Written by Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Rob Bowman
731 is by far one of the most satisfying mythology episodes, and not for the reasons that you might suspect. If anything, it deals not with any of the aspects of the mythology that we will come to know and, frankly, kind of hate. We see only glimpses of the traditional characters associated with it — the Cigarette-Smoking Man comes on for only a cameo at the end, and, though his role is critical, X’s appearance is something of a bookend. But this episode is angrier than most of the others mainly because it deals with some of the horrors that we’re only hinted at in the series opening.
For one thing, there’s the confinement issues. Almost all of Mulder’s sequences take place on a train, which means that none of the principals have anywhere to run. He spends much of the first half of the episode trying to find out what’s on the boxcar that was added in the last episode. When he finally gets there, he finds his life is in danger not only from a shadowy assassin (I’m not calling him the Red-Haired Man because he doesn’t have red hair) but from what is on the car, a ticking bomb. Mulder puts his life on the line again, based on the idea that his interpretation of the mythology is correct and Scully’s is not. Scully believes that what is on the train car is the product of a human experimentation, and if she is right, the bomb will dispose of the evidence when it explodes. Mulder believes what is on the car is an alien, and if he is right, the powers that be will have to show up to get it, and save his life in the process. It says something as to how well the episode is written, that we don’t get a clear idea as to who’s interpretation prevailed. Yes, someone came to rescue Mulder at the last minute (literally), but the fact is Mulder’s life was basically up in the air. It may have been a moment of redemption for X, who clearly had a choice to save him, but we’re still not clear whose orders he was acting under, and whose priorities were at stake.
All of this makes for suspenseful and intense viewing, but that’s almost a relief when we get to the sequences Scully goes through, at what is fundamentally a concentration camp on American soil. The opening sequence is frankly one of the most horrifying the series would ever do, not just for what we see, but for what is implied in the behavior of the soldiers carrying out the execution. When Scully encounters the survivors of the massacre, what is going on is fundamentally far more frightening then the government merely lying about the existence of aliens. The discussions of what’s going on between Scully and the Elder (one can only assume that John Neville had other things on his plate that prevented him from appearing) is even more appalling than what was being discussed in Paper Clip, mainly because we actually see the results. The government is conspiring to keep its citizens in the dark about something far more mundane— if one wants to considering the horrible tests that Zama and his fellow Japanese have been committing as ‘mundane’. And considering some of the things that our government has lied to us about before (and since), its small wonder that Scully finds it far more believable. When Scully tells Mulder that there’s no such thing as an alien abduction, it brings a whole new level of creepiness to this.
The only real problem with 731 is one that would only become a problem in retrospect. No one knew how long the series was going to last. Had they been willing to take the line that they drew in this episode, and follow it all the way to the end (and God knows they even gave it a possibility in later seasons), it would have been a perfect way to launch the conspiracy as something even more frightening then it was. Instead, the show went in the other direction, and when it did its next mythology episode, the series decided to concentrate on the UFO Mulder was trying to chase in the last episode, and go in a completely different direction. The end result would be to completely contradict some of the brilliant images that are on display here. It’s frustrating, but it doesn’t effectively diminish a lot of what is on display here
And the fact of the matter is, there is a lot to admire —- the guest cast is some of the strongest that it would be for the third season. Stephen McHattie, finally given a chance and a character to work with, gives a memorable performance as the assassin, so much so that one almost wishes he had survived to match wits with them another day. Steven Williams gives a very edgy performance as he is pulled into conflict against Scully, casually ignoring her pleas for help, and easily turning away the gun at his head. And Brendan Beiser begins to demonstrate some of the abilities that made him so charming to us (and to Mulder and Scully) as well as a lovely little sequence where he demonstrates he has a crush on her.
Nisei/731 is by far one of the better two-parters, and one wishes that Spotnitz, who would be one of the major writers of the mythology episodes to follow, would’ve taken the lessons from it—- fewer UFOs, twists on the mythology, and few recurring characters. But then again, if he’d done that, it wouldn’t be The X-Files, would it?
My score: 4.5 stars.