V (1983)

We recently completed one of our Christmas treats…the mini-series V, from way back in 1983.  I bought both it and it’s follow-up, V: The Final Battle for my kids (I like to make sure they are conversant in the classics), but let’s face it, it’s as much for me.

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Spoilers ahead for this nearly 37 year old TV show!

V is much-forgotten by many, but for me, as near-13 year old who was won over by the advanced and extensive (and yet spoiler-free) marketing campaign and tuned in eagerly to NBC on May 1, 1983, V remains a bright spot in my childhood imagination.  I watched as 50 giant flying saucers suddenly appeared around the earth without warning, inspiring confusion, panic and wonder.  (You may be thinking, “Big deal, I saw all that in Independence Day.  Well, V did it earlier and it did it better.)  I watched as the Visitors, as they came to be known, arrived with overtures of friendliness and warmth, but with something dark lurking beneath their smiling and sunglassed faces.

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And I certainly watched as we suddenly saw them eating live mice and guinea pigs, and as their attractive masks were ripped off to reveal hideous (and largely inarticulate) reptilian faces beneath.

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And then, like 40% of the viewing audience that night, I definitely tuned into episode 2 on the next night, and devoured the story as eagerly as a Visitor eats a live guinea pig.

V is of course a science fiction tale featuring spaceships, laser beams, and lizard men, but at its heart, the miniseries is really a contemporary retelling of the rise of the Nazis.  The story’s two episodes focuses on Los Angeles but give attention to a wide range of characters–old and young, rich and poor, educated and working class–and present a fairly believable picture of how Visitors ingratiate themselves into contemporary culture and steal away freedom as a result.

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Writer / director Kenneth Johnson–a science fiction TV stalwart known for his work on The Incredible Hulk, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and Alien Nation–puts a lot of attention on the way different people react to the circumstances.  Some are suspicious, of course, and others are killed or forcibly converted.  But many more are seduced by what the Visitor’s have to offer, as seen with the ambitious journalist who trades her objectivity for the prestige of being the Visitor’s public spokesperson, or the  socialite who sees the Visitors as a way to enhance her public status and to ensure her social standing.

One of the most interesting stories has to do with the Bernstein family.  The elderly grandfather, Abraham, is a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp.  He recognizes the signs of what is happening around him, but all-too-often his warnings fall on deaf ears.

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His son, Stanley, refuses to take the threat seriously, turning a blind eye and insisting that it will all pass.  And the grandson, Daniel, sadly finds new purpose and identity as part of the “Visitor’s Friends”, a youth movement made up of those who aspire to the alien’s ideals.  His descent into villainy is one of the show’s most tragic and most compelling storylines.

But what V is really about is the rise of a resistance movement–people from all walks of life, often fueled by tragedy and desperation, who band together to stand for the freedom of the human race.  The unlikely leader of this resistance is Juliet Parrish, a young medical student who has found many of her colleagues to be the victims of the Visitor’s active campaign against the scientific community who might expose them.  The story of her transformation into the leader of the resistance is in many ways the heart of the entire story.

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There is a great bit, for example, where she says to everyone that they should define their overall plan for resistance.  Everyone agrees enthusiastically, and then fall silent, turning to her with expectation.  Julie must rise up and lead, something she finds the strength to do even though she is completely out of her depth.

Her journey comes to symbolic completion in the series’ climactic moment, where she stands alone with a pistol, vastly underpowered against a fighter jet gunning toward her.  It’s a great moment, and an effective call back to a scene at the beginning where journalist Mike Donovan, the story’s other lead character, is covering another resistance leader in El Salvador, facing a threatening helicopter.  This is the sort of stuff that shows us that Johnson really is doing more than just making an sci-fi action movie–indeed, the film starts with a dedication, “To the heroism of the resistance fighters–past, present and future–this work is respectfully dedicated.”

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There are weaknesses to this whole thing, of course.  The whole thing has a bit of a juvenile feel, with lots of Star Wars-inspired action, including aerial dogfights and badly-aimed lasers firing everywhere, that is hard to take seriously.  Various story points are breezed over quite lightly and don’t stand up to much scrutiny.  For example, Donovan overhears a very conveniently expository conversation between Diana and Steven while he is sneaking around the ship.  Also, it’s hard to imagine why the Visitor’s would allow Robert Maxwell to return to his fellow resistance once he had given up the location of their mountain camp.  Or that they wouldn’t have followed him back to their city-based headquarters.  Or why, if they were planning on betraying him enemy, they’d wait until only an hour before the agreed upon time to attack the camp, rather than doing it right away or at dawn.  Or why they’d send such a small force (about half a dozen ships) or why they’d abandon the attack so easily. And for that matter, it’s annoying that Robin wanders out of her hiding spot to endanger her family twice.

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But in the end these things don’t matter too much to me.  This show was perfect for my nearly 13 year old self, and I find that my nearly 50 year old self still enjoys it quite a bit.  There is a lot of strong character work, and the whole situation is treated mostly as a straight drama, with an appropriate sobriety for the situation.  The opening hour especially builds its suspense very well.  Many of the performances are quite good, and some of the dialogue is even quite inspirational.  Some of the best stuff comes from Abraham Bernstein, who helps to provide on the franchise’s best moments right at the end of the first episode.  When some punks are randomly vandalizing the Visitor’s propaganda posters with spraypaint, Abraham stops them.  “No!” he cries.  “If you are going to do it, do it right.”  He goes on to spray paint the big red “V” that we see in the series’ logo, and then tells the kids, “You understand?  For ‘Victory’.  Go tell your friends!”

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Other thoughts:

• This was a good month to be a fan of science fiction adventure!  Only a few weeks after V aired, Return of the Jedi came out!  What a great month to be a (near) 13 year old!

“Go tell your friends!”  Also, go tell lots of the viewing public, who seemed to come away from the show thinking that the “V” in the title stood for “Visitors”.  It’s an understandable mistake, and one that trades on the show’s own misdirects, but it’s a mistake nonetheless.  “V” stands for “Victory”, and that’s not blood in the opening logo, it’s spray paint.

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• Speaking of the opening titles, they are a little strange.  The very first thing we see as the music begins are the words: “The starring roles in this film are portrayed by”, rather than just saying “starring”.  This is followed by images and names of ten of the show’s lead actors.  Most of them make sense, like Marc Singer or Faye Grant, but at least one is a little strange–Tommy Peterson, who plays Sean Donavan’s friend Josh, who really only has a few minutes of screen time.

• That’s followed by ten more actors listed as guest stars.  Given that this was a mini-series and not an ongoing series (not yet, anyway), I don’t know why anyone would be considered “guest stars”.  If we accept the idea, then I guess some of the choices make sense simply because the characters die in the story (like Evan Kim as Tony or Penelope Windust as Kathleen).  But why others, like Andrew Prine, would be so listed is beyond me.

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• V has a talented but not widely known cast of actors–for many of whom this series may have been their best role.  But many of them I have at least seen in various places.  This is all off the top of my head:  Marc Singer (Donovan) was in Beastmaster, Faye Grant (Juliet Parrish) was in The Greatest American Hero and played a murder victim in The January Man, Bonnie Bartlett (Lynn) was in Little House on the Prairie and St. Elsewhere, Leonardo Cimino (Abraham) had a small part in Dune, Jane Badler (Diana) was in the revival series of Mission: Impossible and played a witch in a TV movie, Neva Patterson (Elinor) was in a movie I liked called David and Lisa, and Michael Wright (Elias) played villains in both The Principal and The Interpreter.  Andrew Prine (Steven) appeared The Miracle Worker.  Frank Ashmore (Martin) played an air traffic controller in Airplane II and had a small part in a bad movie called 400 Days.

Richard Herd (John) and Jason Bernard (Caleb) are both quite well known and I’ve definitely seen them in stuff, but I can’t remember anything clearly.  I think Herd played an officer on M*A*S*H, and I’m pretty sure I saw Jason Bernard play a judge at some point (research tells me this was in Liar, Liar).  Joanna Kerns, the wife on Growing Pains, also shows up in a small part as Mike Donovan’s ex-wife.  Robert Englund also has a featured role as Willie, who is almost the polar opposite of his more famous murderous role in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

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• Further research reminds me that of course, Richard Herd played Admiral Paris in a bunch of episodes of Star Trek Voyager.  I’m also learning that Michael Wright was on a couple of episodes of Black Lightning, which makes me curious to see the show.

V made me a disproportionately large fan of actor Michael Durrell, who played Robert Maxwell.  I became very aware whenever I caught the actor in the other roles he landed, including the mini-series Chiefs, the movie Sister Act, or even the TV show Voyagers! where he played Harry Houdini.  I’m not sure why this happened–Durrell is solid as Robert Maxwell, but he doesn’t necessarily stand out in any particular way.  Yet the character was always my favorite, even from the first viewing.  Maybe it was because he had three daughters, and somehow my 13 year old self knew that was going to be my future as well.

• In addition to Robert, I like a lot of the characters, including Julie, Elias, Martin, Caleb and Abraham.  I’m not the biggest fan of Mike Donovan but I liked his interplay with his partner Tony a lot.  And I can’t say I “liked” Daniel Bernstein, but I thought David Packer did an excellent job playing his descent into depravity.

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Other good performances are delivered by Evan Kim (Tony), Bonnie Barlett (Lynn) and of course Leonardo Cimino (Abraham).

• Finally, years ago, in rewatching this miniseries and its sequel, V: The Final Battle, my friend and I noticed how much Mike Donovan seems to favor the fighting maneuver of grabbing something overhead and pulling himself up a bit, and kicking his enemy.  We started calling it the “Donovan Kick” and thought it’d make sense for the Visitors to include a countermeasure against it in their basic training package.  Paying attention as I was watching the show this time, I see that so far, there’s been only one full-fledged Donovan Kick in the franchise so far, in Episode 1 when Donovan fights the Visitor whose face mask he rips off.  He did perform some impressive kicks in part 2, including one where he vaults over a railing and kicks a Visitor in the face, but neither were actual “Donovan kicks”, strictly speaking.  As we go into rewatching V: The Final Battle sometime soon, I’ll have to see how many more of these things there are.

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4 thoughts on “V (1983)

  1. Whoa, what a time that was!
    I remember planting my butt in front of the tv 10 whole minutes (if not more) each night the series originally aired.

  2. Back then, we had no cable/satellite tv, and I had to make sure the antenna was turned the right way for the best possible (snow-free) picture.

  3. I think I saw about half an episode of the remake at some point. I guess I wouldn’t mind watching it someday, but I’m in no hurry. I am looking forward to re-watching V The Final Battle with my kids. For me, that makes for a pretty satisfying end to the story.

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