The Visitors are coming, the Visitors are coming.
V was the first truly cinematic and epic sci-fi film to air on television. It set a new bar for both television and film to follow as it elevated the genre to new heights in the early 80s.
The TV teaser below seemingly offers lots of special effects and spaceships, while teasing alien visitors coming to the planet with an ulterior motive. It shows the “TV journalist” and the “young scientist” that must try to stop a potential invasion.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
One day, as people all over the world are going about their business, a fleet of giant spaceships enter the Earth’s atmosphere with a message of peace. Their leader, John (Richard Herd) meets with the leaders of the United Nations and offers to share much of their technology with the world. In exchange they ask for the world’s help manufacturing some chemical compounds that their world needs. Industrial plants all over the globe are pressed into service to help meet the quota, including the one owned by Arthur and Eleanor Dupres, nee Donovan (Hansford Rowe & Neva Patterson) in Los Angeles. Eleanor is the mother of Mike Donovan (Marc Singer), a TV news cameraman who gets invited on board the L.A. vessel with his girlfriend, and investigative reporter, Kristine Walsh (Jenny Sullivan).
The Visitors, as they are called, send dozens of their race, all clad in identical red and black uniforms, to work side-by-side with the humans in the plants. Willie (Robert Englund), a Visitor that has trouble speaking English, runs afoul of African-American Caleb (Jason Bernard) for taking their jobs, but is soon thanked after saving Caleb’s life during an accident. The second-in-command, Diana (Jane Badler) and her aide Steven (Andrew Prine), provide much media access, and make Kristine their official spokesperson, much to her delight and surprise. The Visitors also institute an outreach program for the youth of Los Angeles headed by Brian (Peter Nelson), an attractive alien that catches the eye of Robin (Blair Tefkin), much to neighbor Daniel’s (David Packer) chagrin. Daniel decides to join the Visitor youth alliance to prove to Robin that he’s better than what she thinks of him.
While this is happening, reports begin reaching Dr. Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant) and her team that scientists are going missing around the globe. Stories of coverups by scientists who have discovered cures for cancer but refusing to share that knowledge, or collaborators looking to implicate the Visitors in something emerge, so a registration is put underway, and public opinion of scientists turns sour. This concerns Robert Maxwell (Michael Durrell), Robin’s father–a scientist, who tries to sneak out of the city with his family in the back of a gardeners truck. Mike sneaks onto a Visitor ship and gets damning evidence that the Visitors are not what they seem. The video shows Diana consuming a rodent whole and their lizard-like appearance under a skin suit they wear. The Visitors institute martial law preventing the tape from being aired, but a growing resistance movement is forming.
Humans critical of the aliens disappear, only to show up later having been “converted” into believing their propaganda. Some humans, like Eleanor and Daniel, choose to work willing with the Visitors, believing it’s in their best interests. Daniel turns in the Maxwells who have been hiding in the family’s pool house. In that roundup the Visitors also take Daniel’s family, including his grandfather Abraham (Leonardo Cimino), a survivor of the Nazi camps from World War II. Mike attempts to sneak back on board a ship to get more evidence but is captured. He is helped to escape by Martin (Frank Ashmore), a Visitor that doesn’t believe in the Visitors mission.
Mike joins with the Los Angeles resistance movement, led by Juliet, confirming that the aliens are not what they appear. He tells them that Martin has shown him that the aliens are here to steal the planet’s water, as well as to use the humans for food or cannon fodder in their wars with other planets. Mike tells them he must go back aboard the ship one last time, as his son Sean (Eric Johnston) has been taken as well. The resistance stages a number of attacks to gather weapons and medical supplies for use in their downtown tunnel hideout, and their camp in the hills. Robert is coerced by a Visitor soldier to supply the location of the camp in exchange for having his daughter Robin returned. Robin is visited in the ship by Brian who makes love with her under the guidance of Diana. Mike rescues her, but is unable to find his son.
The Visitor attack on the camp happens ahead of schedule and Robert is unable to warn his family to escape. But he has grown a conscience and lets Juliet and the rest of the resistance know about the attack. They all arrive at the camp in time to save the majority of people, though Robert’s wife is killed. Mike arrives in a stolen alien fighter, driving Diana and her remaining squadron away. Juliet realizes the burdens of leadership knowing that she may have to sacrifice thousands of humans abducted onto the ships, in order to save their race from extinction. Mike informs his mother of the real motives of the aliens, and her missing grandson, but she only sees her own prosperity in the matter. Juliet sends a distress call into the heavens for any potential help they might get from a race that is also an enemy to the Visitors. Robert visits Daniel’s parents Stanley and Lynn (George Morfogen & Bonnie Bartlett) to ask for continued help. Lynn reads a letter Abraham left before he was taken away that says they must remember which side they’re on, and to fight for it.
“How’d someone like that get to be your leader anyway?”
“Charisma. Circumstances, promises… Not enough of us spoke out to question him until it was too late. It happens on your planet, doesn’t it?” – Mike and Martin
History in the Making
With the hype of science-fiction films in the early 80s, television knew it had to do something to compete. While American audiences had a mix of sci-fi shows in the early 80s, V: The Miniseries was an event unlike anything seen on the small screen to date. Mini series were not new to television. These multi-night, finite telefilms had been around since the early days of television and usually adapted a book or some longer form story that would not be filmable in a standard two-hour theatrical release. Some of the more popular miniseries prior to 1983 were Rich Man Poor Man (1976), Salem’s Lot (1979), Shogun (1980), The Blue and The Grey (1982), and The Thorn Birds, which aired just two months prior to V. What set V apart from the others was that it was an entirely original story, and it was science-fiction.
Sci-fi television programs were still an anomaly in 1983. By the end of the decade that would change, but at this point fans eager for some of the same cinematic action and stories that they got in theaters was few and far between. Some of the series that drew genre fans at the time included Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Galactica 1980, The Phoenix, The Powers of Matthew Star, and Voyagers. And while these shows tried to create action on the small screen they were hampered by a smaller budget. That’s where V comes in. It was able to create about three hours of programming, over two nights on NBC (May 1-2, 1983) for the cost of a feature film. Hype for the series, and science-fiction in general, were at an all time high, with the third film in the Star Wars saga, Return of the Jedi, just three weeks away. The miniseries promised a lot of what other shows had, interpersonal drama and an epic cast, but also teased an alien racing coming to the world in peace, but with ulterior motives.
The advertising campaign for V consisted of articles in TV Guide and fan magazines, like Starlog, but also may have had one of the first viral campaigns. Months prior to the series airing, posters were erected in malls, train stations and bus stops that were similar to the ones from the show. They proclaimed that the “visitors are our friends,” and featured the red-clad alien-in-disguise posing with humans. As the show approached, the posters were “defaced” with red spray paint, with the large stylized “V” on them, with no further explanation. The lack of a normal marketing push may have been lost on the average viewer, but for sci-fi fans, they knew what was going on.
As discussed over the past six months of Sci-Fi Saturdays reviews, the late 70s and early 80s sci-fi films were taking the genre to new and interesting areas by expanding the notion of just what sci-fi was. These films infused various other genre types with the elements of science-fiction to create a new hybrid of stories and situations. V did this by telling a relatively traditional sci-fi/alien invasion type of story but with new thematic undertones. Instead of a classic sci-fi story like The Day The Earth Stood Still where aliens come in peace to assist the Earth, or the more bellicose The War of the Worlds, where Martians attack and invade, V took the templates of those films and superimposed them over the rise of a fascist state. Rather than taking a mythological construct, similar to a fairy tale, which tells of a heroic battle, V looked to history to provide the structure, superimposing alien races and sci-fi elements for real-world dictators and weaponry.
As a miniseries on television, V also accomplished something else, which was that it was broadcast into millions of homes free of charge. An epic sci-fi show was offered up to individuals who might normally never have gone to see a sci-fi movie in a theater. Setting the series in our real-world, rather than a far off galaxy or fantasy land also made the story more accessible to viewers that may not be as knowledgeable about the conceits of the sci-fi genre. It presented a variety of people and families, not too different than the ones watching at home, and for those that paid attention, presented a chilling parable about the dangers of believing that “something like this can’t happen here.” The acknowledgment of our real-world was used in humorous ways, such as young Sean saying that John looked “nothing like Mr. Spock,” or the marching band welcoming the Visitors to the sounds of John Williams’ Star Wars fanfare,
As a science-fiction story, V also set itself in our real and contemporary world, much like TRON or Night of the Comet. The sci-fi of our world was referenced and acknowledged by the elements of the story, thereby making the series feel all the more real. Sci-fi films have often vacillated between fantastical environments and the contemporary world, with alien invasion stories always falling to the latter. V followed in the footsteps of great alien invasion films, like those mentioned above, while influencing later films to come. One obvious comparison is Independence Day. That film definitely has more in common with The War of the Worlds, but the design and immense scale of the spaceships appears to have been influenced by the Visitors vessels.
As stated above, V’s main thematic element was retelling the story of the rise of facism in Germany prior to the second World War. And it is not subtle. The aliens claim to come in peace, sent by a “great leader” to bring incredible and amazing prosperity to the Earth. But soon members of the Earth learn the true reasons behind this offering. The Visitors plan to steal the water from the Earth and supplement their dinner tables and their military with humans. The show demonstrates, in a rapid way, how that discord is sown into the populace. First by creating distrust of a particular race or group, in this case scientists. Then as the society begins to fracture, institute martial law and create groups of humans to help support the Visitors. The costumes are all inspired by military uniforms, and the youth group uniforms were designed to look like the ones worn by the brownshirts of Germany. The filmmakers need to be as overt in their designs and plotting may have something to do with the series being shown on television. Subtlety has really never been “a thing” on network television, as they might assume people are only paying attention 50% of the time.
Besides creating a group of humanoid aliens that are really out to eat people, the showrunners also wanted to show viable ways that individuals might react to the supposed invasion. Humans fell into one of three categories, collaborators, resistance, or deniers. People like Mike’s mother Eleanor or the TV reporter Kristine, saw their chance for political advancement. Eleanor saw the prestige of having her plant chosen as one of the main facilities, and Kristine received worldwide recognition as the “voice of the Visitors.” The motivations of the characters might seem a little trite and simplistic, but are not many people trite and simplistic. Daniel felt the sting of an adolescent crush not being returned, and saw a spiteful way to get back was to ingratiate himself with the Visitors, using their power as his own. As a bootheel does to an ant.
Those that could see what was going on, or knew the truth, decide to rebel. They were instantly branded as agitators, collaborators, and terrorists by the newly run state government imposed by the Visitors. Stories were touted in the media by the Visitors of any number of vile things that these scientists had done, whether true or not. Many people believed these lies because that was their only news source. An early form of “fake news.” The ideas of these rebel cells, and the Visitor traitors who helped (dubbed as fifth columnists in future installments) were all based on real-world events that happened during the late 30s and early 40s. As if these weren’t enough, the show created the character of Abraham, a survivor of the German death camps, and used him to specifically call out the similarities. But there were characters that couldn’t or didn’t want to see the similarities. Even when these events happened only 40 years prior to the events of the show. It’s difficult as an audience member not be moved by these similarities.
The Science in The Fiction
The Visitors encounter an issue on their planet with a lack of water resources (or potentially some disaster that polluted their existing water supplies). But rather than come in an actual peaceful manner and ask to share the water, they come as a lizard in sheep’s clothing. But to look at this in a more critical way, if this were the case, why don’t the Visitors make their own water? They have the ability to create laser weapons, skin suits that disguise their faces and hands, and spaceships, yet cannot create water? A number of scientists point out the inconsistencies with their request to make these chemical compounds that they claim they need. Those of course a ruse, as Mike discovers when he sees them venting the manufactured chemicals into the exhaust system of one of the ships. Apparently enough of the population of the planet were so enamored that an alien race wanted to get our assistance that they failed to look any closer.
The Final Frontier
For viewers wanting to have a complete experience with this mini series, you’re out of luck. While V elevates the level of hope at the end of the two-part series, no actual resolution is made. The Visitors are still here. Mike’s son Sean is still prisoner on the mothership. There’s no way for the resistance to kill the aliens. And most importantly, Robin is pregnant with an alien/human hybrid. Luckily it was a shorter wait than between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. In the summer of 1984, NBC aired a three-part conclusion to the storyline called V: The Final Battle. It veered away from some more of the socio-political overtones for more soap opera moments, but Sean gets rescued, Robin has twins, and the scientists discover a red dust that is able to kill the Visitors. Plus they reveal the aliens’ plans to the whole world and all the collaborators get their comeuppance. While the mini series wraps up a lot of elements, there was still more. A 19-episode single season of V: The TV Series debuted in late 1984 bringing back the majority of the surviving characters and continuing the fight against the Visitors. The show was also reimagined in 2009 for two 10-episode seasons.
One actor that got their start in this series who horror fans may recognize is Robert Englund. In V he plays an awkward and child-like alien who befriends the resistance. But he is more popularly known as Freddy Kreuger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films. Growing up with the idea of Willie becoming Freddy Kreuger was quite a shock. Another actress that was originally set to be in the series was Dominique Dunne, who played the older sister in Poltergeist. In researching for this article I found out that they had started filming with her, but replaced her after a her tragic murder at the hands of her boyfriend. Also a startling revelation.
V: The Miniseries was a watershed moment for television. It demonstrated that films were not the be-all, end-all when it came to telling compelling stories. It would inspire future creators to tell longer form stories in the sci-fi genre as well as influence fans for generations to come.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.