Case: A famous computer programmer is killed in a shoot-out at a diner brought about under mysterious circumstances.
Destination: Washington DC and Fairfax County, Virginia
"We need a name. Your real name."
The X-Files is unusual in its blend of 'science fiction' (aliens, time machines, clones) and 'fantasy' (ghosts, vampires, werewolves, reincarnation) and some things that sit somewhere between the two (which category you put 'telekinesis' in depends on the explanation for why it's happening). This episode sits right over on the 'science fiction' side, which is less common, because the show is also a horror anthology, and horror is more often based in fantasy than science fiction, though it can be either.
'Harder' science fiction episodes tend to have a different feel to them than more traditional 'spooky' themes, though interestingly Mulder remains the believer and Scully the sceptic because it feeds into his ideas about conspiracies and secret craziness, while for Scully, it's not science if it hasn't been published. This episode has an extra weird vibe brought about by the hallucinations Mulder experiences while trapped in a virtual reality, which are a bit like something out of later show Farscape, but not quite wacky enough (compared to that show) to really work.
There are things to like about the episode, though. It's one of the episodes in which Scully rescues Mulder, which is one of the things I love about the show. The series as a whole pre-dates Buffy (though that show was going strong by the time we got to this season) and Dana Scully was one of the most interesting, capable and generally awesome female characters on TV, in a very different (though equally cool) way to her contemporary Xena. Perhaps Mulder rescued Scully marginally more often than she him, but one of the things that makes hours in which Scully plays damsel in distress, like 'Irresistible' or 'Unruhe', work without coming across as sexist or cliched, is that she was equally capable of rescuing him, and the damsel in distress was frequently Mulder (usually because he'd done something daft like run off to the Arctic chasing aliens).
Esther is also a pretty cool female character. This episode pre-dates The Matrix by a year, so Esther's cool goth female computer geek was a less familiar figure in popular culture at the time. And the Lone Gunmen's collective crush on her based on her awesome computer programming skillz is kinda cool while also pretty funny. Hallucinatory Evil Scully also kicks ass Trinity/Buffy-style.
Ultimately, this is a fairly slight story surrounded by a lot of slightly too weird window dressing, but it has some really cool elements and a strangely sweet ending.
- This is the second episode in a row with a Very Special Guest Writer, or in this case two: cyberpunk authors William Gibson and Tom Maddox. I'm not familiar with their work, but the Internet assures me the themes of this episode are typical.
- Oh, the 1990s: this episode is stuffed full of 1990s ideas, fears and general anxieties about computers, including hacking, artificial intelligence, sinister government-controlled satellites and communities of goth computer geeks who could probably take over the world if they really wanted to.
- Mulder says Scully is his doctor. While this is mainly an attempt to stop the creepy hallucinatory surgeons from chopping his arms off, I would totally buy that Mulder is too paranoid to see any doctors other than Scully.
Esther: Are you gonna take off these cuffs or do I have to do this with my tongue?
Mulder (glancing towards the Lone Gunmen): You don't wanna take a vote.
Final Analysis: Odd but kinda cool. Two out of four creepy government satellites.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.