Alien babies! Devouring live guinea pigs! The Star Child! Mark Singer! These are the visual elements that impressed and stuck with me in the years since V first aired on television in 1983. The original miniseries spawned a second in V: The Final Battle. A season long show followed and ran from 1984-1985. Though I remember only the most compelling details (compelling to a child, that is) V is one of the now classic science fiction franchises that helped to shape this Geekess.
Over the past few days I watched a marathon of the original series on the SciFi Channel – only now from the perspectives of an adult viewer and pop culture connoisseur. While the special effects are cheesy, the hair and makeup dated (if, awesomely 80s), and the series as a whole was wrapped up rather carelessly (um, the Leader changed his mind!?!?), there is much more to be gained from revisiting the episodes than simple nostalgia. The genre themes that contribute to its well-deserved status as a cult television show – powerful women, politics, underdogs, a cause, helping others even at cost to yourself – are the staples that have given other scifi franchises, such as Star Trek, their resonance.*
So it was with all this in mind that I watched the pilot for the remake of V last night.
It moved quickly and not a lot happened.
That doesn’t mean I won’t be watching next week.
In fact, let me rephrase. A lot did happen, but without much narrative surrounding it. Meaning, what happened came off like a bullet pointed checklist of what needed to happen in the first hour. (Light spoilers.)
– Motherships arrive and hover over easily identifiable cities (London, Cairo, Paris, New York, San Francisco . . .).
– Single mother searches for son in Manhattan – and finds him on the street. During a mass panic. Because it’s just that easy. (Additionally, son is angsty rebel without a cause. Blames mother for his parent’s divorce.)
– Mother is an FBI agent with a seemingly adoring partner. (Emphasis on “seemingly.”)
– Aliens are all about peace and “universal” health care and stuff. Have a creepy, culty mantra.
– Overly obvious religious symbolism! Questioning of faith!
– Man has a deep dark secret he must keep from his fiancée.
– Rebellious son finds cause (getting into Laura Vandervoort’s spacesuit.)
– Crazy conspiracy theorists have secret meetings. (Okay, can’t aliens EVER visit earth en mass without the loonies being right?)
– Hot alien leader, make that superhot alien leader, proves a manipulative foe.
– Heavy-handed, if nicely filmed, above ground/below ground juxtaposition.
All that said, pilot episodes deserve some slack. They’re meant to be introductions to the series ahead and must simultaneously feed us essential details while providing compelling reasons to tune in to learn more. And V did get a decent job of negotiating that. It was not on par with some of the best pilots in recent years: Battlestar Galactica, Alias, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and LOST, to name a few, but it was certainly better than say the introductions to Bionic Woman or Dollhouse.
Additionally, some of the difficulties surrounding any remake, or reimagining, is that audiences already know the mythology surrounding it. It can be difficult to build suspense when we know that Morena Baccarin’s Anna is lying from the get-go. This means that our storytellers have to get the details we already know out of the way as soon as possible.
Aliens arrive. Aliens offer promising exchange. Aliens turn out to be traitorous monsters that have been planning invasion for years. A Human resistance forms. Or, to take example from another revamped cult series, Cylons arrive. Cylons turn out to be traitorous monsters that have been planning human annihilation for years. A Human resistance forms.
It may seem tedious, but V needs to acknowledge its antecedents, including the original series, before it can evolve into something unique. In fact, the pilot recognizes that certain scifi images and stories are so ingrained in the cultural consciousness that some repetition will be impossible to avoid.
“Dude, this is Independence Day,” says one of the characters in reference to the 1996 film. His buddy responds without missing a geek beat, “Which was a rip-off of any number of alien invasion predecessors.”
Hopefully, V will be able to move beyond its alien invasion predecessors to engage us with something thought-provoking and new.
Lisa Fary at Pink Raygun likes Baccarin’s hair, but is disappointed in the heavy-handed tone of the episode.
Charlie Jane Anders at io9 encourages us to give the show a chance in the face of so much talk of staff and scheduling changes and reminds us that even if the show is canceled, “We are science-fiction fans, and having our hearts broken is part of the deal.”
* On a side note, after watching the series I realize I was remiss in not including Faye Grant’s Dr. Julie Parrish in my book, and will have to do so if there’s a second edition. She is the only woman hero I’ve encountered to be featured on television in the 1980s (other than the animated Jem and the Holograms and She-Ra).
As the founder and leader of the human resistance against the Visitors she was consistently portrayed as smart, resourceful, determined, and capable of making hard choices. And she does more saving than being rescued. In fact, Dr. Juliet Burke on LOST is a similar character (though she’s also laden with romance drama that Julie isn’t plagued with) so perhaps it’s fitting that Elizabeth Mitchell plays a main character on the new V.
Also – Diana and Lydia are totally going in the Supervillainesses book. I mean, just look at them! The hair! The backstabbing! The thinly-veiled Sapphic undertones (complete with Dynasty-esque catfights)! The evil so evil it’s EEEEEE-VIL! Love. It.