Saturday, October 16, 2010

Smart, Tense And Predictable To Science Fiction Fans: V Season 1 Is A "V" For Our Time!

The Good: Excellent plot, Interesting characters, Good mood, Great acting, Decent effects
The Bad: Somewhat predictable to seasoned science fiction fans.
The Basics: V is reimagined in contemporary times where aliens visit Earth for sinister purposes only to have a resistance learn that they have been among us for some time!

I'll admit it, I was one of the many who let out a big groan when I heard that V was returning to ABC as a weekly television series. Don't get me wrong: I love the original mini-series V. I even like V: The Final Battle. But my experiences has been so soured by the 1980s television series V that did not want to see just how ABC would butcher the mythos of the classic science fiction series. After all, one of the hallmarks of V was that it was smart science fiction, not special-effects-driven sci-fi. So when the pilot episode aired and it was clear that the new television series V was not a continuation of the classic V, but rather a complete reimagining of it, I warmed up to it very quickly.

Even so, the first season of V on DVD and Blu-Ray reveals for fans of the series and science fiction in general its true weakness, which is that it hinges on a few key reversals which fail with the element of surprise. Indeed, when the resistance within the Visitors society - the Fifth Column - is introduced, I called one of the most important members of that group and as the season was coming to a head, my wife turned to me and said "Hey, you were wrong." As the last frames (literally) of the season played, though, she turned to me and said "Oh my gosh! How did you know?!" Quite simply, the first season of V is working on a pretty tight formula which is likely to be familiar to fans of genre works as opposed to truly audacious or original.

That said, V The Complete First Season is entirely enjoyable. The first aspect that makes it such a winner is that it is surprisingly smart. Far too often in science fiction film and television today, stories are driven by special effects and they fail to tell a truly compelling story. With V, the producers have tapped into the paranoia of the day and crafted their story around current issues, most notably paranoia about terrorism. While this might make the current incarnation of V dated in twenty years, right now it remains cutting edge and the overall story feels fresh even if some of the reversals and attempts to thrill the audience are not.

Erica Evans is an FBI agent working in a counterterrorism task force in New York City, raising her son Tyler on her own. While she and Dale work to expose terrorist cells planning subversive activities, Tyler acts out as most teen boys do. But then giant ships enter Earth's atmosphere and begin hovering above major cities, like New York, Tokyo and Moscow. Erica is immediately suspicious, especially when she notes that terrorist cell activity plummeted, save one group which actually became exceptionally more active when the ships arrived. Also on edge is Father Jack Landry and Ryan Nichols, a newlywed man who has intimate knowledge of both the cell Erica is investigating and the spaceships which have arrived. Almost immediately, the people of Earth are contacted by the ships.

The aliens look human and they call themselves the Visitors. Led by the charming Anna, the Visitors seeks to replenish their ships' stores in exchange for the humans using some of their technology. But Landry has his doubts about the Visitors and he and Erica end up at a meeting led by Georgie Sutton, who reveals that the Visitors have been here for quite some time and that their agenda is a sinister one. The meeting is broken up by a Visitor device which kills almost everyone and exposes Erica's partner as a Visitor. While Anna launches a charm campaign, primarily using news reporter Chad Decker, Erica, Father Jack, Ryan and Georgie establish a resistance cell to try to learn about and thwart the Visitors.

This soon becomes a two pronged war for Erica, though, as Tyler becomes smitten with Anna's daughter, Lisa. While Erica is forced to work with the Visitors to protect them and she is disgusted by the way humans are being manipulated through free healthcare and other technologies, Anna and her lieutenant, Marcus, begin eliminating the threats to the Visitors, from human terrorists like Kyle Hobbes to Visitors who have human sympathies. While Erica tries desperately to stop her resistance cell from being exposed, Anna decides to make an army of Visitor soldiers to prepare to subjugate Earth if it turns against her.

The first season of V is both properly ambitious as a story on its own and a setup for the entire series which works well to keep viewers interested and provide us with some faith that the first season shall not be the best of the series. The writers are particularly smart about human psychology and the use of the Visitors to prey upon basic human emotions is exceptionally smart. As a result, Erica and her team are continually hamstrung by the fact that their efforts are going to be unpopular with the masses, even as they try to save them. Similarly, Anna is a master manipulator and her understanding of how the human mind works is exceptional, allowing her to play off the public sympathies.

One of the key figures that has a turbulent relationship with the Visitors in this regard is Chad Decker. Decker is plagued by very basic human ambition, which Anna realizes almost immediately when he makes a pass at her amid other reporters' more scathing questions. Anna quickly plays off Decker's desires for fame and fortune, but she is unable to account for his own sense of integrity and spite. So, when Anna punishes Chad by withholding access, Chad becomes more free to report on the anti-Visitor sentiment. This leads Anna to arrange more elaborate public relations events both to rally support for the Visitors - opening health clinics using Visitor technology - and against anti-Visitor terrorists, like the shooting down of a Visitor shuttle filled with human civilians.

V employs a sufficiently diverse range of characters in its first season and that helps the stories flow with a surprising sense of realism. More than just simple science fiction, the first season of V plays well as a drama with a sense of urgency and understanding both for the times we live in and the motivations for people around the world. While the scope of V is frequently more focused on Erica and her cell in the New York City area, Anna is often in contact with leaders from other nations and she makes presentations to the United Nations and heads of state around the world.

Like most decent dramas, V is focused primarily on characters. In the first season, the principle characters include:

Erica Evans - A smart FBI agent, she is working to raise her son Tyler when the Visitors arrive. She is perceptive when it comes to the minds of terrorists, which allows her to quickly infer that the Visitors are a potential threat to humanity. She manages to use her position within the FBI to redirect suspicion from herself and her friends when they begin acting out against the Visitors. But when Tyler becomes interested in the Visitors' "live aboard" program, Anna realizes Erica's Achilles' heel,

Ryan Nichols - A smart businessman and a Visitor who was sent in advance as a sleeper agent. He helps Erica with her resistance even as he is hunted by the Visitors for going rogue. He is a friend of Georgie and he knows what Anna's ultimate goals are. He is immune to the Bliss Anna has over the Visitors,

Father Jack Landry - A Catholic priest who rejects the notion that the Visitors must be god's creatures, too and he urges caution to his parish. As more people turn to the Visitors instead of the church, Landry has time to aid Erica in exposing the Visitors. He is used by Chad Decker to get into the resistance,

Chad Decker - A manipulative reporter whose career is on the slide until the Visitors arrive. He forms a rapport with Anna and begins a chess match with her and her security chief, Marcus, over how to manipulate public sentiment. His sense of gamesmanship is trumped, however, when the Visitor medics diagnose him with a future aneurysm which they offer to treat in exchange for his compliance,

Valerie - Ryan's human wife who, rather miraculously, has become pregnant,

Tyler - Erica's teenage son, he is rebellious and has issues with both his mother and father. He sees the Visitors as a way to straighten out his life, especially Lisa, whom he becomes rapidly enamored with,

Georgie Sutton - A paranoid man who has known about the existence of extraterrestrials on Earth for some time. He tries to expose the Visitors and his group is slaughtered. Rescued by Ryan, he helps Erica and the resistance,

Joshua - The Visitor medic aboard Anna's ship, he is a part of the Fifth Column and does not believe in Anna's agenda. When he is forced to test the Visitors for human sympathies, he discovers a weak link in Anna's command structure and a tool for the resistance,

Lisa - Anna's daughter, she is part of the mission to win over human youths. She begins to manipulate Tyler for Anna, but soon develops real feelings for him, a condition which puts her in danger,

Marcus - Anna's ruthless security chief and chief lieutenant. He is brutal in his attempts to suppress the fifth column and advance the Visitor's agenda. He is the only one Anna truly seems to trust,

and Anna - The leader of the Visitors, she has the ability to tap into the Visitors' hive mind with a Bliss that keeps them in line. She impregnates herself with the eggs of the soldiers and looks to make a brood in advance of an armada's arrival. She is clever and sexy and represents a grave threat to Earth.

V works quite well in its first season because of the acting. Elizabeth Mitchell discovers life after Lost (click here for my review of that series!) where she played Dr. Juliet Burke for three seasons as Erica and she illustrates a real ability to act by presenting a character who is very different from the one that brought her to the attention of most genre fans. Erica is smart, in control and efficient; Mitchell dumps the spaciness and uncertainty of Juliet to make the character work completely.

Similarly, Morena Baccarin is great as Anna. Best known to genre fans from her role on Firefly, Baccarin returns to television in the passionless role of Anna and she is perfectly cast. Indeed, most of the Visitors are cast with a sense of reptilian appearance, but Baccarin looks especially slick and cold as Anna, making the viewer invest completely in her inhumanity. She plays off Laura Vandervoort (Lisa) perfectly and the pair has a great, cold chemistry about them.

But while many might say that Christopher Shyer steals the show as Marcus, I say Shyer - like Joel Gretch, Scott Wolf and Charles Mesure - is merely the product of genius casting. Morris Chestnut (Ryan) and David Richmond-Peck (Georgie) are the ones to watch. Richmond-Peck calls the viewer back to a time when geeks were cool (like with David Duchovny in the early seasons of The X-Files). Georgie is played out as an appropriately fractured character and Richmond-Peck is believable and easy to empathize with as a result. Chestnut is incredible as Ryan and when V goes off the air, it is hard not to imagine him having a bright future as an action hero actor. The way the two play off one another is great.

On DVD and Blu-Ray, the first season of V features commentary tracks on a couple of episodes as well as featurettes on the special effects and reimagining of the series. As well there are entertaining bloopers and deleted scenes which flesh out some of the key episodes.

Ultimately, V The Complete First Season is one which fans are going to want to pick up in advance of the show returning to television in late November. For those who missed it in the first run, the DVD set is great because the story plays well back to back as it is tightly serialized. This is one of the best first seasons of any show I've seen in recent memory.

For other V works, please check out my reviews of:
V The Final Battle
V The Complete Television Series


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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