Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Millennium – Midnight of the Century (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.

Midnight of the Century is a Millennium Christmas episode, as strange as that might sound.

In hindsight, it really should not seem so strange. After all, The X-Files had just done a big two-part Christmas episode with Christmas Carol and Emily. More than that, executive producers Glen Morgan and James Wong had demonstrated an affinity for holiday-themed episodes. The duo had written the Christmas-themed Beyond the Sea for the first season of The X-Files, and had commissioned The River of Stars while they were running Space: Above and Beyond. They had also written The Curse of Frank Black, a Halloween-themed Millennium episode.

Angels in America...

Angels in America…

Midnight of the Century is the second Millennium script credited to writers Kay Reindl and Erin Maher. The duo had been recruited by Morgan and Wong at the start of the second season, and had already produced A Single Blade of Grass. It was a messy episode, albeit one with flashes of genius. Midnight of the Century gives the two writers a much cleaner brief and a lot more room to work. As with The Curse of Frank Black, there is a wonderfully relaxed pace to Midnight of the Century, a sense it knows both where it’s going and how it wants to get there.

On paper, the idea of “a Millennium Christmas episode” sounds like the bleakest thing ever. However, while there are elements of melancholy involved, it is to the credit of everybody involved that Midnight of the Century feels so damn bittersweet.

A Black (family) Christmas...

A Black (family) Christmas…

It is worth noting that the finished version of Midnight of the Century is rather different from the original pitch for the episode:

“We came up with the idea of doing ‘A Christmas Carol’ with Frank,” Reindl said. “The three ghosts would be serial killers of the past, present and future. We pitched our board, and after the first act, Glen said, ‘Did we talk about this at all?’ And we said, ‘Well, not really, just generally.’ He said, ‘Well, we have this scene in the Halloween episode.'” The scene Reindl and Maher had written was a flashback where a youthful Frank discovered his neighbor was a murderer. While not identical to the flashbacks in The Curse of Frank Black, it was close enough that it was jettisoned. At that point, Morgan gave new instructions about the episode: while he didn’t want a scene that close to The Curse of Frank Black, he wanted the Christmas episode to be similar in that it would be a day in the life of Frank Black, rather than have Frank investigating a case. “It was Frank being guided along some kind of spiritual journey,” said Maher.

The change was likely for the better. Even though the original pitch for Midnight of the Century is quite distinct from The Curse of Frank Black, the finished product feels a lot more in line with the aesthetic of the second season.

The sound of her wings...

The sound of her wings…

After all, the idea of doing a show about “serial killers of the past, present and future” seems like what the first season would have done if asked to produce a Christmas special. It is weird to think that the second season reached its midpoint without a single episode built around the traditional “serial-killer-of-the-week” format. Stories like Beware of the Dog, A Single Blade of Grass and 19:19 alluded to some of that classic structure, but it feels like Millennium has largely moved past its procedural trappings.

The second season would eventually return to the formula with episodes like Goodbye Charlie and The Mikado, but even those felt completely different from stories like Wide Open or Weeds. As such, it is probably for the best that Midnight of the Century has absolutely nothing to do with serial killers. The episode is fairly light on plot, but heavy on theme and character. It helps to fill out the world inhabited by Frank Black, to flesh out the supporting cast, to develop the Black family history.

Tending the flock...

Tending the flock…

The obvious point of comparison for Midnight of the Century is The Curse of Frank Black. Indeed, Glen Morgan, James Wong, Kay Reindl and Erin Maher had planned what might have been described “a Frank Black holiday trilogy” for the second season, plans that were truncated when it was decided that the show would not press ahead with the Easter episode. Perhaps ironically, the second season’s Easter episode – Anamnesis – was written by Erin Maher and Kay Reindl, but became the first and episode of Millennium not to feature Frank Black.

Appropriately, the differences between Midnight of the Century and The Curse of Frank Black reflect the differences between Christmas and Halloween. The Curse of Frank Black is a story about bitter all-consuming loneliness, that horrific sense that a person is alone wandering in a wasteland. The Curse of Frank Black features only one member of the supporting cast, Brittany Tiplady. The rest of the show’s ensemble are absent. Megan Gallagher appears in flashback. There are not even cameos from Terry O’Quinn or Kristen Cloke.

Staying on track...

Staying on track…

There was a sense that Frank was alone in the world. There is an added irony that the core cast of The Curse of Frank Black – Frank and Jordan Black – foreshadows all that is left of Frank’s world by the time that the credits role on The Time is Now and by the closing shot of Goodbye to All That. With its gloomy October setting, The Curse of Frank Black indulges in the grim apocalyptic tendencies of the second season. It presents an external landscape that reflects Frank’s own sense of isolation and loss.

In contrast, Midnight of the Century is much more of a family affair. Catherine Black appears for the first time in the flesh since Monster, the third episode of the season. Peter Watts hosts a Christmas party attended by Frank and Lara. Lara later brings over egg-nog and seasonal bread to help talk to Frank about Jordan’s visions. Even the lovable Brian Roedecker stops by for a brief appearance at the start of the episode, introduced to Catherine and Jordan as “my friend Brian.” The script captures the festive cheer and sense of togetherness associated with Christmas.

Nice crib.

Nice crib.

In fact, Midnight of the Century goes even further. The episode delves into Frank’s personal history. For most of the first season, Frank was presented as an enigmatic character. There was a sense that the show was less interested in Frank than in the cases that Frank investigated. Frank Spotnitz introduced the character of Thomas Black in Sacrament, but he simply felt like a vehicle to demonstrate how the forces of darkness were perfectly willing to target Frank and his family indirectly.

There has been a sense in the second season that Millennium has started over with regards to the development and characterisation of Frank Black. So much of the character as revealed in the second season almost exists at odds with his stoic and remote persona in the first season. This is perhaps most notable in Frank’s sudden passion for the music of Bobby Darin, a passion which seems to have developed overnight. However, it can also be seen in the way that Midnight of the Century seems to gloss over some of the ideas about the Black family as implied by Sacrament.

And so this is Christmas...

And so this is Christmas…

It is perhaps telling that Thomas Black is only fleetingly mentioned in Midnight of the Century. His name appears in the notice about the death of his mother. During the flashback, Thomas is only barely seen – an inattentive viewer might assume that Frank Black was the only child at home on that night in 1946. Henry Black makes fleeting reference to Linda kissing the “kids” goodnight. While Frank has enjoyed a turbulent relationship with his father, there is no discussion about the relationship between Thomas and Henry. What about Henry’s other granddaughter?

Even as the script to Sacrament reinforced the idea that Frank’s gift might be hereditary, the script heavily suggested that Frank had enjoyed a relatively normal childhood. Thomas seemed to exist to demonstrate that somebody could have grown up with the same genetics and in the same environment as Frank without developing a hyper-sensitivity to evil. Of course, that does not conclusively prove anything one way of the other, but it did seem to suggest that Frank’s gift was not something that came from his family, even as he passed it on to Jordan.

The time is near.

The time is near.

In contrast, Midnight of the Century reveals that Linda Black was haunted by visions of angels – visions that Frank could see himself. According to Maher and Reindl, this idea developed from notable absences in the script to Sacrament:

“We were thinking about Frank’s visions, and we thought if one of his parents had visions, that would mean something, since his daughter Jordan has them,” Maher added. “It’s something that’s passed from generation to generation. So we decided that his mother would have visions too, mainly because last year in ‘Sacrament,’ the episode with Frank’s brother, we got a very strong impression that Frank and his father weren’t very close and that his father was very remote and very strict. We were wondering why that was. And Frank and his brother never talked about their mother. So we came up with the idea of Frank’s mother dying when he was six years old, and he really didn’t understand how deep his father’s love was, so he blamed his father for letting her die alone. We also thought about the idea that Christmas is always supposed to be this perfect family holiday, but Frank’s family has split up–he’s without his wife and child. He really doesn’t have a good relationship with his dad. It’s sort of the Christmas that you end up with, rather than the Christmas that you really want.”

As much as Midnight of the Century can be said to have a single consistent throughline, the idea of healing family rifts is very much part of it. The episode marks the only appearance of Henry Black, allowing Rank to reconcile with his father and to finally find peace about a traumatic (and previously unspoken) aspect of his childhood.

All the ebst profilers have daddy issues...

All the best profilers have daddy issues…

It has been repeatedly suggested that the second season of Millennium sent Frank Black on what might be described as a hero’s journey. It is possible to chart Frank’s passage through the second season from The Beginning and the End through to The Time is Now in terms of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Glen Morgan, James Wong and Lance Henriksen have all made the comparison in interviews about the second season. Whereas the first year of the show tended to portray Frank as a static figure, the second works hard to give him a path that he might follow.

It is an approach that largely works. It imposes a clear structure on the twenty-three-episode season. The second season of Millennium can frequently seem chaotic or random, but it is a very tightly-coordinated chaos. It is generally quite easy to get a sense of what the producers and writers are aiming for by trying to figure out where Frank is at this point in his journey. Despite its loose structure and meandering style, Midnight of the Century passes another marker on that journey for Frank, allowing him a chance at reconciliation with his father.

Shaking things up...

Shaking things up…

Joseph Campbell positioned “atonement with the father” as a pivotal point in the journey. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell observed:

The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands – and the two are atoned.

Although the pacing of the journey might be a little jumbled – atonement usually comes towards the climax of the story, rather than the midpoint – it does seem to capture the essence of Midnight of the Century.

I would watch a reboot of "Jingle All the Way" starring Frnak Black.

I would watch a reboot of “Jingle All the Way” starring Frank Black.

Frank atones with Henry just before he becomes aware that Henry will die in the coming year. In seeing all those souls wandering towards the churchyard, Frank seems to catch a glimpse of the divine. It enables him to perceive something that exists beyond the mortal plane. It allows him to make some measure of peace with “the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos.” After all, much is made of how little control Frank actually has. He cannot reunite with Catherine, he cannot protect Jordan from her gift.

Of course, the conversation between Frank and Henry helps Frank to confront another unspoken uncertainty. In talking with Henry for the first time in years, Frank is presented with another mirror to his own life. “So there was this ability that your mother had – that you had – and that she couldn’t turn away from,” Henry advises his son. “And I understood that, I sympathized with that, but it was taking my family away. It was taking my wife away: a woman I loved more than anything else in this whole world.”

Ghosts of Christmas Not-Too-Distant-Future...

Ghosts of Christmas Not-Too-Distant-Future…

The situation resonates with Frank. “I don’t know, Frank, if you can understand how that can happen between a man and a wife,” Henry tries to explain. Frank replies, “I know too well.” Henry becomes at once a Ghost of Christmas Past and a Ghost of Christmas Future for Frank. Discussing her Tamagotchi, Jordan assures her father that “mommy says ‘It’s the circle of life’.” Once again, Millennium suggests that the circle is the perfect shape – that the future and the past cannot be so clearly delineated.

His conversation with Henry reveals new truths to Frank. It helps him to understand that his experiences – both personal and existential – are not unique in human history. Indeed, Henry suggests that the anxiety of waiting for the millennium itself is not an event beyond parallel. Clearly contrasted with Peter Watts’ anxiety about the pending end of days, Henry Black reflects the trepidation of waiting for the Allied invasion of Europe. “It was a big secret, maybe the biggest secret in the 20th century – what date that D-Day would begin.”

Reflections...

Reflections…

It is quite an effective metaphor for the looming millennium – the idea that massive spiritual and social changes are looming at some point in the future, but with no definite date set. As with D-Day, the millennium was frequently (and perhaps self-importantly) characterised as the point of an epic conflict between good and evil; it is a moment that will inevitably and undeniably alter the course of human history. It was something that people were expecting to occur, but without a public schedule.

In his conversation with Frank, Peter reflects on how difficult it is to predict or intuit such things – how delicate time is. “I’d like to know how much time I have left,” he confesses. “You know that for almost the entire history of Western civilization, this month has been a holy time? The Druids, winter solstice, Hanukkah – the Romans converted Saturnalia into Christmas. Imagine that: Christ wasn’t even born on this day, maybe not even 1,997 years ago. So no one knows for sure when the millennium really begins and ends. Or how much time is left.”

Roedecker!

Roedecker!

This draws attention to just how arbitrary the idea of “the millennium” actually is. it is a date that only seems important because of how and when western civilisation decided to measure time on such a scale. As Stephen Jay Gould reflected in Questioning the Millennium:

Millennial madness (or at least fascination) surely lies at the arbitrary end of this spectrum, for nature recognises no divisions by thousands. The intrinsic advantages of decimal mathematics have often been noted, and our Arabic numerology surely gives 1,000 that nice look of evenness (enhanced in our century by the active turning of automobile odometers). But we also recognise that these advantages do not arise from nature’s construction, and we know that several cultures developed entirely functional (and beautifully complex) mathematical systems on bases other than 10 – and, therefore, with no special status attached to the number 1,000 at all.

In a way, Midnight of the Century suggests the arrogance and arbitrariness of presuming that a time of great upheaval is coming simply because there is a year approaching that will happen to contain three zeroes. Peter sets up the idea that the apocalypse might be closer than the year 2000, but also that it might be much further.

Pete by the fire...

Pete by the fire…

This plays into the recurring themes of this stretch of the second season. Episodes like 19:19, The Hand of St. Sebastian and Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” all point out the self-importance of declaring this to be the most important moment in human history simply because we have the luxury of living through it. Doomsday prophecy is a great way to imbue the present moment with a sense of purpose or meaning, but this stretch of episodes seems to point out the arbitrariness of the logic used to justify belief in that prophecy or importance.

Midnight of the Century ties into the larger ideas of the second season, reinforcing the sense that the end of the world must be a personal experience. Frank’s distance from his family is presented as a threat as serious as any doomsday prophecy. The stakes are more personal, but that does not mean that they are any lower. “I know that things are changing for us,” Catherine advises Frank. “Time’s running out. Frank, I want you to be happy. But Jordan is my first priority: her safety and her well-being. And I won’t let anything jeopardize that.”

Party on, Lara...

Party on, Lara…

This is rhetoric which sounds like it could easily come from Peter Watts – a sense that there is a clock ticking down as Frank runs out of time to save the Black family unit. As in Monster, the second season is presented as a family tragedy on a massive scale. The Millennium Group is just a rival to the nuclear family that Frank has formed with Catherine and Jordan. Commenting on his gift, Catherine observes, “It’s caused you to turn away from your family, from your daughter. It’s turned you toward the Millennium Group.”

In a way, Midnight of the Century seems to offer a happy ending to the second season. Frank is able to reconcile with his father, healing a rift that had grown between them. That reconciliation comes shortly before his father’s death, but that does not make it tragic. It would have been worse had Frank never reconciled with Henry before his passing. As such, Midnight of the Century suggests that the ending to The Time is Now is not as bleakly tragic as it might first appear. While far from happy, it is not the worst possible ending.

The most wonderful time of the year...

The most wonderful time of the year…

In an interview with Back to Frank Black, Erin Maher rejected the idea that Midnight of the Century was a particularly bleak Christmas episode:

Shaun Cassidy actually once told us that was the most depressing Christmas episode in the history of television! I disagree, because Frank reconciles with his Dad kind of at the last minute, and that was definitely meant to be uplifting. That was something that had been hanging over him all of these years, and he got that closure and a new relationship with his father, and an explanation for what was going on at the time. So to me that’s all really very uplifting and very moving.

It is, perhaps, the happiest ending that Frank could hope for under the circumstances. Millennium is not a show that lends itself to unequivocal happy endings or unqualified victories. As such, it is easier to appreciate the little things.

I bet Frank is great fun to watch Halloween with...

I bet Frank is great fun to watch Halloween with…

For all that it deals with heavy subject matter, Midnight of the Century is quite a light and fun little adventure in places. Frank’s recurring attempts to find the perfect Christmas gift for Jordan are very familiar and suitably quirky. There is something so wonderfully odd about seeing a character as grounded and as serious as Frank dealing with pushy customer service. “Stop with the hard sell,” he warns. “A Danny Dinosaur. Now.” He promptly leaves with a Danny Dinosaur.

Similarly, Midnight of the Century finds room for Frank to argue with Roedecker about how best to classify the murderer in Silent Night, Deadly Night. “This is not a serial killer,” Frank nitpicks. “This is a spree killer.” Roedecker responds, “The sexual repression and signature make him an organized serial killer.” Frank is having none of it. “The triggering stressor would have to be that they forced him to wear that Santa outfit – that’s ludicrous.” Finally, all Roedecker can retort is, “It says ‘Serial Killer’ on the box.”

Dreaming of a Black Christmas...

Dreaming of a Black Christmas…

It is a quirky and playful conversation, the equivalent of listening to archeologist nerds argue over Raiders of the Lost Ark or watching Ross Gellar respond to Jurassic Park. There is a certain comfort in allowing two characters on a prime-time network drama to spend a sequence discussing the ins-and-outs (and technical classifications) of killers in trashy cult Christmas slasher films. It is not something that the show would have done in its first season, instead demonstrating just how fundamentally the show has changed.

There is a clear warmth to the interaction, even beneath the cynical nitpicking. Midnight of the Century has a pretty charming sense of humour about itself. The first season of Millennium took itself almost deathly serious, so it is refreshing to see Frank playing “psycho killer movie critic” or enacting his own low-budget version of Jingle All the Way. Despite the fact that the second season is much more interested in the end of the world and the destruction of mankind, it manages to feel a lot lighter than the first season.

Mass appeal...

Mass appeal…

Midnight of the Century also focuses on the idea of angels. This is not the first time that Millennium has focused on the divine messengers – they played a role in episodes like Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions and Covenant, but also in Monster. However, they are perfect fodder for a Christmas episode, in keeping with the decidedly Christian undertones of Millennium as a television show. If ever there was a time for Frank to receive a visitation from an angel, Christmastime would seem to be it.

However, as with those other episodes, it seems that the show is quite wary of angels. For all that they might be a comforting sight, they are undeniably alien. “Angels are everywhere,” Lara relates to Frank, admitting that she has been haunted by visions of angels from a very young age. “Yeah, cute, cuddly, flapping their wings, blowing their horns all over place. You know that wings on angels are something that the early church took from the Egyptian gods because people sort of liked it?” The wings are just there to make them look friendly.

Oh, the weather outside... is quite mild, actually.

Oh, the weather outside… is quite mild, actually.

Lara has a point. In the Bible, angels are traditionally presented as a mysterious and otherworldly presence:

Despite the important roles played by angels in both the Old and New Testaments, their physical make-up is rarely described. Of the some 273 times that angels are mentioned in the Bible, not once are they said to have wings. They are often simply referred to as men, although occasional allusions to their fantastic nature do occur. Psalm 104:4 praises God “who makes his angels into winds, his servants into flames of fire.” This would become the standard basis for explaining the essence of angels.

Wings just look nice on Christmas cards and statues. The angels depicted in the Catacomb of Priscilla were just men.

"I believe in angels..."

“I believe in angels…”

In Midnight of the Century, Frank is confronted by an angel in the church courtyard. The angel seems to push Frank towards reconnecting with his father. “Why put off till tomorrow what should be done today?” Simon teases. “It is, after all, the midnight of the century.” It seems that divine forces are helping the guide Frank towards a long overdue reconciliation with Henry, before Henry passes into the next life. It is, on the face of it, a rare act of beneficence from the higher powers in the world of Millennium.

Both heaven and hell are typically portrayed as alien forces in the cosmology of Millennium. When Frank encounters an angel in Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions, he is assured that these matters exist beyond mortal comprehensive. Divine forces to not intervene to aid or assist those in trouble, merely to serve their own agendas. It was an idea reinforced by 19:19 and The Curse of Frank Black, which suggested that God was at best disinterested in the concerns of mortal men.

Toy story...

Toy story…

Midnight of the Century seems to suggest that the heavenly host are looking out for Frank’s best interests in some small way. They serve to remind him of what he has before it is gone. Of course, their help only goes so far. They do not act to prevent the passing of Henry Black. For all that Simon helps to alert Frank to the importance of the “fetches” as a sign of pending death, his warning feels somewhat incomplete. There is one fetch particularly close to Frank who is notably absent from the march to the churchyard at the end of the episode.

Midnight of the Century is also notable for featuring Darren McGavin as Henry Black. Darren McGavin’s casting is doubly appropriate. He starred in A Christmas Story in 1983, making him the perfect guest star for a Christmas episode. However, he is best known for his work playing Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the show that inspired Chris Carter to create The X-Files in the first place. So the decision to have Darren McGavin portray the father of Frank Black is a very clever piece of meta-casting. Without McGavin, Frank would not be here.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Ho! Ho! Ho!

In an interview with Back to Frank Black, Erin Maher admitted that McGavin was not the first choice, but he was still a brilliant choice:

“We were so excited,” beams Maher. “Originally, though, they were trying very hard to get Johnny Cash. Because, as Glen said, ‘The Man in Black’ as Frank Black’s dad would have been great. He was ill at the time and ended up not being able to do it, but we were over the moon to get Darren McGavin. We didn’t think we would be able to get him, because I think he had already turned down The X-Files at that point, so they weren’t sure that he would say yes.”

While casting the original “man in black” as Frank Black’s father would be a great little in-joke, Darren McGavin works just as well.

Who's your daddy?

Who’s your daddy?

It feels doubly appropriate because this was the same season that McGavin finally agreed to be on The X-Files. He would play the role of Arthur Dale in Travelers and Agua Mala, one of the earliest agents to investigate the X-files. This makes means that Darren McGavin played a predecessor to both Frank Black and Fox Mulder. It feels like a lovely bit of symmetry, one affirming just how important Kolchak was to the development of Chris Carter’s first two television shows.

Midnight of the Century is a charming little episode, managing to balance all of the requirements of a Christmas story within the framework of Millennium. It is a thoughtful and considerate little piece, one that demonstrates just how comfortable the second season had become in its own skin.

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

Advertisements

2 Responses

  1. As much as season 2 is about the dissolution of a family, as you repeatedly suggest, it is about engaging directly with conflict, as opposed to preferring, what Martin Luther King, Jr. called a “negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”
    The Old Man’s treatise in Beware the Dog articulates this well, “Their fear shrinks the world to the size of nothing but their own lives. It blinds them to anything beyond their own houses. All they think is, “Why me? Please just leave me alone.” All they hope is that it’ll go away. But it won’t go away… So, we confront evil. But there
    isn’t much time. We can’t waste time on one ignorant man.”
    Midnight of the Century plays this out on probably the most intimate scale of any episode this season, and that’s saying quite a lot in a season filled with “personal apocalypses.” I think that’s one of the reasons the season has aged fairly well. It deals directly with the idea of the apocalypse but unlike season 1, it dismisses, sometimes explicitly, the idea that our time and our lives are somehow more important than any other. Like Steinbeck talked about in Grapes of Wrath, we really don’t have a soul of our own, but just a piece of one big one.

    • That’s a very good point. I read that Martin Luther King quote somewhere else recently. It seems like a statement that is more true now than it was last year, particularly in the context of the direction in which the world is heading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: