Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Visitors are Coming: "Breakout" (May 25, 1985)

In “Break Out,” Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) and Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside) slip into Visitor-occupied territory in Ojai to attempt to find Sean, Donovan’s son.  When they come to the aid of another young boy hunted by the Visitors, however, they are captured instead and taken to a Visitor prison camp.

At the prison camp, Ham and Mike meet Nathan Bates’ son, Kyle (Jeff Yagher) and catch-up with Robin Maxwell (Blair Tefkin).  The prisoners also learn that any attempt to escape from the camp is problematic because carnivorous monsters called “Krivits” from the Visitor home world patrol the perimeter of the camp. 
A Krivit eats Robin’s friend (Xander Berkeley) when, in despair, he walks into the sand pit.

When Diana (Jane Badler) learns that Kyle Bates is interred at the camp, she makes an arrangement with his father, Nathan Bates (Lane Smith). If he delivers Diana the Star Child (Jennifer Cooke), Diana will turn over Kyle…

The third episode of V: The Series, “Breakout” did not air until May 25, 1985, soon after the series had ended its initial run. For some reason, this early episode was held back, perhaps to devise a better origin of Kyle Bates (Yagher) than the one seen here.

So while “Breakout” may not be official V canon or continuity, I can write that it is, nonetheless, a pretty solid episode of the fledgling series. Certainly, it is far better than the last six, generally-dreadful shows of the season, which come after the cast “massacre” and some format changes.

There are a couple of qualities that I admire about the episode. First, the pairing of Donovan (or “Gooder”) with Ham Tyler is always character gold.  The two men are so different in their approach to crises that it is amusing to see them working together. Donovan is always acting impulsively and courageously, and Ham is always snarling that he gets dragged into the mix. In “Breakout” Ham’s expression is priceless after Donovan’s do-gooder instincts get them both captured.

In more global terms, “Breakout” seems to remember many of the qualities that made V a fascinating and worthwhile franchise in the first place. 

For example, this is the first and only time in the saga, I believe, that we actually see a Visitor prison camp or “death camp.”  And this fearsome aspect of the Visitor occupation ties in neatly with the It Can’t Happen Here (1935) origin of the series. In that literary work, dissidents in the United States who disagreed with the policy of the new dictator were herded to work camps by the thousands. It makes abundant sense that the fascist Visitors -- hungry for resources of all types -- would shunt captured humans into labor camps as well.  Indeed, the labor camp setting is one of the very few from Sinclair Lewis’s novel that was not mined for the first two mini-series.

The first act of “Breakout” also involves Ham and Donovan taking shelter in a suburban house, when they are betrayed there by a middle-class collaborator, a soccer mom, essentially. We haven’t seen a story like this one since the original V, and it’s an important one to include in the series.  It reminds us that some humans will always bow to the prevailing establishment, whether or not it possesses moral authority.

The episode also depicts a kid spray-painting the letter V on a white Visitor van, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen this trademark brand of graffiti as well. 

These elements are nice call backs to the two mini-series and they remind us that the franchise has not abandoned entirely the narrative and thematic terrain that brought it so much acclaim in 1983.

Outside the setting, “Breakout” is the first episode to feature the introductory “news broadcast” from Howard K. Smith and “The Freedom Network.”  This type of broadcast is featured throughout the first dozen or so episodes, and always showcases battles against the Visitors across the globe.  Here, we learn that Arabs and Israelis have joined forces, for instance, to repel the Visitors in Jerusalem. 

We also learn of a boy in Cleveland, Kipper Cedisco, who is awarded a Medal of Honor for routing a Visitor patrol. In terms of Los Angeles -- the setting of the series -- we hear Nathan Bates described as the “strong man” of Los Angeles, and that’s a great term by which we can contextualize the character. The world and the Resistance see him not as a legitimate leader, but as an opportunist and dictator who has propped himself up at the expense of the people.

In short, I enjoy the Freedom Network broadcasts on V: The Series because the program simply can’t afford to dramatize many aspects of the global war.  We can’t see the big battles in foreign locations, in other words, because they are not affordable. This brief news report is a sound method of reminding us that the war blazes across the globe, in different ways, and that the Visitor invasion/occupation is not localized to any one city, or one set of humans.  People all over the world are doing their part to repel the alien lizards.

Although they aren’t dramatized in particularly effective ways, and they plainly hark back to an episode of The Outer Limits (1963-1964) called “The Invisible Enemy,” the Krivits are another fascinating addition to Visitor lore and background.  These carnivorous creatures patrol the sand around the prison camp, and devour any trespasser.  One must wonder if these monsters are Visitor pets (like patrol dogs…) or Visitor predators, captured and shipped to Earth to be of use.  Still, this is the first non-Visitor life form we have seen on the series, and I like that the episode includes them as a menace.

As usual, the weakest element of “Breakout” concerns Elizabeth, the Star Child. Here, she telepathically communicates with dogs, and they attack two Visitor soldiers who menace her. Once more, Elizabeth’s mystical powers seem totally selective and random. Whatever power she needs to manifest in order to survive a scrape, she suddenly evidences. 

For she is the Kwisatz Haderach…or something.

Better handled is Diana, who once more reveals her kinky side when she starts to make-out with Kyle.  Apparently, it’s okay for Diana to be sexually attracted to mammals, even though they comprise her diet…. 
I also love the moment here in which Diana pushes the death camp warden into the Krivit pit, killing him for his failure.  She’s so cut-throat, and this physical act is a clear indicator of that nature.

Regarding Kyle Bates, he is another series character that I have never really warmed too. There are so many hold-overs from the two mini-series that I would rather see afforded screen time, including Elias, Willie, Julie, Mike, and Ham.  Kyle isn’t nearly as interesting as his morally shady pop, Nathan, either, and too often comes across as kind of mock-tough, but not really tough in the manner of Ham Tyler.

Finally, we will see this episode’s final moment -- Lydia’s quip to Diana “Well, better luck next time…” --recycled, literally, in an upcoming episode.  And again, we get more stock footage of the sky-fighter battle in V.

Next week: “The Deception.”

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