Paranoia’s a common theme in science fiction, particularly government paranoia. There’s a weird, hardcore libertarian faith in a lot of science fiction that insists individuals are better than collectives, that you can’t trust the government or mega corporations (OK, that’s not so libertarian) or charismatic leaders or anything, really. You can’t even trust the futuristic technology that drives a lot of these stories. The only thing you can trust is yourself and maybe, occasionally, a few trusted friends and collaborators. Beyond that, they’re out to get you, whether they’re in league with the aliens or the robot menace or what-have-you. Even a fundamentally liberal treatise about the power of communities before all else like the “Battlestar Galactica” remake has a deeply conservative love for the military and all its traditions. For whatever reason, science fiction seems to have a fundamental conservative, distrustful streak. And despite my own political views, it’s one of the things I like about the genre. Healthy skepticism is a good thing to have, and it’s nice to have narratives where that skepticism is warranted.
[Full recap of Tuesday’s (Nov. 24) “V” after the break…]
So while I found some of the odd mentions of universal health care being a problem in the “V” pilot strange, to say the least, I didn’t think that the show’s portrayal of Morena Baccarin’s smooth-tongued Anna was some sort of Barack Obama analogue or anything. Few would accuse, say, “The X-Files” of being a conservative treatise. Though it has those tendencies, its paranoia is just a free-floating byproduct of the genre it belongs to. I figured the same was true here. Anna may be smooth-tongued, but she’s also an alien bent on destroying the human race, and few believe that’s Obama’s ultimate goal outside of the farthest right of far right blogs.
“It’s Only the Beginning” complicates things somewhat. “V” pretty clearly has the right wing leanings so many suspected it of having, but I’m not sure they’re so much functions of the point-of-view of anyone on the show as they are byproducts of the genre it belongs to. I don’t know when the production of this episode occurred, so it’s entirely possible the idea that the V’s are sticking chemicals into our flu vaccines was directly influenced by the right wing paranoia over same (which actually made it briefly to the floor of the House of Representatives). At the same time, though, the idea that the aliens are using vaccinations to somehow track the human race or change it is a fairly classic alien invasion motif. Indeed, it’s most notable example might be, again, “The X-Files,” where smallpox vaccinations were a vital part of the aliens’ plan to overthrow the Earth. Less easy to defend in this regard are some of the bizarre scenes where people complain about, say, long wait times to see the V doctors. It’s possible that this is just a logical offshoot of miracle cures appearing everywhere around the Earth, but it seems more like a specific criticism.
At the same time, a point-of-view is something “V” has sorely been lacking, particularly when the original series was blatantly an attack on fascism, so the fact that it seems like the series is heading toward having a brain in its head about anything (even if I find that brain fundamentally misguided) is a welcome sign. This makes “It’s Only the Beginning” maybe the best episode of the series so far. It doesn’t have some of the cool twists of the pilot – indeed, if you’ve paid attention to alien invasion tales at any point ever, most of the twists here have been predictable for quite a while – but it continues the solid forward momentum of the last half of last week’s episode and finally abandons the police procedural stuff for the most part, choosing instead to send Elizabeth Mitchell’s Erica, Joel Gretsch’s Jack and Morris Chestnut’s Ryan in pursuit of evil V’s and on a series of clandestine missions. This is both further away from every other show on television and closer to the spirit of the original, and it gives the episode a sense of pacing that other episodes have lacked.
As always, the worst stuff here belonged to Logan Huffman’s Tyler, whom the show is treating too coyly. Anna and Laura VanderVoort’s Lisa keep saying he’s got a great purpose, but so far, the series has just acted as though that purpose is to side with the V’s against the humans. I’m sure there’s a greater plan in store, but “V” plays in such well-trod territory that when it doesn’t address some of these issues right away, it doesn’t seem like it’s completely thought its world through. Look, for example, at how the show finally answered the question of why the resistance doesn’t just kill a V and open it up for all to see the lizard beneath (assuming that this would so repulse humanity that they would no longer believe anything Anna said): If such a thing happened, the V’s would retaliate by destroying humanity. Cool. I can buy that and, indeed, suspected that was pretty much the case, but when the show tries to play coy with its answers, it needs to have answers we haven’t already half guessed. Without them, it seems clumsy. (It’s possible that the Tyler storyline was improved substantially by finalized special effects, which I did not get the chance to see on my screener DVD, but the writing was so poor that I’m not terribly certain that’s the case.)
And while I disagreed with the politics of the health care storyline, I did like a couple of the twists in it. The idea that the V’s use four-dimensional health scanning, though the name of it sounds stupid, is a potentially promising sci-fi concept, and it turned up the fact that Scott Wolf’s Chad will be ill in six month’s time and that condition (an aneurysm) will take his life. This finally gives Wolf something to play beyond occasional skepticism and infodumping. If he’s skeptical of the V’s but reliant on them to stay alive, it could create an interesting dynamic. Similarly, I like the way the knowledge that Lourdes Benedicto’s Valerie is pregnant uses the audience’s knowledge of the original show against it. Since we know Ryan’s a V but Valerie does not, when she has this series’ requisite lizard baby, it will be fraught with the tension of whether Ryan will tell her his secret or not.
I also liked the series’ portrayal of the Bliss, which seems to consist entirely of a naked Anna whispering soothing words while surrounded by a white light that engulfs all of the other plugged-in V’s. I’m sure this will only heighten the Obama parallels for some viewers, but, again, I think this is part and parcel of the portrayal of any collective-based alien society in science fiction. (To return to “Battlestar Galactica,” that series had a very similar connection between the Cylons.) I also liked the shot of the medical officer who had to sacrifice his Fifth Column collaborator for the greater good struggling to fight against the Bliss and then giving into it. The more “V” gives the individual aliens personalities, the more it will be a series with a pulse.
A couple of weeks ago, I said I wished that “V” would be, for lack of a better word, cheesier. The series still has the high-gloss production values of a big budget (for TV, at least) sci-fi epic, but in “It’s Only the Beginning,” political concerns aside, the series finally managed to tap into its inner cheese. This is a show about invading aliens, and when Erica, Ryan and Jack chased a V into a parking garage and had a shootout or when said V took a suicide pill or when everyone had to run from an explosion at the lab where the V’s were conducting experiments on humanity, the show took on some of the spirit of an action sci-fi mission-of-the-week series. The biggest problem with “V” so far has been that it was trying too hard to be mysterious about a lot of things that fundamentally aren’t mysterious to anyone who’s seen the original series or read an alien invasion story while simultaneously being too cryptic for anyone not well-versed in the genre (or the original show). By eschewing all of that and turning into a show about killin’ aliens, “V” gives me hope that when it comes back from this long hiatus, it will be a more fun show to watch.
Some other thoughts:
Things I am tired of: Episode openers where something DRAMATIC happens and the show immediately cuts to “Fourteen Hours Earlier” or “Two Days Earlier” or something like that. “Lost” kind of got away with it this last season by cutting across thirty years of history, but unless we see someone seemingly get shot and then see a title card reading “500,000 Years Ago in an Alternate Universe Where the Nazis Invented Time Travel after Winning World War II,” I’m not paying attention.
Anna’s tour of the mothership might have been more interesting if the series were bothering at all to examine what life aboard the ship is actually like. But that would require differentiating most of the alien characters beyond “evil.”
That said, I do like the occasional glimpses into V society, like Anna’s attempt to find the traitor in her midst and everything dealing with the Fifth Column.
This week’s discussion question: What do you want to see when the series returns in March? Other than alien killing, of course.