Welcome to Pilot Rewind, Yahoo Entertainment’s flashback series revisiting the first episodes of the most memorable series from TV history. Grab a flashlight and watch out for black oil as we revisit the first-ever installment of an era-defining sci-fi series.
“Pilot,” The X-Files. Written by Chris Carter and directed by Robert Mandel. Originally aired on Sept. 10, 1993 at 9pm.
How It Started
FBI Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) receives a new assignment and a new partner — Special Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) — on the same day. Officially, she’s expected to assist Mulder in his investigations into the strange (and maybe supernatural) cases that constitute his pet project, The X-Files. Unofficially, she’s expected to use her scientific acumen to explain the unexplainable and further marginalize Mulder. Their first case: an Oregon teenager who had a strange encounter in the woods that left two strange marks on her lower back.
What Else Was On
The X-Files inauspiciously premiered on a Friday night — the evening where the major networks historically programmed shows they didn’t expect to stick around very long or dropped in repeats to fill time. That was ABC’s approach, which programmed repeats of its TGIF sitcom lineup, including Family Matters and Step by Step. NBC went even further back in its archives, airing a two-hour repeat of the 1978 miniseries The Awakening Land starring Bewitched‘s Elizabeth Montgomery as a 18th century frontier settler. Only CBS tried to tempt viewers with new content, premiering the half-hour sitcoms The Building, created by and starring Bonnie Hunt, and The Boys — no, not that one. This Boys starred a pre-Stabler Christopher Meloni as a Stephen King-like horror writer who moves into a new house and befriends the pals of the person that used to own it, a crew that included Ned Beatty and Richard Venture.
Early critical word on The X-Files was mixed-to-positive, with most reviewers agreeing with Entertainment Weekly’s brutal assessment of its future: “This show’s a goner.”
“The X-Files holds some interest despite its labored premise… And though the show works with a certain unintended camp kick, at the moment “X” doesn’t mark the spot where viewers can find involving drama by way of Stephen King-esque actions.” — Miles Beller, The Hollywood Reporter
“[Chris] Carter’s dialogue is fresh without being self-conscious, and the characters are involving. Series kicks off with drive and imagination, both innovative in recent TV.” — Tony Scott, Variety
“There’s not much suspense here, but the two leads, and the hour’s teacup worth of mystery, are just enough to keep this flying saucer aloft.” — Howard Rosenberg, The Los Angeles Times
“Writer-producer Chris Carter and director Robert Mandel should probably get credit for trying to bring something a little different to prime time, even if it does fit in with Fox’s persistently tabloid tone. But X-Files is too iffy and inconclusive to be satisfying… The X-Files ought to be the ex-series before very long.” — Tom Shales, The Washington Post
By the Numbers
The X-Files wasn’t a goner after the first episode — but the Nielsen charts weren’t exactly burning up either. The pilot attracted 12 million eyeballs, just enough for Fox to leave it in the Friday night death slot for a few more weeks. And that was exactly the stay of execution the series needed to catch fire. By the end of Season 1, The X-Files had attained “cult status” phenomenon and a decades-spanning franchise was born.
Mulder shares the story of his sister Samantha’s abduction with Scully for the first time. The Samantha storyline would run itself into the ground in future seasons, but it’s a great bit of pilot-oriented character exposition delivered with maximum emotional impact by Duchovny.
In contrast, Scully’s meetings with her FBI superiors that open and close the episode are the worst kind of pilot exposition — stiffly acted and flatly written. Thankfully, those in-person meetings weren’t required in subsequent episodes, as she filed her Mulder reports on her ancient computer instead.
Those bookended meeting scenes are at least partially redeemed by the presence of William B. Davis as The Smoking Man — soon to be a major part of X-Files mythology. In the pilot, though, he’s mainly a silent presence in the background, observing Scully while she talks to her direct bosses. Davis also gets the killer Raiders of the Lost Ark moment that ends the episode, hiding paranormal evidence of Scully and Mulder’s first case together in an FBI storage facility.
Sign of the Times
Weeks after The X-Files‘s premiere, NYPD Blue broke network TV’s nudity barrier with David Caruso’s bare backside. And The X-Files can’t resist indulging in a little cheesecake itself, conspiring to get Scully in her bra and panties for a scene where she suspects that she’s received the same marks that the duo are investigating. Going forward, Anderson successfully steered her alter ego away from that kind of overt sexualization, instead positioning herself as the thinking person’s heartthrob.
Carter wrote and shot two scenes with Scully and her boyfriend, Ethan Minette, played by journeyman actor, Tim Ransom. The idea was that Minette and Mulder would form the other two points on a love triangle with Scully, as per the network’s desire to add a major romantic element to the series. But the showrunner wisely dropped those scenes in the editing process and Ethan wasn’t missed because he never existed in the first place. The pilot episode also notably keeps the mythology light, putting the casework front and center. That’s something that would change as the series evolved — for better and for worse.
What’s the Same
Flashlight-lit walks through the dark Vancouver woods? Check. Creepy autopsy scenes with Scully poking at bodies? Check. Mulder being adorably goofy? Big ol’ check. Even though The X-Files would get bigger in scope — and more sophisticated in style — as the series continued for nine seasons, two movies and a revival series, almost everything that made the show a pop culture phenomenon is present in the first episode. Three decades later, it’s clear that the truth was out there from the jump.
The X-Files is currently streaming on Hulu.