"What a primitive planet," scoffs the evil lizardess Diana, brushing away a bullet once implanted in her bosom as if it were a bothersome flake of dandruff. Primitive? Who does she think she's calling primitive? If we're so primitive, how did we manage to come up with the pocket fisherman and the smokeless ashtray?
Not to mention television.
But you can't reason with lizards from outer space. They want only one thing: your body. Actually two things: your body as an entre'e and the Earth's entire supply of water for a chaser. On the first weekly episode of the impudently funny, full-throttle NBC action series "V," tonight at 8 on Channel 4, Diana is charged with "crimes against humanity, genocide -- and, oh yes, cannibalism," to which she snaps, "That's a matter of taste."
"V" is the last new series of the fall season to premiere (and some shows have already been canceled), but viewers have had a chance to see 10 hours of it in two previous mini-series productions, recently rerun. When NBC realized it had a potential hit series on its hands, it decided not to save the world from lizard domination but to bring the creatures back each week. It develops that although a "red dust" gas toxic to aliens was invented, an antidote was invented as well. The series looms as high-tech cat and mouse with the people of Earth as the mouse. Whether week after week of advances and setbacks will prove durable in the long run remains to be seen, but in the short run at least, viewers are going to get a tumultuous "V" movie every week.
To their credit, the producers and NBC appear not to have skimped on the production budget or the special effects that help make this sci-fi fantasy not just a ton o' fun but worlds apart from usual weekly fare. In the original mini-series, what you had was not just the usual invasion of the Earth -- this time by supposedly friendly "visitors" from Out There -- but slick pop allegory about the spread of fascism. The visitors used many techniques the Nazis used to insinuate and bully their way to power. Little of the allegorical ambition of the original remains in the weekly show, although the trial of Diana, who is captured while trying to escape as the series begins, is compared to "the Nuremburg trials of World War II."
In addition, there are new villainous earthlings, collaborators and profiteers, to replace those who were previously zerzed and zarzed into atoms. Chief among them is nasty Nathan Bates (Dan Rather look-alike Lane Smith), whose Science Frontiers firm holds the patents on both the red dust and its antidote. It's a dubious tribute to Hollywood writers that they can manage to make a big-businessman a principal villain even in a fantasy about hungry lizards from another world.
"V" solves the problem of attracting women viewers to a sci-fi show (traditionally difficult to do) in part by putting women in key roles, both good guys and bad. Diana, overplayed with tangy relish by Jane Badler, makes a delectable villain. She's a combination of Darth Vader and Alexis Carrington, and like all the visitors, she's really a lizard underneath that fake human skin. Thus does one of the earthlings at one point threaten to turn her into "a pair of shoes."
Diana is certainly the opposite of a pushover. During the opening credits of the premiere, hero Mike Donovan (Marc Singer, lord of the overbite) chases her, tackles her to the ground, wrestles with her, throttles her, and she holds her own. Also she holds a rock, with which she bashes Mike on the head.
Prominent among the good, meanwhile, is another strong woman, Faye Grant as Dr. Julie Parrish, who in the first "V" mini-series got the drop on a flying saucer with only a pistol. And then there's a curious combination of good and bad guy, little Elizabeth, the hybrid offspring of a lizard daddy and a human mommy. "Grandpa, my arms hurts," says the aptly named Liz; when she scratches it, the skin comes off to reveal A HIDEOUS, PULSATING, SCALY LAYER beneath! Then she hies off to a cave full of rattlesnakes for a slurpy metamorphosis in a big gloppy cocoon, a la "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
"She's going through a metabolic change!" gasps Julie. "My God -- into what???" gasps gramps. For the answer: tune in next week. "V" is the first really rousing Saturday afternoon serial to air on a Friday night. "V" is such a strong show, and such an expensive one, that NBC considered putting it in the pivotal time slot of 8 p.m. Sundays. But there were probably some doubts about its potential staying power.
"V" could be said to stand for violence. Some parents may object to the gross-out makeup effects and the abundance of shootings and clobberings. Diana takes at least six bullets in the chest and back as she flees to a waiting shuttle. But the violence is kept cartoonishly preposterous, and is probably less objectionable than the vicious thrill-killing of a show like "Hunter," which is set in a more realistic and identifiable world.
Besides, even though the human race is threatened with extinction (a huge fleet of alien saucers and ships is hiding behind the moon), "V" is all rather merry, an appetizingly delirious prime-time munchie for the snack-hungry residents of a primitive, yes, but still pretty darn cute little planet.