September 2013 sees the 20th anniversary of the first airing of The X-Files. To celebrate this on The Hex Dimension, I’ll be providing you with retrospectives on episodes and I’ll also be covering the films at the points that they fit into the series’ chronology. So, without further ado… welcome to “Ghost in the Machine”.

Ghost in the machine img 1You’re gonna regret this

The episode opens with what can only be assumed as Mousetrap for humans. A CEO, after having a heated argument with his company’s founder, wanders into his private bathroom and is – after a series of bizarre, minor, events – electrocuted.

Before we’re given a chance to assume that the founder of this huge tech company generated this elaborate state of affairs, the scene switches to a glowing panel of computerised switches and lights. An ominous, electronic voice says, “File deleted.”

This one scene, one minor scene, and subsequent moments of computer system chatter, undermines the entire episode. If the direction hadn’t kept focusing back on the computer stating what it was “doing”, then perhaps this episode would have been more suspenseful and enjoyable.

Ghost in the machine img 2I can’t let you do that Dave

There is no escaping that this episode, with its exploration of artificial intelligence, has a great many similarities with 2001: A Space Odyssey and the first two Terminator films. It may not be set in space or involve robots, but the SF cultural heritage behind the episode looms in the distance, constantly threatening to undermine all it attempts.

Does “Ghost in the Machine” manage to escape the whirlpool popular culture? The Central Operating System (COS), which we know from the outset is behind the entire episode’s mystery, is visibly present like HAL 9000, running all programmable systems in the skyscraper featured in the episode. And like 2001 we are constantly shown its cameras as it clearly looks at the humans running around its environment.

On the Terminator front, the references to the program’s militaristic potential makes everything seem very Skynet. The method chosen by Mulder and Scully to handle the AI, once they know what’s happening is also reminiscent of Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

There is one other text that the episode is reminiscent of – Ghost in the Shell. The anime/manga’s play with AI is more sophisticated than what happens here, but I feel that any similarities are more likely to be accidental than on-purpose.

Ghost in the machine img 3Today’s cheese factor

Unlike the more paranormal episodes, “Ghost in the Machine” makes for tough viewing today, due to how much more we now understand about artificial intelligence, but also concepts like Big Data, the Internet of Things, and data analysis. A lot of the technology, outside of a machine having its own consciousness, is here now.

However, one of the cheesiest moments comes when Mulder and Scully are questioning the company’s founder Brad Wilczek, and he’s asked to explain who might have accessed the COS, at this point no one suspects the COS. Brad replies:

“Finally, the bonus question. Not many, is the answer.”

Mulder asks, almost like he’s struggling with the words, “Could someone have hacked into the system?”

Brad answers, “Well, not your average phone freak, that’s for sure. But there’s plenty of kooks out there. Data travellers, electro wizards, techno anarchists. Anything’s possible.”

The above is so like 90s interpretations of technology. Scully finds Brad’s genius difficult to interpret and I can’t help feeling that had he been a chemist, rather than a programmer, that his knowledge wouldn’t have been conveyed as so alien. Because that’s the thing with this tech heavy episode, because it’s a representation of AI, it elevates the technology to a degree of mysticism that it didn’t need.

But I suppose this balances with the general knowledge of computing that existed in the US public of the time.

Ghost in the machine img 4Doesn’t always have to be the paranormal

Notably, “Ghost in the Machine” is the first time that technology is at the antagonist. However it really doesn’t do anything that hadn’t been done before in popular media. Keeping us guessing would have really improved the episode overall. I think it was a poor choice by the episode’s writers and director to show that the COS was responsible from the get go.

What did you think of this episode? Let us know in the comments below.