Saturday, May 22, 2010

Commentary: Why 'V' Needs a Kick in the Junk

I started writing this review before the season finale, but opted to wait and see if there was a surprise pick-up in the series' momentum. We were promised the birth of Val's lizard baby, as well as the revelation of the Visitor's master plan for Earth. So, now I can comment on this first season.

When I found out V was going to remade, I felt the same way I did when I heard Clash of the Titans was getting a reboot—current special effects, a darker tone—awesome—much as how Battlestar Galactica completely rewrote its concept and took it to new directions its predecessor never imagined. Well, it might have been amazing if HBO had picked it up, but V is on ABC, and this snake is lacking venom (yes, I couldn't resist that cheesy metaphor, but it's very appropriate).

General spoilers:
V suffers from a couple of major problems. First, it's a remake of an icon of 80s television. V: the Miniseries was an event I can still clearly remember from my childhood. It was full of archetypal images that everyone was talking about the next morning at school—the giant motherships hovering over major cities, Visitor leader Diana swallowing a guinea pig whole, the reveal of the Visitor's reptilian faces, and the birth of the hybrid baby. The overall themes of fascism and the descent of a society into a police state doesn't lose any impact even when watched today.

So out of the gate, this new incarnation suffers from a level of expectation. It's like rebooting Star Wars as a television series. The writers have balanced the hype of the show on an expectation of what is to come, rather than what they are delivering each episode. In contrast, Battlestar Galactica made it clear from the start this was not the 70s Battlestar Galactica. Anything could happen. But as I watch and get increasingly frustrated with a lack of a cohesive vision for this series, I'm left with the thoughts of Oh well, I know Anna's a reptilian underneath that faux flesh, and they'll eventually have to get there if I stick with it.

Unlike the original that began with a miniseries with a clear story arc, this episodic V must be continuous with no (apparent) ending. That means that the key plot points of the miniseries—reptilian faces, the resistance being forced into hiding, full scale conflict with the aliens, Nazi-style martial law—to name a few, can’t be triggered in this incarnation, or the series will quickly pass a point of no return in its plotline. And the last thing ABC wants is big budget battle scenes to render on a weekly basis.

So we’re left with a series in which we know the aliens are reptiles, but we’ve only seen a few skin swatches and sharp teeth here and there. We know Val is having a Visitor baby. Older fans know this to be a little lizard baby. We suspect the Visitors are wanting to steal our water and use us for food, but only because we watched the original. 

I would be interested what someone who has never seen the original is taking from this new version. Ultimately, for me the excitement of the series is coming from what we are anticipating versus what is actually happening. Because a lot of the themes and potential in the pilot have been stumbling out of the starting gate.

There are some interesting updates to the mythology. The Nazi analogy has been replaced with a religious one—the Visitors appearing as saviours. But this has only gotten brief comment onscreen, and aside from a few placards in crowd scenes, one does not get the impression that globally people are drifting towards the Visitors as a new religious movement.

This lack of a global perspective is a big problem. Sure, we see images of Visitor motherships over world cities, and snippets of news reports. But that's it. The scope of the Visitor influence shown on the show (free medical technology and healing clinics, blue energy technology which requires absolutely no infrastructure to work) never delves into the implications of what this is meaning for society as a whole. It's as if the world of V is a small town that doesn't have to recognize what's going on elsewhere.

V wants to be Battlestar Galactica, but it doesn’t have the will to push its characters into those dark places. A case in point—one episode had the resistance shooting down a Visitor shuttle. Anna anticipated this and had human bodies put on the ship so it would appear as if they killed a bunch of human passengers. Had this been Battlestar Galactica, the resistance would have had to deal with the fact that they were used by Anna, and killed innocent people. End of story.

But this is V, and on ABC, so by the end all is revealed that they were human dead bodies, so they didn’t kill anyone after all. Phew! Sadly, that takes away from the impact of this resistance movement, who are virtually terrorists. And so a relevant theme of terrorism and its justification is left hanging in the wind. The writers just don't want to push it too far.

This show has suffered from a long hiatus, and it seems it won't air until late 2010 or early 2011 again, so that is also part of the problem in maintaining momentum. But they've already gone through some production changes, and one hopes they will actually hit upon a writing team who will chart out the entire season and its storyline, with perhaps an ending in mind, because right now it's a mess.

Spoilers for the Season Finale:
While this was a decent episode, it fell short in delivering. Chad Decker is still being wishy-washy. I have no idea if he's lying to Father Jack or to Anna, but it could be Scott Wolf's acting. He seems to be physically chewing on every piece of dialogue. Whatever the case, at Joshua's suggestion, he investigated the secret chambers where the Live Aboard humans are being taken and saw...what exactly? Whatever it was, apparently Chad now understands the Visitors' real reason for coming, which is fine and dandy, because the viewers still don't.

Val had her baby, and we got a nice shot of...a lizard tail. And that's it. And Val was killed by Anna right after, but I really didn't care what happened to her. She was just a plot device from the beginning. Ryan has apparently fallen back into Anna's has he completely converted back to the Visitors? It seems too easy, so he could be faking it. He just acted bizarrely the whole episode.

Finally, the one plot that developed pretty well was Erica managing to destroy Anna's soldier eggs. With help from Joshua and Lisa, and a plot that required everything to go perfectly—mission accomplished. However, she had to shoot Joshua in order to maintain her cover and BFF status with Anna (but not to worry, Joshua has been resurrected by...Marcus?).

Anna experiences a very messy emotional outburst, prompting a smirk from Lisa, and in a fit of vengeance, initiates the second stage of their mission. The new fleet, which left their homeworld in episode four, has arrived. Cloaked in orbit, these additional motherships turn the skies red (everywhere on Earth, even on the night side apparently!). So what this is, we have no idea. And so much for our answers. ABC, please stop promising answers to your shows' plotlines! (That's a shot at you, J.J. Abrams). I do not believe you anymore.

What Works/What Doesn't: 
Not to be entirely negative, this show has (had) great promise, which is probably the most vexing thing. Anna is great as the new supreme commander. She plays the villainess very well, and her entire comportment, from her posture to her rapid eye blinking, is very reptilian. But she is supposed to be emotionless, and yet she and her second-in-command Marcus visibly sneer with villainy towards the camera after each scheme comes to fruition. They might as well be rubbing their fingers together, too.

It is nice to see updated Visitor tech. They are wearing actual cloned flesh rather than masks. But what are their motivations for coming to Earth that would warrant such a massive undertaking to outfit thousands of their people, versus just invading? They have an outrageously massive invasion fleet that has just reached Earth by the end of the season that should have tens of thousands of soldiers at their disposal. Why must Anna breed her special super-soldiers? 

The design of the motherships has been updated from the original to subtly resemble a snake's head. They are rendered very well on the outside, but the interiors have suffered from too much greenscreen-itis. Backgrounds have come across looking quite artificial at times, but if the storyline and writing was better, it wouldn't be an issue at all.

Erica is great as the FBI agent, and coming off such a tragic death in Lost it's nice to see her showcased here. She really is the best, most consistent character on the show. The others still need development—Father Jack just does not come off as a priest, and Scott Wolf isn't believable yet as this famous Anderson Cooper-type journalist that can sway public opinion. Only former terrorist Hobbes shows some promise. I haven't developed a major hate for Erica's son, Tyler (as some reviewers seem to) or Anna's daughter, Lisa. I do like Marcus and Joshua, but perhaps it's because Visitors are so emotionless, they really don't have to act that much.

What's new in this version is that the Visitors have apparently been operating on Earth for quite some time, so much so there was a resistance in place during their official arrival. Some rebel visitors, representing their Fifth Column, have been living on Earth (Ryan being one of them). While it does set up the idea that the Visitors have been creating global chaos for years in anticipation of their arrival as saviours, was this really necessary? It seems to be a plot device just to set up the notion that anyone could be a Cylon—er...Visitor spy, I should say.

Lisa is a bit of a problem. She has some undisclosed plan for Tyler but has developed feelings for him. So by the end of the season, she has picked sides against her mother to help the Fifth Column destroy Anna's soldier eggs. This is a very ticklish plot she now knows which of her people are in the resistance, that Erica is part of it, and she could really blow it all wide open if she needs to.

But this is a nice segue into my rant, so here goes...

The Rant:
Given this effort to represent the science fiction aspects more realistically, the writers don’t seem to know where they’re going and casually skip over obvious plot problems. Oddly enough the 80s version took more effort to delve into the science. Here, the fact that the Visitors look human got one line of dialogue in the pilot and no explanation has been offered at all. You would think scientists the world over would be wanting some kind of explanation, yet none has been offered. The original series brought up the fact that human scientists were noticing the odd skull shape of the Visitors (given there was a human mask over a reptilian head). This prompted the Visitors to create their scientist conspiracy in order to silence this movement from the start.

Even the 80s series knew enough to have scientist Diana lend a creative hand in hybridizing the human/Visitor baby. But here, it just happens naturally? So humans and Visitors can reproduce with no effort whatsoever? 

Even more egregious is the inconsistencies in Visitor technology. Their defences are seemingly impregnable, at least until they need to be. They have assassination drones that show up and fire sharp needles in every direction. Their shields cannot be penetrated by human weapons, and they manage to track any human they’ve injected with their RV serum through vast rooms of projected images taken from omniscient cameras. 

And yet Erica not only talks freely on her cell phone at FBI headquarters to her fellow resistance (terrorist cell) members, without a concern that the FBI, nevermind the Visitors, might be monitoring phone calls? The Visitors have blue energy that requires no infrastructure, but they can't pick up a cell phone?

AND…Joshua can move about at will on the mother ship and kill troublesome prisoners to preserve the Fifth Column, talk on communications devices with the resistance that goes unmonitored? Even Erica can sneek about the mother ship, take a cell phone call from the resistance on the ground, toss a grenade into Anna’s hatchery, get back to dinner, and there was no surveillance footage or discovery at all? Chad can do the same, getting into the deep dark secret rooms where they're experimenting on humans, and just watch them from an open doorway? Do all the live aboard humans have such access?

Anna suddenly develops an emotional outburst (I guess sneering doesn't count) and sets in motion Stage Two…which involves the skies turning red (a bit of an homage to the original series where the red dust bacteria was the weapon the resistance used to defeat the Visitors). How are they going to hide their intentions now that they've initiated such a global event? 

Right now they've raised the spectre of a possible Visitor weapon—an algae engineered to combat CO2 emissions, but with the deadly side effect of killing reptiles and fish. So I imagine that plotline is going to be the new series' answer to the Red Dust.

So I'm left following this series to see where it goes, but disappointed that the ball has been dropped so early. I'm happy it has a second season to at least resolve all this, but unless the writing improves, more of the same is not going to help.

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