The X-Files #1: Pilot

"Sorry, nobody down here but the FBI's most unwanted."
I've been doing shorter daily review projects for long enough. Plunging headlong into something much meatier: The X-Files. Between its 9 seasons, 2 movies, 3 seasons of the Millennium spin-off, AND 13 episodes of Lone Gunmen, there's enough creep juice here for the next 285 days (or 9½ months). Only slightly longer than the human gestation period; coincidence?! We didn't get FOX (the channel, not Mulder) in our area for a few years, and the first few episodes I caught had a gory element I didn't like, so I only got into the series at the height of its popularity, catching up on reruns and following it to the end (I think), though I missed the movies and never got into the spin-offs. Revisiting it after all this time should prove interesting. Though a descendent of such fare as Kolchak: The Night Stalker, it spawned its own derivative "investigators of the supernatural" type shows, and is certainly influential for its attempt at a long myth-arc, which many later series would adopt as a structure and perfect. And yet, I'm sure it has its own identity, exploring the uncertain zeitgeist of post-Cold War, pre-9/11 America, a world of government conspiracies for the existentialist non-patriots Americans had finally been allowed to become, an American looking for the next enemy and fearing it was in its own home, an America asking a lot of questions but finding few answers. Hope you'll come along for the ride. Hope you want to believe.

ACTUAL DOCUMENTED ACCOUNT: Scully, Mulder and the Cancerman are introduced in an episode about teenagers abducted, driven mad and/or killed in the Oregon woods.

REVIEW: It's always a bit strange watching the pilot of a long-running and well-known series, because things are often a little... off. In The X-Files' case, there still isn't an opening credits sequence, and Skinner isn't the man in charge yet. But the most obvious change is in the personalities of Mulder and Scully, who I remember as a lot more staid and detached than they are here. Mulder is more than sarcastic, he's almost a clown - he definitely gets all the best lines. Scully, for her part, has unusual moments where she might burst into laughter, come with a ludicrous conspiracy theory, or - and a sex idol is born - show up in Mulder's motel room in her underwear so he inspect her lower back (prescient given one of the few details I remember well from later in the series).

But it's essentially all there. This "odd couple" has instant chemistry of a sort, though it's not really sexual - Mulder is more bemused than aroused by Scully's appearance in his room, and winds up sharing his life story, not his bed. But though we find out more about Mulder than Scully - his abducted sister, his wasted brilliance at profiling, his obsession with the X-Files, and so on - it's really HER story. Mulder has already gone through a transforming experience, he already believes (in pretty much everything, as it turns out). But Scully is only at the start of her journey. She must COME to believe, or possibly destroy Mulder's world view. That struggle is dramatized by her being sent in by her bosses to spy on Mulder, a man who already claims he's being undermined at higher levels of power. But his faith that all things are possible shakes Scully's resolve; it's infectious. The more she is exposed to him, the most she becomes like him, and the top brass' hold on her will start to start to slip. In the series proper, I seem to remember Scully being a more steadfast unbeliever. The Pilot shows what is perhaps to come, with Scully letting herself fall for Mulder's enthusiasm, or red herrings like mosquito bites that feel like they might be signs of alien abduction.

The Pilot's story is shockingly unresolved, and while I like Chris Carter's contention that a show about the unexplained should not offer explanations, it perhaps goes overboard. Were these alien abductions? What were the bumps on the kids' skin all about? What happened during the missing minutes? Why were the kids lured to their deaths, but that last one spared and cured? Why did that one girl's nose start spontaneously bleeding? What's the deal with the alien-looking cadaver? And of course, we have the Cigarette-Smoking Man (Cancerman for short) walking through the episode, no lines to his name, stealing evidence and filing it in the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Obviously, Cancerman returns, and alien abduction will form the crux of X-Files' "mytharc", so we shouldn't worry too much, but it's still a lot of random stuff thrown in, mostly to create an atmosphere. And on that level, it succeeds spectacularly. The British Columbia locations (meant to be Oregon) are dank and wet, and scenes are allowed to play out in torrential rain. A lot of characters seem to have a macabre wit that adds a layer of black comedy to the proceedings. And the show doesn't shy from shock horror tropes like the aforementioned nosebleed (cued to a line meant to make you feel safe), Mulder smiling through heavy turbulence, and the exhumed coffin rolling down the hill. Not your normal TV fare for 1993.

A section where we might indulge in theories, but with minimal spoilers. After all, I don't really remember what the endgame was. Perhaps it'd be truer to say these notes will be about questioning what we see on screen, and debating whether the world is more in line with Mulder's point of view, or Scully's. In the Pilot, that alien corpse really does look like an ape's (but if the real body was replaced, why does it also have an implant?), and future episodes will show secret government aircraft with stealth and VTOL capability which could have produced that light, as well as how hypnotic suggestion could be used to "steal" time away from subjects. And yet, how do we explain the magical disappearance of the bumps on the last would-be victim? Or is it a simple deactivation of the implants, reversing any changes they might cause in the body and mind of the subject before Mulder gets too close to the truth? In other words, the Pilot does not convince me that aliens exist - the government conspiracy could just be covering up their own strange experiments of its citizens and disguising their actions as so-called X-Files, either discrediting or destroying all the evidence.

- Give or take a few quirks - and quirks I don't actually dislike at all - the show is born fully formed. Its storytelling could be more rigorous, but the interesting characters, the macabre humor, and the boldness of entertaining so many mysteries, shock and delight. We're off to a good start.


Toby'c said...

The one thing that really bugs me about this one is when Mulder asks Scully if she believes in the existence of extraterrestrials. She answers "No," and then goes off on an explanation that has nothing to do with the question he asked.

Siskoid said...

That's what I mean by throwing too much at the screen. It seems rather out of focus at times. The second episode is much better at this.

googum said...

Can't wait for you to get to Millennium: I remember really liking it at the time, but not sure if it's held up.

Why is it X-Files never seemed to be quite living up to its potential, but still was really good? Like the smart kid that coasts with a B+ average. The "mythology" episodes stringing things along definitely may have cost them.

Ryan Lohner said...

The show was really a victim of the time it was made. Planning ahead on a TV show just wasn't something you did back then, even the ones that purported to be going somewhere. So like Lost, except everyone accepted it. Thank you J. Michael Straczynski and Joss Whedon for changing that.

At the beginning, Scully was intended to be a copy in all but name of Thomas Harris' Clarice Starling, still very much in the popular consciousness from the Silence of the Lambs film two years earlier. And recently this came full circle with Gillian Anderson getting a recurring role on Bryan Fuller's Hannibal. It's definitely worth checking out.

Timothy Brannan said...

I am really looking forward to this. Not since Doctor Who (the classic series) or Star Trek had a show completely grabbed me.

I am really, really looking forward to this one.

Siskoid said...

Googum: I watched one or two Millennium episodes at the time, but didn't get into it. We'll see, but good to here you be enthusiastic about it.

Ryan: Right down to the red hair, right?

Tim: Good to hear! It's the first really long project since Who. I guess I was due.

LiamKav said...

There's nothing wrong with making stuff up your overarching story as you go along. DS9 did it relatively well, and shows like Buffy and 24 often admit to changing things on the fly. It's only an issue if your myth arc is based around "there are lots of secrets that we're going to tell you at some point, but not now". And if the writers don't know what the questions are ahead of time, never mind the answers, it just leads things like the "Onslaught" crossover in mid-90s Marvel.

In my memories, the X-Files was a show that outstayed it's welcome. At the start it was fresh, new and exciting. The monsters were scary, and the mythology stuff intruiging. However, it got to a point where the monsters became "seen it before", and the myth arc become an exercise in treating water. I'm curious to see if that holds true or not. Certainly I recall the first 3 (?) seasons being some pretty excellent television.

I also request that you review the Simpsons episode featuring Mulder and Scully, which did a very amusing (if slightly obvious) job of showing up all the quirks and excentricities of the show. I also request that you review the Catatonia song "Mulder and Scully", surely the most 90s song ever after "Everybody get up" by Five.

Ryan Lohner said...

The Simpsons episode became even better with the DVD commentary, which revealed that Matt Groening himself wasn't watching the show at the time and was utterly baffled by Duchovny and Anderson's flat deliveries.

Anonymous said...

I liked "Millennium" for a season or two, because it went the opposite direction. No supernatural elements, no aliens, no liver fluke men, no conspiracies, just people going nuts in disturbing ways. (Frank Black had his special ability, yes, but that was an anomaly and not part of a larger framework of anomalies.)

Then they decided to go X-Files and put in all that stuff what wasn't there before. That's when the show tanked.

Siskoid said...

Liam: You got it!

Randal said...

Oh, now I am going to enjoy this. You need to have a section for Surprise Guest Stars...that's what I noticed rewatching the series a couple years ago (well, half rewatching - I got midway through season 5 before I ran out of steam). I was a big fan of the both the original novels and the Topps comic as well...but have to admit I'm not as into the IDW version, for reasons that would spoil somewhere around Month Six here. Looking forward to the gestation here.


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