Before we begin digging into this episode, I'd like to share a story. The year was 1991 and I was a freshman in college. My roommate, who was more technically inclined than me (hiya Chris!), came back to tell me he'd just been talking to a friend in Europe on the computer via something called the IRC. I asked how much it cost. He said it was nothing. I was concerned that he was running up an expensive bill that would be charged to our college unfairly. He insisted it cost nothing. I was skeptical. But before long I was signing up for an "e-mail" account, a process that involved going to an office on the other side of campus and filing out a paper form. Figuring this would be a marginal form of communication at best, I chose an e-mail name that reflected my interests at the time and would no way embarrass me in the future: "firstname.lastname@example.org".
I put this out there to illustrate that even not that long ago–although I guess it was kind of a long time ago now–computers were strange and mysterious creatures understood only by a few. So, yes, this episode, in which a supercomputer's artificial intelligence program develops a violent streak, can look a little silly to our eyes now, given that most of us use computers on a daily basis, an experience that tends to reinforce their limitations more often that it fills most of us with awe and dread. (Though if I ever want my sense of dread reinforced, I just go to Perez Hilton's site.)
"Ghost In The Machine" is all about technophobia born of not knowing all that much about how technology really works. It's also about the conflict between innovation and commercial interests. The episode opens on a heated confrontation between a corporate suit and a computer genius named Brad Wiliczek (Rob LaBelle) discussing the direction of a company called Eurisko that ends with the genius Williczek proclaiming, "You're killing me! You're killing my company!" This line prompted my wife to proclaim the episode "so '90s." I can't say I disagree, though I can't quite remember who won the struggle between visionaries and soulless businessmen that raged through much of the decade. Does anyone know?
Their conflict stems from the suit's decision to shut down "the C.O.S. Project." The C.O.S. project, however, has other ideas. Having developed enough of a consciousness to attempt to preserves itself, the C.O.S. kills the suit through an elaborate trap involving a phone call and an electrically charged keyhole. It takes everyone quite a while to lay the blame at the feet of the C.O.S., however, but the episode offers some diverting twists along the way, some courtesy of Mulder's down-on-his-luck, unscrupulous ex-partner Agent Lamana. (That's Wayne Duvall, cousin of Robert and best known for his role in O Brother, Where Art Thou?: "These boys is not white! These boys is not white! Hell, they ain't even old timey!")
But the C.O.S. is the main attraction here. The episode doesn't try to hide the debt owed to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most iconic cinematic supercomputer, if not the first. It's there in the similar name and the way the C.O.S. asks, ""What are you doing, Brad?" when Mulder inserts the disk-of-death that does it in. I've got a soft spot for HAL and his descendants, who were pretty common on '70s shows like The Bionic Woman. They made an impression on me as a kid, enough that I was still a little freaked out by the movie '70s movie Demon Seed–which takes the malevolent computer idea to its extreme by having a computer rape and impregnate a woman–when I saw it as a grown-up. The C.O.S. feels like the end of the line for that sort of villain. Within a few years, everyone would be online and today it's much harder to be awed by the murderous potential of the thing you use to check your bank balance and look for chicken vindaloo recipes. Current technophobic fantasies take other forms that will no doubt look equally dated 15 years on. (See Untraceable.) But it's not a bad send-off.
I'm guessing I'm in the minority in defending "Ghost In The Machine." But here's an episode that needs no defending. "Ice" is another early classic, written by Glenn Morgan and James Wong and directed by TV ace in the making David Nutter. (Nutter would direct a total of 15 X-Files episodes, including some of the best, and develop a reputation as the go-to director for TV pilots, most recently Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.) It's as fine an hour as this first season would produce.
That said, it's not The X-Files' most original hour, a fact it acknowledges with the names of the two men seen killing each other in the tensely staged pre-credits sequence: "Campbell" and "Richter." Campbell comes from John W. Campbell, Jr., the famed science fiction writer and editor whose short novel Who Goes There? has been adapted twice into film. The first adaptation was, loose but magnificent. Redubbed The Thing From Another World and officially directed by Christian Nyby but generally acknowledged as the work of producer Howard Hawks, it essentially ushered in a whole sub-genre of 1950s horror films in which a handful of humans have to save the Earth from a dire alien threat. (Sound familiar?) It was redone again in 1982 as The Thing, a tense, faithful, gory remake directed by John Carpenter, a Hawks disciple. (Both are first-rate, should anyone want some supplemental viewing.) And I'm guessing that "Richter" gets his name from screenwriter/director W.D. Richter, who wrote script to Philip Kaufman's excellent 1978 remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.
So, with tribute paid, the show proceeds to make the story of a remote, and extremely cold, outpost dealing with a body-snatching force its own. Dispatched to an Arctic research station to look into the mysterious death of, well, everyone, Mulder and Scully travel with a group of scientists and a helicopter pilot to investigate. (And, yes, those are familiar faces. Felicity Huffman doesn't really need an introduction. Xander Berkeley and Steve Hytner have guest-starred everywhere. Berkeley is best known for a long stint on 24, Hytner played Kenny Bania in six episodes of Seinfeld.)
Once there they find a lot of dead bodies and few immediate answers. Eventually it becomes clear that a parasite, once contained deep in the ice, is responsible for the trouble. Capable of burrowing beneath the skin and passing from person to person, it eventually makes its victims into murderers. The first symptoms of infection: Irritability and hostility. In other words, precisely the emotions the came from being locked up in a remote location with a bunch of people who might or might not be infected with a murderous alien parasite.
Everyone plays the paranoia beautifully, none better than Duchovny and Scully. Even by this early point it's already clear that Mulder and Scully share a deep professional respect. Whatever their philosophical differences, they both already know that they work better together than apart. So it's electric when they're forced to distrust, and even turn against one another, and more electric still when they overcome that distrust.
It's also all quite well-staged, making great use of a single, seemingly limited location. As the tension builds between characters, the scariness increases, too. Nutter uses shadows and off-screen space to build up the claustrophobia. It's hard to discount the "ick" factor, either. Those subcutaneous parasites are pretty disturbing.
And, in the end, all their fear and suffering comes to naught. The final scene finds Mulder and Scully getting the news that "your people" have torched the place. "Leave it there," Scully suggests. Even her scientific drive has found its limits.
And now, a huge step down. According to TV.com (a good trivia source that I've been using a lot), "Space" is the first season's most expensive episode. So why does it feel like the cheapest? Apparently much of the money went into the sets but the effects remained incomplete. That explains a lot. The floating face-of-Mars head that haunts former astronaut Lt. Col Marcus Auerlius Belt (Ed Lauter) is pretty decidedly unscary.
Even if the effects had been complete, I'm not sure there's much here. (Though Belt does seem exactly like the kind of childhood idol a young Mulder would worship.) The attempts to link a story of sabotage at NASA to the real-life Challenger explosion feels a little tasteless. But beyond that, what are we really dealing with here? Space ghosts? The government cover-ups and alien themes would seem to link this Chris Carter-penned episode to the series' larger mythology. But the next episode, "Fallen Angel," is a much stronger mythology episode, so maybe it's best to forget about this one and move on.
See you next week.