V, the 1983 miniseries about aliens coming to Earth to enslave its population in the guise of friendly Visitors, was a career peak for its writer/director Kenneth Johnson. Johnson, who at the time still enjoyed the status of boy-wonder when it came to science fiction television productions (having worked on shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and The Incredible Hulk), brought to V big-screen blockbuster standards of design and special effects, in service of a cautionary tale about the dangers of fascist takeover.
Watching the original miniseries on DVD several years ago revealed that visually it holds up very well: though some of the effects would look unconvincing when measured against today's digital tricks, overall they still manage to create a convincing, imaginative alien environment, and Johnson's direction is confident with both action and human drama. In the script department, however, V doesn't age as well. Characters are walking stereotypes, dialogue feels corny and clichéd, and the political message is hammered on the audience's head in a none-too-subtle manner.
Still, the miniseries remains one of the most influential works in genre television: the alien-related conspiracies of The X-Files, the political subtext of Babylon 5, and the visuals of the 1994 blockbuster Independence Day can be seen as Johnson's legacy. The most awkward thing about watching the first four episodes of V, the new weekly series that reimagines Johnson's original miniseries, is that it seems to echo back the same legacy: from an investigation led by a Mulder-and-Scully-like duo to a character looking at the sky and comparing what is happening to Independence Day (I'm still not sure just how much self-awareness the screenwriter was practicing there), the series seems to answer the old complaint of "we've seen it all before" with a reminder along the lines of "yes, but we were there first!" Indeed, in the technical department, the new V is every bit as polished a product as the miniseries that inspired it. However, it also shares many of the miniseries' problems.
The new version, supervised by Scott Peters (The 4400), follows five principal characters: Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell), a federal agent specializing in counter-terrorism; her rebellious teenage son Tyler (Logan Huffman); Jack Landry (Joel Gretsch, who also starred in The 4400), a priest; Chad Decker (Scott Wolf), a news reporter whose career seems to be heading downhill; and Ryan Nichols (Morris Chestnut), a Visitor disguised as a human, who strongly opposes the aims and methods of his people.
The arrival of the Visitors brings some drastic and very quick (more on that later) changes to life on Earth, changes that the show's five protagonists have a hard time getting used to. Erica is worried about her son's fascination with the Visitors, while her own investigations lead her to suspect that the Visitors are not as friendly as they claim to be. Landry suddenly finds himself with more believers in his congregation than he ever had, but also has difficulties providing the answers that these believers seek. Decker becomes a favorite with the Visitors, getting exclusive stories and interviews that set his career back on track—at the cost of his professional integrity. And the dark secrets that Nichols tried to bury are slowly revealed.
The pilot episode of the new show runs frantically from one protagonist's story to another's, and for the most part, doesn't make any effort to connect the stories until the climax. However, all the individual stories take place against the same backdrop of larger events, and Peters's script keeps things interesting by making these events move very, very fast. The pilot opens with the Visitors' arrival, and less than halfway through, they appear to have achieved a significant amount of influence over human society and politics. Familiar elements from both the original miniseries and Peters's work on The 4400 are everywhere: teenagers who are easily impressed by the sheer size of the Visitors' operation, meetings of a secret, cult-like underground movement, and especially Landry, who is portrayed by Gretsch as pretty much the same kind of person he played on Peters's previous production: confident on the outside, conflicted within. But both the original V miniseries and The 4400 developed their background storylines over time (more than three hours in the original miniseries, four seasons in The 4400) while the new V attempts to squeeze most of it into its first episode. It was effective in catching my interest; I was just afraid it meant that in a few episodes, the producers would be dangerously short on ideas.
The following episode pretty much confirmed my suspicion. Composed largely of bits and pieces picking up loose ends from the pilot episode, "There Is No Normal Anymore" lacks focus. Worse yet, it edges towards pushing the reset button, clarifying that the Visitors are still struggling to win trust among the human population after all, with some people still suspicious of them.
The next two episodes continue in this vein, though they got back on track in terms of plot and pacing. "A Bright New Day" and "It's Only the Beginning" work toward bringing the protagonists together, as they start setting up a resistance movement to fight against the Visitors' slowly revealed conspiracy. The latter episode's conclusion held my interest enough to make me wait for the show's return from its hiatus in March, despite what I suspect would become a repeating pattern for the rest of the season (the episode seems to have established a "this week's attack on a Visitors' project" formula). The two episodes follow the pilot in squeezing as many events as possible into a short timeframe, and while this approach has its side-effects (notably, devoting the last ten minutes of each episode to tying up loose ends), it's also highly effective: something always happens, and there are hardly any dull moments.
V sadly shares some of the original miniseries' shortcomings in the script department. Almost none of the characters in the main cast stand out: they give the feeling of being there for the sake of moving the plot forward without having a real personality of their own (though the fourth episode hinted at some interesting future developments for Landry). Their dialogue, for the most part, is unremarkable. The show does an even worse job with the Visitors, who come across as bland, badly written and badly acted, even when the script tries to show some complexity in their social and political system—almost all the Visitors' characters seem entirely focused on their mission, showing no personality traits or motivations of their own; the renegade Visitors show some individual personality, but it's mostly expressed in bad melodramatic gestures. One exception—in terms of acting, if not writing—is the Visitor's leader Anna, played Firefly's Morena Baccarin, but even her decent performance disappoints when compared with that of Jane Badler, who played the parallel role of Dianna in the original miniseries.
As with the original miniseries, the new V makes up for its script weaknesses with its visual strengths. The pilot's long opening sequence, showing the Visitors' arrival, effectively creates the feeling of a slowly-progressing life-changing event. Yves Simoneau's direction captured the right atmosphere of confusion and fear, backed by some impressive digital effects. The design of the Visitors' environments is also very impressive—their exterior has an eerie organic look while their interior has the cold sterility of a modern high-tech environment—a nice update of the original miniseries' design approach, which leaned toward a more traditional space opera look.
Some reviewers (such Glenn Garvin in the Chicago Tribune, Troy Patterson at Slate, and Abigail Nussbaum at Asking the Wrong Questions) have argued that the show carries an anti-liberal, and specifically anti-Obama political message, especially in light of the Visitors' attempts to lure humans with promises of universal healthcare and the general feeling of xenophobia that the scripts seem to promote. I personally didn't see anything too political in either of these elements—the "universal healthcare" turned out to be little else than a plot device by the fourth episode, and the show's xenophobic atmosphere appears to have been inherited from the original miniseries. In fact, when compared to the original miniseries, V feels disappointingly apolitical: the original miniseries was very vocal, sometimes downright preachy, about the notion of uncompromised war against oppression, presenting terrorism as something that is sometimes necessary. Toward the end of the fourth episode, it appears that the reimagined show will go in the same direction, yet it also seems to be more in service of generating excitement than attempting to provoke a political discussion. At present that's enough to keep me interested, as noted above, but I'll be hoping it grows into something more complex in the future.
Raz Greenberg is currently working on his PhD, researching animation as text at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has contributed science fiction and fantasy-related reviews to a variety of Hebrew and English publications, published stories in the space opera magazine Ray Gun Revival and the British comics magazine FutureQuake, and translated books to Hebrew, notably John Scalzi's Old Man's War.
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