The X-Files

XFilesPilotLooking back at The X-Files, which premiered in 1993, it’s almost impossible not to compare it to a hundred other shows to air since. As a huge Bones fan, I’m most inclined to look for parallels to that show, and many have been drawn. Yes there’s the female-skeptic/male-believer duo, which apparently, was unusual in 1993. But upon re-watching, the X-Files pilot strikes a tone that is all its own.

The pilot opens, as many crime shows do, with a murder. But this is not two drunk kids having a frolic in the woods when they stumble onto a body. Instead, we witness a scene that, if you happened to just turn it on at that point, you might mistake for the climax of the episode. The victim displays absolute terror as a bright light appears over a ridge and a figure emerges from it. Cut to the police investigating the scene. We are briefly introduced to a detective who recognizes the victim as a classmate of his son, class of ‘89. Only after the crime of the week is established do we meet our protagonists.

Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is an FBI agent who is brought into the office of one of her superiors, where she is properly introduced to the viewer. She was recruited out of medical school to the FBI, where she has worked for two years. She is clearly a trusted member of the team, as they are asking her to check up on another agent with an established high-profile career who takes an interest in classified files. As she is briefed on her new assignment, a tall, silent man–who will later be known in X-Files lore as Cigarette Smoking Man–stands by…smoking a cigarette.

Scully heads to a cramped basement office to meet this volatile agent, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). Mulder is painted as eccentric, but he’s not Walter Bishop eccentric. In fact, with his boyish charm he could be described as a cross between Walter and Peter Bishop. Later, his celebratory reaction at realizing that he and Scully just jumped through nine minutes is reminiscent of Dr. Emmet Brown. He’s a likeable character, as is Scully, but the immediate tension between them feels forced. It’s understandable that he is defensive toward her; he believes she is there to spy on him. Her defensiveness isn’t so easy to understand. We can assume the writers are going to work up some sexual tension between the two.

Legend has it that Scully had a boyfriend in the original script, possibly increasing the stakes. here is a hint of sexual tension when Dana strips down to her underwear to show Mulder some bumps on her back, after which they sit around and talk by candlelight. The scene reveals some of each character’s vulnerabilities. But there is no witty, flirtatious back-and-forth; just two people getting to know each other.

As one might expect, this work has personal meaning for Mulder. His sister was abducted, he believes by aliens, as a child, and the record of the case was covered up. It’s predictable, but you have to have your personal connection. (Bones’ mom was murdered, Olivia Benson was raped, Kate Beckett’s mom was murdered, Veronica Mars was raped… I could go on.)

There is something unique about this pilot, however. The episode overall has the feel of a true crime television special, putting into a realm of freakiness above normal network drama. Opening with the subtitle, “The following story is inspired by actual documented events,” and then using typewriter text to denote times and places add to this effect.

The plot, which involves mysterious deaths of several former Oregoneon high school classmates, gets relatively complex. Personally, I find the casting of all these middle aged white guys with receding hairlines confusing; I couldn’t keep straight the detective, the medical examiner, and the coroner. That being said, the show really is story-driven. There are no shots of gorgeous bodies and scenery like in the CSIs or any slapstick, such as sometimes works into Bones or Castle.

The detectives more or less solve the case, only to learn that all the paperwork they file on it immediately disappears. The show ends with the Cigarette Smoking Man taking the one piece of surviving evidence and filing it away deep in the Pentagon archives. This scene sets up the show for a long time to come.

Perhaps the lines that best encapsulate where we’re headed are when Scully asks, “Do you have a theory?” to which Mulder answers, “I have plenty of theories.”

Advertisements

Rubicon

Rubicon, a new show on AMC has a cool title (a metaphor for a point of no return) and a cool tag line: “Not every conspiracy is a theory.” So I decided to see what they mean by that.

Things start off simply. A quote appears: “An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.” We’re asked to guess who said it, Ted Kacyzinski or Woodrow Wilson. Naturally the answer is the less obvious, and by extension, the more eerie, Wilson.

Next we see some kids running happily through the show. They’re shot from above, lending a starkness that says their happiness will be short-lived. A woman, we assume their mother (Miranda Richardson), joins in their game, while inside the stately manse, a man (their father? grandfather?) reads his morning newspaper. A four-leaf clover is pressed into the paper, giving him pause. He proceeds upstairs and blows his brains out.

The opening credits speak to anyone who is a fan of Dan Brown and the like. Numbers, symbols, words, and images are circled or connected, hinting at sinister hidden messages all around us. One of the images is of a freeway off/on-ramp “clover,” and immediately in the next scene people are sorting out a crossword clue about a four-leaf clover. So we’ve got a theme that is none too subtle.

Our protagonist is Will Travers (James Badge Dale), a moody academic. He is apathetic when a female co-worker reminds him it’s his birthday and offers to buy lunch. Will attends a staff meeting, which serves as an introduction to the other characters. Tanya, the most junior staff member, is chastised by Grant for forgetting the doughnuts. Grant is a jerk. Miles is a bearded version of Will. David, their boss (Peter Gerety), looks the part of esteemed university professor, complete with elbow patches. He gives each member of the team a cryptic assignment, starting with observing missile silos. It’s not entirely clear what this workplace is, or what the characters do. But that’s okay, because the real story seems to be Will’s obsession with a particular set of crossword puzzles.

Will brings the puzzles to David, for the elder gentleman’s expertise. There seems to be a pattern in the puzzles hinting at a mysterious fourth branch of government, the branches being symbolized by—you guessed it—clover leaves. It seems like a huge stretch to the viewer, but we have to buy that these guys are smart enough to see meaning where we laypeople would not. David gives him the brush off, only to pounce on the puzzles himself once Will is out the door. He in turn shows them to his boss, Kale (Arliss Howard).

A big reveal comes at lunchtime when Tanya asks Miles why Will walks around looking like his cat died. Miles replies, sanctimoniously, “Try wife and child. Try 9-11.” It’s a little ham-handed but adds an important layer to Will’s character. Another detail, this one handled with welcome subtlety is the revelation that David is Will’s father-in-law. “They’re gone,” he says. “It’s just something both of us have to accept.”

[SPOILER ALERT] David, we find is carrying the burden of knowing whatever Big Event is about to happen that will set off the storyline for the series. He warns Will to leave town, and then is killed in a train accident. Will, like any good conspiracy theorist, doesn’t accept that it was an accident. He reluctantly takes David’s job when it is rather insistently offered.

He enlists the help of a colleague, introducing us to another key character, Ed. Ed has that whole wise old hermit thing going on, so we figure he’s going to know some things.

So will the show be about solving David’s murder? Or about the crossword puzzle plot? Or both? And what of the man who killed himself in the opening? The pilot, though it has an arc, doesn’t really have an ending; and that’s a good thing. We’re in for some mellow-drama, to be sure, but it’s got the necessary hook.