American broadcast television in the 1980s didn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. Shows like Hill Street Blues were outliers, crowded off the schedule by head-hammering episodic series featuring mercenaries (The A-Team), car chases (The Dukes of Hazzard), or soapy melodrama (Dynasty).
On its surface, V appeared to be no different. A two-part miniseries airing on consecutive evenings in May 1983, it told the story of the “Visitors,” gregarious aliens who arrive on Earth in three-mile-long spaceships and greet humans with a bargain: Let the Visitors harvest a chemical needed for their continued survival and receive advanced medical knowledge in return.
As the humanoid aliens reveal themselves to be malevolent lizard-like creatures who prefer to dine on humans rather than prolong their lives, V took on the look and feel of a pulpy sci-fi epic—the kind of thing that could be easily summarized in one Amazing Stories cover image from the 1940s. But writer Kenneth Johnson had something far more subversive in mind. The Visitors were stand-ins for fascists, and V was a cautionary tale about the perils of complacency.
A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Johnson had broken into television with a writing stint on The Six Million Dollar Man, for which he conceived a female counterpart in the form of Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner). Sommers got her own series, The Bionic Woman, which Johnson produced until he was tasked with adapting The Incredible Hulk as a live-action drama.
It was around this time that Johnson became fascinated with a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist group that rises to power in the United States. Johnson reworked the concept into Storm Warnings, a feature-length screenplay; that work landed on the desk of NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, who encouraged Johnson to adapt it into a television miniseries by casting Soviets or the Chinese as the antagonists.
Tartikoff’s request made sense. The miniseries format, which took off in the 1970s with Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, was drawing record numbers of viewers. The Thorn Birds, about a priest who is tempted to break his vow of celibacy by a younger woman, was a hit; so was Shogun, about a 17th century man who shipwrecks in Japan and becomes a pawn in a war between samurai. (Both starred Richard Chamberlain.) Storm Warnings had an appropriately sprawling narrative with multiple characters, a feat of creative engineering Johnson was encouraged to use after reading War and Peace.
But the writer was less enthused about casting a foreign superpower as a rival. Tartikoff then suggested aliens, the allegorical turf of Rod Serling that had fueled many a socially-conscious episode of The Twilight Zone. Johnson later told Starlog he “ran screaming from the room” at the suggestion, but eventually warmed to it. Storm Warnings became V: NBC committed $13 million to produce the four-hour drama.
While a generous budget for television, the scope of Johnson’s idea taxed every available dollar. A 60-foot-long model of one of the Visitor ships was built; a giant hangar intended to depict the inside was made to scale, albeit cut in half; matte effects, with the ships laid over a background painting, depicted their unsettling arrival over Earth’s major cities. A feature with those same ambitions might take months of pre-production planning: Johnson got three weeks.
Whatever was lacking in the special effects and costumes—Johnson opted for a regal, military-inspired garb for his aliens that hasn’t aged well—never diluted the real attraction of V. Following a television cameraman (Marc Singer) and a botanist (Faye Grant) as they grow suspicious of the true intentions of the Visitors, the series quickly turns into an examination of what happens when a population is seduced by the promise of a helping hand. Celebrities and world leaders endorse the Visitors; scientists questioning their motives are corralled and delivered to ships for “re-education.” By the time their foot soldier Diana (Jane Badler) is seen devouring a guinea pig, Singer and his cohorts have decided to form a resistance to push back against being turned into alien kibble. For viewers who didn’t care for the subtext, there was still the birth of a lizard baby to talk about with coworkers and friends the next morning.
In a departure from conventional advertising, NBC decided to take a conservative approach with V. Posters in subway stations and bus stops depicted illustrations of the Visitors in propaganda-style posters; later, a “V” would be spray-painted over the ads. There was never any mention of the series.
The premiere of V drew a 40 share, which meant 40 percent of all households watching television at that hour were watching the lizard people establish their dominance on Earth. Tartikoff even granted Johnson the ability to run 15 minutes past the allotted two-hour time slot, cutting into local newscasts. On night two, V maintained much of that audience.
What might have turned out to be a lucrative franchise for NBC quickly lost its way. Tartikoff wanted Johnson to oversee a weekly drama continuing the story of the resistance while ramping up their licensing efforts; Johnson argued that the premise would be too expensive for the format and suggested a two-hour movie air every month or two instead.
In the end, neither quite got their wish. Another miniseries, V: The Final Battle, aired in 1984, but Johnson disowned it after extensive rewrites. V: The Series followed, but lasted just one season. Johnson lamented that the network had taken his cautionary tale and turned it into a spectacle, with gunfights and lizard people eating small animals taking the place of the allegory.
V was revived by ABC in 2009, but low ratings led to a quick demise after two seasons. Other shows and movies like 1996’s Independence Day had borrowed heavily from Johnson, wearing out the premise. In 2007, Johnson published V: The Second Generation, a novel based on one of his follow-up scripts.
The miniseries format would continue throughout the 1980s and 1990s before serialized dramas with shortened seasons edged them off television schedules. Like The Thorn Birds, V remains one of the most well-remembered entries in the medium, due in no small part to Johnson’s nods to levity. When the aliens arrive, a high school band plays the Star Wars theme.