As a self-confessed X-Files obsessive, any opportunity to talk/think/write about the show has me standing in an open armed embrace. So, what better time than the 23rd anniversary of its pilot episode?
By any means one of the most recognisable television shows to come from the 1990s, The X-Files began its ascent to cult status on the 10th of September 1993, with the simply titled ‘Pilot’. Combining an ingenious script by Chris Carter and direction by Robert Mandel, the result was an intricate weaving of a paranoid distrust of governmental establishments and authority with supernatural phenomena; tapping into already established preoccupations with conspiracy theories and fascinations with the extraterrestrial (such as Kennedy’s assassination and Roswell) and turning them into deliciously post-modern critiques of pre-millennial society. Although hardly the first show to mesh these elements together―just think of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks, running from 1991-93―Carter’s writing joined them together so thoroughly that they became almost inseparable from the series’ onset.
The actual plot of the episode is relatively simplistic when set in comparison with the series’ future series openers; with a seemingly banal discovery of Karen Swenson (an uncredited Laura Lee Connery)’s body in an Oregon forest, where, upon further inspection, small marks are discovered on the back of her neck. Meanwhile, in Washington DC, FBI Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is summoned by Division Chief Scott Blevins (Charles Cioffi) and assigned to work alongside Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) on the “X-Files”―cases dealing with ‘unexplained’ circumstances (read: supernatural).
Their individual beliefs towards the nature of the case and its solution are set in direct opposition from early within the episode; a contrast that can be encapsulated by Scully’s sceptic eye-rolls and Mulder’s ‘I Want To Believe’ poster―two motifs that would eventually become synonymous with the show. Despite lending from traditional tropes and iconography; Carter’s writing of Scully and Mulder as sceptic and believer (respectively) reverses the usual conflation of masculinity with science or logic/femininity with the fantastic or intangible. This creates a dichotomy that not only showcases the agents’ juxtaposing attitudes towards investigative work and develops them as individual characters, but also leaves a degree of reasonable doubt for each proposed explanation of events. In creating such an opposition, Carter is able to further the undercurrent of paranoia by blurring both character and audience perceptions of the “truth” within The X-Files‘ diegesis (in terms of both the episode and the series as a whole).
What makes this episode so remarkable (in my opinion at least) is how well it manages to construct this dichotomy alongside so many other elements that have become inseparable from the show’s concept. Given the episode’s run-time of 48 minutes, its ability to introduce and begin the development of core characters (outside of its protagonists) as a means of instilling the themes and overall tone of the series. For example, The Smoking Man (William B Davis) is briefly introduced during Scully’s meeting with Blevins, commanding an aura of suspicion through his anonymity and customary cigarette, before being shown filing away crucial (and still relatively unexplained) evidence in a large room within the pentagon: securing his character alongside the overarching premise of governmental conspiracy.
Although it may re-use certain tropes and aspects of its FBI/supernatural-centric predecessors―see: Johnathan Demmes’ Silence of the Lambs (1991) (particularly its focus on the forensic aspects of investigation), and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)―the pilot episode contains such an energetic ambition that it’s virtually impossible to compare it with any other show from the decade. Even the vibrancy of Scully and Mulder’s relationship in all its awkward ~platonic~ glory suggests a confidence that’s rare within the initial episodes of any series.
As for an ending for this post, I think it’s only fair to include a few of my favourite stills from the episode (because otherwise I’ll be typing away for another 650 words about my love for this episode, and The X-Files as a whole).