X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "Pilot" (September 10, 1993)

The X-Files first episode, “Pilot” written by Chris Carter and directed by Robert Mandel, remains a strong introduction to this classic horror/sci-fi series. The inaugural installment not only presents an intriguing mystery and introduces audiences to engaging characters caught up in life-changing events, it also presents a first and ominous peek at the dark forces aligned against the protagonists, and against “the truth” itself.

But even better, the X-Files “Pilot” is skillful in the manner by which it deploys (and co-opts) horror imagery or symbolism. I admire The X-Files for many reasons, including the overall structure, which permits viewers to gaze at every mystery of the paranormal through the twin lenses of skepticism and belief, the strong writing, which resonates on a deep, philosophical level, and the powerful chemistry between the lead actors. But I also appreciate the clever presentation of the “monsters” and other horror tropes because Chris Carter and his team have re-purposed and updated them for modern consumption. You can see this quality in the series' non-romantic, non-glamorous approach to vampires (“3” or “Bad Blood,”) for instance.

The series' pilot episode commences this pattern, selecting from over a hundred-and-fifty years of horror literature and nearly a hundred years of horror cinema some very iconic imagery that it converts to its own narrative purpose. In the process, it infuses that imagery and literature with scintillating new meaning and enhanced relevance for the nineties.

“Welcome to the FBI’s most unwanted…”

The X-Files pilot follows a young, brilliant F.B.I. agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as she is summoned to meet Section Chief Blevins (Charles Cioffi). He gives her a new assignment: partnering with “spooky” Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) on the unit called "The X-Files," which is devoted to strange, unsolved, even inexplicable cases.

At first, Mulder is suspicious of Scully presence, believing she has been sent to spy and/or debunk his work. They bond, however, on their first case, which takes them to Bellefleur, Oregon. There, four high school students have died under unusual circumstances, with strange markings found on their corpses. The latest victim is Karen Swenson.

Mulder and Scully order the body of the third victim, Ray Soames, exhumed, and find a deformed body in the casket…a body that could be that of an orangutan...or an extra-terrestrial. During an examination, Scully finds a strange implant embedded in the creature’s nasal cavity.

After the partners experience an incident of “missing time,” Mulder suspects that the students are alien abductees, but all the evidence they have to support that case is soon destroyed in a suspicious fire. When Scully reports back to Blevins, she produces the only remaining evidence…the implant.

Soon after the investigation, a mysterious Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis) takes the implant device and deposits it inside a vast, secret warehouse-like facility…in the Pentagon.

“I’m not a part of any agenda…”

As a series, The X-Files begins with two intriguing and unmistakable nods to horror film convention.

The first is an on-screen “card” with white lettering and black background. It establishes that the following story is, in some sense, true, or at least adapted from true “documented accounts.”

This is the same “based on a true story” gambit utilized by genre efforts as diverse as The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Return of the Living Dead (1985) to name just a few.

The general purpose of this technique is, broadly, to put audiences in the frame-of- mind to believe not so much that the featured story is accurate or actually completely true, but that elements of it could happen…or even possible. The notation of “based on facts” creates a sense of urgency and closeness with the following tale. Did this really happen? Could it have really happened?

The presentation of the title card is also a call-back to genre history, and TV series such as One Step Beyond (1959 – 1961), a horror anthology which dramatized tales of the paranormal (including, even, alien abduction in an episode titled “Encounter.”) The title card essentially classifies The X-Files as a series that plans to have one foot in fact, and one in fiction. It is a development or evolution of series like One Step Beyond and Beyond Reality (1991 – 1993), however, because of its focus on hard science, and new investigative techniques.

Following the on-screen card, the pilot episode transports viewers to a haunted forest during impenetrable night. There, a Gothic scene that could have come straight from any Hammer Studios horror film in the late 1950s or early 1960s occurs. In particular, a young, beautiful heroine in a white nightgown is pursued and attacked by a mysterious (and apparently malevolent) specter. This attack seems to upset the very balance of nature itself, and an atmospheric disturbance occurs in symbolic protest of the unnatural act.

This opening sequence establishes a few important and meaningful details.

First is the idea -- found routinely in the series -- that The X-Files is dead-set on re-purposing old horror monsters and horror imagery and subverting or altering that imagery to make it relevant again in the contemporary nineties culture. Over the years, the series featured encounters with vampires (“Bad Blood”), werewolves (“Shapes”), demons (“Terms of Endearment) and even a “post-modern” take on Shelley’s Frankenstein (“Post-Modern Prometheus.”) The old monsters were made new again, and thus more meaningful to the culture.

The endangered woman in the diaphanous white dress (a symbol of purity), pursued by some ghoulish figure who is so reprehensible that Nature Itself rebels in its presence represents a key paradigm of Gothic Literature. In a sense, it is the most basic image of horror: the monster in pursuit of the damsel.

Secondly, this scene establishes that the wild -- or an “enchanted” forest, in particular -- is a key setting for horror. And indeed, The X-Files would often to return to this brand of "wilderness" during its nine year run (in episodes as diverse as “Darkness Falls” and “Detour.”)

But again, the setting also provides an explicit link to the American past, carried right into the American present. From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown (1835) and Charles Brocken Brown’s Wieland (1789) right up through David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1991) and its demonic Black Lodge, the forest has been the anxious location of danger and mystery in the American psyche.

Immediately, The X-Files inscribes the next chapter in that link, tying the forest not specifically to the devil or dark spirits, as was the case with both Hawthorne and Lynch, but with an inexplicable, modern phenomenon, alien abduction.

Again, this idea boasts very clear antecedents. Wieland concerns strange lights in a forest, the paranormal phenomenon of spontaneous combustion, and “modern” psychological disorders such as schizophrenia (played out through the new art of “ventriloquism”). That tale is in every way as cutting edge in terms of science and "belief" for 1789 as The X-Files is in 1993.

In much broader terms, The X-Files is “Gothic” in another fashion. Gothic Literature is often described as the Romantic response to the Enlightenment. It is a “belief” response to “science” and technological advancement, in other words. Gothic stories often involve a “tug-of-war” between these ideals with the prize being the soul of the protagonist. Plainly, one can see that tug-of-war played out in both Scully and Mulder.

They are both incomplete personalities, whose world-views -- with their inherent limitations -- can’t complete them. Mulder is the believer who attempts to use science to validate his (sometimes wild) beliefs. Scully is the skeptic who can brook no belief beyond the parameters of accepted, consensus reality and empirical science. They wage a tug of war not only with each other, but with themselves, specifically about what kind of world they live in. Is it one of miracles and monsters (Romantic)? Or is it one of science and rationality (Enlightenment)?

In a sense then, The X-Files recreates the very context of another historical age: The Victorian Age.

If you read Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), that epistolary novel concerns, in broad-strokes the collision of the new age of “science” (represented by typewriters, film, and hypnosis, among other things), with an irrational or romantic threat from the past: the magical, exotic (and foreign) threat of Count Dracula.

With its cutting-edge 1990s science, setting and investigative techniques The X-Files similarly places its heroes in direct conflict with things that seem magic because they can’t be proved. These things would similarly be described as magical, exotic or foreign because they originate from another world, the mists of prehistory, or genetic mutation.

Interestingly, the first few seasons of The X-Files also focus intently on Mulder and Scully typing away field reports for their FBI superior on their (now-antiquated) PCs, a touch that actually mirrors the epistolary structure of Stoker’s work. In that case, Dracula's story is told through letters, communiques, newspaper headlines and other messaging venues. On The X-Files, Mulder and Scully seem to constantly be writing e-chronicles of their competing interpretations of strange events.

If one considers the Victorian Age to be Pax Brittanica, a time when England experienced prosperity because of colonial imports from Europe and Asia, and developed new technologies at homes (Kodak cameras, and early motion picture devices such as “cinematographs”), then one may also be tempted to look at the Age of the X-Files -- the Age of Bill Clinton -- as a version of Pax Americana. Technological advance came in the form of the Internet, and that decade saw the dawn not of colonialism, but globalism (consider, NAFTA, for example).

Yet in both the Victorian Age and the Clinton Age, many people began to suffer a spiritual ennui, and experienced worry about the “mechanical” de-humanization of “modern” civilization and the loss of racial/cultural identity. How could a single Age accommodate both the miracle of surgery and the terror of Jack the Ripper? The science of Darwin and the magic of Dracula?

Or for that matter, how could the World Wide Web and Jeffrey Dahmer exist side-by-side?

Essentially, The X-Files represents a new Gothic paradigm in which Enlightenment and Romanticism ideals compete again and go one more round, each trying to gain a foothold. Whereas Dracula could transform into the form of wind, fog, thunder, owls, bats, wolves or foxes, consider the myriad villains of The X-Files. They too are atmospheric (“D.P.O.”) in nature, or hail from the natural world. There were bats (“Patience”), wolves (“Alpha”) and other strange, quasi-natural menaces to challenge Scully and Mulder. These monsters were re-assertions of the Romantic Ideal in a world that was apparently enlightened.

If one is so inclined, certainly one can gaze the prologue in “Pilot” and see that it serves as a kind of metaphor for the entire series, for the new debate between science and superstition, knowledge and faith.

The final imagery of “Pilot” may seem familiar for another reason. It appears a deliberate homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). In that Steven Spielberg film, the Lost Ark of the Covenant (a symbol, once more of Romanticism) is tucked away by 20th century man in a place where it can’t threaten Enlightenment, inside a giant, endless warehouse.

At the end of The X-Files’ pilot, The Cigarette-Smoking Man is depicted depositing a symbol of apparent Romanticism (but actually of Enlightenment…or the Truth) inside a similar warehouse…actually the Pentagon, where it will remain, essentially, buried.

In both cases, the one who buries important knowledge is the U.S. Government. However, in the conspiracy-heavy age of the 1990s, that act of hiding the truth is much more important in The X-Files than it is in Raiders.

In terms of The X-Fileshistory and overall arc “Pilot” also functions on a very practical, very efficient level. It ably introduces the players, the stakes, and investigative milieu. Although Anderson and Duchovny have not yet entirely nailed down the staccato, rat-a-tat back-and-forth delivery that makes the series such a perennial joy, it is safe to say that the actors share an immediate chemistry. They circle each other in "Pilot" with suspicion, curiosity, and ultimately, fascination.

One scene, in particular, stands out regarding the development of the relationship. Late in the proceedings, Scully believes she has been “branded” with the same strange marks of the other victims, following an incident of missing time. Anxious, she runs to Mulder and with almost no self-consciousness at all, disrobes before him so he can determine the nature of those marks. This all happens in candle-light.

In going to Mulder and removing her clothing with such alacrity, Scully in some fashion takes off her armor. She allows herself to be vulnerable and reveals that she trusts Mulder with something private, and indeed, something incredibly personal.

The writing and performances here are so elegant, because Mulder responds to this gesture of trust not with lust or humor, but with vulnerability of his own. He lets down his emotional guard, and tells Scully the story of how he lost his sister, Samantha, possibly to alien abduction.

In this scene, all the science, all the paranormal explanations, all the intimations of cogovernment nspiracy slip away and we are left simply with two vulnerable people connecting in a meaningful way. What I find so intriguing about this scene is the manner of connection. Stereotypically -- at least in terms of television history -- it would be the man who offers a physical gesture, while the woman would open up “emotionally.”

Again, I wrote stereotypically, so don’t call me sexist. In some sense, The X-Files seems to reverse the industry-standard dynamic between men and women in its pilot, allowing Mulder emotional vulnerability, in particular. David Duchovny noted once that “I think the male/female roles are switched…Mulder is more intuitive, working from his emotions, his gut instinct. Scully is more practical.” (Neil Blincow, Rob Lowing, Andrew Seidenfeld, Cult Times #12: “21st Century Fox,” September 1996, page 11).

This scene may be the first example we can point to in the series of that particular dynamic. One of the aspects of the series we’ll be looking at in this 20th anniversary retrospective is the Scully/Mulder relationship, bboth in terms of symbolism and gender dynamics, and this scene is perhaps our first “key” to understanding.

Finally, I can’t complete a look back at the pilot episode of The X-Files without noting how it picks up the battle cry of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974 – 1975). That series featured a journalist in the immediate aftermath of Watergate trying desperately to make the "dangerous" truth known to the public In Carl Kolchak’s battle against City Hall, he never got that truth out…that monsters exist and prey on citizens at all levels of society.

Instead of adopting a journalist as its truth-teller, The X-Files puts forward someone of imagination (Mulder) and someone of science (Scully) as heralds. This shift certainly reflects changing attitudes about the press in the 1990s, the decade that Fox News came into being, and also the changing attitudes about the kind of evidence that would be acceptable to the public. The eyewitness reports of Carl Kolchak had to morph into the autopsies, DNA analyses, and behavioral profiles preferred by Scully and Mulder.

Next week for our continuing X-Files retrospective, I look back at our first freak or monster of the week, the genetic mutant Tooms, in “Squeeze.” Stay tuned.

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