in ,

The X-Files 30th Anniversary: S1E1 ‘Pilot’ Recap

A poster with a flying saucer on it and the words "I Want to Believe"

Aliens. Crime scenes. Government conspiracies. Dramatic finales and goofy parodies. Across all 11 seasons of The X-Files, we’ve seen it all. But where did it all begin? For the 30th anniversary of one of the most popular cult TV shows ever, it’s time to revisit the inception: the Pilot episode. As Perfect Pilots go, The X-Files got it pretty bang-on from the offset. So let’s launch into what makes it a fantastic foundation of such a successful show.

Part One: Meet the Team

Though The X-Files is known as having dual protagonists (you don’t ever hear the name ‘Mulder’ without ‘Scully’ following closely behind, after all), the Pilot episode is presented to us more through the eyes of Scully (Gillian Anderson) than Mulder (David Duchovny).The story starts with Scully getting assigned to overlook the investigations of the X-Files and report back to her boss; it doesn’t start with the genesis of the X-Files themselves, nor Mulder beginning to investigate them. Scully’s introduction is the driving force of the show. It’s the meeting of these two characters that assigns meaning to the narrative.

We instantly learn that Scully studied medicine but was recruited by the FBI. Considering her age and rather weighty task to “observe the validity” of Mulder’s work, we are to understand that Scully is extremely intelligent and well-regarded in her field of work. The Division Chief (Charles Cioffi) has clearly selected Scully for this assignment due to the fact that she was head-hunted, and for having a sensible, logical head on her shoulders. I mean, she rewrote Einstein’s theory for her thesis, for goodness’ sake—Scully knows her science through-and-through. For the purpose of the narrative and central conflict of the show, Scully’s focus on science and skepticism when it comes to anything that lies outside of known theories is a direct contrast to Mulder’s idealism and willingness to believe the unbelievable.

Scully (Gillian Anderson) enters Mulder's office for the first time, holding the door open

Interestingly, we first hear about Mulder from Scully’s second-hand knowledge of his reputation. Similar to her own renowned academic ability, Mulder is regarded as “the best analyst in the violent crimes section.” His reputation clearly precedes him, demonstrating that people must form their opinion of him via rumours rather than firsthand interactions. We, as the audience, are forced into this too. Despite his intellect, Mulder is mocked by his colleagues; Scully mentions that he has the nickname “spooky Mulder” at the academy.

From this, amongst the fact that he is lone-working on the buried X-Files, and situated in a basement office separate from any other FBI agent, we can glean that Mulder is very much isolated in his job. And, judging by his near-obsessive dedication to his work, most likely his personal life too. It’s clear from the way Scully’s superiors talk about him that no one respects him or his work. An immediate juxtaposition to Scully is again set up here, as she is in their bosses’ good books.

In their initial meeting, Mulder seems skeptical (ironically) of Scully, expressing sarcasm and assuming she’s there “to spy on [him]”. He seems pleasantly surprised that she claims to be looking forward to working with him. Equally, Scully seems taken aback that Mulder has actually done his research on her and read her thesis too. Two hard-working agents who are used to being undermined, albeit for very different reasons, seem to have finally met their match in one another. Their first conversation is much like a game of chess; Mulder appears to be testing Scully’s boundaries of what she would consider a plausible theory, and what she’d dismiss as ridiculous:

“Now, when convention and science offer us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility?”

Mulder is bringing Scully’s logical, scientific worldview into question, which sets the tone for the rest of the show, and immediately forms conflict between such different protagonists. However, Mulder does seem genuinely excited to have an intellectual to bounce ideas off. Perhaps he only works alone out of circumstance than choice.

Mulder (David Duchovny) sits at his office desk studying photos

On the opposite side, Scully seems more than a little amused by Mulder’s quirks and unconventional beliefs. It’s funny watching this episode back, as Scully is often very serious and deadpan, but she does outwardly smile at Mulder’s witty quips in their first scene together. It could be put down to ridiculing him, but I believe it’s more positive than that. Scully’s smile feels genuine, and almost appears to be a sigh of relief. She’s probably used to dealing with colleagues that act elitist and superior to her, but this is someone capable of seeing the lighter side of life, someone who doesn’t assume she’s below his level, knowledge-wise. 

Throughout the episode, the pair appear to grow closer (as they do throughout the show in general). Though unwavering in her approach and dismissal of Mulder’s theories, Scully does seem to have a more emotional reaction to her situation as the episode goes on, hinting at the potential of belief. For example, when she thinks she has the dreaded alien abduction marks on her back like the other victims, she runs to Mulder to check them for her, visibly alarmed. She wouldn’t feel fear or anxiety unless a part of her suspected it might be true, surely? Similarly, Mulder becomes more emotionally vulnerable and opens up to Scully by confiding in her about his childhood, revealing that his sister’s abduction was what motivated him to investigate the X-Files. Rather than distance himself and push her away for fear of not being taken seriously, Mulder seems to see a true ally and friend in Scully.

Part Two: Spooky Goings-On

The actual plot and tension of the Pilot episode stems from a very classic alien abduction—bright light appearing in the sky, people losing time and coming back acting differently, finding chemicals and devices not of this world in the abductees, etc. All intriguing tropes that didn’t necessarily start with The X-Files, but were certainly popularised by it. 

We’re pretty much thrown into the action straight away. During the cold open, a young woman is seen running through the forest, pursued by a figure whose face is blurred by an odd white light. The next day, the woman is found dead in the same spot. Mulder and Scully arrive to investigate, as this is the fourth member of the same high school that has died under mysterious circumstances. In addition, other classmates have been admitted to a psychiatric hospital: Billy Miles (Zachary Ansley), who is comatose, and Peggy O’Dell (Katya Gardner), who is said to be suffering from schizophrenia.

A young woman lies on the floor of a forest, with a strange figure looming over her, shrouded in white light

Amongst the overall sinister events, smaller, strange occurrences are dotted throughout the episode to emphasise the supernatural aspect. We get unusual turbulence as the agents’ plane flies over the town of Bellefleur, the car radio going haywire in a certain spot on the road, and the engine cutting out alongside a bright flash of light in the night. As previously mentioned, Mulder and Scully lose nine minutes of time during the latter. The clock stops at 9:03pm, which is shown on the next murder victim’s broken watch. These unexplainable goings-on help to build the atmosphere of the show. ‘Spooky’ really does sum it up best; it’s a bit gloomy, dark, and enigmatic in a way that piques the viewer’s curiosity very quickly.

Visually, there is a stark contrast between the dark and dingy forest (and usual low lighting of the show in general) and the bright, white light from the sky. Thematically, this could relate to the idea of shedding light on life’s mysteries and alien conspiracies. The rest of the world, and more close-minded FBI agents are left in the dark, unable to ever gain a clear image of what is truly going on. Even Mulder and Scully are in the dark; Scully due to her ignorance of unscientific events, and Mulder because of his inability to solve the mystery of his sister’s disappearance thus far.

Though unconfirmed, we do actually see a potential extraterrestrial in the Pilot episode of The X-Files. When the third victim of these suspicious deaths is exhumed from his grave, the corpse that is discovered isn’t human. Based on her initial autopsy, Scully claims the body is that of an orangutan or of similar origin. However, this is never confirmed nor denied, and is skipped over surprisingly quickly. Looking at the corpse, it doesn’t look like a creature of this earth—it’s a rather horrifying example of body horror in the episode. The camera doesn’t shy away from showing us the corpse in detail, unflinchingly. Even if Scully’s observations were correct, and the body was an orangutan’s, why on earth would that have been placed in somebody’s coffin? And where was the victim’s body put instead? It’s ironic that the logical explanation is actually quite illogical when considered for more than five seconds. Thus begins the hilarious ongoing theme of Scully rejecting alien existence despite seeing it right before her very eyes, which continues for an amusingly long time throughout the show. Then again, the alternative is believing in aliens, which I suppose is quite the leap for one so skeptical. We can’t have two believers, otherwise where would the fun discussions be?

A dessicated and strange-looking corpse inside an open coffin

The peak of Mulder and Scully’s interactions regarding the case occurs about halfway through the Pilot. Scully demands he “cut the crap” and tell her the truth about what’s going on:

Mulder: The truth? I think those kids have been abducted.

Scully: By who?

Mulder: By what.

Scully: You don’t really believe that?

Mulder: Do you have a better explanation?

Despite being extremely direct in her determination to get to the truth, Scully refuses to entertain the idea of the victims being abducted. I think it speaks volumes that Mulder is willing to be so straightforward with Scully, considering his previous experiences with being relentlessly mocked others in the academy. I get the sense he’s so confident in his theories and so used to being dismissed that he has the opposite reaction: doubling down instead of withdrawing. However, perhaps because of Scully’s interest in his studies, Mulder seems more driven to involve her in his thought processes. There is a hint of excitement alongside the conviction in his demeanour that implies he’s happy to be sharing these cases with someone. And, though she refutes these theories, Scully doesn’t ever show signs of flat-out wanting to stop working with Mulder. Of course, she has been assigned this task by her superiors, but I believe her interest and curiosity is really keeping her there.

In the climax of the Pilot, Mulder witnesses Billy Miles and another potential abductee, Theresa Nemman (Sarah Koskoff), get encompassed by the white light in the forest. From another area, Scully witnesses that same light. The look in her eyes is utter astonishment. Although she didn’t see any specifics, and it doesn’t prove anything, this feels like the beginning of the horizons being expanded for her.

The Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) walking down a long corridor full of files

In classic X-Files fashion, the episode concludes with the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) filing away Scully’s evidence: a metallic implant found in the corpse that couldn’t be identified. It’s revealed that the filing room is inside the Pentagon. Clearly, the government and FBI are aware of extraterrestrial activity and keeping tabs on it, which contradicts their dismissal of Mulder’s investigations of the X-Files themselves. This kind of ominous cliffhanger is what The X-Files is famous for, and sets up the overarching mystery to be solved over the course of the show. 

The Pilot episode of The X-Files sets up a stable foundation for the show. A solid atmosphere, striking visuals, and the theme of questioning everything to unearth supernatural phenomena is established from the very start. At the very heart of the show is the wonderful chemistry between our two leads. Despite their polar opposite opinions and perspectives of the world, there is a real comradery and bond between Mulder and Scully evident from the start. Happy 30th anniversary to such a thoroughly enjoyable show!

Written by Robin Moon

Robin writes for 25YL and Horror Obsessive as much as their scattered brain will allow. They love dark fantasy, sci fi, and most things horror-related, with a huge soft spot for vampires. Don't make the mistake of mentioning Buffy around them or they won't shut up about it. Seriously. They're also a fiction writer and aspiring filmmaker; in other words, they much prefer spending time in made-up places and far-off universes than in the real world.

One Comment

Leave a Reply
  1. I can’t believe it’s been 30 years already for the X-files! I’m a HUGE fan of the show. People can watch the X-files on Comet T.V. The X-files are a great show to watch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

z-lib explore books