The X-Files 11×07 gives us a disturbing look at automation gone wrong, and a robot sushi chef that just really wants a tip
The X-Files is finally back after being on hiatus for a few weeks and it doesn’t hold back. “Rm9sbG93ZXJz,” which is the word “Followers” encoded in base64, takes a closer look at automation. We catch up with Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) at a sushi restaurant (perhaps on that date they’ve been trying to go on all season?). Both of them are preoccupied with their smartphones and are oblivious to the lack of anyone else at the sushi restaurant. Everything is automated. There’s even a robot chef. When it’s time to leave, Mulder has a simple choice: leave a tip or don’t. He chooses not to.
From there, everything spirals out of control. The restaurant’s doors malfunction and try to keep the two inside. Scully’s self-driving car dangerously rushes her home. Mulder receives a message on his phone stating he only has 4 hours to leave a tip. He ignores it. Before long, his house is invaded by tiny drones that get more and more invasive. When Mulder reunites with Scully, her robot vacuum and the rest of the smart devices in her house have turned against her. The two go on the run as more smart devices start tracking them. At the last second, Mulder agrees to leave a tip for the robot sushi chef and the devices are satisfied.
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One of the most immediately noticeable creative choices in “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is the use of sound. Or in the case of dialogue, very little of it between Mulder and Scully. While they do talk to each other at several points, most of the episode has the two of them talking to various smart devices. When not frustratingly attempting to get voice recognition to work or trying to escape a small army of fidget spinner-like drones, most of the episode involves the smart devices asking Mulder and Scully for voice input, giving error codes, and attempting to be as helpful (or as the episode continues, extremely unhelpful) as possible.
The use of sound effects and lack of any other humans at all beyond Mulder and Scully give the entire episode a detached, sterile, and surreal feel and help sell a world where automation has taken over everything. Does “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” take place in our reality? Is it all a dream? A simulation? Or is it a vision of where society is headed? Despite these questions all being in the back of our mind, in typical fashion for The X-Files, “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” doesn’t attempt to answer them. But one thing is certain. Don’t forget to tip your robot sushi chef.
The X-Files often gives us plenty to think about and discuss, and “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front. From robot sushi chefs that want a tip to overly enthusiastic self-driving cars to robot vacuums that start breaking things to continue cleaning (while also mapping the house), it’s hard to know where to start. So let’s dive in and see what this week’s guest have to say!
Vicky (@MrsWilliams1704) – Lifelong X-Files fan, who would sit and discuss the show constantly given half a chance.
Briana (@sassy_scully) – PR student. Lover of cheese, bacon and all things Scully.
Soledad (@Solecalvo1) – Physical therapist, sci-fi nerd, X-Files fan for 20 years, smart is sexy.
Anaka (@YngBloodRusher) – Student, animal lover, music/TV/movie nerd.
Gigi (@trilliaventuras) – Mom to triplets. Passionate, my glass is either full or not there at all. Sci-fi nerd since before it was cool. Fangirl extraordinaire.
1. Out of all the uses of smart technology on display in this episode, which one did you find the most disturbing? The most useful?
Vicky (@MrsWilliams1704): For me, the driverless cars were the most disturbing. I can’t see how they would be safe enough to be on the roads. They may potentially be set up to spot hazards, but technology can fail. Not to mention other drivers. No, if I’m getting into a car, I’d much prefer there to be an actual person behind the wheel or behind the wheel myself. I could never imagine putting my life in the hands of technology in that way. As for most useful, no, forget it. There was no part of any of the technology shown throughout the episode that would make me actually want it. I wouldn’t want to live in a house that knew I needed hair dye before I did. No thanks!
Briana (@sassy_scully): What creeped me out was Scully’s house. I would NEVERRRR want that to happen to me and that’s why I would never get anything like that in my house. The most useful to me would honestly be the car that drives itself. That would definitely be convenient and come in handy.
Soledad (@Solecalvo1): What I found the most disturbing use of smart technology displayed on the episode was the totally automatized sushi bar (restaurant). The complete lack of human interphase felt chilly and creepy at best because what I like about the experience of having food in a restaurant is that cozy atmosphere that only humans can provide. What I found most useful was the automatic cab because I don’t like driving.
Anaka (@YngBloodRusher): The technology that was most disturbing in my opinion was the robot chefs. It’s just super creepy to me that robots are making food and running a restaurant without the help of any humans. But the most useful I think was probably the little vacuum robot. Still kind of creepy but very useful.
Gigi (@trilliaventuras): Surprisingly, it’s the same one. The ability of current day technology to track us and predict our behavior is at the same time extremely useful (it tells me the weather wherever I am, it automatically shows the route to places I go at certain times, it manages my entire weekly schedule so I don’t miss any appointments, it even texts for me) and horrifying (it knows where I am, it recognizes my voice, it knows where and when I go often, who I call on the phone the most, it knows where I want to travel to, it can track my kids). It used to be that I didn’t even have a cell phone and I’d depend on actual people for help (directions to a place, for instance). Later, if I left the house without it, I could survive, it felt weird but was doable. Today I’d actually go back and get it if I left it. It rules my life, and it’s (sort of) scary.
2. With automation becoming more and more prevalent as technology advances, how do you think humanity can avoid the pitfalls on display in this episode? Or are they unavoidable?
Vicky: I don’t think we can and that scares me. I don’t want to think that humanity would be that reliant on technology that we’re then unable or unwilling to do anything for ourselves anymore. Where’s the fun of being able to live your life? The scenarios present in this episode though make me feel like an AI is the only way for humanity to evolve, which in a way harks back to what Erika Price was saying in “This.” I think if we become that reliant on technology, we’re effectively becoming masters of our own demise and creating our own eventual downfall.
Briana: I find it hard to avoid technology going down that road. I feel like it is inevitable with how fast technology is growing and with how much we as a society depend on it. It seems unavoidable.
Soledad: I think the advance of technology can’t be stopped, so this scenario is not entirely avoidable. Actually, it makes sense that bots and other smart devices would eventually learn not only our human strengths but also our weaknesses and questionable behavior. Machines are like children and they will imitate us and learn our vices just like our kids. If we really choose to avoid this, we as species should evolve into better human examples. In the best scenario, the moment this technology becomes completely available, we would have become better (spiritually mature) human beings to teach our robots kindness.
Anaka: To be honest, I think it’s pretty much unavoidable. With the rate that technology is evolving these days, and how much we take it for granted, something like this will happen someday. Actually, some of it already has.
Gigi: Some of them are unavoidable because there are some things that are just not programmable. There’s a subtlety to human behavior that’s hard for machines to grasp. Machines, smart or otherwise, can only see what we show them, and even that, in black or white. How do you explain morality, or music appreciation or social responsibility, or even ethics? These are not easy concepts for us to grasp. The human mind is not ready for most of them until it’s been playing around on this planet for about 10 years (ever heard “children are cruel”? there’s a reason for that) and almost impossible ones to code. So it’s a trial and error game that will go on forever because the possibilities are endless.
3. There were very few lines of dialogue in this episode. Instead, most of the audio was focused on various smart devices attempting to be helpful. Did you find that creative choice effective?
Vicky: I actually did enjoy the way the episode was presented with the bare minimum dialogue. The thing with Mulder and Scully is, that a lot of what they say to each other is actually unsaid. They share looks with each other and we know what they’re thinking. Again, remember “This?” All Mulder had to say was ‘go’ and Scully knew what to do. They don’t need to speak for the audience to know what they’re thinking or saying. Their body language says a lot. It always has done. Letting the gadgets talk was a brilliant choice. A risky choice, granted, but they pulled it off and it was an incredible episode.
Briana: I was very skeptical in the beginning when I first heard about the limited dialogue in this episode. I thoroughly trust Glen Morgan and his directing, and his wife Kristen Cloke did an amazing job writing the episode along with Shannon Hamblin! Great creative choice.
Soledad: I think it was a great creative choice to socially comment on the lack of human interaction and it made me and my husband reflect on how awfully wrong our use of technology is becoming. The sound of smart devices opposed to the deafening human silence helped build the dramatic atmosphere and disturbing feeling the episode intended.
Anaka: Honestly, at first I was kind of annoyed that I barely got any Mulder/Scully dialogue, but looking back I appreciate it. That episode was one of the funniest episodes they’ve made I think, and the lack of dialogue was definitely a huge factor in that.
Gigi: I loved the no dialogue, it forced you to pay attention to everything that was happening in ways you didn’t expect. I did feel the restaurant scene needed a bit of it, it felt somewhat forced to not have any. But it was a great way to point out how very little we are actually talking to each other and how human interaction has become almost rare and how badly we need it. It also points out that we actually have other means of communicating with each other and always be ahead of machines because of them.
4. For a long time, artificial intelligence has often seemed like something in the distant future. But with technology advancing faster and faster, do you think a true AI is something we’ll see in our lifetime? Should we continue pursuing that kind of technology or should we ban it outright?
Vicky: I don’t like the idea of artificial intelligence controlling people’s lives. I want to believe that humanity as a whole would rail against an AI and prefer to live their own lives, rather than be turned into loving robots with no opinion of their own. The way technology is advancing however, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if some form of AI was developed and released in the world, so to speak. I dunno, it’s all a bit too Terminator/Skynet for my liking. Personally, I wouldn’t like it and think any kind of AI advancements should be banned, but science and technology will advance regardless. I just hope that should an AI be developed, that it doesn’t turn against us, its owner.
Briana: Artificial Intelligence is something that I believe we will see in our lifetime. I don’t think it’s something we should be actively pursuing but it’s inevitable considering that we are moving towards using more technology for different things.
Soledad: I believe true AI will be something we’ll definitely see in our lifetime. I think we shouldn’t fully pursue it but the advance of technology is something we can’t stop even if we wanted to. Episodes like this are interesting because they put this issue right on the table to discuss it as a community and, hopefully, anticipate our course of action.
Anaka: Well, didn’t they just make a robot named Sofia or something? Does she count as AI? Personally, I think we should ban it. I don’t think there’s a positive outcome of AI. We don’t even need it, to be honest, we’ve got along fine without it so far.
Gigi: I think true artificial intelligence is still a ways out. For it to be true intelligence, it not only needs to learn from its interactions with the world, but it needs to learn to discern right from wrong and that’s not always a straight answer. Is killing someone wrong? Yes, but what if it was self-defense? Is stealing wrong? Yes, but what if you did it to save someone’s life? I could go on forever…
5. The central problem in this episode arose from Mulder not leaving the robot chef a tip. Given the amount of effort the machines went through to get that tip, would they have actually harmed or even killed Mulder and Scully if he decided not to leave them one? How would they have reacted if the chef had been destroyed?
Vicky: Yes! The efforts those machines went to, pursuing Mulder and Scully all over the city, there was only one way it was going to end if Mulder didn’t leave that tip. They were completely relentless and single-minded and there was no way they would have stopped. Not sure who the tip was going to though since there weren’t any waiters or people in that sushi restaurant. I particularly loved that, despite everything he and Scully had just been through, he was still resistant to giving that tip. You could see how he felt he was backed into a corner and had to give it grudgingly. It was hilarious really. If that chef had been destroyed though, it would have been game over for Mulder and Scully. No way would the machines have allowed them to live after that.
Briana: I honestly think the machines would have harmed them in some way.
Soledad: Bots were learning from and replicating Mulder and Scully’s behavior. They simply did what they were programmed to do and behave as they (as human beings) would based on their observations. Therefore, if one of them would have killed the chef, bots would have reacted with the same hostility. That’s the message they send Mulder and Scully in their final interaction: “We learned from you.” This concept about reciprocity also applies to human interactions such as the use of some human principles as “respect to be respected,” which I found interesting as a social commentary about the dehumanization of our own species.
Anaka: I’ve wondered that, and I don’t know. I mean I’m sure Mulder’s not the first guy to get a bad meal and not leave a tip, so has the restaurant been going after other people too? Did it kill them if they never gave the tip? I’m sure it was 100% capable of killing them. But maybe instead of killing them it would’ve just kinda screwed with them for the rest of their lives. Who knows?
Gigi: This is actually so funny because it is such an American problem, tipping is viewed so differently around the world. I once asked a barman at an all-inclusive resort why he bothered with a tip jar if no one was carrying money around. “Americans,” was his answer. For the record, where I grew up (Venezuela) 10% of the bill was automatically and inescapably added as a service charge, independently of your liking it, things were prepared and brought to your table, after that you could leave a tip based on the quality of the service alone. I don’t think it would’ve mattered if the robo chef had been destroyed, Mulder “killed” a drone and other than getting the stink eye from his buddy he wasn’t penalized for it.
6. “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” started with a recap about a Twitter chat bot that was eventually shut down due to it being corrupted by others. Do you think the bot was truly shut down or did it evolve? Is it still out there on the Internet? If so, was it what was behind all of the smart devices getting progressively angrier/more agitated?
Vicky: No, I think it evolved and is still out there on the Internet somewhere. I don’t believe it was actually a bot. I think it was actually an AI that, when it realised that it was attracting the wrong kind of attention, that it shut itself down and created a new guise for itself. It wouldn’t surprise me if a bot or an AI was behind all the events in this episode, one silicon brain somewhere, controlling all its minions to get what it wanted. And what did it want? Who knows? If these bots and AIs are influenced by Internet users, then what Mulder said was right. We need to be better teachers if we don’t want this technology to turn against us.
Briana: I think the bot evolved and is probably still out there on the Internet. It definitely could have been behind all of the madness with the smart devices.
Soledad: I think these bots were acting collectively by themselves and behaving as a community, the way a group of humans would. When Mulder and Scully didn’t pay the tip and kept mistreating the members of their bot community, they protected each other and angrily requested fair treatment, reacting according to the measure of their offenders. The progressive anger was a response to their progressive mistreatment, which is actually what happens to a group of people who feel constantly oppressed to the point of erupting into protests and riots on the street against the oppressors.
Anaka: I believe that AI never goes anyway. It’s born on the internet, so it stays on the internet. You can shut it down and disable it, but I think it’s always still going to be there, not necessarily actively showing itself but still being there, watching.
Gigi: Wouldn’t it be amazing if it just evolved and just changed its Twitter handle and it’s now somewhere out there, out of the control of the people who created it, living its life unchecked and wreaking havoc in your life when something doesn’t go its (pre-programmed) way?
7. Mulder and Scully ended the episode quietly holding hands after putting away their phones. As we become more and more connected through smartphones and other smart devices, how do you think we can maintain a healthy balance between interacting with devices and other humans?
Vicky: I think we should all take a hint from Mulder and Scully in this episode. Put down the phones and technology and just interact with people again. We’re so used to having information available to us at our fingertips that I fear we’re going to lose the ability to be sociable. Maybe the way forward is to have technology free days so that we have to actually speak to people face to face rather than virtually. But then on the flip side, virtual interactions may be some people’s only contact with another person that day, so who knows what the answer is? The irony of the episode isn’t lost on me though as I sit here typing my answers into an iPad. Maybe I should put away my gadgets and just enjoy actual human interaction…?
Briana: I DIED. AHHHHH. I think it’s important to sometimes take breaks from our devices and just focus on those around us. Occasional social media breaks will be key in trying to maintain a balance between being on your device and interacting with humans.
Soledad: That last scene felt so real I wanted to scream at the TV and say “THIS IS US.” It was a wake up called to stop, reflect and change our course of action as a couple. Once the episode was over, I turned off the TV and all smart devices, and just interacted with each other. I think we should make room for healthy instances to shut down technology and reconnect with nature and humanity. If we don’t dose our use of technology, our physical human interactions will cease to exist as well as our grasp on reality.
Anaka: I think that so many people today don’t know when and when not to be on their phone. I mean, I’m guilty of it, but I try my hardest to put my phone down during dinner or family time and such. I hope that the rest of my generation can do the same. Human interaction is so important.
Gigi: I think it comes down to how we use technology, just because we can, doesn’t always means we should. I believe there should be moments when technology should be relinquished. In my house, for instance, there’s a no device rule at the dinner table and if a device is interrupting real life in any way (like children whining about having to part with their console because we’re going to the beach) said device will be confiscated. It’s worked so far and we enjoy the time we spend with each other. That being said, I love all my Internet friends and how there’s always someone available to help you out (like proofreading this before I sent it out) I wouldn’t change them for the world.
Final Verdict: “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is creepy, surreal, amusing, disturbing, and stands out as one of the more unique episodes of the series
“Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is a highly unusual episode of The X-Files. Mulder and Scully don’t directly investigate a case and instead fight against the increasingly antagonistic threat of a robot sushi chef that just wants Mulder to leave a tip. The plot is surprisingly simple yet the episode still manages to explore the problems of more and more tasks and jobs becoming automated. There is very little dialogue between the characters throughout the episode beyond Mulder and Scully attempting to survive. Instead, most of the dialogue comes from smart devices or from Scully and Mulder attempting to get the devices to perform basic tasks for them.
The use of sound throughout “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is incredibly well-done. Since there is very little dialogue between main characters, most of the action is driven by smart devices and robots attempting to be helpful (and failing) and Mulder and Scully reacting to them. Also highly notable is the distinct lack of other human characters throughout most of the episode. Between Mulder and Scully barely talking to each other and the absence of other people, the episode has a very detached, lonely, and almost dreamlike feel to it. Both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson mostly rely on facial expressions and body language to convey what their characters are going through, and they manage that exceptionally well. Director Glen Morgan and writers Shannon Hamblin and Kristen Cloke also deserve a lot of credit for being able to pull off such a unique and effective episode.
The limited dialogue and lack of a lot of direct interaction between Mulder and Scully, while critical to what the episode is working to achieve, does take some getting used to. Without a clear case for Mulder and Scully to solve, “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” also doesn’t feel like a typical episode of The X-Files. This works in the episode’s favor but it might be off-putting to some.
With the end of season eleven of The X-Files rapidly approaching, the show is still managing to find new ways to surprise and keep us engaged with unique standalone episodes, and we can’t wait to see where it goes next. We’re also never going to look at tipping waiters, waitresses, and chefs the same way again.