In The X-Files Season 2 episode “Die Hand Die Verletzt,” Scully tips Mulder to an important clue: “Look at this, I found this on the Internet.” The 90’s were a very different time. But while technology has changed, many of our fears remain just the same. Here are the episodes where The X-Files stared down the horrors that might be encoded deep within our digital future.
5. “First Person Shooter” (Season 7, Episode 13)
“First Person Shooter” has a reputation as one of the worst ever episodes of The X-Files, but for today’s viewers, it’s a fascinating time capsule bursting with phony gamer slang and wardrobe rejects from the set of The Matrix. Written by cyberpunk legends Tom Maddox and William Gibson, “First Person Shooter” is loaded with wretched dialogue like “The bloodthirst is unquenchable!” and “Shift, Alt, bloodbath.” But nothing tops the strange special effect spectacles, which include a row of copy-pasted sexy cowgirls with machine guns. Yes, it’s bad, but “First Person Shooter” is absolutely essential viewing.
4. “Ghost in the Machine’ (Season 1, Episode 7)
We are still a ways off from the murderous COS (Central Operating System) computer featured in 1993’s “Ghost in the Machine”. Opening on a comically elaborate whodunnit, the artificial intelligence-addled episode centers around a conflict between techie idealism (company founder Brad Wilczek could headline the next TechCrunch Disrupt) and rapacious, visionless capitalism BUT don’t worry — it soon gets down to the computer homicide you came for. COS may be more of a bungler than HAL, but “Ghost in the Machine” is still a worthwhile early attempt at an X-Files techno-thriller.
3. “Wetwired” (Season 3, Episode 23)
The episode’s commentary on our toxic 24-hour news cycle may be obvious, but it’s still the show’s “Trust No One” ethos at its purest. An unknown government entity experiments on civilians with a mysterious cable TV signal, which disconnects TV obsessives from reality and overwrites their real world with digital static and their most paranoid fears. Soon enough Dana Scully is saddled with visions of Fox Mulder and The Smoking Man maneuvering against her. Scully’s delusions form a dark negative of her relationship with Mulder that only trust can overcome.
2. “Unusual Suspects” (Season 5, Episode 3)
Set in 1989, “Unusual Suspects” is stuffed with big cell phones, D&D (Langly plays for money!), and old-school hacking. Origin stories are a tricky thing, but this Lone Gunmen epic soars by giving our favorite tech nerds some individuality and agency (Frohike steals the scene with the comment, “Sure baby, my kung-fu is the best,” just before assuring a mysterious woman he could totally take Mulder in a fight). Plus, it doubles as a Mulder origin of sorts, and explains the first run-in he and the Lone Gunmen share with a Deep State run amok.
1. “Kill List” (Season 5, Episode 11)
Another episode written by Gibson and Maddox, “Kill Switch” is so good it’s almost like they traveled back in time and wrote it as an apology for “First Person Shooter.” The X-Files and cyberpunk may not seem like a natural fit but, with its hopped-up laptop junkies, proto-Lisbeth Salander, and Scully kung fu, it captured the hacker milieu (that Gibson helped to codify in the first place) better than anything on television up to Mr. Robot. “Kill Switch” features A.I. manipulating world events, orbital weapons platforms, ubiquitous surveillance, virtual reality prisons, and uploaded consciousnesses thwarting death itself. It is everything cool about tech, ever, in 45 minutes.