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Millennium – Sense and Antisense (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Sense and Antisense is a misfire.

It is an episode with far too much going on, and no time to unpack it all. Sense and Antisense moves like a rocket ship, jumping from one crazy idea to the next crazy idea. It opens with the threat of a viral contagion, but quickly escalates into the realm of conspiracy theories and mind control. It is an episode that is almost impossible to summarise without sounding as crazy as some of the characters populating the narrative. It is unsatisfying and disjointed, but not in a way that makes those sentiments seem part of the plan.

The pupil has become the master...

The pupil has become the master…

At the same time, it is an incredibly ambitious misfire. The biggest problem with Sense and Antisense is that it tries to cram too much in there. It is constructed almost writer Chip Johannessen tried to condense down contemporary conspiracy theory into a single forty-five minute story that winds up connecting the Department of Energy to the Rwandan Genocide. There is a breathless enthusiasm to all this that would make Fox Mulder blush. As much as Sense and Antisense doesn’t work, it is hard not to admire it’s sheer gumption.

The second season of Millennium might not be the most consistent season in the history of the medium, but even its failures are bold and energetic. Sense and Antisense is not The Curse of Frank Black, Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” or Luminary, but it is a far cry from something like Unrequited, Synchrony or Schizogeny.

A stain on the record...

A stain on the record…

Sense and Antisense is the first second season episode credited to writer Chip Johannessen. Johannessen had been one of the breakout writers of the first season. His four scripts – Blood Relatives, Force Majeure, Walkabout and Maranatha – were among the highlights of the year. They had a strong apocalyptic subtext to them, breaking out of the increasingly tiresome “serial killer of the week” format to tell stories that seemed very particular and very unique to Millennium. They were not simply retreads of Irresistible or Grotesque, they had a clear and distinct voice.

Looking at his work in the first season, Johannessen would seem to be quite compatable with the aesthetic that Glen Morgan and James Wong had brought to the show. Looking at their respective contributions to the first season, it seems like Johannessen would have been the future executive producer responsible for “off-the-wall apocalyptic surrealism” while Morgan and Wong would have overseen “back to basics serial killer stories with a hint of the macabre.” In hindsight, it seems weird that Johannessen would be so conservative an executive producer.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

Johannessen’s contributions to the first season almost seem to foreshadow the larger arc of the second season – the idea of the apocalypse as both an epic and an intimate event. However, it seems that Johannessen did not entirely agree with the approach that Morgan and Wong took to the show’s central mythology. “I don’t think the Millennium Group… it just kind of went off in a different direction in the second year,” he confessed in The Turning of the Tide. “Things like the Millennium Group were suddenly, ‘Huh?'”

Perhaps due to those differences, Johannessen seemed to write at the fringe of the second season. His scripts are still interesting and engaging, but they do seem slightly disconnected from the heart of the show around it. Sense and Antisense feels like a script caught between various competing demands – a show that is never really anchored in one particular idea, so winds up getting pulled in various directions by various imperatives. The result is the first script of the second season that doesn’t feel like it knows clearly what it wants to be.

Operating off the grid...

Operating off the grid…

Johannessen himself is not impressed with the episode, arguing that his original idea was diluted and distorted through the standard writing process:

“That didn’t quite come off the way I’d hoped,” Johannessen said. “That was one of those tortured things. To my mind, the rewrites got colossally worse, and part of that had to do with the fact that the first draft concerned a much more sensitive area–race–and Broadcast Standards had certain concerns.”

It is interesting to wonder what the original draft of Sense and Antisense looked like, particularly in relation to the finished product.

Everything is lost.

Everything is lost.

There are a few suggestions of racial issues to be found in the broadcast version of Sense and Antisense, despite protestations otherwise. The episode opens with an African American man unable to hail a taxi. Although the driver who eventually picks him up tries to argue otherwise, it does feel a little bit like commentary on racial attitudes. “I know the game. Everyone suddenly off duty. Right? It’s not just the white cats, man. Some brothers play that too. Yeah, man, ain’t nobody care about nobody no more. The color don’t even matter.” It still feels pointed.

When Knox brings Patient Zero to a newspaper edited by an African American, the editor has little time for Knox’s talk about “oppression” or his use of the word “brother.” He asks, “You know how many times a week I hear that, ‘brother’? And from everyone. Asians say it’s black people. Black people say it’s white people. White people say it’s extraterrestrials.” When two white men show up looking for the African American Patient Zero, the East Asian nurse observes, “I take it you’re not immediate family.”

Answering the call...

Answering the call…

Both Patient Zero and Knox make reference to Tuskegee, where the government experimented on African Americans without their consent. Even though the script’s references to race are toned down, the episode makes a point to cast ethnic minorities as those people exploited and victimised by these covert unethical experiments, while – up until the episode’s big reveal at the climax – most of the figures associated with the experiments are portrayed by white actors.

Even after all the amendments made by Broadcast Standards and Practices, Sense and Antisense is still a story that connects the human genome project to the Rwandan genocide – an atrocity occurred along ethnic lines. The implication is that some of the researchers working on the human genome project might be investigating weapons that could be targeted against people based on their genetic make-up. Although never clearly articulated by the episode – for better or for worse – Sense and Antisense is talking about ethnic superweapons.

Letting off steam...

Letting off steam…

These superweapons are purely speculative at this point, but have occupied a place in the popular consciousness since the eighties. In the late eighties, it was suggested that the white South African government had devoted considerable resources to help develop a “pigmentation bomb” – a weapon that could be targeted specifically at the black population. These claims were never official substantiated. In 1998, a year after Sense and Antisense aired, it was suggested that Israel was developing its own ethnic superweapon.

These claims have been largely debunked. Ironically, it seemed that the claims about Israel developing these racially-targetted weapons were just antisemitic propaganda – The New York Post described the reports (and the media hype around them) as “a blood libel for the 21st century.” Nevertheless, advances in biological science and weapons research have created a healthy paranoia about the collection of biometric data. In a rumour worthy of Sense and Antisense, the American goverment reportedly keeps the President’s DNA safe while collecting that of other leaders.

Marked for death...

Marked for death…

While such claims are understandably unsettling, they seem to exist quite distinct from reality. Most scientists would argue that an ethnic superweapon is mostly science-fiction:

Others say the concerns are exaggerated. “Trying to find a weapon that affects quite a few of one ethnic group and none of another ethnic group is just not going to happen,” says David Goldstein, who studies population genetics at University College London. “Because all groups are quite similar you will never get something that is highly selective. The best you would probably do is something that kills 20% of one group and 28% of another.”

Still, such nightmares are seldom rooted in real-world science. Instead, they reflect more abstract fears about modern society and the world around us.

Turning a blind(s) eye to horror...

Turning a blind(s) eye to horror…

After all, the fear that mankind could design something like that is secondary only to the fear that mankind would design something like that if it were in their power. The idea that mankind can even imagine something so horrifying is unsettling and disturbing. Somebody had to conceive of the destructive power of the atomic bomb before it could be harnessed. Atomic energy promised untold power and unlimited scientific advancement. However, it was quickly fashioned into something grotesque and unsettling.

The second season of Millennium repeatedly suggests that evil is something rooted in mankind, something deeper than random psychopaths with sadistic impulses. Sense and Antisense touches on the idea, asking whether evil on this scale is easier to imagine than it really should be. When Knox and Frank listen to Lacuna, Frank reassures Knox, “Gerome, listen to me now. He may speak the truth but it comes from a place of insanity. He’s gone insane.” Surely the real insanity is living in a word where there is even the slightest possibilit that there is any truth to what he says?

The man in the mirror...

The man in the mirror…

Sense and Antisense is an episode that feels undeniably rooted in the mid to late nineties, which makes sense for a show called Millennium. Mark Snow’s trippy dance score is undeniably a product of its time, as is the episode’s fascination with the human genome project. Announced in 1990, the $3,000,000,000 project hoped to map out the entirety of human DNA in about fifteen years. A “rough draft” was completed in 2000, appropriately enough. The project ultimately concluded ahead of schedule in 2003.

The human genome project was an ethical minefield in the nineties. The project came under a great deal of criticism. The most banal objection to the scheme was purely utilitarian – wondering whether the project could justify the expense. There were more compelling ethical debates to be had. Would cracking the genome open another Pandora’s box, like splitting the atom? Would it become possible to own and copyright the findings of the project, allowing private companies to own copyright on human DNA?

Boxed in.

Boxed in.

The human genome project was sold to the public as a potential cure-all, promising remedies for diseases as diverse and as horrifying as Alzheimer’s or cancer. President Clinton reiterated those claims on announcing the “rough draft”:

Today’s announcement represents more than just an epic-making triumph of science and reason. After all, when Galileo discovered he could use the tools of mathematics and mechanics to understand the motion of celestial bodies, he felt, in the words of one eminent researcher, “that he had learned the language in which God created the universe.”

Today, we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift. With this profound new knowledge, humankind is on the verge of gaining immense, new power to heal. Genome science will have a real impact on all our lives — and even more, on the lives of our children. It will revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.

That is a lot of hype for the project, and it understandably created some rather exaggerated expectations for the results. It is no wonder that Millennium constructed a horror story around the human genome project, given the stakes outlined. Bonus points for having Frank describe it as “the biggest science event since the moon shot.”

Bowties are cool...

Bowties are cool…

At the same time, this fascination looks almost quaint in hindsight. As The New York Times reported in 2010, the human genome project never quite made the impression that everybody expected:

Ten years after President Bill Clinton announced that the first draft of the human genome was complete, medicine has yet to see any large part of the promised benefits.

For biologists, the genome has yielded one insightful surprise after another. But the primary goal of the $3 billion Human Genome Project — to ferret out the genetic roots of common diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s and then generate treatments — remains largely elusive. Indeed, after 10 years of effort, geneticists are almost back to square one in knowing where to look for the roots of common disease.

One sign of the genome’s limited use for medicine so far was a recent test of genetic predictions for heart disease. A medical team led by Nina P. Paynter of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston collected 101 genetic variants that had been statistically linked to heart disease in various genome-scanning studies. But the variants turned out to have no value in forecasting disease among 19,000 women who had been followed for 12 years.

There may still be time for the research done during the human genome project to revolutionise modern living, but the whole exercise cannot help but seem a little overhyped to a generation promised the end of cancer.

"Wait, so what's going on again?"

“Wait, so what’s going on again?”

It should be noted that these objections do not only exist in hindsight. Some commentators predicted this outcome when the project was first announced, arguing the the reality of the human genome project would be much less exciting than the surrounding hype:

Critics worry that many jobs necessary to complete the genome project, like identifying biochemical markers on chromosomes, are both so difficult and so numbingly tedious that the students and post-doctoral fellows who will be expected to do the job will rapidly become bored and disillusioned. And though technicians may be able to handle some of the tasks of genome studies, other jobs will require graduate-level training without offering the commensurate intellectual rewards.

”I haven’t the foggiest idea how I would inspire my students to work on this sort of thing year after year,” said Dr. Michael Wigler, a well-known geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor who is not considering genome-related experiments for his group. Opponents doubt that the human genome project will quickly cure any diseases, either. They say that the mere identification of genes responsible for certain illnesses is no guarantee that researchers can easily learn how the genes work or what can be done to correct their defects.

The portrayal of the human genome project in Sense and Antisense seems almost ridiculous now, a conflation of all the worst hype and paranoia about the project into a single conspiracy narrative. It likely seemed a little absurd in the context of all the publicity, but it seems completely melodramatic and ridiculous in hindsight.

Rain of terror...

Rain of terror…

Sense and Antisense is perhaps the most profoundly dated episode in the first two seasons of Millennium. In that respect, it plays as the opposite of Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”, a script that rather cleverly and astutely observed that all this millennial anxiety was just a sense of existential ennui and entitlement that would look rather embarrassing in hindsight. While most of Millennium has aged better than Chung would concede, Sense and Antisense is an exception that helps to prove the rule.

However, the fixation on the human genome project serves as a nice gateway to what should be the heart of Sense and Antisense. For a significant portion of its runtime, Sense and Antisense plays as a treatise on conspiracy theory. Sense and Antisense is all about sinister plots, government agendas, mind control, and insanely complex ruses. It is a story about a world so upside down and topsy turvy that even delusion rampings from deeply disturbed individuals cannot be dismissed out of hand.

"Centre of Disease Control generally gets a better reaction than Department of Energy. More dramatic."

“Centre of Disease Control generally gets a better reaction than Department of Energy. More dramatic.”

Even Frank Black gets in on the act, demonstrating the sort of apophenia that would make Fox Mulder blush. Seeing the letters “D.O.E.” on a dead body, he immediately deduces that it must mean the Department of Energy. “The D.O.E. started as the atomic energy commission, built the atomic bomb, did radiation experiments on humans. Tests on vulnerable groups, prisoners, mentally retarded.” As Giebelhouse observes at another point, “Whoa, easy, Frank. Another leap like that and you’ll connect all this to why Oswald wasn’t in the Book Depository.”

Of course, this means that Sense and Antisense feels almost like a pitch for an episode of The X-Files that got sent to the wrong branch of Ten Thirteen Productions. A lot of Sense and Antisense feels like it could be an episode of The X-Files. The opening evokes F. Emasculata, the late second-season Outbreak-style” episode. At one point, frank revisits a scene to discover that any and all evidence has been carefully and painstakingly removed from the premise. There is human experimentation and government complicity and all the tropes associated with The X-Files.

"You've got red on you."

“You’ve got red on you.”

As such, Sense and Antisense could easily be read as an attempt by Glen Morgan and James Wong to steer Millennium closer to The X-Files. In hindsight, Glen Morgan conceded as much:

“Chip Johannessen did a good job writing that show, but I knew it was a mistake because government conspiracy is not what this show’s about. It made it look like we were going after The X-Files, and we’ve been very careful not to do an aliens conspiracy here. Millennium is religious, theological, based upon events and not a conspiracy. I think some people saw [that episode] and went, ‘Fox is trying to do another X-Files.’ And that’s not what we wanted to do. What we’re trying to show is that the end of the world isn’t just the apocalypse or a meteor coming to hit you. It’s about the breakdown of communication.”

This is a fair point, and it is easy to see why this confusion might arise. After all, Sense and Antisense even has some similarities to Blood, an episode of The X-Files written by Glen Morgan and James Wong.

SWAT-ing the threat...

SWAT-ing the threat…

However, this may not be an entirely bad thing. After all, conspiracy theories were much part of the nineties zietgeist. A whole host of millennial anxieties found expression through those strange fears and rumours. It makes sense for a show like Millennium to engage with that aspect of the public unease and uncertainty. It would be reckless to completely ignore and overlook that side of the decade because The X-Files happened to explore similar territory. After all, The X-Files had not abandoned stories about serial killers or religion.

More than that, Sense and Antisense marks a very clear line in the sand. The script is clearly aware of its similarities to The X-Files. At one point, Patient Zero even declares, “The truth is not out there. It’s in here.” At another point, Frank Black’s newly-emphasised interest in Bobby Darin has him listening to Gyp the Cat, a song eerily similar to Mack the Knife. So similar that Billboard described it as “an original novelty by Bobby Darin – patterned after Mack the Knife.” Jeff Bleiel was a bit blunter in That’s All, describing it as “another Mack the Knife rip-off.”

Dial it back...

Dial it back…

So it seems like Sense and Antisense was very much aware of the criticisms that it would attract. It is the episode of the second season of Millennium that feels the most like a recycled pitch for The X-Files. As such, it seems to set the outer-most limits of the shared space between the second season of Millennium and The X-Files. This is the closest that the second season will ever come to feeling like The X-Files. Sure, the third season would actively embrace The X-Files as an inspiration and model, but Sense and Antisense is the most overt the similarities have been to date.

Of course, Sense and Antisense feels so much like a lost episode of The X-Files that it leaves a hell of a lot of room for Morgan and Wong to work with. The duo had considered bringing the Peacock family from Home over to Millennium, but that idea was shot down rather bluntly. The duo introduced a tech-wiz secondary character in Brian Roedecker, who shared some similarities with the Lone Gunmen. The duo created Lara Means to serve as Frank’s female law enforcement partner. Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” features an honest-to-goodness X-Files character.

Frank Black phone home.

Frank Black phone home.

However, none of these developments ever feel like Morgan and Wong trying to turn Millennium into The X-Files. A large part of that is down to the fact that Sense and Antisense sets a pretty high threshold for any other attempts to surpass. While Sense and Antisense might suffer for that comparison, it is an effective stalking horse. Anything that the show does either side of the episode will almost slip by under the radar. This is what it looks like when you try to turn Millennium into The X-Files, so that Jose Chung can show up whenever he wants.

Of course, beyond the messiness of the ideas and muddled execution, the script to Sense and Antisense still feels rather clumsy in places. The dialogue is a little awkward, with Frank and Peter repeatedly reminding each other how totally and utterly determined they are and how they are pursuing justice. Frank and Peter have the conversation in Frank’s basement towards the middle of the episode, but they repeat at the climax for the benefit of Detective Giebelhouse when it comes to getting a search warrant.

"I'm telling you, there's another show that does stories just like this! I'm not crazy!"

“I’m telling you, there’s another show that does stories just like this! I’m not crazy!”

“I’m supposed to go to a judge and get a search warrant ’cause this place has soup trucks?” Giebelhouse wonders. Frank, in full-on snark mode, replies, “No, you’re supposed to go to a judge to get a search warrant because we turned Patient Zero over to these guys. We’re responsible.” Peter expands upon his answer, “You’ll get it because nobody here is going to walk away.” The problem is not the sentiments expressed. The problem is how the episode chooses to express them. Repeatedly and awkwardly.

Similarly, the final scene of Sense and Antisense reiterates ideas articulated since the start of the season – the idea that evil is something that comes from inside of people, and that Frank has to live with his demons as much as anybody else. When Frank wonders what the researchers were doing in Rwanda during the genocide, Peter responds, “In Bosnia, neighbors sent neighbors away for ethnic cleansing. In this country, 12-year-olds shoot each other in the streets. The world’s a violent place. It’s in all of us, if the switch gets flipped. But you know that.”

Having words.

Having words.

It is a very valid point, and a nice reminder of what Frank did at the end of The Beginning and the End. However, it really feels like a terrible thing for Peter to say to a man he considers a friend and colleague. Talk about kicking somebody when they are down. It is a piece of dialogue that conveys important thematic information, but one that doesn’t feel entirely true to the characters actually speaking. It feels like Sense and Antisense could have used another draft – or several – just to hammer out the dialogue.

Still, Sense and Antisense does continue the evolution of the dynamic between Frank and Peter suggested in The Beginning and the End and developed in Beware of the Dog. There is a sense that Peter is getting a little possessive and obsessed, while Frank is just a little bit frustrated. “Why didn’t you tell me you took this job?” Peter asks, making the Millennium Group sound like an angry spouse. “I wasn’t currently on a case with the Group,” Frank replies, which is really the Millennium equivalent of saying “we were on a break.”

At least it looks like he died happy.

At least it looks like he died happy.

Peter clearly sees the Millennium Group as more than a consultancy; it is a vocation to which its members must be devoted. “We’re always on call.” It seems quite obvious that Peter and Frank see the Millennium Group in very different ways. “I’m only officially a consultant with Millennium. I’m trying to feed my family, Pete.” Inevitably, Peter reveals that he is working to make Frank “more than officially a consultant”, suggesting a deepening and a broadening of his ties with Group. The second season sees the Millennium Group become a surrogate family to Frank.

Sense and Antisense doesn’t work. However, it remains an interesting and compelling piece of television. It doesn’t work in ways that are interesting and even rewarding, failing from trying to do too much rather than trying to do too little. This is perhaps reflective of the flaws with the second season as a whole; when the second season stumbles, it is often as a result of surplus ambition. This is hardly the worst vice.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of Millennium:

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