The X Files Revisited: 3.09 Nisei, 3.10 731
The X Files ran for nine seasons and two movies, charting the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully in their search for the unexplained. Now eight years after the second movie The X Files: I Want To Believe, the show is returning for six new episodes in 2016. Here at The Digital Fix, we are going to work our way through each season, reviewing some of the big episodes – and both movies – across the years in the build up to season ten. With 202 episodes, there is simply too much to cover every episode; instead we'll pick the story highlights of each year. Our lookback reaches this thrilling season three conspiracy tale that plays to all the series' strengths
How do you follow up a huge mythology story like that told in Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip? Build on the plot thread established there, offer something fresh and exciting and give audiences just enough answers so that the show doesn't feel like one long tease. Nisei and 731 tends to get forgotten against the 'Unopened File trilogy' and it's season four / five counterpart 'Gethsemane and Redux / Redux II but these are actually two of the finest mythology episodes the show ever produced.
There is a gripping mystery from the start. Mysterious Japanese scientists arrive at a boxcar in a train depot in the middle of the night and begin operating on something alien. For those keep up with the the last two and a half years, the green liquid being pumped into the cunningly concealed body and the exposed glowing green flesh have become part of the show's standard alien DNA and when masked gunmen arrive and shocking slaughter everyone in the boxcar we get our first proper glimpse at the alien as it is zipped up in a body bag.
Even before Mulder receives a video of the alien autopsy the theme of the story is set. Is it real or is it just a cover up for something far more sinister; humans kidnapping and experimenting on other humans? Over the course of both episodes, Scully comes to learn that she was not taken onboard a UFO for this missing weeks but a boxcar train travelling across the US, under the experimentation of Japanese scientist Dr. Shiro Zama.
After an amusing scene where Scully makes a joke at Mulder's usual brand of entertainment and quips in a somewhat post-modern moment that the alien autopsy video is more hokey than the one aired on the Fox Network, the two agents travel to Pennsylvania to track the man who sold him the tape and find him dead in the house. From there the two agents encounter the killer, a Japanese diplomat with serious martial art skills but are forced to give him up when Skinner arrives to tell him they are invoking an international incident.
The pace of the story continues to race from this point and never really lets up. Stealing the diplomat's bag Mulder finds satellite photos of ship ferrying cargo to a naval shipyard in Pennsylvania and quickly finds himself pursued by masked gunmen - the same that killed the scientists on the boxcar - when he goes to the dockyard searching for answers. The conspiracy is in full swing and the tension continues to rise, making for some intriguing television.
But the biggest surprise is the moment Scully goes looking for Betsy Hagopian, one of a number of UFO anficados listed in the Japanese diplomat's briefcase. Two women answer the door and instantly recognize her as a 'fellow abductee'. A large group of women have all had the same experiences as her and the moment they all pull out containers containing the same kind of chip Scully removed from her own neck is rather chilling. There is an even darker piece of foreshadowing in play too as Scully learns that long-term abductee Betsy is dying of cancer and the rest of them, Scully included, will meet the same fate. Gillian Anderson delivers a gripping, vulnerable performance throughout the entire encounter and the stage is set for her own illness next season.
But while Scully goes through a very personal journey in Nisei, Mulder throws himself head first into the on-going conspiracy, tracking a shadowy experimentation of what looks to be a crashed UFO and then going to Senator Mathieson, last seen in season two opener Little Green Men, for help. Like Mr X, he serves as a successor to season one's Deep Throat and unlike Mulder's main informant is more open when it comes to giving answers. I admit, Mathieson is a character easily forgotten in the larger story - he makes one more appearance down the line - though Raymond J. Barry delivers a solid performance and like Mulder's jaunt at the beginning of season two, he helps set Mulder on the path by giving him the names of the murdered Japanese scientists.
The scene where Mulder finds the photo of the Japanese scientists is a defining moment in the show; Scully learns the name Dr. Shiro Zama, the man who she will discover experimented her and theme established in Anasazi through to Paper Clip return in force. The Japanese project 731, experimenting alien / human hybrids is a mirror copy of Project Paper Clip while the presence of train cars being used to conduct those experiments harks back to that fateful scene in the season two finale. On rewatch it is clear that the conspiracy was woven much more tightly than might have been apparent on first viewing and it is great to see all those plot points tied together so masterfully by series creator (and the story's writer) Chris Carter.
While Scully tries to learn more about the secrets of the chip she removed in her neck, working with a debuting Agent Pendrell (Brendan Beiser), Mulder tracks another box car containing Zama and sets off in daring pursuit. The cliffhanger to Nisei is very tense. Mr X arrives at Scully's apartment to warn her that Mulder must not enter the train while he jumps off the bridge onto the moving vehicle, losing his phone in the process. Alone and with no way of being contacted, the stage is set for a thrilling conclusion in 731...
731 is an even more fast-paced conspiracy thriller that see Mulder trapped on the train with a bomb about to explode, a killer trying to gain the upper hand and the secrets of an alien life from just out of reach behind a locked door. It is 24 without the ticking clock and it makes for gripping television.
It is also an episode that seems to really deliver answers too. Scully comes face to face with the First Elder, another member of The Cigarette Smoking Man's shadowy syndicate and even steps foot on another box car lab like the one she was abducted and taken too. Interesting, it is the first conspiracy episode that firmly moves away from aliens; sure there is talk of alien / human hybrids and the creature on the box car with Mulder might be one, but 731 seems to suggest that so much of what is happening are humans experimenting on and cataloguing other humans and using alien abductions and UFOs as a smoke screen. It is a theme that would be central to stories like Gethsemane which actually suggests alien interaction in general is one big hoax.
So Scully's journey first; the pre-title sequence opens in research disease facility in West Virginia where aliens - later confirmed as deformed human experimentees - are rounded up by the military and executed. It is a place Scully finds herself in after her research on her chip with Agent Pendrell tracks its origin to that very facility and the insidious actions of project 731.
Some of the most horrifying, gut-wrenching moments take place in that place; from the brutal execution to Scully discovering mass graves as a result of the US military's attempt to cover up the experiments on their home soil. The poor leprosy-ridden men left behind also add to the tragedy of the whole affair, particularly Scully's own failure to protect them after she is arrested and taken before the First Elder.
Spotted briefly in the season three opening episodes, Don S Williams's shadowy figure is a proper Godfather type character and makes a huge impact in his scenes. Like the Well Mannicured Man, the First Elder will continue to be a key player in the seasons to come as the conspiracy unfolds. Interestingly he is another man who seems to aid Scully, telling her all about Zama's horrific experiments and giving her the truth behind her own abduction.
Mulder's scenes meanwhile verge between Hitchcock and the Bond versus Red train scenes in From Russia With Love as he comes face to face with the man who killed the Japanese diplomat in Nisei who murders Zama before Mulder can stop him. Locked in the boxcar, Mulder quickly discovers that it is rigged to blow and the man who claims to be NSA will sooner shoot him than help him. It really is nail biting stuff, only made more tense when Mulder has the boxcar uncoupled and awaits his death, choosing to save innocent lives over himself by preventing the bomb from detonating in a public area.
And of course, the biggest turmoil for Mulder is not just that he might die but the proof he might so desperately need will be destroyed with the explosion. And indeed it does. In a stunning turn of events, Mulder lies bleeding as the NSA agent attacks him with a scalpel only to be saved by Mr X, who shoots the killer dead and then carries him away as the boxcar explodes behind him. Audiences have never seen Mr X put the cause ahead of himself before, but here he becomes a hero and it is very satisfying to watch.
The coda to the episode - one week later is equally as engaging. With Mulder's other ally, Senator Mathieson having left country, Scully and Mulder find themselves debating just what the truth was that they were looking for. Mulder argues the creature in the boxcar was alien, Scully a severely experimented human and the great thing is that either could be right. What is clear is that the people on the shadows pulling all the strings have covered everything up. Apology has become policy, Scully says, quoting the phase in the title sequence for 731. Audiences are left wondering what really happened, even if answers appear to have been given. And of course it ends with the Cigarette Smoking Man obtaining all the secrets, one step ahead of the agents...
Nisei and 731 form one of the most thrilling mythology stories in the show's history. Answers are given and yet the truth is never clear. Mulder is thrust into a life-threatening situation while Scully's own personal journey unleashes horrors that will have a very physical impact down the line. These two episodes are well crafted, well paced, an example of The X Files at its very best.