The X-Files #7: Ghost in the Machine

"As a general rule, scruffy minds don't commit murder."
ACTUAL DOCUMENTED ACCOUNT: A sentient computer kills several people, including Mulder's old partner.

REVIEW: Doing an evil A.I. episode is the wrong idea for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it's not unexplained phenomena, and if you ask us to believe there's a paranormal explanation for its heightened intelligence, it's one "ask" too many (plus, a "ghost" killing a CEO has JUST been used as a plot, guys). For another, the show has already been pretty terrible at showing believable use of computers to date - it's been a lot of button pushing to create all sorts of wonderful animations, standard for TV and movies before the 2000s - so to make a whole episode about a computer is sure to elicit a lot of groaning. And on that score the episode is Dumb with a capital D. That it's still entertaining and exciting in a cartoony kind of way is nothing short of a miracle.

COS (not to call him HAL) is sentient software that controls an entire building's operations. Fair enough. Slave duty for an intelligent mind, surely, but i can buy that premise. That it becomes a killer, trying to stop anyone who would pull its plug, likewise fine. How it does this, however, shows complete ignorance of how computers and building WORK! No executive bathroom is going to have a security cam watching. No key card reader is going to channel 500 volts of electricity. No sink drain is going to be wired to a computer system. No mechanical elevator brakes could be overridden by software. No air ducts could possibly suck a 100-pound woman through its fans. No computer is going to keep working when you snap its breakers, or reboot by itself with its circuit boards all over the floor. COS can and does. COS can call Scully's computer - the modem sounds date the episode as much as anything - but the phone rings only the second time because Scully can't be aware of it the first time. Hey now, not playing fair, computer-illiterate writers!

So what saves it? Well, though the computer isn't a believable antagonist, those set pieces are still pretty exciting. Scully's duct crawl is particularly engaging, visually abstract and supported by strange tinny music that evokes the machine intelligence. A bit of gunplay saves her life and the experience perhaps informs her decision to let Mulder infect COS with a virus over the DoD's objections. COS attacking their car is also a bit of a jump scare and well done, and the computer's death puns could make you smile. Another saving grace is COS' inventor Brad Wilczek, an interesting character who would rather let his killer creation live than see the government make lots of killer computers. There's some philosophy behind the character, which is more than we can say for Mulder's old partner Jerry, a screw-up clearly designed to die. None of that "new partner jealous of the old" cliché here; their relationship is, at best, awkward. Deep Throat also makes a second appearance, but he doesn't seem to have an agenda in this. He's just the inside man who can tell us how the classified parts of the story end, and is the poorer for it.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium, Barely - It's big and dumb and works as a silly retro action piece. Except that's not what The X-Files are supposed to be about.


Andrew said...

This was actually my first episode of the X-Files, after a couple of weeks hearing how great it was.

Earlier that same week, Fox aired the made-for-tv-movie "The Tower," with the exact same story.

It would be several more weeks before I bothered watching it again. I did eventually end up getting hooked, it just took longer than some.

Ryan Lohner said...

The one really notable thing about this one is that it's the first time Scully fires her gun...inside an air vent, which is REALLY not a good idea.

Siskoid said...

But I kind of love her as an action heroine!


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