V: “Pilot”



ABC, Tuesdays, 8 PM

Written by Scott Peters, Story by Kenneth Johnson
Directed by Yves Simoneau

The fighting in Afghanistan continues; neoconservatives blame the Democrats for setbacks in international relations. The Olympics controversy simmers on the back burner, the unemployment rate is above ten percent, and gas prices are inching towards $4 a gallon. Sound familiar? It’s 1983, the first time we saw this story.

It should come as no surprise that V was originally envisioned back in the day as a made-for-TV movie about Resistance fighters in WWII. The 1983 movie even carried a dedication to resistance fighters “past, present, and future”. After the overwhelming success of Star Wars, however, Kenneth Johnson and the producers filed off the serial numbers and re-wrote it as a science fiction movie. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now, and pretty much for the same reasons.

New Yorkers are surprised by tremors at 6:30 in the morning, and look skyward to find the sun blocked by an enormous flying saucer. Everyone recognizes the image from Independence Day, and few are surprised when the underside of the ship converts to a huge HD TV, showing a very attractive human-looking woman announcing the arrival of The Visitors. They have just dropped by (all fifty or so ships) to borrow a cup of water and then they’ll be on their way. With all the insincere unctuousness of a ward politician, she promises, “We are of peace, always.” Yeah, right.

Earth has had a United Nations for sixty years. Not every nation is a member, and the institution itself is the site of major quarrels on every subject from global warming to martial intervention in piracy. Yet we are supposed to believe that, after one charming alien delivers a bland welcoming speech, that all these nations decide to play nice with one another and welcome the pretty people from Somewhere Else. As it turns out, the aliens have a secret agenda (ya think?), and a secret (yet inept) resistance tries to form. In one overlong, awkward fifteen minute exposition, the leader of the local New York chapter earnestly preaches to a group of recruits, claiming that the aliens have been here a long time, that they are infiltrating every level of government and society, etc. We’ve been hearing this sort of rant from poorly dressed, unshaven prophets since the Illuminati went out of business. Why are we supposed to think a bunch of New Yorkers are going to buy this? If the resistance really wanted to make a statement, it would be recruiting Tony Soprano.

We don’t even know who our hero(es) are supposed to be: the cop mom with Teenager Issues? The rebellious priest? The journalist wannabe? Even if I cared about all these drama issues, these are not the people I would care about. I would care more about the ambassadors and scientists whoshould be interfacing with these strangers. Once again, Hollywood assumes we’re too dumb to identify with a scientist, unless he’s carefully disguised as a non-threatening geek. Once again we get dumbed-down throwaway lines (the aliens have mastered anti-gravity?) that titillate but do not enlighten.

Why can’t Hollywood ever get this right? Is it a failure of imagination? Budgetary issues? Sheer mass stupidity? Why do they keep giving us WWII retreads and Western knock-offs cast as “sci fi”? Why can’t they see that the real appeal of science fiction is intellectual, that we care about the gee-whiz and the cool ideas behind, say, anti-gravity ships and cloned human skin? I don’t care about the cop mom with her ungrateful brat of a son, he should fall into a pit. I don’t care about the black man who is really an alien (dangerous territory, there) who is really in love with a human woman. I really, really, really don’t care about the journalist who sells out his integrity for the sake of a story—in today’s “news” environment, nobody believes in the integrity of journalists anyway, so his “struggle” is a non-starter. In short, there’s nothing here that interests me, except the aliens themselves.

Unfortunately, they are as stupid as a box of rocks. They came to Earth to get water? These people can make anti-gravity ships but they can’t collect hydrogen, the most plentiful element in the universe, and oxygen, nearly as plentiful, and make their own? Of course it’s a cover story, but it’s a damn silly one, which would have most seventh grade chemistry teachers, let alone professional scientists, smelling a rat. And finally, their recruiting method—give me a break. This nation has survived, and remembered, the Jonestown calamity, the David Koresh fiasco, the rise of Scientology. We’re wary of cult talk hiding under a highly polished surface. We know what it sounds like. I refuse to believe that so many people, let alone New Yorkersfor God’s sake, would fall for this snake oil (you should pardon the pun).

So we see that, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Hollywood still does not know how to make an alien invasion scenario that involves anything more than a standard conspiracy story retread, with actors now and then running around in alien suits. Hollywood still insists on doing something on the cheap that demands a huge, Wagnerian canvas. Hollywood wants to be timely and of-the-moment, but hangs on to images out of the 1950s (reptilian aliens? Seriously?) and thinks a passing reference to universal health care will cover the bases.

There were two good moments in this show, both of them courtesy of former co-stars in Firefly, a show with genuine innovation in its genes. Morena Baccarin flirts with reporter Chad Decker (Scott Wolf, The Nine) and then turns his sophomoric attraction into a weapon against him. In his best moments, Decker will never be Mike Donovan, played in the original series with grit and warmth by Marc Singer, king of B-movie fantasy. He’s already lost what little moral high ground he may have had, by capitulating to Anna’s demand for softball reporting. But Baccarin’s mysterious allure, her Mona Lisa smile, and her pixie haircut give her twice the screen presence of anyone else in this show; I find myself far more interested in what she and her cohorts are doing in that Rivendell-in-the-sky ship of theirs, than anything happening on the ground.

The second good moment, which was a shock to absolutely nobody, was the revelation that Erika the FBI agent’s partner is an alien. She keeps confiding in him, those secrets wind up getting tipped off to their “terrorist” targets, and she wonders who the mole in her unit could be. This is the dumbest cop since, well, Mark Benford of FlashForward. Allan Tudyk (Firefly) did his usual excellent job of portraying a sympathetic and believable sidekick, but honestly, who else could the mole have been? If the story had developed over several episodes we might have had time for a red herring or two, but in this compressed time frame the identity of the villain is so obvious they may as well have issued Tudyk a black hat and a handlebar mustache.

Which brings us to the final problem with this much-troubled re-imagination: not enough time. There is too much story for a one-hour pilot, and too little drama for anything over half an hour. The episode lurched along on autopilot, using cliches as crutches. And I am so, so, so over the idea that terrorists are actually resistance fighters misunderstood by the FBI, that I could hurl. Find another cliche to beat to death, please.

V debuted with 13.9 million viewers and a 8.5 share, in second place for the night behind CBS’s NCIS. The good news is that this meant that two scripted shows beat out “reality” shows on Fox and NBC. These numbers are better than many expected, which either means I am jaded, or audiences are easily entertained by mediocre SF, or everyone is tired to death of “reality” shows. Whether that audience will stay is an open question: ABC plans to show only four episodes this fall, and then the show does not return until March. In fact, production has already shut down for the winter. Maybe the same people who flocked to Lost will be intrigued enough to make V appointment TV. I won’t be one of them.