Twenty six years ago, a cultural phenomenon swept Britain. Almost thirteen years old, like all of my generation, I had grown up in a world of only three television channels. In the summer of 1984, a dispute resulted in ITV refusing to carry the Olympics, and over five consecutive nights of that first week, a major prime time drama was broadcast to fill the timeslot. As the only alternative to the saturation sports coverage on the other two channels, the show became the very definition of “event television.” Why was this so unusual? Because this show was science fiction, a genre that, while a cinematic box office staple since the late seventies, has never been well regarded on the small screen, particularly in Britain.
Those five nights comprised the mini series V and its sequel, V – The Final Battle, and the red spray-painted capital letter stood for Victory, both within the show, and in the reception it received.
With high profile science fiction such a rarity, the show already had a small but guaranteed audience, but through the circumstances of those summer night screenings, even those who would normally ignore such a show began to tune in, and every child became a science fiction fan, whether they realised it or not. As the Resistance were primarily scientists and their families, driven underground by the Visitors, my own interest in science practically qualified me as a hero in waiting. For once, I was no longer the outsider.
The mini series format afforded big budget spectacle that was unusual for televised science fiction, and the definite lifespan of that dramatic format allowed strong writing, with a function and a fate for each character that was linked to the resolution of the story, rather than the aimless meandering that mars so many long running shows that are uncertain whether they would be happier as soap operas. For a show that was in itself a media event, it was perhaps appropriate that the Visitor’s plan depended on media relations, first in presenting themselves and their advanced technology to Earth, then in manipulation of fear and seeding dissidence to turn popular opinion against the scientists who they feared could expose the truth of their plans.
No age has been without its crises, and lack of resources and the threat of pollution is faced by every generation. The Visitors offered a solution, and even though it was a lie, they were welcomed and the dubious voices of the scientists drowned out by those who preferred only to hear good news, whether substantiated or not.
Quarter of a century later, the vast majority of real scientists warn our world is perilously close to the tipping point of carbon dioxide catastrophe, yet the media is saturated with idle gossip of footballers and their wives and pop stars and their tantrums, instead of carbon sequestration, sustainable living and preserving biodiversity. Perhaps some still hope that mothership will descend from the sky to solve all our problems, preferring not to look behind the curtain to see the true cost of their inaction.
While the original V progressed from the two miniseries into a weekly episodic show of radically different style, the revised V tries to straddle the two camps, having broadcast four episodes followed by a prolonged break before continuing the first season, but has failed to capture the strengths of either format. A weekly show can be fast paced – each week, a new crisis, a new advance in the story, yet these characters meander about their day jobs with no discernable urgency that can be transferred to the audience. Nor does the revised show have the epic feel of the miniseries – while the publicity suggested this was again to be “event television,” the arrival showed it to be another cost cutting Canadian production line show.
The original swiftly foreshadowed the sinister nature of the Visitors while moving the narrative forward – a comment about cold skin; a dissenting lab worker suddenly absent from work; a dinner party to celebrate a Visitor technology contract marred by caged birds terrified by the presence of the guests of honour – before the infiltration of the mothership led, in a classic scene that we hoped the remake would replicate, to the revelation of their reptilian nature and eating habits. While it may have teased the scales beneath the cloned human skin from the first night, the remake has followed up with no terrifying alien threat to humanity in the weeks that followed.
The only shock is the ineptitude of the new Visitors; three times they have had access to individuals that could have led them directly to the Fifth Column, and each time they have let them die, twice at the hands of the same Fifth Columnist, and once choosing to execute a suspect rather than interrogating him.
Somehow, the new Resistance are no better. When Erica realises her son’s alien girlfriend has tracked him, rather than alerting her ex husband to the danger, says she’ll call him later and hangs up the phone. For a law enforcement agent, she has no insight into how a terrorist cell operates, or how to use her position to serve the Resistance. In the eighties, Juliet Parrish was a doctor, accustomed to organising and motivating the people around her, and most of all, coordinating the research programme to develop defences against the Visitors. From the moment the ships first arrived over the cities of Earth, she approached the situation as a scientist, with scepticism and a healthy dose of apprehension. When a colleague commented that the Visitors were making an offer humanity couldn’t refuse, it was her who asked the question “I wonder what would happen if we did?”
Although the persecution of scientists became less pronounced after the first night of the original, it was constantly emphasised that science was our weapon against the Visitors, whether by sending a message to the stars to call for help, or developing a toxic bacterial strain from the blood of a Visitor/human hybrid. Now scientists are remarkable by their absence. Instead, we have a priest.
While the conflict between faith and reason has been a cornerstone in many great works of science fiction – Contact, Deep Space Nine, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience – Father Jack Landry seems to have no dramatic reason for being a priest other than to be as divergent from the original as possible. In the same way that the Sci Fi Channel has become the SyFy Channel, are we moving into an era where science fiction is afraid to admit what it is? Is the stigma of being a geek so strong that our flagship shows are embarrassed to openly invite our interest?
And yet the producers are determined to haul in the dedicated science fiction audience however they can – recreating a previous hit with actors who have previously graced fan favourites Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, The 4400, Lost, Andromeda, Smallville, Dollhouse and The X Files, so many it begs the question why did they wait so long to have a cameo from any of the cast of the original V?
In a departure from the recent successful “reimaginings” of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, V has even refrained from using the familiar character names. While Kirk, Spock, Apollo and Starbuck all travelled the stars both then and now, Juliet Parrish, Mike Donovan and Ham Tyler have been replaced by Erica Evans, Chad Decker and Kyle Hobbes.
The only direct allusion is that Jane Badler’s Diana has become Morena Baccarin’s Anna, but while Diana exuded a cold, ruthless efficiency, the new leader Anna is aloof and indifferent, neither engaging nor disturbing. How does Morena Baccarin, who embodied beauty, elegance, grace, humour, and deeply conflicted loyalties and affections as Inara Serra, manage to do so l
ittle with this key role? Part of it may be down to wardrobe – severe, unflattering business dresses, while Badler managed to look glamorous even in a red boiler suit, but more likely it is lack of development for her character.
If this is indeed designed to tap into the strengths of the original and the remaining affection we have for it, why is it so willfully different?
The Visitors, once plotting to harvest Earth’s population and water resources, now have no discernable objective beyond infiltration, and the only plotline carried forward is that of the human/Visitor hybrid, who in the eighties rapidly grew up to be the telekinetic Starchild Elizabeth Maxwell, although I suspect the new iteration will diverge radically from that. Would I be cynical in suggesting that the move from Marc Singer’s rugged cameraman Mike Donovan, gathering raw footage from war zones, to Scott Wolf’s compromised anchorman, who has become little more than a mouthpiece for the Visitors, is an indication that substance is now irrelevant as long as appearance is maintained?
The only other indirect references to original characters are the possibility that Kyle Hobbes is named for Kyle Bates, and Erica’s son Tyler Evans for Ham Tyler, though this is likely coincidence rather than deliberate, for it is hard to find a genuine link between cynical mercenary Ham Tyler and his pouting teenage namesake. While the two Kyles have similarities – both introduced later in the series, both longish dark hair, rebellious, and the most fun in any scene they’re in – in personality Hobbes is closer to Ham Tyler than his biker namesake. And despite the fact that Mike Donovan also lost a son to the Visitors, his was stolen, whereas Tyler Evans is a willing, if unknowing, collaborator.
Taking aside comparisons to the original for a moment, what does the new V have to offer in its own right? The constant surveillance and recording by the Visitor jackets could have segued into a commentary on the pervasiveness of CCTV culture, in the same way that the new version of The Prisoner attempted, but for all the footage the Visitors gather, they seem to be using it for little more than the reptile version of You Tube.
Battlestar Galactica successfully explored the post 9/11 paranoia of “the enemy are among us,” and the Visitor’s perfect blending into human society could easily have mirrored that, but the concept has only received token attention.
What could have been a surprise betrayal by Erica’s partner was undermined by revealing his identity not only in the first episode but also in the series trailer, and the girlfriend of Fifth Columnist founder John May’s stepson couldn’t have more obviously telegraphed lizard if she had worn a snakeskin catsuit.
While the new Visitor’s handy instantaneous ash free cremation via easy to swallow pill may seem new, it actually references an even earlier visitation, The Invaders, dating back to the late sixties, where the persistent lack of evidence meant little progress for two tiresome seasons. Although the cremation pill may have been introduced to demonstrate Anna’s lack of compassion even for her own species, the easy clean up symbolises the lack of depth of the new characters, who face no consequences for their actions.
In all aspects, the new show seems to have an aversion to raising any tension or audience engagement. Maybe the producers feel that Battlestar was too bleak, and wanted V to be a lighter show, so rather than drawing tension from the possibility that our entire planet is threatened, we instead ponder whether Tyler really is Joe’s son, or whether Valerie will forgive Ryan for tricking her into bestiality. Perhaps the mark of this show will be that it brought interspecies erotica to a wider audience?
The stated intent of the producers was to make something new and modern, and while they may have been wise in realising that Anna tossing gerbils down her throat while discussing strategy would have encouraged the audience to laugh rather than be horrified, they have yet to provide anything as iconic as that moment.
While it was not until the weekly series that Diana’s scheming became an alien parody of the lipgloss bitches of the glamour soaps, and Battlestar had the Bush administration to rail against, is the new V a victim of its time having only the relatively benign Obama administration as a canvas to reflect on social change and healthcare reform? Or is it because broadcasting on a major network precludes V the opportunity to be as risqué in approach as a cable show?
While the original Resistance were the heroes of that show, with America still leading the war on terror, can a mainstream show depict what is undeniably a terrorist group in a positive light? Any time the question is raised, the characters choose inaction over the risk of hurting an innocent, forgetting that their enemy shows no such reserve.
A key divergence between the two that may yet be developed into a strength is that while the original drew parallels from the rise of Nazism, this new visitation examines the unquestioning faith and devotion that religion inspires, as demonstrated by the defection of Father Landry’s congregation. Still nominally attending church, they tolerate no criticism of the Visitors despite the absence of any unbiased evidence proving that, for all their advanced technology, they are benevolent. Perhaps he would do well to deliver a stern sermon reminding them of the commandment to not worship false idols, or even a maxim of Heinlein’s – There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.
As the rise of widespread religious fundamentalism in our own society attests, people put hope above reason. If this is the message that the show intends to impart, it is ambiguous – Father Landry is the hero, yet his faith is vague; his flock have strong faith but switch allegiances easily; the Visitors offer an alternative belief, but are deceiving us.
Do the Visitors represent an outside belief, one other than that of mainstream America, or do they represent a change within America, cautioning against trusting the Democrats?
Determined not to commit to anything as binding as an opinion for fear of offending anyone, it ends up saying nothing. In recent years the definitive statement in science fiction on the conflict between reason and belief is Battlestar Galactica. To compete with that V not only has to be as bold as that show, but bring something new to the table to discuss as well. It fails on both counts.
Canadian city filming may be financially appealing, but grey urban claustrophobia is not visually stimulating, and without a strong story or appealing characters to hold the attention – rather than the bleak scenery being an artistic backdrop to demonstrate the characters’ isolation – it instead alienates the audience. For all the modern computer generated ships and sets on display in the new show, technology can’t replace innovation. While Morena Baccarin may boast a virtual mothership of endless corridors and vast chambers, on many occasions it is a good intention poorly executed, better than 1970’s colour separation overlay but not significantly so for all the time that has passed.
With the 2012 Olympics poised to dominate television schedules next summer, I can only hope that an alternative as memorable as that of 1984 will be revealed. While in the eighties, V stood for Victory, it now means Visitor, which has a connotation of impermanence. By turning it from being a mission statement into a cute acronym, has this show sacrificed direction and drive?
V may yet discover a mission as it progresses into the second season. For now, all these years later, I find the grea
test legacy of V to be that in the summer of Orwellian prophecy, the greatest incitement to rebel against uniformity and authority came not from Orwell’s homeland, but from an American TV show about rodent eating lizards wearing rubber masks.
It may be Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds who is remembered for a horseback lasergun fight, but the original series’ Mike Donovan beat him by twenty years.