Does Not Compute

I like my sci-fi.  I’ve been reading Ray Bradbury since forever and I’m always up for a Star Wars or Star Trek marathon.  Sci-fi shows I watch include, but are not limited to, “Stargate SG-1,” “Firefly,” “Twilight Zone,” “X-Files,” and “Fringe.”  (Yes, my Star Trek exposure is sadly lacking.)

If you, like me, have no life and entirely too much time to watch TV, you’ve probably noticed a few episode themes that crop up in every show.  There’s the Brain-Switch episode; the Surprise Clone episode (may or may not be the same as Surprise Robot Clone epis0de); the Benevolent But Ambiguous Alien Contact episode; the Freaky Parasite episode; the Time Travel and/or Alternate Universe episode; and the Evil Computer episode.

The Evil Computer episode is always terrible.

I don’t undertand how science fiction can take the computer, the pinnacle of all scientific creation, the machine that single-handedly shaped our world socially and economically and continues to offer new possibilities, and ruin such a versatile plot device.  Maybe it’s because it’s too versatile – the writers never know how to handle all the potential, so they fall back on old fears and stereotypes.  They play up the fear of an all-powerful (and evil) AI, privacy issues, etc, when they could be exploring the vast possibilities the computer offers.

Here are a few of the awful Evil Computer episodes I’ve encountered.  If you’ve seen others (Star Trek? Doctor Who?), share in the comments!

1. X-Files, “Ghost in the Machine.”  This one is terrible on so many levels.  The show is in its first season, 1993.  Cell phones exist, but they’re the size of cinder blocks.  Fax machines are the hottest gadget in town.  Computers have only recently begun to appear in homes, and, as this episode demonstrates, there’s still plenty of paranoia floating around regarding computers.   All that power and programmed intelligence could easily become self-aware and rise up and kill us all – audiences leared that from “Terminator” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

What made “Ghost in the Machine” so precious is the computer itself: a top-of-the-line security system which is about to be shut down as a cost-saving measure.  The computer, imaginatively called the Central Operating System, promptly begins killing everyone in an attempt to save itself.  After each kill, it says in a menacing techno-monotone, “FILE DELETED.” Painfully unrealistic and gloriously terrible.

2. Fringe, “The No-Brainer.  This one is irritating because the problem begins, like many problems do, with someone clicking on a pop-up ad.  The first thing anyone should know when going online is to never click the pop-ups.  Or the sidebars.  Or that email from Uncle Gerald saying he’s been robbed in Tibet and needs your moneys.  For anyone under 30 and/or familiar with computers, lack of common sense in computer use is an instant cause for dislike.  We can no longer sympathize with the victims; it’s their own damn fault for clicking on the shiny pop-up.  They should know better.

It’s also irritating because a computer virus makes a really lame bad guy. This one doesn’t even talk – it’s just a bunch of code created by some bitter out-of-work computer engineer who decided to take revenge on those who wronged them by writing a creepy viral video that melts the viewer’s brains.

Yes.  Melts their brains.  Brain matter dribbling out of ears and noses all over town.  Melted via computer screen.

Only for some reason it doesn’t work on the main character’s niece – we haven’t found out why yet, and that was the one redeeming moment from that episode.  (And so help me, if you tell me anything at all about “Fringe” beyond Season 1, I will find you and injure you.)

3. Stargate SG-1,  “Avatar.”  In its ten seasons, Stargate probably had a few rogue-computer episodes, but this one stands out for me.  It’s a Teal’c episode, which ordinarily would be a good thing, but in this episode, Teal’c gets himself trapped in a virtual-reality combat training program.  It’s designed to incorporate the user’s combat experience, altering the scenario to test possible invasions by various evil aliens.  The program is supposed to end when you kill the Alien Boss and/or give up and take an elevator to the surface of the base, exiting the game.

Only when Teal’c tries it, the game decides that based on his combat experience and knowledge of the alien bad guys, there can’t really be an end to the scenario – not until every single evil alien in the galaxy is destroyed.  So it keeps throwing new challenges at him, “killing” him over and over again and exhausting him, until finally the rest of SG-1 teams up and wires in to help him.

So what’s wrong with this episode?  First: all the evil aliens in the galaxy were not destroyed, which means the computer logic failed, which we’ve been told is not possible.  Second: why the heck would you program a game to actually cause pain when your character died?  ‘Cuz I wouldn’t go near it.


2 thoughts on “Does Not Compute

  1. What about the Stargate SG-1 episode where the computer program switches places (brainwaves, whatever) with Sam? That one was actually pretty good…ya know, as far as evil computer story-lines go.

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