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TV Review: The X-Files (Season 11, Episode 7)

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The X-Files often strays into anthology territory with its monster-of-the-week episodes, and this week’s installment is no different.

Titled ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ (Base64 binary code for ‘Followers’), we are reminded of that one-time Microsoft thought it would be a good idea for humans on Twitter to shape the mind of an AI bot named Tay in 2016.

As is continually stated throughout this episode, artificially intelligent machines relying on learning from their creators – humans – and if they set a bad example or teaching pattern, they will adapt accordingly. Such was the case with Tay, who after sixteen-hours of tweeting began spouting racial slurs and inflammatory statements leading to its immediate termination. There’s a reason why Microsoft haven’t repeated their experiment since.

Here, the story of ‘Tay’ acts as a forewarning of sorts for Mulder and Scully’s interaction with multiple factions of the artificial world, warning that if influenced incorrectly, humans could inadvertently cause these machines to destroy the world immediately.

Ominously unsettling and daringly self-conscious, writers Shannon Hamblin and Kristen Clarke create a freakishly possible, slightly heightened reality for Mulder and Scully to bear witness to for forty minutes.

Seemingly unattached to the overarching mythos (thankfully) and overtly relying on a visual story via director Glen Morgan rather than convoluted dialog, ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ sheds a harsh light on an aspect of our current – and oftentimes shameful – obsession and reliance on technology. From Amazon Echo to virtual reality, the future that has been theorized for so long is nearing, and we’re becoming too intertwined within it. 

So much so that burying our heads in our phones when surrounded by loved ones or strangers is commonplace. It’s no longer a taboo; everyone and their grandma fall victim to it, even Mulder and Scully.

Rather than commentating on this aspect of 21st-century society through an elaborate, ‘profound’ narrative, the story here is composed of two scenes that play out exactly the same, but ultimately display different connotations. The now-weirdly-normal silence of Mulder and Scully completely engrossed in their phones rather than each other in an empty, AI-run sushi restaurant is juxtaposed with the loud, busy surroundings of a café where servers care for their customers and customers care for their loved ones.

All the trivial things that Mulder and Scully do throughout the episode to anger the machines (not leaving a tip and hurting a driverless car’s feelings), they conclude that occasionally, it’s healthy to put our devices down, to hold the hand of those closest to us and actually talk to them, face to face.

‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ somehow manages to keep afloat without that much actually occurring narratively in the episode, along with the minimal amount of dialogue. What we are presented with is the deep connection between Mulder and Scully; where even the smallest looks, and movements say more than any amount of meaningful words, and a frightening yet needed commentary on the unhealthy reliance on automated and artificially intelligent technology.

What has society become, to be so heavily reliant on smart devices, contactless cards and self-driving cars. Hamblin and Clarke present the question: do we really need all of this? Are we not capable of doing trivial tasks ourselves anymore? And are we the best teachers for this type of technology? The world worries about the ‘rise of the machines’, when it’s the way we’re teaching these machines to behave that we really should be worrying about.

Mulder doesn’t insight war or calamity when drones infiltrate his home and demand to be paid; he didn’t feel a tip was justified after receiving the wrong order. The same goes for Scully, who only wanted a quiet drive back to her home without being incessantly told to rate services or be overly pampered in a car that’s getting her from A to B.

The machines only become hellbent on destruction after originally being programmed that a tip is courteous, and small talk is ‘nice’. It’s only when these are met with the wrong reaction – via Mulder and Scully – that the machines rebel and will not take no for an answer; something that is absolutely terrifying once you begin to dwell on it.

As frightening as this episode is, it raises the importance of our inherent fixation smart devices. We’re slowly devoiding ourselves of the simplicity and necessity of human interaction.

Unless you have the insane ability to say a million things with minimal words as Mulder and Scully have proved for decades, you may very well fall victim to saying the wrong thing to AI and paying the dire consequences.

The X-Files airs on Mondays at 9pm on Channel 5.

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