Tuned In Journal: 'V' book review

Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2008

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Book Review

"V: The Second Generation"

By Kenneth Johnson, creator of the original "V" miniseries (NBC, 1983)

"Once again, we have Visitors."

That line was part of NBC's promotional campaign for one of the follow-ups to the first "V" miniseries. I know because I was obsessed with the "V" saga. The original aired when I was in sixth grade, but I think I first caught it on a repeat before "V: The Final Battle" premiered in May 1984. Older fans swear by the original and dismiss elements of the sequel miniseries. And some abhor the weekly series, which aired during my seventh grade year, 1984-85. But as an undiscerning kid, I loved it. So much, in fact, that I took notes. On. Every. Episode. I still have my homemade "V" episode guide. And while more mature fans at the time abandoned the series when it became "Dallas" in outer space, I still enjoyed it. I watched "Dallas" with my parents, so why not "Dallas" with lizards who eat guinea pigs and humans?

The original miniseries introduced the story of an alien race of lizards, disguised as humans, who came to Earth. They claimed to be our friends but secretly wanted to steal our water and our people, who were to be used as food. The lead heavy was dragon lady Diana (Jane Badler), who craved power -- and the occasional guinea pig. The Resistance was led by med student Juliet Parish (Faye Grant) and TV news cameraman Mike Donovan (Marc Singer), whose camera captured the first images of a Visitor without his human disguise. The resistance sought to reclaim the Earth from this totalitarian regime.

At four hours, the original "V" miniseries, which I recently re-watched, efficiently sets up the story and purposefully leaves many threads dangling. It was markedly more focused and better than any miniseries Sci Fi Channel has aired in recent years. A six-hour sequel, "V: The Final Battle," deepened the characters while taking many of their stories in a soapier direction. "V: The Series" pared the cast back and never really found its footing, bouncing from action-drama to interstellar soap in the course of just 19 episodes.

When I read in Jon Carmody's Washington Post television column in the spring of my seventh grade year that NBC executives -- and I think I remember something close to the exact wording -- "took one look at the ratings for the season finale and canceled the show," my heart sank. It was the first time I remember ever being truly depressed. How could they? What happened to the bomb Diana planted on the Visitor leader's shuttle? What happened to Elizabeth, the "star child," and the other "good guys" in the shuttle with her? Viewers, myself included, never found out.

Over the years, I heard rumors of a revival. "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski even wrote a draft for a revival in the '90s. So when I learned in 2003 that NBC had commissioned a new script from the writer/director of the original, Kenneth Johnson, I was ecstatic. My childhood favorite might once again see the light of day! But by 2004, the project was dead, with NBC executive Jeff Gaspin declaring it seemed too similar to the original.

Johnson took his script for "V: The Second Generation" and turned into a novel ($14.95 paperback, Tor Books). And while I certainly enjoyed being back in that world and the thrust of the story, there's one aspect of it I just can't abide: The novel ignores everything that happened in "V: The Final Battle" and "V: The Series." Characters who were killed are back alive; a biological agent deployed in "The Final Battle" has not yet been invented and the resolution to the "V: The Series" cliffhanger is nowhere to be found.

Instead, Johnson picks up from a scene at the end of the original miniseries where Juliet sends a message into deep space, hoping to find a more powerful enemy of the Visitors who might come rescue Earth from the Visitors' domination. It's an ingenious story thread to pick up, but why ignore the 20-plus hours of television that millions of viewers watched?

For Johnson, it's a matter of wanting to pick up from where he left off. Johnson helped craft the story for "The Final Battle," but departed the project before the final script was written and production began. But where Johnson left off is not where millions of viewers exited the story.

If Johnson's approach is selfish, it would be equally selfish for me to suggest that he should pick up the story from where the rest of us left off. But here's the thing: It would be so easy to skip over much of what happened in the miniseries and series, dash it off in a few paragraphs, don't resurrect dead characters and move on. Yes, it would mean sacrificing a few characters that maybe meant something to Johnson, but it would serve the dual purpose of keeping continuity and allowing him to tell the story he wants. If he didn't want to use the much-despised "star child," then write her out as having perished. And why mention attempts to formulate a biological weapon when one already exists? There's simply no need.

Johnson claims it almost as a point of pride that he's never watched "V: The Final Battle" or the series. That's just silly. Sometimes we have to be grownups and do things we don't want to do. If watching the programs he wasn't involved in would be too painful, then ask a fan to recount what happened. Or just read the many, many online synopses. Heck, I'd loan him my episode guide written on lined school paper. But to ignore those events completely is the height of nonsensical artistic arrogance.

That rather large misstep aside, "V: The Second Generation" is a decent yarn for "V" fans. A few plot points and characters are overly recycled from both the original miniseries (human Visitor collaborator Debra Stein is essentially the same character as Daniel from the first mini) and the "V" chapters Johnson wasn't involved in (a new Resistance fighter, Nathan, is a dead ringer for Kyle Bates from the series). Some of the characters are a bit overly earnest, particularly the artful dodger-like Ruby, a half-human, half-Visitor child who's been adopted by Juliet.

In other cases, Johnson creates some surprising new characters and sexual relationships, particularly involving the Visitor leader, Diana and some other new top Visitor leaders.

"V: The Second Generation" is not great literature or even a particularly well-written novel, but bearing in mind that it's based on a screenplay, the book sets up a fast-paced, action-adventure tale of the powerful and entitled Visitors, their human collaborators and the humans they've enslaved and whose rights they have curtailed. Johnson is especially effective, as he was in the original miniseries, at introducing disparate, unrelated stories and slowly having them collide with one another throughout the course of the story.

The skeletal structure, plot twists and new characters in "The Second Generation" capably set the stage for what could be a fantastic sequel miniseries. But I don't blame NBC for its reticence about greenlighting "V: The Second Generation" as-is. I wouldn't order it in its current form either. If Johnson is able to address and rectify the continuity issues and curtail some repetitive elements from the original miniseries, then he's got a viable new "V."


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