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Book Review: Back to Frank Black, a Return to Chris Carter’s Millennium

Being a fan of Lance Henriksen, one of the most underrated actors of the past forty years, carries with it the same unfortunate reality that goes along with a number of other actors closely associated with horror movies. That reality being that they’re almost certainly going to die.

There’s nothing wrong with a great death scene in a movie, but if you’re a fan of someone like Henriksen, who has the distinction of being killed by an Alien, a Predator and (presumably) a Terminator, it gets a little tiresome to see one of your favorites expire in some gruesome way over and over again. You watch Henriksen in films like Pumpkinhead or Near Dark, and although he’s fantastic in both, and although his death scenes in both are phenomenal, classic death scenes, you are inclined to think that it would be nice if he came out on top sometimes. Being a fan often means rooting for someone who isn’t going to make it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s nice when an actor of Henriksen’s talent and singular presence gets to do something besides be the bad guy, and die in gloriously memorable fashion.

Millennium had many things going for it during its three season run. One of the elements of its multi-layered appeal was the fact that Henriksen finally and definitively proved that he could be just as compelling a good guy as he could be playing a villain. Through his considerable filmography, Henriksen has revealed time and time again an ability to find a seemingly endless supply range of depth and range beneath his initial appeal of being a man who has an imposing speaking voice and a memorable face. Millennium may never have truly gotten the attention or respect it deserved during its original run, but it did give Henriksen what will likely be the best role of his career. It proved what he could do with amazing scripts, a strong supporting cast (I have a theory that Terry O’Quinn automatically makes every TV show or film he appears in a little better), and the opportunity to be the central figure in one of the bleakest, strangest, most richly intricate TV shows in recent history. And succeed in that opportunity time and time again, even when the show was at least partially undone by its inability to find a steady voice.

Make no mistake: Millennium was one of the best shows on television to the very end, it just never seemed to find the footing necessary to command the kind of viewer attention that would have kept it on the air for more than three meager, but potent seasons. As Chris Carter’s follow-up to the juggernaut success of The X-FilesMillennium got a lot of attention and strong early ratings when it premiered in the fall of 1996. Unfortunately, the ratings didn’t hold up, the direction of the show changed a couple of times, and the series ended with an unfortunate whimper that left entirely too many questions left unanswered. It also left behind a following strong enough to want to answer those questions. To the point where entire seasons of the show, conceived and written entirely by the series’ enduring fan base, have been created and praised by those who worked on the show. It’s only one aspect of how strong an impression Millennium left on some. People who were completely floored by a TV show, one that was broadcast on FOX of all places, capable of such intensely good storytelling, acting, music, mood, imagery, symbolism and intelligence.

“This is who we are” is an expression used on the show many times. Mostly by members of The Millennium Group, a so-called “consulting firm” that Frank, himself a former FBI profiler, works with for much of the series. They quickly reveal themselves to be a powerful doomsday prophecy faction, and their intentions as it relates to the apocalypse are constantly suspect. “This is who we are” could also be a calling card of sorts for fans of the show. That isn’t meant to draw a direct correlation between the fanaticism of The Millennium Group and longtime supporters of Millennium. It’s just that the people who continue to watch and discuss the show do so because they continue to get the same effect from watching for the 100th time that they did the first time. It’s easy to be a fan of something that’s readily available in a dozen different places, and carries with it a large, eager fan base. Millennium fan exist because they want to. It’s not like FOX has gone out of its way to manufacture the cult status that the show has earned since its cancellation. Its fans are people who continue to watch a show that has been off the air for over thirteen years, because it still has something important to say to them.

These are the same kind of people who would work so impressively hard on giving Millennium the kind of companion book it so richly deserves.

If you only faintly remember the show, the cover of the astonishing Back to Frank Back: A Return to Christ Carter’s Millennium will reveal a lot of what the show was all about. It’s a beautiful, outstanding portrait that depicts Henriksen as Millennium’s exhausted, determined and very haunted protagonist, Frank Black. Frank isn’t the only good person in Millennium’s world, but we learn very quickly that he is quite possibly the only thing that can truly stand between good and the kind of evil that only he can understand. This is partially because of his ability to actually see into the minds of evil. This is also because of his obsession, a gnawing need to make the world better that often runs the dual risk of destroying him.

And the kind of evil that Millennium came to showcase, from serial killers to physical manifestations of pure darkness, made for some pretty brutal television. From the beginning, the show made a sincere attempt to create scripts of serious psychological and theological complexity. For the most part, the show succeeded in doing this. The result of which was a level of multifarious evil that gave Frank Black some impressive adversaries week after week. All of which he had to battle while keeping his family and sanity intact. And as though that wasn’t enough, he also has to suffer to keep his “gift”, his ability to understand evil at its core, from suffocating the good that allows him to continue.

Intense stuff. You either got into everything that Millennium had to offer you, or you didn’t. The beauty of Back to Frank Black is in not only finding kindred spirits, but also in seeing such an incredible collection of minds present so many scholarly, intriguing articles on the series. Back to Frank Black gives us the interviews with key cast and crew members that one would hope to find in a book like this, but it goes much deeper than that. Just as the show gave us so much more than the tired, boring story of a conflicted good guy going after bad guys, Back to Frank Black hopes to create in readers an appreciation for just how many points Millennium touched on. Every single essay helps to accomplish this. The odds that you will explore something about the show that never occurred to you before are remarkable. This is only one of the things that makes Back to Frank Black as addictive as the show it deconstructs so well.

It’s going to be a difficult task indeed for anyone to choose a favorite piece. The conversations conducted by James McLean and Troy L. Foremon with the cast and crew certainly offer a variety of insights. Actors Lance Henriksen, Brittany Tiplady (in a wonderful essay recounting her experiences as Frank’s young daughter), Meghan Gallagher (who gave humanity and substance to the role of Frank’s wife), Kristen Cloke (as Frank’s associate in season two), Sarah-Jane Redmond (as Frank’s demonic chief adversary, Lucy Butler) and Klea Scott (who also found substance and depth in her role as Frank’s new partner in season three) all weigh in with their experiences on the show, and the impact it has had on them since.

These are certainly captivating. As are the essays by and conversations with people like Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz (co-executive producer), Glen Morgan and James Wong (season two executive producers), Mark Snow (who composed the show’s evocative soundtrack), Thomas J. Wright (producer and director), and others. The variety of mindsets and creative sensibilities that helped shape Millennium is certainly what helped take something that in the hands of lesser talents would have just been another great, unrealized idea. For this accomplishment alone, Adam Chamberlain and Brian A. Dixon, who served as Back to Frank Black’s editors, as well kicking in their own superb essays, have given the rest of us something truly worth appreciating.

If the book had limited itself to reflections and commentary by the people involved with the series, it still would have been a great case study. But just as Millennium was an anomaly in television drama, something so ambitious that it sometimes failed to reach the bar it set for itself, Back to Frank Black seeks to be more than just an oral history of a significant show. This is where the essays by Chamberlain, Dixon, and others come into being, and make this collection as unique and wonderful as the show itself.

Something you’ll definitely take away from these pieces is the thought that everyone who contributed material worked very hard to make the book a reality. It’s not that we need James McLean’s article on the history of the project to know how much passion and energy were necessary to see the book through. It’s still an incredibly insightful read, one that proves in writing that this book is a very special thing indeed.

Choosing a favorite article is difficult. This is perhaps because no two essays in the book are alike. Joe Tangari discusses in exquisite detail the use of popular music on the show. John Kenneth Muir breaks down each of the three seasons in beautiful detail. He discusses the show establishing early on Frank’s fixation, borderlining a quiet mania, to keep his family safe, his gift from annihilating him, and keep the evil he knows is out there from covering the world like a thick, suffocating blanket.  Muir then goes on to shed some insightful light on the symbolism behind the second season’s frequent use of animals. He brings it all together with a third and final essay on the concept of rebirth in Millennium’s third and final season, and gives us a unifying thread to bring together three fairly differing seasons of a single show. There are other essays, and not one of them could be considered a weak link, or something that examines a trivial characteristic of the show. The quality of writing and study by writers such as Paul Clark, Joseph Maddrey, and Alexander Zelenyj are usually only seen in the examination of works considered culturally significant by the establishment. They make a strong case that Millennium is as good as any of those recognized works, even if millions of people don’t feel the same way.

And it’s a shame there aren’t more fans. If for no other reason it’s because Chamberlain, Dixon, and everyone else in the project deserve much more than the notion that the virtue of this project is its own reward. Or maybe that’s enough for them. Dixon is a PHD who runs the best online Millenniumresource in existence. Chamberlain was so inspired by the show and by Frank Black that he is currently pursuing a degree in psychology and criminology. Back to Frank Black’s other contributors are writers, essayists, critics and students of the world in a very broad sense. They come from different backgrounds, histories, and even concepts of faith. What brings all of them together is this story of a man who has dedicated, perhaps doomed, himself to the task of eradicating the evil he comprehends entirely too well.

The reality of this book existing in a physical form is proof of the legacy Millennium continues to impart on those who still watch, who believe that Lance Henriksen as Frank Black was one of the most detailed, heroic figures that has ever been created for television. Millennium warrants the dignity of people continuing to watch it. It demands the ongoing chance that the curious, those hungry for something different, will continue to discover it. I hope they do. I also hope they will then find this flawless, absolutely essential book. Back to Frank Black is one of the best examples of what a dedicated fandom can do.