Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The X-Files - "Pilot" (season 1, episode 1)

Friday, June 1, 2018

The X-Files - "Pilot" (season 1, episode 1)


Welcome to my viewing diary for The X-Files. Every day, except Saturday, I will offer a short review of another episode until I finish the first season. Future entries will cover the remaining seasons, breaking to review the feature films where chronologically appropriate, and eventually reach the recent miniseries. I have seen very few X-Files episodes, though I was utterly fascinated with the concept as a child, so for the most part this will be a first-timer's perspective. There will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 10, 1993/written by Chris Carter, directed by Robert Mandel): Naturally, it begins with aliens. Or so it seems. Actually, we're not sure of the exact nature of the phenomenon onscreen although the bright light and the victim's upward gaze scream extraterrestrial. More than anything, the X-Files cold open recalls the 1990 TV series Twin Peaks (as the Twin Peaks Unwrapped podcast has pointed out), specifically the seventeenth regular episode in which a character is consumed by a bright light at night in the middle of the woods, with a mysterious figure silhouetted in the glare. The second scene recalls the Twin Peaks pilot, with a dead girl discovered in a Pacific Northwest landscape by local authorities who knew her personally; as the FBI is eventually called in, we suspect that something more than mortal foul play may be at work. The final scene of The X-Files, however, calls back to another source: Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this shot a government official, who will come to be known as the Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis), places some crucial evidence in a filing system tucked away in the bowels of the Pentagon. As he walks toward the exit, we pull back to observe the vast space, assuming that many other mysterious, possibly supernatural fragments are stored in this secret room...and how many others are there like it? Between that first sequence - an uncanny visitation out in the middle of Nowhere, America - and that second - a whisper of conspiratorial intrigue at the heart of power - we have the full flavor of The X-Files. The most important elements are, of course, absent from these rather impersonal images, though they're onscreen most of the rest of the time. Skeptical Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and eager-to-believe Agent "Spooky" Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) are united for the first time early in the episode, as the FBI assigns them on their first mission. Right away we feel the friction, camaraderie, and chemistry that will make them a compulsively watchable duo for the subsequent seasons.

In Bellefleur, Oregon, they discover an orangutan-like cadaver in the victim's coffin, with an unidentifiable object up its nose (this is what's hidden away in that warehouse-like room in the final shot). The agents learn that a mini-Bermuda Triangle exists on a small patch of highway near town; nine-minute gaps cannot be accounted for and a bright light descends upon them at the disorienting moment of time-loss. Mulder and Scully realize that four members of a 1989 high school class have died in this strange environment, while Billy Miles (Zachary Ansley), a seemingly comatose classmate, is their probable killer. The frightened, nose-bleeding Theresa Newman (Sarah Koskoff) provides dramatic tension as his next likely victim. Somehow both are saved, though the climax was a bit muddy to me. Did the light cease because it was "caught in the act" by Mulder and Billy's detective dad (Leon Russom)? Or was their presence a mere coincidence? (The final info dump has Billy explaining that "the tests didn't work.") Specific answers remain vague, and even with what we ourselves have witnessed, we can't be sure Billy's outlandish explanation is correct. The episode also teases pieces of a larger mythology, through the Smoking Man and Mulder's memory of his own sister's alien abduction. For the moment, we remain on the outer fringe of the paranormal.

My Response:
This is the third time I've watched this premiere episode, as with my viewing diaries for Mad Men and Breaking Bad. I tried to start all three shows several times but third time's the charm for actually recording my thoughts. This pilot is a good introduction to the characters and their world, but the situation itself does feel rather generic (maybe in part because of the show's influence twenty-odd years down the line). Of course, we also don't get to hear the infamous theme music yet which will do so much to set the mood. Right away, Scully and Mulder click, managing to play both kindred spirits and clashing sensibilities. I've heard the first season is not as good as later ones, so after this relatively promising start I'm eager to find out what comes next. As a kid, I was obsessed with the idea of The X-Files but only tuned in for a handful of moments when it was actually on - the only extended exception being the first film in 1998, which I saw on the big screen shortly after my graduation from junior high. I've also already seen the next few episodes (albeit years after the fact), but this pilot is the only one I've seen so many times. I'll probably have more to say about those fresher entries, which is the idea of the viewing diary after all - to capture first impressions as they occur.


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