Review: The Pilot (S1E1)

Written by: Chris Carter 
Directed by: Daniel Sackheim 

Aired on: September 10, 1993 
Rewatched on: February 20, 2020 

“The following story is inspired by actual documented accounts.”

~

We are greeted by this phrase as though it holds any significance, but we will never see or hear from it again. It was undoubtedly used as an extra element to the mystery and the horror of the episode, but ultimately serves as proof that creator Chris Carter hadn’t yet decided which direction he wanted to follow with his brand-new show. This can be forgiven, since we’re watching the pilot episode, mainly meant to enthuse the FOX Network into accepting the series. Who would’ve guessed that it would ever become such a cultural phenomenon?

The episode starts off with a girl running in the forest, seemingly fleeing for her life. She trips, a bright light shines through the trees. We spot the contours of a man who, upon rewatch, is obviously Billy Miles; they actually gave away the twist in the opening scene but only very few people will have noticed this on their first watch. It’s a nice little detail. The culprit – Billy – sacrifices the girl to the source of the light, high in the sky.

Then the episode cuts to the J. Edgar Hoover building. There is no iconic intro just yet, only Dana Scully zigzagging through the narrow corridors.

Gillian Anderson looks too young to play her. I always loved the story of her being unable to find a job after graduating college, and then finally auditioning for the part of Agent Scully who “had to be in her late twenties or early thirties”. She then bluffed her way through the audition, saying she’s 28, while in reality she was only 23 at the time they were shooting this.

This is very likely her weakest episode. She is visibly nervous in some scenes, somewhat awkward in others. I don’t blame her at all. In fact, I actually believe she is the strongest actor to appear on the show, especially in later seasons. But she isn’t quite there yet, and that’s okay. It makes The Pilot all the more endearing.

By the way, you will quickly note that I use “endearing” a lot. Why? Because to me, this word summarizes the very first episode of The X Files.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was talking about Dana Scully who, in my opinion, is the pivotal character of this episode. We see the story from her position because she represents the uninformed viewer or – as I realized a while back in a sudden moment of clarity – The Fool from Tarot.

“The Fool is the card of new beginnings, opportunity and potential […] You are at the outset of your journey, standing at the cliff‘s edge, and about to take your first step into the unknown […] As you undertake this new journey, the Fool encourages you to have an open, curious mind and a sense of excitement. Throw caution to the wind and be ready to embrace the unknown, leaving behind any fear, worry, or anxiety about what may or may not happen. This is about new experiences, personal growth, development, and adventure.”

The Rider Waite Tarot Deck

Together with Scully, the viewer is invited on this journey into the unknown, and it’s there that they both meet Fox Mulder.

I have to be honest with you, season 1 Mulder is my favorite Mulder. He’s just so – and there’s that word again – endearing. He is both written and played as a socially awkward, weird, quirky, and lonely young man, and it especially shows in the first season. Whereas Scully/the viewer is more or less like a blank slate ready to be written on, Mulder is already scarred by life. He lost his sister many years prior to this episode, to what he believes was alien abduction. This traumatizing event made him obsessed with the truth behind extraterrestrial life.

Later, we will see many problems emerge in the way the Samantha story arc is handled. But for now, this is a good and believable – albeit somewhat classic – motivation of the why’s and how’s of Fox Mulder.

David Duchovny is eight years older than Gillian Anderson, and more experienced, although still fairly obscure as an actor. As is the case with Gillian, David isn’t at his peak in this episode. He, as well, delivers some of his lines awkwardly. Again, I don’t mind. After all, the most important element is already there: the chemistry.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny’s chemistry is legendary and one of – if not the – biggest trump card of The X Files.

It is also The Pilot’s lifeline.

Let me explain: to me, it saves the infamous mosquito scene. I’m not a fan of this scene, simply because I find it very uncomfortable to watch. It’s shot in such a way that it oversexualizes Scully. As Gillian later confirmed: “There really was no reason. It’s a gratuitous scene.”

It also dumbs her down. I get that she’s startled but given what we know about her, I don’t see how she would immediately assume that she has the evil alien marks.

The dumbing down of Scully also happens on another occasion in this episode. She argues with Mulder that alien life couldn’t possibly exist. This would make her a follower of the Rare Earth hypothesis, which suggests that life can only originate on Earth and nowhere else in the entire – vast and endless – universe. Somehow, I just cannot imagine that she, a physicist who wrote her thesis about Einstein, would believe this when other physicists, such as Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, didn’t.

The reason this happened, isn’t just because she’s meant to represent the viewer, but she’s also supposed to be Mulder’s foil (I could even go as far as saying that she, in a skewed way, is actually an antagonist, since she is ordered to spy on Mulder). There is one simple rule present in those early seasons of The X Files: Mulder is always right and Scully is always wrong. Although this will become frustrating very early on, at this point in time it’s an understandable decision.

On a side-note, I really do commend Chris Carter for writing Scully the way he did. She is a woman who is smart, rational, and successful. There will be moments that make me wonder how much sexism is at play but cui honorem honorem: many writers can’t even manage to create such a character anno 2020, let alone in 1992 (which is when the episode was written, even though it aired in 1993).

Where was I? Oh yes, chemistry. To me, the mosquito scene becomes bearable because of the scene that follows it. Scully sits on Mulder’s bed, Mulder on the floor, and he tells her about Samantha. You could say that Scully opened up literally so Mulder could open up metaphorically. She trusted him, so he decided to trust her. This scene is strong; not thanks to the acting or the dialogue, but because of the incredible chemistry between those two actors.

The same goes for the scene on the graveyard. You know the one. Objectively, it might be the worst-acted scene in The X Files. Gillian and David were cold, drenched, tired, and they just couldn’t get their lines right without stumbling over their words and laughing. It should not have worked in any way but for some reason, it did. This scene – again – is such an endearing and iconic moment that they actually got away with it.

It’s probably those giggles. They’re contagious.

As for the story, it builds up nicely. The pacing is alright and we are introduced to new characters in a right way, at the right time. It’s not the most exciting or colorful plot, but it’s not boring either. The conclusion, however, remains mysterious. Billy Miles turned out to be the culprit. After he and his classmates were abducted by aliens during their graduation party in the forest, they placed chips up their noses and did tests on them. We later learn that they were attempting to create Super-Soldiers. What I don’t get, though, is why Billy – of all people – had to gather them? What made him so special? And if they wanted the evidence destroyed, then why did they suddenly stop in the middle of doing so?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe we ever find out.

A strong element, is the soundtrack. The piano and spooky ambience just sets the tone perfectly. You don’t notice it until after a couple of viewings, but believe me, music can make or break a show, movie, or video game. Mark Snow deserves all the credit for his work on The X Files. It will be another 16 years before he will compose my favorite song, but he was definitely on from the very beginning.

Another one of my favorite aspects of The Pilot, is highly personal: the clothes, especially their “forest adventure outfit”. They look like college kids and I absolutely love it because, you guessed it, I find it endearing. It is the kind of outfit that I go to second-hand shops for.

Then there’s the glasses of which we needed to see more. I will forever be mad that we didn’t get to see more glasses.

The episode is, at times, awkward, both in acting and dialogue (again, see the graveyard scene). Other not-so-good aspects are the guest actors. Theresa Nemman is particularly bad, and then there’s that one nurse who says “not my aisle of the produce section”, who always cracks me up with her weird delivery.

As for production value, it’s still very low. The X Files isn’t yet FOX’s Big Budget Beast, as it will become around season 5. To illustrate, this is what the set for the FBI looks like in The Pilot:

Compare this to The X Files Movie (1998) and I’m sure you’ll catch my drift:

It isn’t a criticism. I don’t blame them for not having a big budget yet. But you can imagine that the set they used in Fight The Future leaves more of an impact than the one in The Pilot did.

Perhaps it’s low budget too that caused the sound to be off at times? The most notable occasion is when Mulder and Scully are in the diner, talking to Theresa Nemman, and Mulder says: “You were the one on the phone, you told me Peggy O’Dell had been killed”. The distortion is painful once you pay attention to it, it’s a dead giveaway that this line was redone in post.

If anything, it’s definitely low budget that made the editing team decide this would do as a transition:

It’s pretty laughable but considering everything, again, it’s just such an endearing moment. It makes me nostalgic for a time I wasn’t even alive.

If anything, the FOX Network recognized the passion the cast and crew showcased back in 1992, and the rest is history.

Also, shout-out to this nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981):

If you made it this far, thanks for reading and for joining me on this adventure in which I will review all 218 episodes of The X Files, including the two movies. I can’t imagine every one of my reviews will be this long (I mean, let’s be honest here, a big chunk of MoTW episodes are like The Walk or The List) but since this is The Pilot I obviously wanted to do something special.

Your pal,

Astrid

Watch/Skip: Watch, duh. Don’t skip the first episode, y’all.

Next up: Deep Throat

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