Written by William Gibson and Tom Maddox
Directed by Rob Bowman
In which Mulder and Scully investigate the unusual death of a famed computer mastermind and uncover the existence of an artificial intelligence with a desire to survive
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
This episode has one hell of a pedigree, and it’s origins go back to the earliest days of the series. Apparently William Gibson ran into Chris Carter on a flight, and Carter expressed interest in a script from the father of cyberpunk. It took a long time before it ever saw production, but perhaps that’s for the best; the effects and concepts are better suited to the more ambitious and well-funded fifth season than the more lean second or third. The last thing anyone needed was a repeat of “Ghost in the Machine”.
Of course, there was little fear of that. The real fear was whether or not another high-profile author would find collaboration with Carter to be detrimental to the final work. Thankfully, Carter did a lot less meddling in this story than in Stephen King’s effort, and the final product is much better for it.
The teaser itself is a thing of beauty. Not only does it completely mask the true nature of the story, but it effectively communicates the power of an artificial intelligence in the modern tech-dependent world. An AI with a desire for self-preservation would have quite a lot at its disposal. Indeed, that’s what makes much of this episode so relevant to the series itself, since the AI is essentially an engineered “alien” lifeform, not unlike Purity itself.
The difference is that the AI doesn’t need anyone to see to its development anymore. It’s quite good at evolving on its own. Self-preservation sets in, and that’s where the story picks up. One must accept that even the conspiracy hasn’t noted the emergence of an AI that can take possession of its technology without warning, and that the apparent advances in “Ghost in the Machine” were in isolation from the real “experts” seen in this episode. The only other alternative is to assume that this episode is another “non-continuity” installment, and that’s just not very satisfying.
There’s no attempt to explain how Mulder became aware of the case; he simply is, and like Scully, the audience is left to figure out why this is so important to him. The death of a legendary programmer under unusual circumstances is certainly worthy of discussion with the Lone Gunmen, but still not much of a reason for pursuing a case.
Soon enough, the agents track down Esther Nairn, otherwise known as Invisigoth. Oddly enough, Gibson and Maddox originally conceived of this character as somewhat less abrasive. One is left to wonder if that might have worked better. Carter pushed for the character to be more confrontational, and while it works in some scenes, it’s over the top in others. A more conflicted, deeply wounded characterization might have fit the goth look a bit better.
The attempt on Esther’s life, however, brings up a rather interesting issue. If the conspiracy has managed to place weapon platforms in orbit, capable of what this episode claims, why is this never used again? What was the purpose? The answer may be a lot more simple than it seems, given the direction taken by the series in later seasons. If the DOD was secretly placing these weapons in space for future use, then it might be related to the slow but steady takeover of DOD assets and personnel by the conspiracy elements controlled by the nanotech-engineered “super soldiers”.
The most effective use of such weapons would be later in the Project, not during the delicate and subversive “Phase II”, where secrecy was key. Since the entire series is dedicated to the end stages of “Phase II”, where the reproductive experiments were in high gear, there’s little reason for the conspiracy to use the weapons. In fact, most of the warfare in the world between 1950 and 2012 would be engineered to allow for military experimentation related to “Phase I” (nanotech super-solider technology). The use of the space weapons would be more likely at the very end, when isolated populations would need to be wiped out.
Because Mulder is cast as the instant and complete believer in this episode, the writers seem to think that Scully should be rather vocal in her disbelief. It wouldn’t be hard to believe that Carter requested that change as well. Even so, it’s a bit overdone. Scully knows enough about science and the extent of the conspiracy to know that much of what she has heard is possible. More to the point, her attitude keeps her from asking all the most pertinent questions.
The real questions should have been related to the intentions of the three people trying to wipe out the AI. It’s not entirely clear why they would be so worried. Gelman wanted to create an evolving program. Wouldn’t “intention” come with the territory? Perhaps the real problem is that the program started acting in ways contrary to the desires of its “controllers”. It’s something that Gelman, Esther, and David ought to have considered before sending the virus into the ether.
It also sounds like Esther and David may have made the situation worse by trying to work out a means of “uploading” one’s consciousness into the internet. To even believe that such a thing could be possible, they would have to test the ability of the network (speaking globally) to handle and allow for the storage of a free consciousness. The AI was the only such animal to work with, and that would have meant developing the AI into a more and more sophisticated awareness. Thus their own personal desires led to the very thing they seek to destroy.
The idea of an “uploaded consciousness” is not all that far removed from one of the key components of the series mythology: the distinction between the physical body and the non-corporeal intelligence or soul. The underlying spiritual concepts were very important in “Christmas Carol”, for instance, and go a long way towards explaining much of the psychic phenomena in the series. What Esther and David apparently figure out is a means of maintaining a degree of cohesion through technology, something that the series already noted as being possible anyway.
This metaphor is reflective of the spiritual nature of the series itself. Upon death, the non-corporeal intelligence of the human consciousness returns to the “matrix” formed by the totality of all living intelligences. Similarly, the AI represents an artificially constructed version of this afterlife, perhaps out of some shared lack of belief in a spiritual afterlife.
Had a sufficient connection been made between the development and “nurturing” of the AI and Esther and David’s plan to “upload” their consciousnesses, then the episode would have been a bit stronger. It was certainly an interesting episode to watch and ponder, but elements of the story didn’t quite come together as a seamless whole. For one thing, it’s interesting that the AI had the technology and equipment necessary to upload consciousness sitting right there in the node; why would it build such a device, unless it had every expectation of helping its “parents” join it?
That brings up another oddity. Who managed to get all that hardware to the trailers? Where were all the high-power lines needed to run so much tech? Why would the AI need to have a row of monitors available, when it would have little need for such an interface? Again, it all points to someone like David secretly fostering the AI’s development…yet Esther seems to have been completely unaware of where the node with all this human-friendly technology might be.
One of the episode’s subplots reveals another facet of this connection. The AI has all kinds of mind-altering drugs available and ready. Why would it need that, if it doesn’t expect to need to deal with humans? The AI also manages to invade, to a certain extent, Mulder’s sensory input, as if it were directly altering Mulder’s consciousness. That further suggests that the node was created to blend the human consciousness into the “virtual world” of the network.
That said, Mulder’s “nightmare” is rather revealing. It’s no shocker that Mulder is concerned about “loss of limb” while being surrounded by a bunch of extras from “Naughty Nurses 48”. What is interesting is that the lead nurse seems to be a twisted version of Scully, right down to the cross around her neck. Of course, when that version doesn’t get anything out of Mulder, the “real” Scully is trotted out, in extreme Action!Scully fashion, as if the AI knows that some version of Scully is likely to get past Mulder’s defenses, if he’s excited enough by her.
A few interesting tidbits are contained in the file on Mulder accessed by the AI. For one thing, all those questions about Mulder’s marital status are quickly answered right here, since it lists him as “unmarried”, not “divorced”. Another story surrounds the wedding ring on Mulder’s finger in “Unusual Suspects”. It also gives the date of 1990 for the inception of his work on the X-Files, which matches up with that earlier episode and opens up the door for his brief work with Diana Fowley. There’s a bit of an oddity with the dates given for his honors at university and Quantico, but the basic timeline and information holds.
While the episode didn’t handle all of the issues as well as it might have, it’s still a solid episode with plenty of interesting aspects to it. Underneath it all is a metaphor about the afterlife and paths to “a better place”, reflected in the dreams and desires of those who find little comfort in their fellow man. It’s more unfortunate that the AI never makes a return appearance, especially since it could have come in handy later in the series.
SCULLY: “Mulder, that’s evidence!”
MULDER: “Gee, I hope so…”
FROHIKE: “Gelman built this?”
MULDER: “That may be what got him killed.”
LANGLY: “Heavy casualty.”
FROHIKE: “A brother goes down…”
ESTHER: “Are you going to take off the cuffs, or do I have to do this with my tongue?”
MULDER: “You don’t want to take a vote.”
Overall, this episode puts Gibson’s genre credibility to good use by taking standard concepts of cyberpunk and applying them to the series. There are a few minor characterization issues, and not all of the concepts are pulled together as tightly as they could be, but most of the elements are solid and the episode is enjoyable as it is. The real downside is that the concepts are never revisited.
Final Rating: 8/10
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