You see it at the start of nearly every video and never give it a second glance: a stark screen with the words FBI Warning across the top. But when the tape you're watching contains The X-Files, you may find yourself hitting the pause button and reading the fine print. There's just something about this show the adventures of paranormal-obsessed feds (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) battling not just spacemen and spooks but eerie bureaucratic conspiracies that inspires antigovernment paranoia.
Exploiting the national mood of unease (plus its stars' sex appeal), The X-Files has built a sci-fi following rivaled only by Star Trek. Which explains the surfeit of websites, the conventions, and the release of these early episodes, packaged with commentary by creator Chris Carter and two trading cards in every box.
Hardcore X-Philes won't find Carter's six-minute intros news; he has previously discussed the influence of the '70s series Kolchak: The Night Stalker and his trouble getting Fox to approve the casting of the unconventionally attractive Anderson. There are a few sweet tidbits of little-known trivia, though: Carter used his mom's maiden name (Mulder) and his favorite baseball announcer's surname (Scully) for his leads' monikers.
Latecomers and the uninitiated will find more useful info about the characters in the first episode. FBI agent Fox Mulder (Duchovny) is a psychologist who's been fixated on UFOs ever since (he believes) his sister was abducted by aliens as a child. His partner, Dr. Dana Scully (Anderson), has been sent by the bureau's Powers That Be to keep an eye on Mulder as he investigates cases involving unexplained phenomena.
As is the case with most TV pilots, establishing the premise takes precedence over developing the characters, so the agents start out as little more than caricatures. Over the series' three seasons, Mulder has become less loony, his wisecracks more deadpan than the dumb one-liners he was initially dealt (''Who's there?'' Scully asks when Mulder knocks on her door; ''Steven Spielberg,'' he answers). Scully seems so rational at first she's practically a Vulcan (''Do you believe in extraterrestrials?'' Mulder asks; ''Logically, I would have to say no,'' she replies). Yet Anderson and the X-Files writers have gradually sculpted Scully into much more than a bloodless skeptic.
The pilot, about small-town Oregon teens killed in the woods, carries a strong whiff of Twin Peaks (on which Duchovny played a transvestite). But much of The X-Files' own imprint is already in evidence, from the shadows-and-fog visuals to the appearance of the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), a nicotine-addicted government operative who's lurked in the dark background of many scenes since.
Another surreptitious federal figure, Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin), provides the title for the series' tense second installment. Materializing out of thin air to warn Mulder away from an Idaho military base where pilots keep vanishing, the snitch could be an apparition or a figment of Mulder's wild imagination. This show comes to a typically cryptic conclusion, but we later learned Deep Throat was indeed real when he was shot dead in the first season's finale, ''The Erlenmeyer Flask.''
That episode isn't on video yet the other four available are the Thing homage ''Ice,'' the evil-twins tale ''Eve,'' and the flying-saucer mysteries ''Fallen Angel'' and ''Conduit'' but if these volumes sell well, others may follow. Though the blackouts where commercials were placed can be jarring, this may be your only way to catch these shows until the fX network starts airing reruns in fall '97. In some ways The X-Files plays better on tape than on TV: You may find the rewind button helpful if you want to keep track of the intricate story lines or decipher the plethora of techno-jargon. Or if you want to go back and read that FBI warning...