The X-Files: “Nisei” & “731”


by Sarah Stegall
copyright (c) 1995 by Sarah Stegall

“My name is Mulder. Fox Mulder”

I couldn’t help it: the sight of Fox Mulder jumping onto trains, retrieving a hideout gun from an ankle holster, and fighting off a piano-wire garroting put me so much in mind of Agent 007 I was wondering if David Duchovny was auditioning for James Bond. Not that I object. While most real FBI agents lead considerably less glamorous lives than this, such cinema verite is boring drama. If we are not to have the smoldering sexual tension between Mulder and Scully back, or the intellectual rivalry of Season One (“Is too!” “Is not!” “Is too!”), we can at least have a more conventional, rock ’em sock ’em cop show.

The first thing that struck me as the opening credits for “Nisei” rolled was that this story required the most senior writers for “The X-Files”: Chris Carter, Howard Gordon, and Frank Spotnitz. Given the rules of the Writer’s Guild of America, for all I know the entire staff worked on the script; certainly this is pretty heavy artillery to be bringing in even for a sweeps month. In any case, it is a fair indication of the complexity of the storyline attempted here and in “731”, a complexity that perhaps aimed too high and achieved too little. By the end of this two part story, I was feeling at least as boxed in by the ‘revelations’ of the script as I did at the end of “Paper Clip”. As with all of what Carter calls the ‘mythology’ stories, the ones dealing with aliens and government cover-ups, “Nisei” and “731” (written by Frank Spotnitz) pack a great deal of information into a short amount of time. Not only do the scenes move quickly, but the characters themselves speak at breakneck speed. While this is a common device to heighten tension (and convey a lot of data quickly), after the second act I was gasping for air. At times, watching “The X-Files” is like trying to drink from a fire hose.

“Nisei” opens with a clandestine autopsy interrupted by masked and uniformed men who machine-gun the surgeons and pack away the patient, who appears to be an alien in the brief glimpse we get of it. Mulder buys a videotape of this incident and is intrigued enough to track it down. (I really liked this way of getting into a story; it reminded me of his tabloid case, “Conduit”.) When he and Scully find the original technician who downloaded it from a satellite, however, his body is still warm and his assassin still on the premises. Mulder nabs him, and he turns out to be “a high ranking Japanese diplomat”. Mulder has retained the man’s briefcase, however, and follows the clues in it to a salvage ship, a warehouse that hides a huge and shrouded vehicle of some kind, and a secret railroad that may be carrying a living alien.

Scully, meanwhile, finds a group of UFO abduction survivors who recognize her as one of their number, to her deep distress. The implant in her neck turns out to be a chip used to track, record, and possibly alter memory. She traces the only clue to the manufacturer to a leper colony which has been, so the survivors tell her, the site of some mass executions of mysterious patients subjected to medical atrocities. Despite her attempt to help the remaining sufferers, however, she finds herself confronting one of the Well-Manicured Man’s cronies, who tells her everything she *wants* to know. Her inquiries are sidetracked by X, however, who warns her that the train Mulder has boarded with the alien is headed for trouble. The final two acts of “731” concentrate on Mulder’s dilemma: he is trapped in a boxcar (again?) with what may be an alien and what is definitely a bomb (have we seen this picture before?).

What’s cunning about the “Nisei/731” story is not so much the ‘answers’ revealed (which, if “The X-Files” runs true to form, will be contradicted by subsequent revelations), but the way that it brings us back around almost to where we began two years ago–Mulder believes in the alien abduction story, Scully does not. It’s more like a spiral, which does not quite return to its point of origin, than a circle: while Scully is still a skeptic she is a skeptic in a more plausible way. She no longer rejects the ‘evidence’ before her out of hand, but tries to fit it into her own theory of medical experimentation and research atrocities. I am glad to see that we must not return to Scully as Spock (“Mulder, that is so illogical.”); she retains not only integrity as a character but her own unique voice. To make her a believer seeking only the evidence to bring an alien into court would make her an echo of Mulder, and she deserves better. Season One told the stories pretty much through Scully’s eyes. Season Two told them through Mulder’s eyes. Now we are reaching a point of equilibrium where both characters (I hope) will carry plausibility.

This re-establishment of the balance is achieved at some cost to credibility: I found it downright annoying that Mulder and Scully on more than one occasion refused to answer direct questions (“Who dialed this number?” “The man who handed me the phone.” Oh, come on now!). I can live with it for the sake of wonderfully in-character lines like “I don’t have time for your convenient ignorance.” I found it hard to believe that Hansen’s disease cannot be arrested even when it has progressed to disfigurement; however, I found it unfortunately all too plausible that a callous government could permit or even encourage such neglect.

The scariest thing in “Nisei/731”, however, is not the pitiful lepers or the alien bodies piled in a pit, in a scene reminiscent of “Schindler’s List”. No, the scariest monster in this story is Dr. Ishimaru (Robert Ito), the Japanese version of Dr. Mengele, the counterpart to the Dr. Klemper we saw in “Paper Clip”. The ultimate abstraction of the scientific principle, with no soul, no heart, and no mercy, he embodies the fears of a society that has yet to come to grips with the technological wonders in its hands. If anything, real life is making “The X-Files” obsolete. Alien/human hybrids? How revolutionary a concept can that be in a society which has already seen baboon hearts transplanted into humans? There is a reason “Frankenstein” is still popular after 167 years: we are still wary about the freaks we can create while exercising the powers of gods. This wariness is not, as some technophiles would convince us, evidence of scientific illiteracy or Luddism, but a natural caution against interfering with an order of things we do not understand and do not control. Some can call it cowardice; I call it humility. In any case, we are treated in “Nisei/731” to a peek over the edge of that abyss opening before our feet with the advent of genetic engineering. Our fears are not so much of the technology but of the men who wield it: Dr. Ishimaru, Dr. Klemper, or the minions of the NSA.

It’s a pity, therefore, that we didn’t get to see or hear more of the central figure in this story arc. Dr. Ishimaru appears only briefly, and utters only one word of English. Yet he is mentioned constantly, blamed for everything from radiation burns and death squads to the computer chip implanted in Scully’s neck. If he had survived to become yet another shadowy figure hiding behind the Smoking Man’s veil of smoke, I could have understood his elusiveness. But he was killed off; there’s no reason not to have used him more effectively, more threateningly.

Stephen McHattie, however, acquitted himself more than admirably as the relentless, arrogant assassin sent to kill Ishimaru and the quarantined passenger. His lean, skull-like face lends itself automatically to menace, and he can deliver a truth in such a way as to convince you it is a lie. The little conductor (Colin Cunningham) was absolutely wonderful in his rabbity way, and having Gillian Barber playing Penny Northern so she could say “She is one” was hilarious (Barber played Beth Kane in “Red Museum”; “He is one” was a catch phrase for that episode).

David Nutter, who directed “Nisei”, uses closeups better than anyone else on this series. His painterly and intimate portraits bring the viewer right into the character’s emotions. Rob Bowman, who directed “731”, set up some wonderful shots: the low angle on the leper dormitory hideout room, the death squad truck bursting the gate, the heartbreaking open grave in the leper colony. Both directors used reflections in interesting ways: I liked the scene in “Nisei” when the Japanese diplomat’s face is reflected in the interrogation room window against Walter Skinner, the television reflecting the whole living room in “731”. Bowman even combined both techniques by having the alien passenger in the boxcar reflected in an extreme close-up of Mulder’s eye, a shot that took us right into Mulder’s head.

I have to mention Mark Snow’s mournful and poignant score, particularly in the scene where Scully discovers the bodies of the leper colony victims. Once again so much of the mood and atmosphere that help suspend our disbelief depends on a score that keeps us on the edge of emotion.

In the final analysis, this is a well put together execution of a less than top-notch story. There were no real surprises except for the leper colony; the ground for “Nisei/731” was pretty well laid in “Anasazi/Blessing Way/Paper Clip”. A lack of surprise is Not a Good Thing in “The X-Files”. A more intense interaction between Mulder and Scully might have papered over this flaw, but the characters were separated too much by the plot. While I applaud the effort at re-establishing the dualism of the first season in a believable way, I can’t give this story arc top marks. These two stories get three out of five sunflower seeds.