“Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials?”
It could be a scene out of a Victorian ghost story. A girl in a long white nightdress tumbles through a dark forest, terrified of what’s following her. As she falls to the ground, the wind begins to whirl around her, and light begins to shine, brighter and brighter. A dark man stalks towards her as the wind hurls leaves in a circle, and girl and man vanish as the light overwhelms them.
So begins the X-files, the classic paranormal drama of the 90s. The show went far, far beyond its origins, becoming virtually unrecognizable by its end. It is thus easy to forget that it all started with a brilliant piece of television, a pilot episode that promised that the Truth is out there, and it will be revealed.
The town in Oregon, the zip code where the laws of physics don’t apply, is “based on documented events” and deeply creepy. As each reveal comes, one on top of the other, Mulder and Scully are perfect representations of the audience’s dual fascination and fear, as Mulder runs around with a camera and Scully freaks out about mosquito bites. Every single one of the town’s inhabitants seems to be hiding some desperate secret, a secret which has cost the lives of four members of the class of 1989. Little things, innocuous things that in most scenarios would be bits of everyday life, take on terrifying significance, from nosebleeds to turbulence to dirt in the woods.
The directing is fantastic, giving the whole episode the feeling of reality, a vaguely documentarian air. The camera becomes a character, zooming in and out on the characters, the bodies, and the alien spaceship. It too is affected by lost time, as the screen changes color and the scene cuts straight out. The viewer is given a sense of participation, of involvement.
The plotting is perfectly executed, attaining a beautiful balance between answers and questions that, in later years, the X files would have so much difficulty reaching. We know that aliens probably kidnapped kids, we know why they kidnapped them, how, and have some idea of what happened to them. At the same time, specifics are elusive, and the smoking man’s pentagon connection tantalizingly dangled in front of us. The box, one of thousands, labeled simply “evidence” offers spectacular possibilities.
Of course, this is the pilot episode for two classic characters as well. First introduced is Scully, a dinky but strong woman sitting before three old white men using her to spy on a fellow agent. She is carefully set apart from these men, smiling at their frowns, openly revealing that her parents think the FBI is an act of rebellion to men who don’t even speak. We are given her measure at the same time we are introduced to Mulder, by reputation only. We are told that he will be brilliant and a bit crazy, but through Gillian Anderson’s acting, we know that he’s the good kind of crazy.
When Mulder arrives on the scene, he stands in stark contrast to the buisnesslike atmosphere of the ground level FBI. He’s having the time of his life, cracking jokes to a woman he’s well aware has been sent to spy on him by unknown forces. Duchovny imbues Mulder with delight at every turn, whether he’s teasing Scully about her thesis or the existence of UFOs, or calculating how many minutes of time have vanished from reality. Things that freak the viewers, and Scully for that matter, make him jump around like a little boy. And his joy is infectious—it seems that half the time he turns his back, Scully is grinning at him.
The character development that takes place in these 48 minutes is astounding, as we are exposed to Mulder and Scully at their strongest and at their most vulnerable. Scully is forced to question beliefs she once took for granted, and is so overwhelmed she even thinks for a few minutes that she may be an abductee. At the same time, she holds her own arguing with Mulder, demanding proof and searching for answers. It is their desire for answers, their desperate need to know the truth, which makes the bond between these characters so instantly believable. Scully may have been sent to spy, but Mulder trusts her instantly because he recognizes in her that same drive. Mulder’s vulnerability too is revealed, his desperation to find out what he’s not supposed to know, to connect the pieces of his life that he’s forgotten and to find his sister. The motel scenes are beautifully acted and written, beginning a partnership that would become the stuff of TV legends.
I usually hate pilot episodes, preferring to skip to the point at which the show had matured enough to know what the hell they were doing. But this episode is simply brilliant, a classic piece of creepy television that proves that, though there were many missteps (Fight the Future, anyone?) this was a damn fine show, and one of the best.