Thursday, January 17, 2013

X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "Pilot" (September 10, 1993)

The X-Files’ first episode, “Pilot” written by Chris Carter and directed by Robert Mandel, remains a strong introduction to this classic horror/sci-fi series.  The inaugural installment not only presents an intriguing mystery and introduces audiences to engaging characters caught up in life-changing events, it also presents a first and ominous peek at the dark forces aligned against the protagonists, and against “the truth” itself.

But even better, the X-Files “Pilot” is skillful in the manner by which it deploys (and co-opts) horror imagery or symbolism.   I admire The X-Files for many reasons, including the overall structure, which permits viewers to gaze at every mystery of the paranormal through the twin lenses of skepticism and belief, the strong writing, which resonates on a deep, philosophical level, and the powerful chemistry between the lead actors.  But I also appreciate the clever presentation of the “monsters” and other horror tropes because Chris Carter and his team have re-purposed and updated them for modern consumption.  You can see this quality in the series' non-romantic, non-glamorous approach to vampires (“3” or “Bad Blood,”) for instance.

The series' pilot episode commences this pattern, selecting from over a hundred-and-fifty years of horror literature and nearly a hundred years of  horror cinema some very iconic imagery that it converts to its own narrative purpose.  In the process, it infuses that imagery and literature with scintillating new meaning and enhanced relevance for the nineties.

“Welcome to the FBI’s most unwanted…”

The X-Files pilot follows a young, brilliant F.B.I. agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as she is summoned to meet Section Chief Blevins (Charles Cioffi).  He gives her a new assignment: partnering with “spooky” Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) on the unit called "The X-Files," which is devoted to strange, unsolved, even inexplicable cases.

At first, Mulder is suspicious of Scully presence, believing she has been sent to spy and/or debunk his work.  They bond, however, on their first case, which takes them to Bellefleur, Oregon.  There, four high school students have died under unusual circumstances, with strange markings found on their corpses.  The latest victim is Karen Swenson. 

Mulder and Scully order the body of the third victim, Ray Soames, exhumed, and find a deformed body in the casket…a body that could be that of an orangutan...or an extra-terrestrial.  During an examination, Scully finds a strange implant embedded in the creature’s nasal cavity.

After the partners experience an incident of “missing time,” Mulder suspects that the students are alien abductees, but all the evidence they have to support that case is soon destroyed in a suspicious fire.  When Scully reports back to Blevins, she produces the only remaining evidence…the implant.

Soon after the investigation, a mysterious Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis) takes the implant device and deposits it inside a vast, secret warehouse-like facility…in the Pentagon.

“I’m not a part of any agenda…”

As a series, The X-Files begins with two intriguing and unmistakable nods to horror film convention.

The first is an on-screen “card” with white lettering and black background.  It establishes that the following story is, in some sense, true, or at least adapted from true “documented accounts.”  

This is the same “based on a true story” gambit utilized by genre efforts as diverse as The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Return of the Living Dead (1985) to name just a few. 

Title Card: Last House on the Left.

Title Card: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Title Card: Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Title Card: Return of the Living Dead.

Title Card: The X-Files: "Pilot."
The general purpose of this technique is, broadly, to put audiences in the frame-of- mind to believe not so much that the featured story is accurate or actually completely true, but that elements of it could happen…or even possible.  The notation of “based on facts” creates a sense of urgency and closeness with the following tale.  Did this really happen?  Could it have really happened?

The presentation of the title card is also a call-back to genre history, and TV series such as One Step Beyond (1959 – 1961), a horror anthology which dramatized tales of the paranormal (including, even, alien abduction in an episode titled “Encounter.”)   The title card essentially classifies The X-Files as a series that plans to have one foot in fact, and one in fiction.  It is a development or evolution of series like One Step Beyond and Beyond Reality (1991 – 1993), however, because of its focus on hard science, and new investigative techniques.

The Gothic, Enchanted Forest.

The Gothic, Enchanted Forest #2.
Following the on-screen card, the pilot episode transports viewers to a haunted forest during impenetrable night.  There, a Gothic scene that could have come straight from any Hammer Studios horror film in the late 1950s or early 1960s occurs.  In particular, a young, beautiful heroine in a white nightgown is pursued and attacked by a mysterious (and apparently malevolent) specter.  This attack seems to upset the very balance of nature itself, and an atmospheric disturbance occurs in symbolic protest of the unnatural act.

This opening sequence establishes a few important and meaningful details.  

First is the idea -- found routinely in the series -- that The X-Files is dead-set on re-purposing old horror monsters and horror imagery and subverting or altering that imagery to make it relevant again in the contemporary nineties culture.  Over the years, the series featured encounters with vampires (“Bad Blood”), werewolves (“Shapes”), demons (“Terms of Endearment) and even a “post-modern” take on Shelley’s Frankenstein (“Post-Modern Prometheus.”)  The old monsters were made new again, and thus more meaningful to the culture. 

The endangered woman in the diaphanous white dress (a symbol of purity), pursued by some ghoulish figure who is so reprehensible that Nature Itself rebels in its presence represents a key paradigm of Gothic Literature.  In a sense, it is the most basic image of horror: the monster in pursuit of the damsel.

Secondly, this scene establishes that the wild -- or an “enchanted” forest, in particular -- is a key setting for horror.  And indeed, The X-Files would often to return to this brand of "wilderness" during its nine year run (in episodes as diverse as “Darkness Falls” and “Detour.”) 

But again, the setting also provides an explicit link to the American past, carried right into the American present.  From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown (1835) and Charles Brocken Brown’s Wieland (1789) right up through David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1991) and its demonic Black Lodge, the forest has been the anxious location of danger and mystery in the American psyche. 

Immediately, The X-Files inscribes the next chapter in that link, tying the forest not specifically to the devil or dark spirits, as was the case with both Hawthorne and Lynch, but with an inexplicable, modern phenomenon, alien abduction.  

Again, this idea boasts very clear antecedents.  Wieland concerns strange lights in a forest, the paranormal phenomenon of spontaneous combustion, and “modern” psychological disorders such as schizophrenia (played out through the new art of “ventriloquism”). That tale is in every way as cutting edge in terms of science and "belief" for 1789 as The X-Files is in 1993.

In much broader terms, The X-Files is “Gothic” in another fashion.  Gothic Literature is often described as the Romantic response to the Enlightenment.  It is a “belief” response to “science” and technological advancement, in other words.  Gothic stories often involve a “tug-of-war” between these ideals with the prize being the soul of the protagonist.  Plainly, one can see that tug-of-war played out in both Scully and Mulder. 

They are both incomplete personalities, whose world-views -- with their inherent limitations -- can’t complete them.  Mulder is the believer who attempts to use science to validate his (sometimes wild) beliefs.  Scully is the skeptic who can brook no belief beyond the parameters of accepted, consensus reality and empirical science.  They wage a tug of war not only with each other, but with themselves, specifically about what kind of world they live in.  Is it one of miracles and monsters (Romantic)?   Or is it one of science and rationality (Enlightenment)?  

In a sense then, The X-Files recreates the very context of another historical age: The Victorian Age

If you read Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), that epistolary novel concerns, in broad-strokes the collision of the new age of “science” (represented by typewriters, film, and hypnosis, among other things), with an irrational or romantic threat from the past: the magical, exotic (and foreign) threat of Count Dracula.  

With its cutting-edge 1990s science, setting and investigative techniques The X-Files similarly places its heroes in direct conflict with things that seem magic because they can’t be proved.  These things would similarly be described as magical, exotic or foreign because they originate from another world, the mists of prehistory, or genetic mutation. 

Interestingly, the first few seasons of The X-Files also focus intently on Mulder and Scully typing away field reports for their FBI superior on their (now-antiquated) PCs, a touch that actually mirrors the epistolary structure of Stoker’s work.  In that case, Dracula's story is told through letters, communiques, newspaper headlines and other messaging venues.  On The X-Files, Mulder and Scully seem to constantly be writing e-chronicles of their competing interpretations of strange events.

An epistolary structure, like Stoker's Dracula?
If one considers the Victorian Age to be Pax Brittanica, a time when England experienced prosperity because of colonial imports from Europe and Asia, and developed new technologies at homes (Kodak cameras, and early motion picture devices such as “cinematographs”), then one may also be tempted to look at the Age of the X-Files -- the Age of Bill Clinton -- as a version of Pax Americana.    Technological advance came in the form of the Internet, and that decade saw the dawn not of colonialism, but globalism (consider, NAFTA, for example). 

Yet in both the Victorian Age and the Clinton Age, many people began to suffer a spiritual ennui, and  experienced worry about the “mechanical” de-humanization of “modern” civilization and the loss of racial/cultural identity.  How could a single Age accommodate both the miracle of surgery and the terror of Jack the Ripper?  The science of Darwin and the magic of Dracula?   

Or for that matter, how could the World Wide Web and Jeffrey Dahmer exist side-by-side?

Essentially, The X-Files represents a new Gothic paradigm in which Enlightenment and Romanticism ideals compete again and go one more round, each trying to gain a foothold.  Whereas Dracula could transform into the form of wind, fog, thunder, owls, bats, wolves or foxes, consider the myriad villains of The X-Files.  They too are atmospheric (“D.P.O.”) in nature, or hail from the natural world.  There were bats (“Patience”), wolves (“Alpha”) and other strange, quasi-natural menaces to challenge Scully and Mulder.  These monsters were re-assertions of the Romantic Ideal in a world that was apparently enlightened.

If one is so inclined, certainly one can gaze the prologue in “Pilot” and see that it serves as a kind of metaphor for the entire series, for the new debate between science and superstition, knowledge and faith.

The final imagery of “Pilot” may seem familiar for another reason.  It appears a deliberate homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  In that Steven Spielberg film, the Lost Ark of the Covenant (a symbol, once more of Romanticism) is tucked away by 20th century man in a place where it can’t threaten Enlightenment, inside a giant, endless warehouse.

At the end of The X-Files’ pilot, The Cigarette-Smoking Man is depicted depositing a symbol of apparent Romanticism (but actually of Enlightenment…or the Truth) inside a similar warehouse…actually the Pentagon, where it will remain, essentially, buried.  

In both cases, the one who buries important knowledge is the U.S. Government.  However, in the conspiracy-heavy age of the 1990s, that act of hiding the truth is much more important in The X-Files than it is in Raiders.  

Raiders of the Lost Ark, denouement (1981).

The X-Files "Pilot," denouement.
In terms of The X-Files history and overall arc “Pilot” also functions on a very practical, very efficient level.  It ably introduces the players, the stakes, and investigative milieu.  Although Anderson and Duchovny have not yet entirely nailed down the staccato, rat-a-tat back-and-forth delivery that makes the series such a perennial joy, it is safe to say that the actors share an immediate chemistry.  They circle each other in "Pilot" with suspicion, curiosity, and ultimately, fascination.

One scene, in particular, stands out regarding the development of the relationship.  Late in the proceedings, Scully believes she has been “branded” with the same strange marks of the other victims, following an incident of missing time.  Anxious, she runs to Mulder and with almost no self-consciousness at all, disrobes before him so he can determine the nature of those marks.  This all happens in candle-light.

In going to Mulder and removing her clothing with such alacrity, Scully in some fashion takes off her armor.  She allows herself to be vulnerable and reveals that she trusts Mulder with something private, and indeed, something incredibly personal.

The writing and performances here are so elegant, because Mulder responds to this gesture of trust not with lust or humor, but with vulnerability of his own.  He lets down his emotional guard, and tells Scully the story of how he lost his sister, Samantha, possibly to alien abduction. 

In this scene, all the science, all the paranormal explanations, all the intimations of cogovernment nspiracy slip away and we are left simply with two vulnerable people connecting in a meaningful way.  What I find so intriguing about this scene is the manner of connection.  Stereotypically -- at least in terms of television history -- it would be the man who offers a physical gesture, while the woman would open up “emotionally.” 

Again, I wrote stereotypically, so don’t call me sexist.  In some sense, The X-Files seems to reverse the industry-standard dynamic between men and women in its pilot, allowing Mulder emotional vulnerability, in particular.   David Duchovny noted once that “I think the male/female roles are switched…Mulder is more intuitive, working from his emotions, his gut instinct.  Scully is more practical.” (Neil Blincow, Rob Lowing, Andrew Seidenfeld, Cult Times #12: “21st Century Fox,” September 1996, page 11).

This scene may be the first example we can point to in the series of that particular dynamic.  One of the aspects of the series we’ll be looking at in this 20th anniversary retrospective is the Scully/Mulder relationship, bboth in terms of symbolism and gender dynamics, and this scene is perhaps our first “key” to understanding.

Finally, I can’t complete a look back at the pilot episode of The X-Files without noting how it picks up the battle cry of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974 – 1975).  That series featured a journalist in the immediate aftermath of Watergate trying desperately to make the "dangerous" truth known to the public  In Carl Kolchak’s battle against City Hall, he never got that truth out…that monsters exist and prey on citizens at all levels of society.   

Instead of adopting a journalist as its truth-teller, The X-Files puts forward someone of imagination (Mulder) and someone of science (Scully) as heralds.  This shift certainly reflects changing attitudes about the press in the 1990s, the decade that Fox News came into being, and also the changing attitudes about the kind of evidence that would be acceptable to the public.  The eyewitness reports of Carl Kolchak had to morph into the autopsies, DNA analyses, and behavioral profiles preferred by Scully and Mulder.

Next week for our continuing X-Files retrospective, I look back at our first freak or monster of the week, the genetic mutant Tooms, in “Squeeze.”  Stay tuned.


  1. Such a fascinating show. I'm glad you're focusing on it so strongly. Of course, Fringe is wrapping up tomorrow, and in many ways it is the 21st century X-Files. At least it started that way ...

    1. Hi John,

      I love The X-Files. Such a great show, and worthy of lots of attention. I am currently catching up with my Doctor Who (2005 - present) -- at 2008 -- for my fiftieth anniversary retrospective of that series. But I am going to get to Fringe, and watch it from start to finish. Many readers have suggested I was wrong to write it off as an x-files rip-off when it started...


  2. I think you are absolutely right to set The X-Files in the context of that tradition of Gothic literature, John. Another point of note to me—revisiting this episode in recent days and comparing it to what was to follow—is just how it fits the notion of fitting within the realm of "extreme possibility", something that the series seemed to move away from as it diversified, and as the myth-arc grew more epic. As I recall, that title card was used by the network's intervention as opposed to Carter's design, just as certain aspects of the plot were pared back so as not to appear too outlandish and thus risk alienating the audience. It's an aspect of the series I have found myself musing upon of late—for creative reasons of my own!—in terms of quite where the universe of The X-Files placed itself in terms of plausibility.

    The motel scene is one of my absolute favourites, and it is significant, I think, that it finds itself mirrored in the series finale. It certainly highlights the nature of the central dynamic of Mulder and Scully as being something markedly different from much other televisual fare, and for me invests the series with a rare emotional truth and realism at its heart. As you say, great writing and great performances.

    1. Hi Adam,

      I didn't know the title card was a network demand, but it makes sense that Fox wanted it. It serves to ground the thing. Today, I'd say the approach works, especially we've seen it as such a common horror convention in film.

      I love that motel scene. What a great Mulder/Scully scene. It's sexy, smart and emotionally engaging, like much of The X-Files!


  3. Great review of this episode. I revisited it a week ago and was surprised how smooth it was, compared to some other pilot episodes where you can really see the seams. Nearly every part of the "X-files" appeared in it's final form in this episode.

    One thing you didn't really touch on, but was really interesting to me at the time, was that this series didn't look visually like anything else I'd seen on TV at the time. There was a very cinematic quality to the lighting, the direction and the music. In fact Mark Snow's music in this episode really set the stage for the wonderful atmospheric work he'd develop as the series continued. His contribution to the series can't be overlooked. :)

    I'm looking forward to your continuing reviews of this series. I haven't watched some of these episodes in years and it was a blast to sit with these old friends again.

    1. Hi Roman,

      You are right in both of those assertions, I would say. The pilot is indeed "smooth" and fits the series well. Not all pilots (like "Encounter at Farpoint," for instance...) can make the same claim.

      I also agree with your commentary on the visuals...such an important part of the show. I focused a lot on the Gothic nature of the visuals in the Pilot, but this is definitely I subject I hope to explore in our weekly retrospective, so stay tuned!


  4. Anonymous1:06 PM

    John interesting analysis. On one point regarding 'the forest', it has always been a grest setting for both mystery and horror. In the '70s, as a boy, I often wondered about Bigfoot wandering certain forests.


    1. Hi SGB,

      I love horror stories set in the forest, and, of course, Big Foot stories. I always have wished The X-Files would explore the Sasquatch mythos...


  5. This was a college years show for me, and a complete stop-down for our entire apartment of four guys. I am loving the retrospective.

    To Roman's comment, I would say that while I agree that X-Files had an original cinematic quality to it, I feel like it was a visual descendant of the aforementioned Twin Peaks. I had never seen the Twin Peaks series until 2008 (I know, right?) but, when I did, I immediately thought of X-Files in terms of production values. To this day, both shows remain my all-time favorites.

  6. Oh John I am SO glad you are doing this! The X-Files has always been one of my absolute favourite shows, and I place the first 4 seasons up there with the best television has to offer, along with (for me anyway) M*A*S*H and Six Feet Under.

    I agree with the previous comments about the cinematic nature of the series, and would perhaps take that idea a step further. One of its greatest strengths, especially through the first half of its run, was versatility. Once the formula had been established, directors and writers realized there was great scope to give each episode a totally distinct feel - almost like individual movies. Mulder and Scully were strong enough characters to tie almost any style and plot together, and subsequently many of The X-Files' best episodes are when the writers really began to play with the form.

    If you had never watched the show before and the first two episodes you saw were, say, Darkness Falls followed by Jose Chung's From Outer Space, you could be forgiven for thinking they weren't from the same show at all! Yet each episode works perfectly when viewed as part of the whole, and all of the characters massively benefit from being portrayed in different ways. An episode could be a satirical comedy, straight horror, psychological thriller, emotional drama, and yet still feel authentically like an X-Files episode.

    Very much looking forward to the next 49 of these!


    1. Jez,

      I totally agree with you. I have written before and will say it again that the horror film suffered greatly as a form in the 1990s, because The X-Files did every sub-genre/ever monster so damn beautifully. The show was an amazing horror show each and every week...and it was free! :)

      Thanks for commenting, and joining in the retrospective. I look forward to hearing more from you!