Rewatching The X-Files episodes: Season 1 ‘Pilot’

With a new series of The X-Files on the way, we go right back to the start and the first ever episode

So, The X-Files is coming back. It’s definitely happening, it’s all confirmed, and they’re not allowed to go back on it now. The level of our excitement about is hard to measure, but as you can probably guess, it’s high.

On a personal note, I remember being allowed to up to watch the first season of The X-Files in my pyjamas with my older brother. It was gripping, it was terrifying and it’s almost certainly what got me into the genre in the first place. So, we thought, what better time to go back to where it all started and rewatch the show from the very beginning? To revisit one of the genre’s high watermarks and to remember what made it a true phenomenon?

Frankly, it didn’t take a lot of convincing for us to unearth the box set and to stick on Season One, disc one.

It’s hard to watch the pilot now without thinking about everything that comes after, both good and bad. It’s tempting to analyse every moment, every gesture, every shared look between Mulder and Scully (they hug in this first episode, for crying out loud). But what the pilot actually starts with is a sequence that feels very much like a statement of intent.

We have a teenager running through the forest, we have a bright light and a shadowy figure, and it all ends with a vortex of swirling leaves before cutting to the local law enforcement finding the girl’s corpse in harsh light of day. Before we meet anyone else, Chris Carter grabbed our attention with a set piece that would be repeated and referenced by the show and its imitators for many years to come.

Of course, we’re swiftly relocated to Washington, where Special Agent Dana Scully is instructed by Section Chief Blevins (no Skinner yet) to work with Fox “Spooky” Mulder on the mysterious X-Files (It’s interesting to see her direct that nickname at Cigarette Smoking Man and get nothing in repsonse). She asks if she’s supposed to debunk his theories, to which she’s told, “We trust you’ll make the proper scientific analysis.” She heads down to the basement to find the FBI’s most unwanted, and a landmark partnership is born.

The mystery of the week (kids showing up dead with strange markings and an unknown chemical compound in their system) is fairly textbook as fair as X-Files episodes go, setting up the arc plot that gets fleshed out by the second episode ‘Deep Throat.’

Cigarette Smoking Man makes an early appearance
Cigarette Smoking Man makes an early appearance

The small town of Bellefleur, Oregon is small enough for there to be a conspiracy between the various local authorities, and for them to pop up and scupper the FBI’s investigation at every turn, but large enough for there to be a sizeable mental hospital. Several key elements are established here, some more clunkily than others. There’s the metal implant inserted into the nasal cavity of abductees, the appearance of the brilliant William B Davis, and Scully being far enough away from the climactic evidence of the paranormal for her to not know what she saw.  In fact, there’s an impressive amount going on here; they even manage to squeeze in Mulder telling Scully about his past and the abduction of Samantha.

It’s a tender moment that follows Scully opening up to her new partner when she asks him to check the suspicious marks on her back (mosquito bites). One of the most impressive things about this pilot is that the chemistry between the two is there almost instantly. David Duchovny’s laconic Mulder may not be quite fully formed, but plenty of his tics are already in place (sunflower seeds!),  and witness the way he goes from raging about the morgue being burned down to quipping “Gotta love this place. Every day’s like Halloween.”

In fact, he gets the bulk of the episode’s great moments, from the look of exhilaration as the plane banks sharply (“This must be the place”) to his exultation when he realises that they’ve lost nine minutes. “Time can’t just disappear, it’s a universal invariant!” cries Scully. “Not in this zip code!” comes the response.

Time is not a universal invariant in Bellefleur, Oregon
Time is not a universal invariant in Bellefleur, Oregon

However, while Mulder may hog the best lines, it’s great to see Gillian Anderson find ways to keep Scully from being a humourless killjoy. She may be the sceptic from the word go, dismissing the possibility of aliens visiting Earth and being obviously unconvinced by Mulder’s excitement over the simian corpse they find in Ray Soames’ grave, but there’s the wry (but genuine) smiles she greets his quips with. The playfulness Mulder deploys because he’s expecting to be disbelieved is given back as often as not here, and it makes her warm and likeable.

As you might expect, there’s a fair amount of straightforward nostalgia here. Some of that comes from the technology, like Mulder and Scully having to shout over the whir of the projector or the cacophony of the keys on Scully’s laptop’s keyboard. Some of it comes from recognising elements that have been inducted into the Pop Culture Hall Of Fame, like Mulder’s I WANT TO BELIEVE poster. More powerful than that, though, is the sense of a beginning.

The pilot doesn’t see the first season at its best yet, but the contrast between shadowy government corridors and the horrifying, unexplained mysteries feels every bit as enticing as it ever was. Carter ends the episode with the Cigarette Smoking Man depositing the alien implant in a Raiders-style room in the Pentagon, but it’s the start of Mulder and Scully’s relationship and the prospect of stranger mysteries to come that really makes us want to keep watching.

Feel like joining us on a grand rewatch of The X-Files? Tell us what you think!

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