V (1983) & V: The Final Battle (1984) – A Very American Invasion
Famously a parable evoking the darkest aspects of World War II through the perspective of an alien invasion, you might be thinking that V, the miniseries and its follow-up V: THE FINAL BATTLE may seem at first glance an odd lens through which to view the American experience. But what seemed a daringly provocative and subversively satirical look at how the wealthy elite would willingly embrace the jackboot of fascism to preserve their status when it first aired during the burgeoning bacchanalia of the Rah-Rah-Reaganomics early eighties ended up being darkly prescient when viewed as a warning of what was to come in the decades ahead.
Without warning, vast alien spacecraft appear over major cities all across Earth. These visitors – beings who look much like us – announce that they have come in peace and plan to share the benefits of their knowledge and technology with mankind. All they ask in return is some of earth’s vast chemical and mineral wealth. The United Nations gladly accepts their proposition and the Visitors are soon integrated into the corridors of power around the world. But TV cameraman Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) stumbles across disturbing evidence of the aliens’ true intent and, together with scientist Julie Parrish (Faye Grant) and several others, starts drawing up plans to fight back.
Director/ Producer Kenneth Johnson originally wrote the story – inspired by Sinclair Lewis’ antifascist 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here” – as a contemporary dramatic adaptation. When this version was rejected by NBC for being too intellectual for the American mainstream audience, Johnson reworked his idea by replacing the homegrown fascist force with a militaristic alien force, tapping into the rich capacity for allegory that science fiction provided and had, in decades previously allowed the likes of Gene Rodenberry and Rod Serling to explore philosophical and political ideas thought too contentious for prime time. Premiering in May 1983, V cost over $13million dollars and would go on to capture 40% of the viewing audience at the time. The investment proved a lucrative one for NBC and a sequel was duly commissioned for 1984: “V: The Final Battle”, although Johnson himself left the production of the sequel having fallen out with the network over how the story should unfold. Seeing what came after the two original miniseries, you can’t help but feel he may have had a point.
Looking back, it’s easy to underestimate how influential V would go on to be. Not only did it reinvigorate the audience’s appetite for intelligent science fiction programming – would there have been a STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION without V? – it also provided the genre with an entire visual language – one that INDEPENDENCE DAY would borrow heavily from in the 1996 blockbuster.
Its crossover appeal was cemented by Johnson’s canny knack in combining the common tropes of the lavish miniseries which dominated television schedules at the time with the youthful appeal of sci-fi special effects and the disturbing evocation of the still very much within living memory spectre of the Nazi war machine of World War II.
In a way, though, to modern audiences – many of whom have likely not seen it as it faded from pop culture prominence – it provides an extra-terrestrial look at how quickly and easily the shining beacon of the American Dream can be corrupted and distorted by an authoritarian regime intent on enriching itself at the expense of everyone else. Not that I’m in any ways suggesting that the recent history of the United States of America confirms that we have been fortunate to narrowly escape permanent subjugation to a clandestine race of lizard people, but the USA sure came close to the opportunistic fascism of a leader who functioned through his lizard brain and those who embraced and excused him for their own ambitions.
The first miniseries does a superb job of showing how gradual, small changes to public policy and seemingly innocuous and eminently sensible in isolation restrictions allow the population to sleepwalk into authoritarianism and how, through targeted propaganda and media manipulation, dissent and debate can be stifled and ultimately silenced through division and othering. Indeed, some of the parallels may strike modern audiences as a little too on-the-nose, like the Visitors’ fondness for monikered baseball caps for example.
And while you can’t say its World War II parallels were by any stretch of the imagination subtle at the time, we’re about as far away from V now as it was from WWII at the time and it’s bordering on ludicrous how many boxes it checks off for the, thankfully terminated, regime of the 45th President of the United States.
The alignment of the wealthy elite with the alien visitors, eager to not only cement their grip on power but expand their influence through supporting the newcomers to the political and governmental arena? Check. The othering of ethnic minorities and immigrants? Check. The denigration and dismissal of scientists? Check. The easy complicity of the police? Check. The distortion and domination of the news through compliant and complicit talking heads? Check. Decrying anything which doesn’t fit the preferred narrative as ‘fake news’? Check. Continually promising transformative infrastructure and healthcare plans but never actually delivering anything? Check and mate.
Not that V and V: THE FINAL BATTLE is all polemic and no pop – overlayed on the disturbing cautionary subtext is a tremendously fun, and terrifically camp, sci-fi soap opera that’s equally at home giving us aerial dogfights, teen pregnancies and more family betrayals .than you can shake a stick at. The cast are great value, led by Marc Singer as Mike Donovan, action cameraman, a video journalist who clearly studied at the James T Kirk school of combat. Singer brings just the right amount of swagger and earnest cynicism to a role that could easily, but never quite does, topple over into cheesy overkill. He’s counterpointed nicely by the principled and noble scientist Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant).
The supporting cast, with the likes of the wonderful Leonardo Cimino, Robert Englund, Frank Ashmore and Richard Herd and, in V: THE FINAL BATTLE, Michael Ironside and Sarah Douglas, is as solid as it is eclectic and every major player in the drama benefits from performances which range from solid to spectacular.
Of course, you can’t discuss V or THE FINAL BATTLE without mentioning Jane Badler. Chewing scenery and swallowing guinea pigs with equal ferocity, Badler’s Diana takes no prisoners as she carries the whole story before her (and does, in fact, take thousands of prisoners). Her aforementioned rodent repast is one of the series’ – and possibly network television’s – most iconic reveals and throughout the nearly eight hours of both mini-series, she consistently delivers J R Ewing levels of dastardly charisma, treading the fine line of malevolent pantomime that all truly great sci-fi villains need.
There is, to be fair, a significant difference in pacing between the first series and its sequel. The first episode of V spends a little too much time watching various characters watching television but it picks up the action in the second part and then goes into overdrive for the much more bombastic and action-packed V: THE FINAL BATTLE.
While it may be steeped in the darkest aspects of the American Experience and its vulnerability to descending all too easily into fascism, ultimately it reasserts the most optimistic and altruistic aspects of American culture as courage, determination, scientific progress and, admittedly, lots and lots of guns save the day – and the world, although it’s something of a wry allegorical irony that by the end, Donovan aside, the fascist aliens are taken down by an almost exclusively blond-haired, blue-eyed attack force.
ManInBlack May 24, 2021
“this version was rejected by NBC for being too intellectual for the American mainstream audience”
Nice to know what NBC thinks of their viewers! 😛
rebeccadeniston May 25, 2021
I wonder if today’s “Stranger Things” fans really know how much that show draws from “V.” If you know, you know, lol.
Debbie May 26, 2021
I have to say, I was a tad skeptical when you picked this as your topic, but I did ask people to think outside the box. Now I want to see them! I was not into sci-fi when they were first broadcast (though I remember my parents watching and liking it very much). Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!
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