Monday, October 08, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 34: V:The Series - "Liberation Day"

"It can't happen here." That isn't merely the title of the satirical novel written by Sinclair Lewis in 1935, it is the very premise of Kenneth Johnson's excellent 1983 mini-series, V. The story involved alien beings called "Visitors" arriving in force on Earth, ostensibly to offer the hand of friendship.

In their spiffy red uniforms (replete with swastika-style insignias), these brothers from Sirius (actually bipedal reptiles...) promised to cure cancer, end hunger, and improve the technology of the human race. Their real agenda, however, was the takeover of the planet so that they could begin using humans as cannon fodder in their Leader's "great war" on another planet. Oh, and those humans who didn't get to die in battle would be eaten. And did I mention that the Visitors were here to steal our water supply too?

The most fascinating element of V was this powerful underlying notion of a fascist takeover of America; of the way a cowed American populace would willingly (and enthusiastically) surrender its liberties and civil rights because of "fear" and the need for "security." This is precisely what Sinclair Lewis warned against in his book, a misled (but patriotic!) populace blindly following a fascist regime and leader (one who was a far right evangelical...).

To wit, the Visitors didn't come right out and dominate the planet with force; at least not initially. No, instead the Visitors carefully created a national scapegoat - scientists, and then cast those men and women of science as "terrorists" for their beliefs.The Visitors claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy of "scientists" and before long, an enraged American citizenry was railing against those rotten scientists who wanted to ruin everything when gosh darn, those nice Visitors were just trying to help. The Visitors picked scientists because it was scientists who would first detect the "holes" and "gaps" in Visitor reasoning, and possibly expose them.

Clearly, this was a metaphor for the Nazi takeover of Germany before World War II, with scientists substituted for "Jews" as the scapegoat of a population at large. With this initial premise set, V depicted in very compelling terms how various individual Americans would react to a fascist takeover of ship and state. Some people became collaborators (especially people in big business, young picked-on kids, and more than a few voices in the media...); and some people chose to resist, at the risk of losing everything. The original miniseries managed in a breakneck four hours to comment on fascism in America, but also issues such as illegal immigration (it was a Mexican worker, in one instance, who smuggled a family of scientists past a Visitor checkpoint...), outsourcing (the Visitors were taking blue collar jobs...) and the mob mentality. Some of the miniseries' best commentary involved the ways the Visitors deliberately manipulated people with their colorful propaganda; and the series featured terrific poster art of grinning, blond Visitors (read: Nazis) helping the elderly, carrying young kids on their shoulders and extending the hand of friendship, while legends read "THE VISITORS ARE YOUR FRIENDS." Anyone who disagreed with the Visitor agenda was "disappeared" or "converted" in a torturous mind-control procedure.

For those who watched in 1983, V was the next big thing in televised sci-fi, the kind of "event" miniseries that the genre had not seen before. The mini-series was so special an initiative because great care was taken with characterization, plotting, special effects (including a night-time spaceship landing on the roof of the United Nations building), and the clever, meaningful subtext.

The mini-series boasted a good sense of humor too, particularly in a moment that found a red-state high school marching band playing the theme to Star Wars during the arrival of the first Visitor ship at a local chemical plant.

Also, the mini-series was authentically shocking. A genuine water-cooler moment - a cultural touchstone - occurred in the first installment. About half-way through the show, Mike Donovan (Marc Singer), a news crew cameraman, captured on camera the surprising and grotesque dining habits of the Visitors. In ground-breaking (but now dated) special effects, the audience saw a Visitor's jaw literally extend and distend as the alien swallowed whole a squirming, wriggling, very-much-alive guinea pig. Prolonging the terror of the moment, we saw the pig's bulk slowly sliding down the Visitor's throat...going all the way down the esophagus. This was the most freaktastic thing anyone had seen on TV up till that time, and it was the talk of the nation for at least a day or two.

V drew high ratings, which necessitated a sequel that wasn't quite as good (V: The Final Battle), and which substituted dime-store mysticism and elaborately-staged action scenes for much of Johnson's elegant and trenchant social commentary. It too was a blockbuster in the ratings, and NBC promptly ordered a regular series.

Sadly, the series was another step down in quality. The overall story became a soap opera (the series had to compete against Dallas on CBS) and V: The Series soon started to rely on tongue-in-cheek humor to an uncomfortable degree. The budget was drastically reduced too, until the human resistance seemed to consist of about three or four people and a Ford van. Still, the series was extraordinarily entertaining and added some great elements to the mythos, including a fantastic competitor for Diana, Lydia (June Chadwick of This is Spinal Tap fame...) and the biggest wedding in sci-fi TV history: that of Visitors Charles and Diana (nudge, nudge). Another episode airing about half-way through the run killed off several members of the supporting cast in a vicious but brave way, and the series ended with an edge-of-your seat cliffhanger that has never been resolved. The series is a nostalgic blast, but watching the episodes today one can see how the entire franchise was hamstrung by budgetary inadequacies and repetitive narratives. Still, that original miniseries is a genre high point.

Which brings us to "Liberation Day" by Paul Monash, the regular series premiere. V: The Final Battle had sent the alien visitors packing with the creation of a substance fatal to the Visitors, the "Red Dust" (which I always found an ironic moniker: red being the color of communism; and communism being the "antidote" some would claim, to fascism). At the end of the mini-series, the Visitors were either dead (from the Red Dust) or had escaped the planet in their giant motherships. In the last moments of V: The Final Battle, the gorgeous but evil leader of the Visitors, Diana (Jane Badler) pulled a Darth Vader and escaped from the resistance in her TIE fighter...I mean sky fighter.

So "Liberation Day" picks up with Marc Singer's character Mike Donovan going off in pursuit of the reptilian space fascist. After establishing that "she's getting away," there's an aerial dogfight over Southern California which recycles much of the battle footage from the two mini-series. Donovan shoots Diana's spaceship down, and the two adversaries then run around and tussle in the dirt. My wife Kathryn asked me at this point in the episode, why the armed Mike Donovan had not simply shot at the fleeing Diana, instead of chasing her on foot and tackling her. My point: I would have tackled and wrestled her too. Diana may be a space lizard, but she's really, really hot. She makes fascism sexy (which in a weird and effective way, really buttresses the series' main theme: that there is something seductive and appealing - one dares say "Aryan" - about this kind of evil: a gorgeous surface literally masks a dark evil; a human exterior hides a reptile brain).

Flash forward to a year later; the one year anniversary of Liberation Day, to be precise. Diana's mothership is in the hands of the American government, but the corporation Science Frontiers, run by Nathan Bates, has experienced a difficult time breaking Diana's security code and unlocking the secrets of the vast ship. Working on the project is former resistance leader Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant). Mike Donovan is jealous of Julie's friendship with Bates, and worried about his son, Sean, a boy who was "converted" (brainwashed...) by the Visitors in V: The Final Battle.

While Diana awaits trial in government custody, Elizabeth, the Visitor/human hybrid known as "The Star Child" begins to undergo metabolic change. In one scene, a news helicopter approaches Elizabeth and she uses her considerable mental powers to swat it away.

On the day of Diana's trial, Nathan Bates' arranges for the Visitor leader to be shot (courtesy of gun-for-hire, Ham Tyler [Michael Ironside]). Then a switcheroo gets pulled, and Diana is taken to Bates, where he makes a devil's bargain with her. He will provide her with the antidote to the Red Dust so she can survive, but in return she must provide a vaccine for cancer, create a pollution-free fuel, and render Earth crops pest-resistant. As Diana says, she's supposed to cure the ills of the world; but Bates points out rightly that she is already responsible for attempted genocide, not to mention cannibalism. To which she replies, "That's a matter of taste."

By episode's end, Diana has escaped from custody, murdered Mike's Visitor friend, Martin (Frank Ashmore), and reached the Southwestern Tracking Station, where she sends a signal for the Visitors to rescue her. The Visitors send a ship, and before Diana leaves the planet, she learns that the Red Dust has dissipated...and is no longer fatal to the aliens. The episode culminates with a great shot: a beautifully-composed, ominous (and cosmic...) pull back from Earth orbit, past the cratered surface of the moon itself, to a fleet of Visitor warships, just waiting to attack. The words "TO BE CONTINUED" appear on screen.

"Liberation Day" breaks with some aspects of V canon. For instance, in the miniseries all the Visitors spoke with a strange "reverb" in their voices. They no longer do so by "Liberation Day." Also, there's no mention here of the fact that the Visitors are stealing water; that item seems to have been dropped from their agenda and "to do" list.

Besides such discontinuities, "Liberation Day" bears both the strengths and weaknesses of the series as a whole. It picks up on the idea of corporations attempting to take control of assets like Diana and her mothership for profit. Nathan Bates has a real "racket" going, as Martin calls it: he developed the Red Dust that kills Visitors and then sells them the antidote pill. Also, Bates wants Diana alive so he can profit from the cancer vaccine and other advances. He says he wants human beings to profit from the alien invasion, but it is clear he'd rather just line his own pockets. Unregulated, unwatched capitalism and fascism go hand in hand, lest we forget.

The series also gives some small nod to the themes of the mini-series, particularly the "It Can't Happen Here" aesthetic. At one point, Martin (an alien) is confused that Diana is even being given a trial in the first place. On his planet, he says, "justice is swift" (which sounds like a Bushian sound-byte). Mike Donovan's reply is a championing of traditional (and now lost...) American values: "this is a democratic society. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty." That's a quaint notion (like those pesky Geneva Conventions...) that doesn't get heard much in this "War of Terror" age we now live in.

The best scene in the premiere involves the attempted assassination of Diana. The camera work is all hand-held (as if we are watching news reel footage...) when Diana - in shackles - is escorted through a crowd of protesters (carrying signs that read "Death to Diana!") and then abruptly shot by the unseen assassin. Pandemonium breaks out, and the cinema-verite feel of the scene evokes footage we saw of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. Even here, in V's least satisfying form (episodic television), one can see that the creators are very aware of the symbolism they are crafting.

The other thing that becomes clear about V: The Series with this initial installment is that it is going to be a very, very kinky show. The Visitors eat human beings whole, and "eating" undeniably suggests a sexual connotation or component when you're talking about eating people. You'd think that a network broadcast series would shy away from that rather naughty interpretation, but the opposite is actually true. The program eventually goes whole hog in this very perverse direction. In this episode, for instance, an escaped Diana is picked up by a redneck hitchhiker in a pick-up truck. He reminds her of the Golden Rule, that he's done something nice for her and so she should do something nice for him. Well, Badler's Diana eyes up the fat cowboy lasciviously (like she's looking at a frigging menu...) and then embraces him. We cut to an exterior high angle of the pick-up truck as it begins to shake, and the cowboy's moans of pleasure quickly transform to screams of horror and pain. Implicit here is that this is an act of fellatio that ends with a new definition of "swallow." By the final episodes of the series, V had gone crazy with this kind of stuff. I remember one episode in particular, and a scene in Diana's bedroom. She orders up for supper two half-naked body-builders, all greased down for the easy devouring.

V: The Series lasted for just nineteen hour-long episodes, and every few years there are rumors of a revival or a continuation. Now would be the perfect time, if you ask me. America has drifted closer to fascism in the past seven years than I would have ever thought possible. Since Bush took office, we've seen government-authorized propaganda ("this is Karen Ryan reporting..."), the war on science (in the suppression of NASA environmental reports and even on Barbara Walter's The View...where the world is apparently flat), the scapegoating of Democrats as unpatriotic (vote for John Kerry and die in a mushroom cloud!!!), not to mention corporations brazenly profiteering off human misery (Blackwater, Halliburton, Enron, Worldcom), plus state-sanctioned torture, and the endless incarceration of people without charges ever being brought. When V was created, it was during another conservative administration (Reagan's) and it served as a parable about how all those terrible things could indeed happen here with just a little push in one direction (a push like, say, 9/11). But it was still science fiction, a leftist fantasy (and warning) about creeping fascism. Today, it really has happened here. Ann Coulter is a Visitor. At the very least, she's reptilian.

9 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:52 PM

    We have been invaded, and our consciousnesses imprisoned. And it’s true, the “Red Dust has dissipated...and is no longer fatal to the aliens.”


    For a non sci-fi look at life-eating fascist monsters, Netfilx the Corporation by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan. (The 5 hours of bonus material has to be added to your queue separately).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkoM8RB-kJ0


    The film includes interviews with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Milton Friedman, Naomi Klein and others. The visuals and editing of this film are fantastic and the experience of watching it really gives one a good understanding of the evolution of corporations as a legal person with all the rights and privileges of any other citizen. I’m showing it this week in my intro sociology class.

    -rc

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  2. Michael A. De Luca2:13 PM

    You've hit the nail on the head as always, John. We've come a long way from the days of Reagan and "low-intensity conflict". El Salvador, Nicaragua, rape and carnage on our dollar. "V"'s opener touched on that, gave it that timely connection. Now it isn't Oliver North and lies to Congress, all Bush and his cronies need do is alter legal definitions, and ignore Congress completely, and hold their blood-caked bills in their sweaty fingers, as they create more terror in the world. But we need to maintain our idealism, and remember Daniel Ellsberg, remember Dr. King, Gandhi, John Lennon, speak out into the darkness with a brazen rage and fury at the masters at whose beck and call we serve. Kenneth Johnson, with "V" captured that fury in his own biting way, forever encapsulated in the annals of American pop culture history. But, in the words of Jarvis Cocker, "cunts are still running the world", and "V" didn't change a thing. On the other hand, it was Lennon who said, "Flower power didn't work, but so what?" That's what I say, John, "So what"? Change always comes from dreams, though not always from ones featuring extremely hot aliens. Peace.

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  3. Great comments, both.

    One thing I neglected to mention is that V was one of the first genre series in TV history to feature women in leadership roles. Diana and Lydia led the Visitors on Earth. Juliet led the Earth resistance. And the Star Child, Elizabeth, was the messiah/savior/religious figure. Evil, Good and God-like: the women on V were all those things. Just an interesting historical footnote, I think.

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  4. Anonymous3:06 PM

    I'm glad you mentioned the fact that the Visitor's voices didn't sound funny in the series. The other thing that always bothered me was that Nathan Bates ran a science research company. How could he still have such a business after what the Visitor's did to the scientists in the first mini-series? I guess we are to believe that Bates was always in the Visitors' back pockets.

    There are a million failings of the series. I hated them making Elizabeth age so quickly and then turning her into some kind of Carrie character. I hated them killing off Martin in the first episode. I hated the cheesey recreation of the national anthem scene from Casablanca. I could go on and on.

    BUT, the saddest thing about both The Final Battle and the Series was that the Visitor's enemies never got the signal that was sent at the end of the first mini-series. I was always hoping for them to come to Earth and help the humans in an all out war against the Visitors.

    In my imagination I like to link Kenneth Johnson's two series into one continuity. I would LOVE to see a V/Alien Nation crossover. How cool would that be?

    Chris Johnson

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  5. joey_bishop_jr.12:19 AM

    John-

    Once again a well thought out post, with a lot of good points made. However, I have to pitch in again with my two cents. Let me preface this by saying that contrary to popular belief, I am not a right wing warmonger seeking to push God, guns and government down anybody’s throat.

    I define myself as a libertarian- some issues I feel very conservatively about, and on some issues I am very liberal. And on the issues presented here, I am split down the middle.

    Of course I am disgusted by the behavior of most nearly every big corporation. Human lives mean nothing compared to the almighty dollar sign. Enron, WorldCom, and such have wreaked devastation on millions of lives. People who devoted entire careers to their company woke up one day to find that their plans for retirement were null and void. Those in power should have been sent to Attica or Ryker’s- their crimes were just as terrible as those perpetrated by any thug off the street, and in many cases, even more so.

    However, the facets that touch on the government’s measures to provide security to the people are not all as horrendous as you propose. Is habeas corpus a basic right that our system of law flows from? Yes, and it should never be abridged or legislated out of existence. Should the government be allowed to “spy on” the population for security reasons? In some instances, yes- if there exists probable cause for a person or entity to be looked into further, then they need to be.

    I have a unique perspective on this issue that most of your readers, and I daresay our friends, have no grasp of. Not a knock on anyone, just a statement of fact. I have seen and been privy to things that change the way I see the world, and how I look at the issues.

    I am the fruit of immigrants. I have no problem at all with legal immigrants coming here to chase their dreams. However, illegal immigration is a serious issue that raises dangers on many levels: health concerns, public safety concerns, and the fact that our system isn’t constructed to take such an influx of people all clamoring for social programs to be paid for by an ever-shrinking pool of taxpayers.

    I will end my response with two quotes that sum up my position- I think the first is Benjamin Franklin, but I cannot give credit for the second- and I apologize for any inaccuracies in the exact texts:

    - Those who would substitute liberty for security deserve neither.

    - Our generation needs to be police officers and soldiers, so that their children can be doctors and scientists, so that their children’s children can be artists and poets.

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  6. Hey Joey Bishop,

    I neglected to mention that one of the resistance fighters in V the mini-series was a policeman!

    I love when you write in to share your perspective!!!

    best,
    John

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  7. astrid5:07 PM

    Michael- "cunts are still running the world" - ??? I daresay if that were true, things would be better. Did you mean to say "pricks"? ;-)

    Mr. Bishop, I love that last quote. I'm making a Google run to see if I can attribute it so I may spread the love.

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  8. Lee Hansen3:09 AM

    "Our generation needs to be police officers and soldiers, so that their children can be doctors and scientists, so that their children’s children can be artists and poets."

    And their children's children's children can write books like TV Year and Horror Films of the 80's.

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  9. ulric4:48 PM

    perhaps too long of a read, but nice.

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