If there is one show that has stuck with me since my childhood, it is The X-Files. There were other great shows from that era but none that I revisit to the extent that I do this one. I’ve seen The Pilot twenty times at least and the thought of re-watching the entire show always fills me with sheer glee. But in all that time, I’ve never looked at the show analytically, despite being a statistician. Well consider that box checked! Here’s my statistical review of The Pilot episode of The X-Files.
A note before I start…these “statistics” are purely subjective and based on my personal ratings of individual scenes. So argue my methodology all you want (since its pretty damn ad-hoc and not rigorous or unbiased at all and is sure to confuse the living hell out of any and everyone except myself) but just remember this is all just my opinion.
I may have just raved about the show in my intro but I don’t blindly adore every episode. That’s why I give The Pilot a 71.80/100 (don’t ask how I got the decimals). Its enjoyable, even great at times, but its rough enough around the edges that it doesn’t even approach some of my favorite episodes.
So why that rating? Well lets talk about the different types of scenes that make up The Pilot. The way I’ve scored this is that I rate each scene individually while labeling the type of scene we are dealing with. A scene can involve one or more of the following items: character-development, dramatic moments, exposition, tension/scary shit, or comedy. Figure 1 below shows how this breaks down. The number in black is the quality of that type of scene while the percentage is how much of the episode is devoted to that type of scene. (The dotted line tells you the episode’s overall score and helps visualize which types of scenes raise and lower the score).
So what the hell does this tell you other than the fact that I have an eye for amazing color schemes? Well to start, that this is an exposition heavy episode (74% prevalence) but that’s to be expected with this being a pilot episode. We needed some level of hand-holding with both the overarching storyline (Scully being sent to debunk Mulder’s work) and the episode’s plot. Thankfully both aspects are interesting and don’t drag at all (Quality Score of 74.39). The mystery in the episode is compelling throughout despite being resolved with some questionable leaps from Mulder (what a shock!) and an abrupt ending where aliens decide to stop their experiments arbitrarily in the middle of an abduction. Damn flaky aliens…
But the main thing I get from the chart is that the character-building moments are really good (Quality Score of 79.68). Mulder and Scully’s first meeting, Mulder in ecstasy about losing time in the rain (probably the only person in the world who enjoys setting his clock forward to lose an hour on Daylight Savings Sunday), and him opening up to Scully about his sister are all great. We are provided a solid foundation for who these characters are and its helped by healthy doses of charisma from both leads. Hell, even the opening scene of Scully info-dumping about Mulder is solid despite it being highly unlikely that Scully would have that level of encyclopedic knowledge about Mulder.
Even though the character prevalence is only 36%, I think The Pilot does a good job of balancing in the character moments as needed throughout the episode (Figure 2 below shows the Character Prevalence is fairly steady at ~50% until we reach the climax at around minute 37). The only character scene that bothers me is their rain-soaked bonding session at the cemetery and even there, I think the character work is great; its the dramatic stuff that irks me.
The drama in that cemetery scene is actually solid but breaks down once you insert some logic into the proceedings. Mulder solves the case but his explanation seems to skip over like nine or ten steps; it feels like a big portion of his spiel was cut out. Meanwhile, Gillian Anderson badly flubs a line and they just roll with it?! She ends up saying “and the forest summoned Theresa Nemman’s body into the woods tonight” which makes no sense since they had just talked to a very alive Theresa Nemman. Thankfully, the majority of the remaining drama is strong enough (Quality Score of 68.56) to not pull the score down too much. 71% of the episode involves some sort of drama, almost all of which is in the final 35 minutes (see Figure 2) and when its good, its really good. I’m talking Mulder and Scully’s heart to heart (which has some of Duchovny’s trademark hangdog expressions), their first feisty argument (after she storms out when she sees Peggy O’Dell’s bumps) and the entire shadowy ending with the Cigarette Smoking Man being all Cigarette Smoky and shit….all of that is vintage X-Files.
The weakest parts of this episode are the tense scenes (Quality Score of 49.68…yikes). Thankfully, this only accounts for 21% of the episode but boy, a lot of that time is spent being inept. The teaser, the “Mulder rants like a maniac because they lost nine minutes” and the “Scully strips down because
the episode needed a clumsily inserted moment of sex appeal of some scary marks on her back” scenes are solid but aside from those, the tense scenes are not all that. We have Scully mistaking what sounds like a generator, but is actually a pickup truck for Mulder. We have a mind-boggling climax in which both Billy’s father and the aliens have some random changes in heart, most likely because they realized the episode was coming to an end and that they had no concrete end game (hmmm…sounds like Chris Carter with a little show called The X-Files). But worst of all is that brief and useless scene on the plane where there is a bout of turbulence. It feels completely out of place and all it manages to convey is that our dynamic duo seems to really enjoy turbulence…
In fairness, these scenes are symptoms of a show finding its footing but regardless, this is the main reason why I only give this episode a score of 71.80.
So all of my analysis above is based on each scene being labeled as a combination of categories (so a tense scene can also be a dramatic scene, a character scene can be expositional and dramatic, etc). However, I did the extra work of
making shit as confusing as possible assigning each scene an overall “Scene Type” (think of this as the scene’s purpose). For this, a scene can only have one category assigned to it. Figure 3 shows the duration and quality of all of the scenes broken down by “Scene Type” which gives a visual feel for how the episode is balanced. It basically falls in line with what I discussed above; great but underutilized character focused scenes (~7 minutes), a bit too many substandard tense scenes (7/11 of the minutes devoted to tense scenes are average or subpar), and a good balance of solid dramatic (cemetery hijinx not withstanding) and exposition scenes.
But you know why I really decided to show Figure 3? It’s to segue magnificently into the character focus portion of this review! Figure 4 is similar to Figure 3 only now, we are looking at who (or what) the different scenes are focusing on and the quality of those scenes.
Now Mulder and/or Scully being the primary focus of roughly 80% of this episode is not surprising. What is mildly surprising is that I only found Mulder to be the main focus for about three minutes (that bedside conversation). Scully is the protagonist in The Pilot; everything including Mulder being Mulder is seen through her eyes. We are right with Scully as our perception of Mulder adjusts from viewing him as an eccentric weirdo who speaks in a high-pitched voice to an eccentric wounded soul who stares intently at the wrong side of one-way glass.
The parts of the episode that don’t focus on Mulder and Scully are much more middling (other than that awesome finale with the Smoking Man) but I’ll discuss that in a bit. First, lets dive into more specifics about how the Mulder/Scully dynamic affects The Pilot.
It may be surprising that the highest rated category apparently is when neither Mulder nor Scully is present or mentioned. But once you realize the only scenes that they aren’t involved in at all are the teaser and the phenomenal ending with CSM in the “Raiders of the Lost Ark Warehouse”, things start to make more sense. Both are good scenes and explain why the score is fairly high.
Interestingly, there are no scenes at which Mulder gets to call his own. I talked about this above but The Pilot is less “Mulder and Scully Investigate Weird Stuff” and more “Scully Goes to Work and Meets An Insane Guy Named Fox”. She fares well in this episode (her Score of 71.15 is nearly identical to the episode score of 71.80). Scully is likable, endearing, and Gillian Anderson is (mostly) on the ball. She’s a little bit out of character when comparing her to her later iterations (Scully is not a damsel in distress who would strip down and run to her male co-worker in a panic) but that’s more the writing and network meddling (probably) than anything Scully-related. One thing that’s very apparent about her character immediately which remains with her till the show’s end is her quiet dignity. She accepts her shady assignment from Blevins and CSM but she is not their pawn. She is devoted 100% towards solving the case and doesn’t let any external pressures bias her against Mulder.
Mulder is not at his best in The Pilot (68.25), mostly because David Duchovny plays Mulder like an insecure and smarmy elitist through the first half of the episode. It’s bizarre. I’ve mentioned his high-talking earlier in this review – there’s a reason I don’t consider Mulder and Scully’s first scene together to be that great and its because I don’t buy a single line that Duchovny delivers in that scene. Thankfully, as the episode moves on, he loses some of that annoying childishness. Once Scully tells him to “cut the crap”, Duchovny seems to get a better handle on Mulder and plays him much more in line with what he would become. He’s still a bit wooden and off but he seems more settled in at that point. Plus Mulder becomes more and more endearing as the episode moves on.
One character who isn’t wooden at all is the Cigarette Smoking Man (CSM). Granted he doesn’t have a single line but he’s an effective presence book-ending the episode. He doesn’t utter a single word but hovers ominously over the proceedings. I imagine anyone watching this for the first time knows he’s up to no good, whether it be due to the fact that he absconds with critical evidence at the end or that he doesn’t crack a smile when Nervous Adorable Scully attempts to make a joke. The final scene in the Pentagon is very effective. He’s only in the episode for approximately 13% of the duration but his scenes are generally high quality. (Spoiler alert to those who decided to read a freakin’ statistical analysis of this show without knowing anything about it: CSM is a major antagonist).
And now for the spare parts of the episode. Figure 7 shows some of the miscellaneous components that I consider general building blocks for standard X-Files episodes (with Mulder and Scully being displayed for reference). I’ve never considered The Pilot to be a mythology episode but according to my irrefutable rubric, the mythology is touched on for ~24% of the episode and is where the episode is at its most effective. This is comprised of the first scene where Scully is assigned to Mulder, the scene where Mulder opens up to her in the motel (and really takes the first step of pulling Scully over to his side), and the final scenes involving CSM and Blevins. However, the details haven’t been ironed out at this early stage. There are aliens, there is a conspiracy, Mulder is intimately invested; those are the broad strokes. This episode feels more like Chris Carter setting up a huge canvas to play with over the next 11 seasons (most of which is great, some of which is awful). Its notable that these scenes are the only scenes in the episode where I consistently feel that the writing and acting is top notch which is why it gets a score of 84.47 (significantly higher than the rest of the episode).
The paranormal block looks at any scene where something paranormal happens or is observed which ends up accounting for ~45% of the episode. Other than that weak-sauce ending, this is all fun and interesting stuff. There are much weaker alien-related episodes (ahem, Space) and despite the slap-dash solution to the mystery by Mulder, all of the investigative leads and evidence they come across are interesting enough to grab a score of 72.73. Even in 2018, the effects aren’t too cheesy (other than that freeze-frame of Mulder and Scully on the road) and the little monkey alien corpse is a good touch.
As for the guest characters, this is a motley crew of mostly dull individuals. None of them make much of an impression other than Sarah Koskoff’s as Theresa Nemman being wholly unconvincing in her dialogue. But it doesn’t matter because this episode isn’t about them! The guest characters may be in 43% of the episode but other than the teaser, they are just pawns in Mulder and Scully’s lives (hence why their score is as high as 66.52 despite being pretty boring).
And finally, since I’m determined to confuse people even more with my confusing statistics, here is one final graph. This one shows the ratings over time for major characters compared to the overall episode. The final ratings on this graph are basically the quality score (see any of the many bar graphs above) weighted by the prevalence percentage of the respective characters (you remember those bar graphs I just asked you to look at? Look at them again! ) with some minor adjustments (I wouldn’t be a statistician if my methodology wasn’t completely obtuse).
This graph gives you a feel for how the overall episode flows as well as how the characters factor into things over time. The overall score rises very steadily with few fluctuations. There’s a dip in slope at minute 8 (that’s that damn airplane turbulence scene) and a couple of spikes (minute 27 for the motel conversation and minute 46 for CSM’s solemn march through the Pentagon) but other than that, this is a very steady episode. That explains why I find this episode perfectly enjoyable but neither amazing nor subpar.
As you can see, Mulder and Scully basically follow the overall rating curve from around minute four until the very end. This episode was all about them and it shows. The side characters dip in and out but there are large swaths in the middle where they don’t show up (see the long flat sections in yellow). CSM bookends the episode with some strong scenes….not long but enough to make an impact.
And there you have it…my statistical review of The Pilot for The X-Files. Thanks for sticking it out through this entire review. If you want something shorter, check out some of my rankings of X-Files episodes. If you enjoyed this, stay tuned….my review of Deep Throat should be up soon!