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The X-Files: Pilot


I was an early convert to The X-Files, getting hooked near the end of its first season, before it exploded in popularity. I quickly became a hardcore fan, watching episodes repeatedly and obsessing over the mythology details and character interactions. My obsession began to wane in later years, as Mulder and Scully were featured less prominently and the mythology became hopelessly convoluted, but I stuck with it to the end (the bitter end, some may say).

Of course, it’s now been years since I’ve watched the show, and I can barely remember most of the episodes from later seasons. I do, however, remember the early seasons fondly, and I’m really looking forward to revisiting the series this summer. I’ll attempt to keep my reviews spoiler-free, although sometimes I may touch on overall series themes or concepts. And now onto the review ...

Case: The unexplained death of Karen Swenson, one of several members of the Class of 1989 to die under mysterious circumstances.

Destination: Coastal Northwest Oregon

I can’t really give a fair assessment of this pilot for the truly uninitiated, because I didn’t see it until well after I got hooked on the series. Plus, between the time I originally saw the episode and my recent re-watch for this review, I’ve experienced the entire series. So I can best judge the pilot relative to how well it worked given the overall direction of the series. And from that perspective, I think it was very effective.

The show immediately sucks you in with a great teaser, showing the apparent abduction of a helpless young woman by aliens. From the swirling leaves and the bright light, to the hazy, otherworldly being, to the “It’s happening again!” the writers throw the audience right into the deep end with one of the main series themes.

Next we get hit with an information dump that introduces us to the two main characters and the premise of the show. Meet Special Agent Dana Scully. She’s been with the FBI for two years and was recruited out of medical school. Her chosen path does not please her family, but she believes she can distinguish herself at the FBI. Her new partner is Special Agent Fox Mulder, a brilliant, Oxford-educated behavioral analyst who once helped to catch a serial killer and was nicknamed ‘Spooky’ at the FBI Academy. Her assignment: use her rational, scientific approach to “debunk” Agent Mulder’s pet project, the X-Files, which are unexplained cases, typically involving paranormal phenomena. The Bureau supposedly has concerns about the validity of the X-Files project, since it is outside the mainstream, but we get the feeling there is possibly more to it than that—especially given the mysterious man silently smoking in the corner of the office.

Ordinarily, this kind exposition can feel awkward and forced, but in this case I think it kind of works, quickly bringing the audience up to speed on the basics of the X-Files universe and then letting the rest of the story unfold with the typical episode format. The agents learn about a strange case, go out to investigate, and encounter resistance and interference from the locals and/or fellow government officials. They make surprising discoveries and uncover shocking truths, only to have their hard evidence destroyed. Mulder is the only one to witness the really fantastical stuff, and Scully is unable to substantiate his version of events in her field reports. The case remains somewhat unresolved or unexplained, or, at the very least, can’t be prosecuted. The basic X-Files episode in a nutshell.

The pilot perfectly establishes the tone and the mood of the series, starting out dark and creepy and ending on a mysterious and ominous note. It also introduces many of the conventions that recur throughout the series, including dark, moody settings, car rides and motel rooms, the often discordant piano score, the ever-present flashlights, the time/location information shown in the corner of the screen, and even Scully’s field report narration.

The best aspect of the pilot, however, is the budding partnership between Mulder and Scully. Their attitudes and approaches are polar opposites in nearly every way, and right from the get go, they challenge each other at every turn.

Scully is the skeptic to Mulder’s believer. She has a rational, by-the-book approach, and stands firm in her belief that even the strangest phenomena can be explained by science. “What I find ‘fantastic’ is notion that there any answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.”

Mulder, on the other hand, believes in extreme possibilities and visitors from other worlds. He is cynical, sarcastic, and almost manic in his need to prove not only that aliens exist, but that there is a government conspiracy to cover up this fact. He takes an "in-your-face" approach to their investigations and is clearly willing to bend or break the rules to get the answers he craves. “I’ve got to know what they are protecting. Nothing else matters to me.”

For Scully, the X-Files are an assignment; she wants to do a good job because she has a good work ethic and she wants to advance her career. For Mulder, the X-Files are his life’s work, an all-consuming mission to find The Truth. And yet, despite their diametrically opposed stances, we see the two of them slowly forging a partnership based on mutual respect and trust. They have each other’s backs when thrown into some highly charged and dangerous situations, and they support each other in quieter moments. Mulder may challenge Scully to be more open-minded about extreme possibilities, but he also seems to know he needs her rational approach to keep him grounded and to find the answers he needs.

Other Thoughts

We learn that Mulder’s sister was kidnapped when he was a child and that he believes she was abducted by aliens. He also mentions having a well-placed contact in Congress.

We meet the Smoking Man. He’s mostly just a presence lurking in the corners and whispering to the FBI bosses, but he does get to bury evidence in Raiders of the Lost Ark fashion. What a fantastic ending!

I got a little thrill from our first look at Mulder’s basement office with its infamous “I Want to Believe” poster. “Nobody down here but the FBI’s most unwanted.”

I forgot that Scully has a physics background. For most of the series, the emphasis always seemed to be on her medical background, but her belief in the explanatory power of science clearly links back to her earlier education.

We got the introduction of Mulder’s affinity for sunflower seeds (he’s munching on them at the exhumation), and we got to see both Mulder and Scully with their glasses. I love when they put on those glasses! Smart is sexy.

Other than the glasses, Scully’s “look” in this episode always makes me do a double-take. The long straight hair and the dowdy suits are so far from where she ends up stylistically.


Scully: "Agent Mulder, I'm Dana Scully. I've been assigned to work with you."
Mulder: "Oh really? I was under the impression you were sent to spy on me."

Mulder: “I’m not crazy, Scully. I have the same doubts you do.”

Mulder to Scully: “I don’t think you’re ready for what I think.”

Scully to Mulder: “You’ve got to trust me. I’m here, just like you, to solve this.”

Scully: “Agent Mulder believes we are not alone.”

Final Analysis: The X-Files pilot covers all the necessary bases: it effectively introduces the series concept and the characters; it establishes the general mood and tone; and it leaves you wanting to see more. In retrospect, the episode really did a fantastic job of setting the stage for most of the central concepts and conflicts, without overwhelming us with mythology right out of the gate. A solid start to the series.

Jess Lynde is a highly engaged television viewer. Probably a bit too engaged.


  1. Good luck with this project!

    The pilot didn't quite connect with the overall mythology, but as an X-Files episode it was ok. When I watched The X-Files for the first time, it took the second episode to really hook me.

  2. I came late to the X-Files (actually, Dan watched it from the beginning and finally made me watch it) but I stayed with it until the very end. Some of the episodes were so memorable that they still stick in my mind. I'm looking forward to reading yours and Josie's reviews, and it is just so cool that you're adding such a huge icon of a show to the site.

  3. For some reason, I felt the need to watch some X-Files tonight. Why not start at the beginning?

    I had forgotten how much information we get in this pilot. But, my favourite bit is the two of them in the hotel room talking. It is there that the foundation is laid for what will become, in my opinion, the greatest TV partnership ever.

  4. I just started watching the first series again on Netflix... I'm not sure how far I'll make it, I never made it past series 5 or so previously, (unless a friend told me of a heavy mythology episode) but I've always loved the show :)

  5. I'm jumping on the X-Files bandwagon so so late. I just watched this episode and it's the first I've ever seen.

    Alien hoopla is fun and I did not at all see the case turning out the way it did beforehand but watching Mulder and Scully get to know each other was the highlight for me. The way she ran to him for help with her "mosquito bites" and he confided in her about his sister... that kind of trust is what makes a partnership fun to watch.

    Someone please tell me that lady FBI agents have better apparel options now days!!

    Also, if that secret alien evidence really existed in the Pentagon how fun would it be to rummage through!

  6. Welcome to the party, Laure. This is one of my favorite shows ever.

  7. Revisiting the X-Files for the first time since it originally aired, seemed a great binge option given we are mostly house bound these days. Hoping to make it to the end this time, i remember giving up somewhere near Mulders departure the first time.

    Other than thinking how young Mulder and Scully looked, the amount of exposition included from the start surprised me, id forgotten how early we learned the Samantha storyline.

    It was a joy to again see the beginning of their partnership.

  8. Pilot didn't really do anything for me, and I already found the plot a little hard to follow. I'll watch all of season 1 before dropping it if that's what it comes to, but I'm hoping to at least make it to season 5 / the first movie before leaving.

    I am getting a basic kick out of finally watching the TV show with that iconic theme song that I found too evocatively spooky to ever properly watch as a kid. Loved the I WANT TO BELIEVE poster too, that's another re-appearing screencap that really ingrained to me a desire to finally watch the show it came from.

    Love the ambience


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