TV reviews

TV Rewind… Millennium 1×01 – ‘Pilot’ – Review

We kickstart a long-running review of 90’s TV series Millennium by looking at the very first episode…

By 1996, The X-Files was a genuine smash hit. From its cult flavoured beginnings in 1993, to the autumn of 1996, Chris Carter’s series became a very important show for the Fox Network, so it was no surprise that they would ask the creator of Mulder and Scully to try to capture lightning in the bottle again.

When Millennium premiered during The X-Files’ fourth season, it was when the series was going through an incredibly busy period. In fact, 1996 to 1999 was going to be the busiest for Carter and his production company, Ten Thirteen Productions, which would see it develop and produce two television series, each lasting for over twenty episodes a season, as well as a big screen feature film of one, with The X-Files: Fight the Future scheduled for release in June of 1998.

In the midst of it all was Millennium. The question was what form would a second Chris Carter series take? The creator of The X-Files had become every bit the household name as David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and expectations were very high for what he could come up with for an encore.

While Carter had started his television writing career doing material for Disney Television, his love had been for the macabre and the unsettling, with Kolchak: The Night Stalker being a primary inspiration on the adventures of Mulder and Scully, while its mythology felt like the love child of All The President’s Men, another key Carter inspiration, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

For his second series, Carter took a cue from his one of his own X-Files scripts, a critically acclaimed episode that saw the series deliver one of its most unsettling “monsters”, primarily because he was a plausible and all too real one. “Irresistible” was an amazing episode that, on top of giving Gillian Anderson one of her best ever performances on the series, had, and still continues to do so, the ability to chill the audience with its exploration of an all too human type of monster that haunts newspaper headlines and real life crime stories.

Such an exploration of evil would form the basis for Millennium.

Wearing it’s late 90’s setting on its sleeve, Millennium would focus on Frank Black (Lance Henriksen), his wife Catherine (Megan Gallagher) and daughter Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) as they move back to Seattle after a nervous breakdown from his previous job at the FBI has made Frank reappraise his life, focus more on his family, while devoting his investigative skills to the Millennium Group, an organisation made up of former FBI agents and law enforcement officials who offer their services to law enforcement agencies throughout the country on cases that they struggle with.

Right away the “Pilot” offers, like The X-Files, a high concept hook with which to devote a series to darker and compelling crime procedural plots, only this time with a tangential (at least initially) supernatural element.

The only concession to a more fantastical sense of genre comes from Frank’s ability to see what the killer sees, which he describes as his a gift and a curse. Debate has always raged as to whether or not the character could be described as psychic, but in any event, Frank’s visions allow Millennium to stand out when it comes to editing on television.

The “Pilot” was edited by Stephen Mark, one of the key architects when it came to editing The X-Files and who would subsequently edit Fight the Future, cutting the Millennium pilot in a manner that Carter rightfully calls a work of art on the DVD audio commentary for the episode. In fact, the “Pilot”, not to mention the series itself, has a number of creative connections to it elder sibling; David Nutter as director, Mark Snow as composer (some of his work here and throughout the three-year run of the show could rank as some of his greatest compositions), Glen Morgan and James Wong would contribute to the show (as well as assuming showrunner roles in season two), while much of the recurring guest cast such as Terry O’Quinn and CCH Pounder appeared after making a massive mark guest starring on The X-Files.

Premiering on the Fox Network in the fall of 1996, the series would take over the Friday at 9pm time slot, a time slot made famous by The X-Files, which would make the move to Sunday nights, a controversial move at the time, but which probably allowed Mulder and Scully to reach an even bigger audience. Millennium premiered to incredibly high ratings, so much so that at the time it was the biggest audience for a series premiere that Fox had ever gained, something that sadly would not continue.

Right from its opening moments, Millennium feels like a different series right from the off. Yes, it has a similar level of brilliance when it comes to its production values, while bringing a dark look to television viewing living rooms that had never been seen before, another trait it shares with The X-Files, but the similarities are aesthetic, with key differences in philosophy and tone right away.

The series may be coming from Mulder and Scully’s creator, but Carter is striving for differences with Millennium with the “Pilot” and the series from the one he made his  name with, and for all the talk of how every season is different from the last, there is a pleasing sense that it knows what it wants to be right from the off, or at least Carter knew what he wanted to do with the series.

Lance Henriksen occupies the character of Frank Black with gusto, forming the character amazingly well right from the off. There’s always a feeling with television shows that sometimes it takes several episodes for actors to find their characters or a tone to their performances, but Henriksen IS Frank Black right from the moment we first lay eyes on him driving with Catherine and Jordan to the yellow house, a dominant piece of symbolism that would drive the show tonally for the first two years.

Unlike Mulder and Scully, Frank Black has been there and seen it all, at least when it comes to violent crime, and while Fox Mulder started his career at the Behavioural Science Unit, his was a character that ended up in the more fantastic comfort of a disregarded unit that specialised in monsters and aliens. Frank Black has faced violent crime head on and nearly fallen apart as a result of it. While The X-Files offers a sense of escape with monsters that somewhat fall into the realm of fantasy (with the odd serial killer of a realistic variety thrown in for good measure, like “Irresistible” and Donnie Pfaster), Millennium’s intentions is paved on a darker road right away.

Although its opening moments could be seen as featuring a tad too much of a “male gaze”, the image of a stripper dancing in a room of blood while her future murderer soliloquies William Butler Yates, is pure Millennium, mixing shock value, end of the world dialogue, dark prophecy and violent imagery with little fear. It says something about the episode that it’s probably the least disturbing image of the episode, yet it says everything about the tone and attitude of what Carter is delivering right away and proves incredibly provocative and confrontational considering its the first thing the series is delivering to a large audience tuning in due to its X-Files connection. This is not going to offer the escapism that Mulder and Scully offer.

Even though The X-Files can go dark when it wants to, Millennium is an altogether darker beast right away, with a darkness that will not be wished away just because liver eating mutants or flukemen aren’t real. You’ll never see them on the front page of a newspaper, but The Frenchman feels like a nightmare concocted from a culture that has become used to reading and hearing about the likes of Ed Gein and Ted Bundy.

As well as his own work, Carter was inspired by David Fincher’s Se7en, and one can see the influence right away; there has never been an episode of television that has seen as much rain as this one does, that it almost matches the rainfall in Fincher’s movie, even though it runs for only forty-five minutes, while like Fincher’s seminal serial killer horror, the Millennium “Pilot” is unflinching when it comes to disturbing the audience; even though we currently live in an era of high concept crime procedurals, none has ever had an image as disturbing as that of a potential victim buried alive with his eyelids, mouth and fingers all sewn together.

Like all works of popular culture, certain things have not aged in the time span of twenty years. The production itself has the cinematic look that one expects from television series nowadays, but it does fall into the problem of offering a Seattle Police Department that is populated by middle-aged white males, while female lead Catherine Black (Megan Gallagher) is in the role of the wife at home, a minor disappointment coming from a writer who gave us Dana Scully, but which is alleviated by Gallagher’s performance and by the beautifully philosophical and intelligent nature of her and Frank’s conversations, thankfully a repeating pattern of the first season.

A key bedroom scene in which Catherine tells Frank he can’t keep the real world at bay, to which he replies that he wants her to make-believe that he can, is beautifully done with superb work from Henriksen, Gallagher, subtle direction from Nutter and gorgeous music from Mark Snow. Unlike the back and forth of Mulder and Scully, Millennium presents a different kind of partnership, a marriage that has been through the darkness and come out the other side stronger, while trying to navigate through an increasingly darker world while raising a child.

Frank and Catherine Black are not the “youths” like that at the heart of The X-Files, although interestingly it does hint at how Carter would handle the Mulder/Scully dynamic when it came to 2008’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe, a movie with a very Millennium tone and attitude when it came to the subject of violent crime, while presenting a partnership trying to deal with itself at the heart of it.

Filmed over the course of a month, this is without a doubt the most cinematic piece of television produced by 1996, a trend that amazingly ran into the series itself even though it would have to be filmed in the standard eight days per episode with the same script page count. In fact, if there is any disappointment, it’s that it is only forty-five minutes. It could so easily have been feature-length.

An amazing hour of television, there is a feeling that maybe many just didn’t get it at the time. Many were disappointed that it wasn’t another X-Files, instead wanting to chart its own course, albeit one which would see it given a tonal reboot with each season premiere, while in the UK, when the series premiered on ITV in July of 1997, it did so during a weekend of programming devoted to UFO phenomena, complete with wonderful bonkers Tom Baker introductions, indicating that the British network who had bought the rights to it, for a record mount of money at the time, thought they were getting a new X-Files but were getting a different kettle of fish.

No surprise they didn’t really know what to do with it and ended up playing merry hell with its scheduling, dropping it from its Sunday night-time slot halfway through and not airing the second half until the following summer on a Saturday night when nobody would be home to watch it, while dropping reruns at random in a graveyard slot during its famous “Night Time” strand of programming.

As “Pilot” episodes go, Millennium’s is one of the best produced, an assured and brilliantly uncompromising hour of television that is not afraid to go to some disturbing places. It is both of its time and ahead of it, and to this day it still stands up as one of the boldest pieces of American television horror to be broadcast. For all the differences at the heart of each season that would follow, there is a boldness to the “Pilot” that would follow through in each and every iteration of the show itself and is possibly one of the best things that Chris Carter has ever done.

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