“Donald wrote an interlocked sequence of viruses 15 years ago. It got loose on the net.”
– Esther Nairn
“Wait, what do you mean, ‘got loose?'” – Fox Mulder
“He let it loose … so it could evolve in its natural environment. Urschleim in silicon.”
– Esther Nairn
“‘Urschleim in silicon?'” – Dana Scully
“The primordial slime? The ooze out of which all life evolved. Except this time it’s artificial slime – artificial life. One man alone achieving the equivalent of Copernicus, Magellan, and Darwin.” – Esther Nairn
A deadly kerfuffle results in quite a body count, and our heroes are left to sort out how a computer genius got in the middle of it.
Max: I’ve always taken such a shine to this episode, and this time around “Kill Switch” didn’t disappoint. Sure, in 2014 a lot of the concepts mentioned in the episode have become hoary and old hat, and the CGI is very 1990s, but the fact that the episode is very much of its time and place (yet still at times quite relevant to today’s technological landscape) lends a certain kind of warming nostalgia. Like looking at an old Geocities webpage or old AIM chatlogs. If the last episode was a lesson in how a famous writer struggled to adapt to the rhythms of The X-Files, then this one is an example of the complete opposite. Legendary science fiction author William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame) penned this outing with his longtime collaborator Tom Maddox, and their collective experience and knowledge of computing and artificial intelligence made this an infinitely better MOTW than season one’s “Ghost In The Machine,” which trod similar ground only to end up being dead in the water.
The cold open of a coterie of mid-level drug dealers meeting at a greasy spoon diner was not in fact a prototype of The Wire‘s New Day Co-Op, but rather a setup meant to impress maverick computer programmer Donald Gelman. Gelman was within keystrokes of destroying an artificial intelligence that he had a hand in creating, and the AI took steps to defend itself by instigating a shootout. After learning of Gelman’s identity and purloining his laptop, Mulder and Scully consult with our favorite nerd trio about Gelman and his work.
Showing the Lone Gunmen a CD of the song “Twilight Time,” we learn that there was a hidden partition of encrypted data. Unable to decode it, they trawl his email to find that he was in contact with a person named Invisigoth. Tracking this person down to a shipping container, they are able to locate her right before a laser weapon decimates the surroundings. Invisigoth (actually infamous hacker Esther Nairn) informs our duo that the AI has reached a level of sentience previously unimagined. Esther and David Markham (the other creator of the AI) were to have uploaded their consciousness’ onto the internet in a kind of virtual immortality, but Gelman thought that the idea much too dangerous.
Mulder goes out investigating a possible physical source for the AI’s hardware, and turns up an abandoned farm in Virigina with a derelict RV in the backyard. Inside, he finds every computer enthusiast’s wet dream (and the rotting corpse of Markham) when he is trapped and electrocuted by the AI. Waking up inside of a hospital with a coterie of buxom nurses, they all are curiously quite interested in the CD which has the AI’s kill switch. Thank God for Scully, as she manages to locate Mulder and subdue the pert nurses with some impressive kung fu. Wait- buxom nurses? Kung fu? Luckily Mulder realizes where exactly he is just as Scully and Esther find the RV themselves. The AI demands the CD in exchange for Mulder’s life, and Scully orders Esther to hand the disc over. With the AI locking the laser onto their location, our agents flee while Esther uploads herself to the web before the whole place is incinerated.
The conceit of trapping Mulder inside of a virtual world for most of the back half of the episode is a bold move for the series, and provided a nice foil for the action packed pyrotechnics of the first half. In fact, with all the explosions, CGI work, and more extensive location shooting, “Kill Switch” became the most expensive episode of the program to date. It definitely shows in the production values, with scenes like that at the port being excellent appetizers for the upcoming movie. Conceptually, “Kill Switch” deals with some of the more exotic aspects of computing and AI in a way that doesn’t dumb the material down, and with Gibson and Maddox writing the story, you don’t have the usual portrayal of technology on screen. This is definitely not Hackers, even though Esther looks like a hacker caricature cooked up by local news.
Radhika: “Kill Switch” certainly is an improvement over “Chinga,” the last episode to have a guest writer on board, but boy is it dated. Esther/Invisigoth is so stereotypically the nineties’ ideal of a hacker chick (certainly Frohike’s idea of hot) with her raccoon makeup and her “bite me” attitude that I couldn’t help rolling my eyes and wondering if she ever bothered washing her face. (Get off my lawn!) But happily, even if the writers may not have been aware of what a stereotypical character she was, since a true cliché might not have been established yet in 1998, we have Scully to roll her eyes and give us an alternative to the geeky male perspective. Her snarky comebacks to Esther, such as, “And what was your role in all this? Were you the bass player?” are just fantastic.
However, Scully does eventually open up her mind and try to understand where Esther is coming from (I suppose remotely deployed explosions are good scientific evidence that something’s up). When Esther finally lets her guard down and cries when she finds her boyfriend’s house obliterated, Scully softens up — leading to both women working together, instead of against each other. Allowing the characters to transition between disliking each other to tolerating each other and getting to the bottom of things prevents the episode from devolving into a boy’s fantasy with two hot chicks pitted against each other.
That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the actual fantasy sequence — the virtual reality that Mulder finds himself in with a buxom Nurse Nancy and roundhouse-kicking Scully. Scully’s not really Mulder’s savior in this sequence; in fact when she starts demanding the kill switch from Mulder after knocking down a bunch of porn-styled nurses, we know it’s the AI and Mulder does too. But seeing badass Scully kicking at things in the most ludicrous fashion is still really enjoyable. As is the fact that this time, Scully is not the damsel in distress at all, even in real life — she’s racing against the clock to find and save Mulder.
While it may not be as grand an entrance as kicking down a door and delivering a roundhouse kick, Scully’s entrance into the trailer where Mulder is held hostage is solid. As a little robot (a Roomba predecessor, if you will) approaches her, Scully is completely no nonsense, shooting at once, fully accepting that the robots are not our friends. We’ve seen Scully be strong before, which is why so many female fans admired her, but it’s a welcome change from the cancer-ridden victimized Scully we’ve seen for so many episodes before this one. In fact, even despite Esther’s clichéd tendencies, she proves to be a pretty strong character as well, making this episode all about powerful ladies — a pretty awesome thing, considering it’s about the male-dominated world of computers.
The logic behind this episode isn’t necessarily all that sound, but it’s these strong characterizations and the utterly surreal (and terrifying, thanks to those surprise amputations) virtual reality Mulder finds himself in that make me look back at it fondly. I remember watching it for the first time, trying to figure out how all of this came together, trying to figure out what was wrong with the nurses and the hospital Mulder was in, and then kind of nodding and having an “aha” moment as the episode drew to a close. “Kill Switch” is an imperfect episode, but like any good episode of a show of this genre, it does its job: It sucks you in and gets the adrenaline pumping.
YES, IT’S THAT LADY
Kristin Lehman – The actress who played Esther Nairn has been a television fixture since the mid-1990s, appearing on such shows as Felicity, Andromeda, Castle, Prison Break, and Damages. She also had a main role in the first two seasons of AMC’s The Killing, and can currently be seen on the ABC/CTV whodunnit Motive.