Should they be showing us this? Daily Telegraph article by Maggie Brown (1996)
ITV believes it has pulled off a coup by buying the 'X Files' creator's new series. But there is already unease about the violent content, reports Maggie Brown
ITV TRUMPETED the news far and wide when it snatched the rights to screen the new series being made by X Files creator Chris Carter. Millennium, which starts here in January, was a feather in the flagging commercial network's cap, a deal designed to give it instant kudos with the millions of youngish viewers hooked by the futuristic techniques and spooky plots of this consummate Los Angeles operator.
But when the first of some 20 episodes - the only one available so far - was unveiled last week at the Edinburgh Television Festival, the small invited audience was divided. Many, including the Independent Television Commission's director of programmes, looked clearly shocked.
What no-one had expected - outside the tiny group of buyers who had attended the LA screenings where new products are unveiled - was the sheer violence and bleak nastiness of the opening plot (despite beautiful camera work).
The X Files, with its mysterious murders and disappearances linked to paranormal forces, can be dark and worrying in varying amounts, but remains firmly planted in the entertainment camp. But Millennium, as Carter acknowledged, is an altogether darker, blacker, piece of television.
The drama opens with scenes of a stripper, whose ordinariness is confirmed when she phones to check on her babysitter. A group of scantily dressed young women at the brothel dance together. The victim is selected, by her murderer, to perform in private.
Millennium is, naturally, shot in America's trendiest new place to live
The tiny room oozes blood and fire, as the viewer is invited to see her dancing through the eyes of a serial killer, who goes on to decapitate her and cut off her fingers (thankfully not shown). To some, this was the most voyeuristic and unacceptable part.
But the most disturbing scene, three-quarters into the episode, came with the discovery of another victim, buried alive in a crude coffin in a forest near Seattle. (Millennium is, naturally, shot in America's trendiest new place to live). The victim, grey and sub-human, is shown to have sewn up eyes, lips and fingers, hallmarks of ghastly ritualistic torture.
There is a close-up shot of the face, to make sure no effect goes wasted. The near corpse emits terrible low cries. A severed head is discovered in a plastic bag nearby. This is on a scale of horror quite different from the straightforward knifings of Cracker.
The freaky portion of the plot, which links it with The X Files, is supplied by the main character, the otherwise sane and long suffering ex-detective Frank Black (played by Lance Henriksen of Aliens, Close Encounters and Terminator). He possesses a vivid second sight, allowing him to enter the minds of criminals, and visualise their next move.
As happens these days Black is given a bit of poetry to recite (Yeats) to explain the killer's inspiration and keep the intellectuals happy. He has fled to Seattle to start a new life with his wife Catherine and small daughter. But he has also joined a set called The Millennium Group, who plan an individualistic battle against evil.
Alan Yentob, out-going controller of BBC1, said bluntly that the corporation had viewed but not bid for the series
Steve Morrison, the seasoned Granada/LWT executive instrumental in closing the deal, said that the network has been talking for some time about showing "adult drama" later than 9pm, and hinted that it was destined for a Saturday night slot after 10pm.
But Alan Yentob, out-going controller of BBC1, said bluntly that the corporation had viewed but not bid for the series. Michael Jackson, BBC1's new controller, believed that if the BBC had bought it, it could only be shown after 10.30pm midweek, when children who might be attracted by its X Files aura were unlikely to be watching.
Stephen Whittle is director of the Broadcasting Standards Council, which will be the first port of call for any audience complaints. He said he'd been struck by the way Millennium had provoked a significant number of people who work in television "to pause for thought and ask what is appropriate for television. In the United States very thoughtful critics from the liberal left are beginning to ask what is happening to popular culture."
The question is, what happens now? David Elstein, director of programmes for Sky Television, which will screen Millennium in partnership with ITV, said that he'd been given assurances by Carter and his producers that subsequent episodes would be less grim and more uplifting: if that proved not to be the case, Millennium would be stopped.
He pointed out that ITV had been able to transmit Silence of the Lambs, and Channel 4 the Gothic Horror series, but conceded that a 20-hour serial of unrelenting fetishistic murder fell into a different category. There are also clear signs that both ITV and Sky are quickly revising their marketing plans, to downplay the link with The X Files and make sure, as far as they can, that teenagers are warned off.
Much rests on whether Chris Carter delivers a swift gear change upwards into a plot designed to bring hope and order out of chaos. There is useful controversy and bad publicity. The first screening of Millennium has produced the latter, posing the question whether America's hottest producer has gone too far for British tastes.