My X-Files fanaticism began during the middle of the fourth season when it was already a glossy, immaculately produced mini-movie that happened to come out every week. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson could play their characters in their sleep by then, portraying two of the most well drawn yet unrealistically sexy federal employees ever. Transitioning into the 5th season, I began hungering to see just how they became so unrealistically sexy. Thankfully, my wish was granted as a rerun of The Pilot ran late in 1997. I eagerly lapped it up but was shocked because I couldn’t get past how unrefined and clunky it was. Young me condemned The Pilot because I was a shallow thirteen year old.
Now if this doesn’t seem like a big deal…well then you are probably right, it sure as hell is not a big deal. BUT it really highlights my personal character arc as now, 23 years later, I am a different man. No less shallow but different; I’ve grown into someone who can appreciate what The Pilot does effectively. (I’m also a statistician and an actual federal employee now and while I’m not nearly as unrealistically sexy as Mulder or Scully, I have some pretty damn sexy graphs at the end of this review.)
What The Pilot does very well is create an incredibly immersive atmosphere. The rain shrouded woods, flashlights illuminating the night, that incredible Vancouver greenery –talk about nailing down the feel of the show right from the beginning! If there’s one scene that personifies this atmosphere, its the conversation in the motel. Its a raw emotional moment for Mulder where he lays his cards on the table but it’s the aesthetics that make the scene great. The entire thing takes place in the safety of a motel room but through clever direction and lighting, their conversation feels completely exposed to the elements. The Pilot just has this palpable air of paranoia and unease permeating throughout (which is also greatly aided by the introduction to the Cigarette Smoking Man). Yes The X-Files is often focused on paranoia but I never feel like it saturates the episode like it does in The Pilot. And that paranoia and tension builds steadily throughout the episode.
Much of that building tension comes down to the fact that the episode is told through Dana Scully’s eyes. Fox Mulder is just a character in her life (and quite the wackadoodle character at that) and the episode does a good job of slowly chipping away at Scully’s stoic rationalism. She starts out outright resistant to the idea of the paranormal during her verbal jousts with Mulder but bit by bit, she gets sucked more and more into his world. Early on, she’s fairly rigid. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the phrase “quite possibly an orangutan” in quite as condescending a manner than Scully does here. But by the end of the episode, she’s basically salivating over the idea that Billy Miles was up and about in the woods. It’s a strong and natural character arc as she deals with revelation after revelation. And I really enjoy that by the end, when Mulder calls her with more conspiratorial drama, her self-defense mechanisms kick in. She tells him “tomorrow” and retreats, almost as if she needs time to process everything and its all just too much. Wonderful character work for Scully.
Mulder doesn’t get as much intricate character development; he’s more of a friendly, high-talking foil for Scully who likes to refer to Oregon as “Ore-gone”. We see him through her eyes, we see his eccentricity, we see his arrogance in how he withholds information from her, and we see his emotional core when he bares his soul to her about his sister’s disappearance in the episode’s best scene. Its effective stuff but its not quite as well done as Scully’s stuff, partly due to David Duchovny’s performance.
Neither he nor Gillian Anderson have their characters completely down which is natural, this being the first episode. Gillian seems raw and inexperienced but David plays Mulder very differently from how his character would become. I can never enjoy that first meeting between Mulder and Scully as much as I’d like because Mulder’s high-talking takes me out of the scene. Likewise, his howling in the rain when they lose nine minutes just feels way more like “generic conspiracy nut” and not Fox Mulder. Scully has her out of character moments as well but she still feels like the more well-realized character.
Minor character quibbles aside, The Pilot nails their chemistry. The rapport, hushed conversations, and banter between Mulder and Scully is what makes this show for me and here, it stands shoulder to shoulder with the more polished latter seasons. Two standout examples — there’s the obvious one where Mulder and Scully engage in their version of an intimate night in a dark motel room. But there’s another one that always grabs me and that’s their brief argument outside of the clinic after Peggy O’Dell has a meltdown. Here Scully drops any semblance of deference (“dammit Mulder, cut the crap”) and Mulder drops his smug amiability (“I don’t think you’re ready for what I think”) and they have a passionate argument about what they thing is going on. It’s brief and fiery and it represents that first moment where the two of them are completely honest with each other.
And damn, as silly as it is, I love the moment at the end when they look at each other through the one-way mirror. Makes no logical sense but really drives home that trust that is building between them.
It’s a damn good thing they begin to trust each other because when we finally get around to Mulder explaining the mechanics of the plot, he does a piss-poor job of connecting the dots. The Pilot is a microcosm of Chris Carter’s handling of the show in general. Lots of great ideas, stacked one after another, but then when it comes time for Mulder to explain it in the rainy cemetery, it doesn’t coalesce. They find some empty graves, he says “I think I know who did it”, we have a dramatic commercial break, and then he launches into an explanation that haphazardly connects nothing but makes it sound like huge revelations. Its a credit to the direction, atmosphere, and the unbridled enthusiasm of Duchovny and Anderson that the scene still works. But logically, it’s lacking.
And then the entire climax is just nonsense, getting by on spectacle. But when you think hard enough about it, it could just be described as “a bunch of stuff happened”. Why did the aliens just decided to stop their abduction in the middle of the climax? Why should Mulder’s presence have resulted in anything other than Theresa Nemmen dying like Karen Swenson in the teaser? Did the aliens see him and think “ahhh shit, we gotta get out of here, there are witnesses!” Why do the bumps disappear from Billy Miles’ lower back? I’d assumed those were welts from a procedure and, whether the source of the procedure was paranormal or not, I wouldn’t expect those welts to just magically disappear. (For however many times Mulder and Scully say it, Billy Miles’ magically disappearing welts may be the only moment where it would have made sense for them to claim “this is the key to everything in The X-Files”.)
Elsewhere, there are elements that don’t quite work. That scene on the airplane with the turbulence serves no purpose whatsoever other than to have a “tense” scene (and I hate fake tension). Scully’s freak out about the mosquito bites has never sat well with me. I have no problem with her being frightened or going to Mulder for support. But I do have a problem with her not putting on any clothes and then collapsing in his arms. Thankfully this is the kind of stuff that they ironed out of the show almost immediately.
But you know what? Those flaws are just mere nuisances now because this is still a very solid first outing. The characters are established, the mood is set, and the feel of the show is just right. Mulder and Scully’s investigation is genuinely compelling until the last third of the episode. And that final shot of The Cigarette Smoking Man in the warehouse is a phenomenal ending. Yes you would think a working-level individual would take care of warehouse inventory and not upper management but still–this sets the stage for the rest of the show. So while The Pilot lacks the polish or cohesion of better episodes, this is a good opening chapter.
FINAL SCORE: 76.24/100
Scores Over Time
The first graph in this section shows each scene’s Quality Score. A short horizontal line means a short scene, long horizontal lines mean long scenes, and the higher the score, the better the scene.
The second graph in this section shows the average score of the episode at every scene change. Each point averages the score up to that scene. That graph shows a rough simulation of my overall “enjoyment” of the episode over time.
Prevalence Over Time
These graphs show how often different characters or components have been present or mentioned in the episode.
Prevalence vs Quality and Impact Charts
The scatter plot shows the Quality Score of each character or component (how good they were in this episode) on the y-axis and the Prevalence Percentage (how often they were in the episode) on the x-axis. The Prevalence Percentage will match the final Prevalence Percentage in the line charts above. The dashed line shows the episode score.
The bar graphs display Impact Scores for each component or character. Impact Score is calculated by combining the Quality and Prevalence from the scatter plot. If an episode scored a 70 and a character had an Impact Score of 50, they impacted 50/70 of the episode’s final score. Impact Score tells you how much of an Impact a certain character or component had on the episode. The dashed line shows the episode score.
Impact Chart Over Time
The line graphs show the Impact over time for the episode and different characters and components. Impact is calculated for each scene by combining the Quality Score of that scene with what proportion of the episode’s duration that scene occupies. The final Impact Score in white is the final episode score. The final Impact Score for each character or component matches the Impact Score in the bar graphs above.