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.”

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Fringe

Fringe, from its beginning, is a character driven show. It’s a procedural, to be sure, but the pilot lets us know that three strong personalities are going to drive the action: FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), and Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble).

We don’t meet Olivia as badass cop woman. We meet her as she is falling in love, in bed with the object of her affection, sweet and almost demure. This is a reversal of the typical female action hero who is usually tough first, vulnerable later. It’s not as if Olivia’s a wimp; we see her in action soon enough. She’s part of a joint task force reporting to Homeland Security, which is called upon when a planeload of civilians die inexplicably mid-flight. Within in minutes we find Olivia chasing down a suspect and, after that, putting her brains to work to solve a mystery. During the chase her romantic and professional partner, John, is hit by an explosion. He winds up comatose, poisoned and dying from an unidentified contaminant.

John is introduced too early to survive. People who are happily together at the start of a drama pilot are destined to be torn apart. But that won’t stop our heroine from trying to save him.

Trying to discover the nature of the poison, Olivia is soon on the trail of a mysterious and insane researcher, Dr. Bishop, living in an institution. She demonstrates her powers of persuasion by travelling to Iraq to coerce the researcher’s genius son, Peter, into coming with her to bust him out. Dr. Bishop worked studied “fringe” science 17 years ago before being locked away in a stony vault.

When the bearded Dr. Bishop turns, ever so slowly and looks up at Olivia, we know we are meeting a powerful character. “I knew someone would come,” he intones. A bit like Temperence “Bones” Brennan, Walter thinks in pure facts. He may be a genius but his social interactions are painful to witness.

The episode is filled with quiet moments; long, awkward pauses at once suspenseful and humorous. Everyone has moments when a parent embarrasses them. It’s just more intense when said parent is a mental patient. Peter sure hates Walter, but as the viewer, we’re not sure whether either one has good intentions or bad.

Peter is a total ass to Olivia, but she doesn’t stand for it. You feel her frustration when she says, “You call me sweetheart one more time? I’d really like that.” It’s not an obvious sexual tension between them, as might be expected. Simply, they’re both strong people who know what they want.

As we delve further into the mystery of the poison, we’re introduced to Massive Dynamic, your basic giant, evil corporation. Its founder, a Dr. Bell, is Walter’s former partner. We don’t meet Dr. Bell, but only his Executive Director, a snippy woman with a super cool bionic arm. The pilot is double-length, basically a movie, so suffice it to say, this is only the beginning. We’re promised a future filled with teleportation, astral projection, reanimation and the like. More importantly, Olivia is at a critical juncture in her life and career.

The snowy cold landscape of Boston provides a distinctive atmosphere. The show is filled with interesting visuals: a cow walking down a crowded university hallway, a man with transparent skin, a woman in a tank hooked up to electrodes. Though it gets compared to The X-Files, and it’s even been suggested the two shows take place in the same universe, Fringe is unique in many ways. We know from the pilot that we’re headed down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole, which could easily get cheeseball, but there is promise that these characters will keep us coming back.