V - Alien visitors speak with forked tongue

A remake of the Eighties cult classic, V, taps into a growing unease in US society and has been interpreted as a barbed commentary on Barack Obama. Sarah Hughes recommends this clever sci-fi reboot
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The Independent Culture

Imagine a world where a beautiful, charming politician promises an embattled, debt-ridden nation that they can lead them to a promised land of hope and universal healthcare. All they have to do is simply believe.

No, we're not talking about President Barack Obama's election campaign, but rather about America's latest sci-fi drama, V, a remake of the Eighties cult classic in which the deceptive alien forces seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to the current White House incumbent.

Anna, the visitor's leader, is beautiful, charming and literally out of this world. When she arrives on Earth it is with a message of peace, hope and medical innovation. Within months the press has fallen over themselves to accommodate her every whim, while politicians queue up to fawn over her and the public seemingly accepts her ideas en masse. Few bother to question her motives. After all, such a charismatic person couldn't possibly be lying could she?

The answer, as a generation of children terrified by the original with its giant lizards, alien births and scenes of beautiful women chowing down on guinea pigs could tell you is, don't be silly, of course she could.

But while the original was interpreted as, variously, a parable about the dangers of fascism and a take on Cold War "reds under the beds" paranoia, the remake has been accused of hitting far closer to home. When the series began in the US the Chicago Tribune called it "a barbed commentary on Obamamania that will infuriate the President's supporters and delight his detractors", while Slate's Troy Patterson argued that "it's possible to read V as an allegory hostile to President Obama and sympathetic with the birthers and other nutcases who believe him to be a wolf in sheep's clothing."

Yet how valid was such a take? The show's producers, seemingly surprised by the kerfuffle, insisted that any comparisons were unintentional, with the show's executive producer Scott Peters claiming in August that "we're not looking to put any sort of agenda on to the table... shows are open to interpretation, people bring subjective thoughts to it, but there is no particular agenda."

It's also arguable that like the compelling and depressing Battlestar Galactica remake, which could be read as an eviscerating attack on US involvement in Iraq, what V is offering isn't so much a critique on President Obama as a take on life in a post-9/11 world.

"I think that while the original show definitely had a Cold War feel to it, this version is definitely more concerned with the anxiety of living right now," says Scott Wolf, who plays the show's weaselly, ambitious TV anchor Chad Decker. "A great deal of science fiction is concerned with the enemy within and I think V taps into that classic sense of paranoia, that feeling of can you really trust anyone? That idea that the person next to you, even the person you know best in the world, might not be who they seem. And, after 9/11, that anxiety is coupled with a desire to believe that everything will be all right. I think that's very important, people believe Anna and the Visitors because they want to convince themselves that it's all okay."

Not that everyone in the show is acting with the most altruistic of motives, as Wolf readily acknowledges. "I think that's also a different element that this remake brings," he says. "This version is more ambivalent, it's not a straightforward case of right and wrong. So when Chad basically supports Anna for the good of his career it might infuriate or enrage viewers, but it's also realistic. Not everyone is going to stand up in a situation like this, plenty of people are going to welcome these guys as well."

Nor is Chad the only character in this remake to have a certain ambiguity of motive. Heroic priest, Father Jack Landry (played by Joel Gretsch), is initially driven to oppose the Visitors not because he feels that their motives are wrong, but because their very existence threatens his faith in God, while laid-back family man Ryan Nichols (Morris Chestnut) is hiding a very dark secret indeed.

"I think this remake does ask more questions than the original," says Gretsch. "It's a world where no one is sure what side anyone is on, who you can really trust and even the audience shouldn't be completely sure about that. Right now I might think that Father Jack's a good guy, but who knows how that's going to turn out..."

Gretsch is right to believe that no character is entirely good, after all even beautiful lead villainess Anna has her good points, as the actress who plays her, Firefly's Morena Baccarin, has pointed out. "She's kind of deliciously evil, a character whom I hope people can't help but follow and be enticed by," Baccarin told a US website in October. "She's nurturing and what she's selling is great: healthcare, technological advances, things that humans in need of to further society. And the Visitors themselves are a really prim and proper people, I think it's hard to say no to them."

It is this ambivalence surrounding the characters and their motives, a sense that no one is entirely good or entirely bad, that marks V out as part of the new breed of sci-fi "reimaginings", in which sometimes hokey old favourites are remade as altogether darker fables for our more cynical times. Thus where the original Battlestar Galactica was a rather camp space opera renowned more for its wobbly sets then its fine acting, the new version was a critically acclaimed drama populated entirely by flawed individuals who were seemingly doomed to repeat their mistakes to (and in) infinity.

Similarly the Russell T Davies Doctor Who reboot elevated the show beyond "monster of the week" status to give us not only a more fully rounded Doctor but also an overarching mythology, which tied those weekly monsters into a coherent plot, and even the recent Day of the Triffids remake, while ridiculously over-the-top, had a creeping sense that anyone could turn on anyone else at any moment.

That sense that no one is to be trusted is a key component of these reimaginings and also V's greatest strength. From the angry talk-show host proclaiming that universal healthcare is a communist plot against America to the congresswoman calling for a return to McCarthyite investigations of "anti-American" politicians, from the white supremacists charged with making death threats against a presidential candidate to the recent allegations of desperate housewives turned Jihad Janes, this is a country in which the fear of the other is looming increasing large.

And while those involved with it continue to skirt controversy by insisting it's simply a show about alien invasion – as former Lost star Elizabeth Mitchell, who plays the show's heroine tough- talking FBI agent Erica Evans, claims, merely "good popcorn television" – it's also true that, whether intentionally or otherwise, V is tapping into a growing unease within US society. It's that prescience, the way in which V captures our paranoid times and reflects them back at us, which elevates it above the competition, turning from a show that you might think about catching to one that you should make an effort to watch.

'V' starts on Sci-Fi at 10pm on 13 April