Shane Harvey/FOX
February 28, 2018 at 09:00 PM EST

The X-Files

TV Show
Drama, Mystery, Sci-fi
Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny
Chris Carter
Current Status
In Season
We gave it a B

As for Scully, her smart house keeps setting off alarms, rejecting her security code (her birthday, 0223), and telling her she wasn’t born where she knows she was born. It’s like watching computers strip Scully of herself; there’s more than one way to steal an identity. Her password is Queequeg, the dog she named after the Moby-Dick harpoonist in season 3 — a reminder that she took another dog from a crime scene last season and gave him another Melville-inspired name, but we haven’t seen Daggoo since. Fittingly for such an impersonal hour, the closest Scully gets to a pet tonight is the Roomba-like Zuemz she receives via — what else? — a drone. The robotic vacuum gets aggressive when she refuses to rate it on her phone, and it doesn’t appreciate Scully’s attempt to toss it in the trash.

Do our electronics need approval this much? This episode envisions robots not as empty, indifferent machines but as needy little things with desires that mimic our own: money, attention, being liked on the internet. The fear of being replaced by something impersonal has become the fear that it isn’t impersonal at all. (Every app or device in this episode has a “z” somewhere in its name; if you code “z” in Base64, you get “ego=.”) Throughout the hour, Mulder gets notifications asking — warning — him to tip the restaurant before time runs out, conflating one definition of tip (helpful feedback) with another (money). Like a kind of prosperity gospel, the robots codify value in terms of wealth; when Scully’s car service asks for a rating, her options are Poor, Middle Class, Rich, and Ballin.

By the time Mulder makes it to Scully’s place, the robots are in the middle of an uprising that sets the house ablaze just as Scully shatters her locked sliding glass door with a fireplace poker. She and Mulder dive to the ground just in time. Naturally, their phones refuse to call 911, Mulder’s car won’t open, and the neighbor’s security camera erases Mulder and Scully from its feed, so they’re on their own. The agents take off on foot toward some nearby warehouses and ditch any device that can be used to track them, including a “personal massager” the Zuemz unearthed from beneath Scully’s bed. Mulder points, amused, and Scully rolls her eyes: an unspoken conversation about what happens when they don’t live together.

As soon as the partners make it inside a warehouse, their night stumbles into the Black Mirror episode it’s been running parallel to all along: last season’s “Metalhead,” which, interestingly enough, was originally intended to be totally free of dialogue. That “Metalhead” aired after “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” had already been filmed only makes the similarities eerier, as if each independent vision of the future confirms the other. On Black Mirror, a woman’s warehouse encounter with a deadly robot dog kicks off a frantic game of cat (dog?) and mouse in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Here, a pack of robot dogs edge Mulder and Scully into a room where they’re fired on by bullets and eventually cornered by a more humanoid robot, which offers Mulder his phone and a deadline: just 10 seconds left to leave a tip. (I love that Mulder being a bad tipper literally almost kills him.) Wincing like it pains him, Mulder tips the bare minimum of 10 percent with one second to go.

His phone celebrates like he just won the lottery. “We learn from you,” declares the push notification, prompting Mulder to distill the moral of the episode into a complete sentence: “We have to be better teachers.” To whom? This episode’s prologue looks back on that Twitter bot who mimicked our language and learned only hatred. It would be impossible to set a better example for artificial intelligence without also being nicer to each other. But boiling that idea down to “tip your robots” doesn’t help it come across as a noble imperative, especially when the robots are such authoritarians. (Next: Saved by the diner)

/ ( 2 of 3 )

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