Now that my The Aliens Are Here is finally out, I thought I’d mark the occasion by reposting a piece from my own blog about 1983’s V and what a pleasure it was to rewatch. It’s very much a product of its time but in this case that’s not a bad thing.
V came out in an era when complex TV shows with big casts and multiple story arcs, such as Hill Street Blues (1981) L.A. Law (1986), were in vogue. Kenneth Johnson’s ambitious two-part TV movie fits the same mode. It has more than 50 speaking parts (Johnson didn’t even give them names in the treatment he gave NBC, figuring The Cameraman and The Thief would be easier to follow) many of whom get their own character arcs: a thief rebelling against family expectations, a doctor whose marriage collapses after the invasion, a loser who sees new opportunities in a world conquered by extraterrestrial fascists.
Johnson originally pitched this to NBC programming guru Brandon Tartikoff as Storm Warning, a movie/series pilot about a homegrown fascist takeover of the United States (a premise the 1968 pilot Shadow on the Land tried without success). Tartikoff replied that audiences would buy in more easily if the USSR or China conquered us; Johnson didn’t think that would work for a series. While he’d wanted to stay away from science fiction after several years on The Incredible Hulk, he finally realized making the conquerors alien fascists might work.
In the opening scenes we meet the massive cast, many of whom are tied together by family or living in the same neighborhood. Key players include medical student/biochemist Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant), reporter Donovan (Marc Singer), Holocaust survivor Abraham (Leonard Cimino), Julie’s colleague Ben Taylor (Richard Lawson) and Ben’s brother, burglar Elias (Michael Wright). The cast includes men, women, teens and seniors, black, white and Hispanic but nobody gay — that was rare in 1980s TV, and rarer to be done well.
We meet Donovan and his partner Tony (Evan Kim) as they’re reporting on a rebel camp in El Salvador. At the time the U.S. backed Salvadorian government was deploying death squads to execute “communists,” (i.e., people teaching peasants to read, write and do math). The movie thereby spells out its politics, much like Rick in Casablanca having run guns to anti-fascists in Ethiopia and Spain.
After the El Salvadorian military arrive, a chopper is about to blast Donovan when it suddenly flees. Turning around, Donovan sees a giant saucer flying behind him, one of several appearing around the world (because of budget limitations these were done by the traveling matte process rather than models). The result is 24/7 news coverage, including interviews with an off-screen Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Eventually a shuttle craft lands and the aliens, to everyone’s relief, turn out to be human, except for their strange voices (Johnson says that was to simplify the plot choices — the Visitors can’t pass among us unnoticed). They’re here to obtain chemicals their planet needs; in return, they offer scientific breakthroughs.
HumanTe reactions range from wariness to enthusiasm — Kenner Toys puts out a full line of Visitor action figures and ships — to calculated ambition: Donovan’s mother Eleanor (Neve Patterson) quickly sucks up to them to ensure her businessman second husband gains an edge in whatever commercial opportunities develop. Her ambition is an example of Johnson’s theme, which is power and how we respond to it. Who wants power? Who fights power? Who kisses power’s ass?
As most of you probably know, the Visitors are not our friends, they’re simply using the “To serve man — it’s a cookbook!” approach alien conquest. Before long they “discover” a cabal of scientists plotting to exploit their technology, which forces the Visitors to seize control of the world’s governments for everyone’s best interest. Julie and other scientists become pariahs, the counterpart to Jews in the Visitors’ New World Order. This didn’t entirely work for me — unlike Jews, “scientist” isn’t a sharply defined group and they don’t have centuries of hate against them — though the explosion of right-wing hostility and anti-vax sentiment the past couple of years show it’s not as far-fetched as I thought. Julie’s stockbroker husband finds he’s losing a lot of business from being married to a scientist, which ends their marriage (surprisingly we never see him again — you’d think there’d be some storytelling potential in such a weasel).
As the Visitors tighten their grip, Julie and some of her friends form a resistance cell. Julie slides into leadership without trying. When they’re not sure what to do, she suggests something; when nobody volunteers, she does. As leadership duties pile up, she comes close to cracking, but takes advice from a friend to just bluff her way through — nobody will know she’s imrpovising. Putting a woman in a leadership role was a novel idea back then, and it’s impressive still today. I’d figured Grant for a rising star but after she married Stephen Collins she wound up, like so many female actors, staying home with the kids.
Meanwhile Donovan, who eventually hooks up with Julie’s resistance cell, learns that under their human masks the Visitors are reptilian. The chemicals are a red herring; their goal is to drain Earth of its water and abduct most of the population. Some will be brainwashed into fighting in Visitor wars elsewhere; some will become food. The cabal of scientists doesn’t exist: their confessions were the result of Visitor scientist Diana’s (Jane Badler) brainwashing techniques.
A number of alien invasion movies such as Battleship or Independence Day thoroughly Other the aliens: they’re fiends, merciless monsters who want nothing but to exterminate the human race. They have no redeeming features, so we don’t have to feel conflicted about showing them no mercy. V doesn’t go that route. The Visitors’ occupying force includes a resistance that makes common cause with the human rebels, as well as non-resistance good aliens such as Willie (Robert Englund, before he became big with Nightmare on Elm Street). Some humans are happy to go Nazi: along with Eleanor, teenage Daniel (David Packer) is a frustrated loser whose new role in the equivalent of the Hitler Youth gives him power and influence he’s never tasted before. Some cops turn a blind eye to refugees and rebels, others are fine enforcing Visitor law.
At the end of the series, all the sides — Visitors, resistance, rebels, quislings — are set up for more adventures. V set records in the ratings and Johnson was optimistic it could go to series. When NBC told him they couldn’t afford it, he proposed a series of TV movies instead; NBC didn’t bite (later Johnson’s Alien Nation TV series on Fox did wrap up its story by going this route). Johnson then wrote V: The Final Battle to finish things but walked away when he couldn’t get the budget he thought necessary. I like Final Battle but it isn’t as good as V; the one season series that followed isn’t good at all. V remains a singular achievement.