Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The X-Files: 'Pilot' (1x01)

Having finished Babylon 5, I figured it was time to return to The X-Files and give the series a revisit. I've seen bits and pieces over the years, but haven't watched an entire episode since the show ended. The awfulness of the last two seasons has obscured a lot of the series' merits. The show has a lot of issues, but at its best, it was as good as anything ever on TV. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, largely because of The Invisibles reread. I think the series is as representative of the 90s as any other, and even if Duchovny had stayed with the series, I don't think it would have worked in a post 9/11 era. That's because the conspiracies of the 00s aren't anywhere near as fun as the 90s, and even when they're brought to light, no one particularly cares.

So, it's a nice nostalgia trip to hop back fourteen years to the beginning of the series. The first season was never my favorite, I preferred the massive, baroque conspiracy two parters that started in the second year and continued through the sixth. Those episodes were so great, it was always frustrating to go back to the standalone episodes after. I think the series would have been better served as a three year arc, with only the best standalones still in there. Depending on how things go, I might skip through some of the weaker standalones on this rewatch. It's a long series, and I don't know if I want to give 45 minutes of my life to watch 'Space' again.

The first thing we see in the series is the logo, no opening credits yet, then a title that claims the episode, or perhaps the entire series, is based on actual documented events. I think that's playing pretty loose with the facts, but I'm assuming the goal was to show that this was a different kind of sci-fi series, one that played by the rules of a cop show. That's how most of the episodes were structured, a crime happens, they go in and solve it. I'm not interested in procedurals, shows that do the same thing every episode. That's largely because I'm so aware of the manipulative techniques writers use to build character, there's very few people I can care about after only 45 minutes. If the mytharc wasn't part of the show, I wouldn't have been interested in watching it.

I actually didn't start watching the show until 1998. After the movie came out, there was so much press, I was like, I should just check this out. I saw an episode called "Mind's Eye," starring Lily Taylor, and enjoyed it. Then I watched "The End," which hooked me. I didn't know what was going on, but I saw pieces of this massive conspiracy and wanted to know more. The Smoking Man was always my favorite character and he had me hooked right from the start.

This was the first drama I loved. I hunted down every episode and caught up by the start of year seven. I stuck with it through the bad days of the last two seasons, always hoping for a return to quality. It wasn't until I watched Twin Peaks and Buffy that I realized a show could have a really high level of continuity, and a uniform story vision. The X-Files, for all its good traits, always felt like they were making it up as they went along. I would argue that the show actually concluded in a satisfactory fashion, season six was the climax and season seven was a fine denouement. 'Requiem' would have been a perfect season finale, perhaps with a movie as wrap up. But, it just kept going, and that really tarnished the legacy.

But, we're not there yet. The story of the first episode is fairly standard stuff for the show, a mysterious murder, a wide variety of suspects and a conspiracy within a little town. It's not bad, but it's not great. Particularly after seeing the whole series, this isn't anything special.

What is special here is the chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson. If Chris Carter had cast his show like Babylon 5 (i.e. poorly), it would have never been a success. B5 was a success because of JMS, The X-Files succeeded because the two leads are just so much fun to watch. In this episode they're not as strong as they'll become later, but that star quality is there. Duchovny has a more unhinged quality than he does later, seemingly provoking Scully with his sometimes ridiculous lines. Clearly the goal is to portray him as a guy who's a bit off in the head, but that fades a bit as the series progresses. It's odd to hear about Mulder's backstory, which also fades. This episode feels the need to justify why he's working on these odd cases, but coming to the series later on, I just accepted it, and I feel like the audience would here too. After all, we've chosen to watch a show about weird stuff instead of a standard cop show.

Most pilots have some kind of a standalone arc, leading the foundation of the series' premise, but also working as standalone pieces. Studio 60 told a complete three act story in its pilot, a story that was better than what the series would become. Here, we pretty much get that, by the end, Scully is believing that Mulder's ideas may have some validity, and she's ready to support him in his work. We also get some nice development of the bond between them in the two hotel room scenes. The scene where she shows him the bites on her back sets the ground rules for their relationship, they're close enough that she can go there in just her underwear, but there's never a thought that they might cross to a romantic relationship, for now at least.

One of the things I like about the pilot is the way they throw in a bunch of random weird stuff. There's the time loss, the troubled digital readouts, the sort of things we didn't need to see later in the show, but it's nice to get them. The time loss in particular is a cool scene, with Mulder's ecstatic reaction at experiencing something weird. I think they got numb to that as the series went on, but here it's still a thrill to actually encounter something weird.

The series' skeptic/believer dynamic became the foundation for countless future TV partnerships, and it's a strong one. The basic conflict is the same we see in From Hell, between reason and wonder. Scully is looking to fit everything she sees into a pre-existent paradigm, Mulder is totally open to anything, wanting to create a new paradigm. I found myself really identifying with Mulder's excitement at everything that was happening to him. The character is really fun here. I also like how this episode keeps things somewhat ambiguous, there's no clear evidence of alien involvement, so Scully's continued skepticism makes sense. After a while, they stopped bothering to give any credible alternate explanation for what was happening.

The other great thing about this episode is the omnipresent government conspiracy. I always loved the idea that Mulder was battling this vast impersonal force, and right from the start, The Smoking Man is covering everything. His episode closing journey through the vast evidence room is fantastic, and prefigures so much of what's to come in the series. It gets a bit frustrating after a while to constantly have the critical evidence, the 'key to everything,' destroyed, but it's still fresh here.

The show does feel a bit dated. Mulder uses a slide projector, not a powerpoint, and all the computers seem to be running DOS. Plus, Scully is a victim of some early 90s fashion, though not as bad as what she'll be subjected to later in the season. This episode was shot a year after Twin Peaks went off the air, and you can definitely see the influence. Mulder is a lot like Cooper, the eccentric, but ultra-skilled FBI investigator who rolls into a small town and turns it upside down. The series' tackling of dark topics also owes a debt to Twin Peaks.

It was really fun to revisit this first episode, and it made me eager to rewatch some of the show's best times. It's been so long since I've seen it, stuff that once felt tired again feels fresh. I won't be writing up every episode, but I'm sure I'll cover some more of my thoughts on the series as I'm going along.


jolinn said...

I came across your blog during my research on Leon-the Professional, and you totally nailed the structural points. Good blog. Wonderful reviews. Thank you. :)

Patrick said...

Thanks a bunch man, and keep reading it. There's more good stuff in the works.

Anonymous said...

More X-Files reviews! :D

Patrick said...

It's in the works, I'm just backlogged on shows, they keep making good new stuff that I want to see before The X-Files. As of now, I've got one more season of Deadwood to watch, then The Wire then the X-Files full rewatch. But, it's possible I'll sprinkle a few episodes in along the way, so stay tuned.