Know Your V History: Sternbergh on the Original Miniseries

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Photo: Courtesy of NBC

I was not one of the 65 million or so people who watched the original V miniseries when it aired in 1983, and I’m still not sure why: After all, its Star Wars-meets-Invasion of the Body Snatchers-meets-Flash Gordon pitch was right in my then-12-year-old wheelhouse. Tonight, however, I’ll get a second chance — as will the series, as ABC launches a shiny new V reboot.

So, as homework, I decided to sit down with the original miniseries, 25 years later. And you know what? It totally stands up! For the most part! Once you get past the hairstyles and the ridiculous effects (rewatch this famous clip to see how yesterday’s horror is today’s hilarity), the miniseries is clearly the most ambitious, daring, and artistically successful three-and-a-half-hour Holocaust-allegory-featuring-evil-lizard-people show that’s ever aired on TV.

Here’s the gist: Attractive aliens arrive on Earth seeking help and offering technical advances in return. Smitten earthlings embrace the “Visitors” (we see two kids fight over Visitors action figures) who wander around serenely in ball caps, Blue Blocker sunglasses, and wide-shouldered red jumpsuits. A few pesky scientists suspect the Visitors aren’t what they seem — and are promptly either vaporized or “disappeared.”

But you know who smells a rat or, more precisely, a rat-eating lizard? Crack investigative journalist Mike Donavan, that’s who! Armed with a trusty video camera (roughly the size of a piece of carry-on luggage), Donovan sets out to reveal the visitors for the guinea-pig-gobbling, lying fascist bastards that they are.

If you haven’t guessed by now, the allegories run thick and plentiful: Thomas Paine gets quoted (“These are the times that try men’s souls”), El Salvador and Zapata get name-checked, and creator Kenneth Johnson, who reportedly claimed to be influenced by Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, opened the miniseries with this declaration: “To the heroism of the Resistance Fighters — past, present, future — this work is respectfully dedicated.” At times, V feels like a straight-up Holocaust allegory, and at other times like a post-seventies anti-immigration screed. (Union workers gripe about aliens taking their jobs, parents fret about romantic intermingling.) Mostly, though, V played on the classic sci-fi trope of Things Are Not What They Seem. The most enduring image is that of the Visitors with their fake faces dangling off, revealing the lizard creatures beneath.

The original miniseries was so successful that it spawned a sequel (V: The Final Battle), a short-lived series, and, now, this modern remake. Tonight’s V, though, arrives in a different world: Less anxious, perhaps, about fascist takeovers (though Tea Partiers might find something to cling to here) than about slick marketing and the dark arts of mass persuasion. In a way, the newfangled V might look less like an update on Sinclair Lewis and more like a sci-fi Mad Men, populated with lizards who pose as humans in order to win our hearts and minds. In other words, it’s Invasion of the Pete Campbells From Another Planet.