When the re-imagined/re-booted/re-whateveryouwanttocallit V television series was announced, few people were simultaneously as excited and skeptical as I was. I was — and still am — a huge fan of the original two miniseries from the 80's (the weekly series is admittedly best left ignored, although even that misfire had its moments), and the idea of Visitors being back on my TV screen had me slavering like Diana for a guinea pig.
How disappointed I would be — and really, one of the first disappointments was the show's insistence on referring to the aliens as "V's," as if the word "visitor" is somehow too quaint for the 21st century. It immediately clued me in that this was probably not going to be the show I'd been hoping for. Which would have been fine, had the show been enjoyable on its own merits. But it's never quite gotten there for me, and, judging from the ratings, I am far from alone.
The original V is dated in many ways, to be sure: tight faded jeans, bad hair, no cell phones, no internet (the mind boggles at what Juliet Parrish and Mike Donovan might have been able to accomplish with the internet at their fingertips, but sadly, we will never know) — but what made that show so successful should still resonate today, if only the creators of the new series had heeded its lessons.
And so, here is, in my opinion, what made the original V a dramatically effective ratings blockbuster — and how the remake got it all wrong.
A simple, primal threat.
For me, the final nail in the coffin of the current series was pounded in with one word: phosphorous. Phosphorous. I can't even remember what the point of the phosphorous is now. I think it has something to do with missing DNA and breeding. Or something. Anyway, the show's most recent "dramatic" revelation is that the "V's" not only want to breed with us, they want to harvest the best parts of our DNA in order to further their own genetic evolution.
Wow. That is so boring.
You know what the original Visitors wanted to do to us? TAKE ALL OUR WATER, AND EAT US. That speaks to whatever primal fear human beings have about what might happen were aliens to show up on our doorstep. Let me reiterate: THEY WANTED TO EAT US. Why does the current show make it all so complicated, with weird DNA extraction machines and whirling giant helixes and phosphorous? The original Visitors shipped people off to FOOD PROCESSING PLANTS. Now that's a battle I want humanity to win!
Unlikely heroes doing unexpected things.
I first became uneasy about the remake before it even aired: when I learned that the two main characters were an FBI agent (an anti-terrorism agent, no less) and a priest. It says a lot about America today that our heroes can no longer be, as they were in the 80's, a reporter and a scientist. Nope, law and religion are what we look to for guidance now. But wait! Said cleric also saw action in the Gulf, so he's former military and knows his way around a firearm. In other words, our "everyman/woman" heroes are two people with extraordinary combat experience.
One of the most indelible images from the first miniseries is that of tiny Juliet Parrish, a scientist who'd never handled anything more lethal than a test tube, standing her ground and firing a weapon against an attacking Visitor shuttle. That is the kind of image that inspires and moves us, that makes us connect with and root for a character. In contrast, an FBI agent using her gun is not much of a stretch.
By the same token, another great scene from the original shows an overwhelmed Juliet crying to the elderly Ruby — another average woman who has been thrust into an extraordinary situation — about how everyone is looking to her for guidance even though she doesn't know what she's doing either, and she's just as scared as everyone else. Again, a very human, relatable emotion. If only Erica Evans ever showed that kind of vulnerability...or if her son Tyler was capable of showing any kind of emotion on his face.
One of the most enduring conventions in science fiction adventure is that of a group of people who band together under extreme circumstances and become an unlikely family. The original series communicated this quite well (it didn't hurt that they also had kids running around, and family units present). We saw dozens of people gathered together, in hiding, literally underground in some instances, forming a real community, with ups and downs and loves and losses. In the remake we have no more than five or six people in the same room at a time, and they barely seem to like each other, much less think of each other as a makeshift family. Why are we supposed to root for this humorless bunch? The addition this season of the charming Bret Harrison was a welcome breath of fresh air, but he was also too little, too late. And on a related note...
This current version of V is sadly lacking in even the basic human relationships department. It's not a coincidence that I thought one of the more successful stories on the show was the loss of Erica's ex-husband, since the show uncharacteristically took the time to show the Evanses as a family unit, laughing together and enjoying one another's company. But moments like that are few and far between. Another missing human element is romance. Sadly, this version of V has none whatsoever. That awkward coupling between Erika and Hobbes doesn't qualify—and neither do the labored interactions between Lisa and Tyler. On the original V there were so many important relationships—familial, friendly, and romantic—many of them complicated and troubled, but also more than a few that were simply heart-warming (like Harmony and Willie) — all that and you had a signature couple in Mike and Juliet. Most TV shows have couples like that for a reason: they work. On another note, choosing to have your villains display little to no human emotion doesn't make for interesting viewing; it makes for, well, emotionless viewing (surprise!). The original Diana's pride, selfishness and ambition added to her character and made her all the more terrifying, because that emotion made her unpredictable—just like us.
I mean, seriously. You're a science fiction show. Embrace it. Have your aliens firing laser guns or something at humans once in a while. It'll be great. Trust me.
A deeper message.
The original V, at least the first miniseries, was not only a science fiction story but an allegory for speaking out against oppression. There was nothing subtle about it, either: at one point elderly Abraham Bernstein tells his son Stanley about his time in a Nazi concentration camp, using that story to drive home the lesson that they must shelter scientist Robert Maxwell and his family, who are being hunted by the Visitors. It was about helping others, looking out for one another, being strong enough to stand together against tyranny. It gave the story emotional heft, and made that aspect of it, at least—unlike the hairstyles—timeless.
I'm not sure what the point of this reboot is — in the pilot it almost seemed to carry a conservative message, with Anna using the buzzphrase "universal health care," and her message of hope sounding more than a little like President Obama's. The producers denied this connection, but it's the only deeper one I've been able to find to date. I mean, there's the deeper mystery of how Scott Wolf continues to look so darn young, but that's not really the same thing, is it.
Over-the-top shock value.