Sunday, May 05, 2024

40 Years Ago: V: The Final Battle (1984)

V: The Final Battle (1984) is the second production in the V saga, and it originally ran for a whopping six hours over three nights, May 6 – 8, 1984. 

If you’re keeping count, V: The Final Battle aired forty years ago, which is impossible for me to believe.

I vividly remember watching this sequel mini-series on network TV with my parents and sister, and all of us being glued to the set. The second mini-series also had its own water-cooler moment with the birth of the "Star Child" and her ill-fated sibling.  At my school, everyone was talking about this sequence non-stop during lunch.

In terms of quality, however, V: The Final Battle breaks down like this:

The first night -- which re-establishes the Kenneth Johnson characters and diagrams the Resistance plot to expose Supreme Leader John (Richard Herd) on live television -- is uniformly superb.  

The second night -- which introduces Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside) and culminates with the birth of Robin’s (Blair Tefkin) otherworldly twins -- is pretty good.

And the last segment of the mini-series -- featuring the defeat of the Visitors -- grows worse and less-satisfactory every minute it runs, culminating with a seriously wrong-headed and poorly-conceived climactic scene.

The second V mini-series’ disappointing denouement may be the result of a few crucial factors.  

First, V’creator, writer-director Kenneth Johnson, had departed the franchise over disputes about its direction. 

Secondly, there was no doubt pressure on the new writers to deliver a happy ending for a scenario in which such a happy ending was extremely unlikely. Even It Can’t Happen Here didn’t have a happy ending. It ended with underground groups still attempting to take back a fascist America.

And third, resolutions of big, epic sagas like V are notoriously hard-to-nail down, anyway. V: The Final Battle’s wrap-up is unsatisfactory in much as the same way as Return of the Jedi’s (1983) wrap-up is unsatisfactory.  

You reach the end credits and you just can’t quite believe that’s all there is.  

A battle of galactic proportions is over, and here we are…with Ewoks banging stormtrooper helmets like drums…

So overallV: The Final Battle is mostly pretty good -- if not always inspired -- work. 

The mini-series succeeds admirably when it introduces Ham Tyler, a necessary counter-balance to the “do-gooders” in the Resistance. The mini-series also features a few unforgettable set-pieces such as John’s unmasking, and finally, it delivers juicy, unforgettable fates to the characters we all love to hate, namely Daniel (David Packer), Eleanor (Neva Patterson) and Steven (Andrew Prine).

In terms of theme, V: The Final Battle all but abandons the discussion of fascism that informed V and instead -- at least momentarily -- tackles a different controversial subject: abortion.

In the sequel’s unexpectedly most passionate and cerebral scene, all sides of the issue are raised, vis-à-vis Robin and her pregnancy, and the subject is discussed with remarkable verve, clarity and detail, and with precious little judgment or preaching.

But the problem overall with V: The Final Battle is that the focus of the drama has undeniably changed. was It Can’t Happen Here meets “To Serve Man,” and a brilliantly forged meditation on the multitudinous ways that man might contend with a shift in the existing social power structure.

By contrast, V: The Final Battle takes the whole enterprise to a more mundane, soap-opera-like level where the focus is not on collaborators or deniers, but on personal issues like….will Juliet and Mike hook-up? Or, will Diana wrest control of the Visitor fleet away from Squad Commander Pamela (Sarah Douglas)?

It’s a very different brand of storytelling; less allegorical, and consequently less cerebral. In terms of my biases as a viewer and a reviewer, I prefer the original V's approach to drama.

For all its abundant excitement and other virtues (and there are many…), V: The Final Battle just seems less realistic and three-dimensional than its classic predecessor. 

“We’re a Unit...We’ve made more noise than you have.”

In occupied Los Angeles, The Resistance launches a raid against a Visitor food-processing plant, only to lose the day because the Visitors have improved their body armor.

Re-grouping, the Resistance determines that it must undertake a big, bold mission, lest sympathy turn away from it and towards Earth's occupiers.

To that end, Mike (Marc Singer), Julie (Faye Grant) and the other fighters plan to reveal the Visitors’ true reptilian nature on live television during a benefit at a Los Angeles hospital.  John (Herd) is unmasked, and the mission is successful, but Julie is captured afterwards. She is taken to Diana’s (Jane Badler) mothership for the harrowing and painful conversion process.

Soon, a professional soldier, Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside) joins the L.A. Resistance, and informs the group of a world-wide organization of fighters. He also supplies the team with new armor-piercing bullets.

After Donovan and Martin (Frank Ashmore) arrange to free Julie from captivity, the Resistance must launch another daring raid, this one to prevent the Visitors from “sucking dry” all of the water in California within 30 days.  The mission is a success, though -- as always – there are casualties.

While Julie grapples with her conversion experience, Robin Maxwell gives birth to twins.The first appears human, save for a forked-tongue. The other is reptilian, and dies shortly after birth. Its death gives Resistance scientists the clue they need to develop a toxin fatal to the Visitors, the Red Dust.

While the Resistance plots a delivery system for the Red Dust, Diana “retires” her new superior, Pamela (Douglas), and assumes control of the fleet.  When Diana realizes that she has been outmaneuvered by the human resistance, she activates a Doomsday Weapon to destroy the Earth…

“Enjoy your reign…Queen of the Poison Realm.”

V: The Final Battle starts off very strongly, with a raid on a food processing center that goes awry for the Resistance. The Visitors have developed new bullet-resistant armor, and are ready for the attack. The humans are beaten back...defeated.

This is a frighteningly good sequence and note to commence on because it re-establishes the desperation of the Resistance. In short, embedded power accrues and consolidates more power. Since the Visitors have now been in power longer, they are growing much stronger, while the Resistance struggles just to keep up.  The Visitors have more resources at their disposal, and are developing new technologies to control Earth and its resources more effectively.

The elements of V: The Final Battle which function best tend to be on this front. After a major loss, the Resistance realizes it needs to do something “big” to capture the hearts and minds of the Earthlings, and so it has to take a risk to unmask John on live-TV.This brazen gambit involves underworld contacts, a break-in, and other interfaces with the criminal world, and so an important point about "resistance" is made: it has strange bedfellows.

Another commentary on the danger of life in the Resistance involves the mini-series' setting. V: The Final Battle features the Resistance almost constantly on the move. The L.A. organization has no less than three separate HQs during the run of the mini-series, and that constant changing of venue similarly suggests desperation.  Being a "freedom fighter" in occupied territory means living life on the run.

To some extent, the introduction of Ham Tyler fits in with this notion of desperation as well. A man of few words -- and who cuts right through B.S. -- Ham Tyler is not a nice guy. He is not an idealist, and he is not polite. Instead, he is a professional, covert soldier that deploys the techniques that work, not the techniques that are moral. 

If we are to believe fully in the universe, it is necessary to feature a character like Ham Tyler. One who relies on expedience, and has almost no self-doubt, or recriminations about his approach.  He is a needed contrast to Julie and Mike, who are still fighting a war based on issues of “what’s right” and “what’s human.”  

Ham fights on the basis of how to quickly, brutally, and efficiently destroy the enemy.

Ham is a great character, and Michael Ironside is terrific in the role. There’s a great battle in Part Two of V: The Final Battle, in which Ham alone takes down dozens of Visitors while they invade the Resistance Base. 

We hardly know Ham at this point, and yet he commands attention, and the screen -- often the only human in frame -- and we are drawn to him. We may not like his philosophy of life, or arrogance, but he's courageous.  And most importantly...he's on our side.

V: The Final Battle is also enjoyable, frankly, because it so damned cut-throat. The characters whom we have grown to despise over ten hours get their comeuppance in the final act, and, I must confess, there's something very rewarding about seeing Daniel, Eleanor, Brian and Steven punished for their moral trespasses. 

Daniel -- the most loathsome of all, in my opinion -- is framed...and served up on a platter. Eleanor gets shot in the back (after metaphorically stabbing Steven in the back).  And Steven and Brian meet terrible ends due to exposure to the red dust.

Steven's death is the best filmed. We pull back to a high angle, and see that he has expired on a huge Visitor insignia, a metaphor for the approaching death of the occupation, perhaps.

The biggest problem with V: The Final Battle is its conclusion. Julie, Mike, Lorraine (a member of the Fifth Column) and Martin storm the control room of the Mothership to confront Diana.  

Elizabeth, “the Star Child” is there, and has watched Diana murder John.

Diana has also set the mothership to explode using a doomsday machine. The entire Earth is imperiled. But Lorraine can’t stop the program.

Meanwhile, Diana suddenly acquires powers of telepathy (!), and convinces the “converted” Julie to let her steal away when no one is paying attention. Diana then pulls a Darth Vader, and escapes in her personal sky-fighter to return another day.

Back on the mothership, Elizabeth grips the controls of the doomsday machine and de-activates it using some mystical power that manifests itself as a glowing halo around her body.

After watching Elizabeth save the Earth, Mike and Julie share a passionate kiss...

Besides the obvious problem of Diana developing telepathy with a human -- a power her species doesn’t even use when with one another -- the big concern here is the nature of Elizabeth’s sudden powers.  

The writers of V: The Final Battle have seen fit to give the saga a mystical, irrational conclusion, when mysticism has not at all been part of the “universe” up to this point.  We have not been prepared for its sudden appearance (at…just…the…right…moment) in the drama and thus the resolution falls flat, and worse, feels insulting.

In the introduction to this review, I called the conclusion “wrong-headed,” and that’s for one crucial reason. 

Many fascist regimes incorporate myths of the supernatural or mystical into their ideologies. Aryan blood isn’t just blood…it’s special, privileged, elite blood, and so forth.  

So for a franchise that concerns the rise of a fascist state to resolve in a fashion that creates a mystical “super being” like Elizabeth is not just weak storytelling, but the precise opposite of what should occur. Taking down “fascism” should be the purview of humanity, having learned its lesson that “it can happen here.”  

Instead, we get a god-like figure of magical powers to lead us out of the darkness. We are asked, essentially, to follow a magical superman figure rather than realize that if we want freedom...we make it for ourselves.

The instinct to seek such a super power is exactly what leads to the creation of a fascist state in the first place. So not only has V: The Final Battle picked a very bad way to end, it has picked the one way that actually undercuts the very theme or message of the franchise the most.

The final images of Mike and Julie smooching in the control room don’t really help to forge a satisfying ending, either.  So…they’re in love.  Is that Earth-shattering news, considering the Visitors have been driven from the planet, and millions of people are now taking their first breath of freedom?  

The point is this: before V: The Final Battle, this franchise wasn’t really a love story. Or at least the love story was so far back among the list of dramatic priorities that it didn’t seem particularly important in the grand scheme of things.

But V: The Final Battle ends with the (horrid) moment of misplaced mysticism, and the spotlighted punctuation of the unimportant love story. It’s just a very disappointing turn for the V saga, if you ask me.  

Yet, in fairness to V: The Final Battle, there might be a sub-textual motivation, at least, for the prominent Donovan-Julie kiss. 

The entire V saga has been parsed as an allegory for Nazi Germany. The Visitor insignia is a symbol not unlike the swastika, and so forth.  If this is indeed the case, then the Donovan-Julie kiss at the end of V: The Final Battle could be interpreted as a direct surrogate for the famous sailor/woman kiss celebrating the end of World War II in Times Square.  

If so, the kiss may be more appropriate an “end” for the saga than it appears at first blush.  

I wish I could find a similar validity for the presence of the mysticism.

I like V: The Final Battle

There's no doubt that it starts off strong, ad makes some good points about the desperation of Resistance.

I should also add that V: The Final Battle features a classic performance by Jane Badler as the scheming, selfish, power-hungry Diana. She is just a joy to watch.

There's so much that's good in the mini-series, and yet the ill-conceived end leaves a bad taste, and undercuts many of The Final Battle's most dramatic accomplishments. 

In the rush to give us the happy ending it thinks we desire, the V saga loses a lot of the franchise's realistic luster, and we're left with what seems like a superficial blockbuster movie, instead of a dedicated, thoughtful science fiction vision about the rise (and fall) of a fascist state.

Perhaps they needed eight hours? Or, more aptly, a guy named Kenneth Johnson at the helm.  

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