Millennium: The Complete First Season Review
So first a couple of disclaimers - I'd never seen more than a couple of episodes of Millennium before receiving this box set to review, but I like dark and depressing TV shows, so I already knew I'd enjoy the series. The X-Files really was a massive television event, bringing weekly supernatural occurrences to our screens and making sci-fi much more accessible for the mainstream viewing public, so of course it got its creator (Chris Carter) a lot of publicity. So much so, in fact, that on the back of the show's success the Fox network approached Carter and asked him to think about creating a second television series. Carter mentioned that he had in fact started to conceive a series focused on the coming millennium and a very unscientific approach to examining evil in the world. Millennium was born out of these initial concepts, and while it's hard to remember nowadays how much of a big deal was being made about the approaching millennium back then (seeing as we know it arrived without any obvious apocalyptic events), in the few years running up to it, it was hard not to be caught up in some of the wild speculation about what might happen at such a time. (OK, so I mostly worried that all my computers would be OK, but still! Computer breakdown is like the apocalypse to me.) And before I launch into the review proper, you might also want to check out James' review of the Region 2 release of the series here.
Millennium debuted in 1996 and received a good critical reception. Although based on crime investigation, the show doesn't have the same humour or extra-terrestrial backdrop as The X-Files. Instead, the criminals are of this world (with a few hints at the demonic, though), and the exposition of evil is of something within us all. The protagonist of the show is Frank Black, an ex-FBI profiler who now works for The Millennium Group, consulting with local legal enforcement agencies on crimes that are usually particularly nasty or involve serial killings. The work is grisly and Lance Henriksen plays Frank Black to perfection; pained by his work but able to shelve his emotional response enough to actually keep sane while carrying it out. This is especially true because Frank has a skill not available to the majority - he can literally put himself in the mind of the killer, seeing and hearing what they do and enabling him to gain an insight into why they're carrying out these fatal acts. Whether a curse or a blessing, it certainly makes Frank an expert profiler and also explains to viewers just how crimes can get solved in a seemingly short time. (This is something that is often overlooked in modern crime shows, and as such occasionally grates against my willing suspension of disbelief... but if we believe Frank has these powers, then it's a reasonable conceit that he can make leaps of judgment and knowledge that would otherwise potentially take a huge amount of time to deduce.)
But back to Frank - he's happily married to Catherine (Megan Gallagher) and they have a daughter, Jordan (Brittany Tiplady). At the start of the show the family make the move from Washington DC to Washington state, relocating to a big yellow house in a suburb of Seattle - often voted amongst the cities with the best quality of life in America. However Frank is soon drawn into criminal work again as he spots news of a serial killer in the local paper and goes to speak to his old colleague, Lt Bob Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich) and offers assistance on the case. Like The X-Files, Frank's work is important enough to take him across America to help on cases - a definite good point about the series, as there really is a limit to the number of serial killers we'd believe would only work in the Seattle area. And from the pilot episode onwards, we know we're going to be in for some pretty gruesome crimes with bizarre and interesting reasons behind them. But what of the meta-story? Is Frank battling the evil within humans, or are there bigger powers at stake? Chris Carter showed how well he could use the concept of a meta-story within The X-Files, allowing the odd episode to contribute to the full story behind the conspiracy and alien abductions; here, in the first series of his next television show, hints of the same do crop up.
The evidence? Well, first the episode titles include a lot of religious references with names such as 'Sacrament', 'Gehenna', 'Lamentation' to name but a few. The episode 'The Judge' calls attention to the biblical verses which identify Legion as the chosen name of demons who inhabit the bodies of men and in the same episode comes a deal to Frank, 'How would you like to work for me?' asks the Judge - the offer is repeated in the episode 'Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions'. In 'Lamentation' we're also introduced to the devilish Lucy Butler (Lucy/Lucifer… OK, well she's played by Sarah-Jane Redmond anyway), apparently she also returns in other series, though I have yet to see those. These are just some of the hints of wider evil used in this series, something that lifts it from simply being a chronicle of crime-busting, although the first twelve episodes, setting up the characters and show, often do feel a bit 'killer of the week' in tone. That's not to say that the show is always about serial killers, there are quite a few episodes that stray from this and strengthen the series in numerous ways, especially characterisation, but also by taking it away from being just about serial killers; 'Well-Worn Lock', 'Force Majeure' and 'Walkabout' are all examples of this.
And talking about tone, this show is dark - in hue and in content. We're dealing with the darker side of humanity and unlike many films or shows that deal with such things, there's a distinct lack of humour to off-set the sometimes grim tales. Instead our release is Frank's home life, his seemingly happy marriage and perky daughter. Why do I say seemingly? Well, it all looks a bit good to be true. Yes, Catherine works in victim support and doubtless knows how important Frank's work is, she certainly seems to believe in him a lot and encourages him when he has questions about his work but shouldn't she occasionally get a bit upset that his work always has to take first place? Or maybe this really is an on-screen representation of a couple who've already worked through those kinds of details about their lives and have come to an ultimate understanding and knowledge that their companionship and mutual love and respect make their lives better, rather than anything else. Maybe they've had all their arguments and they're both now happy with how things stand. It's mostly in the scripting, as the actors do an exemplary job with the material they have, but it does seem to be something fans focus on. I know some people stress how the marriage seems sexless, but I felt a bit mixed on the subject - the conversations they have really do point to Catherine and Frank being very content with their relationship, and really, I'm not convinced I want to break up a grim show about fighting evil with occasional sex! Brittany Tiplady also does well as Jordan Black, a child whose journey I imagine is only really touched upon in the first series of the show. It's a cosy family life that isn't often shown on TV. Maybe we've become so indoctrinated to expect that criminal investigators such as Frank should be more wedded to their work than anything else that we feel it's impossible for them to have a happy home on the side. Regardless, it is the flipside of life that we return to in between the investigating and the crimes themselves.
Nor are the crimes themselves left as mysteries to the viewer - more often than not we know exactly who's committing them, leaving the show to simply look into motivations (or the lack thereof) and how the investigation process works. In the episode 'Dead Letters' it's really drummed home how cold investigators need to remain to carry out this work, as Frank starts to work with Jim Horn - someone being assessed for membership of The Millennium Group - and we see how Jim's emotional response makes him unsuitable for such a position. Deftly, it's an explanation for why Frank and his colleagues seem cold in the face of some truly nasty stuff.
It's not just the main cast that do remarkably well in the show, and I really did like all of them. Catherine Black (played by Megan Gallagher) is possibly the weakest of the regular actors for me, and I'm not sure if it's in her acting or the character that I had trouble with. I think perhaps it's the writing itself and my only real quibble is with how smiley Catherine seems, even when faced with her own episode ('Well-Worn Lock'), which endeavours to flesh her character out more. Bill Smitrovich as Lt Bob Bletcher impressed and played well off Lance Henriksen, as did Terry O'Quinn as Peter Watts (a Millennium Group colleague of Franks). CCH Pounder shows up as Millennium Group pathologist Cheryl Evans and even manages to squeeze in a couple of wry humorous comments, stealing the scenes she appears in with natural ease. The killers and supporting cast (including George Weiss, Brad Dourif and Bill Nunn) may change from week to week but they're always good at the job, solid actors able to pull off the job. The casting is done very well and highest praise really goes to Lance Henriksen (and Chris Carter for choosing him for the job); his haggard features and expressive face really help flesh out Frank Black - a man who's seen so much and who copes with his burden but is capable of showing fear for his family's safety.
I really enjoyed watching the first series of Millennium; it shows enormous potential and reminded me somewhat of other shows I enjoyed that came after it (and were probably influenced by its ability to slowly include supernatural evil hints into a television show); namely Brimstone and Miracles - both cancelled, much to my chagrin. I'm almost pleased that I never saw Millennium on television though, because now I can savour it instead on DVD. It's not a perfect show, but then there are very few television shows I think anyone could name that don't have some flaws.
All episodes on this box set are presented in their original 4:3 fullframe ratio. Overall I found the transfers to be good considering the date of the aired television show, with blacks holding solid and flesh tones looking natural. The show is very dark at times, not just in content but also in hues – so the transfer is quite important for holding the depth of the dark colours used. The dark colours are generally quite muted, which is intentional and contrasts well with the brightness of outdoor daytime shots (especially the yellow of the Blacks’ house). There’s some grittiness but overall the picture quality here is very good.
The sound is presented in Dolby Digital stereo in each language provided (English, French and Spanish for the record - which differs from the languages available on the Region 2 release). As with the picture quality, the transfer serves the series very well. The moody ambience conjured by the excellent soundtrack works well against what is sometimes fairly quiet dialogue (such as serial killers mutterings to themselves). The music and dialogue are well-separated though, leaving no doubt as to which we’re meant to be hearing at any time.
Packaging and Extras
The first thing that struck me about Millennium: The Complete First Season was the packaging. In a sturdy 5-sided slipcase there are 6 'slimline' Amaray cases, each holding one disc and each labeled with which number disc it holds. It’s good-looking stuff and I wouldn’t complain if more box sets came out in this style, as there's something very appealing (even elegant) about a space-saving design that doesn't resort to the usual cardboard gatefolds. The picture on the front of the box is different from that of the Region 2 version, and we’re graced with a picture of Frank’s face along with the Ourobouros logo for The Millennium Group with an atmospheric picture making up the rest of the cover pic. As well as the discs, a couple of small pamphlets are included – the first advertises other Chris Carter shows on DVD (X-Files, Harsh Realm and Millennium), the second is a wider advert for Fox shows on DVD including 24: Season 2, The Simpsons and Firefly.
There’s a fair batch of extras here too which add to the viewing experience. Firstly, there are two audio commentaries, both on disc 1 of the set. The first commentary is Chris Carter talking about the Pilot episode – it’s quite flat compared to some of his X-Files commentaries and deals with anecdotes about the creative process rather than lingering on interpretations of the meanings behind the series. Director David Nutter’s commentary on 'Gehenna' is definitely the more interesting of the pair though, commenting on how the series was structured and a little about the mood, environment and meaning of the show.
Order in Chaos: Making of Season 1 is a 50 minute documentary included on the sixth disc (where all the extras bar the commentaries reside). It’s definitely my favourite of the extras, adding the most to any viewing of the show (in my opinion, of course). Several of the cast and crew discuss the first series of Millennium, and the difficulties of bringing it to life. There’s a really good amount of information here, about casting, bringing a depressing vision to the small screen, mistakes, editing techniques – a lot about the sheer amount of work it took to make each episode of this series.
It’s no secret that Chris Carter was inspired to write Millennium in part because of the work of the Academy Group, an organization made up of former FBI and other investigators. Well, this featurette lets us take a look into the world of the real life consultants. Most interesting to me were the comments about dealing with the mental anguish of dealing with such depressing cases of inhumanity – something that kept popping into my mind while watching Frank’s reaction to such things throughout the show.
From here we’re into the smaller extras. There’s a featurette about creating the logo and title sequence... very detailed (oh yes, lots of discussion of fonts and symbolism) but anyone expecting a full breakdown of all the images used and why they were chosen will be disappointed. It’s an interesting start to explain the work behind the title sequence, but mostly led me to pay more attention to the title sequence and to wonder about the bits that weren’t mentioned and why. Around half a dozen TV spots give an insight into how the show as marketed when it was first released in 1996, and finally there are three trailers for Fox shows on DVD; Alien Quadrilogy, Predator: Special Edition and Planet of the Apes 35th Anniversary. The only real difference in extras from the Region 2 release are these trailers, which are replaced on the UK version by an 'Inside Look at I Robot' and an 'Inside Look at Alien Versus Predator'.
Millennium may well not be everyone's cup of tea; it is dark and it deals with difficult topics such as rape and serial killers. Having said that, it's also intelligent, thoughtfully written, well acted and competently directed, and this first series exudes promise for a greater story arc in the future. I enjoyed watching it immensely and I was pleased with the included special features, which actually did increase my understanding of the show... rather than just acting as throwaway pieces of vague interest as is often the case. All-in-all I'd certainly recommend this box set to anyone with even a passing interest in the series.