Where one of the most influential TV shows of the last thirty years began. The Pilot impresses on revisit for just how many pieces of the mythos and general tone are perfectly formed from the get-go. The X-Files is a show that hits the ground running, so much so the storyline could be easily sequelised in Season Seven. Crucially too, since I’m in part returning to the main conspiracy arc with a mind to consider what – if anything – is the mix beside the overt UFO lore that earned the show such a following, both cult and mainstream, is how intentionally noncommittal it is with its implications. And I don’t mean that just in terms of the show’s characteristic determination to tease out that conspiracy beyond all sense or reason.
Mulder: Oh, isn’t it nice to be suddenly so highly regarded.
The X-Files’ antecedents are cited as Kolchak: The Night Stalker and 70s government paranoia movies (notably All the President’s Men and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). But more immediately. we find JFK, The Silence of the Lambs (both the FBI and a Chris Carter staple, serial killers) and the benign/eccentric FBI personification in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as influences (the latter, of course, also featured David Duchovny in a recurring role).
In tandem, JFK and The X-Files reinvigorated conspiracy theory, and with any such swelling movement, one has to question how much of this was natural and how much coordinated, particularly when coming from major corporations like Warner Bros and the Murdoch empire. JFK may he rekindled assassination discussions, but did it actually achieve anything demonstrable? The narrative itself – intentionally – merely stirred a potent brew of possible influences and machinations, and no complete release of classified files has occurred three decades down the line. Stone, meanwhile, has drifted from being a poster boy Hollywood rebel to an establishment stooge, making party-line fare like Snowden, W. and World Trade Centre while presenting a Secret History of America that’s nothing of the sort (which doesn’t mean he consistently sticks to the script, regularly offering minor infractions that confirm the “loveable rogue” status).
Which isn’t to imply The X-Files was necessarily or explicitly predictive programming from the off, no matter how many transhumanist vaccination programmes and radio-controlled jets flying into twin towers it “innocently” birthed (or that, necessarily, the production team were consciously aware of their part in sowing such seeds, although one is always doubtful of a hugely successful producer with a solitary string to their bow). But it was, necessarily, a forum that was actively permitted and encouraged. Which suggests it was either perceived as a useful source of disinformation – with regard to whatever branches of conspiracy lore it was stressing, particularly UFO – and/or that it was a handy means of feeding soft disclosure of the kind that would enable TPTB to claim yes, they had informed their lowly minions of their plans, and that by our implicit indifference and unresponsiveness, we were happy for them to proceed unchecked (so the argument goes for such elite occult activity). Or again, that the show was simply – similarly to the argument that David Icke is controlled opposition for promoting the shape-shifting reptilians theory – there to ensure any conspiracy theory would, in the long run, be beaten into retreat with “I suppose you believe in aliens too?” Admittedly, that’s now been supplanted by “You’re probably a Flat-Earther, aren’t you?” but either makes for a very effective way of loading the dice if you have a plan based on (or a lack thereof) WMDs, or an inscrutable virus or a globe (or plane) to reset.
One challenge any Hollywood-channelled agenda must contend with is that, as predictive as its programming may be, it cannot predict with certainty just what the public will embrace and what they will reject (Carter’s Harsh Realm would later be roundly spurned, while his millennial-tension Millennium was just too damned relentlessly bleak, and also guilty of overtly assuming what the public wanted – End of Days being another example). It wouldn’t have been so hard for The X-Files to be a resounding miss, had the cast chemistry gone awry or the tone been fractionally off (it’s notable that the show was not a monster from the get-go, and it was only really in the seasons Four to Six period that it achieved such currency).
Scully: Time can’t just disappear. It’s a universal invariant.
Mulder: Not in this zip code.
Carter has been open about the very gradual development of a mythology arc, and in some respects, it only properly took a hold with the next episode Deep Throat. Here, the alien abduction is more implied than shown. There are elements we may associate with such lore – bright lights in woods, vanishing (beamed-up) subjects, missing time, unidentifiable semi-human remains, implants, nose bleeds, government secrecy about potential involvement in such activity – but defining them as alien comes more from Mulder projecting his own biases.
At this point, much of what has been befalling the young ’uns of Bellefleur in the “very plausible state of” Oregon, including in particular Billy Miles (Zachary Ansley), isn’t so far from the stuff of folklore. Indeed, Twin Peaks blurred these boundaries specifically with Major Briggs and Project Blue Book references dovetailing with the Black Lodge. Such ideas as being carried off in the woods, of strange marks on the body (be they at the behest of the devil or otherwise) and distortions of time, are common to the realm of the little folk. It’s why, on the one hand, the alien abduction phenomenon is sometimes argued to have been misunderstood by pre-technological ages. And on the other why many – including the very well researched John Keel, and for my money, very convincingly – have argued that aliens are not what we assume it is. Keel settled upon the term ultra-terrestrials – Archons, essentially – and proposed that focussing on the phenomenon encouragedmanifestation. In such terms, a show like The X-Files itself would serve to “manipulate people through false illumination”.
The X-Files rarely actively broached such fertile lines of enquiry, unless Darin Morgan was involved. One might suggest this is suspicious in itself: actively avoiding the possibility that the entities it established as ETs might actually exist “on the borderland between matter and energy, or reality and dream”. But the Pilot does have something of that flavour, albeit by omission of anything conclusive in the corporeal direction. We don’t see any UFOs. The body in the coffin remains unidentified – Scully is noncommittal other than it being mammalian – and the implant is even less certain in terms of provenance. If these are aliens doing the abducting – and it will take another six seasons to receive a definite answer – then the implant is traditionally explicable, but if it is the government doing the implanting… (and there is also the possibility, never pursued, that the government itself may believe it is dealing with extra-terrestrial phenomena and interaction, but that doesn’t mean it is). Carter and director Robert Mandel indulge several occasions of comic misdirection in this vein: Scully’s abduction marks turn out to be mosquito bites; the strange lights in the forest are the sheriff’s SUV.
Mulder: When convention and science offer no answers, might we then finally run to the fantastic as a plausibility?
Carter commented at one point "the interesting part about this for me was going to be telling stories where you left people wondering at the end, with the possibility that it could be real, but never ever stating that this is in fact the truth". And such sketchiness is the Pilot all over. Such uncertainty would dissipate as the mythology grew, although with it, confusion as to exactly what the hell was going on would also flourish. Even the sight of Billy and Theresa (Sarah Koskoff) under a beam of light, the former’s face distorting into a mask, aren’t really indicative, particular since Billy’s blurred visage doesn’t conform to any specific abduction iconography. Mulder is not going in with an open mind, however (“I don’t think you’re ready for what I think”). There’s a cover up involved, a local one instituted by Billy’s dad (Leon Russom) and also Theresa’s (Cliff De Young), but this amounts to nothing more nefarious than parental protectiveness (the actual coherence of Billy being “released” from “alien” control – Billy never mentions aliens – is less satisfying and rather rushed).
In terms of mythos, the motivating force of Mulder’s abducted sister is particularly pertinent. Because “she just disappeared out of her bed one night”, he added two and two and made aliens (“There was a bright light outside and a present in the room. I was paralysed”); that it eventually turns out not to be – in this crucial instance, anyway – could be seen as underwhelming (from a mythology arc point of view and from how good those episodes weren’t), but it does serve to underline that the alien element of the series isn’t always an end unto itself.
Section Chief Blevins: I seen no evidence that justifies the legitimacy of these investigations.
Scully: There were, of course, crimes committed.
Mulder and Scully are both established effectively immediately, the pity being that the show didn’t really allow for character development beyond sceptic v believer until Duchovny and had semi-exited. And then in a highly cynical fashion. Mulder’s casual, sunflower seed munching persona is fully formed, although less sharp-suited than he’d tend to be. It’s interesting that his introductory description suggests someone far more scholarly than the character we meet (“an Oxford educated psychologist, who wrote a monogram on serial killers and the occult, that helped to catch Monty Props in 1988. Generally thought of as the best analyst in the Violent Crimes section”). He’s pithy about Scully’s presence – “I was under the impression you were sent to spy on me” – and observes “Yeah, but you have to write it down in your report” when she agrees with his findings. He also cheers with appealing genuineness at the realisation they have lost nine minutes of time. We’re also told “The only reason I’ve been allowed to continue with my work is because I’ve made connections in Congress”. Robert Shearman considered the Mulder characterisation in this one too whacky, but I have to declare him a grouch.
Scully is, of course, reactive; Mulder is initiating her into a new world. We learn she was recruited out of medical school and that she wrote her senior thesis on Einstein’s Twin Paradox – A New Interpretation (“I diiiid” read it is Mulder’s response. He liked it. He said). She’s also a stickler for her exacting interpretation of the task at hand. Snooping on Mulder, yes, but not debunking the X-Files for her superiors’ benefit.
The production itself is polished. Some of the incidental cues are more routine network drama than they’d quickly become, and Mandel allows some very obvious “driving on the back of a trailer” moments, but it’s easy to see why this was ordered straight to series. Naturally, all evidence goes up in flames. Or is, Raiders-style, in the iconic shot of the episode, filed away by Cigarette Smoking Man for a select few eyes only. Coming to the episode with the benefit of eleven seasons of mythology, the actual storytelling here will seem like nothing special, but it’s impressive exactly because the Pilot sets out its store so efficiently and coherently. Would it were always thus.