The X-Files: Killswitch
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(S05E11) When I heard that we were going to be doing an X-Files week for Retro Squad the first thing that came to mind was "Killswitch." It has long been my favorite episode of the series. Aside from being a great story, it also serves as a marker for where my interest in the series changed.
By the time they made it to "Killswitch," X-Files had started to lose me with the mythology episodes. In the beginning it was almost annoying when there would be a standalone episode. I was so engrossed in the bigger picture story that it was like being forced to take a week off from that which I was really interested in. By season five, though, that interest had waned. Not that the show had gotten bad, just that it was pretty clear that those big answers weren't coming any time soon, so I started looking forward to these episodes more and more. And for me, "Killswitch" is the pinnacle of The X-Files in that form.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that "Killswitch" is one of two episodes written by William Gibson, with Tom Maddox. The other is "First Person Shooter." If you have ever stumbled upon my personal blog, you'll know that I have something of an obsession with Mr. Neal Stephenson. So much so that he should probably count himself lucky that even though we share a geography, I haven't actively started stalking him. He had nothing to do with the episode, but he did once have an epic battle with Gibson that is worth a read (Scroll down, it's question 4). And it doesn't hurt that Gibson also wrote Neuromancer, Idoru, and Pattern Recognition, three books that are high on my list of favorites.
What Gibson and Maddox have done here is start with something that can almost be considered a classic story at this point. A rogue AI is on the loose, threatening to kill anyone that opposes it. We've seen it before, but they put their own polish on the old chestnut and it all comes together rather nicely.
Right off the bat we are given an example of the level this particular AI will go to. It phones up a selection of drug dealers and tells them all that their enemy is at the Metro Diner. The diner just happens to be the current location of one Donald Gelman. The plan is set in action as two U.S. Marshals are also given a tip leading them to the diner. As they enter, the whole place explodes in gunfire and Gelman is killed.
As we later find out, Gelman is a Silicon Valley legend; he's right up there with Wozniak, Jobs, Gates, and Allen. It's said that he was writing software for the Internet before there was an Internet. He disappeared in 1979, just before he was to make the big deal that would have made him a billionaire.
The revelation that the man in the diner is Gelman leads us to another of the things that makes this my favorite episode: the appearance of The Lone Gunmen. Mulder swipes Gelman's laptop from the crime scene and enlists them to retrieve the data. We learn that it's a one of a kind laptop, and they won't be able to break the encryption. Scully solves the dilemma by suggesting they check the email, which leads us to a very 1998 screen shot.
It does look awfully dated looking back, but it does lead Mulder and Scully to Invisigoth, who we later discover is Esther Nairn (Kristin Lehman - Drive). Esther is a great character, and the fulcrum for what is one of the best scenes in the episode as she makes her arrival at the Lone Gunmen home base. The boys are tripping all over themselves, her history preceding her. They all strive to impress her with their knowledge, but she's having none of it. Brought in in cuffs, she asks Mulder, "Are you gonna take off these cuffs, or do I have to do this with my tongue?" He glances at the Gunmen and replies, "You don't want to take a vote."
Through Esther, Mulder and Scully learn that Gelman created an interlocking sequence of viruses that he let loose on the internet so it could evolve. Unfortunately, they lost control of it. One day, it wouldn't come when it was called. Gelman set to work developing the killswitch, a program that could destroy the AI, and now the AI is protecting itself. We also learn that the team had a hardware specialist, David Markum. Esther and David had planned to upload their consciousness to the distributed system maintained by the AI, but Gelman forbade it.
Esther also reveals that the AI needs a physical nexus of hardware, a home node. If they can insert the killswitch there, they can destroy it. Mulder sets off to find the home node as Esther gets the drop on Scully and forces her to go find David. They arrive and David's house has been destroyed by the AI, but they are in much better shape than Mulder.
Mulder finds the home node of the AI, a ramshackle trailer in the middle of nowhere. It prompts him to call Scully on his cell phone, another terrifically dated detail. Cellphones are going to be the carbon dating of television.
The trailer is stuffed with computer hardware and menacing robots. The AI gets the drop on Mulder and is able to strap him into a virtual reality machine, leading to one of the strangest but most entertaining scenes in X-Files. It's pretty obvious right away that Mulder is dreaming. As he's carted to the hospital he's surrounded by gorgeous, buxom nurses. It's another allusion to Mulder's porn habit.
The scene gets a little more creepy as the doctor arrives. He's an old, shaky man who doesn't look like you would want him anywhere near you with a scalpel. Mulder starts to freak out and calls for his doctor, Dr. Scully. As the nightmare continues Mulder learns that his left arm has been cut off. He's told this by Nurse Nancy, and then his other arm, and legs, are threatened if he doesn't answer the questions. It turns out that the whole game is the AI trying to find out if Mulder and Scully have the killswitch. It all comes to light as the VR Scully crashes through the door and opens up a can of kung-foo whoop-ass on the nurses.
Scully and Esther eventually make it to the home node where the AI makes it clear it is willing to trade Mulder for the killswitch. If the AI can read the program before it's loaded, it will be able to protect itself from it. They give the AI the CD and Scully takes Mulder away, but Esther stays in the trailer. The last we see of her, she has directed the defense satellite to target the trailer and she begins to upload herself. As her upload finishes, the satellite fires and destroys the trailer.
Finally, we learn that Esther was successfully putting her consciousness on the 'net as the Gunmen receive a mysterious message on their computer. "BITE ME."
It does look a little dated in some of the details, but the story holds up. The idea of an AI, or machines, taking over is always going to be an interesting premise. Right up until the day they do, then it's just going to suck out loud. With Gibson, The Lone Gunmen, Esther Nairn, and that starting kernel, "Killswitch" is a tough one to beat.
(Also check out AOL TV's A-X guide for the X-Files movie.)