This article appeared in Issue 22 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
Arriving without warning, the circular, mile-wide mother ships, fifty in total, entered Earth's atmosphere and established strategic positions over key cities around the globe. At long last, the question of whether or not mankind was alone in the universe had finally been answered. But would these technologically advanced beings from a distant star turn out to be benevolent, signaling a new era of prosperity on Earth, or malevolent, bringing death and destruction from above?
Though any moviegoer under the age of fifteen would instantly recognize this as the opening to "Independence Day", older sci-fi fans will recall the 1983 miniseries that lay the foundation for Roland Emmerich's alien invasion extravaganza-- "V". A singular television event, in a decade when science fiction was not taken seriously by network programmers, "V" brought the lexicon of alien invasions to mainstream audiences. Though they were certainly won over with the miniseries' serious big budget approach, what really struck a chord with audiences was how it effectively recontextualized the rise of Nazi tyranny, universalized the horrors of the Holocaust, and like much of the science fiction of the Eighties, echoed the tense sociopolitical landscape of the period.
The idea for "V" sprung from veteran television producer Kenneth Johnson, who had previously shepherded genre offerings such as "The Six Million Dollar Man" and "The Bionic Woman" to great success. Though Johnson was interested in developing a new series around the French Maquis, an underground movement that resisted the Nazis during the Second World War (and who would later inspire the creators of "Deep Space Nine"), his idea was met with little enthusiasm by the executives of NBC and Warner Brothers-- that is, until he suggested that the 'Nazis' would be from outer space. As a result, Johnson got the go-ahead for a four-hour miniseries, and "V" debuted on the NBC network in May of 1983.
For the uninitiated, the miniseries revolved around the arrival of the 'Visitors' and their insidious subjugation of the planet Earth. Though these Visitors arrive bearing messages of peace and goodwill, news cameraman Mike Donovan (Marc Singer of "Beastmaster" fame) soon uncovers evidence that the Visitors are in fact a reptilian species that has come to plunder the natural resources of the planet and harvest human beings for food. He then joins a Los Angeles-based underground movement led by reluctant freedom fighter Dr. Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant, seen recently in "Drive Me Crazy"), and together, they try to expose the Visitors for what they are.
However, the Visitors, led by their charismatic leader John (Richard Herd, who recently played Tom Paris' father in "Star Trek: Voyager") and his second-in-command Diana (Jane Badler, who would later star in the short-lived 1988 "Mission: Impossible" series), have already established a stranglehold on human affairs, brainwashing high-ranking politicians with their 'conversion' process and using their grip on the media to broadcast pro-Visitor propaganda. Fortunately, the freedom fighters find allies among the aliens, most notably the friendly Willie (Robert Englund of "Nightmare on Elm Street" fame) and 'fifth columnist' Martin (Frank Ashmore), who are able to supply them weapons and intelligence to counter the Visitor threat.
The intentional Nazi Germany allegory was quite obvious in the production's visual elements-- the stormtrooper-like 'red shirts' of the Visitors; the swastika-like symbol that adorned their uniforms, ships, and flags; and the numerous propaganda posters declaring the Visitors to be 'friends' of humanity. However, Johnson didn't stop there in fleshing out his 'Nazis from space' theme. Inspired by Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel "It Can't Happen Here", which details life in the United States under a fascist government, Johnson infused the script with many parallels to the rise of Nazi Germany in his depiction of life in Visitor-occupied Los Angeles.
Similar to how the manifesto of the Nazi Party offered hope to the millions of unemployed Germans during the Great Depression, the Visitors arrive offering cures to the ills plaguing humanity, such as disease and hunger. One of the first groups to support the Visitors are business leaders, who find profit and influence in their newfound alliances. Likewise, following the election of 1930, in which the Nazi Party became the second most powerful political force in the Reichstag, many of Germany's business leaders lent their support to Hitler, providing enough backing for the Nazi Party to solidify their power. Not long after the Visitors arrive, a number of acts of terrorism against Visitor facilities are blamed on a conspiracy of scientists, requiring an increased Visitor presence in urban areas to maintain the peace; similarly, Hitler's supporters set fire to the Reichstag, which was immediately blamed on the Communists, who were ordered by Hitler to be shot on sight. Building on the momentum of their scientist conspiracy propaganda, the Visitors begin removing scientists and other 'undesirables' out of public and professional life through mass arrests and abductions, not unlike how the Nazi government persecuted those of Jewish extraction. And in order to acclimatize the youth of America to the ways of the Visitors, Hitler Youth-like organizations are started, recruiting impressionable human teenagers to spy on friends, neighbors, and even their own parents.
Thus, instead of being a mere four hours of mindless special effects, "V" became a cautionary tale of how a democratic society could be swayed by charisma and easy answers, and how greed, envy, and discontent could become the foundation upon which fascist leaders erect their platforms. Interestingly enough, this perspective was rather representative of science fiction at the time, pondering the threats to society, both internal and external, a reflection of the sociopolitical context of the Eighties.
On the one hand, the Cold War was at an all-time high, with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan of 1979 having a chilling affect on American-Soviet relations, including the boycotting of the Olympic Games by each side in 1980 and 1984. Numerous television and film productions reflected this 'nuclear nihilism', echoing the fears of hostilities between these two superpowers in films such as "The Day After" (depicting the effects of a nuclear war on an American city), "Threads" (the British version of "The Day After"), "Amerika" (a miniseries detailing a Russian occupation of the United States), "Wargames" (with Matthew Broderick as a hacker who almost starts World War III), and even "2010: The Year We Make Contact" (where a joint US-USSR Jupiter mission is threatened by rising political tensions).
At the same time, a movement of staunch conservatism, with its philosophies of centralizing government power and fiscal restraint, had swept Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher into power. Unfortunately, the economic policies of this right-wing revival ended up significantly widening the gap between the rich and poor. In addition to fueling mainstream films such as "Wall Street", concerns over the increasing influence of the new 'economic elite' and the dehumanizing effects of so-called Reaganomics were also reflected in genre offerings such as Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner", Paul Verhoeven's "Robocop" and John Carpenter's "They Live".
Regardless of whether audiences saw "V" as compelling commentary or slam-bang entertainment, the pay-off was tremendous for NBC, as an unexpected audience of 65 million people tuned in. Such popularity was echoed as broadcast rights were sold to other countries, including South Africa, where it inspired the Apartheid-oppressed blacks to spray paint 'V' in public places. With such runaway success, the network immediately ordered a sequel. Though Johnson had his heart set on turning "V into a regular series, both NBC and Warner Brothers balked at the cost, and instead, they ordered a six-hour follow-up miniseries-- thus, "V: The Final Battle" came to be.
Work on the second miniseries began in the months immediately following the successful broadcast of "V". Unfortunately, both the studio and the network wanted "V: The Final Battle" to be done faster and $5 million cheaper than its predecessor, which convinced Johnson to walk away, despite having developed the initial drafts of the script. In his absence, "Futureworld" director Richard T. Heffron was brought in, who had a decidedly different approach to the material.
Taking place four months after the events of the first miniseries, "V: The Final Battle" begins with the human freedom fighters in a seemingly futile struggle to stem the Visitor tide. With the help of heartless mercenary Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside of "Starship Troopers"), Mike Donovan and Juliet Parish develop a bold plan to expose John's reptilian face on national television. Meanwhile, teenaged Robin Maxwell (Blair Tefkin), who was impregnated by a Visitor in "V", gives birth to twins, the human-like 'Starchild' (Jenny Beck) and her less-fortunate reptilian brother, who dies soon after birth. However, the key to victory lies in Robin's children, as they have 'red dust' in their blood, a fungus that is lethal to Visitors. It is this biological agent that finally allows the resistance to drive the Visitors off the planet.
Though "V: The Final Battle" was another ratings bonanza for NBC, drawing in 50 million viewers, it was far inferior to its predecessor on many accounts. The production's smaller budget necessitated complete reuse of all Visitor spacecraft shots from the first miniseries, as well as some extensive trimming of other effects sequences, such as the shoddy matte-work used in Juliet's 'conversion' scene, where she is unconvincingly threatened by the magnified image of a lizard. The script also placed more emphasis on staging action sequences, neglecting the crucial elements of character and story.
However, the most noticeable change was how "V: The Final Battle" deliberately eschewed the powerful Nazi allegory in favor of more traditional soap opera elements, both among the human and Visitor characters. Unfortunately, in the process, the initial sophistication of "V" ended up being 'camped up' and 'dumbed down', particularly in how it reduced the conflict between Diana and her new superior officer Pamela (Sarah Douglas of "Superman II") into an intellectually-demeaning cat-fight more befitting of "Dynasty" or "Dallas". Not surprisingly, having seen his work bastardized in such a manner, Johnson asked to have his name removed from the production (he appears as 'Lillian Weezer' in the final writing credits).
With the ratings success of "V: The Final Battle", NBC gave a greenlight to the producing team of Daniel Blatt and Robert Singer (who had shepherded both miniseries) to create a weekly television show. "V: The Series" debuted in late October of 1984, picking up where "V: The Final Battle" left off, with the war against the Visitors being far from over. Though the 'red dust' has driven the invaders off the planet, it is quickly learned that it breaks down in warmer clients, leaving cities such as Los Angeles vulnerable to Visitor attack. Furthermore, the 'red dust' is found to be harmful to humans and animals in high concentrations, preventing the resistance from deploying it further.
In addition to the return of some familiar faces (including Singer, Grant, Ironside, Badler, and Tefkin), the large ensemble cast included Lane Smith ("The Legend of Bagger Vance") as a business man who strikes an alliance with Diana to make Los Angeles an 'open city' (à la "Casablanca"), Jeff Yagher (seen recently in guest appearances on "Star Trek: Voyager") as Nathan's estranged son and the show's resident heartthrob, June Chadwick as Diana's new Head of Security and catty nemesis, and Nicky Katt (seen recently in "Boiler Room") as Mike Donovan's son.
With such a large cast and a special effects-heavy production, "V: The Series" became the most expensive weekly television show at the time, costing up to $1.1 million per episode. Unfortunately, lackluster writing allowed the series to lapse into a 'battle-of-the-week' syndrome, and audience interest quickly waned. Desperate to save their flagging franchise, NBC execs tried a number of maneuvers. In order to pare down the show's budget, a number of main characters were dropped from the series (such as in the twelfth episode, where Robin Maxwell and Ham Tyler leave to join the Chicago resistance), and much of the shooting was done on the Warner Brothers backlot, which was accommodated by having the resistance set up camp in an 'abandoned movie studio'. At one point, the network was even willing to provide a budget to add a 'talking car' to the cast in order to compete against "Knight Rider", while at another, they attempted to coax Johnson back into running the show, an offer he adamantly refused.
With the writing staff, none of whom had experience in science fiction, continuing to churn out mawkish soap opera-style episodes (including a 'wedding episode') and audience numbers steadily slipping each week, the series was finally cancelled in late March of 1985, having lasted only one season of nineteen episodes. Unfortunately, the sudden (but not unexpected) cancellation left the fans of the ailing series without any resolution to the events of the last episode broadcast, "The Return". The supreme Leader of the Visitors had arrived on Earth to declare a cease-fire and take the 'starchild' Elizabeth (Jennifer Cooke) as his bride. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's true love, Kyle, had hidden himself aboard the Leader's shuttle, along with another stowaway-- a bomb planted by Diana, who planned to blame the assassination on the human resistance and renew hostilities. Though a script had been written to tie up these loose ends, production of this twentieth episode was cancelled along with the series.
Had "V: The Series" survived cancellation, the season finale would have had Elizabeth discovering the true agenda of the Leader, and then returning to Earth to help Parrish and Donovan seek out a powerful artifact called the 'Anyx', hidden somewhere on Earth by ancient astronauts. This story development would have ended up reinventing "V: The Series" as a quest-type show, similar to the short-lived "Logan's Run" and "Planet of the Apes" television series.
After the cancellation of the series, the franchise continued to flourish in a limited fashion until 1986. In addition to a series of novels, which featured stories around resistance activities across the United States (such as "East Coast Crisis", which told the events of "V" and "V: The Final Battle" from the perspective of the New York resistance), there was a limited-run comic book series from DC Comics, which focused on the continuing adventures of the Los Angeles resistance.
But by 1987, the "V" franchise was essentially dead. There was some talk from the original producing team about reviving the franchise, but it went nowhere. Similarly, "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski fashioned a script for a syndicated four-hour follow-up miniseries, but it also ended up on the backburner over budgetary concerns. Following its demise, it would be nearly a decade before interest returned to the "V" franchise. In addition to being paid homage in the opening of "Independence Day", the rebroadcast of the original miniseries attracted a record number of viewers to the US specialty Sci-Fi Channel in 1998.
In addition, the Nineties revival of televised sci-fi produced another series very similar in concept. The brainchild of the late Gene Roddenberry, the creator of "Star Trek", and championed by his wife Majel Barrett Roddenberry, "Earth: Final Conflict" debuted in the fall of 1997, and has been far more successful, and is currently enjoying its fourth season in syndication. The series is set three years into the peaceful co-existence between humans and a highly advanced alien species called the Taelons. Within the short time of their arrival, the Taelons have helped raise the standard of living on a global scale through the sharing of technology, the elimination of disease, and the eradication of hunger. Despite their overt benevolence, a small group of humans have formed a resistance movement, sensing that the Taelons have a hidden agenda. Though the basis of this series echoes elements found in "V", the strength of "Earth: Final Conflict" lies in the rich character and story arc development crafted by the show's writers (even in the face of significant cast changes over the years), instead of falling into the 'battle-of-the-week' comic book story structure that plagued "V". So for those fans still anxiously awaiting a "V" revival after 17 years, "Earth: Final Conflict" may be the next best thing.
Despite its dubious-sounding high concept, 'Nazis from space', "V" still remains one of the more daring and memorable televised science fiction offerings of the Eighties. With strong thematic underpinnings grounded in the horrors of the Holocaust, "V" brought an uncommon level of sophistication in televised science fiction for the masses. In addition to storytelling that held a mirror to the ugliness of the past, "V" also reflected the concerns of the present, at a time when both external and internal forces posed a threat to the stability of middle America, a sentiment shared by other sci-fi films of the time. Unfortunately, the concerns of commerce eventually overrode those of creativity, and within three years of its impressive start, the "V" franchise had descended into comic book camp and, ultimately, cancellation. However, as witnessed by "Independence Day" and the enduring popularity of heir-apparent "Earth: Final Conflict", the legacy of "V" has not easily been forgotten.