TV discussion

The X-Files @ 25: Looking back at the Pilot Episode

The following is inspired by actual documented accounts.

As openings go for a genre television series about aliens, monster of the week storytelling and the search for the elusive truth, doing so with a declaration that what you’re about to watch has been inspired by accounts that are actually documented is pretty much a surefire way to grab one’s attention. So it was when I first sat down to watch the “Pilot” episode of Chris Carter’s iconic, famous and era-defining television series that had us wanting to grab a flashlight and look to the skies during the decade and declare that “I want to Believe”.

Except, my first viewing of the “Pilot” of The X-Files did no occur on the 10th of September 1993, nor did it even occur a year later when the series finally made its way to British terrestrial television when it premiered on BBC 2 where it quickly became a massive cult success to the extent that just past the halfway mark of its second season it made a transfer to the more mainstream scheduling of BBC 1. Nope, my first viewing of The X-Files occurred in March of 1996 when, with season two having finished and the only way to see if Mulder escaped that boxcar explosion was by the more expensive option of watching on Sky One, the BBC began reshowing the series from the very beginning.

Having came to the series in the latter stages of the first season (my first glimpse being “Jersey Devil”, my next “Space”, which was then mistakenly followed by trying to convince my dad to let me watch it only for the episode to be the more sexually active “Genderbender”, thus prompting my dad’s skeptical reaction about the show and its suitability for my ten-year-old self), the chance to watch the series from the very beginning and see the episodes I missed was positively the biggest television event of 1996…and it wasn’t even a new show.

Being that I was at this point twelve and my fandom for The X-Files had turned into a full-on obsession, it’s possible that there wasn’t anybody in the UK who had been this excited for a television repeat; I had started buying the newly released feature-length VHS releases courtesy of Fox Video in the UK (meaning I actually got to see how Mulder escaped that boxcar explosion without having to wait until September); I was a plague on my local newsagent the first Thursday of every month to see if my reserved copy of The Official X-Files Comic and Magazine by Titan Magazines had arrived (if it was late it usually meant calling in every day until it arrived); and because of said magazine, my back wall was starting to turn into a shrine to the series, the white walls turning a shade of ginger due to there being so many Dana Scully posters placed there.

To think, this full-scale obsession began with a declaration of being inspired by actual documented accounts (my twelve-year-old self wondering naively if there were really such a thing as X-Files on that first Monday night viewing) and a girl running into a forest to be confronted by a figure in white light, a semi-iconic image of the series that represents its ability to inspire awe and fear and which was used in pretty much every trailer for the series then, and sometimes still now.

Inspired by his love of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Chris Carter’s philosophy was initially very simple; a want to create a scary show. To do this he would create one of American television’s greatest partnerships, one that to this day still evokes a strong emotional response in its fans, ground it in a philosophical difference of opinion that would lead to some great moments between the two, not to mention dialogue and interaction that would create the phenomenon known as “shipping”.

Little did anyone know who probably sat down to watch the “Pilot” on a Friday night, the 10th of September 1993 on the Fox Network, that the episode they were watching was about to launch one of the biggest pop cultural phenomenon of the 1990’s, a series that would define the decade, and yet transcend it also and age gracefully (albeit with a few issues here or there that are part of the course as time passes).

Starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and directed by Robert Mandel, the amazing thing to note about The X-Files “Pilot” is how much it feels very much what Carter wanted the series to be. There are minor things here or there that feel different to what would come before, but they’re almost of a superficial variety rather than an unsure footing because tonally the “Pilot” is The X-Files in a nutshell.

Watching in 1996, after having already seen the first two seasons, it was strange to not get that theme music, or even the title sequence, or to have a somewhat different look to the basement office (it wouldn’t be until “Eve” when Graeme Murray took over as production designer that we would get our first look of the now famous office that would feel like a home away from home for the duration of the series), but the I Want to Believe poster is there, as is Mulder and his sense of humour and Scully’s ability to not take any of his crazy theorizing without confronting him with science, which is there, if you know where to look, of course.

While Mark Snow’s score may lack that now iconic theme music, it does have a moody, haunting presence that would recur throughout the series, and while director Robert Mandel and DP Thomas Del Ruth would not return for the series, one can see how they established a style that would be adapted fully by the likes of David Nutter, Rob Bowman, Kim Manners, John Bartley and Bill Roe and then even taken to further artistic brilliance.

Even the Smoking Man is there, not saying a word, but feeling like a presence that we can sense will become more important as the series will continue. Just look at Scully’s face after he walks past her in that hallway towards the end of the episode. He may not seem like it, but we can already feel the cigarette-stained hands of destiny reaching out to both her and Mulder in the moment, and then there’s the final scene; a tribute to the final moment of Raiders of the Lost Ark (another influence on Carter), it’s both wonderfully epic in its approach while telling the audience right away that many of these investigations are going to wind up with either no evidence or it being taken away from our heroes.

Both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson fit into what would become their most iconic roles well. As the first season would continue and develop, their work would be further honed, but you can see the Mulder humour and Scully’s science ethic right away. It’s a little icy at first, but there are mischievous glints in both their eyes that eventually gives way to respect; there’s a cheeky smile from both here and there as one or the other looks away, but also a wonderful ability to listen to the other even if they disagree, while it’s always been hard not to smile at the graveyard scene when Mulder tells here his craziest theory of the episode (it’s right, of course) and she laughs so wonderfully. It could be mean, and yet it probably sums up the warmth of their differences so well.

Watching it after having seen so many episodes that took place after was a wonderful experience that made it even more wonderful with the foreknowledge of where the series and the story is going to go, although twelve-year-old me was a little taken aback at seeing Scully in her underwear. Tastefully done it may be but compared to the rest of the series it felt almost borderline pornographic compared to the rest of the series, even more so when she strips off in front of Mulder (her awkwardness in the scene is wonderful) to look at the marks on her back.

As television pilots go, The X-Files first forty-seven minutes is magnificent. It mixes Close Encounters-style paranoia over alien visitation and mixes it with a Silence of the Lambs approach to crime solving. There is a confidence here that one sometimes doesn’t get with television series this early. Carter’s script is one of his best, it looks and feels like a feature film (this was a time when television never aimed to look like feature films the way they do now and it makes The X-Files a wonderful aesthetic continuation of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks in that regard), it makes Vancouver its atmospheric and spiritual home right away and leaves one wanting more after each viewing.

It always leaves me feeling like a twelve-year-old every time I watch it. It’s suspenseful, and intelligence, and just a little bit scary, and watching it in isolation, it’s hard not to just take the show’s hand and keep watching. While we’d have to wait for the next episode to meet Deep Throat, and later in the season for our first glimpse of Skinner and The Lone Gunmen, the tone, the attitude and the style is all there; from visiting creepy graveyards and forests, to autopsies, to conspiracy in every corner and, most importantly, great storytelling.

Little did anyone know that on twenty-five years ago, for many of us, life would probably change, that two FBI agents in the basement office of the FBI were going to inspire us, guide us and make us fall in love with a television series and that to this day, we’re still watching. Amazingly it would be a journey that would take in an initial nine-season run, two feature films, a direct spin-off, a sibling series in the shape of the equally wonderful Millennium, and revival, the last season of which would air on its twenty-fifth anniversary.

While there has been some fan controversy along the way, what with cast changes in the later seasons and plot twists in the most recent revival, to quote Scully from “The Field Where I Died”, I wouldn’t change a day. From that first handshake here, to the hug in the final episode, and to all the monsters and aliens in between, The X-Files has been a constant in many of our lives; from our bedroom walls, to our book and DVD shelves, to writing fan fiction or reviews that analyse every part of the show, to the most wonderful podcasts that debate and discuss the series in the most eloquent ways, to inspiring some of us to take up pen and paper and write our own stories inspired by those creepy forests and two FBI agents with a gun and flashlight to guide them, to meeting wonderful new friends along the way and finding relationships that would become the most important in our lives, it sometimes feels like it’s more than just a television series.

I guess you can say I’ll always want to remember how it all was.

To celebrate The X-Files turning 25 years old, we want to hear your favourite memories of the show. Let us know in the comments!

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