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The X-Files – Nisei (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

The most interesting aspect of Nisei and 731 is the fact that there’s very little forward movement by the end of it.

The previous multi-part conspiracy episodes typically featured big hooks and shock revelations. Duane Barry and Ascension demonstrated that the government was officially responsible for alien abductions, to the point where they could arrange Scully’s abduction. Colony and End Game featured shape-shifting aliens and confirmation that Samantha Mulder was a big part of this. Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip revealed that Mulder’s father was part of a conspiracy involving Second World War criminals working on American soil to create an alien-human hybrid.

The only way its getting off this planet is in a bodybag...

The only way its getting off this planet is in a bodybag…

Nisei and 731 don’t contain any truly seismic revelations. The biggest moments here – the reveal that Japanese war criminals have been experimenting on Americans with the assistance of the government, and that the bodies in the box car in Anasazi were probably originally human – all build on what Paper Clip already established. There’s nothing as significant as the reveal of the Bill Mulder’s complicity in the conspiracy from Paper Clip, or the first appearance of the Black Oil in Piper Maru.

Nisei and 731 really seem to be about taking stock of what has happened so far in the show – as close to a “breather” mythology episode as the show could manage at this point. Of course, this being The X-Files, this “breather” episode still moves a break-neck pace and climaxes with a death-defying leap on to a moving train. As you do.

The doctors are in...

The doctors are in…

While they certainly represent a departure from the pattern established to this point, Nisei and 731 are not as experimental or as uniquely flavoured as the two two-parters in the show’s fourth or fifth seasons. The mythology doesn’t go as intimate here as it would in Tempus Fugit and Max or Christmas Carol and Emily, nor does it try to broaden the scope as ambitiously as Tunguska and Terma or Patient X and The Red and the Black. Instead, this two-parter is very much about taking stock. It’s about pausing to acknowledge how the conspiracy has developed.

There is little stated here that hasn’t been outlined, albeti broadly, by earlier episodes. However, that’s not a bad thing. Re-watching the show, knowing where it is going, the texture of the over-arching mythology is often as important as the finer details. Nisei and 731 provide some solemn and thoughtful meditation on a lot of ideas suggested up to this point – revisiting ideas interesting enough to sustain another ninety minutes of focus.

Mulder has a train to catch...

Mulder has a train to catch…

According to producer Frank Spotnitz, Nisei was largely reverse-engineered from his desire to write 731. The two-parter began as a single episode that was expanded out to amortorise the production costs:

I wanted to do a train show very badly. I wrote that as a single, stand-alone episode, but that was unable to produce it because it was simply too difficult and expensive. So in a very short period of time, we reconfigured the story to be a two-parter and it ended up being better than it ever could have been as a stand-alone. I was pleased with those shows.

Given the result is a two-parter directed by David Nutter and Rod Bowman, it is very hard to complain. Even if the result is that Nisei feels like it’s more about getting to 731 than anything else.

Space ship shape...

Space ship shape…

The result of this curious production process is that Nisei and 731 invert the traditional format of a two-part X-Files episode. In order to avoid answering too many questions, the show tended to front-load the first part of a two-parter with lots of mystery and excitement. Duane Barry had Mulder conversing with the eponymous abductee about his experience, while Scully investigated a metal implant; Colony featured clones, shape-shifters and Mulder’s sister; Anasazi featured a tape with definitive proof of the conspiracy.

With all that set up, the conclusion of the story would then deflect attention away from the questions with large set-pieces, so as to avoid giving answers. Ascension was a forty-five minute chase sequence; End Game featured a submarine in the Arctic; Paper Clip had the agents losing all their proof amid a frantic cat-and-mouse game, setting them back to zero. It should be stressed that there’s nothing wrong with this format; there’s a reason the mythology worked so well in these early years of the show.

Not very McHattie to see you...

Not very McHattie to see you…

By necessity, Nisei and 731 invert this format. As opposed to a second part frantically running around to avoid answering questions, we get an introductory that is frantically running around to set up a more substantial piece of television. Nisei is full of Mulder running and jumping and climbing and swimming, while 731 is really just a number of profound conversations that could play as short two-people plays. It’s a delicious twist on a set-up that was already quite familiar at this point in the show’s run, and so keeps everything a bit off-balance.

This structural aspect pays off very well when Nisei approaches its climax. Mulder jumping from the bridge on to the moving train is a “big” moment. It is the quintessential “X-Files-as-a-weekly-movie” sequence, the kind of thing you’d expect to see Bruce Willis or Will Smith doing, not David Duchovny. While the submarine from End Game was pretty fantastic, there’s something much more effective about positioning that big moment at the cliffhanger of a two-parter, enticing the audience to come back the following week to see the conclusion.

Continuing Piper Clip's train of thought...

Continuing Piper Clip’s train of thought…

Nisei has the advantage that it’s not introducing anything particularly bold, unlike Anasazi had to set up shock revelations about Mulder’s family or Colony had to introduce the idea of… well, colonisation. The threads running through Nisei are building on what came before. Scully’s abduction was a major arc in second season, so meeting a bunch of women with similar experiences is not a shock twist. Paper Clip revealed that the United States gave amnesty to Nazi scientists after the Second World War, so suggesting the same is true of Japanese scientists is not a massive leap.

Even the use of the railroad is an element alluded to in Anasazi. Mulder did find all those bodies buried in a box car, after all. The appeal of Nisei and 731 is taking the time and the space to really work through these ideas and assess what they mean. In the middle of Paper Clip, Scully pointed out that the speed of the twists and the betrayals and the reversals Mulder had not even had time to properly mourn the death of his father. Here, Mulder and Scully are afforded time to work through what they’ve learned so far.

It's all about the green...

It’s all about the green…

Although Colony and End Game featured clones and shape-shifting aliens, Nisei and 731 at least makes some small nod towards the possibility that Scully might be right. The Alien Bounty Hunter has already pushed the show past the point where the existence of aliens can be plausibly denied, but Nisei and 731 at least suggests that there may be a reasonably non-paranormal explanation for a lot of the stuff the duo have seen.

Nisei and 731 very cleverly splits up Mulder and Scully, sending each on their own separate journeys. And the episode allows each to feel somewhat vindicated. Mulder finds a secret government railroad and plans to construct a human-alien hybrid, while Scully discovers that the myth of alien abduction has been used to justify government experiments on an unsuspecting populace. Between this two-parter and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, the third season plays with the idea that the government conspiracy may be something different than what Mulder suspects.

"It's just been revoked..."

“It’s just been revoked…”

Indeed, Mulder’s believer-skeptic-believer character arc from the fifth season – although clearly a holding pattern designed to stall the mythology for the release of X-Files: Fight the Future, filmed after the fourth season and released after the fifth – would probably have played best immediately following the third season. The third season is the last point where doubt seems like a rational response to the idea of a bunch of powerful men conspiring to assist and enable alien colonisation.

The two-parter also demonstrates that the writing staff have figured what they want to do with Scully’s abduction from Duane Barry and Ascension. The plot point had been necessitated by Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, and the second half of the second season did not seem entirely sure where to go with that character beat. It was something that was never really explicitly addressed – what happened? where was Scully? how can she still be a skeptic? how is she dealing with it?

A pregnant pause...

A pregnant pause…

The closest the show came to addressing it in the second season was through a series of episodes about victimised and marginalised women from Firewalker through to Excelsis Dei through to Aubrey, where a number of victimised women can be read as stand-ins for Scully. This approach culminating in Scully confronting a serial killer in Irresistible, but it often seemed like the show wasn’t quite sure how to deal with the fallout from all that.

The discovery of the chip in Scully’s neck and the regression hypnosis in The Blessing Way indicated that the show would be pushing forward with this – building on Scully’s experiences. Here, Mulder comes right out and says exactly what a lot of fans must have been thinking. “Scully, after all you’ve seen… after all you’ve told me you’ve seen: the tunnel with medical files; the beings moving past you, the… the implant in your neck; why do you refuse to believe?” It feels like Nisei and 731 are trying to address these issues.

Shipping off to... well, Virginia, apparently...

Shipping off to… well, Virginia, apparently…

Chris Carter has explained that this is intentional. The writers tended to follow the on-line fans, and would often acknowledge complaints or observations made about the show. Indeed, Nisei contains another such shout-out:

There was a lot of talk about how Mulder was always losing his gun. So in the episode Nisei, Mulder lost his gun, but was carrying a second gun in his ankle holster, as FBI agents do. He said, “I got tired of losing my gun.” So that was a response to people saying Mulder kept losing his guns too easily.

While Mulder’s ankle-holster back-up gun is a nice small example, this sort of fan engagement played a large part in shaping or developing the series. Mulder’s criticism of Scully’s skepticism feels like it could have been taken from the message boards, and the two-parter feels like an attempt to address this.

Mulder is fully decked out for this...

Mulder is fully decked out for this…

Nisei introduces Scully to a network of female abductees, confirming that her experiences are not unique. Although the show had hinted at the reproductive horror of alien abduction before, Nisei renders it explicit. The shots of Scully on the medical slab clearly show a pregnant Gillian Anderson, something that had been implied by a few quick shot in Ascension, but are confirmed here. She is meeting a bunch of victimised women.

This represents an interesting shift in how alien abduction is portrayed in The X-Files. Initially, it seemed like aliens were as interested in abducting male characters as female characters. The Pilot featured the abduction of two female characters – Karen Swenson and Peggy O’Dell – while a male character – Billy Miles – is left traumatised by the experience. In Conduit, a young girl named Ruby Miles is taken.

Seeing is believing...

Seeing is believing…

However, the two abductees who receive the most development over the first two seasons are male. Max Fenig from Fallen Angel is an abuse survivor clearly scarred by his experiences and unable to completely escape the reach of his tormentors. The eponymous FBI agent from Duane Barry gets to drive a two-parter, enticing Mulder with stories for his abduction. These two male characters were our primary windows into the world of alien abductions and experimentation.

With the third season, the emphasis shifts more towards female abductees, emphasising the institutional and systemic abuse of women by powerful men. Sure, there are still male abductees. Max Fenig returns to the show for a late fourth-season two-parter. Mulder goes missing at the end of the seventh season. But the show very clearly stresses the abuse of female characters from this point onwards, pushing some of the feminist themes of The X-Files to the fore – the way that systems run by powerful men tend to exploit women.

It's not brain surgery... I think.

It’s not brain surgery… I think.

From the third season, with this shift in emphasis, the show’s mythology becomes explicitly and undeniably feminist – a tale about women denied control over their own bodies (and reproductive organs) by those in authority. As Linda Badley observes in Scully Hits the Glass Ceiling:

In short, The X-Files draws on four key tenets of liberal second-wave feminism: (1) recognition of women as an oppressed group; (2) commitment to social and political change; (3) emphasis on sexual/body politics; and (4) a woman-centred perspective. The alien abduction scenario central to The X-Files is a rape narrative; it echoes the countless stories in which women are abducted by sky gods with agendas. It is also a contemporary version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Subjected to experiments with superovulation and hybridisation that render her infertile, Scully is represented as every woman exploited for her body by patriarchy and power, as revealed in season three’s Paper Clip, Nisei, and 731.

The show manages to take the rather uncomfortable “let’s get at the male hero through his female associate!” subtext of Duane Barry and Ascension and retroactively turn it into a commentary on institutionalised misogyny.

Everybody chips in!

Everybody chips in!

It’s no coincidence that the third season of the show opens with Krycek and his assassins so blaisé about which red-haired woman they were hired to kill that they accidentally shoot Melissa Scully in The Blessing Way. The fact that the show led into Nisei and 731 with another story about a victimised and abused woman trying to cope with the legacy of that violence in Oubliette provides a nice thematic throughline.

There are a number of other interesting aspects of Nisei, some clever ideas that are incorporated into the episode. For one thing, it allows Carter to have a bit of a sly dig at the infamous “alien autopsy” video. “Mulder, this is even hokier than the one they aired on the Fox network,” Scully protests, a rather playful example of Carter nibbling on the hand that feeds. Perhaps demonstrating how The X-Files had captured the nineties zeitgeist, the Ray Santilli’s tape of a purported alien autopsy was a pop culture phenomenon in the middle of the decade.

On top of this autopsy...

On top of this autopsy…

Naturally, the tape drew quite a skeptical response. Time outlined just a few of the obvious logical holes in the home movie that seemed to portray mankind’s first encounter with an alien corpse:

[Santilli] will have a few questions to answer from a host of instant film critics. Why does the film go so conveniently out of focus at crucial moments? Why is the camerawork so jumpy, in the modern ER fashion, instead of having the smoothness that even World War II combat cameramen aimed for? Why hasn’t the original film stock been submitted to Eastman Kodak, which has a standing offer to do a chemical analysis that would verify if it was indeed manufactured in 1947? Why are there film cuts, suggesting a lapse in time, that return to the same continuous incision? Judging by shots of a wall clock, an autopsy of this importance took only 2 and a half hours? It’s no wonder that nearly all special-effects artists think this is bogus. Says Toronto-based Gordon Smith (Natural Born Killers, JFK), thought by some pros to have built the “alien”: “A lot of us think it came out of England, from a B-grade studio.”

Even Mulder – who really is incredibly gullible – is not taken in by the tape. He makes a point to dismiss it in Nisei. He advises Scully, “That autopsy you saw on TV was so fake precisely because it tried to show too much.”

"So, everybody signed their Fox disclaimers, right?"

“So, everybody signed their Fox disclaimers, right?”

The footage aired on Fox in August 1995, shortly before the launch of the third season of the show, in a special hosted by Jonathan Frakes and garnering top ratings for the network. The tape was a massive financial success for Santilli, becoming something of a pop cultural phenomenon. “Alien Autopsy sales, now approaching 100,000 units at $19.99, could top 500,000 units by early 1996,” boasted Billboard magazine in November, 1995. It was a bit of humbug of which even P.T. Barnam could be proud.

Santilli admitted a decade later that the autopsy tape was a fake, confirming what many had suspected. Naturally, he had turned quite a tidy profit on it. Even after admitting that the tape was fake, Santilli refused to confess it was a entirely hoax. “The basis of the story is absolutely true,” Ray Santelli has insisted, even after admitting the tape was a fake. He claimed it was a “restoration” of footage he had seen of a genuine alien autopsy; there were even a “few frames” of the original sliced in. He refused to state which frame, because of course he did.

Station to station...

Station to station…

These obfuscated confessions demonstrate Santilli’s relentless hucksterism – an entrepreneurial spirit that would make P.T. Barnum and his “genuine fake” Fiji Merman proud. Perhaps they also say something about the public’s desire to believe in something blatantly absurd. After all, Santilli’s second version of events recalls Deep Throat’s observation in E.B.E. that a lie is most convincingly hidden between two truths; Santilli would have his followers believe the opposite – that the truth is buried somewhere inside a lie.

There is also something delightfully surreal about the suggestion that the footage of the alien autopsy was found by a random person channel-hopping early in the morning. Asked where he found the tape, Mulder replies, “Some guy in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Claims he pulled it off the satellite dish at two in the morning.” It creates a delightfully eerie sense that America’s airwaves are surreal and otherworldly, that everything and anything is just floating through the air waiting for somebody to pull it down.

A chip off the old block...

A chip off the old block…

Of course, this is a nice acknowledgement of a conspiratorial mindset that suggests such information is other there, just bouncing around the world. Those strange haunting noises heard on longwave radios really could be secret spy stations communicating in code. Maybe aliens really had decided to communicate with mankind by interrupting a British television broadcast in November 1977. Maybe dead air is not really as dead as it might appear. Ghosts late-night static make for a suitably eerie late twentieth century American ghost story.

There are lots of other interesting aspects of Nisei and 731. The train imagery builds on Mulder’s visit to the box car in Anasazi, but it also underscores the show’s core themes about narratives of history. Although The X-Files is very much rooted in a history of paranoia after the Cold War, it also provides a historical context for government abuses and arcs of history. The fact that the railroad and the Native Americans were introduced into the mythology in the same episode – Anasazi – is not a coincidence.

"You have no idea how many of your neighbours I've unsettled, Agent Scully. Dramatic entrances are harder than they look."

“You have no idea how many of your neighbours I’ve unsettled, Agent Scully. Dramatic entrances are harder than they look.”

After all, the railroad is one of the most fundamental of American myths; it has been suggested that it is the backbone of America. Author T.H. Watkins suggested the completion of the transcontinental railroad was the point where Americans “began for the first time, truly, to think of ourselves as a continental nation.” Historian Stephen Ambrose has suggested that – outside the Civil War and abolishing slavery – the railroad was “the greatest achievement of the American people in the nineteenth century.”

This traditional narrative suggests that the railroad helped the settlers to “tame” the so-called “wild west”, and represented the expansion of “civilisation” from New York to San Fransisco. It truly galvanised America as a country that spanned from coast to coast. It provided a constant reminder of how hard the settlers had worked to build the country from the ground up, a phenomenal accomplishment and example of ambition and ingenuity.

Twisted reflection...

Twisted reflection…

There is an uncomfortable counter narrative that runs against this traditional account of the railroad. The reality is that much of the railroad was built by Irish and Chinese immigrants working risky jobs for low wages. Chinese immigrants were paid significantly less than their Irish counterparts, and Charles Crocker responded to demands for better wages and conditions for the Chinese workers by starving them into compliance. This is to say nothing of the damage that the railroad caused to the Native American communities along its route.

Nisei and 731 rather cleverly plays these two narratives of railroad history against each other, just as it plays two very different narratives of the Second World War against each other. The teaser to Nisei is startlingly effective – an all-American scene of children on bikes at a railway crossing, laughing and smiling as a big old train goes by. The guy at the end of the last car even waves affectionately as it goes by, obscuring the yellow “quarantine” sign on the door at the back of the carriage.

It's like day...

It’s like day…

It turns out that the government has been using the railway network to hide a series of secret government laboratories, where experiments are conducted upon unsuspecting civilians. The juxtaposition of the happy and cheerful opening images against the reveal of what is happening on board the train makes for a harrowing juxtaposition. The X-Files was very good at conveying the sense that something truly horrific was hiding behind something seemingly normal or routine.

Nisei also builds off the suggestion made in Anasazi (and cemented by the appearance of the Well-Manicured Man in The Blessing Way) that the conspiracy is not confined to the American government. This secret cover-up stretches across borders and beyond simple governments. After all, in many ways, the nineties was a new era for international cooperation, with the Clinton administration conducting a significant portion of its foreign policy through the United Nations and N.A.T.O., as opposed to acting unilaterally.

... and night...

… and night…

Perhaps this international element of the conspiracy was tapping into contemporary fears and anxieties. It is interesting to note that the mid-nineties saw a sudden and sharp decline in the American public’s approval of the United Nations. This was likely due to high-profile failures in troubled regions like Yugoslavia, Rwanda or Somalia. Even outside of these concerns, the nineties saw the rise to prominence of a particular brand of conspiracy theory concerning the “new world order”, speculating that there was a secret international cabal ruling the world.

“Big government” had always been a rallying cry for those concerned about the usurpation of their rights – it’s a familiar paranoid refrain from all sorts of people convinced that the world is out to get them. In the mid-nineties, after the end of the Cold War, the fear quickly became one of a giant unified all-powerful world-government. February 1995 saw the opening on Denver Airport, which became a focal point for these sorts of conspiracies. In April 1995, Timothy McVeigh’s belief in a “new world order” motivated him to bomb the Murrah building in Oklahoma.

Mulder's window is quickly closing...

Mulder’s window is quickly closing…

All these theories about sinister secret cabals have an whiff of xenophobia about them – a palpable fear of “the Other”, anxiety that outsiders are conspiring against the American public. It is no wonder that these conspiracy theories became popular in the wake of the Cold War. Without “the Evil Empire” to provide an opponent for the United States, a particularly mindset felt the need to invent new adversaries. The enemy was no longer foreign communists, but instead international globalists seeking impose a secret one-world government upon an unsuspecting America.

So it makes sense for The X-Files to play with the idea of an international dimension to the conspiracy. When studying the photos stolen from a Japanese diplomat, Byers explains where they came from. “The optics are German,” he states. “The technology is probably ours, but the satellite is most likely Japanese.” Frohike quickly adds, “Launched from South America.” Mulder deadpans, “Got to love that global economy, huh?”

"We are assured the everything is still on track..."

“We are assured the everything is still on track…”

However, while Anasazi suggested an international cabal sharing phone calls and working in unison, Nisei subverts this conspiracy narrative by suggesting that these sorts of conspiracies really don’t work. Nisei and 731 suggests that the Japanese have their own agenda, as distinct from that of the American conspiracy. Tunguska and Terma would develop this theme by suggesting the Russians were similarly undermining international alliances.

In many respects, the third and fourth seasons can be seen to be subverting a lot of the conventional conspiracy theory narratives. After all, The X-Files has established itself as a powerful conspiracy story, so there is a bit more room to play with those storytelling conventions. The Blessing Way and Paper Clip revealed that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was not an all-powerful boogeyman. Instead, he was making it up as he went along. The individual members of the conspiracy could not seem to agree among themselves, and the organisation seemed pretty incompetent.

With all these gratuitous travel expenses, I'm surprising Skinner hasn't started to dock his pay...

With all these gratuitous travel expenses, I’m surprising Skinner hasn’t started to dock his pay…

Here and in Tunguska, it is suggested an international conspiracy is similarly unworkable – that national governments really aren’t prone to share their authority and that the patriotism and nationalism that justifies these sorts of actions prevents functioning international alliances. The biggest subversions would play out in standalone episodes outside the main mythology. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” and Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man would push the alien conspiracy mythology to breaking point, ridiculing the show itself.

Nisei and 731 might be the show’s best mythology two-parter, which is really saying something. Despite the fact that it was reverse-engineered from an overly ambitious single-episode story, the episode is well-structured, cleverly-written and incredibly tight. It doesn’t contain a lot of forward momentum, instead giving everybody a chance to catch their breath after two-and-a-half years of running. One can’t help but wonder if the show’s later years might have been stronger if they had tried something like this with a bit more frequency.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the third season of The X-Files:


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