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The New “V” Series:
..Seriously, this is why we need a Canadian TV industry


An appeal of a TV series (or any cultural touchstone) is that it can unite people who otherwise have nothing in common, providing grist for water cooler conversations -- like the weather, but with more latitude for self-expression. But sometimes such touchstones are a wee bit more multi-faceted (making ‘em gemstones, if you wanna be mineralogical), creating confusion in such conversations. Take “V”, a US TV property that has undergone a few variations, making it so that when people mention “V”…they can actually be discussing slightly different things.

“V” began as a mini-series in 1983, written and directed by Kenneth Johnson and starring Marc Singer, Faye Grant (and a cast, almost literally, of hundreds), that was a surprise ratings hit when it first aired. And though on the surface it was simply a tried-and-true alien invasion story (with evil lizards disguising themselves as human-looking) it was equally a heart-on-its-sleeve cautionary allegory, essentially retelling the rise of WW II Nazism in modern times with aliens as the fascist invaders. Re-watching it recently, I have to say it holds up quite well. Sure, there are corny and clumsy bits, as you would expect with any quarter-of-a-Century old production (what, you think your kids won‘t say “that old thing?” when you bring out your DVDs of The Matrix or Pirates of the Caribbean ten, twenty years down the line?). But in general the fact that “V” isn’t often listed among the “great sci-fi films” probably says more about a bias against TV productions than about its quality. There are some surprisingly raw, (emotionally) difficult scenes.

It was such a success that it immediately led to a sequel mini-series, “V: The Final Battle” (with little or no involvement from Johnson). It was still quite entertaining (and gave Canadian actor Michael Ironside one of his first breakthrough roles as a quintessential anti-hero -- and would‘ve positioned him as the ideal Wolverine if an X-Men film had been made 20 years ago). But there was a slight shift in tone. If the first “V” was a social parable disguised as a pulpy thriller, “V: The Final Battle” was more movie serial adventure with nods to political relevancy -- by the climax it was definitely more Star Wars than Judgement at Nuremberg. .

Still, the two mini-series combine to form a complete whole: a sprawling epic with a beginning and an end. Which is perhaps another reason it is fondly recalled by many who saw it -- there is satisfaction in recalling it, rather than frustration remembering it as a half finished work.

Still, the continued ratings success of “V: The Final Battle” led to the brass ring of TV production -- a weekly series. So even though the aliens had been routed in “V: The Final Battle”, the weekly series simply had them return, this time as more overt conquerors. Unfortunately, as a weekly series my (admittedly hazy) recollection is the concept lost its way. Presumably for budget reasons, the admittedly huge, ensemble cast was ruthlessly pruned, and those remaining characters were mishandled, and the premise -- like other similar series before and since -- became repetitious. For every intriguing new idea (Lane Smith as a morally pragmatic human leader) there were many more that misfired. As you can tell -- my memory of the weekly “V” series (however accurate) is not as fond as it is of the two mini-series. But that’s why I started out saying it can be hard to have a discussion about “V”…because you can’t always be sure whether you’re talking about the mini-series, sequel mini-series, or weekly series. I had a conversation once with someone where we agreed about how much we had liked “V” and then I casually observed I didn’t like the later weekly series…and it turned out the weekly series was what she fondly recalled! Ouch! My bad!

And now things are becoming even more muddled by a new, re-imagined weekly “V” TV series. Following in the wake of re-imagined sci-fi properties begat by “Battlestar Galactica” and J.J. Abram‘s “Star Trek“ film, “V” takes the old premise but starts from scratch. Though unlike the new “Battlestar Galactica”, whose creators and fans lost no opportunity to deride the original, the old “V” remains sufficiently well regarded that the new series (so far) isn’t being used simply as a way for commentators to bash the original. They might prefer the new one (or not) but the vitriol for what was, so far, is being held in check.

The new “V” apparently premiered with the highest ratings of any new series. Admittedly, what that means, I’m not sure, in a TV season that hasn’t necessarily boasted too many break-out hits. And I’ll stick my neck out and say that I suspect “V”’s long term success is anything but certain. The other US network sci-fi series, “Flash Forward”, also opened well with good reviews…but only a few weeks later is quickly becoming a critical whipping boy (at least, according to some pieces I‘ve been reading by people saying they liked it…and are now getting bored). I think it relates to an earlier essay I wrote, about the problem with on going, serialized series -- some premises work best in a finite, mini-series format (like, well, the original “V”). I suspect the new “V” may be looking at its own critical turnabout in a few weeks.

So far, I’ve been considerably less impressed with the new series than others, so maybe I’m just out of step. But I just found as an overall production -- acting, writing, direction -- it’s fairly middling (and I generally like star Elizabeth Mitchell). Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying anyone needs to purge it from their CVs or anything -- not at all. I’m just saying little made me want to jump up and bark. We’ve seen it all before -- not just in “V” but in the subsequent (Canadian-produced) TV series, “Earth: Final Conflict”, and others -- without (so far) the producers bringing anything that fresh to the table in terms of ideas or characterization. And I freely admit my reaction is based only on three episodes -- and sometimes series need a bit to find their groove. But then, others are equally quick to proclaim its quality based on those same three episodes.

Obviously, I have baggage, having seen the original, which, by virtue of being a mini-series, could slowly ratchet up the tension -- whereas the new series’ pilot felt like a hastily condensed Reader’s Digest version. Re-watching the original, I enjoyed the clever six degrees of separation way the story is told through a huge ensemble cast, reflecting different ages, classes and races (and perspectives: the anthropologist giddily trying to catch a glimpse of how many fingers the aliens have; the blue collar worker grumbling about aliens taking away jobs)…and only gradually do we realize how they are all connected to each other (through family, work, geography, etc.). The new “V” has a decidedly more minimalist (and less pluralistic) cast, reflecting more limited viewpoints. The old “V” had this appealing egalitarian notion, with the heroes everyday people uniting in a cause. The new series, the heroes are -- so far -- represented by an FBI agent, a priest, and guys whose only definition seems to be that they are long term resistance fighters. If one were to read too much into it, one could argue the original was about grass roots resistance in the name of freedom and justice while the new is simply about one group of authoritarians battling another group of authoritarians for the right to control the people. As I say, that’s probably reading too much into it: the heroine is presumably an FBI agent simply because cops and FBI agents are trendy right now on TV (but that relates to my earlier point about lack of fresh ideas). The new series has retained some good notions from the original (that not all Visitors are evil) while some new twists (that covert Visitors have embedded themselves among humans for years) just seems to pull the premise away from itself, in favour of an alien invasion cliché.

There’s also an intriguing question as to whether there’s been an ideological shift. The original series was seen as liberal and as an in-your-face allegory for Nazis (from the Visitors’ swastika-like emblem to the “V” symbol which was lifted from the WW II era usage as a sign of “victory” over fascism). Whereas some have suggested the new series is more conservative, the Visitors intended as a swipe at US President Obama and his Democrats, with the Visitors offering a message of “hope” (a catch phrase of Obama’s) and promising “universal Healthcare” (a main policy initiative of Obama’s).

There’s a complaint that internet debates quickly degenerate into people inappropriately throwing the label of “Nazi” at whoever they disagree with. Well, if the above assessment is true, this could be the most blatant -- and expensive -- example in history, taking a series about metaphorical Nazis and turning it into a warning of the dangers of Democrats!

Of course, that may be reading too much in to it. Oh, the echoes certainly seem to be deliberate in the first episode -- but the producers might argue they were just trying to make the new series modern and topical (and different from the original). That they have nothing against Obama, they just wanted the new series to seem “relevant” by parroting current catchphrases.

But that strikes me as creatively, and philosophically, dishonest -- using politics as window dressing. If you’re going to lift terminology from current political debates and then say, oh, but we didn’t mean it that way -- that seems kind of vacuous, fatuous, and probably a few other “ous“es as well. If you don’t mean it, then it ain’t relevant, friend. (For that matter, should we then infer the original “V” wasn’t really intended as a criticism of the Nazis?)

Of course, the whole notion of meaning in sci-fi parables is often ripe for personal interpretation. To this day, some people will tell you the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was a liberal film, criticizing ultra-conservatives, and others that it was a conservative film warning of the dangers of communism. The fact that it can be read either way is perhaps its best warning: cautioning how any ideology, taken too far, can become indistinguishable from that which it purports to resist. Or, as the man said, “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.”

The main problem with the new “V” possibly conflating Nazis with Democrats is less the message, than its failure to justify that message with any compelling linkage between the two. Of course the original had the advantage that, because it was inspired by hindsight, it was hard to dismiss it as implausible or alarmist. But if the new series is warning of dangers to come, it needs to articulate what those dangers really are (rather than: “Obama talks of hope and healthcare -- well, better be wary in case he turns out to be a space lizard!”)

Which maybe is where the old and the new “V” diverge for me. The former seemed like it was about something…the latter like it wants to pretend it’s about something. But, again, that’s a perfunctory opinion formed after only a few episodes.


Glad you asked.

It was in the scene where a TV journalist (played by Scott Wolf) is interviewing the Visitor leader (played by Morena Baccarin). In explaining all the wonderful things the Visitors will bring to earth, she includes health care for all. The journalist looks at once shocked and bemused. “You’re talking about…Universal Healthcare?” he says, struggling distastefully with the phrase as though trying to say Diplodocus five times…backward. This is the scene that most caused people to infer the Democrats-as-evil-lizard-aliens metaphor, because in the current political clime, where American protestors show up at anti-healthcare rallies in the defence of private insurance companies, Universal Healthcare is not a made up fantasy term like “Vulcan mind melds” or “force shield”, but is clearly lifted from a real world context with a real world resonance.

As such, it’s a silly scene, regardless of where you stand on the issue, or who you think is right or wrong. That’s not the point. The point is, many countries -- other than the US -- already have some form or another of Universal Healthcare. In other words, we are to believe this alien race has travelled light years to seduce the human race by offering us something…most of us take for granted already. She might as well have said the Visitors were going to gift us with…traffic lights.

“Traffic Lights?” asks the reporter, shocked. “What are those?”

“Red and green lights,” says the Visitor, “to regulate traffic, so you don’t keep running into each other at intersections.”

“Regulate?” he repeats, horrified, smelling a socialist plot. “And…and where would these lights be?”

“In the air.”

“You mean…floating, by magic?!?”

Sensing they have misjudged human grasp of technology, the Visitor says, “Um, no, up on poles. Powered by electricity.”

“Elec-tri-city?” he repeats, as though saying Deinonychus, backward. “You mean…like lightning?”

“Well, sure, I guess-”

“Witch!” he screams. “Witch! Witch!”

That’d be a kind of goofy scene, right? One that would kind of knock us out of the “reality” the series is hoping to create for us. I mean, who would believe aliens would travel light years to tempt us with traffic lights, or that a 21st Century guy would be shocked by the concept? Yet, in a way, that’s precisely what that scene in “V” was like when she offered the stunned reporter the benefits of Universal Healthcare.

But the thing is, “V” is an American series made primarily for the American market. And so for its American audience, the reference to Universal Healthcare makes the series seem just a little more topical, because it’s a debate raging (not unlike a brushfire) through America right now. So it arguably made sense for them to toss it in.

But for the rest of us: it seems quaintly archaic…and irrelevant. And silly.

Yet I’m not sure anyone has mentioned that, at least in the few places where I’ve read comments on the new “V”. Just as I mentioned in an earlier essay how the re-imagined, ultra-topical and relevant “Battlestar Galactica”’s use of the death penalty seemed to raise nary an eyebrow among its self-imagined thoughtful and astute fandom, despite the fact that most western democracies -- with the exception of the USA -- have long since abolished capital punishment.

And that’s because America so defines our perception of reality, that we are often unable to separate ourselves from it, to realize how much (in some areas) America has diverged over the years from countries like Canada (and others). Hollywood presents worlds of capital punishment and profit driven health care, and we all nod sagely and say, yup, that’s how the world is and should be…when it isn’t and maybe shouldn’t be.

Which is why I repeat what I’ve said a zillion times before, that the reason there should be a Canadian entertainment industry is not simply for a sake a bragging rights, or to provide work for actors and gaffers, but to present a vision that reflects the world as we actually know it, and not simply as it’s known in America -- and to deal with themes and issues actually relevant to our lives.

Of course, is this anything but a fantasy? Even if Canadian films and TV did attempt to present a more Canadian-centric vision, if sci-fi series like the “StarGate” franchises were actually about Canadian characters in a Canadian hierarchy, answering to the Canadian parliament, would things really be any different? Well, probably not, largely because so many people in the Canadian entertainment biz are so immersed in Hollywood, I think they’ve long since lost the ability to make the distinction (and a number are just out-and-out conservatives who prefer the American model anyway). Heck, the new “V”, though an American series, is filmed in Canada, with some Canadians involved behind-the-scenes and clearly none of them thought to go to producer Scott Peters and say, “Uh, dude, you know that line about Universal Healthcare…?”

But I’ll write my piece anyway, and leave you to ruminate upon it.

Until then, watch the sky! And beware seductive aliens offering strange and fantastical gifts like…traffic lights…and running shoes…and insulin…and CD players…and those things used to scrape ice off your car window…

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

November 19, 2009

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