Even as a fan of science fiction, I often am bored by sci-fi television pilots, sometimes entertained, occasionally enthralled, but only in the rarest of cases actively angered.
When the Visitors arrive, our aircraft come tumbling out of the skies, at least one pilot dead in downtown Manhattan. They park themselves over our cities, in our space, flip on gigantic big screens and have a mild mannered woman softly tell us that they are the Visitors, that they once thought they were alone, but now are here to embrace us lovingly, heal all of our diseases, grant us wonderful technology. The citizens of Earth applaud them by the millions, cheering in the streets. Oh, please. New Yorkers boo their own sports teams as if greeting child molesters on parole, and this show posits that their response to the equivalent of interstellar spam would be “Why yes, Mr. Former Nigerian Space Minister, here’s my bank account number.”
The show’s writing is simply lazy, characters’ actions and motivations taking the clear back seat to whatever the writers have already decided should happen next. Characters systematically and improbably stumble across whatever they need in order to bumble their way to the next set piece. Oh look, a trap door that leads to a dead guy who leads to dead guy’s house which has his cell phone which just so happens to have the extra super secret meeting place in the last text message. Oh look, a guy was fatally wounded but just happened to bring super secret photos of the infiltrator visitors to a sympathetic priest who just happens to show them to the only person in the entire government who also has seen pictures of them. It all culminates in a patented orgy of nonsensical action. Fancy CGI death robot shoots twenty people at once and then apparently runs out of bullets because bad guys run in with knives. Knives? Fucking knives. Who knew they didn’t have shotguns on Lizard Prime?
The main characters are presented as a series of cliches from which they never evolve. The tough as nails woman cop ditched by an asshole ex. The rich guy tittering about the perfect engagement ring whilst dealing with a secret past. Oh gee, will his girlfriend suspect he’s having an affair and then find the ring? You betcha. The reporter faced with an ethical dilemma once he gets the big interview by telling the other mean reporters to be nice to the pretty alien lady. The doubting priest who goes against the church and struggles with his faith and whether to grow a pair. The annoying upper middle class teenage punk channeling Ryder Strong from “Boy Meets World,” shitty hair and oversized leather jacket included. Crazy right wing splinter group who actually are totally sane and absolutely right? Of course! Nobody’s persecuted like right wing conspiracy nuts who meet in warehouses at midnight. And evil aliens? Are there ever any other kind? You know what an original story might be? Peaceful aliens show up, try to help us out and eventually become disgusted by the entire degenerate lot of us and go back to screwing their brains out amongst the nebulae. The only suspense in “V” is as to when exactly the reptilian buggers will start eating babies.
There is absolutely no question from the first moment of the show that the Visitors are unequivocally evil. Sure, everybody in the audience already knows that fact since this is a reboot, but making it instantly obvious on screen while simultaneously having 99% of the fictional people on Earth buy their act is either patently unbelievable or the most cynical statement of human gullibility since the success of the Pet Rock. Every institution, every government, and the bulk of the population snap right into line without question. It can be inferred that this is because the Visitors have infiltrated leadership positions with their fancy skin suits, in addition to being friendly and smoking hot. Which makes it all okay, because if the president and the pope say that polka is cool, goddamned if all the teenagers don’t go buy accordions.
Yes, we get it, people are sheep. We follow idiots and do stupid things. But what tempers this capacity for evil is our complete inability to get along or trust others, which is something that “V” completely misses. People are complicated, and they construct institutions that are not monoliths no matter how they look in aggregate. Institutions are the sum of the interactions of millions upon millions of people making their own decisions for their own perceived gain. This fundamental flaw in the human character is also what makes us great, it’s the source of the million cracks at the base of any attempt at communism, the source of the million attempts at greatness in a free society. “V” exhibits an almost pathological contempt for the capability of human beings to think for themselves, setting up a simplistic strawman of communism in order to justify a fundamentally fascist conclusion. Good stories reflect the nuances of humanity. They don’t gloss everything to the fine shine of a dialectic.
On the very day that Congress argues over health care reform, the writers toss in an offhand jibe at “universal health care” as part of an alien conspiracy to destroy the human race. It was not offered humorously, it was cold and cynical description, connecting fictional dots to actual events. When a story does this with aplomb and intelligence, it makes that story transcendent, makes it mean far more than the literal nuts and bolts of its plot. It becomes about an idea instead of about things. When it is done badly, it derives from one of two sources: either the writer is a blatant propagandist, an incompetent storyteller, or both. That moment was the spark of my anger, but it wasn’t simply a joke falling flat, the meme ran throughout the entire episode. A charismatic leader, promises of change, youth rallying to a cause, we even got a rant about “spreading hope.” And in the end, the only people who can possibly save us from misguided youth and a presumably brainwashed government are a religious man, a rich man, a woman with a gun, and right wing conspiracy theorists dismissed as quacks.
Now, I’m sure that the writers of “V” would insist that I am reading too much into their story. They would demur that theirs is a simple story of evil reptile aliens trying to eat us all, not a political allegory. They’re morons or liars. All stories exist within the context of their audience. Whether maliciously contrived by malfeasants or constructed in a vacuum by cultural and political ignoramuses, this story resonates with a specifically horrific and paranoid interpretation of contemporary politics.
There is certainly plenty of mediocre science fiction on television. For that matter, there’s plenty of mediocrity from every genre on television. Mediocrity can be filling, if not particularly savory. But “V” distinguishes itself from the rest of the menu, not in competence, but with the poison of intellectual negligence.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.