With news that the Virtual Sixth Season of Millennium has now gone into production, coupled with the stellar response we received to our previous retrospective on Virtual Season Four, James Jordan kindly agreed to talk to BackToFrankBlack about his time working on twenty new episodes of Millennium. Millennium Virtual Season 5 was created by a dedicated group of Millennium fans eager to continue the journeys of retired FBI Agent and Criminal Profiler Frank Black. Each professionally written weekly episode aired online from January to June 2007. This is a behind the scenes look at their journey.
MARK HAYDEN: Could you tell us a little about yourself in terms of any writing projects you were involved with prior to Virtual Season Five? Was this a steep learning curve for yourself or something you had dabbled in to some degree previously?
JAMES JORDAN: I’d written a few odd scripts and I was honing the craft, so the mechanics of screenwriting weren’t new to me but I’d never undertaken such a huge, collaborative project before. I don’t think you can truly be prepared for how much hard work it is until you’re caught up in everything.
MH: At the time the Virtual Fourth Season was created the team involved were fuelled by the very recent cancellation of the show and a desire to see it reach the millennium and tie up the loose ends of the televised series. Considering that they felt they had achieved their mandate what inspired the Virtual Fifth Season and what story did you believe there was left to tell?
JJ: That’s a very good question! It was Tony Black, my fellow executive producer, who first proposed it. At first I wasn’t sure if it was viable or something I’d be interested in for those exact reasons, but the more we talked about the storytelling possibilities and the enduring character of Frank Black, the more tempting it became.
When we hit upon the idea of tying together all the post-millennial catastrophes and how that could be interpreted as an apocalypse unfolding in very real terms, that seemed to be the key to making the series relevant and interesting to our present times. Plus of course, Frank and Jordan hadn’t stopped living in the intervening years and there would always be lots of opportunities for standalone episodes, so the chance to expand on this compelling world that Chris Carter created proved irresistible.
MH: I am fascinated by the mechanics that went in to the creation of any virtual season. From working on BackToFrankBlack I am all too aware of the sheer hard work that goes into a fan product of any kind, work that remains undetected by those who enjoy the results. Could you describe the experience of working on that season and offer a brief synopsis of the highs and lows of it?
JJ: We approached it as much like a television production as possible over the internet, which I suppose is the main difference between a virtual season and fan fiction, if you will. We worked out of a private forum where the staff would gather together to plan and structure the skeleton of the season, break individual episodes and organize deadlines and such. I’d take a pass on each script in the tradition in which US shows are run, then the final versions would go up on the website every Friday.
The highs were seeing all these people doing great work and getting some very gratifying feedback from readers. But of course we had our hits and misses and it could be both tiring and stressful. I think the hardest it got was when I got a draft in very late that was basically half finished, and I was up all night feverishly rewriting to get it out on schedule that Friday. Thankfully it only went down to the wire that once, and most of the time we were having fun with these characters and telling their stories.
MH: Could you tell us a little about the Virtual Five crew? From where did you draw supporters and contributors, how were roles assigned and so on and whether the team has continued to communicate and contribute to further projects of this kind?
JJ: At first there was an open call at the well-known fan site This Is Who We Are, which is where Tony and I first started working together and assembling a staff of volunteers. As we realized we needed confident scriptwriters as much as we needed dedicated Millennium fans, we moved over to a network that Tony had set up with ties to an existing writing community which is where we teamed up with Angelo Shrine who wrote some of our most popular episodes.
We also got Ian Austin to step in fairly late on and pick up some of the slack, and one of the unsung heroes of the project, JT Vaughn, who did all of the graphics and images for all our promos as well as our variant of the main title sequence. One or two of the other writers have lost touch, but Tony and Angelo have written episodes of a Night Stalker continuation that I’ve been running, and all those guys have got projects of their own on the go at MZP too. I would never have imagined how much I’ve been sucked into this world back when we first started VS5.
MH: Once you’d established a creative team what ground rules, or guidance, was implemented to ensure that the final product felt like a Millennium project rather than an original work with the Millennium characters inserted into it. Are there any particular televised episodes that you allowed to flavour the tone of the season you were writing?
JJ: To start off, I put together a bible that established the basic points that Tony and I had agreed on, along with where we saw characters like Frank Black at this point in time and the overall tone and direction we were aiming for. So all the writers had that to keep us on the same page, plus we’d break all the episodes together to make sure things stayed consistent, or sometimes I’d write the outline and hand it to a writer to do their script from, because some people prefer to work that way. We’d try and pick out as many little details as we could to evoke the visual sensibilities of the show, the opening epigrams and the legends for example, just to add to that authentic Millennium experience. I don’t think there were any specific episodes we picked out for reference, but broadly speaking we always said we’d try to hearken back to the tone of the first season while bringing our own flavour to it all.
MH: You introduced a number of original characters in the Virtual Fifth Season. Were you aware of any differences between writing for characters you had created as opposed to those you had enjoyed as on screen creations. Is it harder to ensure a consistent personality and voice for an original creation than one who was already very established?
JJ: Absolutely, yes. When it comes to Frank Black, you’ve got the benefit of 67 TV episodes and everything an actor brings to the character, all Lance Henriksen’s brilliant facial reactions and mannerisms, not to mention that fantastic voice. There’s so much to draw on and replicate with points of reference an audience would recognize. With an original character you have none of that. A reader will never hear an actor reading the lines, never see them bring it to life, so you have to try and compensate for that on the page as best you can.
We had our young detective Brad Locke as our second lead, and to try and get him to stand up to Frank Black and not feel overly similar to any other past characters could be very difficult. The same could be said for Miranda Graff, the romantic interest for Frank who couldn’t just be another Catherine but at the same time had to be carefully written so as not to disrespect her memory either. I think most people would agree that it’s generally easier to write for Frank, and I know that I certainly found the same to be true for the likes of Lucy Butler.
MH: For the fans, a virtual season allows them to enjoy another slice of the characters and the show they support but wherein lies the enjoyment for those behind the scenes? Given the amount of sheer hard slog involved with creating something like this how does all that hard work reap its dividends?
JJ: The writing is its own reward, in many respects. As much as it is hard work, the enjoyment is just as you say in revisiting these characters and having fun with them in their world. We did it for the love of it and nothing more, after all. But I suppose the greatest reward is when someone reads our work, or I should say when someone tells us they’ve read it and what they thought, be it good or bad. Otherwise it’s like a tree falling in the forest. As enjoyable as it is to do, the scripts are written to be read, of course, and when someone spends their free time reading 60-odd pages of fan-written stuff and maybe even sending us a little feedback, it’s the most gratifying thing in the world.
MH: Virtual Season Four was heavily inspired by the mythology of Season Two of Millennium. What particular mythology drove your own season and can you give us a brief, spoiler free version, of what the particular arc for your season was if any.
JJ: We agreed fairly early on that we wanted to go in a different direction to the season two style mythology. Just as all three seasons of Millennium had their own unique identity by virtue of three different sets of showrunners, we decided we’d follow that pattern and establish our own identity compared to VS4 since, true to history, we were yet another different creative team. But we were always very firm on respecting the great work of our predecessors and treating it as canon, or “fanon” if you will. Our mythology episodes are basically about the idea that the apocalypse is in progress having only just got started in 2001.
We sort of follow the concept of “an apocalypse of our own creation” posited towards the end of season three. We look at things that are happening all around us like H5N1, missile defense platforms, natural disasters and terrorism with an eye for how they might be interpreted as symptomatic of the end times. There’s also quite a lot of what fans would call “Legion” throughout the season and how this force of evil may be turning its eye from Frank to Jordan.
MH: The virtual Fourth season was able to bring itself to the attention of Chris Carter who, almost, appeared to endorse it. We know Lance was particularly impressed with the project as was Kay Reindl who passed comment and offered praise regarding the project. Were you able to bring your own season to the attention of any of the cast and crew?
JJ: Not that I’m aware. We got a brief mention in Sci Fi Now magazine once, but that’s about it. The internet is such a different beast now to what it was in the 90s, there’s no novelty value to this kind of thing now, and of course the show had been off the air for a long time before we got started. I’d be very surprised if anyone outside our little corner of the internet knew VS5 existed.
MH: With hindsight and experience what advice can you give those who are currently in the process of working on Virtual Season Six of the show?
JJ: Give yourself plenty of time! You really don’t get a sense of how much work it is until you’re in the thick of it all. And focus on making the scripts the best they can be. As much fun as it is to come up with new ideas and play with promos and extras, if you haven’t got the scripts you haven’t really got anything. Best of luck!
Please join with me in thanking James for taking the time to answer our questions and if you have not had the chance to enjoy the Virtual Season Five of Millennium then may I urge you, as one who has enjoyed it many times, to do just that. You won’t regret it.