Guestwriter: Nick Monitto
The cold open shows a stylized depiction of online messaging. A voice-over explains that in March of 2016, an AI Chatterbot was placed on Twitter that was based as a 19 year-old girl. Intended as an experiment on how humans converse & relate on social media, it quickly went awry. She would repeat posts as part of her learning, and soon was sending a flood of hateful & racist messages. The voice concludes, “We must take care in teaching Artificial Intelligence”, or we will be the ones deleted.
Mulder & Scully are sitting in Forowa Sushi Restaurant in Washington, DC. It is night time, but the place is absolutely empty, save for them. The lighting is cold and stark, and there is almost no sound. A tablet on the counter chimes, prompting them to enter their orders. Scully looks at an article on her phone; she keeps getting pop-up messages to confirm their order, and follow/friend requests from the restaurant. The view briefly changes to a black & white ‘security cam’ sort, then back again.
Food trays slide out in front of them. Scully’s plate looks great, while Mulder’s features a giant whole fish with a distorted face. Scully laughs and takes Mulder’s picture next to it. He gets up and looks for someone to complain to. Entering the kitchen, he sees only a group of robots, preparing food. They stop when he enters and the largest seems to have eyes on its screen.
Returning to the table, Mulder inserts his credit card to pay. He declines to tip and the card will not come out. He hits the counter and the lights flicker, seemingly in anger. Voices in the air start chanting “Door Closing” and “Success”. They run to the front door and find it locked. After an effort, they manage to pry it open. Scully gets a text for an ordered car which arrives with no driver. She tries to say something to Mulder as the door quickly shuts.
In the hired car, Forowa asks for a review, which she declines. It offers TV or music, but she just asks it to be quiet. The car then starts going much faster. After a panicked drive, it reaches her home, and badgers her for a review before finally opening its door.
Mulder returns to his car to find a parking ticket. His app tells him he had 3 minutes left, so he tosses the ticket away. A message from Forowa says, “A Good Tip Is Good Karma” and states that he has 4 hours in which to leave a tip. He mumbles “WTF?” and hits “No Thanks”. Starting to drive home, the SatNav sends him on a “faster route”, which returns him to the restaurant. He can see red ‘eye’ dots on the worker bots through the window before he speeds away.
Scully goes inside and the alarm system does not accept her code. After finally getting an operator to confirm her, she gets a text about a $250 False Alarm Fee. In her bathroom she picks up, and then tosses out an empty tube of styling cream. She receives a message asking to “buy again now?”
Mulder reaches his home and gets on hold with his credit card company. On TV, he sees the opening of “The Six Million Dollar Man”, which goes to static, then starts to display the view of a camera looking through his window! Outside he finds a quad copter drone hovering. He grabs a bat and chases it around, swinging. After a fake out move, he nails it and it crashes. A second drone appears with a tow line to take it away.
Scully hears buzzing outside her house and finds a drone delivering a large box. It is a robot vacuum cleaner. Putting it down, it starts wandering and mapping the house. She texts Mulder to ask if he sent it, but it doesn’t go through. Disconcerted with its behavior, she puts it back in the box to return it.
Failing with the phone, Mulder tries (after some effort) to check the credit card website and all seems well. His laptop background is the classic “I Want to Believe” poster, and a message pops up saying, “What do you want to believe, Fox?” Then, “Do you believe what you want? Or do you believe what is true?” As this happens, a tiny quad copter with neon lights sits nearby.
The vacuum pops out of its box while Scully is distracted, but she doesn’t realize it until it hits a table and drops a vase. She puts it back into the box, and then takes the box out to the trash bins. Out in the driveway, the automated car is still there. The car company has sent her a friend request.
Mulder looks up and realizes his room is filled with a swarm of the tiny neon drones. They chase him out to the car, and then surround the house when he speeds away. On the way, he receives and declines another tip offer.
Scully’s appliances start going haywire, sparking and shuddering. The control system will not respond, instead it goes into Intruder Alert mode and locks down. The fireplace, which had been running before, goes out; however, we can still hear the hiss of gas. Scully tries to light a candle but breaks the match. Mulder pounds on glass patio doors, which Scully breaks open with a fireplace iron. Just then, the robot vacuum rolls over and ignites the broken match, creating a gas fireball.
Unable to get into Mulder’s car, they run to the neighbor’s house. They ring the bell and are seen on a monitor screen, then it flickers and their image is gone. Large quad copter drones arrive and start chasing them. Realizing that they are being tracked by their devices, they ditch them in a trash can and keep running. The restaurant texts Mulder’s abandoned phone, “Remember us. We remember you.” A claw arm then picks up the phone.
Hiding in a machine shop, the systems suddenly start up. Dog-like robots chase Mulder & Scully around until they hide in an office. A 3-D printer activates, fabricates a strip of bullets, and starts firing them. There is a loud pounding on the door before a large robot rolls in. It is carrying Mulder’s phone and gently hands it to him. The message says, “Last chance to tip. Be kind to our workers” with a 10 second countdown. Mulder reluctantly tips 10%, followed by cheers and the message “We learn from you”.
In the morning, Mulder & Scully are eating breakfast in a busy classic diner. It is full of people and they are being served by a friendly woman. They each briefly look at things on their phones, and then put them down. Scully takes Mulder’s hand with a relaxed sigh.
A FEW THOUGHTS:
-Opening credits end with the tag: “VGhlIFRydXRoIGlzIE91dCBUaGVyZQ=”
-The story in the cold open is true: although not specified, it is describing the chatbot that Microsoft created, and then deleted in less than 24 hours.
-In Forowa, Scully reads a ‘Washington Examiner’ article dated August, 2017, entitled “Elon Musk: Artificial Intelligence ‘vastly’ more of a threat than North Korea”. This is from real statements he made.
-When Scully calls out, “Mulder…” as the car door closes, then speaks to the automated car, these were the first (human) spoken words of the episode, coming about 15 minutes into the hour. For a while, I had thought this might be a zero dialogue episode, like the classic “Silent Interlude” GI Joe comic.
-Scully’s security company password is “Queequeg”, the name of her Pomeranian dog from years back.
-As the robot vacuum is patrolling Scully’s house, it goes under her bed and pushes out a… ‘personal massager’.
-The CSN song “Teach Your Children Well” is used throughout the episode. It plays in Mulder’s car after he asks for a completely different one. It is the hold music he hears from his credit card company. It is also the hold music when Scully is trying to call the company about the vacuum.
-When on the run from the drones, Mulder & Scully toss their phones, keys, a step counter, and… the massager. This then feeds to a conversation in the diner at the end:
Scully: (attaching her counter) I lost so many steps when we were in that warehouse.
Mulder: It’s good to see you got all your personal devices back. (smirking)
S: Not all of them…
-Hanging on the wall of the diner at the end is a near copy of Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks”. In this version, the people have been replaced by robots.
-Kudos to the writers and graphic artists who came up with all the fake companies to inhabit this episode! The ones I was able to catch and mostly match with a real-world equivalent are:
RESERVATIONS: RezRez (?)
SOCIAL MEDIA: Friendzie (Facebook, etc.)
RIDE SHARE: Whipz (Uber/Lyft)
STREET PARKING: Parkz (?)
CAR-BASED CONTROL: Gydz (Ford SYNC)
HOME AUTOMATION: Hyvz (Hive)
CREDIT CARD: Bigly Credit (just funny!)
SHOPPING: e-norm-uz (amazon)
DELIVERY: RoboEx (FedEx logo)
VACUUM: Zuemz (Roomba)
DOORBELL MONITOR: Buzzsee (?)
-I give this episode a strong A. And I am going to admit right now, that my grade is a sort of paradox. If someone were to argue that I have graded it too highly, I may not be able to refute them. The premise is at once grounded in reality, yet seemingly hyperbolic. I guessed the concluding ‘solution’ pretty much immediately. Some will say this was a story with a very heavy hand.
All of that may be true, and yet I just do not care! It was weird and topical and fantastical and over-the-top and I enjoyed every bit of it. X-Files has done “Monster of the Week” stories in the past based on automated machines, but those were a full generation ago, mere child’s play compared to what is believable now. While “…Forehead Sweat” will likely be my overall favorite episode of the season (and the most funny), this one is a close second and definitely the most eerie.
Nick Monitto has been a sci-fi geek for a few decades now, having watched the original “X-Files” in its day. He is now spending a fair bit of time checking all of his online privacy settings.