Let’s get started.
Right off (well, right off following a title card), we’re told that “the following story is inspired by actual documented accounts.” Spooky!
The first scene features a woman in a nightgown running through the woods
outside Vancouver at night. Clearly, something weird is going on. This is confirmed when a strange wind comes up, followed by a bright light behind some of the nearby trees. A human-shaped figure walks out of the light towards the woman, and as he arrives next to her the whole screen goes white. We then fade to the woman’s dead body, as police investigate the next day. The police are confused because there’s no normal sign of assault, just a mark of two side-by-side dots on her back. One of the cops identifies the woman as a classmate of his son’s- which leads another to ask “The class of ’89, detective? It’s happening again, isn’t it?” So we know this isn’t a one-off thing, but a big mystery.
Rather than following those cops, though, we cut to FBI headquarters, where a redheaded woman in an aggressively early-90s suit is coming in to work. She introduces herself to security as Agent Dana Scully. YES WE HAVE SCULLY.
She’s called in to see her bosses so that 1) we can get backstory conveniently told to us and 2) we can notice that guy with a cigarette lurking in the corners of the boss’ office and saying nothing. It’s established that Scully is a medical doctor (you will never not be reminded of this) but got recruited to the FBI. The bosses also get Scully to tell us about a certain Agent Mulder, by asking about what she knows of him. Apparently he’s a brilliant profiler but saddled with the nickname of “Spooky Mulder” for his odd interests. Man, I wonder if we’ll get to meet him?
The bosses tell Scully that Mulder’s been working on cases outside the mainstream
because he doesn’t play by their rules. And so we get our title- these cases are the X-Files. It’s also Scully’s new assignment, which she’s not entirely happy about. She asks if they’re putting her there to debunk the X-Files, and they give her a total non-answer, so yeah that’s what they want.
Scully wanders down to the basement and into the X-Files office, which is plastered with pictures of UFOs and a poster that says “I want to believe.” And we get our first look at that mysterious agent Mulder.
Mulder, it turns out, knows exactly what the bosses want Scully to do (spy on him), and he’s done his homework to the extent that he’s read Scully’s undergrad thesis in physics. Scully is not impressed, but Mulder doesn’t care and instead gets right to introducing her to this week’s case, using a slide projector. I remember those. Surprise! the victim in the case is the woman from the opening. Mulder asks Scully’s medical opinion on the marks on the woman’s back, and she throws out a few non-alien-related possibilities. He then shares the mysterious chemical stuff that’s been found in the tissue around those marks, which neither can explain. Mulder clicks forward in the slide show to show that there have been cases like this across the country, all of which the FBI labeled “unexplained” and shoved in the basement.
Mulder, entirely aware of how ridiculous he sounds, asks “Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials?” Scully makes this face before she replies:
She proceeds to explain how unlikely it is that aliens would bother with earth. I think we have our believer and our skeptic! (The rest of the scene goes on to make that clearer, with good old-fashioned Chris Carter overwritten speeches from both characters.)
In spite of the fact that Mulder knows she wasn’t assigned to the X-Files to actually help, he seems happy to work with Scully, and he does listen to what she says even while disagreeing. And in spite of the fact that Scully is clearly wary of all this UFO and unexplained phenomena business, she’s interested in the information and smiles at the end of the scene, apparently looking forward to working her first case with Mulder. I always liked this- they may not be happy with everything the other believes or is doing, but they know where each other stand from the start, communicate their thoughts, and respect each other’s thoughts. It’s a good establishment of what the viewer can already tell will end up being a good partnership.
Scully reads up on the deaths of the class of ’89 on the flight, and once they land we get the two discussing the case. The FBI had already investigated the first deaths, but they ended up as X-Files and with the evidence from the most recent case there’s reason to believe something was covered up in the earlier deaths. Something like weird marks on the victims’ backs.
This is also the first scene of Mulder eating sunflower seeds. He will consume approximately 7.29 trillion over the course of the series.
The radio goes haywire, and Mulder stops the car to get out and spray paint a mark on the part of the road where it happened. Scully does not approve of this vandalism.
And she gets no explanation when she asks what that was for. Oh well, surely it’s not plot-relevant! And we have an exhumation of an earlier victim to get to, where the agents get into an argument with the local M.E. (the one they suspect of hiding information about the first three cases). When the exhumation doesn’t go smoothly, the coffin breaks open and we get a sneak peek at the fact that the dead guy is looking worse than expected.
Mulder makes a lot of trouble at poor Scully’s first autopsy on the show, taking endless pictures while she guesses based on external observation that someone’s dumped a chimp into that coffin (or possibly an orangutan). Mulder wants her to run basically ever test to be SURE of what it is. After initial reluctance, Scully agrees. In the full autopsy, she finds a weird small metal implant in the subject’s nose.
The next day they visit the local hospital to find out that a lot of the class of ’89 have been treated there for post-traumatic stress and related psychiatric issues. Well, except for the one who’s in a coma. The one girl who’s in current treatment at the hospital turns out to have those marks on her back. Scully kind of freaks out a bit at that, and confronts Mulder afterwards for withholding information about those marks and this case, which he is apparently doing because he believes she’s going to report everything to the bosses. But she’s angry enough that she successfully demands answers, and Mulder admits he thinks the marks are a sign of having been abducted. By aliens. SPOOKY.
Scully also raises good points, like “what were all these victims doing out in the woods?” so it’s time for more investigation! In the woods. At night. Because pfft the woods in daylight, aka not the time when the victims were killed, is for wimps who want to see possible evidence clearly. And not run into strange wind and light like that at the beginning of the episode, as Scully does. Scully has a dumb moment here where she asks if the light and noise, which are pretty clearly too much to be produced by one person with a flashlight, are actually Mulder, but we will ignore that affront to Scully’s awesome. Especially because she stands up to the guy who comes out of the light, who turns out to (in this case) be from the county sheriff’s department and tells them to get their federal investigation off private land. The light and noise were just his truck. Since the agents have pistols and he has a shotgun, Mulder and Scully back off for now.
In the car, though, Scully shares her discovery of weird dirt that she got before the sheriff guy turned up, while Mulder observes his compass fail to work. Then they end up briefly drowned in white light! Spooky. In that flash of light, they loose nine minutes, which makes Mulder ecstatic as it’s a phenomenon reported by people who claim to be alien abductees. It also happened on the part of the road where the radio went weird before. Scully is, well, skeptical (and does end up putting this in the report she’s typing up, so Mulder’s paranoia isn’t entirely unjustified).
Later, Scully for some reason decides to take a shower in a power outage. But in the process of getting ready, she notices small bumps on her back. She goes over to Mulder’s room and asks him to look at them, and it turns out they’re just mosquito bites.
I’m kind of of two minds on this bit. On the one hand, it shows that Mulder’s theories are getting to Scully and that they already kind of trust each other, which is important in the arc of the episode and the first season overall. On the other, they did use it as an excuse to show Gillian Anderson in her underwear, which is not cool and detracts from the establishment of Scully as a character and not fanservice. Ultimately, I think they could have accomplished the same thing in the story without objectifying their female lead, so I’m not happy with this section of the episode.
Mulder and Scully spend the rest of the night bonding with more backstory. In this scene, we find out about Mulder’s sister, who went missing when they were kids. She was never found, and the incident tore his family apart. In addition to that, he explains how he got interested in the X-Files and that “someone at a higher level of power” is blocking his further attempts at investigating. He believes his sister was abducted by aliens, and that the government knows that this kind of thing is going on and doesn’t want him to share the truth with the people. Well, I’m glad that backstory is out of the way! Now that we have that insight into Mulder’s character I’m sure none of that will ever come up again.
All this infodumping is cut short by a call from a mysterious woman who says that the young woman they saw earlier at the hospital is dead. They go to the scene of the crime, where a driver claims that the girl just ran out in front of his car. Which is odd, because she was confined to a wheelchair that morning. Someone uses this opportunity to torch the motel the agents have been staying at, and thus most of their evidence. While they’re being upset at that, an upset young woman comes up and says they have to protect her.
They take the young woman, Teresa, to a diner, where she explains that she just ends up out in the woods sometimes, like her friends and classmates have. The ones that are dead now. She was the one who called them about the dead girl. She’s also the daughter of the M.E. who’s been hiding information, so she knows that the dead people have all had marks like she does. Her dad picks her up before she can share any more info, and we learn that the sheriff’s department guy is the father of the boy in the coma. It’s looking increasingly like a town cover-up relating to the murders. Especially since the other two victims are now missing from their graves.
Mulder thinks the coma victim, Billy, did it.
Mulder: I’m not making this up. It fits a profile of alien abduction.
Scully: This fits a profile?
Mulder theorizes that it’s all related to the missing time they experienced, and while Scully is inclined to think he’s being crazy she did notice that the dead girl’s watch had stopped during that time. Mulder and Scully complete a theory about how the kids are being experimented on and taken/summoned to the woods and Billy is involved in taking them there, and Scully has what looks like a minor hysterical breakdown at being part of this.
Billy appears pretty dang comatose when they visit him the next day, but his feet are dirty- with the same kind of dirt Scully found in the forest. Scully can’t believe that she’s finding evidence that supports Mulder’s theory. They need to go back out to the woods, though, because they lost their sample of dirt in the fire and can’t do a comparison without it. When they arrive (at night again, even though they visited the hospital during the day), they see sheriff guy’s truck, and then hear a woman scream. They set off running, separately. Scully gets knocked down by sheriff guy (he TOLD them to stay out of this). Sheriff guy then goes on to threaten Mulder at gunpoint. Mulder points out that Billy is going to kill the girl (presumably Teresa), and sheriff guy relents and goes to confront his son, who is in the middle of a whirlwind picking up the girl. Sheriff guy almost shoots the kid, but Mulder stops him. Scully hears the noise and starts to head over, arriving in time to see a bright light but not to get close enough to see what happens (Scully not quite being there for the full-on extraterrestrial/paranormal/etc. event is another thing that will happen a lot). When the light fades, Teresa is actually not dead, and Billy is somehow pretty normal and totally aware. As Billy and his dad hug, Mulder notices that the marks that had been on Billy’s back are gone now.
Under hypnosis (Mulder loves hypnotism), Billy relates his abduction story, mentioning that the aliens put a communication device in his head. Mulder and the doctor are the only ones in the room, but they have an audience outside of it. Not just Scully, but the bosses who assigned her to the X-Files and that guy who was with them and just smoked before. He’s still smoking. You know if he keeps that up it’s going to have health repercussions eventually.*
The Smoking Man (look it’s practically a name I’m capitalizing it), whispers something we can’t hear to one of the bosses, and the three men leave. Scully follows them, but she hesitates, looking back at Mulder. Back in their office, the bosses point out that Scully’s report is full of holes and subjectivity, and she agrees. They point out that there’s no physical evidence so she doesn’t have a leg to stand on. That’s when Scully stands up and pulls out from her pocket the thing she found in the exhumed body’s nose. The exact kind of thing Billy was talking about. Made of an unidentifiable substance. She’d kept it in her pocket, so it wasn’t lost in the fire. She does this all very calmly, simply stating the facts in a conversational tone, and it’s completely badass. It also makes her ultimate loyalties pretty clear- as she’s been saying all episode, what she cares about most is solving the case, and she’s not going to be influenced by anyone who wants her to solve it a particular way. In other words, her loyalty is to the truth, which allies her with Mulder.
The bosses weren’t expecting this.
They let Scully go, and the Smoking Man (not currently smoking) follows her into their office. That night, Scully gets a call from Mulder, who has discovered that the paperwork they filed back at the town where this all went down is missing. The case has disappeared. Because this call comes at 11:21 pm when she was trying to sleep, Scully rightfully says they’ll talk about that tomorrow.
The last scene is of the Smoking Man wandering down a aisle of files and depositing the device Scully gave the bosses into a container with a bunch of other, identical devices. If you weren’t clear that the bosses and their mysterious ally here are not on the side of truth, you should have no confusion about that now. As he leaves the room, we see from its door that it’s in the Pentagon (evidently the basement, because some things about X-Files related materials are constant).
Huh, maybe that whole thing about people at higher levels of government conspiring to keep Mulder’s work hidden is going to come back.
So! That’s the pilot! Honestly, I think it’s stronger than a lot of pilots, and more consistent with the show overall than pilots tend to be. It does get bogged down in explaining alien-abduction related stuff and is somewhat more orthodox in its approach to that than the series will often be later in its run (it hasn’t created its own mythology yet and is going the “ripped from the headlines” route), but it establishes the tone of the show well. We have Mulder spouting crazy theories and also quips, we have Scully making the appropriate faces in response to those theories and being reasonable, and we have their relationship being strained by outside influences but already forming a foundation of mutual trust and respect. We have the Vast Government Conspiracy ™ relating to all things spooky and threatening ordinary citizens, we have nameless shadowy figures running things, we have people making strange events more convoluted and making sure the episode meets its run time through covering things up (either out of a desire to protect those close to them or out of shadowy evil motivations). We have the dark lighting, the night shots, and Mark Snow’s unconventional soundtrack. You could argue that the only really important element missing from the pilot is Assistant Director Skinner, and you’d be more than half right**.
We also have a 100% white cast, Chris Carter’s tendency to overwrite, Mulder always ultimately being right in spite of the odds of that or how reasonable Scully’s ideas are, and Mulder’s manpain over his sister. Just because it’s establishing a lot of notable aspects of the show doesn’t mean they’re all good things to establish.
On review, I think what actually stands out to me the most in the pilot is the establishment of the Smoking Man. We haven’t heard him say a word yet, but he’s already fascinating. The shots he’s in tend to put him at the edges of things or in the dark until the final scene, which puts him firmly in the well-lit center and makes his power clear. We know he’s influential, we know he’s up to something, and we know he can’t be trusted, but we’re not entirely sure who he’s working for or what his goal could possibly be. A pilot needs a good hook, and The X-Files‘ hook is the Smoking Man.
*spoilers: it does. I have now ruined the show for you.
**but not much more, because we’re also missing the Lone Gunmen.