V “Reflections in Terror” (part 1 of 3)
Just in time for the holidays, here’s a recap of the very special Christmas episode of V: The Series. And check it out: I’m posting this exactly 25 years to the day it originally aired.
Some of you young folk might be a little confused here. So let me clarify that this is actually the first crappy weekly series based on V.
V, which aired over two nights in 1983 on NBC, was a miniseries purportedly about an alien invasion; The Visitors came in peace, but were really lizard people disguised in fake human skins, awesome shades, and jackets from the “Thriller” video, and they wanted us for food. But what V was really about was a fascist takeover of the United States, complete with heavy allusions to the rise of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany.
V was written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, the same guy behind TV hits like The Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Woman (another of his shows that eventually got the ill-advised darker and edgier reboot treatment). The story goes that the V script was originally an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here, about a totalitarian regime rising to power in America. NBC executives rejected the script, saying TV audiences wouldn’t “get” fascism, so Johnson supposedly reworked the idea into a sci-fi allegory.
The first miniseries got big ratings, and despite Kenneth Johnson walking away over creative differences, the sequel miniseries V: The Final Battle followed in 1984 and also got big ratings. Johnson’s original idea was to continue V as special event programming, with a new miniseries every year. Alas, V had the misfortune of airing on a third-place network desperate for a hit in those pre-Cosby days. NBC proceeded to milk the concept for all it was worth, ordering a weekly series based on V for the 1984-85 season.
Unlike the turd-burger that is ABC’s currently airing V reboot, which kicked off with one of the worst pilots in recent memory and, after a few weeks, nearly became watchable, 1984’s V: The Series started off promising, and slowly devolved into embarrassing plots too stupid for The A-Team. The series also suffered from the writers’ apparent belief that the ensemble cast was too big and unworkable, which led to them constantly and pointlessly killing off the show’s most popular characters.
In these days of Lost and Battlestar Galactica, heavily serialized sci-fi shows are sort of a given, but back then, the makers of V were in uncharted territory. As a hybrid of action, sci-fi, soap opera, and wartime drama, V: The Series might have given birth to a whole new TV genre, had it succeeded.
Unfortunately, the writers never had a clear direction for the show, and the scripts just got dumber, and ratings dwindled. Also, at the time, V was reportedly the most expensive weekly series ever produced, and it wasn’t hard to see all the obvious attempts to reign in the budget. Later episodes relied a lot on stock footage from the two miniseries, even reusing entire action sequences. After 19 episodes, NBC mercifully pulled the plug.
But “Reflections in Terror”, episode nine of the series, is really not that awful. It’s not that great, either, but it does come from the brief period of time when they were actually still trying. This is despite the fact that it’s a very special Christmas episode. Speaking for myself, when I think of shows airing in 1984 that needed a Christmas episode, V comes in dead last, behind even Airwolf. By the end of this recap, I’m sure you’ll agree with me.
Opening credits time. Images of the cast members are shown over clips from the two miniseries. And each actor is shown inside a big red “V”, which to me is a little too on the nose.
As mentioned above, V had a huge cast, and 25 years later, they all have lengthy resumes. I can barely scratch the surface of who’s who on this show and why they’re famous, but just for starters, there’s Marc Singer (Mike Donovan) who was already known for The Beastmaster, and Michael Ironside (Ham Tyler) who found his true calling in life on V, and went on to play similar tough guy characters in a million B-movies. Faye Grant (Julie Parrish), who I’ve already talked about at length on this site, previously had a recurring role on The Greatest American Hero, and Michael Durrell (Robert Maxwell) later went on to play Tori Spelling’s dad. And whatever became of Robert Englund (Willie), anyway?
V: The Series also added a few new faces to the miniseries cast, including another blonde babe for me to obsess over in my adolescent years: Jennifer Cooke as the grown-up Elizabeth Maxwell, AKA the Starchild.
Elizabeth is the half-human, half-Visitor hybrid we memorably saw being born in The Final Battle, and in the most shameless case of Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome ever seen, little Elizabeth climbed into a cocoon in the pilot episode and came out the fully grown, fully sexy Jennifer Cooke. Cooke’s only other notable part was as the Main Girl in one of the Friday the 13th movies. After that, she retired from acting and married Mo Siegel, co-founder of the tea company Celestial Seasonings, and the two even put out a cookbook together.
True story: Mo and Jennifer Siegel are members of the Urantia Fellowship, a quasi-religious sect that believes the earth is actually called Urantia, and that it’s planet #606 in the Satania System, which is inside the universe of Nebadon, which is inside the super-universe of Orvonton, and… to be honest, Scientologists and their Xenu-led Galactic Confederacy have got nothing on Urantians.
The episode begins, like most episodes of V: The Series, with Howard K. Smith, veteran newsman and former co-anchor of The ABC Evening News, delivering a faux newscast about the Visitors. Smith had a prominent role in the miniseries, reporting on the Visitors’ initial arrival, so I guess they figured they might as well have him do intros for the weekly series.
In each of these newscasts, which are supposedly being broadcast over the “Freedom Network”, Smith describes the heroic actions of a Resistance member in delivering some sort of humiliating defeat to the Visitors. He then finishes up by awarding that person this week’s “Freedom Network Medal of Valor”. These reports usually only last a minute or two, and are not at all related to the episode that follows, so they mostly come off as filler. It’s like if the Mr. T cartoon show had an episode devoted to drug abuse, and Mr. T spent the live-action intro talking about bulimia.
Finally, the actual episode begins. Here, we find the Starchild herself, Elizabeth, walking the streets with her current beau Kyle Bates, who’s also a member of the Resistance, but more on him later. An old lady on the street is ringing a bell and selling Christmas-themed corsages or something, and she spies Elizabeth and Kyle. She pulls out a device covered in Visitor symbols, to verify that this is in fact the Starchild.
When the couple walks up to her, the old lady sticks a corsage into Elizabeth’s hand, causing her to prick her finger on the leaves. Elizabeth assures Kyle it’s “just a scratch”, but the inserted shot of her finger dripping with blood indicates otherwise. The old lady hastily tucks the bloody corsage away in a Lucite box, and offers Elizabeth a different corsage. I sense nefarious Visitor schemes at work here.
Kyle happily pins the corsage to Elizabeth’s pink angora sweater, and it’s almost like the spirit of Ed Wood has personally blessed this episode.
Next, we find a group of Visitors in a jeep, patrolling a remote, two-lane highway. For some reason, aliens with advanced antigravity technology really love to cruise around in jeeps. There’s an Attention Narrator voiceover dubbed in, telling all Visitor patrols to be on the lookout for a red van, which is carrying Resistance members “smuggling orphan children” into Los Angeles. And the Visitors hate orphans!
The jeep passes out of the shot, and then Resistance member Mike Donovan pops up from behind a bush. He runs over to the aforementioned red van, jumps inside, and signals for driver Ham Tyler to pull off. As the van starts up, Mike peeks into the back, where a group of cute and cuddly orphans direct from Central Casting are huddled with their sleeping bags. Mike tells them that once they reach Los Angeles, they’ll be safe, and they “get to be kids again!”
For some reason, the kids look less than enthused. I have a sneaking suspicion they’ve been abducted. I’m pretty sure Ham Tyler offered them all puppies.
The van drives off, passing a sign saying “Los Angeles City Limits” and “Welcome to the Open City”.
I don’t want to get into all the brutal details of the weekly series’ premise, but basically it picks up where The Final Battle left off. The Resistance released the Red Dust toxin into the atmosphere, which drove away most of the Visitor fleet. Unfortunately, it turned out the Red Dust only survived in colder climates, allowing the Visitors to return and re-occupy the warmer areas of the planet (including, conveniently enough, Los Angeles).
Meanwhile, Nathan Bates, president of Science Frontiers, the company with exclusive rights to manufacture the Red Dust, negotiated a truce with the Visitors. This allowed Los Angeles to become an Open City, with Bates as its de facto mayor. I believe the idea here was to extend the World War II allegory by turning Los Angeles into Casablanca, or at least Casablanca as seen in the movie. In keeping with this motif, Resistance member Elias Taylor opened up the Club Creole, an obvious analogue of Rick’s Café, where Resistance members and Visitors alike can have drinks and rub elbows.
Getting back to the episode, we’re now at the Visitor legation in Los Angeles. The old woman is giving the bloody corsage to Visitor leader Diana (Jane Badler), who remarks upon how the “dioxin veneer” has kept the blood fresh. For some reason, the “dioxin veneer” becomes very, very important to this story. The dioxin veneer almost gets its own subplot.
Thankfully, a random Visitor flunky is standing around to express his confusion, and to say that he doesn’t understand what this is all about. This allows Diana to expositionize that she plans to use the blood to clone the Starchild. Elizabeth is immune to the Red Dust, Diana explains, so by cloning her, the idea is to somehow formulate an “antitoxin”.
The old lady pipes up, saying she kept her end of the bargain, and now the Visitors need to keep theirs. Specifically, she wants them to release her husband. The old lady says, “You promised we would be together again for Christmas dinner!” This poor choice of words lets Diana follow up with the zinger, “And you will! Our Christmas dinner!” Hah! You gotta admit, she got you there, lady.
Visitor troops drag the old lady away kicking and screaming, I guess to get her ready for braising. Though I really don’t know why Diana would be that interested in eating the old lady; she’s got to be plenty gamey.