In 1983, writer/director/producer Kenneth Johnson (“Six Million Dollar Man” “Bionic Woman” “The Incredible Hulk”), the man responsible for much of the TV that made up my childhood, released an epic two-night miniseries about a fleet of manned, giant flying saucers that come to Earth “in peace.”
The onboard alien ‘Visitors’ appear to be humanoids who dress in red military uniforms, wear oversized sunglasses (their eyes aren’t accustomed to our sunlight), and who speak in eerily reverberating voices (double-talk?).
The aliens, who hail from the type-A main sequence star Sirius (8.6 light-years away), initiate first contact with Earth because they “need our help.” Their stated purpose is that they wish to manufacture a chemical to cure their dying ecosphere, and they offer to compensate us by sharing advanced medical and other technologies.
Their true purpose, revealed incrementally, is to drain all of our fresh water and use humans as livestock. During a scuffle, it’s revealed that the aliens are actually ‘two-faced’; their outward human faces being literal masks hiding their true reptilian selves.
Johnson’s miniseries is less about invading lizard people with ray guns, and more about the nature, and allure, of power; all of the ways in which it is manifested, usurped, enabled, sought, and, most importantly, resisted. While the miniseries begins with a grand international scope (shades of 1951’s “The Day The Earth Stood Still”), the story soon settles within the general Los Angeles area with a diverse group of resistance fighters led by young med student Julie Parrish (Faye Grant). She organizes a clandestine resistance movement against the increasingly oppressive and fascistic “Visitors”, doing whatever they can to impede their progress whenever possible.
Julie’s resistance fighters include rogue TV news cameraman Mike Donovan (Marc Singer), Mike’s assistant Tony (Evan Kim), Dr. Ben Taylor (Richard Lawson), Ben’s brother, petty criminal-turned-hero Elias (Michael Wright), their grumpy working-class father Caleb (Jason Bernard), elderly holocaust survivor Abraham Bernstein (Leonardo Cimino), aging former actress Ruby Engels (Camila Ashland), landscaper Sancho (Rafael Campos), food service worker Harmony (Diane Cary), anthropologist Robert Maxwell (Michael Durrell) and his family, including teenage daughter Robin (Blair Tefkin, replacing the late Dominique Dunne; who was tragically murdered during production). It’s a large, diverse, well-oiled ensemble of characters whose lives flow and integrate very naturally with one another (kudos to writer/director Kenneth Johnson).
The message is clear; the strength of this resistance movement comes largely through its diversity and determination. Johnson’s aim was fairly progressive in its pre-Cosby Show era… a time when most TV series centered largely on all-white casts, such as “Dynasty” “Family Ties” or “Dallas,” the cast of “V” represented a much broader spectrum of Los Angelinos.
Over the course of the two-part miniseries, the Visitors have gradually phased out many norms of American democratic society, replacing them with iron-fisted decrees such as curfews and rationing. Among the more prominent in the Visitor ranks are “Supreme Commander” John (Richard Herd), who is something of a figurehead, and his Machiavellian Executive Officer Diana (Jane Badler), who does much of the real work; the power behind the throne. Diana is aided by her own scheming Security Chief, Steven (Andrew Prine). The aliens’ names are, of course, adopted human monickers to better relate to the subjects of their occupation.
The miniseries uses the outwardly benevolent “John” as a clear metaphor for then-president Ronald Reagan’s kindly grandpa persona, which masked an aggressively anti-progressive social agenda, accompanied by then-dramatic increases in both government size and military spending.
We also see a cautious ‘fifth column’ emerge within the ranks of the Visitors. These ‘good ones’ include Martin (Frank Ashmore), Willie (future Freddie Kruger actor, Robert Englund), and Barbara (Jenny Newman).
The first miniseries sees the slow rise of the Visitors and their influence on us. Their political power is rapidly entrenched as they persuade (or coerce) many into joining their ranks. Mike’s opportunistic mother Eleanor (Neva Patterson) becomes a Visitor collaborator, his ambitious ex-girlfriend Kristine Walsh (Jenny Sullivan) signs on as the Visitor’s spokesperson, compromising her credentials as a journalist.
Abraham’s grandson Daniel (David Packer) is a disaffected suburban kid who becomes a Visitor youth leader… a clear metaphor for Nazi youth (an ongoing problem of disaffected young people today who join far-right extremist groups or fundamentalist religions).
We also see scientists, the very people who have the ability to probe beyond the Visitor’s facade, being made into convenient scapegoats, in a chilling analogy of the Jews of World War 2 Europe and Soviet Russia. The braintrust of the world effectively demonized and censured…all the easier to keep the populace from getting answers to nagging questions. This too, is something we’re seeing today, with the demonization of evolution, reproductive options, climate science and even the very roundness of the Earth itself.
Johnson’s scientist scapegoats were a metaphor, but today’s sharp and dangerous rise in anti-intellectualism is not.
As the Visitors rise in power, we see Julie’s human Resistance fighters both winning and losing battles … yet remaining a unit. There are many personal losses; Ben is killed, Robert’s wife is killed, Abraham is killed, Robin is impregnated by a Visitor junior officer (!), and Mike’s son Sean is kidnapped. After barely repelling a Visitor attack on their base camp, the final scene sees survivors Julie and Elias sending a radio message out into space to the Visitor’s enemies in the hope that the ‘enemy of their enemies’ will become their allies.
While the notion of aliens coming to Earth to steal our water is somewhat ridiculous (there are huge water ice comets and moons littering our solar system), the plot is really nothing more than a means to an end; to use aliens as stand-ins for fascism getting its hooks into modern American life. Fascism in ‘free’ America was an idea that seemed almost like science fiction in 1983, but is (sadly) far more relevant today. One of writer/director Kenneth Johnson’s inspirations for the show was Sinclair Lewis’ semi-satirical novel “It Can’t Happen Here”, which chronicled the then-unlikely notion of a fascistic US president. According to the DVD commentary, Johnson said he originally envisioned the show as a straight political thriller (sans aliens), but the Visitors were added to give it a more commercial sci-fi bent (and arguably a little more creative wiggle room as well).
That first miniseries got very high ratings, necessitating a rush-job sequel to be released the following year…
1984’s “V: The Final Battle.”
While the second miniseries loses much of the first miniseries’ political edge, it also gives the franchise many of its most remembered moments, including the unmasking of Visitor leader John on live television, Julie’s capture & attempted brainwashing by Diana, the birth of Robin’s human/alien hybrid twins (one of which survives as Robin’s rapidly aging daughter “Elizabeth”), the welcome addition of deadpan resistance fighter & morally murky mercenary “Ham” Tyler (a terrific Michael Ironside), and the creation of the ‘red dust’ biological agent…which gives the human resistance movement a game-changing weapon to wield against the Visitors.
While much of the three-part sequel is very exciting and moves along at an arguably brisker pace than the 1983 two-parter, it also substitutes much of the social/political commentary of its predecessor with bigger action pieces, including a resistance assault on a Visitor human ‘packing plant’, an action-packed siege of a medical center, the destruction of a Visitor water pumping system, an armed resistance assault aboard the mothership, a skydiving escape sequence, and a fleet of hot-air balloons spreading the red dust toxin across the world. Whew! That’s a lot to unpack in just three nights…
There are times in the sequel where it feels like the writers have written themselves into a corner. Many of the escapes of captured main characters seem to happen very conveniently; for example, Martin helps Donovan skydive out of the hovering mothership with conveniently stored parachutes in an airlock.
There is also the somewhat ridiculous climax with human/alien “star-child” Elizabeth (appearing as an 10-year old, and played by Jenny Beck) stopping the Visitor mothership from blowing up by simply grabbing the controls and ‘glowing’ in a field of swirling rotoscoped animation (?!). This is a total deus ex machina-style plot contrivance, since neither species from which Elizabeth is bred have shown any such powers. It’s like a dog and a cat producing a hybrid that can fly.
Kenneth Johnson also walked away from the second miniseries when many of his suggestions were largely ignored or changed. Johnson conceived of the new resistor character, “Father Andrew” (Thomas Hill) as a younger hipper Roman Catholic priest, more akin to Gene Hackman’s priest in 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure.” Instead, the onscreen version of Father Andrew looks like he walked right out of a 1940s Christmas movie.
Johnson also imagined lethal mercenary Ham Tyler as being wheelchair-bound, but still dangerous enough to kick Mike Donovan’s butt when they first meet. This was also changed, of course, as onscreen Tyler is fully ambulatory for convenience/story sake. Johnson’s earlier version of “The Final Battle” hints at a somewhat less predictable story than what we ultimately saw 35 years ago. Ultimately Johnson left the project in the hands of a slew of writers, including Diane Frolov, who later worked on Johnson’s “Alien Nation” TV series five years later, as well as the cult TV series “Northern Exposure.” Directing chores were handled by Richard T. Heffron. “The Final Battle” tells its concluding story in a fast-paced and engaging way, even if it feels a bit more workmanlike than Johnson’s eerier original.
The second miniseries ends with the human resistance and Visitor fifth columnists driving the Visitor occupation forces off of the planet by globally distributing their red dust weapon. Evil leader Diana manages to slip aboard a fighter-ship and escape (like Darth Vader, at the end of the original 1977 “Star Wars”). Earth was safe once again…. but the ratings for the second miniseries were quite strong as well, so a one-hour TV series was rushed into production to debut in the fall of that same year…
“V: The TV Series” (1984-5).
The TV series was where the “V” concept was pushed to the breaking point… and oh, how it broke. Taking place a year later, the Visitors return to Earth when the red dust is found to be waning in effectiveness in certain warmer areas of the planet (such as never-cold Los Angeles). Diana escapes custody, and soon enough her massive fleet returns. In short order, the show returns to the 1984 miniseries’ status quo, but with a few notable changes. Most noticeably is the sudden retconned absence of the Visitors’ trademark reverberating voices… with absolutely no onscreen explanation as to why. I assume it was because the audio reverb effect was too expensive to do as ADR for a weekly series, but its sudden loss is never explained within the story.
It gets worse from there.
New characters are introduced, including a ‘J.R. Ewing’-type billionaire science industrialist named Nathan Bates (Lane Smith) and his rebellious, mullet-wearing, hunky son Kyle (Jeff Yagher). The cunning Nathan’s company “Science Frontiers” manufactures Julie’s red dust, which is found to have heretofore unseen side-effects to the ecosystem of Earth. It is kept only as a deadly last resort, as it would kill off humanity, as well as the Visitors. Nathan keeps an explosive stockpile of the red dust, ready to douse all of L.A. in seconds if the Visitors provoke him. With that standoff, a stalemate is achieved, and Los Angeles is recognized as a ‘free city’ (like occupied Paris in World War 2), where fighting between the Visitors and resistance is expressly forbidden by treaty.
Diana soon realizes she’s met her match in the cigar-chomping Nathan Bates. Thus began the series’ immediate slide into a variation on then-popular nighttime soap operas such as “Dallas” or “Dynasty”; lots of glammed-up folks fighting endlessly over corporate and political power. The stories quickly devolved into an endless series of captures, escapes, fisticuffs and invisible mustache-twirling villainy. The cautionary sociopolitical commentary of Kenneth Johnson’s thoughtful original was completely absent by this point.
Further exacerbating the campy, nighttime soap opera feel of the renewed “V” is the arrival of a ridiculously catty Visitor commander named “Lydia” (Julie Chadwick). With her posh accent, Lydia seems to do nothing more than block or otherwise annoy Diana at every turn. Lydia is less of a character and more of a walking practice foil. The biggest battles between them seems to be over which of the two women has the biggest hair, as each actor’s teased locks seems to get more wildly voluminous every week..
Robin Maxwell’s two year old alien “star-child” Elizabeth (the surviving twin), who stopped a mothership explosion by unknown superpowers, also grows overnight from an outwardly 10 year old kid into a gorgeous young woman overnight…a convenient workaround of those pesky child-actor labor laws (another soap opera trope…the child who grows up offscreen). This new ‘adult’ Elizabeth (without the forked lizard tongue she had at birth) is a prodigy who soon falls in love with the roguish Kyle Bates, forming a SUPER creepy love triangle with her nearly same-aged ‘mother’ Robin. Elizabeth is the near pedophiliac, girl-woman ideal that was very popular in cinema and movies of the 1980s (I’m looking at you, “Splash”); a beautiful, fully-grown woman with the naivete and social skills of a child. It may have been popular then, but it’s downright repugnant today. I wonder how well TV audiences at the time would’ve responded to an adult woman falling in love with a two-year old ‘boy’ who just happens to look like a man?
Another loss to the franchise was the original’s diversity. Outside of former-gang member turned nightclub owner Elias Taylor (still played by Michael Wright), we rarely saw a non-white face on the show, alien or human. Most of the new resistance movement were white, with the Jews, blacks and Hispanics of the original largely forgotten.
The desperate show threw everything into the mix story-wise, including an almost ‘royal wedding’ between Diana and an ill-fated alien commander (Duncan Regehr), who is named “Charles” because the 1981 royal wedding between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer was still very fresh in 1985’s cultural zeitgeist. The final episode (“Return”) saw woman-child Elizabeth being offered up to the unseen Visitor ‘supreme ruler’ in exchange for peace. “Return” what was supposed to be the season finale, but it wound up being the series finale of the mercifully short-lived experiment that was “V: The TV Series.”
“Return” would seem to have been the final nail in “V”‘s coffin, and the franchise would remain dormant for nearly a quarter century… but it would return.
“V” would eventually get dusted off, fully rebooted, and return as an entirely new series whose only roots to the original were mainly in concept. All of the characters were new, but the core concept of insidious reptiles pretending to be humanoids, initiating contact with Earth for their own nefarious means, would remain.
The post-9/11 take on “V” was less camp than the TV series, and its characters were a little bit more grounded in reality (though still very glamorous). The new “Visitors” arrive in New York City (Vancouver with a lot of digital mattes), and through Supreme Leader/‘Queen’ Anna (“Firefly” veteran Morena Baccarin) promise peace and ‘universal healthcare.’ Anna also has a conniving assistant named ‘Marcus’ (Christopher Shyer) who looks and acts very much like Andrew Prine’s “Steven.”
A new resistance movement is formed by Department of Homeland Security agent Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell), and a “hipper, younger priest” a former army chaplain named Father Jack Landry (Joel Gretsch). Father Jack seems perhaps closer to the sort of priest that Johnson wanted for Father Andrew in “The Final Battle.”
Agent Evans also has a young son named Tyler (Logan Evans) who becomes something of a cross between Mike Donovan’s son Sean and the star-child’s mother Robin. Tyler is manipulated into falling in love with a young Visitor woman named Lisa (Laura Vandervoort), who is secretly the daughter of Queen Anna. The lovesick lad is also brainwashed into joining the Visitor Youth movement as well.
There is also another sycophantic spokesperson in the form of ambitious newsman Chad Decker (Scott Wolf), although unlike original “V”’s Christine Walsh, Chad actually plays both sides… secretly feeding information to the resistance whenever he can.
Nods to post-9/11 paranoia are made with the concept of Visitor sleeper agents, such as Ryan (Morris Chestnut) who has a pregnant human girlfriend named Valerie (Lourdes Benedicto), and devious, soon-to-be-ex partner of Erica’s, DHS agent Dale Maddox (another “Firefly” veteran, Alan Tudyk).
In the series 2nd and final season, we also see a Ham Tyler-mercenary/operative named Kyle Hobbes (played by Charles Mesure), as well as a DHS agent who is also a Visitor sleeper named Sarita Malik (played by “Battlestar Galactica” vet Rekha Sharma, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for Trekcore.com in early August of this year).
In the 2nd year, we see the Visitor’s control of the world tighten, as the Resistance movement grows in scope. Season 2 also saw Anna seeking the advice of her own mother, Diana (played by original “V” veteran, Jane Badler). While this Diana is not the original series’ Diana, she shares much of her predecessor’s cunning. It turns out that the mother/daughter lizard ladies are not on the best of terms…
The finale of the series saw Agent Evans connecting with a worldwide organization called “Ares” (the god of war, appropriately) led by none other than former “V” star Marc Singer, as “Lars Tremont”; a wealthy man of means with a grandiose plan to get rid of the Visitors… a plan that we never saw implemented due to the series’ premature cancellation.
The latest “V” seemed to take aim more at a fear of European-style socialism rather than far-right fascism, and therefore lacks the bite of the original’s Nazi allegory. This may have been a vague slap in the-president Barack Obama’s direction. Given our current politics, the fear from this ’socialist’ metaphor hasn’t aged nearly as well the darker fascist message of the 1983 miniseries…even a mere decade later.
The new Visitors aren’t trying to steal our planet’s water or use people as food…they want to use us as breeding stock for their dying genome. This also seems to feed the far-right fear of ‘foreigners’ trying to breed ‘us’ out. Arguably, this makes the eventual ‘hybrid’ storyline a bit more pointed, but again, it lacks the primal fear factor of Kenneth Johnson’s original.
“V”’s creator writes his own ticket.
Having met Kenneth Johnson at San Diego Comic Con 2006, I was very excited to hear that he’d written his own sequel to his original miniseries that effectively bypasses all of the sequels out of existence. Johnson’s “V: The Second Generation” came out in first-edition hardback in February of 2008 (still have my hardback copy!) and continues the story 20 years later, using an unresolved plot thread left dangling since the 1983 original… Julie Parrish’s ‘call for help’ at the end of the miniseries!
After 20 years of alien occupation, the people of Earth have become apathetic regarding their Visitor overseers. The resistance is dwindling, as more and more people become enamored with the shiny, high-tech toys the Visitors have dangled in front of them (Johnson’s sly take on our current smartphone addiction). Half of the planet’s water is gone, but people aren’t concerned, since the Visitors have assured humanity that it’s being cleaned of contaminants (given our current apathy with climate change, I have no doubt people would readily accept this explanation in exchange for better smartphones). There are also a new generation of young people born after the occupation began who’ve come to see the Visitors as an everyday fact of life.
Meanwhile, the Visitors’ enemies, an equally oppressive race called the Zedti, have landed on our planet after getting the resistance call. Humanity comes to learn that sometimes, the enemy of our enemy isn’t necessarily our friend, either.
The book is a terrific read for fans of the original miniseries. Highly recommended!
The legacy of “V”.
What struck me during my recent re-watch of the 1983 original (and still best) “V”was how much more relevant it felt today than it did when I was in high school. In 2019 we’ve seen a marked surge in the demonization of science (climate change denial), an all-out assault on our free press, new travel bans, new restrictions placed on immigration, chidren in cages held indefinitely along the southern border, and increasingly endangered civil rights for women and for the LGBTQ community.
These days the show’s Visitors could just as easily stand-in for Trumpism, or Boris Johnson’s nationalist Brexit movement, or Brazil’s Bolsonaro. Take your pick. What scares me most is that this encroaching fascism isn’t coming from lizard-faced beings from outer space… it’s coming from our friends, neighbors and coworkers. Ordinary humans, not reptiles in rubber masks. It’s a dangerous time, but sadly, not very different from Kenneth Johnson’s vision of an alternate 1980s world under an alien authoritarian regime.
What we see happening worldwide today is the exact kind of threat that writer/director Kenneth Johnson masked in metaphor 36 years ago …it’s one of those times when I wish science fiction wasn’t so prescient.
The original “V” miniseries makes its HD blu-ray format debut on August 27th through the Warner Archive Collection.