Or: How Fox Mulder learned to tip
Hello! I am here to help. Did you know technology is dangerous?
That’s the premise of Black Mirror, and this tweet by noted luddite Elon Musk, and tonight’s episode of The X-Files, which is basically Black Mirror (unless it’s Mr. Robot). It’s also the message behind the not-exactly-classic season 1 X-Files episode “Ghost in the Machine,” an adorably of-its-time hour of technological fear mongering that screams 1993, or apparently 2018. In it, a murderous computer system takes control of a building — locking doors, staging electrocutions, manipulating phones, and remotely accessing files — to ensure its own survival. “Mulder, that level of artificial intelligence is decades away from being realized!” Scully scoffs, in shoulder pads. She doesn’t know she’s on a show with two and a half decades of staying power.
A quarter century later, The X-Files is circling back around to one of its earliest fears, one that felt outdated halfway through the show’s original run but has since been proven valid, if clichéd. (Like Mulder, The X-Files gives voice to conspiracies so paranoid they have to be true; this episode ends on a shout-out to the New York Times report on the Pentagon’s secret UFO investigations, an idea straight out of the pilot.) It’s not groundbreaking to suggest, as this story does, that we’re ceding our lives to our phones, but when you throw in packs of robot dogs and drones and ugh, those automated phone calls, the effect is still smothering. In an era one tweet away from nuclear war, when a TV show tells me computers are going to kill me, some primal part of me is going to nod along.
But it all adds up to an episode that doesn’t feel like most X-Files episodes, and I mean “feel” in a visceral sense — I was left cold by this one, in part for what it does right (I never want another notification from my phone) and in part for what it doesn’t. What this hour does well as a standalone story requires it to ignore the big picture of the show: It’s a Black Mirror-esque fable that has to take Mulder and Scully out of context in order to work. The effect is so disorienting that if I hadn’t seen promo shots from future episodes, I’d half expect Scully’s (very chic!) hair to be long again next week.
It doesn’t help that “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” — a mouthful of a title that decodes to “Followers” in Base64 — barely tries to justify its central gimmick: how light it is on dialogue. The beginning of the hour finds Mulder and Scully on a sushi date (the restaurant’s name, Forowā, also translates to “Followers”) with no other patrons and an all-robot staff. Rather than talk to each other, the partners swipe silently through a touchscreen menu, then turn to their phones like a couple of regular teenage stereotypes who just happen to be in their mid 50s, looking up only for a cute exchange in which Scully takes a picture of Mulder with his meal. (Art imitating life, or life imitating art?) It feels like the characters have been cast against type here, maybe intentionally; their legacy as self-described “old-school” investigators is at odds with their assigned role as People Who Spend All Their Time Looking at Screens. Just last month Mulder was rhapsodizing about a bran muffin in an internet cafe.
Now he’s traded bran for blobfish, which he did not order. Mulder, a bad tipper even when the order is correct (see for example: giving the pizza guy 2 cents in “Bad Blood”), responds by denying the robot chefs a tip, setting off a chain reaction of computerized rebellion that starts at the restaurant, which locks the partners inside the building and refuses to release Mulder’s credit card. And yet even after Scully has to use chopsticks to pry open the doors, she and Mulder are still in awe of the driverless car that arrives to pick her up. From the computerized chauffeur to Scully’s smart home, the partners’ willingness to trust machines seems out of step with what they know of surveillance.
Of course the machines betray them: Mulder’s GPS tries to divert him back to the restaurant and hijacks his music, playing “Teach Your Children,” a song about the generational divide, over Prince’s “Controversy” (we’re all just the same). Meanwhile, Scully’s ride drives dangerously over the speed limit. She’s at the end of her rope by the time she gets home, and she sends off the self-driving car with the Scully equivalent of Ross Geller’s friendly finger. Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are a lot of fun in this hour, bringing out levels of Scully and Mulder we haven’t seen in years. It made me wish this episode had allowed them more time together and given them a more urgent reason to keep quiet. For two characters who always seem to be in the middle of an unspoken conversation, the concept has potential: What happens when the comfortable silence between them is weaponized against them?
Alas, the partners spend most of the episode in separate homes, where there’s no one else for them to talk to anyway. On that note, the show is painting its central duo in pointillism again: Scully is settled in a full-on smart house we’ve never seen before — it’s a stretch that she’d live there given that she once had to go on the run from the FBI, but kudos to writers Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin for painting a fuller picture of her life than the rest of the season has — and Mulder lampshades it with a joke about how nice her place is. What are we meant to make of how many prisms this season has viewed their relationship through? “This Man” is back tonight, hanging on a wall, destabilizing reality. It’s like we’re being taunted.
Mulder can relate. He tosses around a baseball while on hold with Bigly Credit, which keeps hanging up on him. His attempt to unwind with an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man — the story of a man “enhanced” by bionic implants, human becoming machine for better or for worse — is interrupted by a nosy drone, which he knocks to the ground with a baseball bat and shrugs off as the toy of a punk kid. But then more drones arrive: bigger ones at first, then a swarm of bug-like, neon miniatures that light up the house in a neat, if not exactly threatening, visual. Mulder takes off. (Next: DJ Roomba’s Revenge)