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The X-Files – Kill Switch (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

On the surface of it, William Gibson seems a strange fit for The X-Files.

He certainly seems like a more eccentric choice than Stephen King. King was a writer famed for his horror stories, with a fascination for small-town life and an interest in guilt as a legacy of American history. On paper, King should have been the perfect “special guest writer” for the show, able to churn out a script that would resonate perfectly with the larger themes of The X-Files while still sitting comfortably within his own oeuvre. While Chinga is not a bad episode, it is not an exceptional episode by any measure. It feels perfectly adequate.

Well, that's going in the DVD menu.

Well, that’s going in the DVD menu.

As such, Kill Switch seems like a story that could go horribly wrong. Gibson is a writer most famous for his work in defining and popularising “cyberpunk”, a science-fiction subgenre that is far removed from the horror trappings generally associated with The X-Files. Gibson was a writer who tended to explore the possible future development of cyberspace and associated issues, while Carter worked very hard to anchor The X-Files in the now. Gibson’s stories seemed to take place in the not-too-distant future; Carter grounded The X-Files in a very particular now.

However, Kill Switch works. It works phenomenally well. It is an episode that feels markedly different from everything else around it, while still feeling like it belongs to The X-Files. The clash of styles is evident in Kill Switch, as writers William Gibson and Thomas Maddox find themselves adapting their themes and ideas to a completely different aesthetic. That is perhaps part of appeal. While Chinga made it look quite easy to construct a solid Stephen King story that was also a solid episode of The X-Files, Kill Switch is nowhere near as smooth. This is a different beast. And it is glorious.

"Woah, woah, woah. What happened to floppies?"

“Woah, woah, woah. What happened to floppies?”

Of course, it should be noted that just because Chris Carter is not explicitly credited on Kill Switch doesn’t mean that it enjoyed a more direct route to the screen than Chinga did. As with Chinga, the episode was long-gestating. As Resist or Serve notes:

All of which was extremely well-received by the show’s permanent writing staff, but in no way prevented the rewriting and revision process from becoming long and arduous, even for The X-Files . “We kept working, turning out piles of paper,” says Tom Maddox. “Months passed. Years. We’d get a call from the show now and then,” says Tom Maddox.

As with Chinga, there is a sense that finishing work on The X-Files: Fight the Future had helped to free up Carter’s attention so that he could devote more time and effort to guiding scripts by outside writers through the production process.

Entering the game...

Entering the game…

Much as Kim Manners had observed about Stephen King’s original draft of Chinga, director Robert Bowman reflected that the script for Kill Switch was the product of a writing team not entirely familiar with the workings of television production:

Kill Switch was written by William Gibson — a novelist. When you’re writing novels, there’s no budget, you just write and make stuff up, and puts lots of really intricate stuff into scenes. So when the script for Kill Switch came, it was the biggest thing in terms of complexity — not scale but complexity — that I’d ever looked at for X-Files.

There is a madcap energy to Kill Switch, a sense of casualness about the scale of the episode that is quite refreshing. Kill Switch is a monster-of-the-week episode with flair traditionally reserved for the mythology.

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

To be fair, Gibson and Maddox are not completely new to this game. Gibson had adapted his own short story Johnny Mnemonic for the big screen in 1995, a work that was deeply personal to him. “It was perhaps the second piece of fiction I ever wrote in my life,” he confessed in an interview around the time of the film. Maddox had been a long-term colleague and collaborator with Gibson – earning an acknowledgement in Gibson’s iconic Neuromancer for coining the acronym “ICE.”

Nevertheless, Gibson and Maddox’s cyberpunk style seems consciously at odds with the aesthetic of The X-Files. On paper, Kill Switch seems like it should be a tonal mismatch. Although The X-Files has dabbled in technological themes before – the show is very fond of killer viruses and other “science runs amok!” themes – the show has largely avoided computer-heavy stories. Prior to Kill Switch, Ghost in the Machine was the only other episode of The X-Files to touch on the idea of artificial intelligence.

Gillian Anderson has reached the point where she can roll her eyes without rolling her eyes.

Gillian Anderson has reached the point where she can roll her eyes without rolling her eyes.

However, there would seem to be an even more fundamental clash between the aesthetic of William Gibson and that of The X-Files, as Todd VanDerWerff pointed out in his review of the episode for The A.V. Club:

We’ve talked a lot here about how The X-Files essentially functions as a way to collect old legends and monster stories before they’re lost, an anthology of American horror before the mass culture smoothed away the rough edges. And, thus, the monsters tend to be of the past. Even if they’re posited as a new evolution of humanity or something, they’re built on old, musty archetypes. But the monster in Kill Switch is emphatically of a few years from now. (In many ways, it would fit in much better on The X-Files’ most obvious successor, Fringe.)

It is a fair point. The X-Files‘ typical aesthetic had largely been captured by Stephen King’s script for Chinga – eccentric spaces in the American landscape being eroded by the forces of globalisation.

A sea of shipping containers...

A sea of shipping containers…

However, the gulf is not as vast as it might seem. The X-Files is a show very much engaged with the idea of American life in the nineties, in the wake of the Cold War. It is a show about living in “the unipolar moment”, at a point where the United States has vanquished its major political opponents. It exists at what Francis Fukuyama described as “the end of history.” The show’s anxiety about the forces of globalisation encroaching into the American heartland, demolishing local legends and monsters, is just one facet of this.

The show is equally fascinated with the idea of the American frontier – past, present and future. Since Anasazi and Nisei, the show’s mythology had been fascinated with the iconography of the American frontier – and the cost of European expansion. Episodes like Darkness Falls and Detour engage with the idea of an untamed American wilderness lurking within the country’s own borders. Drive celebrated the show’s move to California by teasing a vision of America that had literally run out of frontier. “You’d better figure quick,” Crump observes at the climax of Drive. “We’re running out of west.”

Sexy nurses? This is what happens when you let something grow up on the internet.

Sexy nurses? This is what happens when you let something grow up on the internet.

In Ethnography for the Internet, Christine Hine argued that the development of the internet (and of cyberspace) in the nineties was very much constructed as a new frontier for mankind to populate:

The Internet was conceived as a new frontier, which could be colonised by whatever new structures and identities people wished to build. Cyberspace was construed as a domain apart from everyday life, imagined as offering up new possibilities or pioneering developments, separate from prevailing modes of governance and potentially free from enduring structures and inequalities experience in “real life” settings, as famously captured in John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

Of course, the internet has become a lot more commonplace and accepted in the intervening years, but there is still the sense of the internet as a sprawling wilderness – with debates about whether it should (or even can) be regulated by those in authority.

"I don't even get fibre!"

“I don’t even get fibre!”

There is still a sense that the internet is a scary and uncomfortable place for those who wander off the brightly-lit highways and overpasses. As recently as November 2013, Time published an article describing “the deep web” as “where drugs, porn and murder live on-line.” As the surface layers of cyberspace have become more accessible and more acceptable to contemporary culture, there is still some deep-seated unease about what lies beneath. (After all, the CSI franchise launched its third spin-off in 2015 – handily labelled CSI: Cyber – as a way to explore these depths.)

Writing in 2000, Bruce Braun, Dane Drobny and Douglas C. Gessner contended, “In its present infant stage, the Internet resembles the lawless ‘Wild West’.” A lot has changed since then. The average user’s anonymity is all but vanished, law enforcement has become more proactive and engaged, and countries like China have even managed to restrict and limit access to the web. Nevertheless, there is still a sense that the internet is a world inhabited by pirates and terrorists and pornographers – a realm where laws might be said to exist, but enforcement is more complex.

There is no kill like over-kill...

There is no kill like over-kill…

As such, Gibson and Maddox are not completely at odds with the broad themes of The X-Files. Indeed, it has been argued that one of Gibson’s core themes is the idea that cyberspace represents a self-perpetuating new frontier; that the old frontiers are so exhausted that mankind manufactured its own infinite frontier to explore, exploit and tame. As David Brande reflects in The Business of Cyberpunk:

That is, the limits of geographical expansion and the speed-up of turnover times in all areas of economic and cultural life necessitate the production of new territory, and Gibson’s construction of cyberspace responds to the tendency toward crises of overaccumulation with a fantastic – although not entirely incredible— vision of limitless virtual space for market expansion.

This idea finds expression throughout Gibson’s work, but perhaps most notably in the characterisation of Case in Neuromancer. Gibson’s prose invites a few comparisons between Case and the archetypal American cowboy, as if to reinforce the idea that cyberspace is new western frontier. It is at once fascinating and terrifying – a whole new ecosystem that is quite literally limitless.

This computer should really screen its guests better...

This computer should really screen its guests better…

To be fair, there are aspects of Kill Switch that have dated somewhat awkwardly – although not as poorly as one might expect. Invisigoth is a quintessentially nineties character, a young female hacker who feels like an outdated archetype. She might represent a much more convincing portrayal of hacker subculture than the characters featured in the movie Hackers, but she still feels rather broadly drawn. To be fair, a significant portion of this is the white make-up and black eye-liner, not to mention the response that she generates from the Lone Gunmen.

However, the aspect that most firmly dates Kill Switch as a product of the nineties is the script’s optimism. Kill Switch seems to present the internet as a place of almost limitless potential. It presents cyberspace as an entirely different world with entirely different possibilities. “Imagine being mingled so completely with another, you no longer need your physical self – you’re one,” Esther asks Scully. She and David planned to “enter the AI. Give up our inefficient bodies so that our consciousness could live together forever.”

This is why you hydrate.

This is why you hydrate.

While obviously the fodder of science-fiction like The Lawnmower Man or Virtuosity, it reflected a lot of the idealism associated with cyberspace in the nineties. As much as Esther, David and Donald might be reckless and arrogant, there is something decidedly utopian in their thinking. Donald Gelman is consciously framed as the antithesis of a Silicon Valley billionaire. In an interview with The Back of the Moon, Gibson described Gelman as “what Bill Gates would have become if he’d had really bad luck. The creator of the supercomputer in the show is a kind of Gates alter ego, Gates as Job.”

While his efforts might have had tragic consequences, there is a clear sense of romance around the idealist who abandoned the lure of immense wealth for what he considered to be a vocation. “Gelman?” Byers asks at one point in the episode. “Gelman was a visionary, not a capitalist. A subversive.” Gelman was a counter-culture visionary. For all the tragic consequences of his actions, Gelman is not a mad scientist. He is quite distinct from Doctor Pollidori in The Post-Modern Prometheus. In fact, he is introduced a single keystroke away from redeeming his biggest mistake.

Lone rangers...

Lone rangers…

In 1996, John Perry Barlow had published A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. Initially widely circulated, the document seemed to propose a new way of looking at the human existence – a cultural transcendence:

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge . Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.

At its peak, the document is estimated to have circulated among up to 40,000 webpages. However, that would not last. By 2002, it was suggested that the number had halved to 20,000 webpages. In hindsight, the sentiments expressed by Barlow seem almost hopelessly naive. While the internet does allow people experiences and relationships they would not otherwise have, it is much more regulated and (perhaps) mundane than people like Barlow would have hoped.

Character developer...

Character developer…

Indeed, Barlow conceded as much in a 2004 interview with Brian Doherty of Reason magazine, chalking a lot of his earlier writing to youthful enthusiasm:

I’ve been rereading some of your early ’90s writings about the digital future, and you sounded a lot more optimistic then, with a much more “nothing can stop us now” attitude.

We all get older and smarter.

One imagines that quite a few members of the cyberpunk movement share Barlow’s disillusionment at this point in the twenty-first century.

A diner to die for...

A diner to die for…

Even Gibson himself seems to have acknowledged as much. In a 2007 interview, he described his then-latest novel Spook Country not as science-fiction but as a “speculative fiction of the very recent past.” The moment has not just arrived, it has been and gone. Kill Switch feels like the product of a time when all of this lay in the future, when cyberspace seemed to offer a completely new world that could be wonderful and transcendental. Sure, it is occupied by psychotic killer viruses, but there is something endearing about that.

After all, The X-Files is a show that tends to romanticise its monsters even as it destroys them. The series often seems to pity the creatures who find the shadows shrinking around them. Episodes like Quagmire and Leonard Betts seem almost sad that there is no longer room in America for these strange exotic beasts – as if the “weird” and the “bizarre” represent an endangered species being destroyed by the march of globalisation. It seems like all the mystery is being gradually washed away, demolished for strip malls and car parks – a fate literalised in the teaser to Detour.

Mulder won't have you pointing out any plot holes, thank you.

Mulder won’t have you pointing out any plot holes, thank you.

As such, Kill Switch seems to suggest that the twenty-first century and globalisation can create its own monsters. Creatures like Eugene Victor Tooms and the Flukeman might find themselves getting squeezed out, but that is just a natural cycle. America might be losing some of its quirky and eccentric spaces, but it also generating entirely new ones. There will always be monsters, just different types of monsters – the products of different environments and different social circumstances.

Just as the terrorist replaced the serial killer as the bogeyman of choice at the start of the twenty-first century, Kill Switch offers a whole new world populated by whole new monsters. The organism in Kill Switch may not be life as we understand it, but it is alive. “Donald wrote an interlocked sequence of viruses 15 years ago,” Invisigoth explains. “It got loose on the net.” She clarifies, “He let it loose… so it could evolve in its natural environment. Urschleim in silicon.” A new monster for a new world. “It’s not a program any more. It’s wildlife loose on the net.”

Mulder has been well and truly disarmed...

Mulder has been well and truly disarmed…

In many respects, this fits quite comfortably with the larger anxieties of the fifth season. Marking the end-point of Carter’s original plan for the show and the half-way point of the show in total, the fifth season is positioned somewhat precariously. With Fight the Future filmed before the season, but released after it, the fifth season is free to reflect upon what this milestone means for The X-Files. With all of the original writers gone – except for Carter himself – it seems like the virus at work in Kill Switch was not the only thing that radically evolved beyond what was originally planned.

It is perhaps telling that the show produced its first sequel to a monster-of-the-week episode separated by more than a season, with Kitsunegari following up on Pusher. Similarly, the theme of reproductive horror bubbles across the season, from stories like The Post-Modern Prometheus to Emily to Schizogeny to Chinga. Even Kill Switch positions itself as the story of a monstrous child murdering its parents. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child,” Donald Gelman quotes to himself in the teaser.

"Okay, you got me. I'm maybe a little broadly drawn."

“Okay, you got me. I’m maybe a little broadly drawn.”

There was a palpable sense of anxiety to the fifth season, as if the show was trying to figure out how it might perpetually sustain itself. After all, the show had produced over one hundred episodes by this point, so how could it keep generating new material? Kitsunegari seems almost like a self-aware commentary on this, an affectionate parody of gratuitous sequels. Kill Switch offers its own solution to this, daring to point out that the show’s potential is functionally limitless.

After all, the closing scene of Kill Switch suggests that these eccentric cyberspace creatures might themselves become part of the American landscape – a new twenty-first century folklore. The closing scene with the kids playing ball near the RV mirrors the opening sequence of Home. Home was largely about the destruction of those weird and bizarre oddities, so it is fitting that Kill Switch ends with the suggestion that contemporary folklore is self-perpetuating and self-generating. The monsters in the shadows may change, but there will always be monsters.

I read the news today, oh boy...

I read the news today, oh boy…

Kill Switch is the first episode of The X-Files directed by Rob Bowman since he left the show to focus on Fight the Future. Bowman is a large part of why Kill Switch works as well as it does. Bowman is perhaps the show’s most cinematic director, and he brings his style to bear on the episode to create an episode that is easily one of the most visually distinctive episodes of The X-Files ever produced. Kill Switch demonstrates why Bowman was the best choice to handle Fight the Future.

Rather shrewdly, Bowman doesn’t try to fight the unique style of Gibson and Maddox. He doesn’t try to impose the look and feel of The X-Files on the episode, instead embracing the scripts cyberpunk techno-thriller aesthetic. Trying to ground Kill Switch in the show’s usual verisimilitude would be disastrous. Instead, Bowman ramps up the stylistic elements, making it quite clear from the teaser that this is not a regular episode. Indeed, the teaser is shot in the same minimalist desaturated style as Mulder’s later foray into virtual reality, as if to suggest that the whole episode might be some fevered trip.

Dead coder...

Dead coder…

The toned down look of opening scene at the “Metro Diner” is quite striking – neon signage out front, fluorescent bulbs inside. Much like “The Hokey Kokey” in Chinga, it feels like a riff on familiar Americana – the grotty diner is one of the most quintessentially American images imaginable. It lends the episode an ethereal quality. There is something quite cheeky about populating it with pop culture stereotypes like a hacker, gangsters and bikers – almost a twist on Edward Hopper’s iconic forties painting Nighthawks.

In fact, the opening scene feels like it exists on some plane adjacent to the normal reality. Twilight Time is not just a bitterly iconic choice of song for the murder of the artificial intelligence, but an allusion to this sense of relaxed reality. Both the diner setting and the use of the classic recording of Twilight Time by The Platters seem to suggest the hazy mid-twentieth century setting for the story, while the bikers and gangsters look like immigrants from a far more contemporary show. There is a wonderful juxtaposition at work that highlights the unreality of it all.

Cool! Neon!

Cool! Neon!

Bowman’s style is very much in line with contemporary cinematic cyberpunk films. Given their shared association with William Gibson, it seems appropriate that Kill Switch has some of the look and feel of 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic, albeit a little more polished. Indeed, the teaser of Kill Switch fits quite comfortably with sleek desaturated style of movies like Dark City or The Matrix; Dark City would be released a little over a week after the broadcast of Kill Switch, and The Matrix would be released the following year.

Kill Switch is an incredibly memorable episode, even from a purely visual perspective. There is something quite striking about the image of a desperate man in a cheap suit typing away on a laptop held together by sheer force well and copious amounts of tape. The use of religious iconography (lots of crosses) in the otherwise drab hospital adds a decidedly creepy undertone to Mulder’s interrogation by the organism. Even the serum used by the organism to put Mulder unconscious is neon green.

Mulder's going out on a limb here...

Mulder’s going out on a limb here…

On top of that, Kill Switch is just a fun episode, with two well-written leads having a good time. In particular, the script manages to handle Scully quite well in the middle of what is essentially a pretty absurd episode. Scully is very much the skeptic, but her skepticism seems reasonable and justifiable. She is responding the situation in much the same way as the audience – Kill Switch is pretty “out there”, even by the standards of the show, so it feels appropriate that Scully’s reaction to all this essentially boils down to “just not buying it.”

This allows Scully the freedom to gawk at the obvious absurdities of the script. Invisigoth might be a bigger problem for the episode if Scully didn’t acknowledge how ridiculous a character she is. Anderson is so incredibly comfortable with the character by this point that she pitches the performance perfectly. In one early conversation, she does this wonderfully dismissive gesture, managing to convey how incredibly skeptical she is without resorting to cliché eye-rolling or shoulder-shrugging.

Turning heads...

Turning heads…

Kill Switch is an oft-overlooked highlight of the first five seasons, a wonderful example of the appeal of drafting in outside writers to work on an established show. One of the biggest problems with Chinga was that King’s style blended too smoothly for the show – what should have been a big event wound up feeling like business as usual. With Kill Switch, there is a sense of something a bit new and different – a bold and vibrant take on these characters and their world that engages with the show’s core themes while exploring them from a slightly different angle.

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

 

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2 Responses

  1. Amazing stuff here.
    One of my favorite X-Files episodes.

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