Perhaps it’s confirmation bias knowing how successful the show would become, but The X-Files pilot — first broadcast on 10 September, 1993, and now streaming on Disney+ — is brilliant.
As the series wound on, the supernatural series became more convoluted, more serialised (though always well-written and performed), but there is a simple purity to its first outing, a clarity to the storytelling and characters that shine through.
All those influences both overt and subtextual — from Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and All the President’s Men — are there in one way or another.
What creator/writer Chris Carter, then best known as a below-the-line comedy writer, does immediately well is set up the world and the people but doesn’t overload the audience with exposition. The central mystery in episode one is straightforward – alien abductions in the woods that reminds you of a movie like Fire in the Sky, which incidentally came out the in March of that same year (and would star future X-Files agent Robert Patrick).
Special effects technology at the time means the sci-fi action is pretty simple, done almost all in-camera. If it wasn’t called The X-Files, you would think this could be any other detective show. Weave in some of the trippyness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, as well as classic programmes like The Night Stalker and Twilight Zone and you’ve got something original but recognisable, singular but familiar.
And the chemistry between Mulder and Scully is undeniable. Lance Guest (The Last Starfighter) was the first actor to audition for true believer Fox ‘Spooky’ Mulder, but David Duchovny works perfectly with Gillian Anderson as his sceptical foil (Duchovny previously recommended his friend Jennifer Beals of Flashdance fame). Scully definitely has the feel of Clarice Starling, who was a big influence on the character and it’s impossible to think now that her namesake Pamela Anderson was once also considered a candidate for the role.
Mulder and Scully’s will-they-won’t-they vibe was generally propagated primarily by showbiz magazines and ardent fans, but the pilot has Anderson stripping off to show her partner her alien test subject moles on her lower back and there is a rainy motel room hug that seems like it’s a moment away from getting sexy. It’s dialed back as quickly as the second episode, but that initial frisson is testament to the duo’s on-screen connection.
When one reflects on the show all these years later, it’s tempting to recall there was a stark delineation between Mulder the conspiracy theorist and Scully the doubter. But in the pilot, there is a wounded plaintiveness to the former, stuck in the basement, aware that this new woman is coming to make him sound like a loony.
And while Scully is a doctor, a person of science, she immediately sees that sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind, even if actual conclusions end up needing to be substantiated. There is a deliberate fuzziness around the edges of the characters that you probably wouldn’t get in a buddy show now.
It is Mulder, who on discovering what might be an extra-terrestrial — but is most likely a monkey — in an exhumed coffin, tells his new partner, “I’m not crazy Scully, I have the same doubts you do.”
Ultimately what you get with The X-Files season one episode one, is a great yarn. It’s weird, it’s otherworldly and it’s got a non-speaking Cigarette-Smoking Man hanging around who clearly knows more than he’s letting on. There’s even an Indiana Jones-style freaky artefacts warehouse.
It also tapped into the burgeoning web zeitgeist. An article in the opening issue of The X-Files Magazine from 1996 contains a personal piece by young fan Chris Fusco who, after being hooked on the first season, went from working as a molecular biologist at a genetical engineering firm to running one of the first official internet fan sites, The X-Files SIG on online forum aggregator Delphi.
We can’t wait to keep on rewatching. After all, episode 2 introduces Deep Throat and the following instalment introduces one of television’s all-time great villains, Eugene Victor Tooms. The truth is…well, you know.
The X-Files is streaming on Disney+.