I’ve been rewatching The X Files season 1 lately, and I’ve been politely surprised by how good the first few episodes are. Episode 3, Squeeze, is a particular favorite of mine.
But one of the other early episodes in season one made me think about the state of AI in science fiction. More specifically, how our perceptions of artificial intelligence have changed since The X Files season 1 aired in 1993.
Artificial Intelligence in The X Files
The X Files season 1, episode 7, “Ghost in the Machine” presents the main villain as an evil AI that has full control over an office building.
The Central Operating System (COS) has the ability to monitor video surveillance, overhear incoming and outgoing phone calls, analyze digital documents, and control power to the Eurisko building.
When the COS learns that the president of Eurisko is going to cut the program that supports the COS product line, the AI locks the president in the bathroom and electrocutes him to death.
Enter Mulder and Scully. The investigation commences, and the COS kills an FBI agent by smashing him in an elevator shaft.
Eventually, the COS is defeated when Mulder infects it with a virus that Brad Wilczek, the original creator of the AI, gave him.
“Ghost in the Machine” Origins
“Ghost in the Machine” is named after the 1967 book by Arthur Koestler, a popular philosopher and political activist. The book wrestles with the duality of the mind-body relationship, none of which really appears in The X Files episode.
The title might also be seen as a spoof off the cyberpunk anime and manga Ghost in the Shell, first serialized in 1989. And the Central Operating System villain in The X-Files, is reminiscent of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That being said, the episode isn’t that bad. It still has the clever banter between Mulder and Scully, it has a particular style that makes it entertaining. The Guardian listed it as one of The X Files best episodes, which, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t really accurate, but to each their own.
No Deviation on a Theme
It is, however, very clear that the writers had a limited grasp of computer technology and artificial intelligence. When you compare “Ghost in the Machine” to other computer-centric literature of the times, it just doesn’t stack up, and even plays off the cliches that so many other writers try to avoid.
Neuromancer, William Gibson’s 1985 dive into cyberpunk, popularized artificial intelligence, both as positive and negative forces in the sci-fi genre. Max Headroom also brought AI into the limelight, with the film Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future (1985).
The predecessors, the giants in the genre, set down a pretty solid base for experimentation with artificial intelligence. However, the writers for “Ghost in the Machine”, seemed to strip the theme down to it’s basest of forms, preying on the fear of hyper-intelligent computers.
It’s no secret that the writers were out of their element, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa admitted they were not “computer literate” and were disappointed by the final product.
“Ghost” doesn’t make any mention of the Turing test—the test designed to determine if an artificial intelligence has reached levels of sentient, human-consciousness—and you’d think Mulder would know about the test. And to mention AI and not the Turing test just felt incongruent to me.
Not to mention the fact the COS speaks impending doom with its synthesized voice; as a 2021-viewer, it just seemed like a thing of the past. I’m not ignoring the fact that the show aired in 1993, I’m only saying that even for it’s time, “Ghost” was a bit behind the advance of science, and science fiction.
The one part that did stick out to me about the episode was the government’s intense desire to get their hands on the COS. The Department of Defense does all in its power to control the AI and use it as a weapon, which fits right in with the whole jist of The X files season 1.
The show, particularly in the early seasons, is all about how the government is using very advanced technology – most of it from aliens—to build bigger, better war machines. So “Ghost” fits in to that theme pretty succinctly.
The Redemption Arc
This episode was supposed to be one rooted in science, but it came off kind of bland and fell upon the cliché of fanciful hackers. The way Mulder stops the COS is with a virus that overrides the screen with a flood of numbers in bright green color.
Anyone who knows even a bit about computers knows that’s not how it works.
And the writers knew that. They knew that their lack of computer savvy impacted the storytelling in the episode, so years later, in season 5 of The X Files, they attempt a computer/AI show again.
Except this time, they employed the tech genius of William Gibson and Tom Maddox. The episode is called “Kill Switch” and focuses on artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
I will say that “Kill Switch” is much better than “Ghost” in terms of believability. Perhaps down the line we’ll do an in-depth comparison of the two episodes.
For now, I’m content with saying that even though some critics raved for “Ghost”, it only goes to show you how computer literate the media was in 1993. And that wasn’t very.
But, the positive reviews for “Kill Switch” affirm that artificial intelligence in science fiction can always be done right, and will continue to intrigue viewers.
If you liked this article, check out some of our other blog posts about popular science fiction television!