A review of tonight’s The X-Files coming up just as soon as my password is Queequeg…
The awful premiere aside, this season has on the whole been a vast improvement over the previous one, albeit largely by doing effective variations on the kinds of stories the show told a million times in the ’90s. Even Darin Morgan’s incredible episode was in large part a commentary on what the show used to be, and whether it makes any sense to keep doing it in 2018.
“Rm9sbG93ZXJz,”(*) on the other hand, is my favorite episode of either revival season — even more than “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” and “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” — in large part because it felt like something wholly new to the franchise, not just in subject matter, but presentation style.
(*) My friend Google suggests it’s a Base64 encode for “followers,” which ties into both the prologue about the Twitter-bot programmed to talk like a mean girl, and the mechanical followers that Mulder and Scully attract throughout the hour.
Like the Langly episode, this one has a lot of Black Mirror echoes to it, this time looking at what we’re losing as humans through our dependence on technology, and what our technology might be gaining when we’re not paying close enough attention. For the bulk of the hour, our heroes are the only human beings we see, as they first eat together (or try, in the case of blobfish-ordering Mulder) at a fully-automated sushi restaurant, followed by Scully taking a self-driving Uber-type car home, Mulder getting mislead by his GPS, Scully’s house being mapped by a robotic vacuum, Mulder menaced by drones, etc. When they’re together, Fox and Dana are more focused on screens than each other, and the various computer programs have come to learn much too much about them, like Scully’s online shopping account automatically ordering a replacement for her Rock It Like A Redhead styling cream the instant she throws out the old bottle. The threat is both omnipresent, because of how much they’ve come to depend on technology, and strangely innocent, because all the AIs really want is for Mulder to give a tip (even a meager 10% one) to the “staff” at the sushi place.
But even though the subject matter evokes several Black Mirrors (when the dog-style drones in the warehouse turned up, I said to myself, “Oh, now it’s ‘Metalhead'”), the episode avoids a heavy-handed, scolding approach, opting instead for whimsy. In many ways, it’s a throwback: a drama about artificial intelligence presented in the style of a silent movie. It’s not quite silent, but something in the vein of Chaplin’s Modern Times, where the sound and dialogue are used strategically: there are lots of sound effects (plus the recurring use of CSNY’s “Teach Your Children”), but Mulder and Scully speak rarely, and when they do it’s either to a machine, to themselves, or to each other with a barrier in the way (like when Mulder complains about how much nicer Scully’s house is while they’re on opposite sides of a glass wall). Even when Mulder and Scully have survived their ordeal and are eating at a traditional diner, they still can’t resist talking about and then looking at their devices, and the episode’s most important bit of communication is wordless: Scully reaching out to take Mulder’s hand, which reminds both of them how important they are to one another, and also how important it is to connect with your fellow humans in person.
It’s a delightful hour, often amusing and scary at the same time — I often worry about how much my phone or the Amazon servers know about me — with Glen Morgan as director putting a lot of rewarded trust into Duchovny and Anderson to sell things without speaking much. And the script by Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin feels like a wholly new thing that also understands what makes Mulder and Scully, and The X-Files itself, tick.
Cloke and Hamblin are both new to writing for the series (Cloke, who’s married to Glen Morgan, guest starred in season 4’s “The Field Where I Died,” while Hamblin has worked in the past as Morgan’s assistant), and part of a very small group of women to ever write for the show. When Gillian Anderson and others pushed for more female voices in the writers’ room, and more new voices in general, it was in the pursuit of equality, but also in the pursuit of livening up a very, very old franchise. The way writers rooms work, it’s hard to say who gets credit for what in this script, but it’s also not a coincidence that the first episode of either revival season not written by an X-Files vet also felt by far the freshest and most vital of this batch or the last one. New ideas and perspectives are almost always valuable, especially at this late date in the show’s lifespan.
Like Darin Morgan’s episodes, I wouldn’t want The X-Files to be like this every week — if nothing else, it would begin to feel as formulaic as the more traditional episodes have — but it’s exciting to see this old dog show off a new trick.
What did everybody else think?