Warner Bros. // 1984 // 897 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Neil Dorsett (Retired) // August 19th, 2004
Sesame Street today is brought to you by the letter...ah, never mind.
When last we left V (in the follow-up miniseries The Final Battle), the Visitors, reptilian invaders bent on stealing all the clean water and using earth's most populous lifeform of any real mass (humans, that is) for food, had been routed. The key was a protracted forty-minute display of the release of the "red dust" bacteria, a poison deadly to Visitors but having no effect on humans.
Mike Donovan (Marc Singer, Beastmaster), Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant, The Greatest American Hero), and Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside, Total Recall, Starship Troopers) had formed a Los Angeles-based Resistance movement. Joined by several others, including the Visitor defector "Willie" (Robert Englund, A Nightmare on Elm Street), they unlocked the secret of the red dust by utilizing the DNA of a dead twin to the "Star Child," Elizabeth (Jennifer Cooke). Elizabeth, the offspring of Robin Maxwell (Blair Tefkin) and a Visitor youth leader, is the result of a genetic experiment at the hands of the vicious Dr. Mengele of the series, "Diana" (Jane Badler). With a small army of genre staple actors, a medium-sized television budget, and a bunch of leftover props and costumes that they got for the price of storage space, V: The Series loosed itself upon the world. It aired on Friday nights before another new show, Miami Vice, and promptly drowned in its wake. Or maybe it lost a fight with Sonny's alligator.
We pick up (following a new credits sequence reminiscent of another Friday-night show, Dallas) with the deaths of a few characters played by actors who were gracious enough to spend the time to die on-camera, but not gracious enough to hang around for the whole series (though one would be coaxed back). V shifts from an analogue of the German occupation of France to an homage to Casablanca; V goes so far as to recreate the Marseillaise scene using "God Bless America." Leveraging his position as head of the corporation which produces the red dust poison, Nathan Bates (Lane Smith, probably turning in the best acting job on the show with his just-under-the-top villain) establishes an "open city" where the citizens of Los Angeles may enjoy an illusion of freedom while the rest of the world goes to hell. Unbeknownst to Bates, his own son Kyle (Jeff Yagher, perhaps best known as Elaine's "hot and heavy" saxophonist on Seinfeld) has firmly sided with the resistance. With Diana constantly on the hunt for Elizabeth and the Resistance playing thorn in the Visitors' side, the premise is established and we proceed with the goings-on and the whatnots. Sound like a lot to jump into? Well, it is. There's darn near to ten hours' worth of entertainment in the whole of V. Too bad it's close to twenty-three hours long.
V: The Series is done on the cheap, although the series does have the latitude to blow something up now and then. An immediate sign of the show's shrunken budget is the absence of the electronic reverb effect on the Visitors' voices. This had been a cheap and simple way to extend the fantasy, and its absence is sorely felt. Between its hybrid and cheesy nature (retrograde for science fiction, even twenty years ago), its low budget, the time slot, and the level of backstory involved, V: The Series never really had a chance.
The annoying erosion of human extras from the resistance leaves us with a classic Star Trek situation in which the top brass are always alone on the away missions. The reintroduction of L.A. outlaw-biker character actor Mickey Jones does little to assuage this situation. When the cast is decimated mid-season by departures from the core group (not to mention some villains), the situation deteriorates further; the loss of Ironside is particularly crippling. The credits eventually change to accommodate the cast changes, and provide the backstory in the opening sequence -- not a bad idea for a series that's dependent on hours of earlier plot development. The second version of the credits, despite its goofy voice over and cheaper production, is the better of the two credits sequences (not an insignificant factor in episodic TV) and far less of a throwback to the '70s. Unfortunately, another element of the show that vanishes are the weekly newscast introductions by Howard K. Smith, presumably pressed out of retirement by the "Freedom Network." This is a rare instance where the insertion of a real newscaster works, because it's used so often that Smith becomes a real character on the show. A line or two of dialogue about his absence, like many other things in the show, would smooth the transition.
It is fun to see "Charles," the new commander, in a costume firmly situated in the Logan's Run tradition, on camera with "Lydia," the show's most obvious '80s fashion victim. All he needs is a coke spoon, where she looks like she'd be more comfortable in a Flock of Seagulls video. That contrast, combined with the opening titles, speaks to a whole turn-of-the-decade vibe that exists in V; the series aired in 1984, but it seems slightly older.
Anyway, back to the acting. Each of Lydia's scenes with Diana is a battle of the dialogue-punctuating butt wiggles. Jane Badler's intense desire to be on Dynasty instead of V is most palpable in these scenes. "I look just like her, dammit!" her eyes say, "Why couldn't I be Joan Collins's long lost daughter instead of trading daggers with this poofed-out blonde on a children's sci-fi show?" V calls for it, though. Badler's own hair does her a disservice. Where she'd been cold and sexy in the miniseries, everything about Badler (especially her hair) is too big in the series, just typical bad-girl stuff.
Badler's brand of overplay contrasts heavily with Singer's brand, and the rest of the show (apart from the other two campy Visitor leaders) is so bland as to make the overactors stick out like sore thumbs. For the rest, Michael Ironside is always sort of cool, even though he looks increasingly uncomfortable here. Faye Grant is what you'd call a television professional; while she's never particularly engaging, she's always hitting the mark and showing you what you need to see. She's also pretty cute, so I say fine. Mister Marc Singer, about whom I could not resist making seventy-eight different ferret jokes, shows us why the very qualities for which his Petrucchio was celebrated onstage are inappropriate for the screen. Singer seems more athlete than actor as he overreacts to everything in his dodging, leaping path. The man is working very hard, but it just doesn't work out. Too much of this, not enough of that. For the ladies (and such males as might be inclined), Donovan does occasionally doff his shirt and his otherwise omnipresent vest-jacket (sort of a superheroic chest symbol: the jacket is a giant V) to reveal his developed physique. Robert Englund has little to do other than a malaprop gag per episode in the first half of the season, though he gets a little more in the second half. But he'd found his calling elsewhere.
V is the sort of thing that makes for an inoffensive cable rerun, but at nineteen episodes it was never bulky enough to syndicate. Its unfortunate cliffhanger ending also made reruns problematic. Thus, there has always been demand for V on home video. This new package from Warner Home Video is the first widely available release of the ongoing series, although it had been available before as a subscription item on VHS.
The package has not been noticeably remastered. There are tape artifacts in addition to the annoying 3:2 pulldown which has been embedded to make your V experience choppier. The 16mm prints were not in the best of shape in the first place; there's a lot of black dirt and flecking, and the occasional multi-frame scratch. The show was obviously shot on that same cheap stock as most television hour-longs of the era, which makes for murky dark tones. Sometimes a cinematographer knows just how to get the most out of that kind of film, but that's not the case here. V employs standard TV blocking and editing techniques with the exception of "The Conversion." This episode features not only the conversion of Ham Tyler but some associated weirdness along a '70s TV line (like when Jamie Sommers had those mechanical breakdowns). Any scene aboard the Visitors' ship is boring as hell to look at, with the clean, Spartan environments and the same two big-haired idiots hissing at each other over and over. The show's mono soundtrack is adequately represented. No extras are to be found. The packaging isn't bad, with a full episode guide and a smiling Robert Englund greeting you as you open the case. The metallic look is pretty neat, evoking those early-'80s supermarket bestseller paperbacks with the die-cut covers.
One early episode, "Breakout," which introduces the Kyle character properly, was not shown on NBC due to "excessive violence." While that episode is particularly violent, with escapees fed to the sand-dwelling crivit creatures and much in the way of gunplay, it's clear that the ban was actually due to the on-camera geeking of a mouse. The producers should really have known they were going to get in trouble over that, especially with the still-present furor over Ozzy Osbourne's purported bat-geek, then in a pretty advanced state. While the Visitors had been allowed to liberally consume rodents over the course of the two miniseries and a few of the shows, this is the only instance where you see a Visitor actually take a bite out of a fake mouse. Come to think of it, the visitors are almost always pictured eating mice, which is an example of how the show is full of missed opportunities for humor in this department. For examples, consider the Visitor med student who donates blood to Willie -- he could have demanded some chow to keep him lucid during the procedure and gotten Donovan or Kyle to supply him with a box of gerbils. And being that it's Los Angeles in the early '80s, one really has to wonder why the Visitors and humans never developed an affinity for the sushi bar as a meeting place. Shared tastes, after all, bring people together.
At the risk of crossing over into übergeek territory, I'll suggest that the best way to experience V is in the novelization of the original two miniseries, compiled into a single book by A.C. Crispin. The format (again, I'm relying on dusty memories here, so I'm probably glossing it a little) divorces the material from the limitations of budget and the era's television styles, instead utilizing the limitations of cheap novelizations and the era's bestseller styles. It suits the material.
One of the hallmarks of low-budget science fiction and television sci-fi in particular is its use of the microcosm to suggest events that are taking place worldwide. V does a decent job with this, at least the bulk of the time. The show, however, is replete with continuity problems. For instance, a Visitor (the absence of whose modified voices had never been mentioned, ergo was tacitly still in place) is able to infiltrate the Resistance without his voice undergoing modification, because...the show doesn't have the voice modification. And the idea that Martin (from the miniseries) has a suddenly-appearing brother Philip (another of the midseason cast shufflings) who chooses the same human mask is not absurd if explained by a casual line of dialogue, but no...Diana merely comments on Philip's family resemblance. This is just one example of the dodgy use of Visitors as lizards in disguise. Another great one is a scene where Diana takes a "ceremonial eel bath" with her human skin on. The Visitors' characteristic toughness from the miniseries is basically gone. Donovan, Tyler, and others routinely perform standard TV punchouts on the Visitors. There are more of these inconsistencies than one could casually count.
Is V: The Complete Series recommendable? Hell, no. At best, the series might shine in a few folks' memories. Take it out of the cabinet and dust it off and you're looking at something that goes into the garage sale. When judged in its own day against other science fiction TV offerings like The Six Million Dollar Man or Battlestar Galactica, V seemed fresh and exciting, at least to the thirteen-year-old eyes of a geek (even in its latter nighttime soap incarnation -- hell, especially for that quality, since SF on television had been so episodic previously). But your thirteen-year-old (or yourself, if you're thirteen) isn't in the same boat with Steve Austin and the Galactica. As for you, misty-eyed V rememberers like myself: you can't really go home again. There's nothing wrong with a television show being purely ephemeral; that is the purpose to which television drives. It does, however, make a poor DVD package twenty years later. This one is for historians and fan completists only.
V: The Complete Series is sentenced to cancellation after a single season and is therefore released due to time served. If you see it around town, shake its hand for trying, but don't buy it a beer and ask it for its life story.
Review content copyright © 2004 Neil Dorsett; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 897 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated