The mid-1990s were an unusual time to grow up in the US (at least I thought so). The success of The X-Files (Fox 1993-2003; 2016-2018) had led to an explicit spinoff (Millennium, Fox 1996-1999) as well as a glut of similar conspiracy and alien-related series. While many of these have been covered academically, at least in passing, the thirteen-episode series The Visitor (Fox, 1997) was particularly noteworthy for its direct connection with millenarianist and pseudo-religious tropes.[1] The lead character, US Navy pilot Adam MacArthur (John Corbett) was abducted by aliens while flying through the Bermuda Triangle. When he returns to Earth fifty years later, he is different to the point when asked in the pilot episode if he is Adam MacArthur, he replies ‘No. yes. Not anymore. […] Something happened to me a long time ago and I was changed. And I can’t go back to what I was.’ Adam then proceeds to discuss his mission to save humanity from inevitable doom in the vaguest, most endlessly deferred narrative (Hills, 2002) terms. This leads to the two, not quite fully realised strands of the series: representation of veterans and the millenarianist belief that an apocalypse (and, in the Christian millenialist iteration, the ‘Second Coming’) would occur with the new millennium.


Over the course of the series Adam is pursued by two distinct entities, a team of FBI agents who try and apprehend Adam, but they also protect him from the NSA in the person of Colonel Vise (Steve Railsback), who was morally injured as a young man when he was unable to prevent several of his friends from being abducted by aliens and who believes Adam is an alien bent on destruction (Litz et al., 2009 on moral injury). Though the aliens and their intentions are more complicated than that – they can best be described as subscribing to something akin to Social Darwinism – both Adam and Vise being explicitly military is relevant to how the series represents veterans. Adam’s abduction and the experimentation done to him (which apparently gives him superpowers) can be read as metaphors for the intensive changes and traumas which can occur in the course of military service. Vise’s moral injury, though it occurred on a fishing trip rather than in combat, functions much the same way and is later compounded when he believes he may have caused the aliens to decide to attack Earth (though this does not ultimately happen as shown in the final episode). Samuels (2017) notes that veterans are commonly portrayed as being unstable, damaged and/or damaging in media; in the context of Adam this type or portrayal is implicitly evoked and critiqued. Both the FBI and NSA assume Adam is dangerous, though the FBI agents believe so only because the NSA position him that way rather than having direct experience. Vise and the NSA assume that aliens are dangerous and mean harm (a reasonable though inaccurate assumption) but then also assume that anyone who encounters them – who are ‘alienated’ through trauma – must also be harmful. This perspective aligns with Samuels’ (2017) work on veterans (cf Lee, 2020). But because this view is expressed by Vise – himself shown (sympathetically) to be unstable, damaged and damaging – it then brings that type of portrayal in for critique. Adam, aligned with the millenarianist apocalypse/millenialist Second Coming, is peaceful and devoted to helping humanity as a whole. While the idea of veterans advocating for peace is not new (nor was it at the time of production), it does challenge the ‘rhetorical formation of US war culture’ (Ivie and Giner, 2016: 1). By connecting Adam, the veteran and advocate of peace, to a messianic figure, it reinforces this challenge as well as making clear that peacebuilding accords with the preferred reading of the text.

Samuels (2017) also points out a seeming lack of (American) cultural tolerance for the continuing medical and psychological needs of veterans, particularly in the context of institutionalised support that would be funded by taxpayers and administered through the Veterans Administration or a similar governmental body. By showing Adam being pursued by the authorities and wrongfully positioned by those authorities as being criminal, the series seems to be expressing this problem. Yet 1.6 contains a more ambivalent iteration. In this episode, Adam seeks out a retired Army scientist and Vietnam veteran, Ben Proctor (Nicolas Surovy) who is now impoverished and, in his desperation, robs a bank. Rather than helping him, however, Adam’s only interest is to find two crystals that the scientist had been working with which would give Adam a warning if the aliens who pursued him were near. Unlike the several other characters in previous episodes who Adam explicitly helps, here Proctor is simply a means to an end. While this gives Adam more nuance – in a subsequent episode he is accused of being egotistical and reckless rather than benevolent – it also illustrates his limits of tolerance for support.

Vise, though initially trying to bond with Proctor over their shared service (‘I got spat on, just like you did’), is also simply using him, dangling a false prospect of a good job to get him to reveal where the crystals are. When Proctor can only give one, Vise reneges to Proctor’s lack of surprise. Ultimately, he is arrested by the FBI and, it is implied, imprisoned.[2] Thus both Adam and Vise, representing different perspectives on how to save or protect humanity, both view soldiers as means to an end who are to be sacrificed for whatever they view the greater good is. Both Adam and Vise can, in this context, be viewed as high-ranking officers or military leaders and can, as such, be read in the context of leadership malfeasance. While this is a precondition for moral injury (Currier et al., 2015), here instead it illustrates how such leaders lose touch with those further down in the hierarchy, effectively dehumanising them. Vise was explicitly morally injured, and Adam suffered a form of trauma. If the series positions Adam as a martyr-figure, then one can also see that process as tying the idea of martyrdom to military service, something Denton-Borhaug (2007) notes is common to efforts by the US government to encourage support for warfare. Thus, by extension, if we see Adam and Vise both as authorities over Proctor, then we are seeing him being a sacrifice to what both Adam and Vise see as their respective missions to protect humanity. Because the series ends after only thirteen episodes, it is unclear if this was intended to encourage the audience to suspect Adam’s motivations and/or methods, intended to encourage the audience to critique how soldiers/veterans are used and discarded or if this was done uncritically and purely to advance the overall plotline.

At the end of the final episode, Adam returns from having been captured by his fellow abductees and subsequently being freed by the alien ‘elders’ who had abducted everyone in the first place. He saves Vise’s life because Adam understands that they are both trying to save the world and, it is implied, such an act would prove his benevolence and get Vise to end his pursuit. This is important because, Adam tells Vise, there is a bigger picture and his own mission is not over, even though the series clearly is. The last shot of the series features Adam walking alone along a beach away from the camera. The implication is that Adam is continuing his attempt(s) to save humanity even though no one is watching, either the diegetic military, the audience at home or, indeed, those whose jobs are to analyse television series. Truncated shows like The Visitor tend to be ignored by academic studies, often because their overarching plots (when present) are unrealised and, as such, become more difficult to analyse. Yet many of these series still show moments of cultural tension like war, peace and the veterans who advocate for both. While Adam’s further mission(s) is/are untelevised, the cultural tensions between war and peace remain. The series maintains that, though engaging with millenarianist/millenialist beliefs, it is human intervention that is necessary for human salvation rather than something alien or divine. Understanding more of how these past moments of cultural tension are expressed and developed can, hopefully, help resolve those which continue into the future.


Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She is currently an adjunct with Southern New Hampshire University and is under contract with Lexington for an academic book on fictitious countries.  She has previously worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan, Armenia, Ethiopia and for a brief time in Cambodia.  She can be contacted at . Her ORCiD:



[1]     Millenarianism refers to a belief that an apocalypse would occur at the beginning of the second millennium, though this belief is not necessarily tied to a specific religion. Millenialism, by contrast, is derived from Christian mythos and includes a Second Coming of Christ. Roland Emmerich, a co-creator of the series along with Dean Devlin, would return to pseudo-mystical apocalypses in 2012 (2010, dir. Emmerich).

[2]     Bank robbery is a federal offence in the US and, as such, the FBI would have jurisdiction.



Currier J M et al (2015) How Do Morally Injurious Events Occur? A Qualitative Analysis of Perspectives of Veterans With PTSD. Traumatology 1(2): 106–116.

Denton-Borhaug K (2007) The Language of “Sacrifice” in the Buildup to War: A Feminist Rhetorical and Theological Analysis. The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 15(1): n.pag. doi:10.3138/jrpc.15.1.002

Hills M (2002) Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.

Ivie R L and Giner O (2016) Waging peace: Transformations of the warrior myth by US military veterans. Journal of Multicultural Discourses, n.pag. DOI: 10.1080/17447143.2016.1182174

Lee J (2021) Post-traumatic stress disorder in Taxi Driver and You Were Never Really Here: a comparative progressive approach. In Johnson M and Olsen C J (eds). Normalizing Mental Illness and Neurodiversity in Entertainment Media: Quieting the Madness. London: Routledge, pp. 162-176.

Litz B T et al (2009) Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy. Clinical Psychology Review 29(8): 695-706.

Samuels E (2017) Prosthetic heroes: Curing disabled veterans in Iron Man 3 and beyond. In Ellcessor E and Kirkpatrick B (eds). Disability Media Studies. NY: NYU Press, pp. 129-151.