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The X-Files – Ghost in the Machine (Review)

I like Ghost in the Machine more than I really should. I mean, I know it’s a mess. The plotting is uninspired. The characters are thin. There’s a last minute link to the show’s overall conspiracy arc thrown in to compensate for the fact that plugging a device into a USB socket is hardly the most thrilling of climaxes. And yet, despite that, I think there’s an endearing weirdness to Ghost in the Machine that appeals to me.

It’s an AI story that has clearly written by a team who (by their own admission) know nothing about computers, and so there’s an almost ethereal quality to the whole thing – Mark Snow’s looping electronic score, the sparse theatrical set design of the COS mainframe, and director Jerrold Freedman’s obvious affection for Dutch angles all contribute to the sense that something rather strange is happening at the very edge of the frame.

Watch out...

Watch out…

Like Shadows, the plot of Ghost in the Machine is straight forward. Mulder and Scully are consulted on a mysterious murder investigation. The culprit turns out to be exactly who we expect it to be. Mulder and Scully rush into the rescue, and the episode ends on the typical “… or is it?” pseudo-cliffhanger. There aren’t any real curve-balls thrown, and the episode never really turns out to be anything other than what we thought it to be.

There is an argument to be made that most of the strong and prolific writers on The X-Files had a preference towards one of the two lead characters. Sure, most could write both leads competently, but there was a general sense that certain writers are stronger with one of the duo than they are with the other. Fresh off Conduit, Howard and Gansa continue to focus on Mulder. The character hook in Ghost in the Machine involves the sudden reappearance of Mulder’s old partner, drawing him into this mysterious case.

Cracked reflection...

Cracked reflection…

This is quite interesting. After all, the early part of the season has spent quite some time exploring what being on the X-Files must mean for Scully. She was a promising recruit with a bright future ahead of her, but it’s clear that her commitment to Mulder is going to cost her dearly – personally and professional. This has already become a recurring theme, seven episodes into the season, covered in both Squeeze and The Jersey Devil.

Less time, however, is devoted to what Mulder gave up to work on the X-Files. Conduit made it clear that he had personal motivations for sinking his life into the investigation of the paranormal, but the show also established that Mulder is a gifted agent. After all, the only way that somebody can get away with being that big a jerk is due to an abundance of talent. Mulder worked in behavioral sciences, and the show often uses that as something of a story hook.

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

However, Ghost in the Machine is the first time we really get a sense of the life that Mulder gave up to work in his “basement office with no heat or windows.” The episode doesn’t delve into it in any real depth, but the fact that Jerry could survive his massive screw-up suggests that Mulder could easily have gone very far indeed. The pair might have had “different career goals”, but the fact that Jerry is hanging on in there suggests that perhaps Mulder could easily have made it to the coveted “fifth floor”, if that is what he wanted.

Ghost in the Machine never really develops the relationship between Mulder and Jerry in any real way. It’s weird to see Mulder acting so friendly and polite towards a fellow agent – suggesting that maybe Mulder might actually have a friend in the building who isn’t Scully. While he privately challenges Jerry for stealing his profile notes, Mulder refuses to publicly call him out. It’s implied that he’s significantly less upset about it than Scully is.

Partners in crime(fighting)...

Partners in crime(fighting)…

While Mulder spends the first few minutes desperately trying to avoid committing to helping Jerry, he seems genuinely and sincerely concerned about his old partner. Given the contempt that Mulder has shown towards other agents, it’s weird to see Mulder extend so much sympathy towards Jerry. While it hardly fits the with bitter and cantankerous Mulder we’ve seen over the past few episodes, it does a lot to humanise him.

Perhaps too much. The problem with Jerry is that Gordon and Hansa seem to be trying too hard. He’s like a lost little puppy serving to remind viewers that Mulder is (more than likely) a nice guy. Gordon and Hansa have a habit of humanising Mulder, which comes in handy when other writers emphasise his stand-off-ish-ness, but his relationship with Jerry feels a lot more contrived and a lot more forced than his emotional connection in Conduit.

It's all a bit askew...

It’s all a bit askew…

It’s quite clear that Jerry’s purpose is to somehow make this monster-of-the-week a bit more personal, just like the tenuous attempts to connect the adventure to the vast government conspiracy. Jerry exists to remind us that Mulder isn’t all bad, and to serve as motivation towards the climax. Scully effectively concedes as much, rather bluntly stating, “Mulder, I think you’re looking for something that isn’t there. And I think it has something to do with Jerry.” It feels rather inelegant and on the nose.

In a way, Jerry is symptomatic with the biggest problems with Ghost in the Machine. Everything feels decidedly functional, and transparent. There’s no real effort put into concealing the script’s slight of hand. Once the computer is dealt with, another threat conveniently appears to eat up a few minutes of screen time. There’s no nuance or twist or surprise. Mulder defeats the computer using plug-and-play technology. (If the computer’s so smart, why can’t it just refuse “autorun.exe”?

What a load...

What a load…

And again, to be fair, Howard Gordon has been quite candid about his disappointment with the episode:

Matt: You’ve mentioned being quite disappointed with Ghost in the Machine, feeling the Artificial Intelligence subject wasn’t developed. In light of all that has developed with AI research science since then, today if you were to ever write a story that involved that subject again, would you take a very different approach?

Howard: I suppose the most disappointing aspect of Ghost in the Machine was that there weren’t many – or even any – surprises in the story. It felt a little by-the-numbers. I went on to tell another AI story on my series, Strange World, and unfortunately it suffered from a similar weakness. So I don’t know how I’d do it differently, all I know is that I’ll think twice before I do another AI story.

I can see that, and Ghost in the Machine is by no means a flawless episode.

It's making art!

It’s making art!

And yet, despite that, there is something quite appealing about it – particularly building off the two rather bland episodes that aired directly before it. There’s something just a little bit odd about it, something which doesn’t feel quite right. There’s a sense of weirdness around the edge of the frame, lurking in the shadows, seeping into the production. This isn’t just a straight-forward piece of nineties television, even though it seems like an attempt was made to beat it into that shape. This is something decidedly strange.

There’s something weirdly “pop!” about the episode’s whole aesthetic. The COS operates from a minimalist control room that looks like an undressed theatre space – four drab grey walls, a desk and a surprisingly small mainframe. The lighting of that space feels somehow ethereal, bulbs dangling from from the high ceiling on long cables, purple back-lighting to set the mood. When Wilczek tries to save Jerry’s life from inside the control room, the security camera footage is tiled on the screen like a demented Andy Warhol painting.

Looking up...

Looking up…

Mark Snow’s work on the show is often overlooked, but he provides a truly weird soundtrack to underscore Ghost in the Machine. Whenever anything is happening, director Jerrold Freedman tilts the camera almost thirty degrees. (Even while Scully is crawling through the air vent.) The skyscraper is shot like the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is an episode where a sentient computer stalks Scully, ringing her in the middle of the night and forcing her to listen to dial-up internet. (Is this the computer equivalent of heavy breathing?)

Even the little details add up to more than mere plot points or clues. When COS first steals Scully’s file, we see a snippet of her notes beyond what she spoke on screen. Most of it makes a reasonable amount of sense, but the first line feels a little weird out of context. “Vietnam created a riff which has not healed,” we’re told in something of a non sequitur. Of course, given The X-Files’ fixation on the dark secrets buried in American history following the Second World War, it’s quite a potent little phrase.

Dialed-up modem, eh?

Dialed-up modem, eh?

If this were Lost, there’d be entire websites built around deciphering it. The portion of Scully’s notes glimpsed on screen also point to “Oedipal rage” as a potential motivation for murder, suggesting Scully’s a bit more Freudian than we thought and also adding some nice unsettling subtext. (Can computers experience “Oedipal rage”? The script never really gives us any motivation for COS beyond “it doesn’t want to die and maybe it’s sociopathic”, so the subtext adds some nuance.)

Later on, Scully is listening to tapes of speeches given be Wilczek speaking about the company he helped create. Scully keeps looping back over the same line. “Eastern philosophy. Eastern philosophy. Eastern philosophy.” This isn’t just conducting interviews or reviewing old newspapers for clues. There’s something decidedly more surreal going on here, something a bit less “normal” than we’ve come to expect.

It's a (main)frame!

It’s a (main)frame!

Of course, there are rational reasons given for these strange little odds-and-ends. Scully is trying to find a snippet of audio where Wilczek says “Eastern”, so that is why she is looping the tape. The comment about Vietnam has nothing to do with the wider social history of the United States, as a later scene confirms – Wilczek and his father had a disagreement over the war. There’s obviously still a fair amount of subtext – so it’s a generational “riff” for the two of them, like it is for the country – but it’s less abstract than it seemed.

As Lance McCord notes, it lends the entire episode an almost Lynchian feel, offering a glimpse into a world that is so much stranger than it appears to be at first. It’s elements like this that make Ghost in the Machine much more intriguing than The Jersey Devil or Shadows, even if they can’t quite elevate the story to the status of a classic. It feels a little weird and wacky, something that would become a hallmark of the show.

They have to cut through a lot of red tape...

They have to cut through a lot of red tape…

It helps that Gansa and Howard do a much better job connecting Ghost in the Machine to the show’s paranoia than Chris Carter did with The Jersey Devil. While the notion of New Jersey local authorities believing in (and covering up) for a local legend seemed absurd, at least the government’s interference here seems appropriate. After all, the relationship between the United States government and big industry has always been the cornerstone of the conspiratorial mindset – the perverse blending of two gigantic loosely-defined evils into one overarching sinister force.

There’s still a sense that the reveal of a government mole feels a little forced – an attempt to give the episode a more satisfying conclusion than “Mulder hits the off-switch.” And there’s also a sense – as with The Jersey Devil – that the show has yet to firmly delineate between its own over-arching conspiracy plot and the smaller monster-of-the-week episodes. The show is still figuring out what it will be, and so hasn’t quite defined its two most significant subgenres.

Scully needs to vent...

Scully needs to vent…

However, the government angle works reasonably well because Howard and Gansa anchor it in post-war history. Like the reference to Vietnam in Scully’s notes, the episode implies that the American psyche is itself still coming to terms with some of the events of the previous half-century. Wilczek and Mulder discuss the government’s interference in a grander context, suggesting the nation is still dealing with collective guilt from the development of the atomic bomb.

“After the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Robert Oppenheimer spent the rest of his life regretting he’d ever glimpsed an atom,” Wilczek advises Mulder. On its own, it seems like a strange segue, but it fits with the rather surreal and shifting subtext of the episode – like Scully’s allusion to Vietnam, the episode might be about an evil murderous computer, but it’s rooted in something a lot weirder. “He loved the work, Mr. Mulder. His mistake was in sharing it with an immoral government.”

Jerry-rigged...

Jerry-rigged…

Even in the context of a murdering computer, the fear of government authority hangs over the show. “You’re afraid of the government but you’re willing to accept the risk that your machine will kill again,” Mulder accuses. Wilczek responds, simply, “The lesser of two evils.” Even when the government mole is revealed, he refuses to tell Mulder and Scully who exactly he is working for. “Lets just say our paychecks are signed by the same person,” he offers, making it clear that he’s completely unaccountable.

It’s a very grim assessment of the type of threat facing Mulder – one less fantastic than aliens or flying saucers. This is a power that feels it can take whatever it wants without ever having to answer for that. The fact that Mulder’s confrontation with the double-agent plays out in the minimalist control room feels strangely appropriate – this abuse of government power is theatrical and absurd. It is so completely hard to reconcile with American ideals (including liberty and free enterprise) that it feels almost unreal.

That new operating system is a bit of a wash-out...

That new operating system is a bit of a wash-out…

And this gives us the grim moral of the tale. Consulting Deep Throat on the matter, Mulder makes it clear that the outcome was not ideal. “What else could I have done?” he asks. “Nothing,” Deep Throat responds. “Unless you were willing to let the technology survive.” Mulder’s inability to compromise, and his concern for the safety of others become weaknesses that can be easily exploited. The authorities will always win because they are not beholden to such rules and morality. It’s a dark little moral, but one perfectly in keeping with the show’s philosophy.

(As an aside, it’s also worth noting the climax of Ghost in the Machine sees Scully getting to do “the Bruce Willis thing” and also saving Mulder from the traitor. The show occasionally bungled its handling of Scully as a character, but she really was one of the definitive television heroines of the nineties, wasn’t she? In terms of pop culture impact, only Buffy comes close.)

Shot dead...

Shot dead…

Ghost in the Machine is not a classic episode. It is, however, an interesting one. And – at this stage in the season – I’ll settle for that.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The X-Files:

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3 Responses

  1. One of my favorite episodes. Great essay!

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