Mar 31, 2020
Movies that Predicted Trump: V, the Original Miniseries (1983)
-“How’d someone like that get to be your leader, anyway?”
-“Charisma. Circumstances, promises. And not enough of us spoke out to question him until it was too late. It happens on your planet, doesn’t it?”
—A mildly prescient conversation from night two of V (1983)
In the early ‘80s, writer-director Kenneth Johnson (having already developed two hit shows in The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk) pitched a miniseries to NBC called Storm Warnings, a speculative tale about the rise of fascism in America inspired by Sinclair Lewis’ semi-satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here (perhaps the future first entry in Books that Inspired Trump?). According to most sources, the suits at NBC felt the public wouldn’t buy the idea of a totalitarian regime arising from within the American political system itself, and suggested an invasion force as the catalyst instead. After considering the Soviets and the Chinese, they finally settled on—you guessed it—aliens from outer space.
And so, Johnson reworked the story with a sci-fi bent, replacing fascist politicians with the Visitors, an army of reptilian aliens who disguise themselves as human and claim to come in peace, but are really here to not only steal our water, but also (in a “To Serve Man”-style twist) use the human race for food. And more importantly for the purposes of this review series, the Visitors employ a variety of methods from the authoritarian playbook to keep humans in line, including spreading propaganda and disinformation, sowing discord between friends and neighbors, and creating mass confusion to distract the general public from the true horrors happening under cover of night.
And as so often seems to be the case these days, even an outlandish premise like V can come disturbingly close to reality decades later. Maybe it can happen here, after all.
Over the course of V’s two nights, we meet an ensemble cast of ordinary Americans, led by news cameraman Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) and med student Julie Parrish (Faye Grant) as they react to the sudden presence of mile-wide alien motherships hovering over every major city on Earth. And while this diverse set of characters initially seems to be randomly chosen, as the miniseries progresses, we gradually learn they’re all related or connected to each other in unexpected ways. For instance, on the first night we meet a factory worker, a doctor, and a small-time hood, but it’s not until the second night that we learn they’re a father and his two sons. While writing the script, Kenneth Johnson was heavily influenced by Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which employs a similar narrative device (Johnson also had similar literary inspirations when adapting the Hulk—David Banner is basically Jean Valjean to Jack McGee’s Javert).
The motherships are initially incommunicado, and all attempts by the military to get close to them with fighter jets fail. But then the ships begin broadcasting a signal, and that signal contains an ominous countdown. This may seem exceedingly reminiscent of the first act of Independence Day, which is no coincidence—Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have admitted to being fans of V—but when this countdown reaches its end, there’s no wanton destruction of skyscrapers or famous landmarks, but rather, a polite request to meet with the Secretary-General of the United Nations on top of the UN building in New York.
There, the aliens reveal themselves for the first time, and the world breathes a sigh of relief when they turn out to look exactly like us, and these “Visitors” have even adopted American-sounding names like Diana, Steven, and Brian. Their Supreme Commander John (Richard Herd) announces that they’re only here to manufacture a “compound” that their planet desperately needs, and once they’ve accomplished this, they’ll leave us in peace. But of course, their true appearance and aims are much more sinister, and we follow our ensemble as their response to the presence of the Visitors grows from curiosity, to suspicion, to fear, and finally, to outright armed resistance.
With its roots in Sinclair Lewis’ allegory of the rise of the Third Reich, the Nazi references in V are by no means subtle. The symbol of the Visitors is clearly swastika-like, their laser guns look like Lugers, and their uniforms are modeled after those of the Wehrmacht. They start up an organization called “Visitor Friends” targeted at teens and children, clearly meant to parallel the Hitler Youth. The title of the miniseries itself is a blatant WWII allusion. The Visitor’s head “science officer” Diana (Jane Badler) is an obvious Mengele stand-in who performs twisted experiments on humans. And to prevent their true reptilian nature from being revealed, the Visitors begin systematically targeting the scientists of Earth, which clearly echoes the Nazi persecution and extermination of the Jewish people. And on the off chance you still don’t get all of these parallels, there’s even a Holocaust survivor character here to spell everything out for you.
While these allusions seem obvious to me now, when I was a grade school kid watching this back in the ‘80s, pretty much all of this sailed right over my head. But what I did get even at that tender age was that V was meant to be an exploration of how average, everyday people would react to a sudden show of dominance and oppression. Some quickly fall in line, some are determined to do everything they can to show obeisance before power, and still others can see terrible things happening but are willing to turn a blind eye as long as they can still put food on the table. And then there are those brave souls who, despite living relatively comfortable lives, are willing to give everything up to fight for a larger cause. Beyond all the Nazi references and sci-fi trappings, it’s clear that the true message of V is that power may corrupt, but it can also inspire us to become something greater than ourselves.
V was a massive hit when it aired in 1983, and NBC quickly ordered a sequel miniseries for the following year. Unfortunately, Johnson walked away from V: The Final Battle over creative differences, and subsequently took all the heart and soul in this franchise with him. In other hands, V became less about standing up to tyranny and more of a series of campy action-horror movies with scenes included purely for shock value. Nevertheless, the sequel miniseries was another big success, and NBC, desperate for a hit in those pre-Cosby days, quickly greenlighted a weekly series based on V, which saw the concept further devolve into a Dynasty-like soap opera that increasingly relied on stock footage from the two miniseries to fill up an hour each week.
But for me, there’s no doubt that the original V is one of the greatest TV miniseries of all time. And I say this while openly acknowledging all of its flaws; for one, it too often falls into moments of maudlin sentimentality (though, show me any American TV miniseries from the 1980s that’s not guilty of the same crime), and for another, there’s a bit too much time spent on finding strict one-to-one analogues for every aspect of the Holocaust.
In particular, the element of “scientists” as a stand-in for the Jewish victims of the Nazis is probably the weakest aspect of V. Not long after the Visitors’ arrival, scientists begin mysteriously disappearing, and just when the aliens’ true lizard-like appearance is on the verge of being exposed on live TV, they distract the public with bogus reports of an international conspiracy among scientists to stage a coup against the Visitors. They even plant false stories (or “fake news”, if you will) claiming that scientists have been withholding cures for deadly diseases and other incredible discoveries from the public, all in the interest of securing more grant money. Soon after, Julie has to leave her stockbroker boyfriend, because he’s losing clients over her being a scientist. There’s also a scene where a gardener informs an archaeologist’s family that he can no longer work for them, due to their neighbors’ sudden prejudice against scientists.
I’ve always felt the allegory falls apart here, because whereas the Jewish population of 1930s Germany was easily identified and ostracized and targeted, I doubt the United States at large (in 1983, or today) genuinely knows what a “scientist” is, or has any clue what they actually do. Does the typical, average American even grasp that archaeology is a science? And does this only include the physical/biological sciences, or would social scientists, political scientists, and psychologists earn the public’s wrath as well?
And yet, looking back on this plot element decades later here in 2017, it would seem the persecution of scientists isn’t so farfetched after all, especially when you consider how the Trump transition team, months before inauguration day, was already asking the EPA and Department of Energy to name names of staffers who attended climate change conferences during his predecessor’s administration. Or how the new administration, after only being in office for a few days, officially banned all public communications from the EPA, the USDA, and the National Park Service (the latter over trivial nonsense like the disputed attendance numbers for Trump’s swearing in). Or how the president named a climate change skeptic to head the EPA, or how he’s proposed making massive spending cuts to basic scientific research going on at NASA, the NIH, the USGS, the EPA, and many, many other agencies. Suddenly, a direct war on scientists doesn’t seem like the stuff of allegorical science fiction anymore.
Of course, V’s spooky echoes of our current times don’t end there. There’s a journalist colleague of Mike Donovan named Kristine Walsh (Jenny Sullivan) who becomes one of the first reporters to step inside a Visitor mothership. She soon catches the fancy of Diana (quite literally; this franchise isn’t shy about implying Diana wants to have sex with both men and women, of any species), and soon, Kristine is recruited to become the official Visitor spokesperson.
At the time, this was probably a riff on the likes of Goebbels or Tokyo Rose, but nowadays it feels like an eerie premonition of the ascendancy of Kellyanne Conway, former political commentator for CNN and Fox News who later became Donald Trump’s campaign manager and now serves as Counselor to the President (that is, when she’s not being counseled herself—or perhaps locked away in a bunker deep underground—for being “off-message” to whatever her boss’s message might happen to be this week).
But Kristine’s story is a cautionary tale to be heeded by all reporters currently covering the Trump beat, in that she nakedly gives up her journalistic integrity for the vague promise of “access” and potentially being able to someday write a book about the Visitors. These days, the danger of news organizations falling into a similar trap is more real than ever, with our current president blatantly picking and choosing which outlets he grants interviews to based solely on how little they question the delusional “alternative facts” he doles out during his manic pre-dawn Twitter rants. Kristine Walsh eventually sees through the Visitors and redeems herself in The Final Battle shortly before being killed, but don’t count on Kellyanne ever finding the remnants of her conscience.
There are a few other eerily prescient moments in the miniseries. A teenager named Daniel Bernstein (David Packer) joins the Visitor Friends organization, and becomes increasingly drunk with power—literally, in fact; the miniseries shows him consuming more and more alcohol as the story progresses—until he ends up informing on his own parents. But at the time the Visitors arrive, Daniel is living an aimless existence where he constantly gets fired from low wage jobs, making him ripe for recruitment by the Visitors. Essentially, a strong authoritarian movement finally gives him a reason for being, which could be seen as presaging the disenchanted, unemployed Rust Belt voters who were swept up by Donald Trump’s nonsensical rhetoric and decided he could be the hand grenade they could lob into the corridors of Washington to blow up the whole damn system.
I could go on and on identifying other eerie echoes (I mean, how weird is that there are people now actually dubbing themselves “the Resistance”? And yes, I realize the term “Resistance” certainly didn’t originate with V, but it’s a crazy thing to be hearing said these days with no hint of irony), but really, what’s most notable about V isn’t what it predicted. It’s what it failed to predict.
In 1983, NBC felt a fascist regime arising from a legally and democratically elected government was so farfetched that invaders from outer space seemed more plausible. But in 2017, we’ve all just received a hard lesson on how just such a government could rise to power for real. And if a network aired a miniseries like V right now, they’d be widely mocked and criticized for attempting such an obvious, on-the-nose, thinly-veiled indictment of the current administration.
But in the wake of this president’s many blunders and missteps of late (blurting out top secret intel to the Russians, more or less admitting to obstruction of justice, all but giving up on his stupid border wall, trying and failing to repeal Obamacare—twice, possibly), I have to say I feel somewhat hopeful. As cynical as this sounds, what’s giving me a glimmer of optimism at this moment in time is that it appears this administration is just too damned incompetent to achieve any of the really evil things they want to do. So as of now, I can’t say V predicted Trump, because at least the Visitors in the miniseries are presented as organized, efficient, and a genuinely intimidating threat.
V was based on It Can’t Happen Here, and I have to admit that it’s probably not happening here. Not right now, anyway. But after the 2016 election, let’s no longer doubt that it can happen here. Laugh at the ineptitude of the current president and his bumbling inner circle as much as you want, but be wary of the next guy—come 2020, 2024, or beyond—who also rides a wave of populist anger into power, but actually has enough political savvy, common sense, and impulse control to implement his horrifying plans.