Tuesday 24 June 2008

V: The Second Generation

Be warned - spoilers! When I was a little 'un back in the 80s, occasionally a show would come along that saw me diving behind the sofa or hiding under a cushion. The three series of V had me bolting for my hidey-holes on many, many occasions. Vicious, nasty baddies like Diana (Jane Badler, pictured) I could handle. Swallowing rodents, little birds and guinea pigs? No problem. The reptilian faces hiding behind a human mask weren't an issue either. Oh no, for me it was those hideous eyes. They were the stuff of many a childhood nightmare, but I digress. V told the story of a creeping take over by fascist lizards from outer space. They claimed to come in peace but really the Visitors wanted to take our water and reduce the human race to soldiers, chattel or ... food. But us humans weren't going to take this lying down. A resistance movement emerged to harass and eventually overthrow the Visitors' villainous tyranny.

But what if that hadn't happened? What if our resistance hadn't proven strong enough and the Visitors' occupation had continued through to the present day? This is the premise of Kenneth Johnson's V: The Second Generation. Johnson was the creator and executive producer of V: The Miniseries, which ended with Julie and Elias, two resistance leaders, sending a distress call out into space in the hope of receiving aid from the Visitors' enemy. This is where Johnson's novel picks up the story, disregarding the events of V: The Final Battle and the one season TV series.

Set in the present day the Visitors have now sucked up half the world's oceans while, incredibly, still affecting to be our friends. The world's gullible populace appear - in the main - to really believe the water is being taken for purification before being returned to us. But not everyone. The resistance continues to eke out a twilight existence as a victim of brutal repression and mass apathy. In short, things look hopeless. Diana, now promoted to commandant of the Earth, has the world in her scaly grip and it looks as though nothing will loosen it. Until help arrives.

The Zdenti are a race of humanoids evolved from insects who've fought the Visitors, and won. From across the stars they've sent a trio of warriors to scope out the Visitors' nefarious schemes and link up with the humans. During the course of many a confrontation they make contact with the resistance, but time is of the essence. The Leader, the, erm ... Visitors' leader, sends Jeremy, a special envoy to Earth with new water scooping technologies that would drain the remaining oceans in a matter of weeks. The Leader needs the water to fuel the upcoming offensive against the Zdenti. Will the resistance and their allies thwart the leaders plans, save the Earth, return the water and free the millions suspended in stasis?

It's hard to know if fans or casual readers will care that much by the end. I'm afraid to say V: The Second Generation is just awful. It's riddled with inconsistencies, absurd plotting, simplistic story lines and a narrative so wooden you can almost hear it creeking. But that's just the start of it. There are two things that really annoyed me about the book.

First, there's the science. I like my science fiction to be plausible, biologically, sociologically and technologically speaking. For example, Star Trek from The Next Generation onwards had enough techno-babble and cod knowledge of physics to make warp drives, transporters, phasers etc. to appear convincing. What let the show down were utterly rubbish aliens all cut from the same essentialist cloth - Cardassians were sneaky, Vulcans logical, Ferengi greedy and Klingons warlike. The Visitors at least were slightly more credible - at least they were alien, even if they are nothing more than lizards. And I'm not entirely convinced a sophisticated space-faring species would succumb to fascism. But at least there was variation between Visitor characters and no essential psychological differences between them and the humans.

That's where the plus points end. The worst piece of scientific illiteracy in The Second Generation (and something the original series was guilty of) is the existence of cross-breed children. Yes, that right. We might not be able to cross breed cats with iguanas on this world, but humans and alien reptiles from another star? No problem! (It's also worth observing that while humans and visitors happily have relationships, Johnson cannot quite bring himself to allow for interracial liasons between human characters). To add insult to injury, the Zdenti are very poorly conceived. Baring in mind they are a race evolved from insects, apart from violet eyes, concealed probosci and an all over sheen they look exactly like us! This was either a case of highly unlikely parallel evolution or Johnson's trying to assure the studio it won't cost too much to fix up the new aliens. Whatever, it's pretty dumb.

But really, this is nothing compared to the biggest problem with this book. V: The Second Generation is crassly sexist. There are a lot of female characters here, but nearly all of them fall either into the categories of 'bitch' or 'weak'. Diana obviously belongs to the former, but that is what made the character almost iconic in the first place. The problem is Diana forms the template for all the the other morally ambiguous women in the book. Without exception, the bitches are upwardly mobile or at the top of their game. The fighter pilot, the informer, and the 'team mate' (Hitler Youth analogue for young humans) are without scruple and will do anything to improve their influence, careers and status. To top it off The Leader has inexplicably changed sex between the miniseries and the book, and is not averse to being a bit nasty. So let this be a warning to you - when women have power expect nothing but tyranny!

Julie, on the other hand, is the leader of the resistance and, as a consequence, someone you would reasonably expect to be a strong character. But from time to time we are shown her breaking down under the burden of her responsibilities. This isn't a bad thing in itself, but when you're never shown resistance men having these moments the sexism alarm bells start ringing. Only three female characters fall through this gap - Ruby, Julie's 12 year old half-breed adopted daughter and the two female Zdenti agents. However, all are under the close supervision of men - the aliens by their commander and Ruby by Nathan, a team mate-turned-resistance member and by Donovan, the resistance hero of old. It's when these women stray from their supervising males that they get into trouble.

V: The Second Generation is a total mess. Even if it wasn't hobbled by bad science and a stunted view of women the book would still be in deep trouble. Not only are the sub-plots very simple and compare unfavourably with the complex story lines of contemporary science fiction, the final phase of the book comes straight out of the Independence Day school of 'smash the baddies' plans. You can get away with this in a B Movie like ID4, but not in an ostensibly serious slice of science fiction.

Apparently it looks as though the book will be adapted for television next year and reportedly most of the original cast are interested in reprising their roles. If this is the case, someone needs to do a steam clean of Johnson's novel before it enters into production. It's way too crude and simplistic for today's audience as it stands. But I'm still not convinced a "reimagining" of V is needed. Isn't it sometimes best for things that happened in the 80s to stay in the 80s?


Jim Jepps said...

I didn't read it all because of the spoilers warning... so this might be totally off topic or disagree/agree with you without me knowing - apologies if so.

OK - the thing I liked about V, despite its obvious idiocy, was that the aliens were different from each other, they were individuals, and that you had the quislings among the humans that allowed the occupation to function and even tried to give it some sort of ideological support.

So even though the show obviously sided with the resistance you could see why people wanted an easy life or even sided with the occupiers. In that sense it should be required viewing now as an understanding of how even when a nation is oppressed there are those who are complicit and benefit from that oppression.

I also liked it when they ripped their faces off. That was cool.

Unknown said...

Diana can invade me any day of the week. I liked V because of its anti-fascist resistance story but it was light TV sci fi which makes the book sound more dissapointing, in a book you have no producer demanding more car chases etc (well an editor but, budget is not a constraint on the scope of imagination) so a shame. A new version could be intriguing if they played alien occupation as the widening authoritarianism of the war on terror, with the resistance hunted as terrorists (24 reversed, state agents=alien stooges) even maybe mid east terror groups helping train US resistance forces. But y'know, with lasers!

Phil said...

Jim, yes, that's the good thing about V. When I was a kid all the crap thrown at me - He-Man, Transformers, Battle of the Planets, A-Team, etc, were all very black and white. So to watch a show where not all of the nasty monsters were, well, nasty, was a bit of a revelation.

Rick, despite Kenneth Johnson's sins - and believe me, he commits plenty in the novel - he has said V feels in step with the times again. It's all there, you're either with us or against us, references to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, absurd media apologetics for Visitor activity.

As I've said before, a lot of 80s sci-fi is zeitgeisty, which is why its coming back.

Anglonoel said...

Is this where upcoming bye-election candidate David Icke got his ideas about alien lizards running Earth?

Just a thought.

Anglonoel said...

Plus in real life the aliens would find it hard to take Earth's water over with the Mail/Telegraph/Express & Murdoch papers on their backs: "They say it's for 'purification'...BUT ISN'T IT JUST BACK-DOOR NATIONALISATION?(and causes cancer, say experts.)"

Phil said...

Nah, as soon as the aliens arrive Murdoch will be their biggest cheerleaders, even if they turn out to be Posadas-style lefties in flying saucers. He must be seen to be on the winning team regardless of principle.

gray said...

I pretty much guess Icke did get the shapeshifting aliens from V.

I like the Posadist strain in your thinking Phil that aliens won't be fascists! :-)

I certainly won't be assed to read the book or see it if a series is made. V was just good as it was.

Anonymous said...

I loved V, though I don't know if we need another Generation. It was on at the same time as the Olympics in 1984.

I also love Star trek;The Nest Generation. One of my favourite telly programmes, it is so predictable.

Foxessa said...

Kinda sounds like what Battlestar Galactica turned into.

And why I quit watching after season 2. It was too preposterous, and not even interesting either.

Love, C.

Phil said...

You're missing out, C. Battlestar is still entertaining, though I'm not sure about all the pseudo-mystical crap myself!

Ken said...

I enjoyed the first series or so of V at the time. It was quite popular. I overheard two young women talking about the hybrid birth scene on the Tube: 'And then her waters broke, and they were green - pretty strong!' (At least, I hope that's what they were talking about.)

But apart from the human-alien hybrid absurdity, the worst disbelief-suspension-snapper was that the Visitors wanted to take water from Earth. There's more water (ice) on Callisto than on Earth!

Jim Jepps said...

Oh God - don't remind me of the birth! When the lizard climbs out of her... her... special areas... Christ that was funny!

Thinking back that might indicate I have a sick sense of humour.

Phil said...

That got me too, Ken. Surely it would have been more cost-effective for the Visitors to suck up the massive quantities of water ice locked up in the Oort cloud. But remember, theirs is a fascist society so not prone to the most rational of decisions.

And the baby has to be the most fantastically funny moment in TV sci-fi ever, even better than the best Red Dwarf episodes. Was I alone in finding the little critter cuter than the human-looking baby?

Anonymous said...

I was scared - remember Elizabeth's tongue came out and it was a lizard's tongue. We talked about it for days at school and we had a teacher called Diana who we said ate hamsters! We scared ourselves talking like that, you know you never know if visitors are really here or not and could be a Maths teacher at St Augustines in Edinburgh - you just never know.


Phil said...

It saddens me Cat that V is almost completely unknown to those young 'uns without a specialist interest in sci-fi. When I was on the stall with a comrade in his late teens yesterday we somehow got on the topic and he'd never heard of it. Talk about feeling old ... and I'm only 31!!!!