Written by Chris Carter
Directed by Robert Mandel
Original Airdate: 10th September 1993
A woman runs through a forest, running for her life before slipping and falling. A vortex of leaves envelopes around her and a mysterious figure cased in a bright white light approaches her. Everything turns bright and at that moment, the landscape of television changes, pop culture is redefined, a dedicated fandom is born, a phenomenon that would define the 90s is unleashed.
So it was The X Files began and with the series set to return to our screens next month in a blaze of hype and expectations, with early reviews suggesting this is indeed a return to form, it’s interesting to look back to 1993 when the pilot episode of this most majestic and brilliant of pop cultural phenomena began. What it must have been like to watch this on a dark Friday night, back when the name Scully was synonymous with baseball commentary, Fox was just the name of the network the series was airing on, when David Duchovny was Denise Bryson from Twin Peaks, or that snobbish child friendly bad guy from Beethoven and when nobody knew who Gillian Anderson was.
Did people know? Did people predict this would be to the 90s what Star Wars was to the late 70s/early 80s, or Star Trek was to the 60s? It would be a series that would define the decade and change television in many ways.
If anybody did they kept it quiet and it certainly wasn’t the recently formed Fox Network who was betting that X-Files lead in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr would become their biggest hit. Chairman of Fox Television at the time Sandy Grushow remarked that if Brisco County lead actor Bruce Campbell didn’t become the biggest star on television that he’d “eat his desk”. Brisco County would be cancelled by the end of its first season while The X Files would go on to last nine years, setting a record, at the time, for being the longest running American science fiction/fantasy series.
The amazing thing about The X-Files pilot episode is just how much of the eventual show is there, right from the off. Whilst most television shows sometimes feel as if it takes them several episodes, maybe even a good half a season to find its voice, the adventures of Mulder and Scully and the writing of Chris Carter feel as if right away the show knew what it was and wanted to be. Sure, the mythology doesn’t fully come into play until the second season, carrying on from one of the most risk taking first season finales in memory, but the structure, characterisation and attitude of The X-Files is there from the off.
Cold open/teaser depicting some strange and unsettling event featuring the most startling image of the episode to simply get you in the mood for the rest of story, with a scene following on where Mulder explains to Scully what they’re investigating, more than likely using a slide projector with some sort of chilling crime scene photo, before heading to the main location of the episode where they investigate, working out their believer/sceptic theories, complete with an atmosphere of paranoia and creepy Vancouver locations and grey skies before an unsettling ending where Mulder and Scully know the truth but not much can be proven, leaving us and them to realise that the truth is out there, somewhere. The only things missing are Mark Snow’s iconic theme tune and the famous title sequence.
In the pilot we get the added introductions to our two leads and amazingly not much is different here to what we would get later on. Their characters are well-defined and feel freshly drawn out from the get go. Scully’s medical background and Mulder’s back story of being the top FBI agent during his training before being derailed by the X Files cases is all there. Their performances capture the characters instantly meaning that watching it with knowledge of the show’s later episodes Mulder and Scully still feel like Mulder and Scully. Mulder’s sense of humour feels more controlled here than it would later admittedly, probably down to the show’s writers and directors allowing Duchovny more flexibility in improvising, but he’s still Mulder. The quirks, the rouge charm, he stays the right side of being, please forgive the term, a dick, but still strangely loveable.
Amazingly this was one of Gillian Anderson’s first jobs. She had one guest starring credit to her name before this, another Fox series called Class of ’96, as well as one independent feature film called The Turning, causing Fox executive to clash with creator Chris Carter over her casting, with Carter believing she was perfect for the role whilst Fox executives were keen on a more ‘obvious’ sex symbol/blonde bombshell, along the lines of Pamela Anderson.
On a side note this reviewer had no posters of Baywatch actresses on his wall, but had many of Gillian Anderson which is why television executives are frequently wrong and need to learn to listen to creators and executive producers who know what they’re doing.
In casting these two one of the most iconic partnerships in television was formed and with it one of the most obsessive fandom of shippers in the history of fandom, with many watching episodes just to catch a glimpse of romance or even a hint of it. Even though Scully does strip to her underwear in front of Mulder for one scene, here it was to establish that there would be no romance at all between the characters, with an entire sub plot involving a boyfriend of Scully back in Washington whilst she is on her investigations with Mulder set to keep them further apart. Viewers and the ever-growing emergence of X-Philes and shippers did not get this memo because as the series continued many watched just hoping these two gorgeous looking characters would become romantically involved while Scully’s boyfriend would be consigned to the cutting room floor and his two scenes in this episode would become footnotes in the deleted scenes section of the DVD and Blu Ray boxsets and the dust bin of television history.
The pilot was written by Carter due to his frustrations at there being nothing scary on television any more in the vein of shows he loved in his youth, namely Kolchak: The Night Stalker, ironically a series that would be remade years later by future X-Files Executive Producer and Carter’s right hand man Frank Spotnitz. Carter had come from a background in editing Surfing Magazine before moving into television writing. He made his name writing Disney TV movies with titles like BRAT Control and Meet The Munceys as well as writing several pilots that failed to be picked up for series, before pitching an idea based on his love of shows such as the aforementioned Kolchak as well as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Coupled with the recent success of The Silence of the Lambs, a movie that combined horror movie thrills with psychological realism and character driven drama, Carter set his series within the confines of the FBI and made one of his characters a female starting out at the Bureau. The Silence of the Lambs comparison would cause a bone of contention with Fox later in the first season who responded negatively to the script for Beyond the Sea due to it being too similar to that movie as well as not being happy at the use of guest star Brad Dourif.
It’s the best episode of the season, never gets old, has one of the best scripts of the entire nine-year run of the show and is another example of why TV executives can sometimes be wrong.
Backed up by a poll conducted by the Roper Organisation in the US population’s belief in alien abduction as well as the feeling all around that there was a gap in television schedules for something genuinely scary, yet intelligent, not to mention the fledgling Fox Network’s status as the newest network on US television meaning it could take a risk on such a project, luck and timing was on The X Files side and although the first season was not a massive ratings success, it did give creative foundations for the show to build on creatively as well as commercially. The internet, which was only just starting to develop into the behemoth that we know today, would see many fans go online to discuss each new episode, in many ways making The X Files the first television fandom of the internet age.
By the time season two would roll around, ratings would increase and the show would find itself with a larger canvas to work with as the show’s roster of supporting characters would increase, the mythology of the show would begin to flesh out (with The X Files TV series itself being one of the first shows, in this reviewer’s memory at least, to popularise the use of that term when discussing such things) as well as more money from Fox to pull of more outlandish and imaginative set pieces in episodes like End Game and Anasazi.
Yet the pilot is where it all started and in a microcosm, it’s all there. Like Star Wars, another franchise of yesteryear set to make a (hopefully) triumphant return after a somewhat stalled return years after the event itself, you could argue that things got better down the line. Star Wars was followed by The Empire Strikes Back, season one of The X-Files was followed by the golden era of seasons three through to six, yet you can’t have any of that without the original text. Sure things are probably a bit simpler here, if one can use that term when talking about The X-Files because it almost feels insulting to do so, but everything that one associated with the show was all there from the pilot, as if Chris Carter had the weapons and the magic in hand right from the off. Moody photography, creepy forests, crappy motel rooms, rented cars, legends declaring the location of a scene in the left hand corner of frame, witty dialogue setting out Mulder’s belief and Scully’s scepticism and of course that elder gentleman in the middle of Scully’s first scene, quietly inhaling a cigarette, feeling strangely important, creeping and yet iconic right away, not saying a word, eventually hiding evidence in the final scene, Chris Carter’s tip of the hat to the final image in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the devil if you will, the Vader of The X-Files universe, complete with a story at the heart of a never-ending complex mythology that would infuriate and grip audiences in equal measure. Amazingly actor William B Davis was disappointed he got the role. He auditioned for the part of Senior Agent, in the end played by Ken Camroux, because that character had two lines of dialogue.
Like everything else, the Cigarette Smoking Man as he would become known and the show itself was set to enter the halls of television history, but on Friday the 10th of September 1993 nobody could have predicted it.
The truth was, and always would be, out there.