson.

While far from being a scary episode, the X-Files pilot does manage to contain some fun imagery (like a mini tornado of woodland leaves), and already includes the recurring villain of Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis)—who's present during the scene where Scully gets her assignment to report (debunk?) Mulder's investigations, and later in the wonderful Raiders of the Lost Ark homage when he deposits an alien implant Scully handed over in a Pentagon room stacked ceiling high with evidence boxes.


  • Charles Cioffi plays Division Chief Scott Blevins in this episode; a role that undoubtedly would have gone to Mitch Pileggi's Assistant Director Skinner if that character had been conceived earlier.
  • This pilot cost $2m to make and took 14 days to shoot.
  • The original cut includes two scenes with Scully's boyfriend, Ethan Minette, as Fox wanted a romantic interest involved in the show. Chris Carter later insisted those scenes were removed, as he knew the relationship between the main characters was strong enough to compensate for the lack of a more traditional "lover".
  • Scully's alarm clock reads '11:21' because that's the birthday of Chris Carter's wife, Dori.
written by Chris Carter | directed by Robert Mandel | 10 September 1993