Thu
Mar 15 2012 12:00pm

Reopening The X-Files: “Nisei”/“731”

Season 3, Episodes 9 and 10: “Nisei”/“731”
Original Airdates: November 24 and December 1, 1995

A common criticism of The X-Files is that at some point, the mythology outgrew us all. Motives became convoluted, conspiracies too complicated to track. As a fan, way back when, I’ll admit that I gave up a little. Quit trying to piece it all together and instead enjoyed the episodes as discrete entities. As this rewatch has developed, I’ve been on the lookout for the moment that the show would start to push me back. So here we are, “Nisei” and “731” and all of a sudden I’m feeling the old pain, the struggle to stack the pieces together.

Mulder invites Scully into the office that they inexplicably still do not share and shows her an alien autopsy video that he has purchased. Scully quips a dated quip about how it looks “hokier than the one they aired on the Fox network” and Mulder points out the least-hokey thing about it: the end of the video, which features a brief shot of black-suited commandos interrupting the autopsy with gunfire. The agents attempt to track down the video merchant but instead find him dead and another man fleeing the scene. Mulder pursues, threatens, and arrests the man. Then Skinner shows up? In Pennsylvania, which is where they are? And tells the agents that they have to let the man go, he’s a high-ranking Japanese diplomat surprise. It’s shady, but fine, because Mulder’s done some shady of his own: he’s kept the man’s briefcase, and inside they find two fun things. The first is a list of names, members of a thing called the Mutual UFO Network, one name circled. The second is some satellite photos that track a salvage ship to a naval shipyard in Virginia.

Scully goes to the home of the Lady of the Circled Name and finds two other ladies there. These ladies immediately do the freakiest thing possible, which is tell Scully that she is one of them. Abduction victims! There are maybe ten of them, and each has had an implant removed from the back of her neck. Just like Scully! Oh so this will go well, Scully will definitely want to talk about her abduction—oh, oh wait. Nope. Scully is not into it. She’s scared, is what she is, and who can blame her. Honestly if I am ever an abduction victim and I have a book club with a bunch of other abductees and a newbie shows up at my friend’s house I will definitely not go around being like YOU ARE ONE OF US ONE OF US and then I will definitely not take her to the cancer ward. Which is, sorry, that’s what happens next. The Lady of the Circled Name has all of the cancers, and none of them are responding to treatment, and she’s probably dying, and it’s maybe because of the abductions.

Meanwhile Mulder has snuck onto the ship from the satellite photos and he has found nothing. But even so a bunch of guys with guns come to chase him off and he escapes by diving off of the ship into the water. And that works? That works. Mulder emerges unscathed and pretty close to a warehouse where he sees a bunch of people working on some big thing that is underneath a big plastic sheet. It could be anything. But you can probably guess what Mulder thinks it is. Back home he finds his door unlocked and his apartment sacked. Also Skinner is there. Skinner informs him first of all put the gun down, second of all that Japanese diplomat from before has been murdered. He also tells Mulder that he has zero plans to help him further on this case, which, I didn’t know he had been helping, but fine, and Mulder goes to see Senator Matheson. And there’s a thing here about how the Japanese diplomat was maybe murdered because Mulder stole that briefcase, and Matheson advises Mulder to return the photos, and Mulder is like no I don’t want to be implicated in a murder investigation right now (I’d go with “ever,” but okay), and then Matheson stage-whispers to him about how four Japanese scientists were murdered in Knoxville a few weeks ago. AKA they were the scientists in the alien autopsy video. Still with me?

Scully tells Mulder about the women, about how they had the same implant that she did, about the cancer. And Mulder has a strange reaction to this. He doesn’t...really...care. He glances at Scully’s implant (which I guess she has never shown him?) and calmly tells her that she shouldn’t “freak out” until they find out what the implant is. Mulder says this! To Scully! He says don’t freak out about the only piece of physical evidence that pertains to your abduction! And in case you were wondering, yes! It is hugely upsetting! But I don’t think it’s supposed to be, because the episodes just rolls straight on, Mulder shows her a photo of some Japanese scientists who, like the folks from Operation Paper Clip, devoted a lot of time and attention to doing horrifying tests on human subjects. Four of them are the men murdered in Knoxville. One of them, a Dr. Ishimaru, has been dead since 1965. Except Scully says she recognizes him, but whatever, Scully! Your opinions are not important in this scene! And then Mulder says some things about alien-human hybrids and Scully says she doesn’t believe in that nonsense, and I put my head on the desk and sigh.

Mulder tracks down the boxcar where the autopsy video was shot, I guess it is part of some secret underground government railroad. He finds the boxcar in West Virginia, sees Japanese men leading someone/thing in a containment suit into the car. Then the car is attached to a northbound train and Mulder is determined to catch it, and he’s about to, he’s leaning over a bridge, and Scully calls him. She’s in her apartment and X is there too, and X has told her to tell Mulder that he shouldn’t get on the car and then Mulder listens to no one and jumps on top of it. He jumps on top of a moving train car. Honestly, it is pretty cool. Mr. Duchovny did his own stunts in this episode, they tell me, and it looks great, exactly like what you would hope a completely insane FBI agent jumping on a train car would look like.

Ms. Anderson also did her own stunts for the episode, by the way, only hers involved less jumping on moving trains and more hanging out on lab sets, looking pained. Scully takes her implant to a lovesick FBI lab tech named Pendrell, who tells her that it’s a Japanese-made chip that is something like a hard drive made to store memories, as they are made. And because he has adorable crush on Scully he’s gone the extra mile, done some research, and unearthed a record of a shipment, from the chip manufacturer to a Dr. Zama in rural West Virginia. Scully follows the lead and finds a leper colony that has been cleared, mostly, of lepers. There are a few remaining, hiding in the basement, and one of them tells Scully that there were hundreds of patients until recently, until the medical staff left and the “death squads” started arriving. The squads have executed the rest of the patients, all of whom were fairly new to the facility, all of whom had deformities and who were treated by this Dr. Zama.

Mulder is on that train, the one with the alien-autopsy medical-facility boxcar, and he’s made friends with a conductor who has told him that there’s a doctor on board, a Japanese man named…Dr. Zama! Mulder tracks down Zama, and guess who Zama is, Zama is actually Ishimaru, the man that Scully remembered. Remembered from the tape and also, she’s realizing, from her abduction. So this is great, we found Zama, except oops, Zama has been strangled. Mulder tracks down the strangler, a man who says he’s NSA. And who tries to strangle Mulder. Probably because of Mulder’s underwhelming reaction to Scully’s story about the other abductees! Or something else, anyway there’s some scuffling and Mulder and NSA end up locked the medical-facility boxcar together and Mulder gets a gun on NSA and NSA tells him that there’s a bomb on the train. So, just to recap the recap: Mulder’s in this boxcar, and NSA is in this boxcar, and also there’s that being-in-a-containment-suit locked in the back room, and maybe a bomb. Still with me?

Scully is still at the leper colony but she’s been intercepted by one of the Consortium Men that we spent so much time with in “Anasazi”/“The Blessing Way”/“Paper Clip.” This guy is officially called “The First Elder” but I don’t know, of all of the non-names we have for these people that one is the least interesting so I am going to call him Mister Tie. Mister Tie tells Scully that this whole testing-on-humans thing can be blamed on Dr. Zama, which is convenient, then he shows her the boxcar. Sort of. It’s an exact replica of the boxcar that Mulder is in, and also, Scully thinks she remembers it. Not from the tape, but from her abduction. Mister Tie lends Scully her phone, and she calls Mulder. She says she believes Mister Tie, believes that Zama was acting alone, believes that a crazy doctor is more plausible than alien abduction. And frankly, fine, she’s not wrong, a crazy person is pretty Occam’s Razor. But if Zama was using the actual boxcar to do tests, why did he also have a replica boxcar built in the leper colony? Kind of a waste of resources if you ask me. Mulder is pretty displeased with Scully’s willingness to believe Mister Tie, but they don’t really have time to talk about it because at this point Scully says, did you know there’s a bomb on the train? And Mulder’s like, I heard a rumor but I haven’t seen one for sure, and Scully’s like, I can tell you where it is thanks to Mister Tie, and she can, and there is. One. A bomb.

OKAY. BUT WHY IS THERE A BOMB AT ALL. You’re going to love this. Per NSA, the person/being in the containment suit is a “weapon,” a one-or-thing who is immune to biological weaponry. Dr. Zama created this one-or-thing, and Mulder leaps to a strong conclusion: the one-or-thing is an alien hybrid. A rare success in the field! Zama was headed back to Japan with the hybrid, and also with this bomb set to start ticking if anyone should disrupt their progress by, say, strangling him. So now the bomb. Mulder has his conductor friend abandon the car in the middle of nowhere, and they wait for a very long time, and no one comes and no one comes and then Scully figures out how to get Mulder out of the car, which is very sweet, and then NSA cold-cocks Mulder, and then X shows up (WHAT) and shoots NSA, and then carries Mulder off the train right before everything explodes. Mulder doesn’t know who saved him. Scully doesn’t, either. And again, they’re left with no evidence of what they’ve seen, just arguments, the same ones. Proof versus truth and they’ve gotten away with it, again, cut to the Cigarette Smoking Man as he watches a man translating Dr. Zama’s journals, the end.

These episodes are dense with questions, and while they are fun to watch, they are exhausting to parse. Following Scully’s abduction plotline actually could be super-engaging, if it weren’t for the fact that Mulder—and the show, with him—is eager instead to throw in all of this stuff about boxcars and NSA and satellite photos and ships and things under plastic sheets. I mean I love watching Mr. Duchovny jump on train cars as much as the next red-blooded American woman, but sheesh. Can a girl get some clarity up in her mytharc, or at least, an answer that doesn’t seem to be a falsehood. The only answers we really extract come from Mister Tie and NSA, and neither are particularly trustworthy. So basically we learn nothing except that Scully is still very anxious to believe that she wasn’t abducted by aliens, and alien-human hybrids were a very popular pastime for Axis power scientists. And you could argue that this really started earlier, in the “Anasazi”/“The Blessing Way”/“Paper Clip” run, but I’m going to say it’s here, really, that we start to strain against the bigness of the arc. That we start to feel the Chris Carter Effect. It seems like there is a plan. It seems like there should be answers. But when will we get them? Will they be worth it when we get there? Because heads up: I want to believe. 


Meghan Deans got tired of losing her gun. She Tumbls and is @meghandrrns.

8 comments
Cait Glasson
1. CaitieCat
Like you, this is where my suspension-of-disbelief train started to jump the tracks, if you'll excuse the metaphor in the context.

They just hit us with too many turns too quickly in this pair, til I feel dizzy from trying to get it, and I realize why am I doing this to myself, it's just a stupid TV show, and I give up.

I didn't watch Lost, but I'm told the same sort of thing happened. And BSG went the same way, in effect, and Heroes. Big season-long arcs seem to be a really difficult thing to put together in a way that makes sense to people who aren't deeply involved with the making of the show, or very active fans (right, Mr. Moffatt?).

And as the series goes on, they tend to do it more and more, because it's the pet project of the head dude, but it's not really as interesting to everyone else, and so the show slowly dies.

This is my theory, which it is, and which is mine, and not yours, or anyone else's, but my theory, which I wrote, and which is mine.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
I haven't rewatched these for quite awhile, but I don't recall being confused by the arc so much as Mulder and Scully basically not paying attention to each other.
Mulder doesn't seem to place much importance on the abduction and Scully refuses to believe in the alien hybrid plot. When they both pull together in the same direction is when they seem to make the most progress. Pulling in random (or opposite) directions seems to uncover little and be pretty dangerous.
Ian Tregillis
3. ITregillis
Love these X-Files recaps. Another great job.

Everything you say about the Chris Carter effect rings so true. I remember that painful moment when I realized that I no longer understood what was going on with the mytharc. When I finally accepted that there were too many moving pieces and that they no longer came together into a coherent picture (or hinted at a coherent picture). But I kept with it because the ride was so fun, and because there was always the hope that at some point Carter & Co. would pull a rabbit out of that hat and amaze us with how perfectly everything fit together.

For me, it was "Piper Maru/Apocrypha" when I had this revelation. That's when I remember it happening, anyway. But probably, if I had been honest with myself, or more self aware, I would have realized I was already confused by Nisei/731. By "Tunguska" I knew I was incapable of understanding the black oil stuff.

@2: "I don't recall being confused by the arc so much as Mulder and Scully basically not paying attention to each other. Mulder doesn't seem to place much importance on the abduction and Scully refuses to believe in the alien hybrid plot."

Yes! As Meghan points out, it's all sort of ludicrous that they don't listen or pay attention to each other. False tension, it feels like. How can Scully, at this point in her adventure, not accept that hybrids might exist? And how in the world can Mulder suddenly shrug off the alien implant in her neck?

Also: hooray for Agent Pendrell. The poor guy.
Samantha Holloway
4. pirategirljack
I don't remember when I lost interest in the major arc; maybe I never had much. I loved the show unquestioningly until sometime in season six, or thereabouts, and I knew all the facts, but I wasn't yet at a point in my fandom or critical thinking skills where I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. Which might be why I didn't worry too much. And anyway, my favorite episodes were always the ones where the main arc was very small or nonexistent, the ones where M&S had sweet moments and stood up for each other, the ones that were more fun than any of the mytharc episodes ever were. I always watched the arc ones more passively than the fun ones, and mostly remember those moments like I mentioned above, if they existed. If they didn't, whatever.

I will say, however, that by the time I did reach the point where I wasn't obsessively watching, I had a list of things that would make the show better, like Scully calling back when Mulder hung up on her. Or the two of them not ever separating on a crime scene. Or Scully not putting up with Mulder ditching her in the autopsy room. It goes on.

~;)
Meghan Deans
5. Meghan
@shalter: It's very true, Mulder & Scully often seem to be heading in opposite directions, and while it allows the show to cover more ground, it starts to feel like they're on different shows all of a sudden. Plus, as ITregillis points out, at this point, how can either of them shrug off what the other is discovering? The mytharcs are often built on these big reveals--THE THING IN THE BOXCAR IS A HYBRID!!!!--but there are tons of smaller reveals that honestly could be just as important. It's not so much that the plots themselves are confusing--I don't actually need to understand the oilians or hybrids or whatever--it's that the emotional stakes are mixed up.
Ian Tregillis
6. ITregillis
Meghan@5: Additionally, it always made me question what I'd seen or learned previously when Mulder and Scully shrug things off. (Sort of like my rant about the DAT tape in "Anasazi/etc".) After her adventures in "The Erlenmeyer Flask" and "Colony/Endgame" how could Scully possibly dismiss out of hand the possibility of hybrids? After Mulder's experiences with "Duane Barry/Ascension" and "One Breath", how could he be all, "Oh, alien implant, whatever?"

So then I'm stuck wondering if I completely misunderstood what I've watched up to now. And that confuses everything, most especially the emotional arcs.
Eugene R.
7. Eugene R.
Given Mulder's lack of interest in something so obviously important as Scully's neck implant, I would be tempted to say that it is not really Mulder we are watching. It's Eddie van Blundt. Except, technically, Eddie does not show up till Season 4. (On the plus side, he will be portrayed by Darin Morgan, who touches every episode with genius.)

CaitieCat (@1): I look forward to your theory on brontosauruses. :)
Eugene R.
8. LaurenBee
I don't think Mulder was actually dismissing the implant to the extent many here are suggesting. Remember, this episode directly follows Oubliette, which is one of Mulder's major "can't-protect/save somebody-freak-out" episodes.

When Scully shows him the implant, Mulder acknowledges that it is disturbing... then tells her to not get too upset until they know more. He uses the dangerous purpose that binds them together to focus their attention away from fears neither of them can handle.

I think DD could have played (or could have been directed to play) that moment and pivot with a bit more weight, but it doesn't really matter. The character development up to this point tells us that Mulder doesn't take such things lightly and also that he can compartmentalize when necessary. Questing/investigating are how Mulder deals with powerlessness and scepticism/science are how Scully deals with uncertainty, and that's how I interpreted that scene.

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