V: Lizard Aliens as a Social Reminder

May 13, 2010 | 10 books mentioned 15 5 min read

1.
coverThe revamped V (for those who don’t tune in: V stands for Visitors) on ABC has me completely hooked. Crazy but true, I DVR Giada De Laurentiis cooking shows in the same click as human-munching reptile aliens. And I’ve got my husband addicted too. He’s been away in Salt Lake City since the show’s March return. During the commercial breaks, we dial each other like high school kids.

Me: “The kid just got lizard licked!”

Hubs: “Whatever, that’s a hot alien. I’d let her lick me.”

Me: “That’s her candy coating. Underneath she’s got snake eyes.”

Hubs: “Still, she’s hot.”

Me: “You’re despicable. Don’t you have any human pride?”

These are the not-so-adult conversations between us.

I grew up in a sci-fi loving home courtesy of my dad who’s a product of the Final Frontier generation—Shatner and Nimoy and the Lost in Space Robot. A child of the 80s, I was suckled on Star Wars and Quantum Leap. However, as I grew into adulthood, I became something of a sci-fi snob, rolling my eyes and shaking my head at laser beams and the Galactica crew heroics. I acquiesced to my dad’s 24/7 Sci-Fi Channel whenever I visited home, but beyond that my interest in extraterrestrials and spaceships was nonexistent. Until now. Like I said, I’m completely bewitched. Some of this could be blamed on my aforementioned childhood.

coverThe original V miniseries aired in 1983. I watched it, snuggled beside my dad who attempted to cover my eyes during the “bad parts.” To this day, my mom denies this memory—because she would never, never have allowed such a thing. And maybe so, but obviously she wasn’t invited to the daddy-daughter sci-fi party. I distinctly remember burying my face in my dad’s arm when Diana (the V leader) expanded her jaw and swallowed a guinea pig whole. My dad yelled, “Dadburnit, she’s a snake!” (Note: This is probably the basis of my fear of snakes, lizards, frogs and turtles.) It was terrifying! Yet even then, I was completely captivated.

coverThere was something about the miniseries that transcended the average “Beam me up, Scotty.” Despite the lizard thing, it was intellectual and deeply affecting. So it comes as no surprise it was inspired by Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. A novel chronicling fascism in the United States. According to television lore, the director-producer Kenneth Johnson wrote an adaptation of the book entitled Storm Warnings in 1982. NBC executives rejected it. Too heavy for average American viewers who were lining up at the box office for films like Tron and E.T. So they dumbed it down: made the American fascists into man-eating reptilian humanoids, and the show premiered to rave reviews on May 3, 1983.

Johnson later explained that the series was intended to be a political thriller and a Nazi allegory. From the Swastika-like emblems on the Visitor’s uniforms and the “Friends of the Visitors” youth movement to the mass broadcasting of messages mimicking Nazi radio propaganda. Humans in the show were forced to choose sides: collaborate with the occupying forces or join underground resistance movements, like the Fifth Column. While the brunt of Nazi persecution was targeted at Jews, the Visitors attacked anyone opposed to their dogma. Their infiltration of human society begins as a subterfuge but eventually transitions to a full-fledged military coup d’etat. The original series went so far as to incorporate a Holocaust survivor, the grandfather of Daniel Bernstein, who duly noted history’s repetition.

covercoverV ran roughly three hours and twenty minutes and was so successful in the ratings that the 1984 sequel V: The Final Battle was produced, supposedly to conclude the saga. But viewers couldn’t let go and the network wouldn’t pass up capitalizing on its popularity. V: The Series ran from 1984 to 1985 without Johnson as director. He left during The Final Battle after a disagreement with NBC executives on how the story should progress.

2.
Twenty-seven years later, the story is as fresh as it was in 1983. As fresh as it was in 1935.

Let’s face it—fascism still scares the hell out of us. The idea of social interventionism to promote the state’s interests is terrifying. Social indoctrination by way of state-regulated education and media propaganda makes our skin crawl. Eugenics for the purpose of social hygiene is monstrous. Discrimination based on culture, gender and sexuality is a nasty battle we fight daily. A hunger for expansionist imperialism, ideologically and physically, lingers on. Turn on the nightly news, tune into reality, and notes of Lewis’s novel and Johnson’s script continue to echo.

This may be exactly why V has seen such popularity with the 2010 audience. We live in a world where history repeats itself; where old ideas cloak themselves in various contemporary skins and pretty packages for each budding generation. The series continues to strike a chord because in a non-didactic way, it reminds us that the catastrophes of our past are but a handful of forgetful seasons away.

3.
Currently on the show, V spaceships loom over all the major cities. Anna (the 2010 V leader) promises peace, opens cure-all health centers and introduces advances in technology that surpass anything the world has ever seen. Using mass media, she seeks to indoctrinate a devoted following of humans involved in her Peace Ambassadors program. From the outside, the arrival of the V’s looks rosy, but beneath is a diabolical agenda to take over the Earth.

The updated series has been hit by a tidal wave of controversy. Rumor has it that it’s an allegorical representation of President Barack Obama’s administration. Many critics have pointed out the subtextual nods. In her review for The Washington Post, Lisa de Moraes noted that the series debuted on the first anniversary of Obama’s election, and that carefully embedded catchphrases like “hope”, “change”, and “universal health care” are frequently used by the Visitors.

Glenn Garvin of the Chicago Tribune wrote that the show was a “rousing sci-fi space opera about alien invaders bent on the conquest (and digestion) of all humanity, it’s also a barbed commentary on Obamamania that will infuriate the president’s supporters and delight his detractors.”

Additionally, critical bloggers were quick to point out lines that hold an uncanny resemblance to quotes by Obama staff members. In one episode about a natural disaster that the V’s intervene to solve, Anna tells a news reporter, “There’s tragedy every day, all over your world—so many opportunities to help.” Likewise, Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is quoted as saying, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste… it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

At the 2009 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour session for V, the three producers Scott Peters, Jace Hall and Jeffrey Bell discussed the controversy. Peters explained, “Listen, I think that shows are open to interpretation. People bring subjective thoughts to it. And if you want to ascribe those words to the Visitors or to whatever is going on in our society, that’s sort of up to the viewer, but there’s no particular agenda to hone in on those specific things.”

Bell followed up, “We are talking about the metaphors and allegories here, and at a certain level, I just want to remind people it’s a show about spaceships on ABC at 8 p.m.”

Peters went on to clarify: The show is about the dangerous side of blind devotion. “ What happens when you don’t ask questions about the things you believe in?” he said. “And I think that can be applied across the board whether you are talking about a political issue or a religious issue or a relationship issue, any number of things.”

Alien spaceships making us pause in our prime time television consumption and (gasp!) think? Wouldn’t that be revolutionary! The producers’ comments may not lay the Obama controversy to rest, but we could use a little social reminder these days—even if it comes as science-fictionalized reptile aliens masked in hot human form plotting world conquest and mankind annihilation. Like the namesake characters, there’s more than meets the eye in V.

is the author of the international bestseller and 2012 Goodreads Choice Award nominee The Baker's Daughter (Crown) and The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico (Random House). Her novella The Branch of Hazel will be a part of Grand Central anthology (Penguin, July 2014). She is currently working on her third novel, to be published by Crown in 2014. You can learn more about Sarah at www.sarahmccoy.com or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.  Married to an Army doc, she currently lives in El Paso, Texas, but calls Virginia home.

15 comments:

  1. I am more curious than ever to watch this show now that I have read Sarah’s comments. Thank you for your insightful take on this series.

  2. One vital aspect of the original miniseries: Kenneth Johnson had read WAR AND PEACE before starting work on the script, and the alien component came later. In other words, Johnson had always planned grand things to say about the human condition (and he would later go on to produce the ALIEN NATION television series with similar success). So for Peters, Hall, and Bell to declare their vile remake merely “a show about spaceships” says more about their chicanery, their lower artistic ambitions, and their capitulation to market forces. You also have to remember that in the 1980s, it was still possible to sneak subversive subtext into genre television. But it was becoming less possible, as Harlan Ellison learned with his infamous “Knackles” script for the 1980s Twilight Zone series. At least you didn’t have producers outright denying their artistic intentions the way they do today — whether it’s the V bunch outright denying their reactionary agenda or the LOST producers claiming that they always had a grand masterplan.

  3. One more thing (while I’m on the subject). Sam Egan, one of the writers for the 1990s OUTER LIMITS series, has worked on the V remake. (Curiously enough, he also worked for Kenneth Johnson during THE INCREDIBLE HULK.) He wrote some of the best episodes of THE OUTER LIMITS, including “Tribunal,” which dealt with Auschwitz., often embedding his scripts with interesting moral questions. That a writer of his talent hasn’t been permitted the same degree of latitude with the V remake says much about how genre television has drastically changed in the past twenty years.

  4. I get the subtext, the subversiveness, and the scaly satire. What I can’t get past is the bad acting and even more dreadful dialogue.

    That being said, my wife and I religiously TiVo “V,” unable to resist the embedded subliminal messages to “Watch or Die.”

    We don’t however, sit on the couch and give each other lizard licks.

  5. I’m with David on this one. My husband and I watch it weekly–we even started watching it with friends lately. But that’s only because we’ve started to play a V drinking game along with it: drink when Tyler gets HUGZ, drink when someone talks to a marble, drink when there’s obvious CGI (clearly, we drink a lot!). The concept is great, but the execution is just resoundingly terrible, and the science fiction conceits are very poorly thought out. As a fan of Kenneth Johnson, I’m afraid, very afraid, for what’s coming with the Alien Nation reboot.

  6. Holy wow do I ever have an issue with how this new twisted V has caused you to have a majoy lapse in terminology. This may be a very small point but it is one Kenneth Johnson has loudly defended. It’s in this sentence:

    “when Diana (the V leader) expanded her jaw”

    The V leader? Good lord, V never ever was used in the ridiculous way the new series uses it! Are you assuming your readers have bought into the ridiculous notion that these aliens were called the “V”s in the original? It’s a term MANY old time fans (and many new comers from what I read all over the web) still finds sounds absolutely laughable! (oh and I could go on and on and on about how they’ve completely twisted his story into a senseless pile of…)

    They were the Visitors in the original, plain and simple without a species name. V always and always has stood for Victory- as in the “V” that was flashed throughout the world for Victory during the second world war, which was what V originally was an allegory for!

    You do Kenneth Johnson’s brilliant V a huge disservice by applying this nonsense when describing his V.

    It’s a quibble I agree but it strikes at the very heart of why many, many see this new V as a piece of garbage (and I’m not even talking about the horrible plotting, acting, 2-dimensional characterizations and shockingly bad green-screen effects!).

    On this one, I stand firmly behind KJ and his attempts to bring his V back to the big-screen.

    Sorry for the little rant but I’m such a huge fan of KJ and his V that it breaks my heart seeing what they’ve done to his amazingly dark, adult and complex vision!

  7. also… “This may be exactly why V has seen such popularity with the 2010 audience” ummm where did this come from? It’s on the verge of being canceled with consistently under-performing ratings. How does that translate into being popularity with the audience?

    If ONLY what the producers squawk about constantly in articles (and as quoted above) actually showed up onscreen! They go on and on about social commentary this and WTF moments that but it’s all ends with cardboard characters, painfully obvious cliffhangers and “just HOW many times can we fit v-daughter into her underwear in an episode” moments!

    Hopefully by next Tuesday it’ll all be over with it’s cancellation and maybe, just maybe some intelligent sci-fi can take it’s place.

  8. Thank you to everyone for your comments! I knew this topic would illicit some impassioned responses.

    Lady by the Lake, I’m happy you enjoyed reading!

    Edward, Great information. Thanks for adding to the dialogue!

    David, Glad to hear you and your wife don’t lizard lick. I imagine it’s a good way to get a wretched hairball.

    Phoebe, Hilarious! I may have to give your game a shot.

    Christopher, You are a true V aficionado! The 2010 series has obviously not stood up to your expectations. So it is with many remakes of 80s classics. (I hear they are remaking The Karate Kid and I balk!) Actually, V did well enough in its January 2010 premiere to solidify a March comeback. And, yes, while longtime fans might despise it, V has captured the attention of a new generation, applying many of the fundamental issues of Sinclair Lewis’s novel to today’s society. As bad as the show may be in some opinions, it is stirring emotions, thoughts and perhaps even action, which is never a bad thing.

    I hate to point this out, but I see a pattern in sci-fi TV history. Shatner was criticized as ridiculous; Star Trek was panned and canceled after only three seasons. They ran it in syndication through the 70s and now look at it. I’m not saying V will have the same good fortune, but you can’t discount that it has an audience that for one reason or another simply can’t turn it off.

    It’s great to hear so many people’s opinions. Keep them coming!

  9. And, yes, while longtime fans might despise it, V has captured the attention of a new generation, applying many of the fundamental issues of Sinclair Lewis’s novel to today’s society.

    Sarah . . . really? Where are you seeing/hearing this? I’m genuinely curious (and as a Trekkie and a huge SF fan generally, I don’t think you can accuse me of anti-SF bias!), as even my 20-something, LOST loving peers seem to view V with either complete disinterest or derision. I mean . . . action?! What action has it inspired?

  10. Shatner was criticized as ridiculous; Star Trek was panned and canceled after only three seasons. They ran it in syndication through the 70s and now look at it. I’m not saying V will have the same good fortune, but you can’t discount that it has an audience that for one reason or another simply can’t turn it off.

    First off, Roddenberry, for all of his faults (and there were many), was careful to hire Grade-A talent to write the scripts (Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, just to name a few) in the first season. And it was the WRITING that caused Star Trek to endure. Just as it was the WRITING that causes the original V to be remembered s fondly in this thread. Just as it is the BAD WRITING that causes the V remake to be roundly ridiculed and not particularly likely to find some future syndicated gold.

    As Ring Lardner once pointed out, it is the writing that matters first and foremost THAT is the pattern to study. And it is the basis for all the complaints in this thread.

  11. Phoebe, Maybe I hang around too many sci-fi lovers bantering about the show. When I say “action” I’m referencing this very moment if nothing else. The fact that people are willing and wanting to fervently discuss, defend and/or criticize the series. That fans and anti-fans are looking past the cartoonish CGIs to the message–to the writing! As Edward so wonderfully pointed out.

    Edward, Bravo! I wholeheartedly agree. As I wrote in the essay, the original V rose above the average because of its underpinning–the excellent script inspired by Lewis. I’m no fortune-teller. I can’t foresee how history will remember the revamped series. What I can say is that it’s caused a ripple, however small. It’s been controversial and brought the original series with all its inspirations back into the momentary spotlight. I can’t help but be excited by that.

    Note: I’m somewhat playing the devil’s advocate. I’m interested in hearing all sides–lovers and haters. So THANK YOU for your thoughtful comments. Nothing beats a witty parley with intelligent readers!

  12. But Sarah, regardless of what history will remember about this series, you’ve yet to say anything about what makes the series compelling or interesting beyond its concept (which, of course, is a retread, and thus you’ve got to wonder why you’re not just recommending that we watch the original on DVD or something). I don’t mean to come poop in your blog entry or anything, but it seems like you’re being a bit obtuse about the show’s very obvious flaws, instead choosing to talk in broad strokes and platitudes about history repeating itself and people “taking action.” I mean . . . do you find the characters interesting and believable? The writing well-thought out and well-developed? The concepts firm, the science fiction conceits effective?

    I hang out with sciffy folks, too (proofread for the mag Strange Horizons, for one), and I’ve yet to hear any banter about it, impassioned or not; in fact, this, and the equally baffling, but at least more explicitly explained, fairly positive recaps over at tor.com (which frequently get a resounding lack of comments) by Mur Lafferty are pretty much the only positive reception I’ve seen of the show by SF fans. I can’t help but shake my head, mostly in disbelief.

  13. I think Phoebe nailed it. To praise the new V series without citing specific examples why it is so compelling (which I would likewise be curious to hear), while simultaneously suggesting that it will be a big hit in years to come is a very disingenuous position, regardless of your amicable intentions. The “controversy” you purport to identify here has less to do with something vanguard or revolutionary (such as Ralph Bakshi’s films, PINK FLAMINGOS, Bret Easton Ellis’s AMERICAN PSYCHO, Lars van Trier’s films, et al.), but more to do with derivative writing or pedestrian filmmaking that props up a facile reactionary viewpoint that the very producers don’t possess the guts to address. So explain yourself, Sarah. Why is the V remake the best thing since sliced bread? Where is the vital “social reminder” that these new folks have cooked up? Is there any indication that they’ve even read Sinclair Lewis?

    “Revolutionary” art doesn’t reinforce the artistic status quo. It advances the form with a fresh take. It need not even be left-wing. (TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and THE BIRTH OF A NATION are both revolutionary films, even if the intent is reactionary.) But there’s no such advancement of the form with the V remake, despite its second season renewal. Nor, I would argue, is there much in the way of a “social reminder” other than the entrails taken from the original. Rather than err on the side of caution, as you have in this essay, I’m wondering why you can’t just tell it like it is.

  14. Folks…
    Let’s not get too haughty with our exhaustive critiques of a sci-fi, pop culture resurgence. Apparently the slouches at salon.com don’t castigate the retreaded “V’s” as such an abomination ( http://www.salon.com/entertainment/tv/v/index.html?story=/ent/tv/feature/2010/05/18/v_original_vs_remake_open2010 ). So let’s call a spade and spade and not seek the panacea to moral turpitude in a prime time show about reptillian world domintation.

    Thoughtful piece, Sarah, and a nice throwback to my youth.

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