Monday, March 19, 2012

Skull & Bones: The Parapolitics of Ten Thirteen's Millennium, Part 1

Chris Carter's legendary series The X-Files tapped into the zeitgeist of the early 90s, when a growing distrust of governmental power was fueled by a series of revelations detailing human experimentation conducted during the Cold War, as well as the increasing militarization of the civilian police.

Fueled by the preternatural sexual chemistry of stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, The X-Files would go on to develop an overarching mythology in which a cabal of State Department bureaucrats formed an alliance with an alien race bent on the colonization of the planet Earth and the destruction of humanity.

Carter's second major series, Millennium (1996-1999), was intended as a break from The X-Files' patented synthesis of the paranormal and political paranoia, instead presenting a fallen world hurtling towards an apocalypse of its own making. But even in the first season-- which was criticized by some for an over-reliance on serial killers-- there was a mythology (and indeed a conspiracy) developing from very early on.

Instead of human conspirators, however, Millennium presented a cabal of demons in human form, known (and known only) to hardcore fans as ‘Legion.’ Carter presented the first of these in 'Gehenna', in which a demonic cult leader runs a telemarketing scam in order to finance a terror campaign (based on the real-world Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo).

The term “Legion” is first used in ‘The Judge’, a strange, vigilante-themed episode that featured past X-Files guest star Marshall Bell (‘Fallen Angel’) and future guest star John Hawkes (‘Milagro’).

However, the most memorable of these demons-in-human-form by far is Lucy Butler, played by Ten Thirteen Productions regular Sarah Jane Redmond (who also appeared in the very ‘Millenniumistic’ second X-Files movie). First introduced in Carter’s 'Lamentation', Lucy is a gender-bending demon with an intense, hypnotic stare whose evil was matched only by her seductiveness and her cunning.

The Lucy character would recur throughout the series, most prominently in Season Two’s ‘A Room With No View’ (in which she plays a satanic guidance counselor) and Season Three’s ‘Antipas’. As written by Carter and Frank Spotnitz, Lucy’s role in the Legion mythology is finally made clear; she is to seduce Frank, both through engaging his intellect with her mind-games and by seducing him sexually (‘Antipas’ features a graphic sex scene that skirts the boundaries of soft-core pornography).

In the second season, new showrunners Glen Morgan and James Wong (known in-house simply as the “Wongs”) would radically change both the focus and tone of the series and the nature of the Millennium Group itself, the FBI consulting taskforce (based on the real-life Academy Group) that gave the show its name.

Aside from ‘Room’ and Darin Morgan’s satirical ‘Somehow Satan Got Behind Me,’ and tangential connections to the mythos in ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ and ‘Siren’, the Legion mythology as it stood at the end of Season One was largely dispensed with.

In the new-look Millennium, "The Group" as they were usually called, were in fact the public face of an ancient secret society tasked with steering humanity through the Apocalypse. The Group were locked in battle with another secret society named Odessa, which was comprised of high-ranking Nazis who fled Europe after the Second World War.

The Wongs retrofit this new mythology with memes taken from largely pop-occult sources, but also the growing enthusiasm for books like Baigent and Leigh’s The Temple and the Lodge (1988) and Michael Howard’s The Occult Conspiracy (1989). The Group was essentially a crypto-Masonic construction, complete with elaborate initiation rituals and recognition codes (“This is who we are,” was a spin on “We are not who are,” the tagline from the Wongs’ pivotal first-season X-Files episode, ‘Ice’).

But more than anything else, the new Millennium Group seemed to borrow heavily from "The Legacy," a nearly identical secret society featured on the cable series Poltergeist:The Legacy, which had premiered six months before Millennium itself. The Wongs were pop culture vultures, always eager to exploit a favorite old movie or novel for story ideas (The Thing, Silence of the Lambs, The Hills Have Eyes, Contact, etc), but a tribute to a series this recent- and this mediocre- was a weird move for the team, and was controversial within the staff and cast of Millennium.

Later in the season, a split emerged within the Group between the moderate 'Owls' and the extremist 'Roosters', who later believed that the Group needed to focus on actually helping to bring the Apocalypse about. With ratings in free-fall throughout the year, the second season ended with a deadly viral outbreak that may or may not have been engineered by the Rooster radicals within the Group.

The Wongs went all-in on the two-part season finale, mixing in 70s apocalypse and conspiracy films along with the usual esoteric madness, and capped it all off with an unforgettable scene in which Frank’s second-season partner Lara Means (played by Morgan’s wife Kristen Cloke) loses her marbles while the Patti Smith Group epic ‘Horses’ hammers away in the background.

It all ends in tears, with Frank’s wife Catherine (played by Megan Gallagher, a character the Wongs didn’t seem to have much use for) dying from the engineered plague in the bleak, rainy woods of the Pacific Northwest.

The new-model Group were representative of a long and deep-set tradition in American culture: Millennialism. The product of the primitive, backwoods Christianity that eventually overshadowed the “high church” liturgical traditions imported from Europe, Millennialism has always played a crucial role in the rise of political movement known as the Religious Right, essentially a mainstreaming of the impulses once expressed by groups like the nativist Know Nothing Party and the Ku Klux Klan, combined with the apocalyptic religious mindset of any number of extremist Protestant sects.

The ‘Owl’ and ‘Rooster’ split closely mirrors a split within the Religious Right movement itself; the pre-millennialists and post-millennialists, also known as the pre- and post-Trib (short for “Tribulation”) factions. Again, yet another strand of thinking that had significant currency in the conspiracy underground of the 1990s. Quoting from an article for The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Religions by Richard Landes:
American millennialism bifurcated along two streams: the pre-millennialists (who believe that Jesus will come before the millennium and inaugurate it), and the post-millennialists (who believe that Jesus will come after the millennium inaugurated by an inspired mankind).

The former tends to be catastrophic (the seven years before the advent of Jesus, known as the Tribulation, preceded by the Rapture of the saints, are marked by terrible catastrophes and the coming of Antichrist), whereas the latter tends to be progressive and gradualists (things are getting better all the time). In the later 19th century pre-millennialism gained the upper hand in much American millennial thinking, only to cede to post-millennialism reformism in the early decades of the 20th.

In some, primarily anti-modern forms, millennial movements can become highly authoritarian, suffused with conspiracist thinking, implacably opposed to imagined enemies (Jews, independent women, denominational opponents), capable of staggering acts of violence and self-destruction.
The Wongs hinted at but wouldn’t quite exploit the narrative possibilities of this millennialist split, though they may well have had they returned for the third season. Their Group was still basically heroic, though the focus had clearly moved away from sleuthing.

Season Two ended with everyone assuming that it was the end of the series, causing a major scramble within the Ten Thirteen production offices when Millennium was picked up for a third season. Resumes had been sent out and things were basically shutting down, but the last-minute reprieve coincided with The X-Files’ move to Los Angeles.

Millennium was passed to new showrunners Michael Duggan and Chip Johannessen, with major input from co-execs Ken Horton and Jon-Peter Kousakis (Horton would later replace Duggan in the high echelon). Carter consulted on the reboot, pitched in on some early rewriting and co-wrote three episodes with Spotnitz, but his energies were clearly focused on The X-Files.

With Catherine dead, Frank Black was brought to Washington to consult for the FBI and was given a partner (Emma Hollis, played by Klea Scott), a liaison (Barry Baldwin, played by Peter Outerbridge) and a new supervisor, (AD Andy McClaren, played by longtime Ten Thirteen company player Stephen Miller, who also appears in the second X-Files film). Frank’s daughter Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) was kept onboard, and Catherine’s parents were introduced to act as her babysitters when Frank was called away.

After the grand guignol of Season One and the drive-in movie/free-for-all of Two, Season Three would see yet another radical shift, though one that would incorporate elements from its predecessors. The third season of Millennium would be just as controversial as the first two, with fans as divided over the show's direction as ever before.

But where Season One drew upon post-modern psychological horror for its mythology and Season Two drew upon Masonic legends and Illuminati lore, Season Three would dig deep into the parapolitical underground for its conspiracy arc, putting the Group at the center of a whole host of real-life scandals and crimes ripped from the hyperbolic headlines of Covert Action Quarterly and Conspiracy Digest, as well as topics discussed on late night radio programs centered on conspiracy and parapolitics such as Expert Witness and For the Record.

At the same time some of its standalones offered up an elegiac kind of magical realism (‘Omerta’, ‘Borrowed Time’) and several new entries were made in the Legion mytharc (primarily Carter and Spotnitz’s ‘Antipas’ and ‘Seven and One’, but also the Lucy-in-disguise thriller ‘Saturn Dreaming of Mercury’), Season Three's primary mytharc explored topics that the mainstream news media dared not touch on anything but a superficial basis.

The X-Files might have gotten all the attention for conspiracy mongering, but Millennium was now dealing with topics even the mothership wouldn’t touch. In many ways, Season Three of Millennium was drawing upon the 70s conspiracy movies that inspired Chris Carter in the first place, but did so in the context of a show already filled with religious and apocalyptic ferment. The resulting mix would be combustible....

"The Group" were no longer crimefighters or crypto-Masons, they were an extremely dangerous covert intelligence front with a paranoid, apocalyptic ideology.

Throughout the season, Millennium would delve into government drug dealing, mind control and bio-warfare experimentation, remote viewing, the 'disappearing' of dissenters, religious radicalism, survivalism and much more in a startlingly sober, subtle and mature fashion.

Maybe too sober and subtle for the Friday night at 9 crowd, but perhaps all the more remarkable for trying.

First off, the viral apocalypse had to be dealt with. Assuming the series had been canceled, the Wongs deliberately broke the Ten Thirteen mandate of “it’s only as scary as it’s real” plausibility-- meaning nothing could happen on a large scale that wouldn’t make the headlines in the real world. So a lot of fans were understandably infuriated when Season Three opener ‘The Innocents’ (and its sequel ‘Exegesis’) whisked it all under the carpet as an isolated outbreak in the Northwest.

Unfortunately, their anger blinded them to the incredible strangeness being wheeled out before them: a harrowing plane crash and its aftermath (borrowed from the pivotal X-Files two-parter ‘Tempus Fugit’/’Max’), an extremely bizarre family of pale blue-eyed remote viewers targeted for elimination by the Group (tying into similar themes explored at the same time on The X-Files with psychic Gibson Praise) and the ongoing plot to create an engineered apocalypse.

Much of it deliberately harkened back to Johannessen’s first season stunner, ‘Force Majeure’, but the connections were lost on an embittered and bitterly divided (if not tiny and unrepresentative) internet fanbase.