The X-Files pilot turns 25, less scary but still very funny
The X-Files was intended as a horror show, but today only a select few episodes look genuinely scary. There’s an influence problem here, maybe. You could argue that in the 2010s the single most defining form of TV drama has been serialized horror: The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, vamp-y True Blood and antler-y True Detective, Hannibal for the gourmands, Black Mirror for the self-loathing tech addicts, Stranger Things for the nostalgists, just recently Castle Rock, and don’t forget Game of Thrones is endgaming towards a zombie apocalypse.
And this decade there was also, well, The X-Files: an old franchise rebooted to brief ratings success and then declining goofery, ending in March with an energetically dire finale that seemingly drove Gillian Anderson toward self-banishment. Compared to its successors, the show’s moves looked a bit stale when rebooted. And history gets revised rather often these days. Twin Peaks had a better revival, predated X-Files in the FBI-Agent-Investigates-Haunted-Woods-With-Aliens-And-Boomer-Iconography subgenre, is now such a hip creative influence that even Archie Andrews tries to act Lynchian.
But time hasn’t dimmed the best thing about The X-Files. It remains very funny, one of the most darkly humorous procedurals in TV history — and you can strike that “one of” if we’re not counting anything British.
In the X-Files pilot, which aired 25 years ago this Monday, Dana Scully (Anderson) meets Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). They set off on their first mission, and they don’t really solve anything, not to the extent where anyone could confidently exclaim “Case closed!” They only just barely do anything of note. Mulder kinda saves someone’s life by preventing a shotgun blast, but then the climax is a big light in the sky that decides not to kill its latest victim, for reasons nobody ever understands. It’s possible Mulder and Scully are only making things worse, bringing alien technology into the grasp of darker Pentagon forces. All their evidence gets arsoned. All their work winds up erased. There’s very little feeling of normative TV “goodness,” innocents protected, justice served.
And Mulder and Scully look like they’re having a blast. Drenched in rain, surrounded by empty graves, ranting about aliens summoning comatose man-children into a murder forest, they both start laughing. You have to be some kind of stupid brave to laugh at madness this bleak. Twenty-five years later, TV investigators have trended utterly dour or painfully silly. Mulder and Scully are serious, and funny, and seriously funny. There are jokes about corpses: This was Fox, man, god this was Fox.
The show’s creator, Chris Carter, wrote the pilot episode. He stuffed the story full of suggestively banal bits of alien arcana, curious bumps on bodies, strange clumps of dirt, watches stopped at eerily precise moments. He gilded the tale with documentary stylistics, more believable back when no one assumed documentaries were fake. “THE FOLLOWING STORY IS INSPIRED BY ACTUAL DOCUMENTED ACCOUNTS” promises some opening text. Typewritten chyrons declare specific dates (“March 7, 1992”) and times (“5:07 AM”).
And this first investigation ripples with national tragedy. In Bellefleur, Oregon, horrors beget horrors. The problem begins like a fairy tale, or like American colonial history: Young people get lost in the woods. “We were all in the forest having a party,” says Billy Miles (Zachary Ansley). “All my friends. We were celebrating. And then the light came.” Underage drinking? Hard drugs? Some mysterious “others” take the kids away, return them forever changed, half-ruined from repressed memories, a couple kids institutionalized into perpetual adolescence. It’s the ’60s all over again. The kids aren’t all right, and all the adults become co-conspirators in a hush-hush operation, their history erased and redacted. One dad is a medical examiner forging records. One dad is a sheriff keeping nasty truths from the public eye. The town has a secret everyone knows, and it’s literally killing them.
That’s the nominal plot, one the show would riff on endlessly. In the pantheon of Scary Forest X-Fileses, it’s a bit of a snooze. (Gimme the green bugs any day.) But credit Carter for two brilliant introductions. We meet Scully first, and see the strange new world through her eyes. She’s smart, and Anderson figured out an unnaturally effective way to make her obvious youth look like excessive toughness, like she worked twice as hard as anyone in every room.
In Scully’s first scene, her superior notes that she went to medical school but “chose not to practice,” which almost makes it sound like she did five years of med school for fun. Instead of doctoring, she joined the FBI. “My parents still think it was an act of rebellion,” she says — this bit of la-dee-dah insouciance delivered to a room full of frowning J. Edgars who look like they were crushing the generational spirit of youthful rebellion before Scully was born.
She’s assigned to partner up with Agent Mulder, because nobody likes Agent Mulder. He’s a brilliant agent and an infamous terror. Scully’s superiors need her to document him, so they have a paper trail to justify reassignment. There’s one read on X-Files, unmissable in a 2018 context, where it’s a show about an exceptionally talented woman given grunt detail by powerful men who don’t want to waste one of the old boys from their club.
And that reading is not much helped when we meet Mulder. The myth of X-Files would build him up as a rebellious figure, but the pilot works hard to establish his exceptionalism, with teacher’s-pet snark to match. He’s “an Oxford-educated psychologist,” Scully tells us, “the best analyst in the violent crimes section.” Mulder’s pursuit of the X-Files is almost a lark here, a side project taken up by a brilliant investigator bored of mere human crime. “My success allowed me a certain freedom to pursue my own interests,” he explains, sounding precisely like Shigeru Miyamoto discussing Pikmin 3.
For an outsider, Mulder’s a bit of a namedropper. “The only reason I’ve been allowed to continue with my work is because I’ve made connections in Congress,” he swears, sounding dead serious, like every dope in D.C. doesn’t drop the I’ve made connections in Congress line at least twice per weekend. Of course, some of the essential fun of X-Files was always that Mulder and Scully were insiders, their badges granting them the right to walk through any door anywhere, another week, another State of the Union, another rental car, another motel room. The first time Scully meets Mulder, he tells her they’re flying to Oregon. SMASH CUT TO: Them on a plane, the possibility very real that Mulder expensed two extra seats so he could lay down for a transcontinental nap.
Anderson and Duchovny are perfect costars from millisecond one. They’re clearly established as opposites, just as clearly established as allies, two totally different smart people who are skeptical in very specific ways. Mulder doesn’t believe anyone because he thinks everyone is lying. Scully is more meticulous: She waits for people to lie before she distrusts them.
Director Robert Mandel doesn’t quite have the shadowy flair of some of the series’ great helmers, like Kim Manners or Rob Bowman. But he figures out something essential in the Scully-Mulder dynamic. There’s a dumb scene where Scully strips for no reason so Mulder can scope out some mosquito bumps on her lowest-of-lower back. And then there’s a great scene of genuine intimacy, Mulder unveiling his darkest secrets (sister abducted!) while Scully listens patiently.
It’s a perfect shot. It has nothing to do with crimesolving, and everything to do with, like, the feeling of a long late night in a college dorm, everyone gathered around sharing deep truths with their best friends ever that they met yesterday. Makes sense. These two FBI agents are chasing “the truth,” nominally, but Mulder’s really chasing transcendence, “aliens” as a state of higher being, real Jungian stuff, man, he’s an Oxford-educated psychologist. At one point, they’re driving down a road, and they flip forward in time a few minutes. Mulder gets out of the car, ecstatic, barely able to control himself. Were they abducted? Who cares? He’s almost singing in the rain.
So there are many invigoratingly funny ideas in the series premiere of The X-Files. But the funniest one by far is the Cigarette Smoking Man. William B. Davis played the looming villain across 11 seasons, three death scenes, three surprise-paternity revelations. In the X-Files pilot, he’s a quiet man in various meetings. He whispers to FBI directors, walks the gray halls of government, smokes cigarettes like lung cancer would be an improvement. It’s a marvel of character acting. Without saying one word, Davis looks like the dad you never call, the president you didn’t vote for, and the wizard other wizards fear.
But think about it for a few seconds. (Or for 25 years.) The whole point of a shadowy figure is, well, being in the shadows. Yet here he always is, this great conspiracist: Sitting in assignment sessions, lingering in interrogation rooms. He’s enigmatic in the most overt way a person can be enigmatic, neon-lit sign proclaiming all-caps “SECRECY!” arrow-pointing in his direction. Near the end of the first episode, he walks past Agent Scully, timing his approach toward her superior’s office as she exits, assuring that she can really luxuriate in the dispassionate look on his face.
X-Files canon (a dangerous phrase) would establish that nearly everything the protagonists/audience learned about Cancerman’s plot was some kind of lie. The 2016 revival staged retcon after retcon, casting whole TV seasons of bounty hunting alien warfare as an elaborate con job, phony narrative designed to manipulate Scully and Mulder.
This was, obviously, a last ditch effort to slatewipe an impossible story that nobody ever understood. But in some ways it’s the most brilliant twist the X-Files mythology ever coughed up. Rewatching the pilot, or any episode touching the greater alien saga, you’re struck by the renewed possibility that everything you see constitutes unreliable narration. Even the most convincingly objective sightings of the supernatural are probably just the Smoking Man playfully Truman Show-ing Mulder toward another false revelation. Every truth Mulder uncovers is another lie. His motto was his most exploitable weakness: He wanted to believe. How to put this nicely? You rewatch the pilot for The X-Files, and you wonder if Scully was right about everything.