V: The Original Series, a close encounter with ham and cheese
(197 minutes, 2 parts)
Directed by Kenneth Johnson
Written by Kenneth Johnson
1983, US, NBC
From the get go, V does itself a slight disservice. In a move that would drive even the barely conscious to leap up and yell “thief!” this two-part miniseries rolls its opening credits to a rip-off of Bernard Hermann’s inimitable theme for North by Northwest. The mischievous, whirling melodies and propulsive brass of that great score are unmistakable and no amount of tinkering and fudging and key manipulation can excise the Hermann from the music. So, as a series of largely unfamiliar faces (at least presumably unfamiliar, back in 1983) is introduced in a manner bordering on hammy, one is left with the uneasy feeling that they are in the hands of either a witless parodist or a guileless plagiarist. In light of this, some relief can be found in the knowledge that V: The Original Series is neither witless parody nor guileless plagiarism. Not entirely.
In 1982 writer-director Kenneth Johnson fashioned a screenplay adaptation of a novel called It Can’t Happen Here authored by American writer Sinclair Lewis. Penned during the rise of the Third Reich, It Can’t Happen Here questions the apparent impossibility of a successful fascist movement evolving in the United States in much the same way it had in Germany. NBC executives apparently took a look at Johnson’s script, saw little ratings potential or – being fiercely patriotic – perhaps took offence, and turned it instead into a sci-fi matinee. Whether Johnson put up a fight is a slice of knowledge not widely accessible, but changes aside, V is no riddle or mind-boggler. It boldly announces the concerns of its creator, unsubtly, one could say. In addition, the decision to replace warm-blooded human fascists with literally cold-blooded extra-terrestrial colonialists is a curious one, but one which probably doesn’t contribute to nor detract much from the viewing experience.
V kicks off with an oddly action-packed A-Team style teaser that announces the fact that this production has some money behind it. While escaping from an undercover story gone wrong video-journalist/cameraman Mike Donovan encounters an enormous craft resting in the sky. In fact, across the globe, similar city-sized objects have positioned themselves above earth’s largest centres, including – of course – New York City. When the UN Secretary General makes televised contact with the occupants of the craft, dubbed “Visitors”, the human population is surprised by how peaceful and humanlike these extra-terrestrials appear. This perception will be gradually proven to be erroneous when Mike sneaks onto the mother-ship only to uncover and capture on camera a ghastly truth, the sharing of which makes him a fugitive and unleashes the true wrath of the Visitors upon the natives of planet earth.
It feels unfair to call something as socially conscious (or so it thinks) and heartfelt as this miniseries cheesy, but no other word will suffice in the face of such unambiguous parallels with Nazism and fascism in general. Not when a host of young Visitors tasked with forming inter-planetary bonds with young humans are dubbed the Visitor Youth. Certainly not when a prominent Visitor Youth convert is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. But where V redeems itself slightly (perhaps unwittingly) is in its transition from simply being a ham-fisted metaphor to being a mildly clumsy sci-fi resistance drama, shifting from New York to Los Angeles where the series’ co-protagonist Julie Parrish, an excessively serious medical student, leads an underground resistance movement. The presence of defectors within the Visitors camp adds an extra layer of even-handedness, though one could argue that this is simply a convenient device for the advancement of plot in favour of the earthlings.
With respect to its sci-fi slant, V might be considered indebted to Wars and Trek for their particular brands of intergalactic politics, diplomacy and warfare as well as Close Encounters with its concept of a peaceful – well – encounter. Throw in some 50s era science fiction hysterics and a hint of Don Siegel’s DNA and you end up with serviceable camp. Equally serviceable are the performances, most of which are perfectly adequate if a little dated (overused as the word may be). Content-wise, this could easily lose an hour and become a feature, or a tightly-paced TV movie at half its length. V’s bloatedness is really a result of its high-mindedness. Where most miniseries use their length to indulge pre-existing narrative richness, there is very little here to justify the format, much like Dead Set, a much superior work.
V ends with something of a cliff-hanger ending, that is to say, an ending with no definite resolution but with the affirmation that resistance is triumph in its own right. Succeeded by two continuations in the 80s, V was most recently revived in 2009 as a lukewarmly received series. In light of this, there is a definite dated charm to the ’82 original, to the Spielbergian idealism and palpable sense of conviction. Unfortunately this charm does not extend to the special effects considering some of the aforementioned influences i.e. Star Wars, Close Encounters and even ET had already raised the bar for effects believability. In light of this, V: The Original Series is not exactly victorious in its ambitions.
– Tope Ogundare