Friday, June 23, 2017

Case 03, File 10: 731

AKA: Murder on the Alien Express

You know, there's, probably an interesting thinkpiece about the uh...let's say problems with The X-Files appropriating real life atrocities (for example, the Unit 731 experiments or, you know, the fucking Holocaust) but good lord do I not want to be the one to write it. There's probably a lot to examine in it, but it's not going to be a fun examination, and it's going to run into a lot of issues with how culture as a whole treats tragedies. And for the most part, I come to The X-Files to have fun. So despite addressing it in my opening paragraph, that's not what this review is going to be about.

After a brief cold open involving some alien-looking-dudes at what is eventually revealed to be a leper colony getting executed, our story proper kicks off right where the last one left off, with Mulder leaping onto a train which has what he believes an alien on board. He drops his phone (naturally) but manages to get on the train anyway. Once on board he tries to get in the weird car at the back, but it's locked, and the conductor tells him that the only person who can get in is Dr. Shiro Zama, who they go looking for, Mulder lending the conductor his ankle gun.

Back at home, Scully tries to convince X to help her, first by rhetoric, then by gun, but X is having none of it and he bolts, before telling her to check out the chip she pulled out out of her neck. She takes it to Agent Pendrall, who tells her it...looks they say a lot of shit, but it all boils down to "It reads her mind." Back on the train, Zama is assassinated by the dude who killed the Japanese diplomat in the last episode, and Mulder finds both his body and his notebooks.

Tracking the killer, and ordering the conductor not to let anyone stop the train, Mulder finally finds him in the mysterious train car, by way of ambush. The train conductor saves him just in time, but locks them in together on the mysterious train car, which has an alien-looking-dude locked in the back. Back at the ranch, Scully tracks the manufacturer of the chip down to a leper colony where Zama was conducting inhuman experiments, and which has just seen the executions from the cold open. Scully obviously wants to check the place out, but has barely been there for 2 minutes before some soldiers show up and a member of the Conspiracy tells Scully that what had actually been going on there wasn't aliens but just awful experiments (is that...better?)

"I've always wanted to fight on top of a train!"
Meanwhile, Mulder and the assassin (who says he's NSA, and thus will be referred to as NSA guy) continue their tense standoff, as the NSA guy claims there's a bomb on board. Mulder doesn't believe him, but he gets a call from Scully on NSA guy's phone, where she tells him A, all the shit she's learned and B, that there is in fact a bomb on board. Mulder, being a rational human, decides that he's gonna put the train car in the middle of nowhere to avoid everyone get blown up, as he trusts that the conspiracy will come retrieve it.

It turns out he's not totally wrong, as Scully finally gets him the code to get the hell out of dodge, but the NSA guy escapes, knocks him out annnnnnnd is immediately shot by X, who rescues Mulder (at the expense of the alien-looking-dude) and disappears. Later, once Mulder has recovered from his latest near death experience, he discovers Zama's journals have been replaced, which understandable frustrates him. And with that, the episode ends, with a shot of the CSM watching as the real journal is translated.

731 is a pretty dark episode, opening as it does with a mass execution and just sort of rolling forward from there, and it functions more as a bleak, gritty thriller than a more traditional horror story that makes up the majority of The X-Files' output. That's not a complaint though, just because it's atypical of The X-Files doesn't mean it does it badly. In fact, it's a pretty solid example of the form.

I don't have anything to add, I just really like this shot.
The division of labor that we saw in the previous episode, where Mulder goes on an action filled adventure, while Scully wanders around getting exposition thrown at her, is still in place here, but it works a lot better here. I think it's mostly because the two stories are a little better intertwined, with Mulder and Scully spending more time communicating over cell phone, and Scully's exposition seems better integrated into the plot. Even in different rooms, they have great chemistry, and Scully introducing the worm of doubt about the alien-looking-dude in the train car adds some tension that might not otherwise be there.

Of course the actual tension on the train car is pretty great too, with Mulder and the NSA guy (seriously, do any of these people have names, or did I just miss them?) being constantly on the edge of violence, but unable to leave due to the literal ticking time bomb trapping them there. Stephen McHattie is a great presence throughout, even when he's just silently menacing Mulder. The mutual distaste and the possibility of them both dying at any moment makes the entire standoff incredibly tense.

Unfortunately, it's not to last. While the majority of the episode is very tense and engaging, it kind of collapses under its own weight in the final moments, when X wanders in to Deus Ex Machina the ending and it just sort of stops. It also ends up feeling kind of pointless. Aside from the info we get about Scully's chip and eventual cancer, most of this stuff doesn't matter. I get that Mulder and Scully can't get proof aliens exist or else the show will be over, but episodes like this, where they don't seem to actually accomplish anything, always kind of frustrate me.

"Dunno why I'm always risking my life for this stupid, ass-"
Still, even if it fumbles the ending, it's still a tense episode, and very engaging when it gets into the swing of it. Like many episode, it's got good and bad points (I feel like the script is a little too exposition heavy, but it's got some pretty neat shots here and there). It might not be enough to totally redeem the mediocrity of the previous episode, like Paperclip was at the beginning of the season, but that's a far cry from saying it's not a fun episode in its own right. In any case, we're about to get to a run of some really really great episodes, with only a handful of duds or mediocre episodes in between, so I'm not likely to complain.

Case Notes:
  • The one leper dude is just standing in the window while the soldiers load the aliens into the truck. I promise you, if one of them thought to look, they would see him.
  • I know it's not what I should be thinking of while watching a mass execution, but the soldiers are wielding like, 6 different kinds of guns. Come on guys, let's get some consistency.
  • Mulder says "Dammit," when he drops his phone, but honestly, what did he expect? He should have pocketed it.
  • I keep waiting for an Archer style joke about how tough it is to stand on a moving train, but it never came.
  • Scully and X's conversation is frustratingly vague, even by this show's standards, but the bit where X disarms her is pretty badass, not gonna lie.
  • It apparently takes Mulder until after dark to climb down off the train. Either Mulder is very bad at this, or the continuity guy wasn't paying enough attention.
  • I like how Mulder decides it's probably smart to take the clip out of the gun and the bullet out of the chamber before giving it to the conductor. Good on you Mulder, being safe.
  • It takes the conversation between Scully and Pendrell much too long to get to the point where it basically says "It reads your thoughts."
  • Pendrell honestly feels like he wandered in from a different show.
  • The lepers hiding out at the facility are really bad at hiding. You can hear her footsteps idiots, why are you checking out of the trap door?
  • Come on creepy soldiers, you know you gotta cover your mass graves.
  • If you count Princess Mononoke, this is the second piece of media involving Gillian Anderson to involve Lepers. That doesn't add anything, I just thought it was amusing.
  • Both Mulder and Scully need to stop making a habit of walking into dark places alone with no backup. It works out okay for Scully, but Mulder nearly gets killed cause of it.
  • The second half of this episode basically devolves into a series of conversations in tight spaces, but they're all very well put together and written, so I'm on board. I especially like the one Scully has, since it's very well lit.
  • The train sequence is pretty tense and engaging for what amounts to two dudes standing in a room arguing about whether there's a bomb.
  • I like how most people who talk to him assume Mulder has a plan for how to deal with the bomb. I honestly just sort of assume he's making it up as he goes.
  • Mulder going all Jack Bauer on the NSA agent is a little dark, but this episode is pretty dark, with its mass executions and leper colonies.
  • After all that great setup, the episode's conclusion is kind of a letdown, with X showing up to ex machina his way through the climax.

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