Kill Switch (The X-Files)
|The X-Files episode|
|Episode no.||Season 5
|Directed by||Rob Bowman|
|Written by||William Gibson
|Original air date||February 15, 1998|
|Running time||44 minutes|
|List of Season 5 episodes
List of The X-Files episodes
"Kill Switch" is the eleventh episode of the fifth season of the science fiction television series The X-Files. It premiered in the United States on the Fox network on February 15, 1998. It was written by William Gibson and Tom Maddox and directed by Rob Bowman. The episode is a "Monster-of-the-Week" story, unconnected to the series' wider mythology. "Kill Switch" earned a Nielsen household rating of 11.1, being watched by 18.04 million people in its initial broadcast. The episode received mostly positive reviews from television critics, with several complimenting Mulder's virtual experience.
The show centers on FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) who work on cases linked to the paranormal, called X-Files. Mulder is a believer in the paranormal, while the skeptical Scully has been assigned to debunk his work. In this episode, Mulder and Scully become targets of a rogue AI capable of the worst kind of torture while investigating the strange circumstances of the death of a reclusive computer genius rumored to have been researching artificial intelligence.
"Kill Switch" was co-written by cyberpunk pioneers William Gibson and Tom Maddox. The two eventually wrote another episode the show: season seven's "First Person Shooter". "Kill Switch" was written after Gibson and Maddox approached the series, offering to write an episode. Reminiscent of the "dark visions" of filmmaker David Cronenberg, the episode contained "many obvious pokes and prods at high-end academic cyberculture." In addition, "Kill Switch" contained several scenes featuring elaborate explosives and digital effects, including one wherein a computer-animated Scully fights nurses in a virtual hospital. "Kill Switch" deals with various "Gibsonian" themes, including: alienation, paranoia, artificial intelligence, and transferring one's consciousness into cyberspace, among others.
At a diner in Washington, D.C., a man tries to access files on a laptop computer, but is repeatedly denied. Meanwhile, several drug dealers receive anonymous phone calls about the whereabouts of their competitors; they are told that they are at the same diner. Two U.S. Marshals receive a similar phone call about an escaped prisoner. The drug dealers arrive in pairs as the man attempts to gain access to the files. Just as he does, the two Marshals appear and order everyone onto the floor, causing a shootout.
Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) arrive and identify the bodies of the drug dealers. Mulder also identifies the man with the laptop as Donald Gelman, "a Silicon Valley folk hero" who aspired to create an artificial intelligence. Mulder takes Gelman's laptop and finds a CD inside. When puts it into the car stereo, it plays "Twilight Time" by The Platters. However, the agents take it to the Lone Gunmen, who discover that the disc contains a large quantity of encrypted data. The trio, however, are unable to decipher it. Upon Scully's suggestion, they access Gelman's e-mail account and find a message sent by someone named Invisigoth, saying that someone named David is missing.
The message contains a BIC code for an intermodal shipping container, which Mulder and Scully locate. When they approach it, a girl attempts to flee but is captured by Scully. The container turns out to be full of state-of-the-art computer equipment. The girl warns the agents that a laser-armed Defense Department satellite has pinpointed their location. They quickly leave the area as the container is destroyed. The girl, Esther Nairn, reveals that she uses the online alias Invisigoth, and tells the agents that Gelman succeeded in creating an artificial intelligence. She reveals that once the AI locates an enemy, it destroys them using the satellite. According to Esther, Gelman was creating "Kill Switch", a virus that could destroy the AI. However, the AI learned of Gelman's plans and killed him by luring the drug dealers and the police to the diner. The only way to destroy the AI is to find the computer on which it is stored. It turns out that David is Esther's friend, and also worked with Gelman.
Mulder uses a government source to find a secret T3 line in Fairfax County, Virginia, one that the AI uses to access the Internet. He also finds the trailer that is connected to the T3 line. Meanwhile, Esther forces Scully to drive to David's house. However, they find that the house has been destroyed. Esther admits that she and David had been planning to transfer their consciousness into cyberspace to enter the AI. Gelman, however, thought the idea was too dangerous. Esther also admits that she and David were in love, and were having an affair behind Gelman's back. Meanwhile, Mulder finds much computer hardware inside the trailer. He also finds David’s dead body, with a virtual reality helmet on his head. Suddenly, Mulder is constrained by moving cables and wires, and experiences a strange vision in which he is in a hospital where nurses threaten to amputate his limbs unless he reveals Kill Switch's location. Meanwhile, the AI locates Scully and Esther driving near a swing bridge. They become trapped on the bridge after the AI manipulates its drawing mechanism, causing Scully to persuade Esther to throw the laptop into the water. Just as it hits the water it is destroyed by the defense satellite's missile.
Scully and Esther find the trailer in which Mulder is trapped. Esther reveals that she still has the CD on which the Kill Switch is stored. Scully puts it into the drive into the AI, which then releases Mulder. She gets him out of the trailer, but Esther stays inside. She uses the satellite to locate the trailer's position, causing the missile to destroy the trailer, killing her. Mulder tells Scully that Esther's consciousness probably joined the AI. Later, the Lone Gunmen get a strange message on their computer reading, "Bite me". Just before the credits, we see a trailer similar to the one where the AI lived, with automatic security cameras monitoring a boy who approaches the trailer to retrieve a football.
The episode was written by acclaimed cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, together with fellow science fiction author Tom Maddox. The authors and long-time friends had discussed various collaborations before and approached the production company with an offer to write an episode. The result was "Kill Switch", which first aired on February 15, 1998. The episode made frequent appearances in reruns and its success encouraged Gibson to continue working in television, resulting in his writing of a second episode "First Person Shooter"—again in collaboration with Maddox—which aired on FOX two years later on February 27, 2000. "Kill Switch" deals with recurrent Gibsonian themes: alienation, paranoia, the will to survive, emergent technology, the evolution of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and transferring one's consciousness into cyberspace. The Vancouver Sun author Alex Strachan later compared many of the episode's themes to that of Gibson's books, most notably in his novels Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and Virtual Light.
"Kill Switch" was written outside the mytharc of the series as a standalone story, which Gibson intended to be reminiscent of the "dark visions" of filmmaker David Cronenberg and to contain "many obvious pokes and prods at high-end academic cyberculture." Gibson's initial idea for the episode eventually evolved into the episode's final act. This was later combined with Maddox's idea of a deserted house with shuttered windows, surrounded by a chain-link fence. The episode involved the merging of human and artificial intelligence on the World Wide Web, a concept that had been floating around cyber-futuristic circles at the time. The episode's rewriting and revision process took a significant amount of time and it was over a year before the episode was completed due to other priorities that series creator Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz had. When they were finally available, they made some revisions to the script, including upping Esther's attitude and Mulder and Scully's reactions to her. A scene involving Scully trying on a fake nose ring was deleted from the script. Gibson originally started watching the series on the suggestion of his, at the time, 15 year old daughter. During filming, Gibson spent a majority of his time on the set only "because [his] daughter insisted on being there."
Filming and effects
According to executive producer Frank Spotnitz, "Kill Switch" was the single most expensive episode that was filmed in Vancouver. In addition, the episode took a total of 22 days to film. The episode's bridge scenes were filmed at the Westham Island Bridge, which spans Canoe Pass, British Columbia. The location had been discovered by Carter during a technical survey for the prior fifth season episode "Schizogeny". Because the bridge was the sole means to access part of the Fraser River farming community in the area, filming was heavily restricted. Logistical issues with the bridge itself, such as restrictions on how many people could stand on the bridge at a time, also posed troubles for filming. Permission to film the scene wherein Esther throws the laptop into the river and it is subsequently vaporized by a missile required thirty days to obtain. The abandoned house that Mulder discovers was filmed at a historical landmark known locally as "Read House".
The episode contained several scenes featuring elaborate explosives. The scene featured a missile destroying a shipping container was originally schedule to be filmed at one of Vancouver's waterfront facilities. After permission for detonating explosive had been cleared by the city, the port rescinded its permission, claiming that the shot was not in its "best interests". The special effects crew for The X-Files decided to ship in as many containers as they could to a recycling center in the adjacent city of Burnaby, where filming went off "without a hitch". The destruction of the trailer was filmed adjacent to the Boundary Bay Airport. After the explosion, the series received several complaints from people living as far as ten miles away from "ground zero", complaining about the explosion and shockwave. The robot that attacked Mulder was inspired by the NASA Mars Rover. It was battery powered and cost $23,000 to create and operate. The producers contracted with SPOT, a French-owned commercial satellite surveillance company to obtain the satellite photos of the Washington D.C. area used in the episode.
A freelance computer artist created a 3-D image of Scully for the scene where she is fighting the nurses in the virtual hospital. Gillian Anderson was very pleased with the scene. She later noted that "I happened to be in good shape at the time and was just raring [sic] to get in there and be taking those half-naked nurses out with some karate chops." David Duchovny was not as exuberant; when showed the script and directed to "be impressed with [Scully's] karate skills", he responded that "But I have no arms. I've lost my arms. Why would I care about Scully's karate?" Dean Haglund later called the sequence "one of the great fight scenes, ever".
"Kill Switch" premiered on the Fox network on February 15, 1998. This episode earned a Nielsen rating of 11.1, with a 16 share, meaning that roughly 11.1 percent of all television-equipped households, and 16 percent of households watching television, were tuned in to the episode. It was viewed by 18.04 million viewers. Editor Heather MacDougall won an Emmy award for her work on this episode.
The episode received positive reviews from television critics. Brett Love of TV Squad stated that it was his favorite episode of The X-Files, noting that it did seem "dated", but the concept of artificial intelligence was well-realized in the episode. John Keegan from Critical Myth gave the episode a 8 out of 10, and wrote "Overall, this episode puts Gibson’s genre credibility to good use by taking standard concepts of cyberpunk and applying them to the series." He did note that there are "a few minor characterization issues", and that "not all of the concepts are pulled together as tightly as they could be", but other than those points, he concluded that it was "solid and [...] enjoyable". Todd VanDerWerff from The A.V. Club gave the episode a B+ and wrote that, while "William Gibson’s cyberpunk milieu wouldn’t necessarily seem to be the best fit for The X-Files", the episode "weirdly benefits from the lack of staff oversight." He noted that it featured many elements to its plot, but was "a rare example of an X-Files episode that works, [despite the fact that] it tries to do too much." VanDerWerff was complimentary towards the story and called it "propulsive"; he was particularly praise-worthy of the fact that Scully was featured heavily in the episode. He cited the scene wherein a virtual Scully roundhouse kicks a group of nurses as one of the best shots in the episode, and called it a "hysterical moment".
Robert Shearman and Lars Pearson, in their book Wanting to Believe: A Critical Guide to The X-Files, Millennium & The Lone Gunmen, rated the episode four stars out of five. The two wrote that its themes were "fresh and new" and that the plot had "real heart to it". Paula Vitaris from Cinefantastique gave the episode a positive review and awarded it three stars out of four. She praised the episode's directing and noted that the entry was "a great improvement over The X-Files's earlier A.I. episode, first season's "Ghost in the Machine". Vitaris cited "Mulder's virtual experience" as the "highlight of the episode".
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