Season 1 Episode 1 – Pilot (70.98/100)
The Pilot is a monumental episode of television without which my love for dramatic television may never have existed. And taken as a whole, it’s pretty good, hence my score of 70.98. Yes you read correctly, that score is to two decimal points. But I can’t just throw in a number like that and not explain it. And what better way to do so than with a series of graphs? (Well there are thousands of better ways but I love graphs. So here are some graphs.)
The Pilot is filled with fairly strong scenes (18/23 scenes score between 65 and 80). This gives the episode a good baseline score as we watch Mulder and Scully feel out their characters and investigate the central mystery in “Oregone” (as David Duchovny likes to call it). It works but could have been better; Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s chemistry is immediately intoxicating but their acting is not quite there yet while the main plot is filled with so much intrigue that it ends up being muddled. But still, a general level of competence is present which is why The Pilot hums along nicely.
It only occasionally gets upset by three scenes of much more questionable quality. There’s the obvious misstep where someone said “hey we gotta have some overt sexual tension so lets have our reserved female lead strip down and swoon into her male partner’s arms”. Then you’ve got an inept climax where a bunch of stuff sort of happens, giving the impression of “spectacle” but doesn’t make any logical sense. And there’s that hilarious scene on the airplane involving turbulence. I’m guessing it’s supposed to set an uneasy mood for the rest of the episode but their expressions are anything but uneasy…
Thankfully the Pilot has some powerful moments locked and loaded. The motel scene immediately following the misguided striptease scene is incredible. We get nearly all of the emotional backstory we need to become invested in Mulder while also getting a feel for Scully’s integrity and character. And who doesn’t enjoy that ending with the Cigarette Smoking Man (CSM) being all Cigarette-Smoky and shit? It’s a great image and it does a phenomenal job of further establishing the world of The X-Files.
The second graph above shows the rating I gave each scene as well as the length of those scenes. The graph is nice and steady but is that enough to make it a classic? Nope, the graph shows how (ignoring the three dips and two spikes in quality), the quality of the episode doesn’t really go anywhere which speaks to a lack of momentum. The X-Files at its best had a sense of kinetic energy propelling things to the climax which this episode lacks.
Part of that is that there are so many damn revelations in the main plot which, while compelling in bursts, don’t come together neatly. Once they arrive in Oregon we have shady townsfolk, desecrated graves, lost time, the destruction of Mulder and Scully’s motel and evidence, one terribly acted scene in a diner involving a nosebleed, and Mulder solving the case without providing Scully any sort of explanation other than saying “I’m not making this up”. And that’s not a complete list! Part of the reason Mulder’s explanation doesn’t make sense to me is that there are so many pieces involved that the episode loses traction for me.
And that lack of traction is why my average score of the episode struggles to rise (see third graph above). Once that airplane threatens to plummet and causes the average score to plummet to 69.63 (after a fairly strong opening 8 minutes), the episode never really gets fully back on its feet. There’s 17 minutes before the next utter crap scene and while there is some good stuff in there (particularly Mulder and Scully’s first real argument outside of Peggy O’Dell’s clinic), it all feels a bit slow. Thus, the score only reaches 70.93. There needed to be some great moments sprinkled in to spike the score up, not just solid moments. Then, as Scully’s robe falls in a heap on Mulder’s floor, so does the score (down to 69.42) in a matter of 2 minutes.
We do then get a great scene as Mulder opens up to Scully about his family trauma. This is damn good stuff with great acting and character development for both leads, lifting the score up to 72.60. We’re all set for an awesome finish, right?! Nah. The main plot kicks back in and this is when the revelations come fast and often without entirely connecting. By the time the aliens flake out and cancel their plans with Billy Miles at the last second, the score is back down to 69.69.
But thankfully, the final stretch of the episode is engaging. We see Scully show her integrity when being questioned by Blevins and end with a long moody shot of CSM (effectively done here, becomes much less effective as the years go on). Oh, and there’s also a really nice moment where Mulder stares intently at Scully, solidifying their connection. I love this even though it’s utter cheese because he’s doing this while staring at a one-way mirror. And so we end the episode at our final score of 70.98.
The next four sections will look more into the specific components of the episode. Here’s some definitions/explanations for these sections:
- First chart in each section is a scatter plot which shows Prevalence (how often a component was in the episode) versus Quality (how good the component was)
- Second chart in each section is a bar plot showing Impact Score, which is a combination of Prevalence and Quality and shows how much of the episode score was “impacted” by the item of interest.
- Third chart in each section is a line plot showing score over time by component which tells you when the component is present during the episode.
- Guest Character Breakdown-
- Experts (purple) include Dr. Nemmen and Dr. Werber
- Govt/Military (gray) include Blevins and his cronies
- Law Enforcement (tan) is the one-man-show that is Detective Miles
- Witnesses/Victims (green) includes all of the teenagers and the incompetent comic relief nurse
Scully (89.5% Prevalence, 71.21 Quality, 63.74 Impact) is the main character in The Pilot, impacting the majority of the episode’s 70.98 score. Outside of the teaser and the final scene, she’s a constant presence. We essentially witness the world through her eyes with several moments helping to flesh our her character. One unheralded scene is the moment after they see Peggy O’dell’s bumps. Its the first time Scully shows her assertiveness as she stands up to Mulder (who up to that point had been a high-talking arrogant prick). In that same scene, she also insists to Mulder that she is not just some lackey who’s going to do the government’s dirty work; if there’s a crime to be solved, she’s going to do her best to solve it. This is reinforced in the motel scene where Mulder sees something in her enough to trust her with his life story. (Hopefully, its not because she stripped down at the first sign of danger in front of him.)
Gillian Anderson is fairly good here in her first stab at the character and, while not the finely tuned machine that she would become by the very next episode, her acting doesn’t take me out of the episode. Her scenes end up with a quality score of 71.21 (and would have likely been five points higher if she hadn’t tied herself down to Mulder).
All of Mulder’s scenes include Scully; he has no scenes to himself and he finishes lower than Scully in every metric (79.36% Prevalence, 70.03 Quality, 55.57 Impact). You can see our duo’s lines are essentially parallel from minute 5 on in the line chart above, indicating they spend so much time together. Unfortunately for Scully, that means that if a scene takes a hit due to Mulder, then Scully’s score takes a hit. Mulder is by no means bad but most of the early scenes in The Pilot would have scored 5-10 points higher if Duchovny had a better handle on his character. His performance is so freakin’ broad. Why does Mulder high-talk his way through so many scenes early on? His very first line is a clever introduction but it is delivered in a ridiculous sing-song manner that feels off. And it’s not just a case of Mulder trying to throw off Scully who he believes was sent to spy on him. No if that was the case, he wouldn’t pull out the singsong voice with the medical examiner. (Thankfully, he ditches that voice after Scully tells him to cut the crap.)
Mulder is also written a bit too broadly so I don’t know if I can completely blame Duchovny. The spray-painting in the middle of the road I can tolerate because its kind of underplayed. The gleeful look on his face during the airplane scene is silly (who reacts like this when they might be dying?!) but that’s a short scene. But the scene with the missing time is where Mulder feels like too much. It’s an iconic moment and very well directed but did we really need Mulder howling enthusiastically at the heavens over lost time? He’s too eccentric here.
With all that said, Mulder does shine at various points, particularly when it comes to having fucking insane chemistry with Scully. Their banter in the office, outside of the clinic, in the pouring rain at the cemetery–it all works, acting quirks aside. In particular there’s the seminal motel scene. Everything I would come to love in Mulder is on display there, from David Duchovny’s wounded animal look when dealing with emotional trauma, to his manic drive in declaring “nothing else matters to me”. So Mulder finishes with a Quality Score of 70.03. But it could have been higher.
The Pilot is not really about giving other characters the spotlight. CSM (10.9% Prevalence, 81.92 Quality, 8.93 Impact) has a memorable scene (see that last bit in the line graph above) but aside from that, he’s not a fully formed character yet. He’s only sparingly in the episode and while his scenes are very good, his Impact Score is pretty low because of that prevalence. His purpose here is to just represent the conspiracy very broadly.
And the guest characters (45.60%, 69.19 Quality, 31.55 Impact) are fine with what they’re given as long as they aren’t Theresa Nemmen unnecessarily drawing out syllables. However, they are here to just move along the plot and don’t add much by themselves; hardly any character development. Nope, its all about the Mulder and Scully alone time.
Mulder and Scully
All that alone time means that they’re together for 75.92% of the episode, attaining a Quality Score of 71.39. Their chemistry and banter is what makes this episode. The graphs above emphasize how Mulder and Scully are handled in The Pilot. Scully has a handful of scenes without Mulder dealing with Blevins and CSM as well as her ill-fated attempt at a bath (she is by her lonesome for 13.69% of the episode). Those scenes are on par in terms of quality with the overall episode. Mulder, on the other hand, has a low quality score of 40.0 when he’s off traipsing about by himself. But his only solo-action is in the climax once Scully gets knocked out so that she doesn’t actually witness anything. It’s a poor scene regardless and has nothing to do with what Mulder does or doesn’t do. Maybe if Mulder had said out loud “this makes no sense” but hey, this part only accounts for 3.44% of the episode so most likely there was no time. (Also Mulder disbelieving anything he is seeing would be completely out of character for him so maybe it’s better like this.) Finally, 7.05% of the episode lacks either Mulder or Scully. The Quality Score of 83.17 is mostly due to CSM’s awesome finishing flourish.
Mulder isn’t responsible for the poor quality of the climax. No that’s more due to the fact that The Pilot is a bit off when it comes to it’s moments of tension and action (Quality Scores of 62.50 and 40.00 respectively). These scenes are generally the least interesting in the episode as they feel by-the-book. The airplane scene, the mosquito bite scene, the scene in the forest where Scully somehow can’t recognize what a truck sounds like, and the climax are all underwhelming. Each one feels formulaic and like they are included to merely check off some random boxes.
Thankfully, those are just small pieces of the drama and don’t sway things too much due to their low prevalence (20.07% and 5.16% respectively). The bulk of the drama is made up of compelling conversations between our two leads and the plot revelations, both of which are of higher quality (even if there are one too many reveals). Drama as a whole is 74.64% prevalent and impacts 52.72 of the total score (higher than any other category).
What The Pilot really gets right (even if it’s a bit clunky) is telling it’s story and developing the characters. While I don’t think the main plot in this episode is particularly engaging, much of the exposition involves explaining the overarching mythology. So even though I may not much like Mulder poorly explaining why empty graves indicates that Billy Miles is the culprit, I do quite enjoy Scully (and the viewer) learning about her assignment to debunk Mulder’s work. Exposition (67.07% Prevalence, 75.15 Quality, 50.40) is quite impactful in The Pilot.
And no surprise, an episode that focuses so much on Mulder and Scully doesn’t really bother developing it’s other characters. Overall character development (55.96% Prevalence, 74.60 Quality, 41.75 Impact) is geared towards Mulder and Scully who contribute 36.13 of the Impact Score.
The Mythology (31.28% Prevalence, 82.44 Quality, 25.79 Impact) pops in and out of the episode (minutes 3-7, 28-31 and 42-48) and is a big aspect of The Pilot finishing with a score of 70.98. These segments are filled with world-building, character development, and intrigue. Though its in its infancy here (no alien bounty hunters, no resistance, no Consortium, no stupid William), this is a very strong framework.
You can see from the line graph that the Mythology portions of the episode are separated from the scenes where Mulder and Scully use their investigative prowess in Oregon (the gray line rises when the green line flattens and vice versa). The investigative scenes (54.31%, 68.38 Quality, 37.14 Impact) are the most prevalent component in the episode. The mystery is fairly interesting but I find that these scenes just drag at times.
Thankfully, the investigation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Mulder and Scully are constantly bantering in this episode from minute 5 to minute 38 (see steadily increasing turquoise line). The scene outside of the clinic where Peggy O’Dell has her freak-out is fairly routine structurally but, holy hell, their banter is incredible (and its the first time that both Duchovny and Anderson both are simultaneously at their game). Likewise, the scene in the rainy cemetery drives me nuts because of the plot holes and obvious dialogue gaffes but their banter is so damn compelling that I enjoy it in spite of myself. I am not a shipper but I love their friendship; the chemistry between Mulder and Scully is what draws me back to the show even in 2019 and its is off to a good start here (32.77%, 71.20 Quality, 23.33 Impact). The only reason it’s not higher is because of some of the acting in the scenes.
The paranormal aspect of this episode (47.45%, 69.50 Quality, 32.98 Impact) involves aliens, experimentation, and government cover-ups. It’s interesting but having watched the entire show, its hard not to compare this with what comes later in the Mythology. For me, it does not stand up particularly well due to the relatively low stakes and slow pace. And it just feels like there’s a bit too much stuffed into the episode for it to come together. It does a great job for a pilot episode setting up a framework but not quite great when compared to The X-Files at its best.
Shipper-wise, there isn’t much and I’ve spoken ad nauseum about my distaste for the “Scully panics because of mosquito bites and throws herself into Mulder’s arms” scene. However, the ensuing bedside scene is phenomenal, which is why the shipper scenes scored so highly (8.75%, 88.12 Quality, 7.71 Impact). I actually consider the hotel conversation to be a scene more about their friendship and less about them being into each other romantically. But I know that many consider it to be the first real shipper moment so I’ve labeled it as such. (If you don’t like my decision or methodology…well then how the hell did you get through 3000 words of this shit?)
And there you have it…my graphical review of The Pilot. My Deep Throat review should be up shortly and if you want more of my X-Files posts, check out my episode rankings!