Many X-Files installments, in the show’s 202 episode run, have proved to be eerily prescient. It’s a fact on which creator Chris Carter prides himself. When you combine his sensibility with one of the most beloved and influential sci-fi writers of the late 20th century — and the most cyber-obsessed — you have a recipe for some of the most high-concept episodes in the X-Files lexicon.
William Gibson co-wrote two episodes, Season 5’s “Kill Switch” and Season 7’s “First Person Shooter,” with his friend and fellow sci-fi novelist Tom Maddox. Gibson’s daughter was obsessed with the series, and got him interested in it. Gibson and Maddox ultimately saw the series as a good staging ground for a collaboration, and came to the studio with the idea, not vice versa.
Gibson’s episodes proved to be typically cynical and creepy, featuring intelligence, obsession, and lust instigated by and ultimately subsumed into cyberspace, and extension of it beyond our comprehension. The themes in the episodes overlap with much of Gibson’s most famous novels — most notably, “cyberpunk” classics Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Humans set up technological conditions they cannot control, spawning disembodied, AI intelligences that can inflict real destruction, and find ways to make themselves felt offline.
“Kill Switch” proved to be one of the most top-viewed episodes in the series. Its story focuses on a renegade AI birthed from a series of “interlocking viruses” created by the character of Donald Gelman — as Mulder claims, as “one of the inventors of the internet.” In a somewhat hilarious detail, various strengths of internet connection need to be in place for the AI to carry out its dastardly deeds on Earth — mostly, attempting to kill its creators through precision bombings. The search leads Mulder to a T3 connection in Fairfax, Virginia, where the AI has set up a tinfoiled-over trailer home run by robot extensions of itself to conduct operations from. It hooks Mulder into a fever dream that looks like an episode of AHS: Asylum mixed with the surgical scenes in Brazil.
Needless to say, it’s a bizarre “what if” universe. “Kill Switch”’s logic and technological lingo was dense enough to be damn near impossible to parse for the average, fairly internet-illiterate viewer in 1998. Now, it’s hard to understand simply because the technology no longer looks or functions like anything we have available, the terminology is garbled, and because Gibson is crazy. Nonetheless, the dynamic action, the harrowing idea of “uploading” your consciousness and the idea of an AI outsmarting humans by synthesizing endless loads of information — personal and technical — was enough to make the episode such a hit that Carter would reach out to Gibson for another collaboration later in the show.
In the days of Black Mirror, Her, Ex Machina, and NSA outrage and paranoia, “Kill Switch” still feels of the moment, in a macro sense. OSs and social media platforms become ever-smarter, catering all information so specifically to its user that sometimes one’s web interface can seem too responsive for comfort — sometimes like cold simulacra of ourselves. This is the uncanny feeling Gibson’s episodes succeed in delivering.
Bundles of data take on even more specific, human-like personalities in “First Person Shooter,” an episode which came at a slightly more troubled time in X-Files history. It’s got the garish look of early ‘00s action and sci-fi. It’s even more extreme because it involves a VR shooter game, with players outfitted in full Doom or Quake-like battle armor. Mulder and Scully are at peak poker faced cynicality, joining forces with the Lone Gunmen to figure out how a human being was killed inside a new prototype for a game. It’s an opportunity to parody the greed and naivete of Silicon Valley types — the company is run by a bunch of crass twenty-somethings, who are more willing to let people die in the game than risk not getting the Wall Street backing they need to take the product big and cash out.
“Can I get you a latte from the bar or perhaps a bottle of designer H20?” Frohike asks Mulder and Scully, unironically.
Constance Zimmer guest-stars as a programmer — the only girl in a super-gross “testosterone”-fueled environment — who creates a character that sneaks into the First Person Shooter game of its own free will. She — as Zimmer’s character puts it — feeds off the male aggression of the players, making her stronger and stronger. Eventually she’s able to control the game of her own free will, as well as physically harm those who play it. It ends with Mulder and Scully battling Maitreya in a Western-themed level of the game — definitely a Westworld tribute — whose form Zimmer derived from medical imaging of a stripper. Yes, there’s a weird sexual energy running throughout this episode. The universe of the game is visceral; much of the episode is spent with male characters leering at women from Scully to Maitreya, or in heavy AK combat.
Here’s a funny fan montage to give you an idea of the aesthetic here:
Gibson’s episodes took the network to the peak of its budget, due to the unusually involved computer effects; “First Person Shooter” went over significantly. But his contributions to the series are among the most beloved that came from non-core writers. Certainly, they are the most forward-thinking. If the heavy NSA and surveillance discussion in the first episode of the new series is anything to go off of, we can expect more exploration of the sinister potential of intelligent technology developing faster than we can keep up with it, or at least do damage control.