|Visitation rights...and wrongs|
Twenty six years ago, a cultural phenomenon swept Britain. Almost thirteen years old, like all of my generation, I had grown up in a world of only three television channels. In the summer of 1984, a dispute resulted in ITV refusing to carry the Olympics, and over five consecutive nights of that first week, a major prime time drama was broadcast to fill the timeslot. As the only alternative to the saturation sports coverage on the other two channels, the show became the very definition of “event television.” Why was this so unusual? Because this show was science fiction, a genre that, while a cinematic box office staple since the late seventies, has never been well regarded on the small screen, particularly in Britain.
Those five nights comprised the mini series V and its sequel, V – The Final Battle, and the red spray-painted capital letter stood for Victory, both within the show, and in the reception it received.
With high profile science fiction such a rarity, the show already had a small but guaranteed audience, but through the circumstances of those summer night screenings, even those who would normally ignore such a show began to tune in, and every child became a science fiction fan, whether they realised it or not. As the Resistance were primarily scientists and their families, driven underground by the Visitors, my own interest in science practically qualified me as a hero in waiting. For once, I was no longer the outsider.
The mini series format afforded big budget spectacle that was unusual for televised science fiction, and the definite lifespan of that dramatic format allowed strong writing, with a function and a fate for each character that was linked to the resolution of the story, rather than the aimless meandering that mars so many long running shows that are uncertain whether they would be happier as soap operas. For a show that was in itself a media event, it was perhaps appropriate that the Visitor’s plan depended on media relations, first in presenting themselves and their advanced technology to Earth, then in manipulation of fear and seeding dissidence to turn popular opinion against the scientists who they feared could expose the truth of their plans.
No age has been without its crises, and lack of resources and the threat of pollution is faced by every generation. The Visitors offered a solution, and even though it was a lie, they were welcomed and the dubious voices of the scientists drowned out by those who preferred only to hear good news, whether substantiated or not.
Quarter of a century later, the vast majority of real scientists warn our world is perilously close to the tipping point of carbon dioxide catastrophe, yet the media is saturated with idle gossip of footballers and their wives and pop stars and their tantrums, instead of carbon sequestration, sustainable living and preserving biodiversity. Perhaps some still hope that mothership will descend from the sky to solve all our problems, preferring not to look behind the curtain to see the true cost of their inaction.
While the original V progressed from the two miniseries into a weekly episodic show of radically different style, the revised V tries to straddle the two camps, having broadcast four episodes followed by a prolonged break before continuing the first season, but has failed to capture the strengths of either format. A weekly show can be fast paced – each week, a new crisis, a new advance in the story, yet these characters meander about their day jobs with no discernable urgency that can be transferred to the audience. Nor does the revised show have the epic feel of the miniseries – while the publicity suggested this was again to be “event television,” the arrival showed it to be another cost cutting Canadian production line show.
The original swiftly foreshadowed the sinister nature of the Visitors while moving the narrative forward – a comment about cold skin; a dissenting lab worker suddenly absent from work; a dinner party to celebrate a Visitor technology contract marred by caged birds terrified by the presence of the guests of honour – before the infiltration of the mothership led, in a classic scene that we hoped the remake would replicate, to the revelation of their reptilian nature and eating habits. While it may have teased the scales beneath the cloned human skin from the first night, the remake has followed up with no terrifying alien threat to humanity in the weeks that followed.
The only shock is the ineptitude of the new Visitors; three times they have had access to individuals that could have led them directly to the Fifth Column, and each time they have let them die, twice at the hands of the same Fifth Columnist, and once choosing to execute a suspect rather than interrogating him.
Somehow, the new Resistance are no better. When Erica realises her son’s alien girlfriend has tracked him, rather than alerting her ex husband to the danger, says she’ll call him later and hangs up the phone. For a law enforcement agent, she has no insight into how a terrorist cell operates, or how to use her position to serve the Resistance. In the eighties, Juliet Parrish was a doctor, accustomed to organising and motivating the people around her, and most of all, coordinating the research programme to develop defences against the Visitors. From the moment the ships first arrived over the cities of Earth, she approached the situation as a scientist, with scepticism and a healthy dose of apprehension. When a colleague commented that the Visitors were making an offer humanity couldn’t refuse, it was her who asked the question “I wonder what would happen if we did?”