Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
Iconic Sci Fi TV miniseries V celebrated its 40th anniversary this past May. Which begs the question, “Why is this retrospective review coming out in JULY!” Well, procrastination truly is the thief of time, and I have had this article sitting unfinished on the shelf for two months. #Feelshame. But then the series got a fresh coat of topicality paint when I noticed that it had been recently dropped on streaming service Max together with sequel miniseries V: The Final Battle and V: The Series which ran for a single season. I am excited to revisit the latter two entries and I plan to give them the review treatment as well, but for this article we will be confining ourselves to the original miniseries.
With a mothership-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s retro review V: The Original Miniseries in Five Blasts:
Blast #1 The Resistance and the Collaborators
V follows a group of various people in the US who react to the arrival and eventual occupation of a group of aliens called “Visitors.” V writer and director Kenneth Johnson originally wrote an adaptation of an antifascist novel It Can’t Happen Here, but NBC execs rejected it because they felt it was “too cerebral” for American audiences (something similar happened with The Cage, the original pilot for Star Trek: The Original Series). So, Johnson crafted his own story with lizard-like aliens to capitalise on popular Sci Fi of the time like Star Wars and he made the extraterrestrials Nazi-like with their swastika-like emblem, SS-like uniforms, and German Luger-like weapons (wikipedia).
And continuing the Nazism allegory in the series we have those who resisted and those who collaborated with the occupiers, and there are great characters and performances on both sides. The resistance side includes Beastmaster himself Marc Singer as brave and cheeky cameraman Mike Donovan, Faye Grant as scientist and resistance leader Juliet Parrish, Richard Lawson as fellow scientist Ben Taylor, Michael Wright as Ben’s hustler brother and reluctant fighter Elias, Michael Durrell as conflicted family man and scientist Robert Maxwell, and Leonard Chimino as devoutly religious Holocaust survivor Abraham Bernstein.
The heroes all feel fleshed out and multi-dimensional, and they are easy to root for and be concerned about during their covert and overt battles with the Visitors. Of these characters, some of the most impactful scenes are Ben’s tragic death and Elias’ heartbreaking reaction, and Abraham’s powerful speech to his son Stanley about losing his wife during the Holocaust and not allowing history to repeat its.
But we also have a few characters that sympathise and even join up with the Visitors. The most reprehensible (and punchable) is Abraham’s grandson Daniel (David Packer), a selfish brat who obtains power and becomes even worse when he joins up with the “Friends of the Visitors”, an allegory for the Hitler Youth. Man, I loved to hate that guy. Also making the skin crawl is Mike Donovan’s mother Eleanor Dupres (Neva Patterson) who enjoys the elite status she obtains by befriending the Visitors, and tv journalist Kristine Walsh (Jenny Sullivan) who throws away her objective journalism to become the Visitors’ official spokeswoman. These are all horrible characters but not caricatures and their motivations are perfectly understandable, which is a credit to the writing.
One character in the middle is Robin Maxwell (Blair Tefkin) whose family is persecuted because her father is a scientist but falls in love with and is later impregnated by a Visitor named Brian. Robin is such a foolish teen but again one can understand why she repeatedly makes stupid decisions. Whether good, evil or in-between, all the human characters here are believable and relatable.
Blast #2 The Visitors
And now we must attend to our Visitors. You see what I did there, and you liked it! Before I get into the individual aliens, one thing I thought was amusing during my rewatch is that when the Visitors arrive, they make all these grandiose promises of sharing technology. But they never actually share any technology yet are still able to exude power and implement their will over the world. Those tricky bastards.
The first Visitor we meet is their leader John (Richard Herd) who delivers a convincing speech and then pretty much disappears for the rest of the miniseries. We also have the sleazy Steven (Andrew Prine) who was very likely doing the horizontal polka with Ms. Dupres. Eww! We also have the kindly Willie (Robert Englund a year before his debut as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street) and helpful dissidents Martin (Frank Ashmore) and Barbara (Jenny Neumann in a very memorable underwear scene. But all Visitors bow before John’s deputy Diana. Jane Badler delivered one of the scariest, sexiest, and most delightfully despicable femme fatale in her performance as Diana. A power-hungry predator, both physically and sexually, Dirty D dominates every single scene, and it is no surprise she kept returning for the future installments.
I must also praise the presentation of the Visitors as well. In their disguised form they are instantly memorable with their blood orange uniforms, creepily augmented voices and occasional dark shades (those reptiles are not fond of bright lights). I also enjoyed the full helmets of the stormtroopers though the lizard makeup does not hold up as well and is kind of campy looking. And when you think of it, the aliens secretly being reptilian is less monstrous than their fascist tactics and their plans to steal the Earth’s water and kidnap people for meat.
Blast #3 Action and VFX
While the lizard makeup did not hold up well, the practical effects of the Visitors skin ripping off and some VFX shots better withstand the test of time. The first shots of the massive motherships are still quite awe-inspiring and chilling. And the visuals of the Visitor shuttles landing, taking off and in-flight were well done for the time and still look relatively convincing.
One iconic scene, however, does not hold up at all and that is Diana’s mouth elongating and swallowing a guinea pig whole. I give them points for trying it, but visual effects were nowhere close enough to make that look believable and it is just ridiculous and unintentionally humourous. Talk about biting off more than you can chew. At least it was a memorable scene.
One thing I did not recall was how much action there was in the miniseries, especially in the second part. We have Mike running from laser blasts, full-on battles between the Resistance and the Visitors and even a Star Wars-inspired shuttle dogfight. Most entertaining.
One thing I felt they could have better explained is present the effects of the Visitor weapons with more consistency. Some characters like Ben die from a single shot while Mike is just stunned from another. Maybe Mike was wearing his plot armour. Jokes, I got ’em!
Blast #4 New World Order
One aspect of V: The Original Miniseries that stands out and remains relevant today is its central theme of control. The way the Visitors take control by taking over the media, vilifying individuals and turning people against each other are so frightening because they are so real. They evolve from kidnapping people in the shadows to openly carting people away. These scenes were more disturbing than any monstrous lizard face. And the Maxwell family on the run or the Bernstein couple having dinner with their traitorous son Daniel were more intense than any space battle.
And, as Abraham spraying a “V” on a Visitor poster and the rise of the Resistance, if good people do not stand up then fascist powers lie the Visitors and like the Nazis can and will take power again. This miniseries holds up a mirror to society and we should all take a good long look.
The Visitors plan to steal Earth’s resources and its people is a simple one, and one that we have seen before and since. But rather than invade with all weapons firing they arrive with smiling faces, grandiose promises and elaborate ruses like building factories that make nothing. A much more subtle and malicious evil, and one of the most realistic in all of Sci Fi.
Blast #5 In Conclusion
V: The Original Miniseries holds up spectacularly four decades on. From the fantastic characters, wonderful villains, great Tim Burton-esque main theme, exciting action and topical issues, everything combines to create an impactful and entertaining watch. As mentioned above, the franchise continued with V: The Final Battle and V: The Series, neither of which I recall being as good as the original. And you also had the 2009 reboot series which ran for two seasons on ABC. I caught a few episodes of it, but I was not overly impressed by what I saw. It was just so meh. I may revisit it someday. Maybe.
But returning to the original miniseries, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting it and I recommend you do so as well. Top tier Sci Fi right there.
Editor Jules Score: 8.5 out of 10
Are you a fan of V? What do you like most about it? And you can check out more 80s Sci Fi content below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.