I’m a little late for this 30th anniversary post I wanted to write to partner with Tim’s piece celebrating the amazing and much-loved Kenneth Johnson series, V – but I figure it’s rather fitting, since I was a little late getting on board back when the miniseries originally aired, too. My father and brother watched it right from the beginning, and I don’t know what I was doing, but I didn’t really get invested until the regular series hit the airwaves. I may have seen some of the Final Battle first, too, but I was going almost entirely on word of mouth from my bro at first, and then managed to read A.C. Crispin’s wonderful novelization to the point where I felt like I had seen the miniseries from the very beginning. Her perfect descriptions and my vague knowledge of the characters came together to form a very clear picture in my head as a wee lass, so my memory of when I actually watched the ground-breaking miniseries versus the reality of it is somewhat skewed. All I know for sure is that I fell through the rabbit hole one day, and never came back from it.
The premise of the show is almost simple – on the surface (that’s what the Visitors want us to believe, too), but as soon as you start to sink into the world Johnson has created, the layers and depth of the original story are, well, epic. One day, human beings are (more or less) minding their own business, when out of nowhere, giant saucer-shaped ships float arcoss our skies, and stop to hover silently over major cities all over the world. Well, they are silent but for the reverberating hum emitting from within their vast depths. Contact is made – in every language – after a countdown from 10 which to this day is still one of the scariest/exhilarating things ever – and we are slowly allowed to meet these interplanetary Visitors. They wear red jumpsuits, dark glasses, and aside from their markedly cool skin temperature and strange voices, they appear to be exactly like us. The horror, of course, is that they are not. The Visitors have an agenda, and hide their true faces to lull mankind into complacency. Before long, we are helping them refine our factories to produce their mysterious chemical, and inviting them to all our parties. They promise us the cure for cancer, among other things, and nearly everyone celebrates their arrival and allegedly peaceful intentions. Scientists and political leaders begin to disappear, however, as well as anyone who makes the mistake of questioning anything about the alien newcomers. Propaganda posters go up, the Visitor Youth group is formed, and suddenly people are turning in friends, neighbours and families if they suspect any form of dissidence or rebellion.
Kenneth Johnson somehow re-invented the alien invasion genre and created his own commentary on not only the society we live in now, but also in the historically significant world from whence we came. It takes aliens to show us the ugliness of human nature; it takes losing control of what we’ve come to see as basic necessities to show us how we’re destroying the planet. And it takes villians from another star to show us the heroes inside all of us. When the Visitors arrive, people learn that they must make choices, and become the kind of person they were destined to be. Some seek power, some riches, some fame. Others fight for freedom against impossible odds, and never stop trying to expose the truth, even at the cost of their own lives.
As a kid, those people and those situations resonated very strongly with me somehow. I don’t know how he did it, but Kenneth Johnson did more than create a strong and enjoyable television miniseries. He somehow got inside of me, and spoke to my heart, creating characters that I could latch onto and – so far – not ever let go. I have all the comics, I have the entire run of the series on DVD and VHS. I have patches, a set of trading cards, a crappy little scrapbook of cutout pictures that I glued in myself, including ads from the TV Guide. I wrote letters to TV execs when the less-awesome TV show was cancelled, begging them not to take it away. I have every single novel written in that universe on my bookshelf at this very moment. I made my own little kid version of a flag with a blood-red ‘V’ dripping down it…in crayon. I have a couple of autographs, but they were attained through correspondence, and not in person, as I would prefer, so that goal is still on my bucket list. I’ve had brief email correspondence with a few of the big guns, though – Kenny Johnson himself, and the ridiculously kind-hearted Marc Singer. And when Jane Badler wished me a happy birthday on my Facebook wall last year, I printed up that message and put it into my Happy Jar. Thirty years after its original airing, there is something about this series – about these characters – that stays with me to this day.
There were aliens like Martin (Frank Ashmore) and Willie (Robert Englund – which is why I was never afraid of Freddy Krueger), who I liked, even when I felt like maybe I should be more careful with my feelings, because they were, after all, aliens. There were villains with human faces, and villains who actually were humans, and I could never be too sure who I could trust. I mean, Diana (Jane Badler) alone was the hottest bisexual space dominatrix ever created – terrifying, yet attractive. I had no idea at the time what it was about her, but while she frightened me, I also found I couldn’t look away. Nor could I hate her, which got a lot of people into trouble, so I wouldn’t have been alone in my weaknesses, had I lived in that world for real. The addition of June Chadwick’s Lydia as Diana’s superior, however, was one of the best things about the eventual television series. I loved watching those two duke it out!
But oh, the heroes KJ gave us. Who better for an impressionable young girl to look up to than the likes of Mike Donovan (Marc Singer), Ham Tyler (Michael Freaking Ironside), and one of my first true loves, Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant)? The rebels were a ragtag team – a broken lot of individuals who – even though they were forced together due to necessity – still had a hard time agreeing on things. Had it not been for cooler heads, Diana and the Visitors could have just waited for the rebellion to burn itself out with in-fighting and let their brain-washed human helpers do their dirty work. But when you’ve got ordinary people stepping up to live extraordinary lives, you can’t lose complete faith in the human race. KJ created characters I could cheer for, follow into battle, and mourn if and when they were lost.
I used to fall asleep with a picture of the cast taped to the ceiling above my bed – I’d ripped it out of a teen magazine, and wanted to make sure they were the last thing I saw before dreaming, and the first thing I saw when I awoke. I’d daydream about being there, fighting alongside these new friends for our very lives. Saving the world was their plan, but to me, I just wanted to be with them. I trusted them. And the fact that a little blond woman could lead all of these people – could speak and be heard, even by big strong men – that was something I’d never really seen before, and it made me worship Julie all the more. Donovan went from being a news cameraman to the Visitors most wanted, just because he went looking for the truth when they were expecting him to sit back and believe everything he was being told. Young Robin Maxwell (Blair Tefkin), at first starstruck by the Visitors, got kidnapped and impregnated with an alien/human hybrid, which is bound to make you re-think things, especially when you find out it was all just one of Diana’s experiments.
Because the Visitors saw us as nothing more than cattle – not even sentient beings. We were just here to fulfill their agenda, and we weren’t supposed to put up a fight. If Mike and Julie and the other rebels had simply believed everything the Visitors said, then we’d all have complacently gone to the slaughter. And we’d have believed the aliens right up to our dying breath. Mankind would be instruments in our own demise. Now, sometimes, I wonder if maybe it wouldn’t be the best thing for us, to be knocked down from our arrogant pedestal and shown that we’re not all that and a bag of chips, after all. The Visitors really just fed us the same crap we’ve been feeding each other over the centuries, so it’s not surprising that most people didn’t even consider fighting back at first. We treat animals (and, more quietly, other people) the same way to this day, so in that sense, we are our own invasion.
I still catch myself watching the skies every so often, imagining what it would be like if one of those giant motherships slid over the horizon and perched above the city of Toronto. Where would I go? What would I do? How would I live after that first breath-taking moment? Somewhere inside, I know I’d be fascinated, terrified, intrigued, and silently keeping an eye out for my own Mike Donovan and Juliet Parrish – a rebel leader to look up to and follow.
After that, though, I hope I’d find the courage to stand up and be one myself.
Keeping watching the skies at Kenny Johnson’s official site – because, really, you just never know…
Additional note: In a strage (fateful?) twist of irony, the first time I met Morena Baccarin, who played lead alien Anna in the 2009 re-imagined V series, I was wearing the V t-shirt I got from Ilana’s site in honour of the original miniseries. The twist? It was 2006 at the time.