The Good, Bad & Ugly of Sci-Fi TV – Kenneth Johnson’s V

In a new series looking at classic sci-fi TV, Jeff Fountain takes us back on a near four decade journey through the various incarnations of Kenneth Johnson’s alien invasion drama, V

In 2020, television is enjoying another golden age.

Network TV, once the king of the small screen, has now been pushed aside for the most part for streaming services, giving viewers an endless supply of choices, with shows looking more like mini-movies than anything. Science fiction has also enjoyed this renaissance but it wasn’t always that way. Decades past are littered with failed attempts, outright horrific shows and some things that never grabbed an audience.

One of said shows was V, and its birth in the ’80s led to a strange and bizarre path that was both fascinating and frustrating to watch.

V landed on the small screen in May of 1983, a two part mini-series for NBC.

Created by Kenneth Johnson–no stranger to TV with The Incredible Hulk, The Six Million Dollar Man & The Bionic Woman–it sets the story in a fun and interesting way: citizens of Earth wake up on day to find fifty enormous flying saucers parked in the sky above major cities stretching all over the world. The aliens, or ‘Visitors’, announce that they are indeed here in peace, and invite news cameraman Mike Donavan (Marc Singer) aboard one of the ships. They shockingly discover the aliens look human but scientists, including biologist Julie Parrish (Faye Grant), are skeptical that this is really a mission of peace.

Even though the show is plagued by ’80s special effects, the story and its parallels to Earth’s past are easy to see. The story is adapted from Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, following a man’s rise to power, his dictatorship in America, and while promising to make America great again (a familiar theme of the current American government), out comes the personal army and concentration camps to control the population and bend them to his will.

Johnson takes this theme and runs with it, and as V unfolds the humans discover the aliens are not human, but actually lizard-like creatures with a more nefarious agenda. The humans fight back, creating a resistance force and before you can say World War II, we have something that looks eerily like Nazis, Jews, concentration camps, resistance, chaos, and death. The Visitors, clad in their SS-like uniforms complete with the swastika-like emblem, helped the show to wrap itself up in the ‘us versus the Nazis’ package. To be fair, it is a powerful image, one that is forever taught to new generations as a lesson on how quickly things can go wrong and how everything is not always what it seems.

The mini-series actually ended on a cliffhanger, one that even today is still debated by the viewing public, with some enjoying the questions the series left hanging and others wanting it all tied up in a neat little bow. Thankfully, it was a big success and so in May 1984, NBC gave us the three part mini-series V: The Final Battle. The show expanded on the same successful themes, with the Visitors using a ‘conversion’ process to make humans slaves, suicide plots, truth serums, and many other staples from older sci-fi shows and spy movies.

The two mini-series were campy and hilarious, eye-rolling yet entertaining. They managed to mix everything together to make it the kind of science-fiction that while pure fiction had a narrative based on ideals, morals and life lessons that people could understand. It wasn’t rocket science and maybe more light hearted sci-fi at its heart, but never underestimate the viewers joy of seeing good beat up on evil, no matter what the setting or scenario, and in that, V did a solid job. Maybe they should have taken a step back and thought about just ending things there, but as usually happens with most successful properties they sought to capitalise on its success, and unfortunately, V the series was born.

In October of 1984, V: The Series hit the small screen and 19 episodes later, it was gone. Everything you could imagine going wrong with a series was part of the playbook here. Poor story lines, horrific dialogue and acting, crappy shooting schedule, budgets so low they maybe used the most stock footage in the history of TV…. yeah, they had it all. All the initial charm in the first two mini-series was now gone, instead replaced with melodrama that would see this show fit nicely into The CW network schedule. Cheap, campy superhero TV at its finest.

The show had so many head scratching moments, the audience might worry they had lice: Michael Ironside’s charmingly bad ass character Ham Tyler takes off at one point in the series and is never seen or heard from again; Mike Donavan’s son…what happened to him? And let’s not forget poor Robert Englund’s character Willie, who was initially charming in the mini-series, then reduced to a dumbed-down afterthought here. Characters came and went, as did the story lines for that matter, and any relevance the show had come crashing down into a big, ugly pile of really bad TV.

Incredibly though, while any relevance in terms of story being long gone, or never there, there is something charming about the series, in that campy sci-fi way. It is like the writers and producers realised this was a hot mess and decided to play that card like a gambler with some aces up their collective sleeves. We were given cat fights, a guest appearance by Sybil Danning, smouldering looks accompanied by the always menacing hands on the hips look, bad fight scenes… it was almost hypnotising in a way. The show’s quality declined to the point, however, that NBC cancelled the show after nineteen episodes of what was to be a twenty episode run. The final bitter pill of this disappointment saw the show end up with no real conclusion in terms of story, although one could argue it had no real story to begin with.

In 2009 we were gifted a remake, simply called V, and to be fair, it hooked some viewers early. Timing is everything and while a remake, there was nothing really like it on TV at the time. The first season, while nothing new to those who had seen the original, captured the minds of certain new fans and had strong ratings to warrant a second season. Sadly, it too quickly fell into the trap of melodrama, poor acting and story lines and after twenty-two episodes was cancelled on May 11, 2011.

V on the whole though did some things well and was an obvious influence on TV shows and movies that would follow. The posters that popped up, with the Visitors in human form, where those big sunglasses, hugging kids with tag lines inferred friendship, before later giant ‘V’s ended up painted on the same posters – that was a masterstroke. While the show obviously had its own influences from The Day the Earth Stood Still or War of the Worlds, it expanded those ideas that would be adopted by TV shows such as Taken or The 4400, and movies such as Independence Day and They Live.

It was nevertheless frustrating to see the two V mini-series, campy as they were, leave so many interesting ideas behind when the TV series came along.

Would yet another reboot be successful today? It’s hard to say. We are in an era where everything old is new again, where new ideas are pushed aside in favor of recycling old shows and movies from the past. V also was on network TV so imagine the possibilities if a streaming service grabbed it? If it stays on the shelf so to speak, I will choose to think less on the TV series and remember the mini-series instead – a big, ballsy, campy 80’s sci-fi adventure, chock full of hokey special effects but some interesting ideas and really, at the end of the day, simply a lot of fun.

Author: Jeff Fountain

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