Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Visitors are Coming: V (1983)

"My dear family, it's painful knowing that I'll not see your faces anymore. But I must take a stand for what I know is right. You may think that an old man wouldn't be afraid to die, but this old man is very frightened. I'm hoping that I'll find a little of your mother's dignity and strength. So far, I'm as frightened as a child who fears the dark. But we must fight this darkness that is threatening to engulf us. Each of us must be a ray of hope and do our part, and join with the others until we become a blinding light, triumphant over darkness. Until that task is accomplished, life will have no meaning. More than anything, you must remember always which side you're on -- and fight for it. Your mother and I will march beside you, holding hands again. We'll sing your song of victory..."

-Abraham Bernstein’s (Leonardo Cimino) final words to his family. From Kenneth Johnson’s V.

Throughout the last week on the blog, I’ve pointed out several literary and TV antecedents to V (1983), the original four-hour mini-series that in 2013 celebrated the 30th anniversary of its premiere on NBC.

Specifically, writer-director Kenneth Johnson imagined V as a science-fiction variation on Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935), the story of a fascist regime rising to power in the United States during a time of crisis, the Great Depression. The NBC mini-series also expands meaningfully on some genre concepts seen in the classic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,” particularly the idea of aliens arriving on Earth proclaiming peace, but actually coveting the human race as food.

Today, the original V mini-series remains an enormously entertaining production of feature film quality, and it compares favorably with many genre films released theatrically in the early 1980s. The astonishing visual effects and literate, emotionally-affecting script help this original production escape the gravitational pull of its TV origin and the mini-series format allows for a depth in terms of characterization and storytelling that is immensely rewarding, especially on repeat viewings. 

In terms of theme, V’s visuals and teleplay allow Johnson to explore key aspects of human nature, and specifically our varied relationships with established power.

When faced with a bigger dog -- good or bad -- do we join the pack?

Or do we fight those things that we know and understand are immoral, or worse, obscene?

Reflexive, layered, and buttressed by book-ending visuals which champion the dedication of the “resistance fighter” (to whom the film is dedicated…), V explores the many human responses to power, and also its (ruthless) application by the proverbial bigger dog, in this case, the Visitors. 

The mini-series also acutely diagrams how fascism comes to the land. It does so, we see here, through three avenues: scapegoating, propaganda, and declarations of emergency that effectively cloak the consolidation of control.

Because -- as Ronald Reagan once noted -- “freedom is more than one generation away from extinction,” V serves as frightening, thought-provoking, and scarily plausible cautionary tale, even with all its spectacular outer-space trappings. Later iterations of the V saga, particularly the last days of the 1985 series, falter a bit, but the original V is nothing short of a pop culture touchstone, and a masterpiece to boot.

“You always said it couldn’t happen here. Then one day we woke up and we were living in a Fascist state.”
Fifty giant saucers descend upon Earth, taking up positions over major cities including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Moscow and London. 
Although Earth’s populace is fearful of this incursion, these fears are soon quashed at the United Nations building. A small alien shuttle descends, and a humanoid alien, John (Richard Herd) introduces himself to the Secretary General, and then the world.
John is the leader of “The Visitors” on Earth, humanoid aliens who report that they come in friendship and in peace from Sirius. 
The Visitors are facing an environmental disaster on their world, and John offers to share their advanced technology with mankind in exchange for a chemical produced by factories on Earth, but worthless to humans.
The governments of the Earth soon cooperate with the Visitors, and journalist Kristine Walsh (Jenny Sullivan) and camera-man Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) are allowed to tape a tour of a Visitor mothership. There they meet John’s beautiful science officer, Diana (Jane Badler).
Soon, however, Earth’s first contact with alien beings goes sour.  The Visitors expose an “international conspiracy” of scientists to the public, one designed to kill the Visitors and steal their technology. 
World governments reportedly ask for the Visitors’ help in putting down scientist plots and terrorist attacks, and before long, the Visitors assume positions of authority all over the globe. They erect roadblocks outside cities, recruit human youngsters as lieutenants, and put up posters proclaiming that “friendship is universal.”
The world becomes a police state in no time.
Some scientists, like Julie Parrish (Faye Grant), realize that they are being scapegoated by the Visitors to prevent a close examination of their alien nature, and start to form small resistance cells. 
Others, like Robert Maxwell (Michael Durrell) realize that their families are now jeopardized: the targets of violence and disdain.  Robert and his family are forced to abandon their suburban home, and hide in the pool house of a neighbor, Abraham Bernstein. 
Unfortunately, Abraham’s grandson, Daniel (David Packer) is a Visitor “youth,” which means he could report them at any time, especially because he has a crush on Robert’s daughter, Robin (Blair Tefkin).
Even as his mother, Eleanor (Neva Patterson) collaborates with the Visitors, Mike Donovan learns the truth about them from a clandestine visit to a mothership.  As Mike discovers, the Visitors are actually humanoid reptiles, and are here on Earth to steal our water, and to harvest human beings both as food and as cannon fodder for the “Leader’s” wars against his extra-planetary enemies.
Meanwhile, Diana arranges a bizarre Visitor/Human mating project, using the squad leader Brian and Robin Maxwell. Robin becomes pregnant with child afterwards, but is unaware of its reptilian nature.
As the Visitors cement their hold on power, Julie grows the Resistance, and defends a mountain camp against attacking alien attack.  Mike, meanwhile, learns that his son Sean has been abducted by the Visitors, and meets with a Fifth Columnist among Visitor ranks, Martin (Frank Ashmore).
After the battle at the mountain camp, Julie and her friend, a former crook-turned-rebel, Elias (Michael Wright) manage to send an S.O.S. to space, hoping to contact the Visitors’ enemies, who would presumably be humanity’s ally.
The only problem is that the message might take twenty years to reach its destination, or never be heard at all.
In the meantime, the Resistance will have to fight its own battles…

“Charisma, circumstances, promises. Not enough of us spoke out to question him until it was too late. It happens on your planet, doesn’t it?”

Because of the mini-series format, V is able to focus on numerous characters, and thus numerous, individual responses to the crisis, on both the human and the Visitor side.

Indeed, I believe this is the very reason why the original V works so well, even today: it is able to delve deeply into the varied emotions and behaviors of a whole array of people. 

Humans are incredibly diverse, and as fascism rises in V, we see all kinds of responses to it.

I mentioned above that the mini-series offers a layered portrayal of humanity, and its four-hour running time permits this in a way that a feature film or an hour-long pilot simply would not.

In terms of the humans, we see that there are collaborators, such as Donovan’s mother, Eleanor, journalist Kristine Walsh, and Visitor Youth Group volunteer Daniel.  

These personalities all have something to gain from the Visitor occupation. For Eleanor, the prize is status and wealth. For Kristine Walsh it is fame and fortune, and for Daniel it is both power and belonging.

There are antecedents for all three characters in world history, particularly in the rise of Nazi Germany. Eleanor is the wife of a wealthy industrialist, and in the fascist Third Reich many such industrialists bankrolled and otherwise supported Hitler. 

Meanwhile, Kristine Walsh’s assimilation to the Visitor cause reflects the process in Nazi Germany of seizing control of the press, or “Aryanizing” it.  The press that survived the assimilation became, simply, the propaganda arm of Hitler’s organization.  That’s the role that Kristine serves, enthusiastically at first.

Finally, Daniel reflects the same qualities as many boys who were indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth. He has no real direction, and little or no interest in education or learning. But he comes to feel a sense of “belonging” and strength in the Visitor youth group. The Visitors focus his hatred and avarice, and direct it towards their needs.

Then, a step down from the collaborators in V stand the “deniers” like Daniel’s father, Stanley Bernstein, who believes that the fascist takeover will “pass.”  He doesn’t want to stick his neck out for anyone, and he refuses to accept the fact that the Visitors and their regime are here to stay.

Julie’s Wall Street boyfriend also fits into this category, as does Elias, at least at the beginning of the tale.  They are all too self-involved to truly see that the Visitors are malevolent. In short, they are selfish characters, looking out for number one and not for the principle of freedom.

Kenneth Johnson’s point seems to be that freedom is lost, and fascism can indeed “happen here” both when selfish people collaborate with the enemy for purposes of power and wealth, and when good people choose to look the other way, to deny what they are seeing.

On the other side of the spectrum are those who resist the Visitors, like Mike Donovan, Julie, Ben Taylor, Sancho Gomez, and Abraham Bernstein. They have identified the Visitors’ sinister nature, and will not let freedom and liberty die without a fight. They put aside their survival for a common cause, and some, like Ben and Abraham, perish. Sancho undergoes torture. Julie is gravely wounded.

Finally, there are the human beings who do not have a choice about resisting. They have been targeted and scapegoated by the Visitors because they pose a threat to Visitor rule.  These scientists -- the Maxwell family in particular -- are explicitly designed as stand-ins for Jews in Nazi Germany. Like Anne Frank’s family, they are forced to go into hiding.  Other scientists are rounded up, and taken to Mothership, where they await death.

One may also notice a similarity between history and V in terms of nomenclature. The Visitors’ “international conspiracy of scientists” deliberately harks back to Weimar Germany’s “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers.” 

When fascism rises, V reminds us, the establishment needs to focus the people’s rage on someone else.  The choice of scientists here reminds me of the line I mentioned in It Can’t Happen Here: “every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on.”

On the side of the Visitors, there is also tremendous nuance in the characterizations. Though Diana, Steven (Andrew Prine) and Brian seem overtly power-hungry and very malevolent in mind-set, there is also Martin, a member of the Fifth Column, and Willie, who is just an Average Joe from Sirius trying to get along.

Again, these characters make V feel realistic and layered, instead of two-dimensional or cartoonish.  Not all Germans were Nazis, and so it makes sense that not all the Visitors are evil, either. Instead, they are men and women who have been swept up in a movement, but which they detest.

It is important to note that the various characters I’ve enumerated above come from all walks of life, and from different generations as well. They are not part of some official police investigation that turns the human, emotional story into a police procedural (a key flaw of the V remake, in my opinion), but rather part of a tale of people trying to deal with a horrifying situation.

Each does so according to his or her values, or lack-thereof.

But consequently, the original V feels realistic in a way that many science-fiction TV programs simply do not. Other than Donovan -- who survives quite a few visits to the Mothership -- there is no one here who stands out as a conventional movie “hero” type.

Similarly, the special effects involving spaceship landing and launches look very convincing, even by today's standards. 

Another quality that grants V a sense of verisimilitude, in my opinion, is the fact that the movie acknowledges life as we know it (or knew it in 1983).

The film is highly-reflexive, and knowingly takes modern popular culture into account vis-à-vis its narrative about aliens arriving on Earth.  For example, at one point we see that one of the Maxwell children is playing Space Invaders on the Atari 2600. 

When the Visitors are first seen, Sean Donovan is disappointed that they don’t “even look like” Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. 

And during the final battle at the resistance mountain camp, a plush E.T. figure can be clearly seen on a picnic table.

When the Visitors become a ubiquitous presence in America, there’s even merchandising for them featured in the film. Donovan finds Sean playing with Diana and John action figures with his friend, Josh. 

This is a splendid (and wicked) acknowledgment of the role that materialism plays in modern American culture.  V imagines merchandising opportunities as an extension, actually, of propaganda techniques, and that’s pretty forward-thinking.

Perhaps the most unacknowledged yet impressive aspect of the original V miniseries is the quality of the visualizations.  The mini-series is beautifully -- and artfully -- shot, so that the most important moments carry genuine, even visceral impact.

Kenneth Johnson has structured the mini-series with book-end scenes, for example, staged in virtually identical fashion.

As the mini-series opens, Mike Donovan and Tony are in El Salvador conducting an interview, when government authorities attack the mountain base of the Resistance group there.

As a rebel is shot by a strafing helicopter, Mike’s interviewee -- a leader of the resistance movement -- goes to the wounded man, and then eyes the approaching helicopter.

With only a pistol as defense, this leader courageously stands his ground, and engages the much more powerful, much more technologically-advanced enemy.

It’s a pistol against a copter, essentially. It’s hopeless, but the resistance leader goes on fighting.

On first viewing, the moment plays as one merely of action. We don’t necessarily sense the importance of the leader’s courage, or of the incredible nature of the David-vs.-Goliath set-up.

But Johnson very cleverly sets the end of V at the rebel base camp outside of Los Angeles, again in the mountains.

And then, history repeats. 

Julie sees one of her rebel friends sustain injuries, and also sees Josh crying over the injured rebel.

Julie goes to them, grabs her pistol, and stands her ground as the Visitor sky-fighter -- with Diana aboard, no less -- strafes the camp. 

Once more, there is a David vs. Goliath aesthetic at work here: a human-made hand-gun and bullets vs. Visitor spaceships and lasers.

And once more a leader defends his or her flock. 

But importantly, this time, we understand thoroughly the reasons for the Resistance, in a way that we might not understand (or take sides…) in the El Salvador conflict. 

After four hours of watching the Visitors seize control, commit murder, and subjugate humans under a totalitarian regime, we understand why a fighter like Julie -- or the one we saw in El Salvador -- would fight to the very last breath. 

One of the great and unremarked upon aspects of V is the way that it brings us around to the cause of freedom through the act of learning.  In terms of the visuals, the finale explicitly and deliberately echoes the prologue, with a spaceship replacing the helicopter.

The players have changed, these images suggest, but the battle for freedom and liberty does not change.  If oppression can occur in El Salvador, it can occur here. 

If we don’t know history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Other visualizations in the mini-series remain just as canny.

When Donovan steals into the Visitor vent shaft with his camera, and witnesses Diana and Steven sharing a bite to eat while discussing the matter of conversion, our eyes don’t understand -- at least at first -- what we are seeing.  In other words, the camera seems to dart around and focus on everything except what is actually happening in the scene. We can’t quite make-out what is happening.

We see the cage of rodents on the far wall. 

We see Diana move to the cage, and then out of sight.

We see Steven go to the cage too. 

But we are so caught up in their conversation that we don’t realize they are feasting on living animals. 

And then the impact-ful reveal lands: Steven swallows a mouse...on camera

Next, Diana’s jaw distends grotesquely as it accommodates a living guinea pig.  After she puts the poor animal down her throat, we see it slide down her throat slowly, in bulges and lumps.

Perhaps today we are well-past the point where these special effects seem particularly effective, but the shock of the scene remains, largely because of the furtive camera-work. 

We don’t know what the camera is showing us, and then, suddenly -- BOOM! -- we see it all.

I do not exaggerate when I say that, watching this scene on TV in 1983, I practically jumped out of my seat. It was a water cooler moment, and at school the next day, everyone was talking about V, and that scene in particular.

Nobody saw it coming, and nobody could believe their eyes -- or their shock – when it did.

Other visuals are similarly worth drawing attention to.

At one point, we see a Visitor spaceship come into view in the background of the frame, behind an extreme close-up of a hominid skull on an archaeological dig. 

This single shot beautifully transmits the notion of time’s passage, and the changing of the social order

Just as man replaced these creatures as Earth’s masters, perhaps, so shall the new arrivals replace mankind as the world’s dominant force.

This elegant visual composition explicitly states that the new arrival hastens man’s extinction.

Even the simplest of scenes in V are lensed with flair, and acute knowledge of film grammar. 

Take for example the scene in which Robert Maxwell attempts to retrieve Robin after she has been captured by the Visitors.  He goes to a Visitor squad commander and offers information in exchange for his daughter’s release.

The visualization of this moment tells you everything you need to know about the planet’s new power structure.  Maxwell is viewed from a high angle, the camera looking down at the desperate, wild-eyed man. 

The Visitor, meanwhile, is shot from a low-angle so that he towers above the human, a fact that asserts his place in their dynamic. The Visitor possesses all the power, and hovers, almost vulture-like, over the distressed human. 

We realize, even as we watch and listen, that Maxwell has no chance at all.  He will lose his family and betray the Resistance.

At another important moment, Brian and Diana bracket the vulnerable Robin in the rectangular frame.

The poor human teenager is boxed in by a two-way mirror, and we see the two Visitors -- and their reflections to boot -- surround her. The message is that Robin simply can’t see how much trouble she is in, and indeed, that could serve as a description of the character’s “arc.” 

Robin has grown up indulged and entitled in free America, and so can’t even conceive that she is in danger, or that society has changed and she is suddenly part of a derided under-class. 

This particular visual sells that idea in a single, gorgeous shot.

These visualizations are enormously expressive -- but not corny -- and successfully transmit in V important concepts and ideas.

We all wonder “could it happen here?” Could America become a fascist state?

V’s greatest value as a work of art is that it shows us how, indeed, it is possible.  The presence of the aliens is almost immaterial in this particular scenario. Any threat would do, frankly.  The film works because the human response to the loss of freedom -- from collaboration, to denial, to resistance -- rings so abundantly true. Overcoming a fascist authority is so difficult because not everyone would see it the same way, or understand the true, insidious nature of the thing. V realistically, and non-glamorously captures the humanity of the It Can’t Happen Here scenario.

There’s a terrible tendency these days to label anything from the 1970s or 1980s “cheesy” or “campy.” But V isn’t either of those things. The original mini-series holds up remarkably well in 2014, and remains absolutely chilling if you willingly engage with the material.


  1. Such a strong first series. Too bad it was all downhill from there. But V is still a strong one.

  2. V made a tremendous impression on me when it first aired. I was 14, about the right age to identify with Daniel (until I realized what was happening to him) and feel VERY attracted to Diana (until she ate that damn guinea pig... I was stunned!). I remember being drenched in sweat from the tension during the climatic battle at the mountain camp. A really amazing piece of television that, as David mentions, sadly deteriorated into soap opera and, yes, camp in its later incarnations. But that original mini was really something... and it makes me mad today when people snicker about "that lizard show."

  3. I just re-watched the follow on tv series. They tried so hard, but they just didn't have the resources to do the matieral justice at $1 million per episode (a fortune in 84 dollars).

    By the way, the reason the various shuttle/fighter landings/takeoffs look so real is because in a sense they ARE real. Life-size mockups were pulled around and/or lifted/lowered by cranes.

  4. V was a great show. Sexy women,aliens and it made a star if Robert Englund (the very annoying girlie alien! who had a baby with a human lol). It is and always will be an 80s classic. I still love it today and Marc Singer shows us how great he is when not acting alongside animals. The remake however was rubbish (2009 was it?). But the original is always going to be one of those shows "Do you remember Diana the lizard?"

  5. dc_driver12:29 PM

    Thirty-five years later, and it's still one of my all-time favorite shows. Compelling, topical, and more relevant than ever in 2018, this is one that richly deserves re-binging on. Your essay is equally thought-provoking, and was a real pleasure to read. I especially appreciated your analysis of the opening and closing scenes. Thank you for this.


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