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11X07: Rm9sbG93ZXJz

The X-Files Season 11 / Event Series 2 : Introduction 11X01: My Struggle III 11X02: This 11X03: Plus One 11X04: The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat 11X05: Ghouli 11X06: Kitten

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Rm9sbG93ZXJz is written by Kristen Cloke (Glen Morgan’s wife and mostly an actor, memorably as the incredible Lara Means in Millennium) and Shannon Hamblin (s11’s script supervisor) and is directed by Glen Morgan (of This fame, among others), however it seems Glen also had some significant input in the story (initially it was described as his, or that the story would be his and the script would be Cloke/Hamblin) and the approach (the lack of dialogue). So while it might look like this is an episode that introduces new blood into the series, the reality is more ambiguous.

The distinguishing mark of this episode is its near complete lack of dialogue, putting it in a long tradition of “experimental” X-Files episodes like 6X03: Triangle or 7X12: X-Cops. After many episodes that feel too busy with dialogue (although less so in season 11), this is a welcome change! In that sense, this episode is The X-Files‘ counterpart to one of the best Millennium episodes, 3×06: The Curse of Frank Black, and to Space: Above and Beyond‘s Who Monitors the Birds? (both Morgan & Wong episodes)!

The subject is technology and artificial intelligence: how pervasive technology has become in all aspects of our daily lives, how we grow distant from each other due to our addiction to technology, how incapacitated we would find ourselves were this technology turn or be turned against us. The episode make use of very modern technology at the border of science fiction — Internet of Things, drones deliveries, driverless cars, automated cooks, Anymal dog-like robots — all of which exist but which still feel very science fictional to 2018 viewers, which is indeed exciting.

And that’s it, really.

It doesn’t do much more with all this than point out what 1X06: Ghost in the Machine did 25 years ago: modern technology can be spooky and dehumanizing. There is something about the A.I./children learning from humans/its parents, and that we should better ourselves or our bad aspects will be reflected back upon us, notably in the teaser (inspired by a real event with a Microsoft experiment in 2016) — however that as well is served with the subtelty of a T-800 crushing a skull.

It doesn’t help that the intrigue is, once more, not a case investigation, but a random event happening on our characters, and that the motivation is nothing more but a vendetta over a waiter’s tip. There were many ways to make a more intense use of the A.I. theme and the lack of dialogue: shoot with a smartphone as if it were found footage; show everything from the point of view of the A.I. and the cameras it can access; force the characters not to use dialogue because they fear surveillance; have the agents discover the A.I. is covering something up and that’s why it’s turning against them; etc. This is a more conventional episode. The themes and the approach are not new to either show, but comparisons to Black Mirror are inevitable — especially with the episode Metalhead in its latest season, which was produced essentially simultaneously as season 11 (featuring a manhunt by similar dog-like robots, little dialogue, and a gorgeous black-and-white photography). A.I. is a topical concept, but instead of spearheading the originality in television drama The X-Files is content to lightheartedly tackle themes better handled by other shows more attuned to the present zeitgeist.

The tip vendetta is a joke of course, like a Twilight Zone punch line, in an episode which, talking about silent film, doesn’t know if it wants to be Buster Keaton or Alfred Hitchcock. Despite the seriousness of the threats, the tone is playful; with all the focus on everyday little worries, once more it feels like we are watching the actors instead of their characters; compared to Morgan’s This, it’s a bit “been there done that”. And honestly, who could have imagined that 2018 would give us Mulder cleaning his nose hair and Scully’s smart vibrator, and labelled this The X-Files?

That being said, the episode as a whole is entertaining and enjoyable to watch, with some good scares! Morgan’s direction is competent and gives us some interesting shots of weirdness, such as Scully at eye level with the delivery drone. There was certainly some thought into the cinematography, with cold whites in the sushi bar (a cold version of Hopper’s “Nighthawks“, re-imagined with robots later in the episode!), darkness and infernal reds in the final confrontation with the robots, and human warmth in the closing scene. Technology-focused episodes like 1X06: Ghost in the Machine, 5X11: Kill Switch or 7X13: First Person Shooter don’t tend to age well despite other qualities; with its interesting ideas treated with little inspiration, at least Rm9sbG93ZXJz will be remembered for its pure entertainment value.

Miscellaneous

  • Tagline change, again: “The Truth Is Out There” in Base64.
  • This episode aired on February 28 — fittingly, March 1 is Future Day, as established in 2012 by transhumanist organization Humanity+!
  • The restaurant is “Forowa”, Japanese transliteration of “Followers”, i.e. the decoded title of the episode from Base64, but also the Twitter followers the A.I. was gathering, as described in the teaser. So right before it was shut down, the A.I. copied itself and decided the best way to make a humble living while getting to know people was to open a fully automatized sushi bar.

  • Despite the “our home” talk in This, this episode clearly establishes that Scully and Mulder live separately. And what a home Scully has! Much more interior design and coldness than could be expected from her — and high tech, obviously just for the purposes of this episode. Why does Scully no longer live in the place we got glimpses of in Founder’s Mutation? Why does Mulder drive Scully’s SUV, forcing Scully to take a taxi? Do they swap cars? Why does Mulder drive Scully’s car but has never visited her place? Do we really want to make sense of this?
  • Mulder’s credit card is “Bigly Credit”: a nod to Trump’s sort-of-neologism “bigly“?
  • Poor blobfish: once upon a time Scully would have lectured Mulder on the scientific reason behind his looks, today she just takes a photo of it.
  • It didn’t take long for obsessed fans to track the model of Scully’s vibrator, then Anderson played the game as well.
  • “This Man” sighting again, behind Mulder & Scully in the final robot showdown! Where is this taking us? Hints that this is all a dream? Related to those who want to contact William?

  • We get glimpses of what Scully and Mulder are reading on their phones: this August 2017 article about Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk warning about AI; and something from Nevada Senator Harry Reid, who in December 2017 was revealed was behind the real DoD-sponsored UFO investigation Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (kudos to the team for inserting that, this happened after the episode was shot). In a double touch of meta, Reid said “The truth is out there” when news broke out, and here Mulder receives a warning message from Reid! (Does the episode take place in December 2017 then? Mulder’s parking ticket mentions a date, June 13 2018, but that seems wrong.)

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6 Responses to “11X07: Rm9sbG93ZXJz”

  1. Χριστίνα Μπέλλου says:

    The blobfish made an appearance on Mulder’s board in “The Lost Arc of Forehead Sweat”. I am convinced that all the episodes featuring This Man are stories Jackson/William has made up (or something to that effect, anyway).

    • orodromeus says:

      I remember that yes. I am reluctant to join that theory, as it would render a big part of the season into something that is of no consequence, a dream, a fantasy. But I understand where that theory comes from. Perhaps the “truth” is in the middle ground, with This Man influencing reality – in the entry for my analysis of ghouli.net, I supposed This Man sightings might be coming from people who are psychically connected, in the way William entered Scully’s dreams. Perhaps they are subtly changing our perception of reality by invading our dreams?

  2. Andrew says:

    I didn’t enjoy this episode, it didn’t felt like an X-Files episode. I agree completely with you when you say that you want some F.B.I. investigation. All the episodes this season could still happen with Mulder and Scully retired from the F.B.I. The first thing they did in the revival was to reinstate them in the bureau, I guess because M&S as special agents are iconic and how the fans wants to see them, but then they use this in the cases too. Show them investigating, fill reports, report to Skinner, flash the badges. Great review Orodromeus.

    • orodromeus says:

      Thank you! Actually I quite enjoyed the experimental nature of the episode – I always do like it when they take risks – but found it to be less than what it could have been. As for the investigations, yes you can do interesting non-investigation XF episodes but I feel these should be the exception rather than the rule. Investigations are at the core of what XF is, and you can only change things so much before the “brand” is unrecognizable. I wouldn’t be complaining as much if we systematically got top episodes every week, but at this point I have the impression that I’m watching the DD & GA show (not even the M&S show) with some XF episodes or scenes peppered in.

      • Andrew says:

        I like that they take risks and I appreciate that in its 11th season the series still do experimental episodes. It’s just that this one felt too futuristic for me to fully enjoy it but the premise was interesting (although not new for the series) and I see a lot of positive feedback and I’m happy with that.
        One thing I like about the series is the variety of the stories and its ability to transform from episode to episode. One week we have a political thriller, next week Mulder and Scully are in the woods searching for monsters, the other week we get a surrealistic comedy, then a creepy serial killer… It’s why I’m never tired to watch the series after so many years when I’m easily bored with series like CSI or NCIS etc that are too formulaic but I’d love this season to have a couple more F.B.I. cases (to justify the need to bring M&S back to the bureau and the premise of the show) and 1 or 2 less random phenomena that happen to Mulder and Scully. The next couple of episodes seems they are classic investigations though. Thanks for sharing your views Orodromeus.

        • orodromeus says:

          The variety of formats and types of stories is certainly an excellent point for The X-Files since its conception. Even for season 11, the sum is greater than the parts, as we have seen many stories even though I find many things to complain about for individual episodes — so in that case, quantity is good as it allows to experiment and explore.

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