Friday, September 11, 2015

Case 01, File 07: Ghost in the Machine

AKA: I'm afraid I can't do that Mulder

Ghost in the Machine is an episode that a lot of people forget exists, or if they do, they mostly remember it as something of a 2001 knockoff. Which it kind of is (although I'd say it has far more in common with an obscure 1977 curiosity called Demon Seed). The reasons for this is obvious; Outside of a few solid scenes, the episode as a whole is pretty forgettable. So, I'll do my damndest to keep this review from being as forgettable.

The plot kicks off when a tech company called Eurisko (it's Greek) ousts it's weird and anti-social founder, Brad Wilczek, who was written in a time when having your ambiguously evil tech genius be a Steve Jobs analogue was novel, rather than cliched. That same night, the CEO who threw him out is electrocuted to death in an elaborate deathtrap.

Mulder's old buddy Jerry, from Violent Crimes, called Mulder and Scully in to help him catch the culprit, but since Jerry has been looking for a feather in his cap (after some issues working in Hate Crimes), he steals Mulder's psych profile and passes it off as his own. Any arguments that would cause are cut short when Jerry goes to arrest Brad Wilczek and the Eurisko building kills him with an elevator.
See, it turns out the building is controlled by a newly sentient AI called COS, who appears to be at about a 7 on the GERTY to AM scale (joke for sci-fi nerds). Brad is willing to take the fall for Jerry's death in order to keep the government from getting their hands on COS, but Mulder convinces him to write a virus to kill it. He and Scully go to the building, but it turns out the building's security officer is a plant from the government. But he fails to stop our intrepid heroes, they kill the COS and Brad goes off to jail or maybe to an undisclosed government location, it's kinda unclear.

"What am I wearing? You sure you didn't want to call Scully...or Mulder?
This episode is mildly noteworthy in that it goes for computer stuff, rather than more direct Paranormal (something The X-Files would do several times over the course of its run, to varying degrees of success) but outside of that, it doesn't really have all that much going for it. The writers were, by their own admission, not tech literate (especially Howard Gordon, who would go on to name this the worst episode of Season 1, which I don't totally agree with) so instead of writing a tech heavy story, they wound up writing a haunted house story with a computer standing in for ghosts.

Unfortunately, while they were apparently unaware of what a 90s computer could do, they were painfully aware of what it couldn't do, so the computer is basically incapable of doing anything really cool (I think the budget didn't help). The best scene is the one where Jerry gets killed in the elevator (though it's hampered a little bit by Jerry's reacting like he's a Star Trek character when the Enterprise gets hit) and the rest of the episode is increasingly desperate attempts to make the office building scary.

Photon Torpedo incoming, brace for impact!
That's not to say that I don't like the idea of a killer office building, I just feel like the episode would be better if it was...well sillier. The episode doesn't really have the ability, much less the time, to explore the implications of the creation of AI (IE, the best way to make a serious episode with this material) so it might as well just go over the top. Throw some lasers or razor wires or shit. Limiting yourself to garage doors dropping and fans trying to suck Scully in is boring. The X-Files is at its best when its being weird and offbeat, and this episode is just too normal an idea, and much too normal an execution.

It also a pretty dialogue and plot heavy episode,  which doesn't work in its favor. Sure we get a couple of Deep Throat cameos here and there, but much better Monster of the Week episodes will feature him and all he does is drop a ton of exposition. The episode as a whole really drowns you in exposition (the first scene is the biggest offender) and I don't know if that was really the best choice. The intention seems to be to make us take the concept seriously, but it just leaves precious little time for action or horror beats, so they might have been better just saying "It's an AI, it's evil, roll with it."

I am so fucking fed up with this goddamn case, I'm just gonna shoot people until it solves itself.
It's not all bad; Wilczek and Jerry are both reasonably well acted and the elevator scene is legitimately frightening, but it just doesn't have much going on to hold your interest. It's a little bit 2001 here, a little bit Demon Seed there, maybe a tiny bit Hackers in other places, but it's all just parts. The other AI focused episodes, for good or ill, had their own identities and styles, whereas Ghost in the Machine is just made up of pieces. Some of them are good pieces, some of them are bad, but a whole bunch of pieces just add up to nothing at all.

Case Notes:
  • The passing reference to Mulder's old partner's case, where a piece of evidence got misplaced and cost a Judge both his hands and one eye sounds really interesting, like a good episode of CSI or something.
  • I like the moments where the show reminds us that Mulder is supposed to be a really good agent. They usually do this by showing us how observational he is, but his profile is also pretty solid.
  • Wilczek's names for hackers: "Data travelers, electro wizards, techno-anarchists." This note serves no purpose, it just amuses me to no end.
  • The 'Elevator saying floor numbers' thing got annoying to me before the episode was over, so I can't imagine how annoying it would be to someone who worked in the building. Maybe that's why the CEO killed the project?
  • Deep Throat straight up shows up in broad daylight on Mulder's request, which is amazing to me. X would have, at best, ignored the request. At worst he would have beaten the shit out of Mulder for asking.
  • On that note, Deep Throat shows up in a Monster of the Week episode. I seem to recall that they gradually reduced the number of Monster of the Week episodes the informants showed up in, to the point where I don't think the blonde lady (whose name escapes me) showed up in any. Could be wrong though.
  • Hey, first time Scully fires her gun in this episode, trying to disable the fan. Mulder first fires his to scare off some wolves in The Conduit.
  • Having the random security guy turn out to be evil is a little too Scooby Doo for my taste and it feels cheap. That said, the degree to which Scully is fed up with everyone's shit when she gets out of the vents makes me very happy.
Current Celebrity Watch:

Nothing this time.
Future Celebrity Watch:

Pretty minor one here, but Mulder's buddy is played by Wayne Duvall, who played Homer Stokes in the Coen Brother's Masterpiece O' Brother, Where Art Thou? Homer Stokes, if you'll recall, is the guy running for governor against Pappy O'Daniel, who turns out to be a Klansman. Incidentally, if you haven't seen O' Brother, Where Art Thou? get off your computer right now and go see it.

Audio Observations:

I'd love to hear the creative process that led them to choose the voice they did for the COS' voice. It seems like they couldn't decide if they wanted to go straight HAL ripoff or not, and wound up with a voice that's halfway between ripping HAL off and not.

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