I don't mean to gush, but V was weswoijdeojidjs awesome. The 1983 made-for-television movie was ushered in with the kind of promotional campaign the world wouldn't see again until Baskin Robbins unveiled 80 Shrek-themed ice cream flavors, and was ultimately watched by anywhere from 45 to 60 million people. The figure changes from source to source, but suffice to say, it was an incredible success -- and a deserved one.
I was only four-years-old when V: The Mini Series struck, and am ashamed to say that I wasn't among the millions who watched. I gather I was too afraid, as my older brothers certainly loved the series and often told me that they too were alien lizards only wearing human skins as a disguise. Then they'd lock me in closets and make howling sounds. Seems like a lot of people have a much stronger memory of V's television series, which was unbelievable in its own right, though in a very different way. The original movie didn't have the wacky romantic slant or other assorted silly nuances that've become synonymous with sci-fi, but if you're looking for an alien invasion tale of the most epic degree, put away the ID4 DVDs and head back to the flick that really set the template.
For those who never got into V, I'll sum it up: the "Visitors" arrive in huge flying saucers under the pretense of a peaceful mission. We buy it, we help them out, we're so in love with them. Eventually, cracks in their guise become clear as the aliens take control of our media, kidnap people in droves, and oh yeah, occasionally out themselves as being deadly lizards wearing Halloween costumes. The original mini-series clocks in at 197 minutes (!!!) and was shown split into two parts across separate nights on NBC. It's got an enormous cast full of recognizable faces -- nobody too terribly famous, but a whole lot of the almost-famous. Unique for more than it's story, V was also interesting because of its pacing. Being a television movie, there's dramatic hooks thrown in at every ten minute interval, basically to pique viewer interest before each commercial break. If V was to be shown in theaters instead of television, it would've been a much, much different movie.
I'm going to do my best to recap the action, but there's just way too much for me to cover V in full. Don't cheat yourself -- pick this baby up. I'm only giving you the highlight reel. If you've ever wondered why people still make such a fuss over this thing even over twenty years later, I only hope I can get across just how weswoijdeojidjs awesome it was.
Mike Donovan is your main character, played by Marc "Beastmaster" Singer. From his humble beginnings as mere cameraman, Donovan will soon carry the world's fate in his ability to learn artsy karate moves and the logistics of alien warships on the spot. The series kicks off with Donovan videotaping some intense grenade battle between two warring cultural stereotypes, but it was all a red herring to distract viewers: soon, up in the skies, there they be: flying saucers, and a whole lot of 'em. If you've seen Independence Day, you know the drill: saucers appear, hover over all of the major cities in the world, and just sit there for a while as everyone on the planet either shits in fear or makes funny jokes.
Also gotta give some credit to whatever advanced panther-eagle hybrid was in charge of V's score -- it's great. The matte paintings of ships being gently spun and spliced into footage was okay, but the ominous score really set the mood. Even in retrospect, it's tough to write off V as being "cheesy" when it was all handled with such seriousness. I mean, did you see the look on Donovan's face? He wasn't about to pull any Judd Hirsch social commentaries on this bitch, and thank fucking God for that.
So, we've got all these huge ships up in the sky, and we don't know why they're here. They're not doing anything. Throwing caution to the wind, several governments order missile rounds to be shot at the shuttles, but they just disintegrate into thin air miles away from the target. After a while, folks just go about their usual daily business -- having flying saucers in the sky is always going to be the central focus of water cooler conversations, but if they're not doing anything, there's only so long you can just stand there gawking at 'em.
Eventually, of course, they make contact. The aliens send out word that they'd like to meet with some bigwig from the United Nations to slap fives and talk business. They also assure us that they've come in peace. Everyone buys it, because aliens would never travel all the way across the universe just to lie. They could do that at home. There's no way they're really lizards who want to eat us and steal all of our water. NO WAY.
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On the big night, a smaller, much cooler looking shuttle exits one of the motherships, making a perfect landing on the roof of the U.N. building in New York, which fortunately appears to be the size of a football field and has the exact same kinda spotlights to boot. This means everyone can watch! After a few spooky formalities, we're introduced to the first alien -- "John," who seems to be just like us! Speaking exquisite English save for a strange, raspy voice, John pledges himself to peace and prosperity for beings from all planets. He apologizes for the crappy sunglasses, explaining that his people aren't used to Earth's penchant for bright light. Do not feed John after midnight.
He confesses that his race has come in need of help -- they'd like to work with Earth to construct several plants capable of gathering the raw materials they need to survive, and in return, the Visitors will share their various knowledge about health issues, manufacturing and technology. Sounds like a fair trade off, and the people of Earth cheer on in agreement. The aliens seem to be a ticket to a new golden age on Earth, where interplanetary travel is not unheard of, and where cancer can't hurt you no more because the aliens let you in on a little secret: you can beat it by eating fish of the order Geophagus. Who knew?
Soon, the Visitors have developed processing plants with the help of a select number of humans. For the most part, humans likened the Visitors to celebrities: they were adored, and any human capable of developing rapport with an alien went up the social ladder three big steps. Since the Visitors don't want Earth to work alone in an endeavor meant to serve them, they send down oodles and oodles of troops to help. Pretty brilliant way to get thousands of armed troops in someone else's territory without raising suspicion. Alternatively, humankind in V is 10% trusting and 90% fucking stupid.
The aliens choose certain members of the press to come aboard their ships and serve as liaisons between our culture and theirs. Donovan is one of the lucky select, pushing him up to godlike status with the people of Earth. Still, our hero shows some reserve when it comes to the Visitors, and doesn't seem totally convinced that they're not really hungry reptiles. Up to this point, I imagine most viewers who hadn't been spoiled by editorial previews were completely unaware of the aliens' true intentions -- right up until we met Diana.
Shown at right, Diana was played by Jane Badler -- the actress would resume the role for the second mini-series and throughout the short life of the V television series, ultimately becoming sci-fi's number one pinup girl for a year or two. Of the few V fansites I could find still somehow kicking on Geocities where they'd been left to die five years ago, most of 'em were just Diana picture galleries formed from scanned Starlog magazines. The rest were just freaky guys drawing parallels between the Visitors and the Nazi regime, which is certainly true, but that's a pretty joyless way to obsess about a movie that has such worthy obsession points as reptilian aliens, spaceships and the guy who played the gruff boss on Herman's Head. Have some fun.
Anyway, Diana's a great character. We can smell her villainy from the very first sight, but Diana maintains the "I'm here with good intentions" demeanor for as long as it's needed. She's not the leader of the aliens, but for all intents, she might as well be. All of the troops answer to her, and she's the only Visitor allowed to keep her jacket zipper at half-mast.
Now I'm faced with the unenviable task of mentioning each of the 1,000 characters and each of the 1,000 characters' subplots. I'm actually leaving some of the players out of the review entirely, including some of the more notable ones. I'm announcing this because if I do, it means you can't complain later about who wasn't mentioned. I don't know why it works like that, but it does. Notwithstanding, meet Robin, clearly the most annoying character in the entire series. Mostly due to Blair Tefkin either suffering from poor direction or having absolutely no talent, Robin comes off like the lovechild of Skippy and the middle sister from Charles in Charge. Which is to say, someone nobody ever wants to see. I might be overstating things, but I'm not lying when I say that I killed her last night.
Robin takes an interest in Brian, one of the Visitors. Ewwww, Saturn jungle fever. Brian seems pretty chill at first, but he's bad news. I hope he knocks Robin up and forces her to give birth to a mutant alien baby some six-year-old made out of Play-Doh. End spoilers.
Harmony and Willie are the other sick puppy couple in V, Harmony being from Earth, Willie being from Elm Street. Yes folks, that's Robert Englund as the befuddled but cuddly Visitor, better known for the 800 times he's portrayed Freddy Krueger. Anyone who thinks Englund can't play anyone but Freddy should check out this series -- he's downright Balkie-level endearing here, only without all of the stupid gimmicks and catch-phrases that made those thugs stab Bronson Pinchot to death in that San Diego back alley a few years ago. We soon learn that not all Visitors are alike in disposition -- some, like Willie, don't seem to have any idea why they're really here. Willie can only speak broken English, making him all the more adorable. All he needs now are crutches and an always-carried pet mouse.
Though by now we've gotten some vague impression that the Visitors are less than Virtuous, some are fine and dandy. Willie proves this by rescuing Jason F'n Bernard from a deep freeze chamber. Yes, Jason "Herman's Boss" Bernard, playing Caleb Taylor, a character who flip flops between loving and hating the aliens every two minutes. This was one of the less thought-out scenes of the series, as Caleb survives for a good minute or so stuck in the freeze chamber right after we see another guy lose an arm just by touching the god damn door. Willie, somehow able to withstand temperatures less than -300 degrees, lunges into the happy box and rescues Caleb. Poor Caleb is arctic blue and mostly frozen, but pretty okay by the next scene. No idea how he pulled that one off.
Going in, you might think V would be pretty cut-and-dry: humans are heroes, Visitors are villains. Not so, not in the least. One of the great things about the series was how multilayered the characters were -- there were all sorts of double-crossings and that kinda junk, with some aliens acting as heroes, and some humans acting worse than any of the Visitors could. Being made for television and airing in competitive timeslots, V wouldn't have been well-served to show all of its hand at any time. Right until the last minutes of the series, there's room for viewers to keep guessing.
The days and weeks go by, and the Visitors are more and more seen in everyday life. There's even groups that teach humans all about the Visitors' way of life, not to mention avenues for misguided humans to join their army. For mysterious reasons, all media outlets seem to champion our relationship with the Visitors to an op-ed degree. Earth hadn't been explicitly told the rules, but most had the impression that if they spoke out against the Visitors, there would be consequences.
Then, the bomb drops. It's revealed on television that there'd been a conspiracy to destroy the Visitors amongst a large group of scientists. Thus, many top scientists are arrested, and the remaining are treated like criminals and vanishing quickly. Were the scientists framed? Find out after this word from Dorman's Cheese, proud sponsor of V and the only cheese to ever feature Spider-Man on the wrapper. But I digest...
Abraham is shown at right, a Holocaust survivor who "refuses to go through it again," suspecting that the Visitors are up to no good. I've always been of the mind that any movie can be improved by the addition of motivational old Jewish man, and Abraham doesn't screw up my theory. He won't be your favorite character, but for as often as you'll comment on how much his head is shaped like an egg, you're gonna love him all the same. I shivered with every shalom. A-braham is a-okay.
You gotta get a kick out of this scene, where Donovan realizes how quickly things have changed at the sight of children playing with official Visitor action figures and vehicles. Looks like the work of Kenner, those traitors. The point of this? Without knowing it, we'd pretty much handed control of everything over to the Visitors, and it's too late to rethink the strategy. Most of Earth is in love with the aliens, and the ones who aren't are afraid to talk. I'd like to say that Donovan then bit the heads off the action figures in Ghandi-like protest, but he didn't. Or at least, they didn't show it. There's hope.
But, things are completely out of control. If we don't do something, the aliens will have complete control of the Earth in no time -- and if that's how it's gonna be, Donovan needs to know if their motives are clean. The easiest method of finding this out is, obviously, secretly hitching a ride in one of their ships with a giant video camera, because that's the sort of plan that usually provides a healthy, happy ending for its proprietor. Good thing Donovan is Superman without the underwear.
Okay, we're almost up to the really good stuff. If you were getting bored, don't be one of those people who remains stubbornly bored for the duration of an activity just because they were bored for the first few minutes. I hate those people, and so do the giant lizard mutants of V, capable of swallowing you whole. Speaking of which, get a load of this next scene. Donovan's aboard the Visitors' shuttlecraft, and it's one of the good ones with all the top ranking officials, including Diana and Stephen, a big jerk Visitor guy. Watching from a hidden duct, Donovan hits "record" and tries not to scream when the two Visitors talk nasty and take turns eating frogs and small mammals from a collection of 10-gallon aquarium tanks attached to the wall. Stephen downs a mouse, so Diana's gotta up the ante. Check this shit out...
In a pretty gigantic hint that the Visitors aren't very "people-like" at all, Diana downs a fully grown guinea pig in two seconds flat, enlarging her throat as would any healthy snake. The effects aren't exactly award winning (for the shot, Diana's head looks like a cake shaped like Diana's head), but holy Christ...that's something else.
Donovan's reaction is typical -- he pratfalls and silently mouths obscenities that were forbidden on network television. I'd say there's about 6 or 7 scenes in V that've really become iconic, and Diana gulping the big rat was certainly one of them. We also learn that whatever materials the Visitors were having us gather for them on Earth are being uselessly jettisoned into space. Looks like the "help us!" stuff was just a big scam...but why?
Oh boy, when you find out...
This scene is even more famous than Diana's lunch, believe it or not. One of the Visitor troopers spots Donovan, and in the ongoing struggle, HIS FACE FALLS OFF! Yeah, seriously -- turns out they're not really human at all, but rather grotesque lizard-like beings with scales, horns, red eyes and long tongues that snuggle into human-sized masks surprisingly well.
I feel like such a fool for spoiling all the good stuff like this. I so envy those folks who caught V in 1983 with no real knowledge on what was going to happen, because this scene had to hit like a ton of alien bricks. Donovan manages to escape Lizard Man's grasp, and the footage on his videotape is the only existing proof that the Visitors are going to eat us. Getting the tape to the media just in the nick of time, Donovan paces to and fro before the worldwide broadcast. Right before shots of Diana eating rats and aliens lizards are shown on television, we're interrupted by Visitor John with a special message...
Nobody knows how the Visitors took control of the broadcast, but in a flash, John's onscreen spreading various lies and paranoia, ensuring the human race that the only way to get things back to normal is by having the Visitors control the media outright, but only "temporarily." The general populace of Earth only hears their side of the story from here on out, effectively making the Visitors dictators of the entire planet. Soon after, promotional posters are tacked up all over the cities, citing the Visitors as Earth's friends. Prior to the first airing of V, posters like the one shown above were glued up in subway stations and bus stops across the nation. A few days before the initial airing, people were sent out to spray-paint big red "Vs" over each of the posters. Thank you IMDB. That's marketing and a half right there.
Now living in a fascist state, the public's fear of the Visitors keeps 'em in check. People were arrested for the slightest of offenses, so anyone with doubts quickly learned to shut up and smile at all times. Making matters worse, our own military and police units, as clueless as the rest of us, team up with the Visitors' troopers to uphold their cause. With so many questionable moves and the silencing of our normal media outlets, most folks knew deep down that the aliens weren't giving us the whole truth. Still, without Will Smith or Rampaging Randy Quaid, there wasn't jack anyone could do about it.
I'm not going to give you the entire back-story on how the "Resistance" came to be, but to sum it up, a group of humans who've either seen the Visitors do bad shit or are otherwise sure of the aliens' villainy start banding together in a covert cause to beat the shit out of them. Led by Julie Parrish, a medical chick with no prior experience in leading people in a revolt against space aliens, this ragtag group of Fighting the Good Fight Fighters takes up residence in hidden caves and underground caverns, desperately trying to think up ways to make the Visitors go home or blow up. Julie's played by Faye Grant, who's so good in the role that I can't believe nobody hired her to be on any other series or in any other movie outside the V franchise for the duration of her career. Or close enough to it.
The Resistance is full of characters who deserve a mention but aren't getting one here, though I can't neglect to mention Michael Wright's portrayal of Elias, a street punk turned do-gooder who's bent on revenge after his brother is murdered by the Visitors. One character called him a "poor man's Richard Pryor," but for my money, he's more of a poor man's Jimmie Walker. He even says "dynomite" a few times. The Visitors soon become hip to the Resistance movement, and anyone remotely tied to the group is hunted and maimed at every given opportunity. All we need now is for Hitler to walk out and shout "zyi zam ze zizzard zam."
As Earth's citizens become more and more disenfranchised with the situation, some of the younger ones take to defacing the trillion "Friendship is Universal" posters littering each street. Abraham, who usually hates graffiti, revitalizes an old Jewish battlecry. (and rewrites it a bit, but don't tell anyone that) The kids were just spraying paint over the Visitors' well-drawn faces, but Abraham has a more poignant modification for them to add:
V. It stands for "Victory." To be continued!
The first episode ended there, and we went absolutely nuts for it. It was V mania all across the country. The second chapter isn't as highly regarded as the first, but it's still pretty killer. Click that neat logo below to see how things wrapped up.