Seeing Kenneth Johnson’s credit as the creator of the original V on tonight’s premiere of the ABC remake reminded me of how intelligent and exciting the 1983 miniseries was. Judging just from the pilot, it doesn’t appear the new V is an improvement in any way, except perhaps the visual effects. It isn’t particularly intelligent or exciting either.
The story covered a lot of ground in 42 minutes, making the exercise feel rushed, and much of it is too difficult to swallow. Believing that New Yorkers would applaud a giant spaceship two minutes after it appeared over the city is a lot tougher to buy than the existence of extraterrestrials themselves. Scott Wolf (PARTY OF FIVE) is miscast as a television journalist, though Elizabeth Mitchell (LOST) as a strong FBI agent and particularly Morena Baccarin (FIREFLY) as Anna, the leader of the aliens, are perfectly suited to their roles.
As for the big reveal of the aliens, I actually didn't mind that it occurred so quickly, since it wasn’t a mystery to most of the audience anyway, so why treat it as one. Still, V has some problems. Scott Peters, who developed the remake, was just today fired as V’s showrunner and replaced by Scott Rosenbaum, a former executive producer of CHUCK and THE SHIELD, so it appears that ABC recognizes the flaws in the show’s early episodes and are trying to correct them. But will it be in time?
Looking back to the four-hour NBC miniseries that aired in 1983, it stands out as an ambitious, sprawling exercise that was, at the time, the most expensive miniseries ever made. The visual effects alone, which include mattes, miniatures, and animation, cost over a million dollars. Originally penned by Johnson (THE INCREDIBLE HULK) as a cautionary tale of an American takeover by hostile forces from within, he rethought the concept after suggestions from NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff, and turned it into a science fiction fable of epic proportions.
Johnson's plot involves the Visitors, seemingly friendly aliens from another planet who arrive on Earth in dozens of gigantic motherships that hover over most of the world's major cities, including Los Angeles. Led by their Supreme Commander, who calls himself John (T.J. HOOKER boss Richard Herd), and his comely assistant Diana (Jane Badler), the Visitors “come in peace" to ask for our help in creating a chemical that they need to survive. In exchange, they'll provide us with medical and scientific knowledge far beyond what we already know.
While most of the world welcomes our new friends with open arms—and even into their homes—some, such as maverick news photographer Mike Donovan (Marc Singer), are wary. Their suspicions prove to be correct when the Visitors begin kidnapping Earth's greatest scientific minds, manipulating the media and imposing martial law.
To investigate, Donovan sneaks aboard the mothership hovering over L.A., where he discovers that the humanlike Visitors are actually reptilian creatures in disguise and that they're kidnapping Earth's population to use as food! Joining up with a small army of resistance fighters led by biochemist Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant, just off THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO), Donovan uses his journalistic instincts and friendly sources behind enemy lines to battle the Visitors' reign and, hopefully, rescue his son, who's one of the aliens’ victims.
V contains nearly sixty speaking parts, and it's interesting how Johnson has tied the characters’ plights and relationships together. The story bounces around from family to family, showing how the lives of ordinary Americans have been affected by the Visitors' arrival. Since V is obviously a not-so-subtle nod to the way in which Hitler and the Nazis were able to take over Europe in the '30s, one middle-class family is Jewish, including a suspicious patriarchal Holocaust survivor, who tries to hide a scientist's family in his pool house Anne Frank-style, and his disenfranchised grandson, who is seduced by the Visitors and becomes an informer for them.
Although four hours in length (with commercial interruptions), V doesn't feel padded at all, and, in fact, was followed a year later by a six-hour sequel and then nineteen episodes of a weekly series. Carefully mixing social commentary, preachy skepticism, and healthy doses of good old-fashioned action and adventure, writer/director Johnson has created a fascinating "what if" scenario that still holds its power nearly thirty years later, even after projects that were clearly heavily influenced by V, including INDEPENDENCE DAY, which lifted its big-money shots of huge, saucer-shaped motherships hovering over Washington D.C. directly from V.
One of V's best aspects is its casting, Joe Harnell’s massive score (by a sixty-piece orchestra—practically unheard of in television), and the lack of marquee names. Although several actors, such as Singer (THE BEASTMASTER), Grant, and Herd, had plenty of experience on the large and small screens, none were established stars, which helps lend the film verisimilitude. Showing ordinary people react under extraordinary circumstances is more effective when the characters truly seem ordinary, a trait bigger-named stars would find difficult to portray, due to their fame.
Singer, who was cast just three days before the start of principal photography, is very good in his man-of-action role, and Grant does a nice job playing a compassionate woman of science struggling to become tougher and less dependent when she finds herself the tower of guidance. Badler's sexy "bad girl" charisma is perfect for the power-hungry Diana, and supporting actors like Leonardo Cimino as the elderly Holocaust victim and Michael Wright as a streetwise petty thief who goes straight after the murder of his brother have standout scenes of their own. You’ll also recognize a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund as a friendly Visitor and genre veteran Andrew Prine as a not-so-friendly one. Dominique Dunne was originally cast in a major role, but was murdered by her jealous boyfriend during filming; only one shot of her (from behind) remains in the finished picture.
Johnson was slated to do the sequel, 1984’s V: THE FINAL BATTLE, but left following creative differences with NBC. The six-hour followup was then directed by Richard T. Heffron (FUTUREWORLD), who did a serviceable job. A weekly series found Singer, Grant, Badler, and FINAL BATTLE newcomer Michael Ironside still battling back and forth, but weak scripts and production values, as well as a deadly timeslot, sank the Visitors and their human prey relatively quickly.
V lived on in a series of novels—A.C. Crispin’s adaptation of the first two miniseries is fantastic—and rumors of a big-screen remake, possibly to be directed by Johnson, have persisted for years. V is finally back, albeit on the small screen, and not exactly off to a hot start creatively (though I expect ratings for the premiere to be very good). ABC plans to air only four episodes this fall, and then pull the series off the air entirely until the spring, which sounds like a terrible idea.