V, V The Final Battle (1983, 1984)
Directed by: Kenneth Johnson, Richard T. Heffron
Written by: Brian Taggert, Craig Buck, Diane Frolov, Harry Longstreet, Kenneth Johnson, Peggy Goldman, Renee Longstreet
Starring: Blair Tefkin, Faye Grant, Jane Badler, Marc Singer
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 496 mins, five episodes running roughly two hours each with advertisements
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
PLEASE NOTE: V comprises of two separate mini-series, V and V: The Final Battle, but both parts were originally shown in Europe together as one series, which is how I’ve approached this review.
The Visitors arrive from another world in 50 huge flying saucers. They look human, and want our help in obtaining chemicals and minerals needed to aid their dying world, for which in return they will share their advanced technology. The governments of Earth accept this, but are the Visitors really our friends? Curious scientists become the objects of public hostility, experience restrictions on their activities, and even begin to disappear – before sometimes reappearing to confess to subversive activities or exhibit other unusual behaviour such as suddenly demonstrating hand preference opposite to the one they were known to have. TV journalist cameraman Michael Donovan covertly boards one of their ships and discovers the truth about the Visitors and even films some evidence – but what chance does he have when the Visitors take control of the media and declare martial law?….
We all have strong memories of films and TV programmes that terrified us as youngsters. Youthful vampire Ralphie Glick paying a nighttime visit to his brother in the original mini-series of Salem’s Lot haunted me and many others from my generation for a great many years thereafter. Viewings of both the first versions of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Invaders From Mars and I Married A Monster From Outer Space, when I can’t have been much older than 8, really made me wonder if my family and friends weren’t really alien impostors, or had been taken over by extra-terresterials. And then there was V. It contains two moments which were real shockers at the time – Visitor leader Diana eating a live guinea pig, her face horribly stretching as she does [truth be told, the effect looks a bit naff now], and the birth of a reptilian baby after a traumatic build-up. But what did it for me was a scene where the Visitors have captured Julie the leader of the Resistance, and Diana tries to “convert” her by inflicting hallucinations on Julie’s mind, basing them on a childhood fear of being abandoned and chased, the idea being that she’ll beg Diana to stop and submit to her. Seeing this poor woman standing in this chamber [and wearing a spandex flesh coloured suit which makes it all a bit sexual] and being totally terrified and tortured while we see images of her running down corridors menaced by reptile-like monsters really got to me – and then just when you think it’s over, we return to the scene and Diana increases the intensity of the process further so that Julie has lights flashing on her face and she’s throbbing in the most horrible way. Despite being so scared that I didn’t even want to leave the lounge where I was on my own [mum and stepdad had decided that V wasn’t really their thing which was probably just as well], to go upstairs to bed, I know that I would have still raised the mother of all tantrums if I couldn’t see the next part the following night!
Said scene is still quite harrowing, aided immensely by Faye Grant’s very convincing performance. But aside from such highlights, how well does V hold up in general? I’m going to admit that I’d only watched it once between that 1983 and the last few evenings, that being on video. I wonder if the reason I didn’t buy it on DVD until a few weeks ago was that a new viewing would result in disappointment. But I needn’t have worried. While it certainly retains a strong cult following to this day, I feel that it deserves more attention and praise as a striking piece of television, and one that was pretty ambitious in its day. Like much of the best science fiction, it uses its premise to examine us. Even though I was quite up on history, I’m not sure that the really blatantly obvious parallels with Nazi Germany were apparent to me in 1984, but of course there'[s no doubt now that creator/director and producer Kenneth Johnson was not just simply telling a tale of a rather too easy Fascist takeover. He was examining how people would react to it, beginning with showing how easily people can be made to believe the lies that are told [need I say more?], then going on to portraying how folk can be lured in to help and support Fascism even when they know its true nature, while others will attempt to fight back. Of course we still have our totally good protagonists to root for and our totally evil ones to hiss at [relevant pun totally intended!], but nothing is simple. We see human nature at both its best and its worst, and we also have some friendly Visitors too. The series is constantly asking us what we would do in similar circumstances, and even dares to ask whether resisting is always the best choice. Moral dilemma is really the overriding thing, and this just doesn’t apply to the main premise. Of course if you haven’t seen V then I don’t want it to sound too heavy because it’s still a piece of exciting entertainment with lizard-like aliens disguised as humans, space ships, laser guns etc.
It actually wasn’t originally intended to be about aliens at all. Inspired by Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 and very timely novel It Can’t Happen Here, about a Fascist takeover of America, Johnson wrote an adaptation called Storm Warning in 1982 and presented it to NBC for production as a miniseries. However, the NBC executives decided that it was too “cerebral”, and that American viewers would never believe that another country could conquer them. Science fiction is popular though, so how about re-casting the US fascists as extraterrestrials? A few days into filming, Poltergeist‘s Dominique Dunne, who’d been signed to play the role of Robin Maxwell, was at her house with co-star David Packer going over lines for the next day’s filming, when her boyfriend John Sweeney suddenly arrived and choked Dunne into a coma. Five days later, she died. Blair Tefkin was cast to replace her and re-shoots were done, though if you look closely you can still make out Dunne in one early group scene when the Visitors arrive on Earth. The two-part miniseries drew huge viewing figures and turned NBC’s dwindling fortunes around. V: The Final Battle followed the next year, though Johnson left during production due to disagreements with NBC over the budget which he felt was too small to do his story justice. With him not around, his script was rewritten by six others and supposedly little of his material remains. A weekly TV series came after and one season, and I could never understand why, in the UK, ITV dumped it into a 10:30 pm time slot. In 2008, Johnson wrote his own sequel to V in novel form called V: The Second Generation, and tried to get Warner Bros. who now owned the rights, to make it. Warner instead opted for a remake series – and I gave up on it after the first episode with its rushed storytelling and near lack of older characters. Since then, Johnson has been trying to get a three-part big-screen remake off the ground.
We all raved about V at school, though of course the main debate between us boys was who was “fittest” out of the several babes in it. For me, it was and still is Jane Balder [who was actually the last person to be cast] as Diana, who likes to shoot others in the arm first so their deaths are drawn out and they feel more pain. She plays the part with great conviction without hamming it up, and even manages to make us feel some of this monster’s irritation when others try to usurp her. Of course this being 1984, her lesbian leanings are just a way to make her seem more villainous. Out of her cohorts good and bad, the one who stands out is a certain Robert Englund as the friendly, sweet but goofy Willie, a nicely judged comic performance by the guy who would go on to play an iconic horror villain who also has a humorous side. The leader of the fight against the Visitors might be the afore-mentioned Julie Parrish, but top billed is Marc Singer as Mike Donovan A daredevil cameraman who always putting himself in danger, is handy in a fight but is also liked by the ladies, he seemed to us the epitomy of cool back in 1984 but actually looks a bit of a t*** now the way he walks around with his shirts open to show off a bit of his chest. He has an on and off relationship with Kristine Walsh, a journalist who becomes the Visitor’s spokesperson. Donovan’s mother Eleanor seems to quickly go even further over to the Visitor’s side. You could say that with those two cases it’s a matter of fame and status respectively, but how about Daniel Bernstein, who is perhaps the most interesting character in the whole thing? He’s a teenage boy who joins a movement called the Friends of the Visitors akin to the Hitler Youth. Very well played by David Parker as exactly the kind of lonely, disaffected youth susceptible to getting involved with dodgy organisations, he features in some of the most powerful moments when he lords it over his parents and guns down characters we like in cold blood.
The cast is large and very racially diverse for the time, enhancing the scale of the show even if some of the characters are stock and shots of other countries are clearly stock footage. Most people, many of whom are later shown to be related to each other, are given quick, to the point introductions, but things take quite a while to really kick off even if we open with a cracking action sequence that introduces Mike escaping from soldiers in El Salvador, a scene shot in the same location as that terrible accident that took place a year before when Vic Morrow and two kids were decapitated by a helicopter rotor blade during the making of Twilight Zone: The Movie. I imagine that some now may find the first part too slow, but I can’t say that I did back in 1984. Right from the offset there’s a feeling that something could be off, and I feel that it had to be quite leisurely to show how comfortably the Visitors ease their way into power and to build up the suspense until Donovan boards that ship and gets into a fight which ends with him tearing the side off his opponents face revealing scaly, reptilian skin underneath, then seeing Diana eat that mouse while she discusses takeover with others. Of course the whole reptile thing is a bit daft really because there’s no way those faces could be properly disguised by human masks. Donovan now has to go on the run because he’s been declared a fugitive by the media. Media control is another important theme, it’s returned to throughout and is yet another thing which ensures that V doesn’t really date that much aside from the obvious things like no mobile phones, and remains timely. Donovan eventually finds himself with some other hunted folk and a motley resistance movement begins to form, possibly one of many throughout the world, but it seems that their efforts could be in vain even when Micheal Ironside, in typically formidable form as demolitions expert Ham Tyler, the arrogant hard man who you know is also the real deal, joins their ranks.
The way that Donovan is able to continually sneak on and off the same spaceship gets laughable as does his immediate ability to fly an alien craft, and the socio/political commentary does lessen as the focus becomes more on gun battles, chases, fifth columnists on both sides, and poor teenager Robin Maxwell, seduced by a Visitor as one of Diana’s experiments and about to give birth to – something. This subplot is powerfully handled and both heartbreakingly and harrowingly acted by Blair Tefkin. In both my previous viewings, it never occurred to me that parts three, four and five comprised a different series written and directed by other people despite certain minor details like Diana’s new hair style, some different music, and the total disappearance of what seemed to be the beginning of an important subplot right at the end of part two involving humans trying to contact the other alien race that the Visitors are battling. Watching again with this knowledge, there are a few other noticeable things. The matte work during spaceships flying isn’t quite as good and there are more repeated shots, indicating a lower budget. The writing isn’t often as strong, there being nothing as good as the brilliantly scripted scenes earlier where Daniel’s grandfather, Holocaust survivor Abraham, reminds his son Stanley that people have to stay with them or “we haven’t learned a thing”, and when Abraham’s wife Lynn reads out his impassioned, inspirational letter that he left before he was captured by the Visitors. One potentially powerful subplot of Donovan’s son Sean being a spy fails to give us the confrontation you expect. Things still generally look and feel similar though, and we’re still given issues to think about such as whether it’s worth sacrificing thousands for millions, along with plenty of great moments. They even get away with a device borrowed from The War Of The Worlds – I mean how many other believable ways to get rid of aliens can there be?
The ball is only really dropped in the very last episode where it’s clear that they didn’t know what to do with the “starchild” character, leading to a silly deux ex machina finale – did they have no ending and use the first idea that somebody came up with? However, up to then, V remains a considerable achievement, and it’s not total and utter seriousness either, with several amusing touches like one of these space invaders playing space invaders. I love the human Harmony Moore’s sweet and honest simple declaration of love to the Visitor Willie, who’s been used as a guinea pit by the resistance. She’s seen his “true colours”, yet isn’t put off, saying to him “I didn’t fall in love with you for your looks”. Even if there are some shots that couldn’t be completed on time, and the mother ship isn’t even a model it’s a matte painting, the special effects overall are comparable to many theatrically released films of the period, and there are so many strong performances – I haven’t yet, for example, mentioned Rafael Campos as Sancho Gomez, the Mexican gardener whose expertise in smuggling people in his truck becomes handy. The scoring is usually fairly good despite the using of motifs from Beethoven and Wagner, while the low amount of close-ups and the variety of shots along with the widescreen filming helps it to feel quite cinematic. On TV it was of course shown open matte where apparently boom mikes were visible – though I can’t say that I remember. I’m sure that this planned movie trilogy of V could be amazing, while of course some of the issues it looks at are still important but, like the TV version of It, this V still has a great deal to recommend it and will probably be more beloved by some. It manages very well the difficult task of balancing considerable escapism with having a lot to make you think about – and worry.