Thursday, December 10, 2015

V S1 Ep1: Pilot

"Before we get on let us at least make sure it is sturdy and sound.
Let us at least examine it to really make sure it is something that we want to climb aboard.
No one is saying don't trust the visitors.
Don't they need to earn our trust?
It's something we all need to think about."
-Father Jack Landry speaking about the Visitors, but could be speaking to the post 9/11 America concerns regarding potential Muslim jihadists, illegal aliens crossing the southern border or an influx of Syrian refugees-

Recently we examined, in short, a successful fusion of actors from various genre projects for TV's Longmire (2012-present). The culmination of those performers into that world tapped into something special.

We turn our attention to a similar cocktail attempt.

What do you get when you take an all-star team, at least in credentials, in the form of Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost, Revolution), Joel Gretsch (Taken, The 4400), Lourdes Benedicto (The Nine), Scott Wolf (Party Of Five, The Nine), Morena Baccarin (Firefly, Stargate SG-1, Homeland), Alan Tudyk (Firefly) and Lexa Doig (Andromeda, Stargate SG-1, Continuum) and place them within the world of Kenneth Johnson (The Incredible Hulk, the original V)? The result is the reimagined V (2009-2011). The new V was an effort akin to Ronald D. Moore's retelling of Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) without the quality. The reimagined V was developed and managed by Scott Peters who created, wrote and directed The 4400 (2004-2007) and by all accounts prior to my viewing here a pretty mediocre translation of the original V mini-series and series (1983-1985). But is that fair?

One thing is certain, actor ensembles aside, like the group assembled for the exceptional Longmire (based on the writing of Craig Johnson), in truth, it always comes down to the writing. Did V have the writing required to offer a sound science fiction outing?

Critical reaction to the new V was indeed mixed. Despite sterling production values (apart from a crashing jet in the Pilot) in the early going the new series came with some degree of controversy before even taking off.

The original V, inspired by Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here (1935), a political satire on fascism (which speaks to Johnson's politics), was deemed one of the best science fiction genre efforts ever in an article called The Sci-Fi 25: The Genre's Best Since 1982 (2008).

Would the new V, like the new Battlestar Galactica, remain true to the original or stray creating a new and separate identity with the same name, as Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica essentially did so successfully. Moore created a virulent, liberal antidote to the conservative-driven original series of the 1970s. In turn, V, offers the political antithesis to the liberal anti-Reagan era version of the original series here (though the creators have protested to the contrary). Like our political realities, science fiction too often applies these two competing schools of ideological or political thought. Some are rather eloquent while others are less articulate thanks in part to a lack of scriptwriting prowess. Without question, like Moore's Battlestar Galactica, V aimed to hold up a mirror to the realities of our post 9/11 political world, but lacked the skill in telling its tale.

Original writer/creator Kenneth Johnson managed to temporarily suspend production of the series in 2009 pending a suit filed with the Writer's Guild Of America to have his name removed from the new V series. This fact is telling with regard to Johnson's confidence in the series or lack thereof. Johnson felt the new V was a fundamentally transformed version of the original show. Johnson felt the new V was a standalone work and not at all a remake or true to the original's intent as a post World War II allegory on Nazism. It lacked the military tone, style and spirit of the original series. Ultimately, the Writer's Guild sided with Scott Peters and the team behind the new V and opposed Johnson's request. The credit to Johnson remained when the series aired.

Despite spaceship-sized ratings smaller networks might kill for coupled with a bevy of nominations for a variety of actors and technical awards V just couldn't muster more than two short seasons before receiving word of cancellation.

But was V really that bad? Did Kenneth Johnson have a point? Should V simply have come under a different name? Some have often considered such an idea might have worked to the benefit of Stargate Universe (2009-2011) had it separated itself from the Stargate franchise name. Both V and Stargate Universe (SGU) lasted just two season, but don't compare the outstanding science fiction qualities of SGU to the train wreck that would be the new V. The two are simply not of the same orbit when it comes to quality. SGU would be a sterling example of smart, atmospheric science fiction.

With V, Season One, Episode 1Pilot, what is most evident is the effort to infuse the series with the kind of political commentary that succeeded within Battlestar Galactica, but without the subtlety and grace. Like Battlestar Galactica which tapped into the zeitgeist of America's post-9/11 trauma, V too attempts to carry the torch by questioning issues of trust. The series dives into the concept literally of foreigners or aliens, the suspicions surrounding their intentions, and the kind of blind zealotry that can result from false gods or indoctrination by them. In many ways V was ahead of its time (though still poorly written) given the rise of Isis and the global influx of Syrian refugees and the turbulence linked to the Mid East thanks to a feckless, reckless, American foreign policy and absence heretofore. Problems persist, laws are enacted, but then recklessly unenforced (visa lapses, border security, etc) and in fairness it has been this way for years. It's a mess.

For the series, the Visitors are very much that invading force. This V taps into today's terrorism supplanting the militarism of yesterday's V with asymmetrical insurgencies and masked terror plots. The Pilot sets up those contemporary concerns going forward. And like Battlestar Galactica perceived friends can be enemies while perceived enemies become surprising allies. Subterfuge is everywhere. Unfortunately for V, Battlestar Galactica is the standard bearer of science fiction writing with a political agenda (one in which I didn't often agree, yet was incredibly well-penned).

There are many examples where V puts the spotlight on any number of socio-political or cultural fronts. Alien visitor Anna, played by Baccarin, meets with journalist Chad Decker, played by Wolf. She insists no questions should be presented that would paint her or the visitors in a "negative light." The sequence, intentional or not, shines a light on politics and the media today. Obama and Hillary Clinton have both cherry picked media outlets over the years that have been essentially friendly to their agendas refusing to allow airtime to networks viewed as unfriendly to their philosophical views. V paints a troubling picture of contemporary politics in that singular moment. Clinton, America's version of Anna, herself refused access to her campaign by the media for months controlling the flow of news. It wasn't until the arrival of Donald Trump (relax not an endorsement), love him or loathe him, and the debacle of her unsecured email server did Clinton begin to alter her approach. In V, Anna, very much wished to control the narrative as much as Obama and Clinton have as President and Secretary of State respectively.

V channels concepts from John Carpenter's They Live (1988) too, another politically rich narrative but with a message of anti-capitalism, but again V just doesn't sit right.

In the final minutes of the Pilot, there is a terrific juxtaposition of duplicity established between an underground rebel faction mirrored against Anna's more congenial, false interview. The visitors attempt to establish a certain depiction of who they are, while phony, while a rebel factions attempts to enlighten hearts and minds to the truth. Anna seeks to establish universal health care centers. Obama. Underground freedom fighters are preparing for a takeover and a battle against terrorism and essentially big alien government.

And like any good politician, Anna knows that if you repeat the same message ("We are of peace. Always.") to an unsuspecting and gullible people, you can play them and those "low information voters" will begin to believe it. Hope and change. Say it enough, over and over, and people blindly follow believing the messenger even if what is said rings false. Free universal healthcare is pushed here too. Humans are jumping aboard like lemmings off a cliff. Anna, complete with her close-cropped Obama-like cut, plays an American electorate as simpletons, with cool, calculating, Obama-like manipulation, precision and suave. Devotion is what the Visitors seek like any self-serving politician. Anna plays the soulless Obama role with perfection, while Elizabeth Mitchell is far less qualified in the lead here. She doesn't hold a candle to the likes of Claire Danes when it comes to carrying a series and actually seems a little lost in the part. V is big on technical production values and casting familiar names, but sadly short on quality performances and reliable, quality scripting. It's not the worse, but we've seen so much better.

Like the political climate of division and distrust we live in, the Visitors are here to divide us as much as our media and our politicians do daily. Its message couldn't be more timely but it is executed and articulated poorly with the subtlety of jack hammer.

V attempts to be as much a commentary on our culture, religion and politics as it does is an entertaining yarn of science fiction but it's just too darn clunky in pulling it all together.

It's easy to see why V might have been rejected so vehemently by some in 2009. Hollywood is a liberal business and Obama was riding high as a beloved figure by a great majority and still has a good deal of support. Some found V a touch too critical for a guy who had hardly done a thing (but that wasn't the show's biggest problem), and that's true, yet he became a laureate through a miraculous awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize (2009). What!? It was like the second coming. For many, like those who worship the Visitors, such adoration will remain so until the end. V might have fared better in 2015 after nearly eight long years of failed liberal policies at the commanding hand of Obama, but it would still would have required a higher degree of quality writing. V, in many respects, worked as a counterpoint and counter narrative to all of the political noise. It's like anti-Obama anti-big government messaging but no one was watching and as an entertainment V gave us little to care about.

Alien invasion or abduction stories are often a lot of fun. Falling Skies is one example that never quite materialized for me either, but it wasn't politically pointed or dumb-headed in expounding on politics.

The V Pilot sets up an epic thread with its big cast, big effects and big blatant political ideas, but is merely average in its execution. The question going forward was could it improve? Where would it go from here?

For better or worse, in many respects, V is a more polished, updated rework of the original. It glistens with the same kid of technical prowess and sheen that forced comparisons between Fringe (particularly Season One) to its more gritty predecessor The X-Files (1993-2002). Unfair or not, like Fringe, you'll either really enjoy the new V or likely hate its antiseptic alien elitism.

As a self-contained Pilot, it is a caustic and scathing commentary on "devotion" or belief in false prophets in the guise of political figures as much as it is lizards in the guise of humans. Good or bad, this is as open and intentional a sci-fi political commentary that I can recall in recent memory. That's likely unintentional and that says something about its less than subtle even graceless handling of the subject matter and its political discourse here. This conservative critical analysis of liberalism and the usurpation of power by the Obama portrayed in the guise of an alien takeover is fairly spot on, unfortunately V has problems. It has its writing flaws, logic issues, casting missteps and lacks the heart and depth of Johnson's original work, all of which do harm in selling the series, but this Pilot still engages and thrills with a good bit of suspense along the way despite the lack of real, hard science fiction.

Much had been written about V not being smart enough and certainly it could benefit from smarter writing even real sci-fi writers, but this Pilot does have its bright spots.

This back and forth of mixed messages suggest perhaps an ill-prepared series. Based on the Pilot there is assuredly enough to give pause for concern regarding what appears on the surface V's inherent mediocrity. The Pilot is like a fork in the road of quality and which direction the series took from here may have had an influence on its fate. Quality certainly did not dictate the demise of SGU.

At first glance the V Pilot is disappointing or at least not quite up to the hype. Upon closer inspection, when you consider the quality of Season One on the whole in its entirety, which I've seen, the Pilot feels like a work of art. Of course that's not saying much. The season as a whole devolves precipitously from here becoming more and more ludicrous, corny, melodramatic and illogical with each impending installment.

We will take one more look at V and reflect on the second episode and the first season as a hole before aborting this mission.

The good news is the politics become far less notable or pronounced with each new episode, but also noticeable is a degradation in overall quality. The politics, as they are presented here, make the political angle of Moore's Battlestar Galactica seem like Shakespeare or poetry by comparison.

Anna was a "tangible figurehead" according to Baccarin in the extras likening the character to an Obama-like savior. So it's not just me reading into this.

Executive Producer Scott Rosenbaum would tell you or have you belieVe that writer Scott Peters actually had the Bush administration in mind when assembling V. That's rich. It's just like Hollywood and the elites to fall in line against conservatism. Either it's disingenuous on the part of Rosenbaum or speaks to just how inept the writing was on this series. Rarely do I enjoy writing about politics in a piece, but V screams its politics from high atop its spaceships here in the Pilot. It wouldn't be honest to discount politics when writing about V.

So that it wasn't a total loss for me personally, I took the opportunity to enjoy taking pictures of the spaceship. I love spaceship designs. So if there are spaceships involved it's never a complete waste of time for me even if the spaceships, like the show, aren't the most memorable either.

Generally speaking, V is for vacuous.

Director: Yves Simoneau. Writer: Scott Peters.


SciFi News said...

I enjoyed "V". In fact just yesterday I signed a "Bring Back "V" petition online. I also wrote ABC and put in a few suggestions that I thought it needed. Like the reptiles looked like too much CGI, for one thing. Another is that the main room that Ana usually was at, looked like the lobby of a convention center!
Jan LaFata
SciFi News

SFF said...

First, been meaning to say, thanks to you and the service of your family. I have the utmost respect for both military and law enforcement. Those are not easy occupations especially today.

Glad to see an alternate view on V. You are certainly not alone (sounds like a tagline to a show with aliens). There were clearly a good number of critics who really enjoyed this series.

E Online called it the "best Pilot we've seen, well, in forever." No faint praise there. Others certainly gave it mild praise like The Hollywood Reporter who called it "accessible."

I loved your comment about that ship looking like a convention center. Amen! Exactly part of the problem with the series. It is not a visually interesting piece like some of the very best in science fiction.

I think ABC could use a few very good suggestions. But I wish you well on that petition. While I have no real interest in seeing the series return, I would never begrudge anyone of their efforts to make it happen. Never enough good science fiction.

Anyway, great to hear from you Jan. Hope all is well.