That’s an intense little girl you’ve got there.
– Emma and Frank discuss how Jordan takes after her father
Saturn Dreaming of Mercury is a delightfully odd little episode. As with Borrowed Time, it feels like Chip Johannessen is letting his own esoteric interests bleed into the third season to create something delightfully odd – a companion piece to scripts like Force Majeure or Maranatha. It is a script that is so abstract that it almost feels impressionistic – a collection of themes and ideas that are not firmly tethered together, but which instead provide a kaleidoscopic sampling of Millennium‘s core concepts. Children, evil, seeing, family, chaos.
Even the name of the episode has an almost lyrical quality. Saturn Dreaming of Mercury sounds almost poetic, recalling those abstract classic Star Trek titles like For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. It is the kind of television title that don’t see very often, the kind that offers little indication as to the content of the episode, while evoking a lot of the tone. (The tone here would seem to be weirdness.) However, there would seem to be some small trace of logic behind the title.
The title alludes to astrology, perhaps reflecting some of the research that Johannessen did for Luminary during the second season. In particular, the planet Saturn is typically associated with time and maturity. As Ruth Aharoni writes in Karmic Astrology:
A person upon whom Saturn has a positive influence has amassed experience and achieved maturity and understanding of the ways of the world. The qualities that are typical of such a person are seriousness, caution, practical knowledge, conservativeness, responsibility, efficiency, modesty, and the ability to make do with little.
Yet Saturn’s negative influence is manifested in rigidity, hesitancy, shrinking from newness and change, fears, and guilt feelings imprinted upon the soul from previous incarnations. In addition, in this incarnation, Saturn’s negative influence is manifested in emotional suppression and blockages.
This makes sense. The Roman god Saturn came to be associated with the passage of time because his festival was traditionally positioned in December. It seemed an adequate point at which mark the end of the previous year and await the arrival of the next.
Mercury is positioned in opposition to Mercury. While the astrological idea of “Saturn returning” is associated the transition to maturity (arriving for a person in their late twenties and late fifties), Mercury is associated with a much earlier transition towards adolescence. According to David Frawley in The Astrology of Seers:
Mercury is a child and indicates the state of childhood generally, particularly the period between infancy and adolescence. Afflictions to Mercury may mean health problems in childhood, troubles in the home life, or difficulty at school.
Again, this reflects Mercury’s place in the Roman pantheon. Mercury is a god who can trace his origins to the Greek god Hermes, who allegedly was pulling pranks on Apollo while he was still in the crib. Given Mercury’s legendary speed and energy, it is no wonder that the god and the planet have become associated with both youth and transition.
In astrological terms, the relationship between Saturn and Mercury is quite striking. The two are inexorably linked by the idea of time and transition. Mercury is the transition from childhood to adolescence, Saturn is the transition to adulthood and maturity. This symbolism plays itself out across their relationship, as Erin Sullivan suggests in Saturn in Transit:
Hermes-Mercury is the guardian of crossroads, of liminal spaces. He is the god of journeyers, and as the mythic psychopompos, had the special task of escorting the souls of the departed to Hades. His function in the mind is to descend into the unconscious and bring forth information to be processed in the conscious mind. Saturn’s function is to repress information and keep it static, so it remains forever bound and crystallised. Whereas Saturn is the boundary, Mercury is the transition, the liminal space between; Saturn is the temporal realm and Mercury is atemporal, so incorporating the two defines a boundary in time. Both are terminus gods; however, Mercury is a transitional, crossroads point, whereas Saturn is an ultimate limit or boundary.
As such, the title of Saturn Dreaming of Mercury alludes to the two very different astrological symbols engaging with one another; to maturity and wisdom looking back on the volatility of youth. It is a very poetic title, and certainly an evocative image. It captures a lot of experimental weirdness at work in some of the show’s strongest moments.
Of course, the title of the episode is referring to its two central characters. Frank Black is very clearly Saturn, particularly with his now completely grey hair emphasing his age and maturity. Lance Henriksen would have been fifty-eight when filming Saturn Dreaming of Mercury, suggesting that he might be enjoying the second return of Saturn in his life-time. Jordan Black is very much Mercury, a young girl on the very edge of adolescence – about to make the transition away from childhood innocence.
It is not surprise that Saturn Dreaming of Mercury emphasises Jordan’s creeping maturity. Early in the episode, Frank has to deal with the fact that she might no longer need him to drive her to school. He also worries about the possibility that Jordan might have developed an “imaginary friend” who is named Simon. “That would be all right for a three–year–old,” Frank explains to Emma at one point, suggesting that Frank is just as afraid of Jordan not growing up as he is about her growing up.
When Jordan develops a fixation on the new kid at school, various female characters are quick to suggest attraction might be playing a part. “Teasing is mixed up with rough housing,” the principal explains to Frank. “It’s mixed up with attraction.” When Frank mentions the fixation to Emma, she teases, “Is he cute?” She adds, “I’m not trying to butt in, it’s just… eight–year–old girls… I’ve got a niece that age, and of course I was that age, once.” It looks like we might have finally found a member of the Hollis family not steeped in tragedy.
Of course, the idea of Jordan growing up is an understandable source of unease for Frank. Jordan has been beginning to display the same “gift” that drove Frank mad – no less than three times, as he repeatedly pointed out in … Thirteen Years Later. The show has been dropping hints about Jordan since Dead Letters at the start of the first season. Stories like Sacrament and Siren only reinforce the sense that Jordan will have a long and hard life ahead of her. It makes sense for the show to return to that theme in its third season.
The idea that Frank wants to protect Jordan from the horrors of the world has been baked into Millennium since The Pilot, with Frank’s horrific visions of human depravity serving as an effective metaphor. Chip Johannessen is undeniably interested in Frank’s reaction to Jordan’s developing gift. His script for Walkabout explored Frank’s investigations into medication that might help to protect Jordan from the sensory overload that constantly threatened to overwhelm him.
Appropriately enough, Johannessen’s script for Saturn Dreaming of Mercury returns to the eye imagery that populates the third season. Although not strong enough to representing an over-arching theme spanning a messy season of television, eyes are a recurring motif. Chip Johannessen introduced the imagery in his first script of the season, Exegesis, and carried it over to Skull and Bones. Forcing the End made the theme more explicit, using two interlinked ouroboros images to form a set of eyes.
Here, it is revealed that the Sanderson family collect “antique” glass eyes – a suitably eerie visual even before the characters begin interacting with them. The glass eyes are more than just an unsettling visual; they become more and more pronounced as the show continues. Frank, Jordan and Calvin Scranton are all intrigued by the set that stands in the hall. Over the course of the episode, it is revealed that something is staring through them. The camera repeatedly cuts to the greyed-out perspective of the eyes.
During the death of Judy Scranton, it initially seems like a demonic force is observing the action through the glass eye. Then it is revealed that Jordan was having a nightmare about the car accident. Or was it both? Is it possible that both Jordan and a more malevolent force are looking through the eye simultaneously? Or is Jordan looking through the eyes of the malevolent force looking through the glass eye. Once again, perspective seems to be the key here. The act of seeing is itself important.
This is in keeping with Johannessen’s approach to Frank’s unique insight – in interviews, the writer has discussed how he would label Frank’s visions as “HIS INTERNAL POV” or “HIS SUBJECTIVE POV.” This idea of perspective plays throughout Saturn Dreaming of Mercury, and is even reflected in the title. Frank cannot entirely understand or comprehend Jordan; all he can do is attempt to see the world in the way that she sees in. Indeed, the closing scene of Saturn Dreaming of Mercury suggests that it might not be terrible that Frank and Jordan share some perspective.
“Do you see, daddy?” Jordan asks as she stares at the demonic form in the window of the burning Sanderson house. Frank replies, “Yeah, I see it.” It may not be the most touching of shared moments between father and daughter, but it does suggest that – in spite of all that may come between them – Frank and Jordan do share something profound and personal. Much is made of the fact that Emma cannot see anything, despite having spent a significant stretch of the season as a surrogate daughter figure to Frank. They will never share the connection Frank has with Jordan.
“See what?” Emma asks. When she gets no answer, she repeats, “See what, Frank?” In the episode’s coda, Emma voices her frustration with her inability to share in Frank’s visions. “I am so tired of stumbling through this with you,” she complains. “Not seeing, not knowing, not anything. I didn’t get into this to be a delivery boy, even for you.” Frank insists, “Emma, I see what I’m allowed to see. Just like everyone else. I didn’t see anything. Neither did Jordan.” Emma’s feeling of exclusion is palpable.
It is a nice touch, and one that gives the sense that Emma’s character arc is beginning to come together. Skull and Bones teased the idea that Emma might find herself recruited into the Millennium Group. However, Saturn Dreaming of Mercury does more to advance this particularly character thread than Emma’s interactions with Peter Watts in episodes like Matryoshka or Forcing the End. The series finally offers an exploration for why Emma might be tempted to join the Group.
After all, the second season already offered Frank an “induction” story, as Frank found himself drawn deeper and deeper into the Millennium Group. If the show is going to set Emma Hollis on an equivalent course, it needs to carefully distinguish her arc from that of Frank. Saturn Dreaming of Mercury suggests that Emma’s arc is essentially the opposite of Frank’s arc: Frank joined the Group to control and mitigate his gift, Emma joins the Group because she wants to harness and grow that sort of gift.
All this suggests that Millennium might finally be getting a grip on how to write Emma Hollis, after some awkward missteps in episodes like Closure and Human Essence. With Saturn Dreaming of Mercury, the show seems to have figured out how Emma might actually work as a major character. Indeed, her interactions with both Frank (and Jordan) in Saturn Dreaming of Mercury feel more comfortable and organic than her interactions with Frank outside of … Thirteen Years Later.
In fact, the third season kicks Emma’s story arc into high gear with the introduction of James Hollis in Darwin’s Eye. It feels like Emma’s character arc is perhaps a little too concentrated in the final third of the season, and that the character might have benefited if the arc had been established much earlier in the year. Then again, with all the chaos unfolding behind the scenes, it makes sense that the third season found itself struggling to make up for lost time. The final stretch of the year has its issues, but it’s never as boring as some of the earlier episodes.
Still, Emma Hollis is very clearly a secondary character in Saturn Dreaming of Mercury. The episode is firmly centred on the relationship between Frank and Jordan Black. Approaching the end of the third year, it is very easy to take that relationship for granted, but Lance Henriksen and Brittany Tiplady work phenomenally well together. There is an ease to their relationship that really sells the sense of a father and daughter who enjoy an easy rapport. Frank is such a sombre and serious figure that seeing him loosen up a bit is incredibly heartening.
There is a lovely moment in the teaser that effectively underscores just how different Frank’s relationship with Jordan is to his relationship to the rest of the world. He is very much the loving father watching Jordan play with her new bike in the driveway, but he slips comfortably back into grumpy paranoiac as soon as he gets an unsolicited phone call. “How did you get my name, anyway?” he demands into the phone. “Well, whoever the hell you are, I want you to take my name off your list.”
In contrast, Frank can playfully joke with Jordan about his age and his childhood. “Did you have to wear this when you were little?” Jordan asks as he fits her helmet. “They didn’t have plastic when I was a little boy,” Frank replies. When Jordan asks what they used to make bicycle helmets, Frank jokes, “Dinosaur bones.” It is a lovely moment, one that is all the more remarkable for the fact that Frank is not a character known for his playfulness. It really feels like Jordan gets to see a side of Frank that is unique.
This bond between Frank and Jordan reflects itself in other ways across the episode. When the principal calls Frank in to talk about Jordan’s attack on Lucas, Frank is quite careful not to jump to conclusions. He insists on hearing Jordan’s side of the story. “I’d like to ask her what’s going on,” Frank tells the principal. It suggests a very considered and mature relationship between the two. While Frank might be having difficulty with the idea that Jordan is growing up, he still trusts her implicitly.
Saturn Dreaming of Mercury is very much a Jordan-centric episode in the way that The Well-Worn Lock and Anamnesis were Catherine-centric episodes. As such, it relies on Brittany Tiplady more than any other episode. Tiplady is a phenomenal young actress. She worked very well with Megan Gallagher, but she works particularly well with Lance Henriksen. Tiplady skilfully presents a version of Jordan that feels like a child, albeit a child with a rather unique way of looking at the world. It is a very nuanced performance for an actress that young.
It is worth noting that Tiplady’s presence attracted a certain amount of attention to the show. Millennium was very much a horror series, even as it dealt with primarily humans monsters. After the airing of Dead Letters early in the first season, newspapers like The Reading Eagle were quick to draw attention to the youth of the actress:
After shooting a scene in which an evil clown chased her, Brittany said she couldn’t shake her fears once she got home.
“I got kind of scared,” she told TV Guide. “I didn’t want to go upstairs and put my pajamas on or anything. I had nightmares.”
For her part, Tiplady has suggested that her words were twisted by the interviewer. In Make-Believing in Jordan Black, Tiplady argues that the interview was slanted so as to support a preexisting bias; as a young actress, it was very much a learning experience about how to deal with the press.
The production staff on Millennium were very careful to keep Tiplady insulated from potentially disturbing content. Her parents played their own part. As a rule, Tiplady was only exposed to the parts of the show that absolutely required her involvement. As she discussed in Make-Believing in Jordan Black, that extended to home viewing:
When the show aired on Friday nights on Fox, my parents did the watching. I sat in the rec room, watching TGIF on ABC and waiting for my parents to call, “Brittany, you’re on!” so I could have just enough time to dash to their TV, watch a couple of minutes of myself, and then trot back to my own set to watch what was, in my opinion, a far more interesting episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. This was the weekly routine for three years, and I was okay with it. I knew I was on a “scary, adult show”, and that was fine by me.
It is worth noting that Saturn Dreaming of Mercury is very much the exception. It is so Jordan-centric that Tiplady got to read the entire script. Jordan is so essential to the episode that there would have been little point to limit Tiplady’s exposure.
Tiplady excels int the role. She does a great work. A lot of the reason that Saturn Dreaming of Mercury works so well is down to Tiplady’s work in the central role. Giving a young actress such a major role in a prime-time horror television show is a gamble, but it is a gamble that paid off. It is great that the show trusted the actress enough to give her a chance to effectively carry her own episode before the show went off the air. Chip Johannessen, Ken Horton and Chris Carter deserve a lot of credit for taking that risk.
That said, there are problems with Saturn Dreaming of Mercury. The ethereal dream-like atmosphere and tone of the episode is a large part of the appeal, but the episode never really coalesces into something that makes sense. It is suggested that Jordan is being haunted by the spirit of an unborn child who just happens to be the case that Frank is investigating just as the Sanderson family move in down the road who just happen to have a demonic child. It is never entirely clear how all these elements fit together – what the logic behind it all is.
Is this a conscious attempt to force a confrontation with Frank Black? Why (or how) is Lucas able to trick Jordan into believing that his father is a monster? How does Jean Sanderson fit into all of this? What is the end game here? Saturn Dreaming of Mercury has a fairly low body count, with only two on-screen deaths – those of Judy Scranton and Will Sanderson. It all feels decidedly muddled and hazy. It is hard to imagine where those demonic forces hoped to be at the end of the episode.
However, Saturn Dreaming of Mercury never feels quite as muddled as something like Antipas. There is a sense that the weird dream-logic tethering the whole episode together fits comfortably with the mood of the piece. After all, the episode is titled “Saturn Dreaming of Mercury.” There is an implied ambiguity there, a level of confusion and abstraction that feels like a selling point as much as a handicap. The characters even pause at the end of the episode to acknowledge that there is no way to tie everything together in a way that makes sense.
“The fingerprints off the shears came back from the lab,” Hollis tells Frank in the closing scene. “They match the prints of the dead baby in Phoenix, the one Mrs. Simon was carrying. Even though he technically died unborn, the father named him on the death certificate. Lucas. Guess it doesn’t surprise you.” Frank replies, simply and bluntly, “You’re looking for an explanation – I don’t have one.” Frank seems to be speaking for the script itself, one big “I dunno.” It really is just elements that fit together through something approaching stream of consciousness.
Instead, the episode very skilfully and very articulately explores its own themes and ideas. Saturn Dreaming of Mercury is essentially a story about a father dealing with his daughter’s transition towards adolescence, and the idea that the way that you see the world changes as you change yourself. Beyond that, Saturn Dreaming of Mercury aspires towards atmosphere and mood. Its imagery is evocative rather than descriptive, its storytelling abstract more than linear.
It is very hard to make sense of Saturn Dreaming of Mercury in a linear plot-driven fashion. It is suggested that Lucas Saunderson is some sort of demonic entity, but his connection to Lucas Simon is never made clear. The episode includes a quick shot of Lucy Butler, suggesting that this is just another iteration of Frank’s demonic adversary – another facet of the nebulous evil that the show christened as “Legion” back in The Judge. However, it is very hard to see what exactly these demonic forces were hoping to accomplish, or how they would accomplish it.
Then again, that is one of the more interesting facets of the over-arching mythology of Millennium. The show never quite had the sense of continuity and internal consistency that fans expected from The X-Files. The mythology on The X-Files could get muddled and convoluted, but it generally made a certain amount of sense either in the moment or from a great enough distance; it was connecting the two that was often a problem. In contrast, Millennium had a great deal of trouble fashioning its larger thematic arcs into a mythology.
This was quite apparent in the show’s difficulty with the Millennium Group, an organisation that was redefined twice across the show’s three seasons. However, at least the handling of Millennium Group was generally consistent with the season around it. The story thread involving Lucy Butler and the demonic forces at work in the world seemed to vary from episode to episode. The second season emphasised this tonal whiplash by broadcasting A Room With No View and Somehow Satan Got Behind Me back-to-back.
The demonic mythology of Millennium was never going to coalesce in the same way that the alien mythology had come together on The X-Files. Part of this is down to the fact that Millennium went through three creative teams in three years, preventing any material consistency between the various seasons. However, part of this is also down to the fact that demons are probably a lot more mercurial than aliens. Aliens are typically considered to be science-fiction concept, and so are governed by rules and structures associated with the genre; demons are more free-form.
So the problems with Saturn Dreaming of Mercury feel more like stylistic quirks than fatal flaws. It is a very impressionistic episode, one that touches on the core themes of Millennium without getting too bogged down in the internal logic of the story. It is packed with memorable imagery, and puts the focus on one of the show’s strongest relationships. It represents a third season highlight, and proof that it might have been possible to construct a more stable and interesting show if the creative forces were willing to take more chances in the show’s final year.
Filed under: Millennium Tagged: | abstract, Adolescence, astrology, brittany tiplady, Chip Johannessen, eyes, jordan black, millennium, mood, perspective, plotting, saturn dreaming of mercury, Television