The X-Files: Rm9sbG93ZXJz
March 1, 2018 7:07 AM - Season 11, Episode 7 - Subscribe

In a world of ever-increasing automation and artificial intelligence, Mulder and Scully find themselves targets in a deadly game of cat and mouse. [Official synopsis]

In Season 11, Episode 7, Mulder and Scully go largely dialogue-free for a "Black Mirror"-esque date night-gone-wrong. (Liz Shannon Miller for Indiewire)
Remember when Microsoft created a chatbot in 2016 that became “a Hitler-loving sex robot” after 24 hours online? This episode’s cold open sure does, using that particularly bad experiment in artificial intelligence as an opening parable for this anti-tech hour.
[MetaFilter remembers, too -- the bot was named Tay, and it was developed and deployed by Microsoft]

Let’s Talk About The X-Files Season 11 Episode 7, ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ (Mary Anne Butler for Bleeding Cool) the episode is summed up in a series of bullets, and Butler notes:
‘RM9sbG93ZXjz’ is unique in this season due in large part to the list of writers — Chris Carter (series creator, duh), and two women in a otherwise boys club of a show — Kristen Cloke (Intruders) and Shannon Hamblin. Perhaps you’ll recall the notable true-to-show limited female writers on staff for this season.

What’s really interesting is that Hamblin has no previous writing credits, but has been Glen Morgan‘s (who directed this episode) assistant on Amazon Studios’ Lore series.
A marvelous X-Files has Scully and Mulder hunted by the pest in the machine (Zack Handlen for A.V. Club)
What if all that bullshit [the rush of electronic ephemera that blocks the expected rhythms of life] was its own kind of conspiracy, one guided not by selfish men in dark rooms but a developing electronic consciousness learning what it means to be alive by watching us? That’s the premise behind the awkwardly named “Rm9sbG93ZXJz”, (the name decodes to “Followers” in Base64) a standalone X-Files that has Mulder and Scully facing down the irritating inadequacies of modern life—inadequacies which grow in pitch and number until they take a sharp turn towards the sinister. It’s a terrific, funny, eerie hour, a sharp blend of physical comedy and menace that serves as an excellent reminder of the show’s flexibility.
posted by filthy light thief (37 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I'm glad the AV Club liked it but both my wife and I are angry at the predictable solution and swore to never watch another episode again.
posted by Ber at 7:13 AM on March 1, 2018

Yes, the solution was blindingly obvious from the very beginning - you're being held hostage in the hyper-digital world for a tip.

The part that pissed me off was the lesson that Mulder took away from their ordeal was "we have to be better teachers."

"NO!" I shouted back (in my mind), "the lesson is that Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are clearly missing from this world."

Besides those two (major) issues (and Mulder and Scully's thorough adoption of technology without having an escape plan in place - they have to think about the hackability of home "smart" systems, right?), I thought it was a fun episode, particularly for how it operated with the limited use of dialog from the very beginning.

Also, I felt like the blatant Samsung plug was part ad part threat. "Samsung: don't forget to tip your robo sushi chef! Because we're watching you."
posted by filthy light thief at 7:26 AM on March 1, 2018

I don't think the solution was supposed to be a twist or anything. It was really about seeing how far Mulder would go to avoid tipping a robot (and a measey 10%, to boot!)

I laughed at how even though the moral of the episode was to disengage from your phone, they still managed to work in a Samsung placement at the end.
posted by AndrewInDC at 7:35 AM on March 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

A fun episode but a little too "student film-y". Also I couldn't help but feel that Black Mirror would have taken it much farther.
posted by cazoo at 9:55 AM on March 1, 2018

Honestly, I hope what the X-Files nerds who grew up to be computer programmers and designers take away from this episode is not the banal "we have to better teachers", not the need for Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics, not some Elon-Musk-esque fear of the rise of AI or belief in the singularity...I just hope they'll realize how fucking annoying everything shown in this episode would be even if it was working perfectly. There are so many features of apps and programs that I'm sure seem clever in the abstract (asking for feedback/ratings, auto-updating, running at startup, predictive algorithms, etc.) but are incomprehensibly irritating when every app and program does them. We don't need to be better teachers, we need to be better designers in the first place.

It's pretty brave to write a script with absolutely no other humans (not even extras) besides the two leads and give even the two leads very little actual dialogue. Not that any at this point should have any doubt about Gillian and David's abilities to carry an episode like this, but I was still impressed with the chutzpah of the attempt.

I was also really amused (and it felt very true to his character, somehow) that even after a night of being terrorized by an AI that wants him to leave a tip...Fox still only tipped the minimum 10%.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:04 AM on March 1, 2018 [12 favorites]

I kind of loved this episode. I wondered after a few minutes of no dialogue if they'd do the entire episode that way. The silence was startling but felt like very astute commentary on modern relationships. How often do we sit next to our partners but not engage with them over a meal? I thought it was a good mirror for to look into and not necessarily like what it is we see.

I haven't rewatched to validate this but -- in one of the brief glimpses we saw of Mulder's phone, I thought he was reading Ask on the mobile layout. Yes? No?

The gag with Scully's personal massager was the best. While this ep didn't feel like classic!x-files, it felt like it fit what what classic!x-files wanted to make people feel.
posted by toomanycurls at 4:01 PM on March 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Scully's password!
posted by TheLateGreatAbrahamLincoln at 6:53 PM on March 1, 2018

Scully's password!

I liked how even she had to stop for a split-second to think about how it's spelled.

The minimal dialog was really good, too. It was actually much more natural, especially in the scenes where they are apart. It reminds you just how silent you are when alone.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:33 AM on March 2, 2018

This email Mulder got from Harry Reid was funny.

It's one thing for the media to know about a $22 million Pentagon UFO research program, of course, but it's a-whole-nother thing for them to find out that Harry Reid is Mulder's new Senator Matheson secretly at war with a global conspiracy.

Overall, I thought the cold open was a little ham-fisted, but I maintain that there was a novel thread running throughout this episode, driving home the idea that the biggest threats from AI come not from their potential sentience or apocalyptic unintended consequences, like Elon Musk’s frequent paper clip analogy, but from the fact that machine learning algorithms start with our own bad habits and warped values to inform the data set they work with and the rubrics that they use to evaluate them. This episode was like a black comedy silent film about Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction” (i.e. It was good and I liked it). It's expressing a subtle, more "clear and present danger" about AI, and smarter than the people who complain about this being Black Mirror-Lite are giving it credit for. The criminal justice system has made any attempt at "predictive policing" algorithms racist and not vice versa, per O'Neil. Angry, stingy patrons like Mulder helped the AI become more belligerent and not vice versa. Etc.
posted by ProfLinusPauling at 8:40 AM on March 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

A thing I liked about the minimal dialog is that Mulder and Scully spent more time talking to machines than to each other, yet they communicated so much to each other non-verbally.
posted by ProfLinusPauling at 8:42 AM on March 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

There is also a delightfully ominous overtone added by having Teach Your Children playing nearly constantly in that the last stanza of the song goes Teach your parents well...
posted by Thorzdad at 8:55 AM on March 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

I totally knew that her password was Queequeg before she even said it.

One tiny thing I liked about this episode: Scully's laugh at the blobfish. Gillian Anderson has a fantastic laugh and, as Scully, she almost never gets to use it. I remember watching her on a talk show (probably Letterman) back in the day and was just enchanted by her amazing blast of a laugh.

Otherwise, I found this episode incredibly stressful. And the opening scene, with the AI that learned to hate from Twitter? Other than it being an interesting true story, I thought it wasn't really relevant to the rest of the episode. I actually wondered if it was part of the previous show that was on Fox that night, and that I had just turned the TV on too early.
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:40 AM on March 2, 2018

And the opening scene, with the AI that learned to hate from Twitter? Other than it being an interesting true story, I thought it wasn't really relevant to the rest of the episode.

But, it was! The clue is actually in the use of Teach Your Children. Take the story of the Twitter AI as an example of machines learning. Now, lay that over what, in the end, was the lesson that Scully and Mulder "taught" the AI "children"...That you will get what you want by throwing a tantrum. And, if that is the tantrum over a single, measly 5% tip, imagine the tantrum the AI will throw when it wants something much larger and dangerous.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:51 AM on March 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

The X-Files Sure Tried to Be Black Mirror Last Night and It Did Not Go Well - in which Cheryl Eddy finds this episode feeling "way too familiar and predictable," especially compared to 1) episode 4 of this season, The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat , and 2) Black Mirror.

Clearly I need to be watching Black Mirror.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:00 AM on March 2, 2018

Thorzdad, I didn't even put that together. Thanks for helping me see that...and yeah, creepy level has just gone up.
posted by Elly Vortex at 11:39 AM on March 2, 2018

I liked the style and premise of this episode but thought it fell short. If it was all about Mulder's tip, why did the AI also terrorize Scully to the point of exploding her house? (The part where Scully's house talks about wanting to learn more to make Scully happy was an interesting germ, but wound up unrelated to the rest of the story.) Why did the AI try to shoot them with 3D-printed bullets? (And how did it 3D print gunpowder?) And the "people don't talk to each other because they're on their phones" part doesn't fit with the rest of it.

In all, it seemed like too broad a collection of tech jokes thrown together too heedlessly to focus on the single point it tries to make with the cold open about teaching AI. I would have preferred if it focused more on the idea that we're living lives ruled by flawed algorithms against which we have no recourse: The blobfish surprise, the dangerously speeding self-driving car, and the recurring customer service failures speak to that more than an AI having a tantrum.

The bits like Mulder's mapping software bringing him back to the restaurant or pseudo-Amazon sending a pseudo-Roomba to map our Scully's house were great. The bits with threatening drones hovering menacingly to no purpose or the refrigerator shooting ice were less so.
posted by ejs at 1:29 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ms. Fimbulvetr and I just finished watching this episode. I dunno, we found it super predictable . . . just tip the damn robots . . . and really, really boring. Anyone could have been in this, no reason for it to be Scully and Mulder. The joy of xfiles is the interpersonal play and dialogue. And this had nothing.
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:48 PM on March 2, 2018

I really did not like the robots.

Saw an Andrews pipettebot [yt] last year , which was more impressive/faster in person compared to the 3 year old demo... and then there were the real pros [].

The sushibots here are a poor caricature of what automated systems can do.

The vast majority of automated systems are much more "ordinary" like optically grading in 3D and mechanical sorting of plantlets in tissue culture nurseries, or just about any kind of high throughput packaging from tinned soup to individually blisterpacked boner pills.

*edit: Oh yeah. Mandatory tipping culture stinks.
posted by porpoise at 8:05 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

This was an interesting experiment, but I'd have preferred more dialogue. The episode just felt empty without it. There were some cute moments, such as Scully's vibrator and the fact that she uses Rock It Like a Redhead styling cream, and Mulder's look of outraged parsimony as he pays the 10% tip, and his "why is your house so much better than mine?". (Why indeed. I was trying to figure out how Scully could afford such a house.) I also liked Mulder's efforts to protect Scully when they were trapped in that one room with bullet-like ice cubes or whatever those were being shot at them.
posted by orange swan at 9:33 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I thought this episode was pretty delightful - a good old fashioned preachy-mode X-Files. It would be fun to back-to-back this with Ghost in the Machine - I haven't seen it in years but it was a very similar "smart security system is MAD" concept, as I recall, and it'd be fun to see how they differ.

My house is pretty smart but not this smart. I was surprised Scully's house wasn't more voice-activated.

And yeah since when do Mulder and Scully even live in single-family homes? I thought these fools were apartment dwellers for life.
posted by potrzebie at 10:58 PM on March 2, 2018

I thought it was good, and it actually reminded me of The Twilight Zone more than The X-Files. I think we all clocked the thing about the tip waaaaay before Mulder did and that was a little frustrating because you knew how it would all resolve, but it didn't ruin the story for me.

As for Scully's big fancy gadget house, she was a surgeon for a while, in the movies, and I guess she must have been doing pretty darn well to afford this place. Is this the first time we've seen her house in the revival? It makes me wonder yet again about Mulder and Scully's relationship status! A few episodes ago she referred to Mulder's place as "our place," but now they seem to be living apart again. I honestly don't know if they're a couple or what. They seem to have gone from "Will they or won't they?" to "Are they or aren't they?"

Only three more episodes. If Gillian Anderson is to be believed, she's done, which would probably mean the end of the series. Funny how this show went from being something I couldn't imagine coming back to something I can't imagine going away yet! They seem to have gotten their groove back this season.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 11:34 PM on March 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

I actually thought a big part of the fun of the episode was trying to pinpoint when it occurred to Mulder that adding a tip might stop all this. I think it was sometime in the first half and possibly even when they were still inside the restaurant. For a long while he didn't want to believe it but he definitely figured it out long before he actually added the tip. It's an episode about the sheer bloody minded stubbornness of Fox Mulder, along with the other stuff it's about. Put "it's the principle of the thing!" on this dude's tombstone.
posted by potrzebie at 8:16 AM on March 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

I loved this episode (even the silly bits).

Also, it made me feel validated that I habitually say "Alexa, please [command]" and, frequently, "Alexa, thank you."
posted by sldownard at 10:17 AM on March 3, 2018

I loved the episode.

I think the idea of having minimal dialogue was to highlight how fucking loud/annoying drones are, at a point some people are itching to have drone-delivered everything. Most of the episode is scored by social media chimes (speaking of, does anyone know where's the sound from the alarm in Forowa is? It sounds a lot like the intro in Sonic Empire, but unless someone has a knack for mid-90s German techno, it may have been sampled elsewhere), alarm klaxons and drones buzzing.
posted by lmfsilva at 11:09 AM on March 4, 2018

The alarm REALLY reminded me of the hatch from Lost, when somebody would forget to press the button. One of the robot voices also really made me think of Glados from Portal, and I wondered if they actually got that actress in for a cameo.

There was a moment when Mulder spoke to some customer service rep, and she (IIRC) giggled something about how she was adjusting her headset and then he hung up on her or got cut off or something. What was that about? Were we supposed to think she was a bot too, just pretending to be human? Was she supposed to sound ditzy and incompetent, suggesting that humans were no help? Whatever was going on, I think they needed to work a little harder to make it clear. In the middle of this story were it was just our heroes against an army of machines, it seemed weird to have a friendly human for a second and made the situation seem a little less dangerous. Was I missing something there?
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:38 PM on March 4, 2018

> There was a moment when Mulder spoke to some customer service rep, and she (IIRC) giggled something about how she was adjusting her headset

It's a robo-sales-call from "Emily" & is pretty common, but if you've been lucky enough not to hear it, that bit wouldn't have made any damn sense. Odd decision by the writers. The Roomba uploading house maps and the Amazon drone delivery were also references to stories that were big last year, but not everyone follows tech outrage of the week.

I hated this episode. The peril seemed more annoying that dangerous which I guess is how this will affect 1st world GS-13s. Turning over human decision making to AI is going to be a lot worse for the destitute and disenfranchised. Oh, the drones are noisy and a little menacing? They aren't equipped with Hellfires and given autonomous capability to resist jamming of remote control & GPS. A bigger danger than AI going nuts is humans hacking systems given more & more power: controlling a spillway or refinery, driving a truck down a bike path or unlocking your front door for an intruder.

The vacuum-bot should have told the car where a patio door is so it could smash through it.

Gillian Anderson is only 5'3", but why were the touch panels in Scully's house at forehead level?
posted by ASCII Costanza head at 7:41 PM on March 4, 2018

I hadn't heard of "Emily." For the sake of making the point, they really should have had Mulder repeatedly trying to interrupt her only to realize she was a bot too. (Or maybe they did that and I'm not recalling it. I only saw the episode once and that bit kind of flew by with everything else going on.)

The peril seemed more annoying that dangerous

I think it was supposed to be right on the edge of funny and scary, and for me it succeeded at that. The X-Files can stretch and be a lot of things, but this is the first one I can remember that somehow didn't quite feel like The X-Files. With the more cinematic shooting style and those long stretches of silence, it felt more like a quality anthology show that happened to have Mulder and Scully in it. It really did make me think of The Twilight Zone, those episodes where somebody would piss off the machines and then pay the price for it.

Gillian Anderson is only 5'3", but why were the touch panels in Scully's house at forehead level?

I almost had the feeling she bought the whole house out of a kit and it was brand new. It added to the feeling that the episode wasn't really a part of the series. Suddenly Scully has this big sterile gadget house in a big swanky neighborhood? Why was she taking a robo-Uber home anyhow? Why wasn't she driving herself, or why didn't Mulder drive her? There's a lot about this one that doesn't quite add up with the show as we know it, but as its own thing I liked it a lot.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 8:54 PM on March 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, Gillian Anderson is probably shorter than 5'3". My girlfriend met her once, and describes Anderson as tiny. My girlfriend is about 5'3".
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:13 PM on March 5, 2018

Google says 1.60m, or around 5'2" or whatever that is in imperial.

I've noticed around here, a few alarm things are usually placed almost at eye level, particularly if they have a security central intercom. Or maybe that's a quirk of those who install it around here.
It doesn't seem that strange to me since it's something I would put above accidental contact, in this case being a touchscreen and all.
posted by lmfsilva at 2:45 PM on March 5, 2018

Almost-51yo me was imagining 25yo me swooning over how protective Mulder was of Scully (for an extended period) during that ice-bullet scene, and over their hand-holding at the end.

I was amused by his question about her house being so much nicer, but honestly, until Mulder was actually in his house, I assumed that they were somewhere on a case. Why would he need a mapping app to get home from where they went to dinner?

And I sure wouldn't have tipped on a blobfish thing like that. Ergh.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 11:15 PM on March 6, 2018

dumb, computer-language-illiterate question:

That’s the premise behind the awkwardly named “Rm9sbG93ZXJz”, (the name decodes to “Followers” in Base64)

The credits message (what you saw instead of "The Truth Is Out There", because apparently they're all different this season) was a different string of letters and numbers, and presumably works out to be something else in Base64. Anyone know what that message was, or failing that, what the string of numbers and letters was (I didn't catch the whole string) and how I can translate?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:25 AM on March 9, 2018

"VGhlIFRydXRoIGlzIE91dCBUaGVyZQ=" decodes to "The Truth is Out There."
posted by sldownard at 9:35 AM on March 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Jarring that it was set in the near future. I think X-Files has always been set in the present day, save for the odd flashback or potential future, with the fantastic elements clandestine, cryptic, or esoteric. Here there are mainstream drone deliveries, sushi robots, and driverless Ubers, right out in the open.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 8:06 PM on March 9, 2018

I thought this was awful! Hamfisted, slow, and obvious. Watch Black Mirror, it handles this kind of thing so much better.
posted by graventy at 8:26 AM on March 15, 2018

we laughed and laughed. Over the entirety of the episode we kept doing a compare and contrast to the Amazon Black Dogs episode of Black Mirror but also to terrible Hollywood cheesebots from Robbie to Short Circuit.

I personally wish they hadn't chickened out on the no-spoken-dialog thing, but ghere were some gag lines, like "Queequeg" and "How is your house so much..." that likely benefitted from vocal delivery.

The ice cube shooting fridge is a direct reference to Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie", fwiw.

Finally, the other aspect of the episode that struck us as worth mentioning is how very much like a vintage episode of The Twilight Zone, or Outer Limits, or a story in a 1955 issue of F&SF it felt. The story is conceived of and presented as social satire; no fictional characters were ever in danger. Compared to the entirely bleak experience of watching the specific Black Mirror episode, I preferred this, as entertainment.

Charlie's episode is superior in every way available to me as a critical analyst of time-based genre media... but I enjoyed watching this more, because I laughed, and I kept laughing, and that meant I experienced both endorphin and oxytocin release while watching, while Charlie only ever gets my adrenals moving. Well, mostly only ever.

Finally, my impression is that Gillian's laugh at Fox's food was just that - possibly an on-set reveal with a legit reaction. One aspect of this season that I have found of interest is that she appears to be the more capable actor, with the greater range, and a sort of fearless quality. David's work on the show back in the day appeared to invert that, possibly due to sexist writing. These episodes sometimes appear to let her lead the performances in interesting ways that sometimes exceed the script, which is what one wants in a show, show. Are you listening, show? Do right by this opportunity, show.
posted by mwhybark at 1:06 AM on March 27, 2018

and driverless Ubers, right out in the open

Bethesda, Tempe, what's the difference, really?
posted by mwhybark at 1:09 AM on March 27, 2018

Watching the episode the other night almost made me feel guilty about yelling at my laptop for operating so slowly that day.

I go out of town to visit a close friend of mine a once or twice a year, and I've often joked that her house seems to be in a different century than mine. My 2012 laptop is my only internet device. I don't even have a cell phone, just a basic landline, on which I don't even have caller display. I wash my dishes by hand in the kitchen sink. My vacuum cleaner is a 10-year-old simple upright that I can service myself when it needs it. I don't have cable, and my TV is a 1997 analogue set purchased at a Cash Converters in 2002 for $80, which means I don't get any channels and can only use my TV for watching DVDs. I don't have a stereo, just an off-brand boom box I got on sale at Canadian Tire for $33 (admittedly the sound quality isn't great) when my 2002 boom box finally died this past September.

I'm not a Luddite, but I am struggling financially and can't afford anything but absolute necessities. And I don't even mind my lack of modern gadgets compared to other people. If I can ever afford a much-needed kitchen reno, I will put in a dishwasher, I would like to buy a flat screen I can install on the wall to free up some space, and I do fervently hope I'll be able to afford to buy a new laptop before the dying video chip on mine gives up the ghost, I'd like to be able to replace my duct-tape mended laptop charger cord, and my mouse is dying, but otherwise I feel have everything I really want. My friend and her partner have no end of gadgets, but whenever I get back home, I never miss all those supposed luxuries -- it's actually a relief to be without them. I mostly find them exasperating to deal with. Watching Scully try to get her devices to work was maddening even to watch. The more complex your equipment is, the more likely it is to malfunction and the less likely it is that you'll be able to fix it when it does.

I've had a thought about Scully's rtizy house. Her parents are dead, and they were wealthy, so she would likely have inherited a good bit. And yes, she also was a surgeon and would have been making quite a lot. Mulder by contrast has likely been living off his inheritance from his parents (who were comfortable, not wealthy), and not making an income. He would have much less money than Scully. He would know that, though, and therefore his "why do you have a much nicer house than me" was an odd question for him to ask.

Incidentally, did Mulder really do nothing between 2002 and 2016 but cut things out the newspapers and throw pencils at the ceiling? I wish the show had addressed what he did for that time, because it seems so out-of-character for a guy as driven as him to sit on his butt for that much time.
posted by orange swan at 9:45 AM on October 21, 2020

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