Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The X-Files - "Ghost in the Machine" (season 1, episode 7)

Friday, June 8, 2018

The X-Files - "Ghost in the Machine" (season 1, episode 7)


Welcome to my viewing diary for The X-Files. Every day, except Saturday, I will offer a short review of another episode until I finish the first season. Future entries will cover the remaining seasons, breaking to review the feature films where chronologically appropriate, and eventually reach the recent miniseries. I have seen very few X-Files episodes, though I was utterly fascinated with the concept as a child, so for the most part this will be a first-timers' perspective. There will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 29, 1993/written by Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon, directed by Jerrold Freedman): In the executive suite of Eurisco Software, three shocking (in at least one case, literally!) events occur. CEO Benjamin Drake (Tom Butler) fires the company's founder Brad Wilczek (Rob LaBelle), who threatens him in fairly unambiguous terms on his way out the door. Benjamin then writes a memo advising the shutdown of the Central Operating System, Brad's controversial pet program. And finally the big boss is killed when the building itself, run by the COS, turns against him. After being trapped in the restroom, he is electrocuted by the card-reader and there the FBI case begins. Mulder and Scully are invited to join the investigation by Jerry Lamana (Wayne Duvall), Mulder's old partner who needs the exiled agent's expertise but also wants to take credit for his work. Jerry becomes a martyr rather than a nuisance when he follows Brad back to Eurisco headquarters and is murdered by a rouge elevator. Brad is sitting at the computer's controls when all this unfolds, leading to both his arrest and his blackmail by the Defense Department, who wants to use his AI program as a high-risk weapon. When Mulder and Scully return to the office with specific instructions from Brad as to how they can destroy his life's work (which potentially threatens human society with obliteration), they are confronted by Claude Peterson (Blu Mankuma), yet another bureaucratic rival of the FBI with his own organization's interests at heart (in this case, his apparently working on behalf of the Pentagon). After climbing through a Jurassic Park-like air duct - and narrowly avoiding being sliced and diced by an industrial fan - Scully is able to hold off Claude while Mulder destroys the machine and, with it, whatever ghostly intelligence operates inside. Mulder also meets again with Deep Throat, who cavalierly (and cynically) suggests that Brad will sell out to the U.S. government, and then disappear off the face of the earth. More disconcerting is what reappears. We see a blinking light on the mainframe flare up again as Peterson mutters that he'll get the computer working again "even if it kills me." Be careful what you wish for.

My Response:
This reminds me a lot of two other episodes I've covered in previous viewing diaries. In "The General" (The Prisoner) and "Lilliputian Hitcher" (Neon Genesis Evangelion), a sinister computer takes on a life of its own (either via human programming or an alien virus) and the characters must race to stop its devious mission - with Number Six on Prisoner sneaking into the headquarters on a mission to defuse, and Rei in Evangelion crawling through an air duct to follow the instructions of0 a brilliant scientist. For much of "Ghost in the Machine," I wasn't sure where it was going with this idea. Brad was such an obvious suspect that I took him for granted until it finally dawned on me that the show wouldn't have introduced his motivation and personality so early if it intended to actually implicate him in Benjamin's death. No, the true suspect must lie elsewhere: Jerry, the dishonest FBI agent eager to get promoted for solving a big case, clearly set Brad up as the perfect patsy. As the episode advanced, however, I couldn't escape the fact that Jerry was obviously not nearly tech-savvy enough to arrange this hoax. Around the time he was riding up on the elevator, with frequent cutaways to the ominous surveillance camera and an eerie computer screen dictating commands in an inhuman voice, I finally got it. Making Artificial Intelligence the villain not only creates a nice twist, it plays into concerns about invasive tech that are all the more prevalent today (although it's hard to believe the 2018 version of Brad wouldn't fall all over himself to collaborate with the national security state and collect a fat paycheck; how naive did we have to be to presume that Silicon Valley types were actually earnest hippies?!). Most importantly for the show's mythology, this twist allows for a villain outside of ordinary human society. For quite a ways into "Ghost in the Machine" I was wondering if The X-Files could or should get away with being a completely ordinary police procedural for one episode. Was Fox that eager to have the show lure in a conventional audience? Thankfully, the series sticks to its central conciet. Having already mentioned The Prisoner and Neon Genesis Evangelion, I should close by noting the most obvious reference of all. Drawing upon the unforgettable HAL-9000, as the COS blinks off forever while murmuring "Goodbye, Brad..." Of course, it doesn't quite blink off forever...

Next: "Ice" • Previous: "Shadows"


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