A product of its storytelling time, but in a good way: V

Dealing with Trixie’s diarrhea kept me too zonked to watch any movies last weekend. That works out well as I realized when writing up movies watched for The Aliens Are Here, I forgot the two-part TV movie V (1983), even though it’s one of the films I spotlight. Rewatching it after so many years made me appreciate what a remarkable movie it is, and how it’s very much the product of its time.

For once I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a product of the era when complex, multi-story TV shows with big casts were in vogue. First came Hill Street Blues (1981), a serious drama about cops operating out of the Hill Street station, then St. Elsewhere and LA Law. Kenneth Johnson’s ambitious script fits the same mode: more than 50 speaking parts (he didn’t even give them names in the treatment he gave NBC, figuring The Cameraman and The Thief would be easier to follow) in multiple plotlines and individual dramas: a thief rebelling against family expectations, a doctor whose marriage collapses, a loser who sees new opportunities in a world conquered by alien fascists.

Johnson originally pitched this to NBC programming guru Brandon Tartikoff as Storm Warning, about a homegrown fascist takeover of the United States (something the 1968 movie Shadow on the Land tried unsuccessfully). Tartikoff replied that audiences would find it easier if the USSR or China conquered us but Johnson wanted to spin off a series and didn’t think that would fly. Alien fascists was the solution.

In the opening scenes we meet the massive cast, though it turns out many of them are tied together, either by family or living in the same neighborhood. Key players include medical student/biochemist Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant), reporter Donovan (Marc Singer), Holocaust survivor Abraham (Leonard Cimino), Julie’s colleague Ben Taylor (Richard Lawson) and Ben’s brother, burglar Elias (Michael Wright). The cast includes men, women, teens and seniors, black, white and Hispanic (nobody gay — that was a rare thing still in 1980s TV, and rarer to be done well).

We meet Donovan and his partner Tony (Evan Kim) reporting on a rebel camp in El Salvador. At the time the U.S. backed Salvadorian government was deploying death squads to execute “communists,” which often meant “teaching the peasants to read and count so they know if their contracts and paychecks are fair.” The movie thereby declares its politics, much like Rick in Casablanca having run guns to anti-fascists in Ethiopia and Spain.

The government forces arrive and a chopper is about to blast Donovan when it suddenly flees. Turning around, Donovan sees a giant saucer flying behind him, which turns out to be one of several appearing around the world (because of budget limitations these were done by the traveling matte process, something akin to a double exposure, rather than models). The result is 24/7 news coverage including interviews with an off-screen Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Eventually a shuttle craft lands and the aliens, to everyone’s relief, turn out to be human, except for their strange voices (Johnson says that was to simplify the plot choices — the Visitors can’t pass among us unnoticed). They’re here to obtain chemicals their planet needs; in return, they offer scientific breakthroughs.

Even so the reactions range from wariness to enthusiasm (Kenner puts out a full line of Visitor action figures and ships) to calculated ambition: Donovan’s mother Eleanor (Neve Patterson) quickly sucks up to them to ensure her businessman second husband gains an edge in whatever business transactions develop. Her ambition captures a running theme in the show, power: who has it? Who fights it? Who kisses it’s ass?

Unsurprisingly, things soon go pear-shaped. The Visitors discover a cabal of scientists plotting to exploit their technology (they make public confessions); outraged, they have no choice but to seize control of the world’s governments. Julie and other scientists become pariahs, the counterpart to Jews in the Visitors’ New World Order. This didn’t entirely work for me — unlike Jews, “scientist” isn’t a sharply defined group and they don’t have centuries of hate against them. Recent anti-covid reactions against doctors and health officials prove it’s not as farfetched as I thought. Julie’s stockbroker husband finds he’s losing a lot of business from being married to a scientist, which ends the marriage; surprisingly he vanishes from the story after that, including the various sequels.

As the Visitors tighten their grip, Julie and some of the other characters form a resistance cell. Julie slides into leadership without trying. When they’re not sure what to do, she suggests something; when nobody volunteers, she does. As leadership duties pile up, she comes close to cracking, but takes advice from a friend to just bluff her way through — nobody will know. Putting a woman in a leadership role was a novel idea back then, and it’s impressive still today. I’d figured Grant for a rising star but after she married Stephen Collins she wound up staying home with the kids.

Donovan, who eventually hooks up with Julie’s resistance cell, learns the truth about the Visitors. First, under their human masks they’re reptilians. The chemicals are a red herring; their goal is to drain Earth of its water and abduct most of the population. Some will be brainwashed into fighting in Visitor wars elsewhere; some will be food. The cabal of scientists doesn’t exist: their confessions were the result of Visitor scientist Diana’s (Jane Badler) brainwashing techniques.

A number of alien invasion movies such as Battleship or Independence Day thoroughly Other the aliens (I’ll be blogging about that soon). They’re monsters, fiends, merciless, and want nothing but to exterminate the human race. They won’t have any mercy so we don’t have to. V doesn’t go that way. There’s a resistance that makes common cause with the human rebels, as well as non-resistance good aliens such as Willie (Robert Englund, before he became big with Nightmare on Elm Street). Some humans are happy to go Nazi (so to speak): along with Eleanor, teenage Daniel (David Packer) is a frustrated loser whose new role in the equivalent of the Hitler Youth gives him power and influence he’s never tasted before. He doesn’t use them well. At the end of the series, all the sides — Visitors, resistance, rebels, quislings — are set up for more adventures.

V set records in the ratings and Johnson was optimistic it could go to series. NBC told him they couldn’ afford it, so he proposed a series of TV movies instead; NBC didn’t bite (later Johnson’s Alien Nation TV series on Fox did wrap up its plotlines by going this route). Johnson then wrote V: The Final Battle to wrap things up but didn’t think the budget would let him do a good job and walked away. It’s good, but not as good; the one-season series that followed isn’t good at all.

This one was a pleasure to rewatch. I highly recommend it.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

1 Comment

Filed under Movies, TV

One response to “A product of its storytelling time, but in a good way: V

  1. Pingback: Hating the alien: the othering of extraterrestrials | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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