16 March 2018

The X-Files: "RM9SBG93ZXJZ" (Spoiler Review)

Remember when I said that this season has been very consistent and sure of itself? Well, about that...

"RM9SBG93ZXJZ" is the seventh episode of season eleven of The X-Files. The title translates to "Followers" in Base64 code. It was written by Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin, and directed by Glen Morgan. A tribute to the British Netflix show Black Mirror, "Followers" shows us what may happen when technology runs amok. 

In the tease, a robotic voice tells the real-life story of the Microsoft chatbot that was launched on Twitter in March 2016, and how in just under twenty-four hours, the bot began mimicking toxic and offensive tweets from some of Twitter's more "outspoken" users before the creators deleted the account. 

This story becomes the basis of the episode: AI learns from us, so we must be careful about what we teach it. It's something that Mulder and Scully will have to figure out by themselves when, after refusing to tip the robot staff at the fully automated sushi restaurant, the agents become harassed by their home appliances and their smart devices. As the attacks begin to escalate to the point when Mulder is being chased by tiny drones, and Scully's furnace explodes after a gas leak, the agents throw away all of their portable tech (including Scully's "personal massager") and run away. 

They seek refuge in an empty factory, in a sequence that is way too reminiscent of the last act of Terminator to be a coincidence. But the machines attack them here, too. The agents get cornered by a mean looking robot that "hands" Mulder his smartphone and gives him the last chance to tip the robot sushi chefs. In the weirdest and least motivated ten seconds of the show ever, Mulder makes the last second decision to donate the smallest possible amount. The machines cease their onslaught and let the humans go.

In the final scene, we see Mulder and Scully having a quiet breakfast at a diner with an all-human staff. Mulder tips the waitress, Scully takes his hand, they smile. Fade to black. 

"Followers" is the most unusual X-File of this season so far and is a departure from how the show usually looks, sounds and feels. From the very first scene at the sushi restaurant at which Mulder and Scully are the only guests, you know this episode is going to be different. There is barely any dialogue, and most of the time when the characters speak they are trying to communicate with their smart devices. The episode looks different, too. It feels almost as if our heroes have been transported into a different world, where futuristic technology is the norm and the streets of Washington DC are deserted during nighttime. 

All of the stylistic and storytelling choices in "Followers" exist for the benefit of what the writers want to say about the way technology controls and permeates our lives. In their interview with SyFy Wire, Cloke and Hamblin make some interesting points about what having a smartphone with us at all times may actually mean to us:  

"I think it also adds to that isolated feeling that the obsession with technology and your cell phone and all that stuff [gives you]. You feel like you are engaged all the time, but maybe you're even more alienated by not really engaging." - Hamblin.

"A lot of being on your technology is spent there, filling space. We all want to fill the space, and that's why phones have taken over our lives. They are really great space-fillers." - Cloke.

If you want to take a deeper look at what "Followers" is trying to say about technology, I recommend reading the review by Tony Black of Cultural Conversation, as well as the SyFy Wire interview (links down below). Here, I can only add one thing. 

Movies and shows like Black Mirror do a great job speculating about how technology can become our foe exploring all sorts of nightmarish scenarios. But it wasn't until I saw "Followers" that I realized that none of the Black Mirror episodes depict the simplest and the most trivial ways technology can be frustrating and destructive. As anyone who has punched the CAPTHA code countless times before the system finally realized you weren't a bot or had the pleasure of "talking" to an automated service to book their delivery from IKEA will recognize themselves in "Followers". 

Fearful Symmetry

Is technology our friend or foe? Is AI indeed learning from us, and if it does, do we have a responsibility to be better teachers? Have we gone so far as to let technology take over lives and our minds? These are all incredibly interesting and relevant questions and for the most part, the episode deals with these questions pretty well. Unfortunately, it does that at the expense of the characters and the story itself. 

Take for instance the aesthetics of this episode. "Followers" looks great. I like the pedantic symmetry of shots in Scully’s home, and the contrast between the hyper-futuristic sushi restaurant and the homely mess of Mulder’s house.

The problem here is that this isn't The X-Files. "Followers" is a thinly veiled homage to/rip off of Black Mirror. The reason I find it problematic is that The X-Files is too strong of a show to be borrowing from other shows, and "Followers" relies too much on this borrowed imagery.

Back when the show was still young, and when Scully was still wearing shoulder pads, the writers did make themselves guilty of “paying homages” to iconic sci fi movies. The most notable example of it is the season one episode “Ice” which is basically the TV version of John Carpenter’s The Thing. But as the show got more confident, it developed its own visual style and its own very recognizable iconography, one that many shows that followed in Chris Carter's footsteps have been eager to emulate. 

The X-Files has always had its own trademark look, and the latest season and a half have been very good at keeping the balance between maintaining that look and making the show look new and fresh. Enter then "Followers" which looks nothing like any of the episodes we’ve seen so far. This isn’t a bad thing per se, and I applaud both Morgan and the writers for their desire and courage to experiment, but in this case, it felt like I was watching a different show. 

I may sound like a pedantic fangirl criticizing the stylistic choices of "Followers" but to me the Black Mirror aesthetics is symptomatic of a bigger problem I have with this episode.

In many ways, "Followers" is the outlier of this season. The rebellious kid who just won't fit in. Again, there is no problem with trying something different. The real question here is, how does it affect the characters and the season in general? "Followers" reminds me of the Treehouse of Horror episodes of The Simpsons. These Halloween specials feature the same characters, but they depict a different universe and the events of those episodes are not a part of the Simpsons canon. Finally, almost everybody in these stories acts out of character. 

And just like that episode where Homer Simpson starts the Apocalypse by accidentally making the computers rise against humans, "Followers" finds itself in this uncanny valley where the world is just a little bit off and the characters behave in a way that makes them a little less recognizable. 

For instance, take the no dialogue thing. Mulder and Scully are sitting at an empty sushi bar, taking selfies and not saying a word to each other. When you think about what the writers are trying to say about technology and its role in our lives, the choice to not have any dialogue makes sense. However, it is such an awkward scene because Scully and Mulder would be the last people on Earth to choose social media over having a conversation. This is such an out-of-character moment, especially when you think about all the fantastic lines shared between these characters. 

Conversations on the rock 

If you're going to make your characters do something radical, like not speak for the majority of the episode, there has to be an in-universe explanation for this choice. In the critically acclaimed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Hush", a group of demons called the Gentlemen steal people's voices so that nobody can hear them when they harvest their victims‘ hearts. For two thirds of the episode there is not one line of dialogue spoken by any of the characters. In "Hush" that premise works because there is a legitimate reason for there not being any dialogue.

Take then "Followers" where two of the most eloquent characters on TV barely say two words to each other because the writers wanted to make a statement. It's a good statement to make but not when it comes at the expense of the characters. 

I know, I know... I just spent the last three paragraphs ranting about how Mulder and Scully aren't talking in this one. But this is just one of the choices that the writers make that makes this episode stick out like a sore thumb. Since when does Scully live in a "smart house"? Since when can she afford one? Are we supposed to believe that Washington DC - the twenty first largest city in the United States becomes deserted when the sun goes down? It’s these seemingly small details that take the me out of the story, and frankly make me wish I was watching Black Mirror.    

To me, "Followers" is a confusing episode. I’m not going to lie, after the first viewing I was intrigued. It felt to me like this episode was trying to say something profound, I just didn't know what because I couldn’t look past its glossy surface. As with all the previous episodes, I watched this one twice - once as a fan, and then the second time to prepare for the review. But if in most cases, I found a lot more to enjoy on the second viewing, "Followers" was the first episode which was a chore to get through the second time around. I felt like I had watched a TV episode with an admirable level of ambition, but that was less sure of itself than its predecessors. 

And the whole concept of being attacked by your home appliances just isn't scary anymore. I wonder why? 

"Life's a glitch, then you die"

"Followers" isn't bad, and its weaknesses aren't unique to this one episode. In fact, they're more emblematic of the general quality of the AI/tech episodes of The X-Files. Take the cyberpunk thriller "Kill Switch" from season five. "Kill Switch" is a plot-driven episode, and none of the events there are of any consequence to the characters. The episode puts the tech-heavy plot on the forefront and the characters are just there. "Followers" suffers from a similar affliction. Let’s just say Cyberpunk is not The X-Files' strongest side. 

The exception here is "This", but in that episode the Matrix-like simulation plot is secondary to the story that asks questions about world politics, about Mulder and Scully's place in the world, and the concept of soul. The stakes here are high because they're personal. And all those philosophical questions are discussed by our heroes, which makes the themes of the episode more relevant, and the heroes more relatable. 

I’m not saying that every X-File has to relate to the characters personally. But this is a character-driven show, and when you put your themes before the characters and before the story itself, it almost feels like a betrayal.  

Links and sources 

The X-Files – ‘Rm9sbg93zxjz’ - Cultural Conversation 

Twitter taught a Microsoft's AI chatbot to be a racist asshole in less than a day - The Verge

EXCLUSIVE: X-Files writers Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin explain 'RM9SBG93ZXJZ' - SyFy Wire

No comments:

Post a Comment