V is a two-part American science fiction television film, written, produced and directed by Kenneth Johnson for initial broadcast in 1983. For some, V is of purely nostalgic interest with its science fiction and horror clichés and all too clear allegories. For others, it remains a science fiction treasure with a resonating influence for its lead female character Juliet Parrish (played by Faye Grant, below) and deep, sometimes brave, moralism.
V states its intent pre-titles with the caption above. The film’s plot concerns the battle between a visiting alien armada with initially nebulous, soon nefarious, intentions and small bands of freedom fighters. But its story runs deeper.
It’s difficult but necessary to transpose this film between times. Its story is a clear allegory on Nazi occupied Europe during the build up to and execution of the Second World War where good easily aligns with freedom (or resistance) fighters, and bad easily aligns with occupying forces.
Twenty years later Ronald D. Moore was required to use science fiction’s famed cloaking mechanism to its fullest for his allegory of the War on Terror, Battlestar Galactica. Battlestar Galactica holds no such distinction between good and bad, and freedom fighters and occupying forces. The necessary difference between these two works is simple: Battlestar Galactica’s story is an explainer for the present, but V’s story is a warning for the future.
The occupied Europe allegories are rarely shy in coming forward: Nazi symbolism, propaganda as control, find-and-replace substitution of Jewish people for scientists, and informer networks.
This is instructive of a wider point. I fully appreciate I’m viewing the film through the nostalgic lens of childhood, children surely being the film’s most affected audience. Many children were experiencing the film’s life lessons in a visceral way for the first time.
Life long influences on impressionable young minds is a running theme. Kenneth Johnson previously show-ran the 1970s television series, The Bionic Woman with a lead female character. Like The Bionic Woman Jaime Sommers, V’s resistance’s leader, medical student Juliet (Julie) Parrish, suffers a debilitating injury in the cause of duty. But unlike bionic Jamie, corporeal Julie has no quick fix available, she draws her strength from within and is driven by her physical weakness. Life’s not so easy should you not have six million dollars of secretive government funding available.
A more modern day The Bionic Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its titular namesake Buffy Summers is correctly held up as an positive role model for young female viewers, but these strong female characters influence us all.
For many the resistance’s compound being under terminal threat is the film’s stand out moment. When there’s nothing left to do to affect the outcome and all is lost, all you can do is to make a stand by continuing to fight back.
Real life is full of these one person against the world examples, the unknown man against nominally the tank machinery but actually the state machinery in Tiananmen Square some years later being one of the most famous.
Julie is saved from certain death by, to others, the film’s lead character, an often wanting Han Solo character named Mike Donovan (played with enthusiasm if not aways nuance by Marc Singer). Donovan doing his best not to scream, ‘We’re all clear kid!’ saves the day by blasting Julie’s enemy space craft into a figurative Darth Vader tailspin. But while this is relevant to the plot, it’s not relevant to the story. Julie to all intents and purposes was going out on a high.
The enemy space craft carries the lead alien character, Diana. This 1983 television film’s lead good role and lead bad role are both female.
Actions have consequences part 1. Sometimes science fiction isn’t allowed to hide behind allegories, here Julie clearly informs the again befuddled Donovan that innocent people will have to die for their cause. Not only comparisons to Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, but comparisons to Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers.
I’m trying not to spell out the cliché ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ but I need to relent for clarity. This is the film’s brave moralism, brave even in less difficult pre War on Terror times in the United States.
Actions have consequences part 2. Julie’s group of freedom fighters are only human, her fellow scientist Robert Maxwell being a good example. Faced with the impossible choice of saving his wife and three daughters or saving the resistance camp, his wife Kathleen’s mortality is the consequence of his actions. Real life dictates we can’t expect to get off scot-free from these decisions.
This scene is movingly soundtracked by Joseph Harnell’s score. Harnell’s work was already familiar after working with Kenneth Johnson on his earlier plaintive wandering series The Incredible Hulk. David Banner’s trouser tearing temper tantrums were useful in saving his weekly damsel-in-distress but for little else, he like Julie was another man driven by his weakness.
Kathleen is not alone, the film’s story depends on humanising all of its characters. Resistance members Ben the doctor and Elias the gang member’s sibling rivalry gives emotional purchase to the former’s eventual death. We’re always forced to care when a character dies and are often served with a life lesson, in this case be careful of what you say to your loved ones should it be the last thing they hear from you. Thinking back, it’s a wonder children survived watching this in one piece!
Back to viewing through the lens of a child. While children were processing the film’s deep moments we may have been more aware of its less deep moments. The aliens mean to cause us bother, and the revealing of the consequences of their bother is a doozy. Carrie’s hand shocked me in Brian De Palma’s film but in science fiction or horror I’m quite sure nothing has affected me as much as learning of the aliens’ bounty. And this after only moments earlier learning they were, my God, here to take the water!
But despite the science fiction and horror elements, the film’s story is always straining to return to its moral centre. Building towards its climax and playing on its occupied Europe comparisons we’re forced the message of the past always informing the present, here by the Bernstein family of Jewish extraction. Now a comparison, no longer an allegory.
The aforementioned family’s paternal figure Abraham Bernstein is a remarkable character who benefits most when the film breaks out from allegories into comparisons. This is one of the film’s strengths, remembering many viewers will have been children, Abraham tells the audience graphically of his wife’s death in a Nazi death camps. Sometimes allegories just don’t cut it, especially as only just over three decades earlier Europe went through far deeper horrors in real life than the world in this science fiction story.
V is a perhaps rare example of nostalgia definitely being what it used to be. For some, the story was continued without Kenneth Johnson via a further (often mis-conflated) mini-series, a full series, and a reboot—none of which I feel are worthy of discussion, and with Kenneth Johnson via a novel.
For others we’re still left wondering at this science fiction treasure’s final scene. Did Julie and Elias ever receive a friendly reply to their SOS to Sirius? Let’s be serious, of course they did.
Reference: V – Wikipedia