Looking Back At V (1983 Miniseries) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At V (1983 Miniseries)

Martin Rayburn is your friend.
A worldwide alien invasion. Huge, circular motherships arriving and taking up stationary orbit all over the planet, hovering directly over large cities. There's no denying that the opening gambit of the 1983 made-for-TV miniseries directly influenced the huge budget blockbuster than was 1996' Independence Day. The latter is not without merit, but lacks so much of the charm and important analogy that V offered for a fraction of the cost.

Having recently rewatched the original V two-part miniseries for what was, perhaps, only the fourth or fifth time in close to 40 years, I'd love to have gone in without any advance knowledge of the plot or special effects. Equally, though, I wouldn't trade my memories of that first viewing, when this and the sequel V: The Final Battle miniseries premiered across 5 nights here in the UK in, I believe, the summer of 1984. It was promoted by ITV for several weeks before its premiere by showing nothing more than those gigantic mother ships hovering over every city on the planet and the incredulous look of fear in the eyes of humanity seeing them for the first time. They dangled the worm, and I was hooked...
Written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, the man responsible for such shows as The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk series, and the short-lived 1989 TV adaptation of Alien Nation, V is the story of humanity's first contact with an alien race, and how this earth-shaking event affects the lives of a cross-section of citizens. By all appearances, the aliens appear to be benevolent and trustworthy... But appearances are quite deceiving, as television journalist cameraman Michael Donovan learns all too well. By the time the "Visitors'" motivations (and their truly alien nature) become clear, they are so firmly entrenched in our world and our culture that getting rid of them becomes the most herculean task. One that a noble band of resistance fighters take upon themselves to accomplish.

One of the elements to V's success is its cast. Leading, so to speak, the cast of human characters are Marc Singer as cameraman Mike Donovan and Faye Grant as med-student turned rebel leader Julie Parrish. Singer and Grant have a strong rapport and deliver performances that, for the most part, allow their characters to come across as real people in extraordinary situations. In fact the performances of the entire cast be described by that last phrase as well, among them the Bernstein family (played by George Morfogen, Bonnie Bartlett) who find themselves torn between their Visitor friendly son Daniel (David Packer) and the Holocaust survivor grandfather Abraham (Leonardo Cimino). The human side of the cast is just the tip of the iceberg though.
The alien "visitors" are equally well established across the three hours. They range from their seemingly benevolent leader John (played briefly and well by Richard Herd) to Andrew Prine as the authoritative Steven. Then there's the innocent abroad in the form of a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund as Willie, lending an interesting perspective to the unfolding proceedings. Stealing the show, among the cast at least, is Jane Badler as Diana. The most conniving of the alien visitors, Badler plays the role with a seriousness not usually found in this kind of genre programming of the era.

Allegory and symbolism abound (aliens as genocidal "supermen", allusions to the Holocaust, the hanging of propaganda posters, that almost familiar icon on the Visitors' vehicles and uniforms, to name but a few). The manipulation of mass media, and the ability of the public to accept the media's word as truth is particularly unsettling when viewed in 2021. Although this media aspect has been similarly explored in such diverse fare as Network and Tomorrow Never Dies, having lived through (and somehow survived) the Trump administration and now seeing a similar thing happening in Johnson's Britain, this feels all the more believable today than I suspect it did in 1983.
There is a strong human element at work within V. We see the various lives that are affected by a cunning invasion (reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s), and one cannot help but ask how each of us would react given the same situation. Because the world of V is really not that far removed from our own. OK, spaceships have not landed on top of the UN building, but we have seen war, genocide and the hand of tyranny in their myriad forms more often than we care to remember. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Cuba, China, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan. The list goes on. To what lengths must humanity be pushed before we stand up to the oppressor and say "No more!"? V shows us that, as in most any war, there are your heroes and patriots, your villains and murderers, your hapless (or apathetic) bystanders, your profiteers, and most sadly, your innocent victims. By the time frail Abraham Bernstein reminds us that "...we must help, or we haven't learned a thing." Despite the "money-shot" of those motherships and Diana enjoying her lunch, this is the single best scene across the entire miniseries, as Abraham, who is wanting to hide a persecuted family, reminds his son that this whole situation is all too familiar. The fear and resentment in the viewer's heart is kindled into a flame of anger and a call to action, much moreso than seeing those aliens destroy the White House in the latter blockbuster this miniseries obviously inspired.
As mentioned, this two-parter lays the groundwork for V: The Final Battle and a short-lived continuing series. However, I think the latter incarnations had huge mistakes in their plotting (hence why the series was cancelled so soon). Far better would have been to make a full series which picks up at the conclusion of this original miniseries - with the aliens firmly entrenched and in power, and the ragtag rebels attempting to disrupt their plans at every possible turn. The possibilities for drama on that scale were endless, but they were cut short by the sequel three-part Final Battle, and the unconvincing MacGuffin employed to kick of the weekly series ended-up watering down V's initial impact. I suspect the 2009 reboot would've eventually gone further with the rebellion, if it itself had not also been cancelled, but it took too long to get going and doesn't leave the same impression as the original.

All-in-all, V was a wondrous achievement in television that gave the world a new respect for science fiction within this broadcast format and its ability to make you imagine "what if?..." Watch it with a pitcher of ice water available, and then thank your lucky stars you have that water to drink.

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