Season 1, Episode 7
Director: Jerrold Freedman
Writer: Alex Gansa, Howard Gordan
Day 7. One week into this 201-day journey, and I’m still going strong. The exercise is proving fascinating both in terms of a 90s-era time capsule experience with shoulder pads, silk suits, and big floral print dresses all over the place and in terms of where the hell was I when this was originally on air. Overall, the “Squeeze” episode is clearly the superstar of the first seven episodes. It’s canon.
It is extremely unfortunate – for The X-Files, that is – that I recently watched John Badham’s 1983 classic WarGames. That film blended early computer technology, a timeless sense of wonder, and a brilliant lead performance by Matthew Broderick to tell the story of an A.I. (“Joshua”) attempting to win the game of Global Thermonuclear War at any cost. The X-Files seventh episode, “Ghost in the Machine,” tells an admittedly more advanced version of the same story. However, WarGames feels as if it were written by someone who at least casually understood computers and technology while “Ghost” feels as if it were written by someone who wishes they casually understood computers and technology. That aside, “Ghost” completely lacks the humor and amusing back-and-forth banter between Mulder and Scully. If I’d been disappointed in a few early offerings, then this is The X-Files first real dud.
The episode opens at the headquarters of software company Eurisko where two men are arguing over the direction of the company: founder Brad Wilczek and CEO Benjamin Drake. Drake proposes a cost-cutting measure of shutting down the computerized brains of the building – the Center Operating System (COS). As he drafts a memo outlining his proposal, COS apparently “reads” the text and orchestrates an elaborate death for his CEO nemesis. Mulder and Scully are approached by Mulder’s former partner, Jerry Lamana, who is investigating Drake’s death. Seems that Lamana is a terrible FBI agent and needs Mulder’s superior skills to solve the crime. Lamana ultimately steals Mulder’s notebook (clearly a crime punishable by death) and attempts to solve the crime himself only to be killed in an elevator shaft by COS. The episode wraps up when Wilczek, arrested for the two murders, develops a virus that Mulder ultimately installs in the computer, effectively killing COS. There are even cries of surprise and sadness from COS, a la HAL from 2001. But is COS really dead? And do we care?
“Ghost in the Machine” rises and falls on its understanding and relationship to technology, and as another “monster of the week” episode, it struggles to find ways to make COS a threatening entity. The “killer” electrocutes and drops his victims in elevator shafts. He surreptitiously logs into the FBI computers to read their reports. He even uses massive winds to (comically) blow Scully around some airshafts and almost into a giant circulating fan. None of this feels especially scary, a huge negative given this was their first Halloween episode (the prior episode “Shadows,” featuring an actual ghost, was much scarier in retrospect). Plus, the episode loses a great deal of authenticity when it describes techies as “neat and scruffy,” a simplistic characterization of tech-minded people by those who clearly don’t understand them at all.
But just to satisfy The X-Files faithful, they throw in a cameo by Deep Throat just to anchor it to any sense of mythology the show, at the time, was trying to build. The cameo felt tacked on and unnecessary, an explanatory scene to offer Mulder explanations he didn’t need. Not because he didn’t want to know the truth but because he’s smart enough to figure that truth out on his own.
And in case you’re wondering, “Joshua” could kick “COS” in his virtual ass.