I don’t know where you were (or if you were even born yet) on Sunday night, May 1st, 1983, but I was planted in front of the family TV set with my eyes glued to the premiere of V.
For weeks previously the NBC channel and other media had been saturated with previews of the mini-series, and print campaigns declaring that “The Visitors Are Our Friends.” In 1983, this was a novel idea, rather than an alien invasion, these aliens wanted to be our friends, they wanted to help us. Even then, we could always use a little positivity – this was not only an interesting twist on an old idea, it was a good thing.
In the first few moments of V, motherships came into sub-orbit over most of the world’s major cities, and finally reveal themselves at the UN. The Visitors as they call themselves are seeking to replenish their world’s natural resources, wear sunglasses, speak in echo, and wear red, led by John and Diana. In exchange, they offer their technology to help us. The motherships were giant flying saucers, city-sized, real enough looking matte paintings, and obviously inspired those that came decades later in Independence Day, and the smaller ships, the transports were almost retro Disney Monorail-ish, the epitome of what we would have thought flying cars and future autos would look like. In hindsight, they also look very fake and plastic, but for 1983, they were the shizzle.
The reality, as uncovered by reporter Mike Donovan, played by the Beastmaster himself, Marc Singer, was that the Visitors were actually carnivorous reptilian fascists looking for food. Yeah, that old trick. But really, when Jane Badler as Diana unhinges her jaw and eats the guinea pig, it’s one of the iconic moments in television. Oh my god, they’re not our friends, they’re here to eat us! is just one of those moments. You can talk all you want about Lucy Ricardo or Gloria Stivik having babies, or the last episodes of M*A*S*H, Seinfeld or The Sopranos, this was a moment where America was glued to their television screens. This may well have been the birth of water cooler TV talk the next morning, because everyone was talking about it. And NBC loved it.
NBC at the time was in a bit of a slump. They had been failing in ratings for third place in a market that at the time really only had three networks. With major failures on their hands like Supertrain and Manimal, desperation broke the way for some innovative TV. It was in this era that stuff like the groundbreaking War of the Worlds inspired Special Bulletin happened, and also, the V mini-series and series. V, in its first incarnation, and in the second mini-series, was a huge success for NBC, pulling in nearly eighty million viewers per episode, a feat even in the days of only three major networks. A full-blown, although with an even more limited budget, followed.
Although he only worked on the mini-series, and in the second, V: The Final Battle as producer, writer/director Kenneth Johnson (a major name in 1970s television, having done The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and the Marvel Comics made-for-TV movies) originally conceived this as a present day TV version of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, but the network wanted to cash in on the Star Wars science fiction bandwagon – and it became V.
The Nazi allegory was thick and preachy in the first mini-series, and less so in the The Final Battle. However, when V debuted as a regular weekly TV series in late 1984, it had been diluted down into a human resistance against the fascist Visitor overlords. Like most pre-2000 television it operated out of a status quo world that reset at the beginning and end of every episode even though it gave the illusion of making progress. Really, it could have been The A-Team at that point, it was plot complication of the week with little major resolution. It died a slow, petering death. When one fondly remembered V, it was the original mini-series they were talking about.
Just as the original V series was a product solidly of the 1980s, the 2009 version that lasted two seasons on ABC was equally a construct of its time, for better or for worse. Of course they had the fond memories of the older viewers to prey on, and a new generation to indoctrinate. As with most remakes these days, ABC’s V was a re-imagining, not a remake or sequel. But, sometimes different for the sake of different is not a good idea.
Much like I started this article, that is the tact the new version took. Where were you when JFK was shot? Where were you when 9/11 happened? And where were you when the Visitors landed? The new series began with the seed that their arrival was when everything changed, yet it also took on a darker premise. Much like Marvel Comics’ Secret Invasion or the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, you don’t know who you can trust. The Visitors have been here for years and have infiltrated our society, revelation is only the final step in their plans for domination.
The new series follows the resistance, much as the original did, now called the Fifth Column, and other than names and subtle themes, loses much of the Nazi allegory. The special effects and story logic is much stronger, yet it seems to maintain its status quo structure for much of the series. There are winks and nods to the original series, like the appearance of Marc Singer, and Jane Badler as Diana, the mother of the new big bad, Anna, who is in turn skillfully portrayed by Morena Baccarin. And then there’s the half-Visitor, half-human baby, played much more believably than the original series, a moment noted by some as a shark-jumping for that show.
Speaking of jumping the shark, the 2009 V series continued to decline in its second season. Criticized for being formulaic, it was eventually canceled in mid-2011 with a rather depressing cliffhanger – more motherships arriving from space, and mankind almost nearly all mind-controlled by the Visitors.
While lacking some of the cool things from the original series, like the early performances by Michael Ironside and Robert Englund, as well as Howard K. Smith doing the faux newscasts, and the forgotten loose end of the Visitors’ Enemy, the new series made up for with contemporary storytelling (for the most part), better special effects, and a post-9/11 paranoia theme.
I have fonder memories of the original, but the new series was better. Both are available to view in one form or another, well worth checking out. I wonder if the Visitors will show up for a third try?
Glenn Walker is a writer with too much time on his hands, or depending on the day, not enough time on his hands. He loves, hates and lives pop culture. He knows too freaking much about pop culture. Find him online at monsura.blogspot.com and on Twitter @twitter.com/monsura
Copyright 2012 Glenn Walker