Mar 25 2010 10:34am

V - A Retrospective Pt. 1

V The MiniseriesIn preparation for the return of the new V television series, I decided to get reacquainted with the old, as it originally aired when I was ten years old (so it’s been a while). I remember the peeling of skin and the flashing lizard tongues, Marc Singer’s manly chest and… that’s about it. So I figured since I’ll be covering the new series V for, I’ll get immersed in classic V.

Unlike when I tried to watch old Battlestar Galactica in order to compare it to the new, the V miniseries was quite enjoyable. Sure, it had its moments of 80’s schmaltz (most notably the hero, Mike Donovan’s, son stretching his hand toward the TV as he watches his dad take off on the Visitors’ shuttle, and a welcoming marching band that played the Star Wars theme song with just enough notes off to make any fan cringe) and some of the characters were a bit one-dimensional—namely the Visitors. WE ARE STERN ALIENS. STERN, I TELL YOU.

But overall, it’s a powerful story that’s more about fascism than aliens: the Visitors are the Nazis and scientists are the Jews. And, as I always notice this, the miniseries is quite feminist-minded for the time. For example, there’s a scene when Donovan discovers that Dr. Juliet Parrish is the leader of a cell of rebel scientists, his gut reaction is is not disbelief that a woman is leading them, but rather how young she is. “That kid?” Little details like that make me happy.

Visitors come to Earth in 50 massive mother ships and basically scare the hell out of humans by just hanging around for a couple of days. We take this time to learn our about characters and their situations. Dr. Parrish is a doctor who works in the ER and somehow is also seen in a lab doing experiments on rats. (I hoped they weren’t adjacent rooms.) Donovan is a cameraman in El Salvador trying to get footage of a massacre. Once the Visitors figure out the worlds’ various languages, they greet us and ask to speak to the UN General Secretary. The leader, John, assures us that they come in peace. (Famous last words.)

Turns out, shocker, that they don’t come in peace. The first thing they do is get some young adults on their side (Nazi youth, anyone?), including Daniel, the grandson of a concentration camp survivor. After conscripting the youth, they go after the scientists. One of Parrish’s colleagues grabs a skin sample of a Visitor off an injured human, but then she conveniently disappears. We’re talking about a miniseries 27 years old, which was attempting to equate scientists to Jews in WWII, but the fear and mistrust of scientists rings a little too true in today’s “edit the textbooks to fit our morals, and scientists are ungodly and evil” world.

Getting a little uncomfortable with the fact that his reporter girlfriend thinks the Visitors are all that and a bag of chips, Donovan sneaks aboard the mother ship and gets some footage of the Visitors talking about reprogramming key Earth scientists and leaders, devouring live rodents, and removing their skin to reveal lizard faces. Now I don't care about the semantics of “how could they make the tiny muscle movements the human face is capable of if their real face is an immovable lizard mask?” All I remember is that when that flesh came off for the first time, it was creepy and shocking.

Donovan makes it back to Earth and right before he can air his tape on the news, the Visitors take over all the media and declare martial law. Oh, and make Donovan a fugitive. Meanwhile, our scientist friends form an underground resistance, roping in street gangs for an odd cabal. Here the miniseries moves from fascist intrigue to action and frankly, I got a little bored. The highlight is the old woman throwing a Molotov cocktail into a Visitors’ shuttle, and, like all good vehicles in ’80s action movies, it becomes a fireball immediately.

Donovan gets captured, is freed by some rebel Visitors, and goes back to the mother ship because, hell, it’s just so nice up there. Oh yeah, and his kid and ex-wife are there. He meets with the Visitor rebel and learns that the reason the Visitors are there is not to take waste chemicals as they’d originally claimed, but all of Earth’s water. And by the way, there’s a food shortage too, so that’s why they’ve been rounding up scientists and dissidents. Snack time.

Throw in the second-in-command, Diana, and her desire for medical experiments on humans, and you’ve got yourself a party. Apparently, she messed up Donovan’s partner Tony so much that the director decided to let us imagine what was done to him, as we never saw the body, only Donovan’s reaction. She also sent the oh-so-dreamy Visitor Brian in to impregnate Robin, whose teenage angst and restlessness first betrayed her family to the Visitors, then played right into their hands. Lizard baby!

The series ends with a thrilling shuttle battle, as Donovan escapes from the mother ship one last time to fly a shuttle with no problems, with Sancho, the Mexican immigrant, as his gunner. Remember what I said about how well V treated women? Well, not so much with stereotypical minorities. We have Sancho with his subservient manner and his big hat, and we have Elias Taylor, brother of deceased Dr. Ben Taylor, playing a black hoodlum, calling his doctor brother Uncle Tom and Sidney Poitier, only showing a real personality when his brother dies. We appreciate that he drops the fake jive when he grows up a little, but the stereotypes grate on the nerves. The only minority who acts like a person instead of caricature is Tony, Donovan’s partner, who is Asian but only makes note of it at the beginning when they’re being chased by a helicopter and he mentions “at least if you’d died in Vietnam, I could’ve pass for one of them.” Course, you could also point out that the hunky blond lived while the Asian sidekick dies, which is a little stereotypical.

But I digress. The Visitors attack the rebels’ hideout in the mountains, tipped off by Robin’s father who tried to negotiate for her release, only the Visitors didn’t hold up their end of the bargain (shocker) and attacked before he could warn the rest of his family. (His wife was one of the casualties. Karma will fuck you up, man.) Dr. Parrish finds her courage to really lead the rebels, trying to shoot down Diana’s shuttle, and Donovan comes in to save the day. Everyone sighs, licks their wounds, makes some rousing speeches, and winks at the camera, hinting that much more is coming.

Oh, and Robin is now throwing up every morning. And you know a woman is not allowed to throw up on television unless she’s pregnant. Those are the rules.

Next retrospective: V: The Final Battle. (As soon as Netflix sends it.)

Mur Lafferty is an author and podcaster. She is the host and producer of the Story Podcast and I Should Be Writing and the author of Playing For Keeps, among other things. You can find all of her projects at

john mullen
1. johntheirishmongol
One of my fave miniseries ever, V was definitely a nazi parallel, with its symbol that was practically a swastika. The family that hid the scientists from their own son was a really smart, aware move. I do agree with you about the stereotype black guy, he was much more interesting after his brother died, but I liked the brother considerably more.
Also, it treated the younger gen like they were all total idiots, with the jewish son becoming a leader of the young visitors and the girl being stupid enough not stay where it was safe.

One other thing was the whole Robin pregnancy bit annoyed me just bcause of the biological impossibility and then it compounds it in V2.
William Frank
2. scifantasy
I first watched V late last year, shortly before the new series came out. And I had a very interesting conversation with a friend about it.

I found the whole thing incredibly, mind-bogglingly anvilicious. I mean, seriously--the old Jewish grandfather who mourns, "we said it would pass in Berlin in 1936," the grandson who becomes a brownshirt (though the scene where the grandfather hits the kid with a glassful was immensely satisfying), the mapping of "scientist" to "Jew" that didn't really hold water for me when I thought about it carefully (complete with an Anne Frank "hide the family" sequence), the transparent "tell us the secret, we promise we'll give your family special consideration/ha, ha, we lied!"...and then there was the immortal "our Leader rose to power because of charisma and at a weak time in our history. Surely that happened here on Earth?" "Well, yes, occasionally..."

But my friend--who grew up mostly in California--pointed out that one thing that was true of me, the New York Jew, was that I grew up hearing stories about the Holocaust and the way Germany slid into fascism. For her, when she saw it (back when it was new, which is another factor), it gave her the initial opening to ask questions about that point in history. It gave her the framework to start from, because she didn't get the story as much in school--certainly not at her young age.

Plus, like I said, I watched it last year, as an adult. She watched it when it was new, as a child. So perhaps it just didn't age well.

One external note about V that I've always thought interesting is that it was going to be an adaptation of an Sinclair Lewis (almost wrote Upton Sinclair, oops) novel about home-grown fascism, and between the network not wanting something to be so harsh and (let's face it) morally complex, and the recent success of Star Wars, the producer was basically told to rework it into "alien Nazis from outer space."
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
There were so many things wrong with V. The biology, of course, the fact that these aliens have the energy needed to travel across the vast reaches of space and transport eka-tons of water, but can't create the stuff out of the most common element in the universe or mine ice from uninhabited worlds or planets.

I watched this in college with my roommates, and we tore it to pieces. But the thing that has always stuck with me was a scene shortly after we see a couple of aliens devour some guinea pigs and reveal their long snaky tongues. Not long after that, evil young alien sets out to seduce naive teenage girl, and they go into a long, deep kiss. The three of us yelled almost as one, "Can't she tell!"
Elizabeth Randall
4. Elizabeth Randall
The metaphor was a bit heavy-handed, but it did still carry some weight. I liked that they had the guts to stop with the Visitors still on Earth and in charge (until the sequel). It was made it clear that this wasn't about the typical fight off the aliens story.

On the topic of things that don't age well: the soundtrack. Synthesizer overload, anyone?
Elizabeth Randall
5. a-j
I enjoyed the mini-series immensely first time out. It was the only thing you could watch in the British summer of '84 that wasn't the Olympics. The Nazi allegory was obvious but, as already pointed out, only to those who knew their German history. I remember reading that the makers had wanted to do something about collaboration and resistance in a contemporary occupied USA and only used the SF route because any other storyline (invasion by Cuba/El Salvador) was too unrealistic. This would explain the lazy use of SF tropes. I do remember noting how easy it was to blow up Visitor cars and fly and fight in their shuttlecraft. I also loved the idea of a high school band playing the Star Wars theme to alien visitors. Oh, and I still like the music.
Leilani Cantu
6. spanishviolet
The lizardy scenes terrified me when I was 6. When i rewatched on Sci Fi in high school, I loved the dramatics of it, and didn't mind the, erm, occasional over-reliance on cliche.

I still really enjoy the first miniseries, and found last time I watched it that Kenneth Johnson's commentary on the DVD had lots of entertaining anecdotes & behind the scenes details. Definitely worth a listen!

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