Friday, 11 March 2016

Railways on TV: 731 (The X-files)

My apologies for being absent from here for some time: my work life has been busy (in addition to continuing mired in conspiracy and controversy worthy of The X-Files), but now I am on annual leave and have the mental and physical space to think about some TV programmes. I am focussing on 731 here because despite being the second of a two-parter, it is the one in which a train features more highly.
I know I keep banging on about how blogging about TV shows helps the viewer to think about them in a different way, but it happens to be true. The X-Files has been something in the way of duvet viewing for me for the twenty years since it was first broadcast here in the UK, and I have probably seen this episode dozens of times, but my reading around the subject has only today made me realise what this episode is based on. I had no idea that the very title of the episode is taken from real experiments carried out by Japanese during and after World Ward 2, which were co-opted by the US government so that they could make use of the knowledge obtained.
' It was officially known as the">Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department
 of the">Kwantung Army (関東軍防疫給水部本部 Kantōgun Bōeki Kyūsuibu Honbu">?). Originally set up under the">Kempeitai">military police of the">Empire of Japan, Unit 731 was taken over and commanded until the end of the war by General">Shiro Ishii, an officer in the Kwantung Army. The facility itself was built between 1934 and 1939 and officially adopted the name "Unit 731" in 1941.
'Between 3,000 and 250,000 men, women, and children—from which around 600 every year were provided by the Kempeitai—died during the human experimentation conducted by Unit 731 at the camp based in Pingfang alone, which does not include victims from other medical experimentation sites, such as">Unit 100.
'Unit 731 veterans of Japan attest that most of the victims they experimented on were Chinese, Koreans and Mongolians. Almost 70% of the victims who died in the">Pingfang camp were Chinese, including both civilian and military. Close to 30% of the victims were">Russian. Some others were">South East Asians and Pacific Islanders, at the time colonies of the">Empire of Japan, and a small number of">Allied">prisoners of war. The unit received generous support from the Japanese government up to the end of the war in 1945.
'Instead of being tried for war crimes, the researchers involved in Unit 731 were given immunity by the U.S. in exchange for their data on human experimentation. Some were arrested by">Soviet forces and tried at the">Khabarovsk War Crime Trials in 1949. Americans did not try the researchers so that the information and experience gained in bio-weapons could be co-opted into the">U.S. biological warfare program. On 6 May 1947,">Douglas MacArthur, as">Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, wrote to Washington that "additional data, possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as 'War Crimes' evidence." Victim accounts were then largely ignored or dismissed in the West as Communist propaganda.' (
This episode inverts the usual pattern of X-Files mythology episodes (at least this early in the series), since the whole point is that Mulder is being allowed (or not being prevented) from imagining that aliens are the secret here, and this is actually being used to cover up the real secret, which is the shameful one of human experimentation. It is interesting that this fits nicely into the way ‘science’ is talked about in the 1960s shows I talk about here, where it is both the future, and yet something to be very frightened of. The science of The X-Files is shown in this episode as embodying the very real fears of the 1960s:
' Jan Delasara, in her book '"PopLit, PopCult and The X-Files" argues that episodes such as "731" and "Nisei", or the earlier third season episode "">Paper Clip", show the public's trust in science "eroding". Delasara proposes that "arrogated" scientists who are "rework[ing] the fabric of life" are causing the public's faith in the scientific method to fade drastically, "a concern ... that is directly addressed by X-Files episodes". Moreover, she notes that almost all of the scientists portrayed in The X-Files are depicted with a "connection to ancient evil," with the lone exception being Agent Scully. In "731," and earlier in "">Nisei," the scientists are former Japanese scientists who worked for">Unit 731. In their attempts to create a successful human-alien hybrid, they become the archetypical scientists who "[go] too far," a serious factor that Delasara argues "'alienates [the public] further from science and its practitioners".
'Critical opinion has also noted that both parts of the story arc offer an alternative explanation for the events of the series so far, a "less romantic" outcome that paints the ongoing plot as an elaborate hoax to defer attention from the government's experiments, both military and medical. Reviewer Todd VanDerWerff feels that such an explanation would "speak more to the sadness at the core of the X-Files to have Mulder find his answers and be forced to accept they weren't what he was looking for", comparing such a realization to the hero of">Don Quixote. This "hoax" plot device would later be revisited in both the fourth season finale "">Gethsemane" and the fifth season's opening two-part episodes "">Redux and Redux II", although to a much lesser degree of effectiveness.' (
The train is also given an interesting role. It is a tall order for a writer, when using a train as a contained environment, to maintain interest and/or suspense to the end of the piece, but it is managed here. Interestingly, I found I didn’t remember the episode correctly, since in my memory the scene in the quarantine section of the train formed much more of the episode than it does. I hadn’t even remembered the scenes in the leper colony being in this episode at all! I feel that this lengthening of the train scene is an interesting psychological effect, which witnesses to the effectiveness of the writing here. In reality I feel that the scene is exactly the right length to maintain the tension without over-doing it.
I also find that I had essentially misread the meaning of the train in this episode. It is very clear that it fulfils a much bigger role than merely a plot device to contain the action in a small place, which is also the place where the experiment is being transported. They were split up by the Conservative government in the 1980s, but based on the previous national ownership of the trains in the UK I had assumed that the railroads in the US were owned by the government, which would mean the key meaning of the train is to place the responsibility for these experiments firmly in the government’s hands. There is a sense in which we know that anyway: multiple government agencies and the army, as well as the Japanese diplomatic service, all of which indicate that this experimentation can be traced as high as the government. I didn’t realise that the railroads in the US are actually owned by private companies, while the company Amtrak is partially financed by the government. Rather than my straightforward ‘the government are behind it’ understanding, this makes the responsibility for the experimentation in far wider circles, and implicates business and so on. It is also very plain that the priority is not the safety of the passengers on the rest of the train or the ordinary citizen, the priority is preserving the secret.
This X-File should make chilling viewing, since it brings the ‘conspiracy’ into ordinary people’s lives as well as up to government level. It is plain that the alleged alien abductions and experiments are actually some unethical medical experiment, and that the government is at least complicit in it, if not responsible for it. This is another thing that the X-Files does so well, it sows the seeds of doubt everywhere. I remember, well before this X-Files was broadcast hearing someone tell me a tale of a white train which could be seen going through the US in the night. The story I was told was that it was used to transport nuclear waste secretly, but this episode very cleverly picks up on that existing story and weaves it into another true history of Japanese medical experimentation, to weave a story which you can believe could be true. It is made all the more chilling by subsequent revelations of unethical medical experimentation carried out by the US government.
My personal opinion is that humans tend to act on the basis of expediency rather that honesty or morality. It is never a surprise when the law allows release of a previous government’s documents, to find that they have covered things up, and so on. This unchanging element in human behaviour is complemented well in this show by the fact that it is just old enough (considering the subject is public and professional perception of scientific experimentation) for the technology to be outdated. I love the way Mulder orders a video by post which someone has pulled off a satellite at 2am in the morning. Nowadays he would find it on the internet. You are reading this on the internet. My bet is the government is reading this on the internet. Because there is another psychological effect this episode has had on me. I can see that it could be hair-raising viewing if I was an American citizen. Sitting here as a British citizen watching this show in jolly old Blighty leaves me with the unaccustomed involuntary reaction that that couldn’t happen here. Our government would never do unethical experiments on unwilling participants. They’d never cover up these experiments either. Would they?

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