So, here we are, at the start of everything. The X-Files Pilot is in a lot of ways more satisfying than most episodes of the first season, really a television feat when you stop to consider it as most pilots prove to be little more than a shell of the series to come. In contrast, this episode plants seeds, some of which don’t fully blossom until almost the end of the series. It’s more like the start of a species’ evolution than a sketchy rough draft. Aspects of Mulder and Scully’s psychology that aren’t explored for years to come can first be recognized here if you know how to look; it’s like a pop culture Rorschach test.
More to the point, even though the style of the series would change significantly, becoming dramatic and polished where it was once charmingly underwhelming, the characters as laid out only seem to become more themselves as time goes on. Let’s start where it all starts, with Scully.
Scully’s character is set up to be the rational lens by which we, the audience view both Mulder and his precious basement files. Like her, we travel from the normal realm of the real world to a world where the impossible seems reasonable by the end of the episode. Accordingly, Scully grows almost more paranoid than Mulder by the end of the episode.
It isn’t her experience as an FBI agent but her credentials as a scientist that get her this gig. She would ordinarily be way out of her league with the likes of Mulder. From the set up in Blevin’s office, he’s something of a genius and was not long ago considered the golden boy of the Bureau. Whereas Scully would seem to have little if any field experience. She’s been teaching at Quantico most likely since she came out of the academy since no mention is made of her working in any other unit. Yet even Scully, not too far out of the academy herself, knows enough about Mulder to name his course of study as an undergrad.
I may be reading too far between the lines but I can only surmise from this that Scully, a girl in a boy’s world at the FBI, probably makes an extra effort not to be intimidated when she walks down into the basement. More accurately, she exudes the type of personality that would refuse to be intimidated. Still, her ever so slightly too emphatic scientific assertions would lead one to believe that she’s more impressed by Mulder than she lets on. It also highlights a part of Scully’s character that was mostly lost after the first season; she’s a bit of a cocky upstart.
Despite the pure motives she ascribes to herself, joining the FBI probably was an act of rebellion on Scully’s part. It becomes clearer as the series progresses, but Scully, despite her protestations, obviously needs and wants something more than a normal life. Hence she rejects her date in “The Jersey Devil” (1×4), etc. She’d be bored and unfulfilled without Mulder and the X-Files.
Now we move forward to the justly famous basement scene. Here’s why this works: Scully is obviously amused rather than offended by Mulder. This is a delicate balance since she can’t be either too irritated by him or too taken with him in order for the audience to take this seriously as a partnership. One would think that Scully would be slightly offended by his sarcastic and dismissive manner but evidently she’s not. And despite the somewhat cutting, cocky remarks she makes herself (Isn’t she only two years out of the academy acting like a know-it-all?? And while we’re about it, why is she teaching with so little practical experience as either a doctor or an agent?) Mulder doesn’t take offense either. After all, at least she’s being honest rather than making fun of his ideas.
On the subject of their partnership, I find it plausible (thank you, Scully) that either character on their own would be too annoying to be watchable. Maybe this is where part of their chemistry comes from. Mulder is abrasive and illogical, albeit he has his own charm. Scully is too straight-laced to be any fun. Well, almost. Her barely hidden enjoyment of Mulder’s antics lets us know that there’s more to her personality than is evident on the surface. Despite expectations, she doesn’t take life as seriously as she appears to, though she wisely hides her amusement from Mulder for the time being. To put a period at the end of this lovely phrase of a scene there’s that great smile that Scully gives to camera at the end. Is it only me, or is it possible read the entire future of the series in that grin?
And now for a not so clever segue into Mulder’s character…He asks her if she believes in E.T. on the off-chance that maybe she’s open to the idea, but it’s clear from the way he nods his head that he expected her negative response. Poor Mulder has clearly resigned himself to being alone in his beliefs, at least among the educated elite at the FBI. Here’s what makes it interesting, though. Mulder seems to bear Scully no real hostility. He seems entertained by her investigative efforts, even. The Mulder we get to know later resents intrusion into his work. Yet it’s Mulder who makes most of the friendly overtures and who even asks Scully to go for a run. Mulder? Sociable? Is this the same Mulder that shot arrows at Krychek when he came around, this despite the fact that he professed to be an admirer of Mulder’s work? True, the circumstances were different with Krychek. And since the characters were still being developed, dear CC probably didn’t mean much by it. Mulder wasn’t established as incurably antisocial yet. Still, it’s definitely interesting looking backwards to see that his response to Scully was atypical.
We see little from Mulder’s point of view. As I mentioned before, this is really Scully’s story; so most of our observations of Mulder are from the outside. What we make of his character we have to glean from his body language and expression. What we can tell is that he’s conflicted; his reason is telling him not to trust Scully any more than he trusts his superiors at the FBI. Obviously, Mulder isn’t a character driven by reason and Scully’s response to this case leads him to the conclusion that she isn’t consciously a part of any conspiracy. Her reaction to the case as it unfolds, particularly her genuine fear both upon seeing the marks on Peggy and suspecting that she has them as well, that would seem to be what finally pulls down his guard against her. Adding to that, even if Scully is skeptical, she’s not cynical. She gives this case, and by extension, Mulder, a fair assessment. It’s evident that Mulder wants to be able to trust somebody, and while Scully is no believer, she’s honest and she’ll do.
Moving back to Scully, she is definitely more interested in this case, and in Mulder (no ship in sight, people), than she would like to let on. She blew Mulder off a little quickly for someone who smiled so warmly when she realized he was at her door. And despite her protest that she wouldn’t be losing sleep over this implant thing, that’s exactly what she proceeds to do.
And now for the mosquito bites: This kind of vulnerability is something we won’t see again from Scully for a while, that’s why it’s so important that the “Pilot” established that her character possesses it. This is a different Scully from the self-assured agent that shook hands with Mulder in the basement. Her voice is breaking; she covers her mouth. This is a scared Scully. It would be a wonder that she went to her near stranger of a partner except that there was no one else. Maybe more importantly, it’s appropriate that she goes to Mulder because this is his paranoia that she’s getting caught up in. No one else would give much credence to her anxiety in this situation. One has to wonder if without this scene in the motel Mulder and Scully would ever have become “Mulder and Scully.” This moment is the basis of their mutual trust. See why you shouldn’t swat at mosquitoes?
While I confess freely and happily that I’m a shipper, this scene would never have worked if the MSR ship was already at sea. It is precisely because Scully can trust Mulder not to ogle her that this relationship has the potential of being something really pure. There isn’t even a hint of Mulder taking advantage of the situation. Scully, the scientist, just exposed her rather unscientific fears to her eccentric partner and he didn’t throw it back in her face. Instead, he calms her down with genuine concern. And now we know that these two can trust each other without worrying about ulterior motives.
As a side note, here is where more recent shows, trying to follow in The X-Files’ footsteps have come up lacking. Mulder and Scully’s relationship was a slow build. It wouldn’t have been compelling if it started off with mere sexual tension. It started off with mutual respect, not attraction… not in the lustful sense. They were clearly attracted to each other as people. Then they progressed from respect, to affection, to trust and ultimately to co-dependence.
Moving forward, we see that the partners that gravedig together stay together. This scene, I think, is our first exposure to Mulder’s uncanny intuition. There is also something endearing about this moment. Maybe it’s the way that Scully laughs at the absurdity of the situation. Or is she laughing because part of her actually believes him? No doubt both. From this point on the two characters seem to be in sync. Scully sounds downright Mulderish during that great scene in the hospital hallway. She goes from calm and poised as she’s examining Billy Miles to being a crusader. We knew she had it in her. Maybe she’s more like Mulder than either of them realize.
The final scene of Scully answering Mulder’s call in bed would seem to be the start of Scully keeping Mulder at a distance, despite her own doubts. And Mulder, of course, assumes that Scully has nothing better to do that dwell on the case…. Which she doesn’t. In actual fact. (I’m nodding in your direction, Agent Reyes).
And the verdict is…
It’s interesting looking back because TV in those days didn’t have the shine and gloss it does now. It was a raw, slightly rough around the edges medium. And The X-Files, wisely, played that up.
Ultimately, I don’t think the success of the pilot is due to the plot, which is a little here and there at times. And even though aliens make for interesting subject matter a la Star Trek, what we do see of abduction in this episode is creepy but not compelling. I think that despite Chris Carter’s best intentions, this show was wrapped up in its characters from the beginning. If Mulder had only been the stereotypical irrational believer and Scully merely the stoic scientist, I truly believe it wouldn’t have worked. Instead, it’s not enough for Mulder to be the believer; he desperately wants to be believed. That’s why Scully is a blessing in disguise. She may not subscribe to his theories, but she believes in him as an investigator. As to the rest, he makes it his mission to convince her. Scully in her turn isn’t just a cold, calculating skeptic. She relates to and feeds off of Mulder’s passion. Not to mention she quietly gets his sense of humor!
Mulder and Scully as partners are charming together where either of their characters alone would be frustrating. Their subtle interplay is rewarding and looking back, the whole series really does take its cues from this episode. Even the way Scully distances herself from Mulder at the end of the episode, probably due to fear of what she might find, is a recurring theme.
This is what the audience is really responding to: two people connecting. Already we see that they don’t even need words to communicate, they use their eyes. First when Peggy throws herself on the floor in the hospital, and then there’s that spooky moment when Mulder makes eye contact with Scully through the two-way mirror. Scully is unsettled by the connection, but the audience is intrigued. Maybe it’s the way Mulder says, “I’m not crazy, Scully” with all kinds of vulnerability, or maybe it’s the way she smiles to herself when he knocks on her door, but you just know this relationship is going to work.
As for Scully’s boyfriend, Ethan, suffice it to say… well, let’s be real. Ethan was cut because Scully’s scenes with Mulder were just so much more electric. Even though Ethan’s scenes were cut and can’t be considered cannon, they give credence to my pet theory; Scully’s life was more interesting with Mulder around. But more on that as the season continues.
There are moments in this Pilot that later become part of what makes the show iconic, i.e. Searching with flashlights in the dark, Mulder cracking jokes at inappropriate moments, Scully performing an autopsy. It’s delightful to watch it all unfold.
Scully’s smile at the end the basement scene says it all: this is going to be fun.
Mulder: Sorry. Nobody down here but the FBI’s most unwanted.
Mulder: That’s why they put the “I” in the FBI.
Where did the candles in the motel come from??
This is only a question that can be asked in retrospect, towards the end of the series. But why DID CSM choose Scully to keep an eye on Mulder? Did they think she was capable of being manipulated like Diana Fowley? Did they think she was ambitious enough to throw Mulder under the proverbial bus? Or did they just want a straight man?
“We lost 9 minutes… I looked at my watch just before the flash and it was 9:03. It just turned 9:13!” – Um, isn’t that 10 minutes, Mulder?
Why isn’t Theresa killed by the aliens? Did Mulder and Scully somehow put a stop to it?
If there was one overdone moment, it was when Mulder and Scully reunited in the forest after Theresa was spared. In my best Chandler Bing impression: Can we breath any harder?
As ever, Scully is on the verge of seeing but never sees enough to make her believe. That won’t happen till “Patient X” (5×13).
The abductees were genetically altered by the tests done to them. Is this the first stirring of the alien-human hybrid storyline?
Does anyone else find Mulder’s passionate outbursts a little frightening? Does anyone else think Scully does too?
I think this may be the only episode where we ever see Scully with a purse…