Why I Won’t Be Fully Chronicling Millennium

As part of the process of doing my X-Files watchthrough, I’d been intending to also incorporate a look at Millennium, the darker and edgier show that Chris Carter had been commissioned by Fox to make and which went out alongside the fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons of The X-Files until its cancellation meant that it had to settle for a crossover episode in X-Files season 7 as its series finale. Having snagged Lance Henriksen to play the lead role, Chris Carter was primed to offer up a grimdark vision of Seattle through an aesthetic style heavily influenced by Se7en and morbidly apocalyptic themes.

Carter kicks things off with Pilot, and decides to confront us from the get-go with an almost comically tawdry strip club where the mysterious Frenchman (Paul Dillon) watches performers cavort in their underwear (but not showing any nipple because this isn’t that much of an adult show) to Rob Zombie and Nine Inch Nails tracks. As the Frenchman enjoys a private show, he hallucinates showers of blood and walls of fire around the performer and mumbles apocalyptic poetry.

What this has to do with, well, anything is not immediately apparent; after the opening titles we’re introduced to a much more sunny, domestic scene, as Frank Black (Lance Henriksen), his wife Catherine (Megan Gallagher), and their adorable little daughter Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) settle in to their brand new home in Seattle, with Frank having stepped down from his job at the FBI. Before he was at the FBI, though, Frank was a local cop in Seattle, and when he sees a news story about a brutal and apparently sexually-motivated murder – that of the stripper we see giving the private dance at the start – he feels an urgent need to stop in with his old colleagues at the homicide division, now led by Frank’s buddy Bob Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich)

After Frank discusses the case with them – and exhibits an uncanny, possibly-paranormal ability to visualise the circumstances of a crime from the killer’s perspective (in a sort of rudimentary, much less artistically interesting version of Will Graham’s visualisations in the Hannibal TV series), Frank mentions his new job: he’s taken up a post at the Millennium Group, a private investigation firm of retired law enforcement personnel, and this sort of case happens to be their forte.

As the slayings continue, Peter Watts (Terry O’Quinn), who’s been assigned by the Millennium Group to act as a sort of mentor to Frank as he finds his footing within the organisation, takes his own look at the case and concurs with Frank’s assessment of the situation – encouraging Frank to continue and promising he’ll have the Group’s full backing on this case. But how does Frank know what he knows, and if the Group is merely a perfectly ordinary private investigation outfit – albeit one with a high calibre of employee – why do they seem to show up like furtive little visitors in the night, rather than having a conventional office?

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A Gentle Homecoming

Rejoice: Ron Gilbert has been spending lockdown tuning up a new point-and-click adventure engine he’s been working on, and as part of the exercise he ended up putting together a little coda to Thimbleweed Park. In Delores, you play the title character who, after spending a year away on a career as a point-and-click adventure designer at MMucasFlem, have come back to your home town for a little sabbatical. To keep yourself occupied, you’ve taken on a gentle little job working as a photographer for the Nickel News, the local newspaper.

The Thimbleweed Park Delores has returned to is a lot like the one we recall from the game itself – after all, this tech demo was lashed together from recycled assets from that – but it’s also different from the way the player remembers it, though (at least at first) Delores doesn’t seem to think anything has changed. By the end of the process of playing the game, you’ll come across hints as to what’s going on – as well as a tantalising suggestion that the end of Thimbleweed Park wasn’t quite as absolute as it at first seemed…

Ron Gilbert admits upfront that this game is in no way a product of the sort of polish that an actual, finished commercial product would be, and so has put it out on Steam and the Epic store for free. It has to be said that in terms of the gameplay offered, it’s rather simplistic. Each day you are given five things you need to go photograph. Some of those are pretty easy, some of then likely involve a bit of a puzzle or some lateral thinking. There is no mid-game saves, but five photos is enough for a quick play session. Once you have your five, you had them in and quit the game. When you restart, the town is rest to the state it was at the start of the previous day, and you get a new set of five photos to find. Once you have collected the 30 photographs, you get a little cut scene offering a conclusion to the game from which you can infer some things about what’s happened.

In short, it’s the sort of thing you can fiddle with in a downtime or use to kill time in an empty afternoon – nothing to scream praises about, but nothing to sneeze at when it comes free. The most interesting thing about it seems to be Gilbert’s new point-and-click engine, which seems to be an attempt to combine the virtues of the classic old Monkey Island style “click on a verb and click on a thing and you will do what the sentence at the bottom of the screen says you will do” control system and the more streamlined control systems out there which enable more screen real estate to be used.

Here, when you mouse over something in the world that your character can interact with, a sentence appears describing the most obvious interaction your character thinks of. If you right-click, there may be alternate interactions your character can attempt. You can click-and-drag items from your inventory onto things you want to use them on, in which case a sentence describing the interaction appears, or you can left-click on them to examine them or right-click on them to do other stuff with them.

It’s all fairly elegant and self-explanatory, and the benefit it gives over hyper-compact icon-based systems is that it tells you in a sentence what your character is going to do before they do it, avoiding the situation where a game designer trying to be clever or funny has your character do something you didn’t intended when you use a particular icon on a particular integer in such games. If Ron Gilbert is thinking along these lines seriously enough to develop a new adventure game engine, can a new adventure game from him be all that far away? Let’s hope that’s where things are going. This taster, whilst pleasng in its own small away, has given me an appetite for more.

Revisiting the X-Files, Part 4: Fourth Into the Unknown

After establishing itself, refining its approach, and hitting what may prove to be its creative peak as a showThe X-Files ruled the pop cultural universe by late 1996. Its fourth season would enjoy its highest overall ratings ever, and Chris Carter was busier than ever. Not only was the main show still going strong, but preparation for the first movie was gearing up – though set after season 5, most of the filming for the movie would take place in the filming gap after season 4 was in the can – but Carter had also been asked to produce a new TV series for Fox. This ended up being Millennium, which would involve a significant number of the X-Files creative team and ultimately end up being integrated into the X-Files universe as a result of character crossovers. (In fact, an episode of season 7 of The X-Files was set aside to give Millennium the series finale that cancellation otherwise denied it.)

Would all these creative directions end up diluting the attention of Chris Carter and his production team, or would they be able to keep up the high standards of season 3? Let’s crack open this case file and find out…

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 3: The Third Assignment

After experiencing its initial growing pains in season 1 and taking perhaps a little too long to restore the series status quo at the start of season 2, The X-Files found itself snowballing into a serious cultural phenomenon – true must-see TV in perhaps the last era when “must-see TV” was really a thing, before the proliferation of options out there meant that shows had to content themselves with lower ratings overall due to the pie being shared between more content providers and audiences having the freedom to choose the niche pie which really hits the spot for them, rather than having to make do with pie that they aren’t that keen on for want of anything better. (I think my analogy’s gotten away with me: both the audiences and the TV shows are pies and they’re eating each other.)

Season 3, then, had some lofty expectations to meet, as well as a major cliffhanger to resolve, with season 2 ending with the Conspiracy torching a buried train car full of alien bodies which Mulder had discovered in the New Mexico desert – with Mulder inside. Carter-penned season opener The Blessing Way is divided into two halves, one of which has substantially more legs than the other. The lesser half doubles down on the appropriation of Native American spirituality which Anasazi flirted with as Mulder gropes his way back to the land of the living with the aid of a sweat lodge sequence that gives way to some full-blown Carlos Castaneda shit. Whilst giving Mulder a near-death experience to match Scully’s from the start of season 2 makes a great seal of sense, the episode abandons almost all the subtlety and nuance which accompanied her visions in favour of going full blown New Age with Mulder’s – and with some disquietingly Messianic overtones at that.

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Swinging Between the Extremes

From the early 1970s onwards Italian politics became marred by increasing political violence on both sides of the political spectrum, with neo-fascist forces on the right and the Red Brigades on the left turning to increasingly brutal methods as both the Western and Eastern Bloc used Italy as a front in the Cold War. It was a paranoid time in which the groups acting on the street were fronts either directly controlled or indirectly manipulated by larger forces.

Fascist groups – as well as agents provocateur on the left – were backed by Operation Gladio, a NATO-backed “stay behind” paramilitary force intended to resist a Soviet Bloc takeover of Italy which had, depending on who you talk to, either slipped its leash and run riot or did exactly what it was supposed to do. The Red Brigades were supplied by the likes of the PLO and the Czechoslovakian intelligence service. In 1981 the bizarre Propaganda Due scandal revealed that Italian Freemasonry had become suborned into a network of political corruption and influence-brokering. Conspiracy seemed to be everywhere.

This is the political backdrop of Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco’s second novel. Set in the then-modern Italy of the 1970s and 1980s, it is narrated by one Casaubon, an intellectual sort whose heart is mostly with the hard left but who is alarmed enough by the propagation of ill-tempered violent rhetoric (which, remember, it would eventually turn out was partially driven by agitators set up by Gladio), and who seeks his refuge in his studies. A tendency to be a bit of an academic magpie, grabbing whatever seems shiny to him, Casaubon sets himself up as a researcher-for-hire after completing his studies, including a thesis on the trial of the Knights Templar.

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 2: The Second Encounter

It’s often the case that the first season of a television show involves a certain amount of workshopping to get the central concept polished and refined, before the series really hits its stride in a subsequent season. To an extent, this is true of The X-Files, which spent most of season 1 establishing the show’s status quo and then started really delivering on that concept’s promise in season 2- but at the same time, there’s a decent chunk at the start of the season where it looks like they might be rethinking the entire concept.

As of the start of season 2 of The X-Files, the X-Files division has been shut down, Agent Mulder’s stuck in a stultifying post listening to wiretap evidence, and Scully’s teaching trainees at Quantico how to unpack corpses. In the series opener, Little Green Men – another excellent episode from the star writing team of Glen Morgan and James Wong – Mulder isn’t even sure he believes in the old crusade any more, and ponders whether his memories of his sister’s abduction are really all they’re cracked up to be. Scully, for her part, seems to want to see where the chase takes them regardless of the reality or otherwise of Mulder’s memories – working on the basis that it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the inspiration for a project is rational or not if leads you to an interesting and illuminating end result.

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 1: The First Step Into the Shadows

So, we’re dealing with an iconic 1990s TV series here, in the pilot episode of which (Pilot) we have a young woman showing up dead on the outskirts of a small woodland town in the Pacific Northwest of the US. Thanks to parallels with a number of deaths elsewhere, the FBI become involved, represented in part by a handsome agent who reveals slightly eccentric habits and even more eccentric beliefs. The death turns out to be part of a web of local intrigue that belies the bucolic charm of the town, and there’s frequent hints than higher powers are involved in all this.

This is not, despite all of the above, Twin Peaks; instead we’re dealing with the start of The X-Files, lovingly crafted by Chris Carter, though he’s letting his Peaks fan flag fly here. The first episode sets the formula for most of the series’ “mythology” episodes: Mulder and Scully zoot about uncovering evidence of creepy alien activity, Mulder buys into the supernatural interpretation of events, Scully resists it but increasingly finds herself coming around to Mulder’s point of view step by baby step, they discover some incontrovertible evidence that something outright fuckabooie is going on but the sinister government conspiracy as represented by the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) manages to destroy the evidence yet again.

That’s a formula we’ll see repeated over and over during the run of the series, with incremental bits of additional motifs and recurring thingamuffins creeping in here and there to give the impression that we’re getting somewhere, but a quarter-century later and we all know goddamn well that it isn’t really going anywhere impressive – and with Gillian Anderson comprehensively fed up of the whole thing and no longer willing to come back after the mytharc episodes in 2018’s season 11 bombed, it looks like short of a full reboot we’ve had all the X-Files we’re ever going to get. (Conveniently, nice blu-ray sets of the TV episodes are widely available at a reasonable price, and the HD-remastered episodes are available on iTunes and other platforms at that.)

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