X-Files, Season 1, Episode 06
“Ghost in the Machine”
Written by: Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon
DIR: Jerrold Freedman
Blurb: On Halloween, Mulder and Scully investigate the death of a corporate executive who may have been murdered by a thinking computer.
Scene 01: We open our episode in Crystal City, VA at the world headquarters for Eurisko. A voiceover is telling someone named Ben that he’s infuriated, and wonders how Ben can’t see that whatever they‘re discussing is the reason their stocks have gone into the toilet recently.
Scene 02: We cut to the inside of a rather small office, for somebody who is a corporate exec. The man behind the desk would be the mentioned Ben, who is being accused of driving the company down by cutting research and development budgets in half. This is being explained by what will no doubt be a programmer, as he’s dressed in… well, let’s just call it casual-scruffy.
Our accuser is Brad. He goes on to tell Ben that he’s killing his company but Ben reminds Brad that this isn’t “his” company and they’ve already had this knock-down, drag-out at the stockholder’s meeting. Ben storms out promising Ben he’ll regret his decision.
Commentary: Oh my gosh. The acting… oh, the acting is painful in this scene. The dialog is obviously written to hide what they’re arguing about and sketch in their relationship but neither of the actors can make this sound natural and I left this scene just feeling slightly embarrassed.
Scene 03: Later that evening, our CEO is listening to a recording of himself preparing a letter to the board and transcription-ing it to a notebook computer.
A security camera gets a focus shot.
Scene 04: Ben goes on to mention in the recording/letter to the board that since Ben has stepped aside from the company, he’ll be instituting the discussed changes to bring the company back to being an industry leader.
The important thing, other than that Ben Drake somehow doesn’t have a secretary to do this sort of thing, is that the buildings security system is keeping a close eye on him. Ben’s self-dictating mentions cancelling the expensive C.O.S. project… “Central Operating System”.
Ben’s thoughts goes on to describe just how disastrous the C.O.S. has performed over the last three quarters and is expected to cause a huge loss for the latest quarter as well. Enough is enough, of course. Something that somebody or something, like maybe a ghost in a machine named the C.O.S. won’t be appreciating.
Scene 05: Ben goes to leave for the evening, but hears water running in his executive restroom. He goes to take a look. A sink has overfilled and water is running across the tile floor. He attempts to wave over the sensor to get the sink to turn off, but it’s a no go. He goes in to the water for the sink drain plug.
As he’s doing so, the phone in the bathroom rings startling him. On the phone is an automated time message. Behind him, the electronic door swings shut on its own and the light goes out.
He tries his swipe card, but it’s a no go [which sort of serves you right by having electronic locks on your private bathroom]. He uses his override key, but as soon as the metal connects within the lock, it completes the circuit and he’s blown across the room in a shower of sparks with a strangled yell.
C.O.S. then verbalizes that it deleted a file.
Commentary: You know how every decade or so there is somebody somewhere starting a cult to proclaim that God just told him/her [though usually him] that the world is ending. Well, it’s the same phenomena for new technology and the 1990’s was a time when the subject of artificial intelligence first gained real traction in the popular imagination enough to start a wave of films and episodes devoted to exercising our fear of the unknown when it came to these ultra smart computers. This is the X-Files jumping on that 1990’s bandwagon.
The problem with all of these films is that if you don’t have a murderous robot smashing in doors and shrugging off explosives in it’s unwavering attempts to kill the protagonists, it’s just boring. Constant shots of computers looking computery and doing computational things isn’t interesting and it doesn’t matter how many flashy panels you include. And alas for directors, having a machine verbally talk to itself in an otherwise empty room doesn’t make it any more engaging.
Insert our much more engaging credits sequence.
Scene 06: At FBI HQ, we follow anonymous agent somebody or other through the office looking for someone. This will turn out to be Jerry Lamana, an old bureau friend of Fox, as we’ll find out when he finds Mulder and Scully at the lunch cart.
Jerry used to be Fox’s partner when he was in the violent crimes unit. Jerry buys them lunch.
Scene 07: Later in the X-Files office, Jerry is telling Fox and Dana about the electrocution of Benjamin Drake. Jerry is there to tell them about a squad being assembled to investigate and that he mentioned Fox’s name to the lead, Agent Jane Spiller -- who seems like a no-nonsense, by-the-book sort as she is also an academy instructor who had been particularly hard… the exact sort that Agent Mulder should gel with quite well, amiright?
Fox politely turns Jerry down with an odd sense of reluctance to join his old partner. He uses as an excuse that he and Dana aren’t on general assignment detail. Jerry asks as a personal favor and it is quickly clear that he feels unsure about his abilities to solve this case in a timely manner. Ben, our victim, was a personal friend of the Attorney General’s so there will be a lot of pressure for results. Dana watches this interpersonal play between the two former partners with interest.
Scene 08: When Dana and Fox arrive at Eurisko, Dana is trying to get details about why his partnership with Jerry ended. Fox deflects with a joke about how he’s a pain in the ass to work with, but Dana won’t be put off. He explains that Jerry’s career goals include moving up, while Fox’s desire is a basement office with no heat or windows.
A security camera at the entrance watches them arriving.
In the lobby, Fox explains that Jerry ran into a bit of bad luck working hate crimes in Atlanta and really needs a big win to resuscitate a stagnant career. It seems Jerry made a horrible mistake with a lost piece of evidence -- it was eventually recovered by him, but a judge had been grievously wounded in the meantime.
Scene 09: In the elevators, the camera continues to follow our two agents as they head up to the top office floor. The elevator jerks to a sudden stop between the 3rd and 4th floors. Dana picks up the phone to talk to security, when the elevator suddenly un-jams and continues on its way.
C.O.S. continues watching everything. Using Dana’s identifying herself to the security desk, the computer runs a phone search on Dana Scully.
Scene 10: In the murder room, Jerry explains how the lock looks to have been tampered with and how it caused the electrocution of Ben. There is discussion of a manual override on the locking mechanism panel, which is the cue for Building Systems Engineer Claude Peterson to enter. He confirms that the unit could’ve been manually altered, but explains that whoever did so would’ve had to know his way around the C.O.S. and explains how the building is centrally operated and automated.
We establish that the C.O.S. monitors every system from power flow to water in each toilet flush to the phone network.
Scene 11: Back at FBI HQ that afternoon, Fox is scrambling around his office looking for his profile notes when Dana comes to collect him for their meeting. She jokes that maybe he should clean his desk once in a while. The notes don’t turn up.
Scene 12: In the task group meeting, Jerry is filling in the team on his thoughts regarding the case and Fox gets a look of exasperation and disappointment. Jerry’s recitation sounds remarkably similar in tone and style to Mulder’s way of expressing himself.
Dana shares a wide-eyed glance with Mulder, recognizing his description of their possible quarry. Fox tells her to let it go, but he stares at Jerry across their meeting table.
Scene 13: Fox doesn’t cause a scene at the meeting, but he’s not happy and goes to find Jerry afterward. Jerry doesn’t realize how hurt Mulder is at his going into his office and stealing his work and tells Mulder that he was asked onto the case by him to offer him assistance, which his notes provided. He doesn’t see the problem.
Jerry passes Scully on his way out. Scully talks to Mulder, who insists that Jerry apologized… in his own way….
But she’s really there to share the list of names that they just received from Claude of who would have the expertise to get around C.O.S. for sabotage. There is only one name - Brad Wilczek, who also despised the victim. Mulder complains it’s too brazen and obvious, but Scully replies it would be consistent with Brad’s behavioral problems.
Commentary: Have you seen much commentary going on here? No. Why? Because this is all very low-key, contains lots of information we already know, and is focused on Jerry and Fox dancing around Jerry’s ineptness without any sparks or tension generated. There were a few attempts with the camerawork to put some energy into things, but there just isn’t any way to make a remote camera focusing interesting and the scenes in the office are filmed relatively flat and workmanlike. The episode is simply going along and thinking about the end of the workday, only paying half a mind to what it’s doing and this lethargy is transmitting to the audience.
Scene 14: Mulder and Scully go to Brad’s modern architecture digs. When the agents go up to the front door, they’re being watched again by security cams.
[A pretty crappy one, considering the wealth that Brad allegedly has.]
Scene 15: Inside, Brad goes on to describe that there are two types of IT people… the neat kind who are all about the surface concerns of running companies and the scruffy kind like himself who want to constantly push the envelope and discover new things. It’s clear he has little respect for the former type of person.
Brad shows Fox and Dana his home systems model turning his house into a ‘smart home’. He complains that they were two years ahead of their competitors when Ben killed the project, rather short-sightedly.
There is discussion about how to get around C.O.S. and Dana flat out asks if Brad could’ve overrode the corporate system to kill Ben. Brad admits that he’d be one of the people capable of doing so, but also tells her that scruffy people like himself rarely commit murder -- they’re too busy being engaged in puzzles and exploring new avenues of thought for something that mundane.
Scene 16: That evening, Dana makes some case notes on her home computer discussing Brad Wilzcek’s possible role in Ben Drake’s murder.
As she prepares for bed, her computer is invaded by C.O.S. who reads her suppositions about Brad as a suspect. In its room, C.O.S. helpfully informs us verbally that it has opened a new file on Scully.
Commentary: Also in that very fictional way, C.O.S. chooses to actually boot up Scully’s computer screen and then show her just saved work on the screen even though it doesn’t have any eyes in the room, doesn’t need to show anyone else the information and has zero reason to need to have the document on the lit up screen in order for it to do its thing.
Now, at the time I doubt I even bothered with the silliness of this, but now? Well, let’s just call this an episode which hasn’t exactly aged gracefully and try to overlook some of these details to focus on our story.
Scene 17: The following morning, Scully and Mulder are sitting hunched over a tape recorder and listening to some of Brad’s earlier lectures or interviews to get insight into him as their lead suspect. Jerry comes in and there is an uncomfortable moment between the three.
Jerry has come to apologize a bit more seriously than his first attempt at it. Fox tells him that he would’ve helped him with the profile if he’d just asked, but Jerry is a deeply afraid man looking at the end of his career if there is another foul-up and is doubting his value at what he does.
Scully interrupts to bring something to Fox’s attention. He invites Jerry into the room.
Scene 18: Scully explains that they borrowed a speech pattern analysis scanner and have been using that to compare the voice lectures of Brad with the time check call that Benjamin received just prior to his death. After walking through the way the machine works, Scully and Fox point out the match in speech patterns between Brad’s lectures and the “automated” time check voice pattern. Although the voice was electronically altered, the pattern of speech points to Brad having made that phone call.
Scully offers that she has a judged she can count on for a warrant based on this analysis. Jerry asks Fox to let him go and retrieve Brad into custody as another favor, which Fox agrees to.
Scene 19: At his home, Brad is busy typing furiously in an attempt to remote access C.O.S.
With these attempts thwarted at every turn, he rushes from his house. Down the block, Jerry is staking him out, waiting for the warrant and follows him.
Scene 20: In the Eurisko building, Brad rushes through the lobby under the watch of C.O.S.’s security cams. He goes into the elevator.
Scene 21: Jerry comes into the lobby moments later. He stops by security to flash his badge.
Scene 22: In the meantime, Brad is entering the console room for direct access to C.O.S.
Brad is taken up short by C.O.S. greeting him vocally, even though the computer hasn’t been equipped with a voice synthesizer. He pushes this aside to ask for his current user access level and is informed that his access is now dependent on the operating system.
Commentary: Ugh. Yes, the computer -- despite not having the physical means to do so -- has been talking just fine, and not only to itself by now to a person. Because artificial intelligence creates… sound… waves?? Uh… it has, um, created a synthesizer out of thin air because of its super-duper smartness, now?
I don’t know. It’s a serious lack of sense that comes with Artificial Intelligence scaremongering in the 1990’s. Also, if Brad thinks that the A.I. has been compromised, you’d think he would’ve avoided the computer operated elevators like they had plague bugs riding in them. Also, also -- watching somebody type is not exciting; never has been, never will be. Sometimes that can be compensated for by having other things happening elsewhere and doing a lot of inter-cutting to suggest a time limit is ticking down to a catastrophic event and sometime a jolt of action music can make a scene if one is already sufficiently engaged in the events of the program. Neither of these is really happening here though. I don’t want to watch Brad typing in dark rooms.
Scene 23: In the meantime, Jerry is now entering the elevator. The canted angle suggests that this will not end well for our mediocre agent, alas.
In the elevator, the severely canted angle continues as C.O.S. monitors his progress. It feeds a camera image through to the puzzled Brad.
He becomes concerned enough to try to interrupt elevator control, but C.O.S. is not having it. Desperately, Brad enters the server housing room and attempts to cut the power to the A.I. but this also fails.
Jerry in the meantime is fidgeting in the elevator. He gets stuck between the 29th and 30th floors. As Jerry is discovering this, C.O.S. announces that he’s going down and releases the brakes on the elevator.
In the C.O.S. room, Brad stares at the A.I. in horror.
Scene 24: Later, Fox is watching the last moments of Jerry’s life. Spliced into this video tape is Brad’s activities in the server room. Mulder studies his movements and expressions. Scully comes in to express her sympathy about Jerry’s death and Mulder tells her that he doesn’t think that Brad did it.
Dana tries to tell Fox that he’s just in shock and grief, but he insists that Brad strikes him as smarter than to be all over the camera footage trying to cover his tracks for it to make sense. Scully takes a breath and tells Mulder that he just signed a confession.
Scene 25: Later Fox is driving. He joins others at the residence of Wilczek. He stopped to be informed that his warrant for the residence that he’d secured has been obviated. The house has been placed under a higher security clearance than he holds. He’s ordered to leave the residence.
Scene 26: Mulder is next sitting on a bench. He’s joined by Deep Throat, where he asks his contact about why Brad’s house is subject to a level 5 security lockout. Deep Throat points out the obvious when it comes to the Pentagon issuing a security detail on Brad… he is one of the most innovative thinkers in A.I. after all.
Mulder finds out the D.O.D. has been after Brad’s knowledge of “thinking computers” for years but he’s always rebuffed any attempts to be recruited to apply his genius toward smarter weaponry.
Scene 27: At a detention facility, Fox is asking Brad why he’s willing to spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit.
Brad goes on to compare himself to Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atom bomb. He explains that Robert was in love with the work, but he’d made the mistake of sharing his discoveries of the way things work with an immoral government and refuses to make the same mistake himself.
Mulder points out that his computer has already killed two people and could murder again, but Brad tells him that it’s the lesser of two evils [the other being helping the government and thereby giving them access to what he knows, where it will undoubtedly be turned toward warfare]. Fox tells him there is a third option.
Scene 28: Fox later tells Dana that Brad can create a virus that will destroy the A.I.
Dana doesn’t buy the “killer computer” explanation and is sure that Brad is trying to put forward a pretty lousy alibi. She also tells him that she thinks he’s on a wild chase because of his feelings towards Jerry and his death. She suggests that he speak with someone.
Scene 29: Fox returns to Brad’s cell with a notebook computer and tells him to get started.
Scene 30: That night, Dana receives a phone call in the middle of the night. When she answers, it’s a modem. She rushes to her computer to find that it’s currently being hacked.
She gets on her other line and calls into headquarters for a trace on her modem line while she watches her report on Brad being completely rewritten.
Commentary: Again… no. When C.O.S. invaded Scully’s computer the first time, there was no phone call so why would she get one now, except that she needs to be aware that she’s now being hacked? There is simply no logical reasoning for this and it is especially clumsy BECAUSE they’ve already shown us that the A.I. can invade her computer without tipping her off.
Now, being the early 90’s when all of this was still quite new to the general public, they could’ve gotten away with this if they hadn’t blatantly just broken their own internal rules for how C.O.S. can penetrate private computers without being detected.
Scene 31: Meanwhile Fox has arrived at Eurisko with the virus laden notebook computer. He soon startled by the arrival of a car pulling up behind him. This is Scully.
Scene 32: Mulder has brought a fake plate for his car and uses this to get past the automated security in the parking garage of Eurisko.
Somehow, slapping a plate reading “Eurisko” on the back bumper works and the agent’s car is allowed through the gated barrier into the parking garage… or so it seems.
Once the car is through the gate, a bar swings down blocking their further entry. The gate is then suddenly dropped onto the car!
Scene 33: When we return from not-commercial, we find that the A.I.’s aim was off. The little spike’s on the bottom of the gate went into the wind shield instead of the passenger compartment through the roof. It also wasn’t heavy enough, because other than the horn that won’t quit sounding, there appears to be no actual damage to the vehicle… including to the windshield.
Dana and Fox continue. Fox wisely suggests they take the stairs.
Scene 34: For some reasoning, C.O.S. doesn’t issue a security breach alert. But it does plunge Scully and Mulder into complete darkness in the stairwell. In addition, the air is thick with dust because Dana suddenly has smudges on her forehead.
Also for reasons not completely understandable, the A.I. waits until they’ve already reached the top floor before bothering with this tactic.
Commentary: Oh, dear… whatever; I've just not the energy to expend pointing out the obvious stupidity of this.
Scene 35: Dana goes to try the security door, but Fox grabs her wrist and reminds her that they don’t want to follow in Benjamin Drake’s footsteps. He puts on a pair of rubber gloves and touches a screwdriver to the lock, which immediately shorts out in a shower of sparks.
With Dana realizing just how close she came to frying, Mulder tries the door handle with his rubber-protected hand. It won’t budge. He looks around in frustration and spots C.O.S.’ eyes in the stairwell. He puts his other glove over the camera to block the A.I.’s spying.
Of course, that still leaves them stuck in the stairwell.
Another quick look around leads to Scully being lifted into an air vent with enough room for two people. Fox tells her she should be able to get into the hallway on the other side of the wall and let him in from that side.
Scene 36: Scully gets into the air vent. She climbs around noisily while Mulder paces. Suddenly a wind starts winding through the vent network in Scully’s face.
Meanwhile, the stairwell door unlocks and Mulder is greeted by the building engineer, Peterson wondering what in the world he’s doing there.
As the wind picks up in the vent, smoke or vented gas fumes are released into the ductwork causing Dana to have trouble breathing. The wind blows so hard through the ductwork, that Dana looses her ability to continue forward and is blown down the ducts, where she ends up falling down a shaft toward a giant fan. She barely able to grab a cross-sectional vent opening to hold herself above the lethally spinning blades where the fan directionality is now causing her to be pulled downward.
Commentary: And the vent work in this building is certainly unusual. It appears that the heating and cooling system is filled with detritus to blow past Scully so we’ll “get it” that she’s being blown/sucked toward her doom.
Scene 37: In the server room, Peterson is telling Fox that the building’s systems have been going crazy all night with unexplained power surges throughout the building. Fox asks for the data entry port on the server.
He plugs in the doodad to gain entrance to the operating system, but C.O.S. continues to reply that access is denied.
Scene 38: Meanwhile, Dana grips on one handed and with her other reaches for her gun. She starts shooting at the electrical box attached to the whirring fan blades.
Scene 39: In the server room, Fox finally gets a successful Level 7 access code into C.O.S. and prepares to upload the virus. At least until Peterson pulls out his gun on him! He tells Mulder that he’s been working to break into the system for the past two years… suddenly explaining just why he always seems to be there so late into the evening. He orders Fox to slowly disarm himself.
Peterson implies that he’s a government agent as well and Fox guesses the Defense Department. He orders Mulder to hand over the virus diskette. But the always awesome Dana Scully is there, having survived her brush with being sliced and diced and she’s got her weapon trained on secret agent “Peterson”.
He puts down his gun as Dana ordered, but warns her that she’s making a huge mistake by interfering in a sensitive operation. Of course Mulder tells her that the machine is too dangerous to continue operating and that the government won’t be able to keep it constrained any more than Brad did. Peterson warns Scully that she’ll be held accountable if she doesn’t stop interfering in a governmental operation, but she tells Fox to load up the virus diskette.
Commentary: The only thing I don’t like about this scene is how Dana’s hesitation is milked as if she’s going to listen to some anonymous guy claiming to be an agent over her own partner. C’mon… we’re past the “can Scully trust Mulder; can he trust her when he needs her” questions surely. It’s just silly.
Scene 40: So, with the cute, wittle, diskette delivering its payload C.O.S. starts to have a nervous breakdown. It helpfully does this vocally… you remember - with that non existent vocal sub processor.
We get the AI talking to itself in overlapping gibberish, the cameras twitching around, the elevator doors going crazy cakes and such. Peterson gives Dana a royally pissy glare. C.O.S. dies calling out for Brad.
Scene 41: Sometime days later, Mulder is talking to Deep Throat again on a public bench. He complains that he can’t find hide nor hair of Brad Wilczek anywhere. He can’t believe that they could just make somebody as famous as Brad disappear like that without a trace and without explanation, but Deep Throat isn’t surprised. He tells Fox that “they” can do anything they want.
He also tells Mulder that Brad is currently bargaining. Fox tells him that he’ll never work for the mysterious group inside the government, but Deep Throat points out that the Shadow Group has some powerful leverage to work with: Brad confessed to two murders and Fox destroyed the only proof that existed which could’ve exonerated him.
Mulder feels badly about that, but asks after anything else he could’ve done. Deep Throat assure him that there wasn’t anything, unless he was willing to allow the Defense Department and those untrustworthy souls within it access to the technology. He assures Mulder that after five days, their computer experts haven’t been able to find anything left after Brad’s designed virus did its work.
He tells Fox that the machine is dead and then leaves him to contemplate what it cost, including his friend’s life.
Commentary: I really didn’t like the way that Deep Throat was used in this episode. It’s pretty obvious that he’s stopped being careful about where and when he meets Fox and it’s really annoying considering how paranoid he was in previous episodes.
[But in future we’ll see that this won’t be without consequence, so I’m willing to let it slide in retrospect… but it still bugs me that he’s being so damned clumsy all of the sudden.]
Scene 42: Back in Eurisko, the computer has been broken down into its hardware, which have been scanned by the government technicians. Voices in the background make it clear they still haven’t found any success in retrieving any information on Brad’s design or programming.
Peterson is on the phone reporting the failures to find anything. He goes to request something, but is cut off by whoever he’s reporting to. He’s ordered to give it six more hours and then destroy the entire lot of equipment. Nobody notices the server face panel lighting up and a camera going active. It’s focused on Peterson’s face as he says that he’s going to figure this computer out if it kills him….
The Good: I did like how completely surprised I was that Peterson was more than he presented himself as... I didn't even question that he always seemed to be in the building after everyone else had left.
The Bad: The talking computer which has no physical means to produce a human voice was supremely dumb and having Brad point it out that the computer is doing something it isn't equipped to do with zero explanation for just how it's doing it then is awful. You can't just comment on something that is physically impossible and then ignore it!
It's also a serious script problem when C.O.S. suddenly alerts Dana that it's invading her computer by phoning her with a modem noise first, when it had already been established that it had access to Dana's computer without doing anything to alert her other than it's dramatic need to turn her computer screen on and type things out on it.
We really didn't need the cliffhanger ending on this one. Really. Save those sorts of things for cool villains like Tooms.
Other Thoughts: I almost liked the opening death scene, and the stunt with the guy blown across the room was pretty well handled, but I can't really put it in the good, because the set up is so ridiculous. Who in hell puts an electronic key card lock on the inside of their bathroom??
I also liked the conflict/odd relationship between Fox and Jerry including how Mulder seems to go out of his way to help Jerry, even when the guy is screwing him over. But again, it can't go in the good. This time it's because there isn't enough done with it either before Jerry is killed, or especially after he's dead and everybody almost immediately forgets he existed... along with the entire team that was supposedly working the case.
The Score: Blah. It's... there. It's silly and dumb, but it isn't offensively boring to sit through.
2.75 out of 5 stars, which is better than I thought I'd score it.