Sunday, March 20, 2011

Killer Queens Killin’ Good: V Series Finale, “Mother’s Day”

as seen on ABC, Tuesday, 15 March 2011, 8 pm. MDT

If I hadn’t looked up at the clock and realized it was Tuesday I would have missed a mess o’ glorious carnage. A matricide, a patricide and a stupid kid I’d have shot myself if someone had given me a walk-on part, but this death was so much better, because….

Before  go into detail there’s an explanation I owe all the normal people with normal lives and normal TV viewing habits who are wondering what I’m talking about, and why.

V is a remake of an NBC mini-series that first broadcast in the spring of 1984. Although the storyline was bound-up with cheese when the inevitable sequel was produced, and flat unwatchable when the mercifully short-lived TV series was made, the first hours of that original mini-series rank among some of the best science fiction on TV. 

The Visitors (“V,” get it?) park enormous ships over every major city on Earth. The sight of these massive things casting their huge shadows as they rumbled in to hover above the skyscrapers was a chilling sight a full 13 years before it was appropriated for Independence Day. In due time, however—just long enough to let us savor the suspense of Who Is Driving These Things And What Do They Want?—we were relieved to learn that the Visitors were all attractive humanoids (in early-to-mid-1980s humanoid fashion) who need a little help. In return for letting them park their ships over our cities, some of our abundant water, the Visitors would share some of their wondrous technology with us.

Hello, Brave New World. First contact, childhood’s end for human civilization, nothing but blue skies and light-speed ahead with our new space friends. The first mini-series actually reveled in that concept for a brief, glowing period as the story got going. For a while the viewer actually wondered what could possibly go wrong.

If you’re a Twilight Zone fan and therefore familiar with the infamous “To Serve Man” episode, you have the basic idea. TANSTAAFL, as Robert A. Heinlein fans understand this: There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. In this case it so happens the entire human race is lunch, but the Visitors, like the Kanamits of “To Serve Man,” are paying for their lunch with cheap energy, no more war, etc. People with a modicum of self-esteem who are revolted at the idea of existing as well-cared-for livestock, will bring conflict to the story.

What made the multiple hours of the original V mini-series stand well and apart from the classic half-hour Twilight Zone tale, was how cleverly everything was developed over time. The arrival of the giant ships and the pause before learning who and what was in them was one example of this. The sinister nature of the Visitors was brought forward so slowly, so stealthily, you wondered if the Big Twist was going to be that the Visitors weren’t lying after all. You actually found yourself wondering what the few skeptics of the Visitor’s generosity were complaining about, even as those other details nagged at you.

Yes, those other details. Some subtle, some not so much. There are any number of tangents I can go off on here. Suffice it to say that I was excited to learn there would be a new V series. Others who remembered the show and how it was the most talked-about mini-series since Roots no doubt felt the same way. Would it be a harrowing re-imagining along the lines of Ron Moore’s first three seasons of Battlestar Galactica?

Earthling, please.

The new series started with the giant ships rumbling into view overheard and they aren’t stopped for ten seconds when Morena Baccarin’s classically beautiful and serene—and therefore, to our debased American eyes, alien—face appears on the bottoms of these ships, like the digital displays on sports blimps. She’s telling everyone in the dominant languages of the world’s major cities that everything’s okay, we’re from somewhere else obviously, but we are at peace, always, and there’s so much we can do for one another, etc. No buildup, no ships appearing and just sitting there while all of Earth wrings its hands and wonders what the hell. Nope, straight to the introductions. Oh yeah, and they’re evil. Except for some good ones, of course. We’ll meet everyone as we go along. Try and keep up....

I had a feeling the show’s creators figured that everyone watching already knew the whole Sinister Motives thing, and wanted to cut right to it. But what of the younger viewers who never saw the original? Short attention spans, cynical, won’t buy the goodness-of-their-hearts approach from the git-go. I’m sure those were the reasons that came up at the writers’ meetings, assuming anyone got together at all to discuss what they wanted to do with the storyline. That’s the way things are supposed to work behind the scenes in TV land, but it doesn’t show here. The show’s creators wanted to dispense with all the high-fallutin thematic crap and cut right to the central conflict. So they did. End of story. Which, in a way, it very much was.

There are a few modifications to the original mini-series premise on top of all this. For one, the overall Sinister Motive in the new series doesn’t have anything to do with these V’s wanting to use the human species as a protein source. Which is good, because that was one of the things that made no sense in the original series, as it was made clear the lizards (for they are indeed lizards beneath the skin) like their prey small and live. A scene in which the original Lizard Queen Diana’s lower jaw hinged down, out and away  as she swallowed a live guinea pig whole was one of the great WTF moments that had people talking long after they saw it. It was so WTF no one thought to consider that harvesting humans for meat was not only impractical for the Visitors compared to breeding Earth’s abundant and prolific rodents for themselves, but unnatural for them as well.

So what do these 21st century V’s want from us? This was the one thing the show’s creators held back for as long as possible, and not nearly as gracefully, either. When the revelation did come, it was of such underwhelming impact that it made you wonder, as with the rest of the show, the creator’s weren’t just making things up as they went along.

The first really off-putting thing to me was how the creators got all cute and contemporary by touching on the health care “debate” that was going on in 2009 at the time.  These Visitors start out by setting up Healing Centers all around the globe where anyone suffering anything from arthritis to cancer can drop in and get themselves fixed up free of charge. Eeew! Horrible! Alien. For God’s sake, they’re healing sick people! For free? “Yuh-huh! Just like Obamacare!”

I missed a couple of episodes towards the middle of this season, but I saw enough to notice the big idea of universal health care as Evil Lizard People Plot To Make Us All Dependent Upon Them vanish after two episodes. Long enough to watch this version’s Lizard Queen, now named Anna, go ballistic, hit a button and make the skies all over Earth turn red at the end of the first season’s finale—only to see blue skies at the second season opener, and the terror of those red skies brought up and dismissed in a few obviously forcibly inserted lines as a completely different subplot got underway.

Or maybe those red skies were a big deal as a few obviously forcibly inserted lines in subsequent episodes have indicated. What was clear was the writers didn’t know what they were doing. They supposedly had help from Rockne O’Bannon, the very creator of Alien, but I get the impression he came on way too late to develop a story arc for V. Either that, or Alien was his one-hit wonder, as O’Bannon didn’t do the 1985 reboot of Twilight Zone he worked on any favors, either.

I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t care enough one way or another to follow the behind-the-scenes stuff online. The main reason I watched the show was Morena Baccarin. At first I didn’t recognize the exotic beauty who played the high-end prostitute on Firefly because her luxuriant hair had been chopped so drastically short for V. It wasn’t exactly unattractive, but it did give a creepy, almost androgynous edge to Baccarin’s Anna. Almost androgynous, that is: there was no mistaking those curves under those exquisitely tailored dresses that looked as if they were sewn together right over her body. Whenever she was onscreen I had eyes for no one else. That woman has presence.

That, and Baccarin is easily the best, most compelling actor on the show. It’s strange that I can’t find images of Baccarin as Anna standing ramrod straight and still as a statue, gazing coldly out her spaceship windows at New York, because those scenes were downright iconic. Or rather, they should have been iconic, but even the promoters for the show didn’t know what they had on their hands. For all the forehead-slapping stupid lines the writers put in Baccarin’s mouth, her Anna’s graceful, confident, smiling-serenely-in-your-face evil was so right you never held the stupid lines against her. 

I’d love to go off on another tangent and talk about the monumentally stupid Power of the Immortal Human Soul and God-bothering that got stirred even more forcibly into the chunky stew of V’s story arc, but it’s late and I want to talk carnage. Carnage engineered with all the pent-up resentment a gaggle of halfwit TV hacks can come up with when they know there’s no tomorrow for their jobs. After 22 episodes spread out over two seasons they finally got something right. Indeed, they got a lot of things right.

First up was Old Lizard Queen Diana. Yes, Diana, In this version of V we learn she’s not so bad after all. She’s so not-so-bad her daughter Anna felt obliged to betray her and put her in some weird dungeon on the mothership. Save for a few savvy lizards, everyone thinks she’s dead. Anyway, this being the “season” finale, Diana escapes to lead her people.

It’s important to understand that Diana had been built up in previous episodes as a Force To Be (Soon) Reckoned With as all the Fifth Columnists of the ship, and eventually the humans on Earth got to know her. So there she is, out of her dungeon, speaking to a vast, assembled CGI multitude on the Wonder of the Human Soul and how it and Human Emotion Must Be Embraced when she’s interrupted by Anna, who comes up right behind her and stabs an impossibly long, pointy space-lizard tail through Diana’s abdomen.

Anna’s impossibly long, prehensile tail not only stabs Diana, it picks her up and shakes her over the assembled multitude of Visitors before slamming her to the edge of the stage. 

But that’s not all. As she dies, Anna croaks, “You have doomed our species!” Holy smokes! Whine and cheese! One major player and potential plot point squelched, just like that.

Then Anna turns to the entourage who came in with her, looking a little pale and sweat-damp for the proceedings. “This is how you kill your mother,” Anna sneers to her daughter Lisa, who just now realizes she’s been had by Anna’s fake show of emotion when Lisa had a gun pointed at her at the start of the episode.

Excellent presentation, superior flavor. This was just the appetizer, too. Keep your backside planted firmly to that sofa cushion because we’ve got another plate of tasty kill on the way before the main course.

Somewhere during all the kneeling—as Anna’s hard, reptilian eyes scan the sea of her faithful—a black guy gets up and runs out of the room. I don’t see how he could have escaped given the situation but I can understand why he’d have to try. This is his last best hope to get his daughter off the ship.

We met Ryan in the very first episode. He had been part of an advance guard of Visitors sent to infiltrate Earth society and its institutions before the arrival of Anna and her multiple motherships, presumably to soften us all up for the invasion to come. Ryan went native and discovered emotions, especially the kind inspired by his hot girlfriend, whose name I forget because, like so many people on this show, I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Hot Girlfriend got pregnant, which was  not supposed to happen—what with him being an African-American space lizard, and she an earthling—so this child is really, really special. In the original mini-series this is where the show jumped the shark clear into space, but for most of the series the Hybrid, as she’s sometimes known, is just a hostage so Anna can exploit Ryan.

Anna, being the delightfully evil thing she’s been from the git-go (she murdered Hot Girlfriend right after she gave birth), has tightened the bond between Ryan’s daughter and herself by giving Ryan’s daughter doses of  tranquilizing psychic mojo called Bliss. This being a human/space lizard hybrid the child grows rapidly and identifies Anna as her mother. This child looks all of eleven years old when Ryan runs in to “rescue” her.

The child first demands to know what Ryan is doing in her room. Ryan explains he’s there to rescue her, blah-blah-blah, and the child says Bullshit! or something to that effect and her long green space-lizard tail whips out and wraps itself around Ryan’s neck. Ryan, in keeping with the nature of all of the presumed good guys on this show, is an idiot. It has never occurred to him that his beloved daughter might have imprinted all of her filial loyalties to the Lizard Queen who has Blissed her throughout all of the weeks of her existence. So the tail is around his neck and the Hybrid declares she’ll never let Ryan hurt Mommy again. And thus snaps Ryan’s neck.

God, it was past time we had done with that whiny fool. Blackmailed by Anna he’d betrayed the Fifth Column. He’d somehow survived an explosion and in recent episodes he could be seen trying to make amends. Yet here he was getting his neck snapped by his own daughter. We’d met Ryan in the first episode, sure. But the longer we’d gotten to know him the less we cared when his own daughter killed him. Seriously. This show was that messed up.

Now on to the main course. Anna’s daughter Lisa is taken to the dungeon where Anna once kept her own mother. Lisa wonders why Anna doesn’t kill her outright and Anna notes that vengeance is a human emotion she rather likes. Vengeance isn’t an emotion, of course, but we’re satisfied that Anna is letting Lisa live.  Lisa, like all of the putative good guys on this show, has all the intellectual dynamism of a jar of pickled pig’s knuckles, but she is at least nice to look at. 

Lisa was supposed to be the Lizard Queen who would mate with a genetically altered human and therefore accelerate the evolution of the Visitors with her spawn (lizard women apparently can lay thousands of eggs with one fertilization). Anna had a feeling Lisa might go flaky on her, though, and therefore kept a queen egg in reserve. Anna had the hatching accelerated by her top scientist goons and clothed the hatchling in skin that looked just like Lisa. And so the Big Sinister Plan—to accelerate the evolution of the Visitors with human DNA and then wipe out the humans—is on track.

Yep, I just told you the Big Sinister Plan. The only part that got my attention was the part about getting wiped out. I’m still not clear on why that’s supposed to happen, unless the Visitors want to take over Earth for themselves. I’m guessing that’s it.

The young man Lisa was supposed to mate with happened to be the son of the resistance leader, an FBI agent named Erica. If I haven’t mentioned Erica yet, it’s because she’s the sorriest excuse for a protagonist with top billing on a TV show I have ever seen. She’s distracted, she’s flaky, she lacks the nerve to follow through in so many cases Anna can’t help but win at the end of every episode.

One of Erica’s distractions is her teenage son, the most annoying idiot teenage son I’ve seen since Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Tyler loves the V’s, loves Lisa and Anna, and is thus always arguing with his mom. For the last few episodes he’s been living aboard the ship and supposedly training to be a pilot, though that last part has been a ruse to keep him on the ship because there was something wacky about his DNA and it was delaying the big lizard-on-human evolutionary speed-ball plan.

All that’s fixed, though, and now Lisa is in Diana’s old dungeon. Anna makes things extra hateful/painful for Lisa by having Lisa watch the Live Lizard Sex Cam stream of Imposter Lisa mating with Tyler. Poor Lisa had real feelings for the boy, which is what ironically turned her on to the side of the humans—ironically, because Tyler is a V partisan. This might be poignant in the hands of more skilled writers. Here, all you can say is these dummies had it coming.

Apparently Imposter Lisa knows Real Lisa is watching because Imposter Lisa leers up into the camera from time to time. While watching this I wondered if what happened after Anna mated last season would happen here. I was not disappointed.

They made us wait for it, though. It seems the Rite of the Lizard Queen doesn’t have to happen immediately after coitus. The couple is shown to sleep for a while. But then Imposter Lisa awakens. She climbs back on top of Tyler (lizard ladies like it on top, the sick freaks) and leers up into the camera one more time—are ya watchin’ this, Lisa? (she is!)—before the long, pointy cluster of teeth emerge from her mouth and she chomps down on Tyler’s neck.

And I mean CHOMP! Tyler’s surprised scream, and the way Imposter’s Lisa’s eyes rolled back as she savored the fresh, raw bloody meat in her mouth—God, that was the most horrific thing I’ve seen on TV in a while. I can’t believe this was on broadcast television. Oh, it was a thing of nigh-pornographic beauty.

So, three characters dead and the invasion is on. Thanks to the stupidity of our heroes and a friendly assist from the Hybrid, Anna can call in the rest of the invasion fleet from where they’ve been hiding. 

The killings, as artfully and so necessarily executed, still didn’t make up for all the incredible, mind-roasting stupidity that went on with this reboot. So much potential was wasted. I watched as this show tried to take on topics like freedom-fighting versus terrorism, topics that were handled so much better in Battlestar Galactica, and it was like watching a workshop on how not to script, or how not to frame arguments. Or how not to bother if you’re going to be this bad at it. In the end, I couldn’t help but think of those words from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, “And so, once again, Evil triumphs, because Good is dumb.” That’s exactly what happened here.

This fan of sci-fi/supernatural media sees a bad moon a-risin’ here. There are so many achingly bad TV shows and movies that have come and gone I fear the genre may yet push itself itself back into the ghetto from which it emerged. Worse, I expect all these terrible movies and TV shows will stigmatize the genre and its fans like never before. I hope I’m wrong. But this latest incarnation of V, along with the howlingly awful The Cape, etc., shows the implosion is right on track.