Just a little warning before we start: I've seen this series multiple times, so I'll be referencing characters and plots and events that haven't yet occurred. There will be spoilers. If you're seeing this series for the first time and reading this reviews, consider this fair warning.
As we go forward with these reviews, I'm going to keep the following themes in mind:
1. The show is as much about Scully's journey toward becoming a believer as it is about the paranormal events she and Mulder encounter.
2. Scully is only a skeptic when viewing things from a clinical distance; when the shit hits the fan, she acts on Mulder's crazy beliefs because she knows it will keep her alive.
3. Mulder isn't right nearly as often as he thinks.
4. The evolution of the Mulder/Scully relationship - not just the romantic involvement that eventually occurs, but their dynamics of trust and distrust, the changing ways they view each other, and the friendship that grows over time.
5. Assault on a federal officer never seems to lead to jail time.
6. Mulder is kind of a dick.
7. Hotel managers must be crazy to rent to FBI agents.
More themes may pop up so we'll leave plenty of space for that list to expand. Now, are we ready? Let's go.
Ooooooh the nostalgia the opening image conjures up.
Also: the only episode to feature this tag:
A young girl in her nightgown runs through the Oregon woods, finally tripping and falling into a clearing. Suddenly a strong wind kicks up, swirling leaves in a vortex around her, and a figure steps out of a bright light. As he reaches her, the screen whites out.
Next thing we know it's daylight (presumably the next day), and the girl is lying facedown, dead in that same clearing as police officers photograph the body. They find two strange marks on her lower back. Detective Angry Local identifies the girl as Karen Swenson, who went to school with his own son. Another officer demands to know about "the class of '89" and says, "It's happening again, isn't it?" Detective Angry Local stomps angrily away.
Because this was the first episode, they hadn't yet created a title sequence, so what would usually be a pre-credits teaser instead segues directly into the main show.
Establishing shot of the J. Edgar Hoover building, where we'll be spending a fair bit of time over the coming seasons. A hot young Gillian Anderson (who doesn't yet have really red hair but has already established her questionable taste in womenswear that's so prevalent in the first few seasons), makes her way through the building to see Section Chief Blevins about her new assignment.
This is probably one of the better character establishing scenes in any TV drama. Questions from the chief and his associates, and Scully's answers to them, reveal her character history: medical doctor, recruited by the FBI straight out of school, much to the chagrin of her parents. They ask her about Fox Mulder, and she recites his reputation: Oxford-trained psychologist with an expertise in studying serial killers, helped arrest Monty Props in '88 (is that a real guy? because I don't know, I was 2), but who is dubbed "Spooky" by his peers so is clearly an outsider despite his brilliance.
And there you go. The most relevant backstory for the two major characters told in less than 2 minutes in a way that feels completely natural.
Also, this creepy fuck stands in the background the whole time, putting viewers slightly on edge. Who is he? Why isn't he talking? Why is he smoking in a government building? Even Scully's attempts at humor, her shy little smile at him, evokes no emotional response. CREEPY.
Blevins tells Scully about Mulder's "side project" on the X-files, and gives her a new assignment: to "assist" Mulder on these cases and make field reports about the validity of the work.
Scully heads down to that beautiful, messy, hoarder-esque basement office and we hear Mulder's sweet voice for the first time, and also his first self-flagellation: "Sorry, nobody down here but the FBI's Most Unwanted." Doesn't he just look so cute in his glasses?
He immediately accuses her of being sent to spy on him. Scully tries to maintain a cool but friendly professionalism, while Mulder makes snide remarks and reveals a stalker-like knowledge of her background, even having read her senior thesis on Einstein's twin paradox. Damn, Mulder, tone down the obsession a little, would you? It's, like, her first day.
Her reaction? The patented Scully glare:
Mulder dims the lights and whips out his beloved slide projector - when was the last time you saw one of those, dear reader?? - to show her crime scene photos of Karen Swenson. He reveals that an unknown chemical was found in the tissue surrounding those marks on her back, and that it was also found in 2 other cases in 2 other states... in addition to four other people from her graduating class who also died under mysterious circumstances.
Mulder asks her if she believes in the existence of extraterrestrials, and thus we establish the core beliefs of these two characters:
Mulder - that when the logical and plausible fail to provide answers, it's to the fantastic and strange we must turn for answers.
Scully - that there are no answers beyond the realm of science, you just have to know where to look.
Boom. The believer and the skeptic, the yin and the yang that form the hear of this series. This dynamic will be revisited again and again.
Also Mulder keeps pronouncing Oregon as Or-e-GAHN, which bothers me.
On the flight the next day, Mulder stretches out his gangly length and naps Swhile Scully sits primly reading through case material. The plane hits a patch of turblence - Scully freaks out, Mulder just casually laughs off. Characterization, people. They could have easily left this scene out, since there isn't anything case-related going on, but it reveals little things about our two heroes that help flesh them out as real people.
After landing, they hop in what is presumably an FBI standard rent-a-car, and discuss the case while Mulder munches on sunflower seeds - a seemingly random habit that won't be explained for a while yet but become as much a part of his character as the I Want to Believe poster. It's the little things, the small choices, made before the show was even officially picked up, that make it feel so real. Did you notice Scully was wearing a gold cross necklace in the interview scene? The wardrobe department didn't make that decision lightly - they knew Scully's faith was going to be an important element of her character and subtly worked it in during scene one of the freaking pilot. Subtlety. Continuity (well, most of the time). These are the things I love.
Mulder explains that the FBI had been investigating this case before, but that the agents were suddenly called back to Washington for no discernable reason. Bum bum BUMMMMMMM. Scully reveals that the first three Oregon victims showed no strange marks or unidentified chemicals found on Karen Swenson, but that those reports were signed by a different medical examiner. BUM BUM BUUUUUUUUUUMMMMM.
Suddenly the radio starts spazzing out, jumping between stations and emitting a high pitched noise. Mulder stops the car and engages in a small act of defacing public property, and Scully stares on in disbelief:
X marks the spot, get it?
And of course we, the audience, wonder if he always has a can of orange spraypaint in his suitcase or if it was a special occasion.
They roll into town and head straight to the cemetery, where Mulder had already arranged for one of the previous victims to be exhumed. This guy immediately shows up and starts manhandling his daughter (which raises alarm bells for everyone)
and demands to know just what the hell they think they're doing, digging up bodies and playing on his lawn and throwing frisbees up on his roof. Seriously, this guy is such a stereotypical belligerent local it's almost funny. But he's also the local medical examiner who did the autopsies on the first three victims, Dr Nemman,, so we have even more reasons to dislike and distrust him
After Dr. Angry Local's (not to be confused with Detective Angry Local) daughter begs him to leave, our intrepid agents get back to their morning of grave digging. The corpse of the hour is Ray Soames, the third victim who spent time in a mental hospital for post-adolescent schizophrenia and actually confessed to the first two murders... even though he couldn't produce any evidence that he'd really done it. Cause of death was listed as exposure, his corpse having been found in the woods after presumably escaping the hospital.
During this crime scene coffee talk, Mulder asks the key question: how does a relatively healthy young man, missing for only seven hours, die of exposure on a warm summer night in Oregon?
As the crane lifts the coffin from the ground, a conveniently frayed strap snaps, sending the coffin rolling down the hill and breaking it open to reveal...
What the WHAT!?
As everyone else reels from the sight (and smell) of this rotting mutant corpse, Mulder cracks a joke about how Ray Soames probably never made the high school basketball team. A moment later he snaps into paranoid action, demanding the coffin be sealed and taken to a secure location for Scully to examine.
Cut to Mulder and Scully performing their very own version of Fox's Alien Autopsy special, with Mulder running around snapping pictures like a kid at Disneyland. Scully proposes that this corpse, which clearly isn't human, could be a chimpanzee or an orangutan, but Mulder ain't buying it. Mulder rattles off the tests he wants Scully to perform (as he does so often, volunteering her for or straight up assigning her more work #6), but Scully insists this is just somebody's sick joke.
Later, Scully types up her notes in the hotel room and we hear, through her recorded autopsy record, that they discovered an unidentified object in the corpse's nasal cavity. She's also go her gun right by her side, so we know that she's starting to get a little weirded out by all of this. We'll file that under #2.
Next comes another of my favorite little moments that are so easy to miss on first viewing. There's a knock at Scully's door, and when she asks who it is, Mulder claims to be Steven Spielberg, a cute and obvious reference to the guy who made E.T. And Scully, who has been so confrontational and distant towards him, cracks an adorable little smile. Already he's starting to win her over, not with his beliefs (that will take a long, long time) but with his personality. She's already starting to like him in spite of herself, and to see that maybe he's not totally crazy; her loyalties are already shifting from the FBI at large to Fox Mulder in particular. We're not even halfway through the first episode and she's already growing as a character. He doesn't get to see this smile, as it fades before she opens the door, but we do, and we know what it means. #4
Anyway, Mulder just wants to tell her that he's going for a run (which he will often do in times of stress) and asks if she's figured out what that thing up Ray Soames's nose is yet. The answer, of course, is no. The whole point of this scene seems to be Scully's slow realization that the world may not be as programmed, categorized, and easily referenced as she may once have believed.
Little tangent here: personally, I think Scully is the more interesting of the two main characters. Mulder was so driven and single minded that he never wavered, never matured as a character. His most interesting personal plotline was when Kritschgau convinced him that it was al a sham, and we saw him truly struggle with his own soul for the first time. Scully engaged in that struggle every day. You can see doubt growing within her as she encounters more and more weird things she can't fully explain. She tries to define these things within the boundaries of science - her belief in which is at least as strong, if not stronger than, her Catholic faith - only to have science fail her time and again. You watch her grow from a very well-bheaved little newbie agent to a rebel, throwing protocol away to follow Mulder's truth. You see the conspiracy slowly unravel her life, taking away her friends, her family, her health, and very nearly her life. Basically, throughout the series, you are watching Scully become Mulder (a character development solidified in season 8 after he disappears). Which makes her way more interesting to me than the one who started out as Mulder in the first place. To me, the X-Files is as much about Scully's personal journey as it is about unraveling the conspiracy as a whole. #1
The next morning, Mulder and Scully (who is still wearing that weird oversized plaid jacket from her first scene, even though Gillian Anderson isn't even pregnant yet) walk through the grounds of the mental hospital where Ray Soames once stayed. His doctor states that Ray seemed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress, as were several of his classmates whom this doctor also treated. Two of them are still under his care - Billy Miles and Peggy O'Dell, who are long-term inpatients at the hospital.
When Mulder and Scully ask to speak with them, the doctor reveals that it will be challenging, especially in the case of Billy Miles, who has been in a persistent vegetative state after a car accident. They go to his hospital room and find him lying there in a waking coma, as Peggy sits in a wheelchair nearby reading to him. Mulder tells the doctor he wants to do a medical exam on Peggy and the girl FLIPS HER SHIT, knocking over tables and fighting the nurses ... and then blood starts spurting out her nose.
As they attempt to restrain her, Mulder sneaks a peek at her lower back and sees the same strange marks they found on Karen Swenson. And then they share this look of WTFOMFG:
Visibly flustered, Scully leaves the room, and as Mulder catches up to her she just can't believe what's going on. She wants know how he knew the marks would be there, and he counters by asking if she's going to type it up in a report to hand to her superiors. This mutual distrust underlies much of the first two seasons, and comes back to haunt them time and again; Mulder can't seem to forget or forgive that Scully's original mission was to spy on him so the FBI could justify shutting the X-files down. #4
Mulder insists that the kids were abducted by aliens, but Scully of course thinks there must be a more earthly explanation. They decide to start with the woods where the bodies were found, and where Karen Swenson was found in her nightgown 10 miles from home.
Cue flashlights in the dark.
They poke around for a bit and worldessly decide to split up, because it's very important in the early episodes that Scully never ever actually be present to witness all the weird shit that Mulder sees... like his compass suddenly going wonky. Scully crouches to examine a patch of ash, pocketing it barehanded, no evidence bag, in a blatant disregard for the proper examination of evidence. She hears a humming noise and sees a bright light and gets all jumpy (because Scully is only a skeptic in hindsight; in the moment of stress, she's a believer #2)...
...only to be confronted with a nice safe rational explanation for it: Detective Angry Local, with his truck's headlights on, saying they're trespassing on private property.
Tails between their legs, our intrepid agents depart. Mulder wonders aloud what Miles was doing way the hell out there in the middle of the night, and Scully shows him her super fascinating fistful of ash. She thinks it may be evidence of some kind of cult ritual, but then Mulder's compass goes all wonky again. He looks at his watch just before a blindingly bright light makes them all grainy and freeze frame
and their car suddenly rolls to a stop, totally dead. Mulder's watch now reads 9 minutes later which makes him irrationally happy. The script literally reads "Woooooo!" as he jumps out of the car to dance giddily in the pouring rain, directly over the orange X he spray painted days before.
As Scully glares at this completely insane man she's been tethered to, he explains that abductees frequently report lost time. Scully - who, if you remember, rewrote Einstein for her senior thesis - insists that time is a universal invariant and doesn't just disappear. The car starts up on its own, several yards away, which must have a totally rational explanation and is in no way weird at all.
Later, Scully is back in her hotel room, typing up reports that say things like "cannot be validated or substantiated," when the lights go out. Hope you hit "save," there, Scully. Those old laptops didn't have a recovery feature.
With her laptop rendered useless by lack of electricty - they apparently didn't have batteries, either - she goes to take a candle-lit bath. As she disrobes in front of the mirror, she feels something weird on her lower back.
What follows is... well, it's really weird. Chris Carter had intended this scene to establish the platonic relationship between Mulder and Scully; it was supposed to be an interaction that could be very sexual in other contexts but with them is just an impromptu medical exam between colleagues. Gillian Anderson has called it a bizarre and gratuitous sexualization of her character. Fans have called it the first glimpse of the sexual tension that will run as an undercurrent for the rest of the series.
Whatever you call it, a scared Scully runs to Mulder (#2), strips down to her undies, and he examines her lower back by candlelight.
That look on his face... that doesn't look very platonic to me. Maybe he's just awed by the realization that Scully-in-crisis is Scully-the-believer and NOT by her cute little ass. When he tells her they're just mosquito bites, she collapses against him in relief.
In this moment, we see him concerned about her for the first time. This is the moment where he (and we as an audience) first see her be vulnerable - not clinical or detached or disbelieving, just scared and then relieved. He asks her if she's okay, and she's shaking, and there's a sort of surprised tenderness in his voice as if he finds it hard to believe that Scully-not-being-okay is even possible. Up until this moment, he's been treating her with derision, suspicion, or dry humor, all ways of keeping her at a distance. Remember, he thinks she's a spy; he wants to hate her, wants to push her away so he can continue being a lone crackpot chasing aliens. But in this scene, when she's scared and it's dark and storming outside, she becomes a real person to him. He comforts her as best he can and we can see that, just as Scully is starting to like him despite herself, she too is winning him over. So much #4.
And he's just seen her half naked, touched her bare skin, leaned in close enough that you can imagine he smells her skin (and there's definitely a little sniffing action going on there).
Oh yeah, Chris Carter. Totally platonic.
Time passes. We get the sense that it's been a while, because now Scully is on the bed (on top of the covers), wrapped up in blankets while Mulder sits on the floor. He's recounting the story of his sister's disappearance, and how it ripped his family apart. How long have they been sitting like this, getting to know each other beyond their initial first impressions of "skeptic" and "believer"? We don't know, and we never know, but clearly they've grown closer in between scenes. #4
He talks about discovering the X-files and how it became his new obsession; he tells her that he's been trying to access classified government documents but his attempts are being blocked by some unknown, high-ranking officials who are trying to shut him down. He tells Scully that she herself is part of this agenda, but she insists that she's just here to solve the case. And she really believes it.
Mulder then tells her about his deep regression hypnosis, and how recovered memories of his sister's abduction. About the bright light and the strange presence; about how he was paralyzed and couldn't help his sister even as she cried out for him. He gets that manic look in his eye, the look of a scared boy desperate for answers, and tells her he has to know what the government is hiding about these abductions. And he looks her dead in the eye and drops the line that will define him for many coming seasons: "Nothing else matters to me." Filing this under #6 because that's a pretty shitty thing to say to someone who's been assigned to work with you.
The phone rings, making Scully jump, and it's "some woman" on the other end calling to say that Peggy O'Dell is dead.
They pull up to the scene in the rent-a-car, dodging past multiple cop cars and ambulances. Peggy, it seems, had run out into the middle of the road and been hit by a truck. That's right, crazy wheelchair girl RAN into the road. Aliens are Jesus, making the lame walk and the blind see. Actually... that's not so far off from a couple future plotlines, but we'll get there when we get there.
Scully kneels to examine the body and notices her watch, which stopped just after 9 pm:
Mulder suddenly starts hurrying her into the car, babbling about the autopsy bay being trashed and the body being stolen and they have to get back to the hotel RIGHT NOW!
Aaaaaaaaand it's on fire.
If I were a hotel manager, I would never EVER allow these two to stay in my hotel. Their rooms get broken into, trashed, and burned down practically every episode. #7
They lose Scully's computer, the x-rays, the pictures of the corpse, everything. So sad.
Then angry local medical examiner's abused daughter comes out of the crowd, says her name is Theresa Nemman, and asks for their protection. Mulder can't resist a frightened girl and so they take her to a diner (all small towns must have a 24-hour diner in which clandestine meetings can take place over dry toast and bad coffee) where she tells them about all the weird shit going on that no one wants to talk about. Like how she and a bunch of friends from her graduating class will sometimes find themselves out in the middle of the woods with no idea how they got there. And how she has those marks on her back and she's sure she's the next to die. And how her father falsified the autopsy reports because he was trying to protect her.
Then her nose turns into a fountain of blood.
Her father (Dr. Angry Local) and Detective Angry Local show up out of nowhere to take her home "where she'll be safe." Detective Angry Local finally gets a name - Detective Miles, father of the vegetative Billy Miles. BUM BUM BUMMMMMM. They whisk Theresa away and warn Mulder and Scully to stay away from her and Billy.
Scully starts putting pieces together and reasons that Dr. Angry Nemman was the one who trashed the lab and burned down the hotel, since he's been trying to hide evidence from the very beginning when he falsified the autopsy reports. She can't figure out his motivation, and Mulder suggests they dig up the two remaining graves.
Cut back to the cemetary, where Mulder and Scully find that someone else actually decided to spend this evening digging up corpses in the pouring rain. Both graves are empty, and Mulder concludes it was Billy Miles.
Scully's all, "Mulder, you're nuts," but he starts to slowly draw her into his insanity. He reasons that Peggy O'Dell's time of death was around the same time they lost 9 minutes, and that something else took control over those 9 minutes and made Peggy escape the hospital.
Scully pauses for a minute, as if struggling with herself.
You can just see her thinking about if she wants to admit this next fact to Mulder and to herself, but ultimately she tells him that Peggy O'Dell's watch stopped just after 9 pm.
And this is where the plot gets a little twisted on itself.
Mulder seizes on this proof of stopped time to postulate that there's a force driving this kids into the woods and that the marks are the result of some kind of test being done on them and that maybe that test causes some sort of genetic mutation like they saw in Ray Soames's corpse... and Scully concludes his crazy by saying that that same force summoned Theresa Nemmans into the woods tonight. But, uh, shouldn't that be Peggy O'Dell, Scully? Cuz she's the one who died. Theresa was just having coffee with you. She didn't say anything about being in the woods tonight. Mulder says it was Billy Miles who brought her there, so I'm going to assume he actually means Peggy... but if she was running under her own power when she got hit by the truck, why would Billy Miles have needed to take her there? Or is this force just working on Billy Miles, who kidnaps his classmates and takes them to the woods?
Maybe Scully starts laughing because she can't believe how ridiculous this all sounds (although at least some of that laughter was Gillian Anderson being so happy she finally got the line right after about a million takes of standing in the pouring rain talking crazy.)
They head to the hospital to examine Billy while a very uncompassionate nurse talks about how hopelessly veggie-like he is... until they find ashy dirt on his feet.
In the hallway outside, Scully just can't believe it - Billy Miles was totally out in the woods with Peggy O'Dell. Mulder reminds her that she's supposed to be the skeptic here, and now she's straight up admitting that a comatose boy got up in the night to murder someone, and suddenly she's all unsure again because now it as to go in a report. She gets all rational again and suggests they get a second sample from the forest, since the first was destroyed in the hotel fire.
They spot Detective Miles' truck in the woods, and suddenly hear a girl scream. They go sprinting off into the woods with their little flashlights - the first of many such chases overlaid with tense, creepy music. Mulder being Mulder gets way out ahead (all that tense running really pays off, doesn't it?) and totally misses Detective Miles ASSAULTING A FEDERAL OFFICER, knocking Scully off her feet (#5). Because this is the first episode, and Scully is totally not allowed to actually witness anything blatantly alien-related for, like, 3 more years.
Dazed, Scully looks up at him as Detective Miles creepily reiterates that they should have stayed out of this. He runs off as she struggles to her feet.
Meanwhile, Mulder follows the screams and runs into Dr. Angry Nemman, who points a freaking shotgun at him WHICH IS GROUNDS FOR ARREST (#5), and orders him to get down on the ground. The screams keep going, and Mulder asks now long Nemman is going to let this go on because Billy is totes about to kill his daughter. Nemman runs off.
We see Billy - shirtless for no reason - lifting up an unconscious Theresa Nemman in a swirling vortex of leaves. Dr. Nemman orders him to stop, and Mulder takes him just as he was about to shoot Billy.
The leaves keep swirling, and as Billy turns Mulder spots the marks on his back. Then a bright light starts to glow around them, blinding Mulder from seeing where it's coming from.
Scully is still getting over that blow to the head and only sees the light from a distance (of course).
By the time she reaches Mulder, the light is gone, Theresa is totally okay, the marks on Billy's back are totally gone, and he's hugging his father. She asks Mulder about the light, and all he can say is that it was incredible.
Pictured: one woman whose beliefs have been shaken,
and one man whose beliefs have been reaffirmed. #4
Back at FBI headquarters, Billy is under hypnosis and recounting his first encounter with "the light" - in the forest right during a graduation party. The light came and took them away to "the testing place," where he was told to gather the others for more tests. He says he has an implant which would give him orders.
Blevins, Scully, and the Smoking Man watch through one-way-glass as Billy recounts how the light told him that the experiments had to be destroyed, and he's afraid the light will come back.
Back in Blevins's office, the section chief tells Scully that the scientific conclusions in his report seem wholly unsubstantiated. She knows - her reports are personal and she can't draw any conclusions as to what she's seen... or rather, hasn't seen. Blevins can't see any evidence to support the legitimacy of Mulder's investigations, and the crimes that were committed can't even be prosecuted.
WHAT ABOUT DETECTIVE MILES ASSAULTING SCULLY AND DR. CRAZY POINTING A GUN AT MULDER'S HEAD? There weren't any witnesses to that but Scully's got to have a bruise or something. They should at least get a warning or a fine. Jeez. #5
Blevins reminds Scully that Billy claimed his orders came from an implant in his nose, and that they lost all the physical evidence... until Scully is a total fucking badass and pulls the implant from Ray Soames's corpse out of her pocket. (This scene will be echoed strongly in the first movie, with a genetically modified bee instead of an implant.) She kept the implant in her pocket and thus it was the only piece of evidence not destroyed in the fire.
Lab tests, she tells him smugly, could not identify the material. When asked what Mulder's thoughts are, she states simply that he believes we are not alone.
Blevins dismisses her, and she passes the Smoking Man in the hall as he goes to enter Belvins' office.
At 11:21 that night, Mulder demonstrates a total lack of inter-colleague boundaries by calling Scully as she lies in bed. #6
He tells her that all their paperwork has disappeared and casefile on Billy Miles has disappeared from Oregon DA's office. She tells him they'll talk tomorrow - letting the viewer know that her assignment to the X-Files is now ongoing.
Cut to a dark and spooky warehouse. The Cigarette Smoking Man walks down a long hallways between tall shelves of boxes. He stops in front of one box and pulls out a case containing several small vials, each vial containing an implant just like the one in Ray Soames' nose. We watch as he pulls that implant - clearly taken from Blevins' office - out of his pocket, drops it in the case, and walks away. He leaves the warehouse, locking a door behind him that reviews Pentagon evacuation procedures. BUM BUM BUM BUM BUMMMMMMMM.
Firsts: Smoking Man, The Glare, Mulder's love of slideshows, sunflower seeds, Mulder overrides Scully's autonomy and demands she do more work, unresolved sexual tension, Mulder and Scully inadvertantly destroy a hotel room, implants and mysterious nosebleeds, running in the dark with flashlights, Scully misses the big paranormal event, 1121, nothing gets solved.