If there was a moral to ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ (or ‘Followers’ as translated in Base64), then it would be to always tip the waiter! But joking aside, Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin’s script is The X-Files at its very best.
The comparison to Black Mirror is inevitable with its visual and contemporary statement on modern technology and its dangerous practicalities. But it easily illustrates how flexible as a cross-genre concept The X-Files can be. Continuing the outstanding trend of the season, The X-Files is not resting on past laurels. The experimental nature of ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ ensures that it stays relevant, morally woke and goes beyond creative expectations.
‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ is very much a cautionary tale that doesn’t quite sit in the normal timeline of events. Similar to Darin Morgan’s satirical view of the show, ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ exists within its own timeline or alternate universe, functioning as a surrealist dream of a technological dystopian nightmare. It embodies all the hallmarks of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and the classic science fiction tropes of Philip K. Dick, The Terminator, Ex Machina and 2001: A Space Odyssey to name a few.
There is no doubt that technology has made our lives simpler and efficient by enabling us a freedom that we weren’t capable of before. But what ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ explores as a topical debate is the human responsibility (or the lack of it). The Wall-E style robots chase Mulder and Scully as if they weren’t programmed with Asimov’s three laws of robotics! It might seem trivial that they were chasing something simple but they learn from us and the extremity of their persistence asks ethical and moral questions. Films have always depicted a doomsday reality and yet we constantly see evidence of that increased automation and paranoid fear. The idea of being a slave to the system is a terrifying concept especially as it examines the invasion of privacy or that Scully effectively becomes a prisoner in her own smart home. The Stephen Hawking-esque teaser warns us of that complacent future and as Mulder poetically suggests, we have to become better teachers.
It captures perfectly the idiosyncrasies of human experiences with technology. Whether it’s trying to speak on the phone just to return an item or sorting out your bank card, the struggle is real. The approach has gone so far that the human element has gone, replaced by a system bureaucracy of our own creation. Similar to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and how form-filling paperwork was the accepted norm, The X-Files uses the same outlandish principle as a technical upgrade.
But ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ also becomes a symbolic reference to how technology has become personal (as a conditioned consumption) but also disconnected and anti-social. We’re too busy swiping or distracting ourselves that somehow through this digital evolution, we have lost the ability to communicate with one another. Comparing the opening and last shots of Mulder and Scully showcases that divide of a cold emptiness of the sushi restaurant and a distant lack of human interaction versus the warmth and friendliness of a community diner. Scully and Mulder holding hands at the end perfectly signifies a beautiful and reconnecting art of simply being present in the moment.
The art of silence plays a successful and enjoyable role. Firstly, it helps convey the tension filled concept of a paranoid fear on how technology can track you. Suddenly the idea of silence becomes a survival tool for Mulder and Scully. Secondly it easily demonstrates the power of the Mulder and Scully dynamic with their magnetic ability of communicating without speaking. They know exactly what they’re thinking without uttering a word. Thirdly, even composer Mark Snow gets in on the act. His music which has been the comforting bedrock of so many episodes was largely absent, sparking memories of Millennium’s ‘The Curse of Frank Black’. Instead of the constant reassurance of his symphonic melodies, he channels his inner Ennio Morricone / John Carpenter vibe that is a true and reflective work of an unnerving 80s soundtrack.
But the most important selling point of the silence is its unique homage to silent cinema, relying on the brilliant and emotional facial expressions by David and Gillian. The notion could easily have been a gimmick because it is a hard skillset to master. However, its effective use in comedic situations especially or scenes depicting absolute terror can be traced back to the works of Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton. Writer and director Glen Morgan showcased this briefly in the terrific pre-credit opener in ‘This’ with Mulder and Scully channelling their inner action heroes. But ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ is a positive sustainment because when the words are limited or none at all, all you’re left with as an audience is the psychological fear of your own sanity.
That essentially is why the episode is brilliant. It’s smart, intelligent, scary, poignant and good fun.