V: The Original Miniseries

V: The Original Miniseries (1983)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Marc Singer, Jenny Sullivan, Robert Englund
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Cast List

In early 1983 posters began appearing across the country advertising an upcoming television special. Some of these were then systematically defaced with large red spray-painted letter "V"s. All this was done to build anticipation for NBC’s new four-hour miniseries, "V," the story of an alien invasion of Earth. Now, after almost twenty years and a fair number of lousy video releases, "V: The Original Miniseries" is now being presented as a full-blown special edition DVD. Due to the extreme length of the feature, and the inclusion of the bonus features, "V" is split across two sides of one double-sided disc. This is actually less bothersome than it may at first seem as the program was originally aired over two nights so the break occurs at a logical point.

The show opens with television cameraman Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) filming the violence in El Salvador when a massive spacecraft suddenly appears and begins drawing nearer. Similar ships arrive worldwide and it isn’t long before the commander of the fleet (Richard Herd) invites the Secretary General of the United Nations to make first contact. Introducing himself as John, the head alien states that their world is in the throes of an environmental catastrophe and that they need Earth’s help to survive. In exchange for helping them manufacture the materials they need, the Visitors, as they call themselves, will share their vast scientific knowledge with the people of Earth.

Donovan and his one-time flame, television reporter Kristine Walsh (Jenny Sullivan), are selected to go aboard the massive mothership hovering over Los Angeles for a guided tour. There they meet the alien second-in-command, Diana (Jane Badler), and get a very cursory look at the spacecraft. Eventually, Donovan sneaks back aboard the ship where he makes a startling discovery and finds himself on the run as the Visitors and their allies try to stop him before he can spread the word.

Soon, the Visitors are seemingly everywhere and factories are churning out the mysterious materials that they need. But a group of scientists find their behavior odd and begin to look for answers. Before long the scientists are themselves being persecuted as the Visitors and their new-found collaborators begin to attack any who seek to learn the truth.

The family of one such scientist, anthropologist Robert Maxwell (Michael Durrell), go into hiding and seek the aide of the Bernstein family. As a Holocaust survivor, Abraham Bernstein (Leonardo Cimino) has seen this type of horrific activity before and is only too eager to help but his own grandson, Daniel (David Packer), is now a member of the newly formed Visitor’s Friends youth movement.

Eventually, the true reason for the arrival of the Visitors is made clear (I won’t spoil it here) and those few humans who aren’t afraid to fight form an organized resistance led by Dr. Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant) and red "V"’s, symbolizing victory, begin to pop up everywhere in defiance of the aliens.

"V" is a none-too-subtle parable for the rise of fascism. Series creator and director Kenneth Johnson came up with the original storyline and it was only after a meeting with television executives that it was decided to depict the fascists as aliens bent on invasion. From their uniforms to their stylized swastika-like emblem, the Visitors are clearly stand-ins for Nazis. And humankind is revealed to be made up of those who are willing to collaborate with the enemy for their own benefit, those who are willing to fight, and the vast majority who just want to ignore the problem and hope it goes away.

From the final go-ahead by the studio brass to the first day of filming, Kenneth Johnson had less than two-and-a-half weeks in which to get the production underway. On top of that, his leading man, Marc Singer, wasn’t cast until two days before principal shooting began. The director’s experience directing for such television programs as "The Incredible Hulk" and that 1970s favorite "The Bionic Women" clearly served him in good stead as this rushed schedule is never apparent in the finished product.

"V" is presented for the first time ever in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. To say that this transfer came as a surprise would be an understatement as "V" has always been seen in the standard 4:3 television format. But Kenneth Johnson had anticipated a potential foreign theatrical release for the program and decided to film it with a <$PS,widescreen> framing in mind. In comparing the full screen and letterbox versions it’s clear that the <$PS,widescreen> transfer omits a bit of top and bottom image for the sake of the wider view but at no time do these shots look forced or out of place. This is the way the director intended the show to look and he personally supervised the transfer process so I’m satisfied that this is indeed the way that "V" was meant to be presented. It’s reassuring that at a time when other major studios are beginning to bend to the will of big retailers and offer <$PS,pan and scan> versions of their films that Warner Brothers would come out of nowhere and offer an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>-only version of a program that everyone initially assumed would be full-frame.

As for the quality of this brand-new video transfer, it’s top-notch considering the low-budget, hurried production and age of the film elements. The image is a tad soft but, as the director points out, many external shots were done with filters. Fortunately, no heavy-handed edge enhancement has been used in an effort to artificially sharpen the picture. There are a few blemishes and nicks evident as well but most major imperfections have been cleaned up and even the heavy grain seen on previous video releases is gone. Colors have been digitally corrected and appear fairly accurate and stable except for a few special effects sequences. Speaking of the effects, if there’s one downside to this new transfer it’s that the quality of the presentation makes the low-budget effects work stand out like a sore thumb. The matte and model work is now glaringly obvious and will likely elicit chuckles from those more accustomed to contemporary special effects work.

Kenneth Johnson was also able to convince Warner Brothers to remix the audio and the result is an English soundtrack that is offered for the first time ever in stereo — much less <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 Surround. Dialogue has remained untouched save for a bit of cleaning up so spoken lines remain firmly anchored to the center speaker. But all sound effects have been redone and now take full advantage of the surround set-up. Music has been broadened a bit as well and now swells up to encompass the full range of speakers where appropriate. There is a bit of deep bass rumbling here and there but no real LFE to speak of. This is a wonderful remix of what was a very dated soundtrack and the end result is a lively and immersive audio mix that belies the age of the production.
A French Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack is also provided and serves as an example of how the original audio mix sounded. Subtitles are also available in English, French, and Spanish.

As if the remastered audio and video weren’t enough, the "V" DVD even offers up a few bonus features. First and foremost is a running commentary with Kenneth Johnson. Keeping up a one-sided discussion for four hours is no mean feat and Johnson has clearly done a lot of work to prepare for this track. Here we are close to twenty years after the fact and he can still relate even the smallest details of the filming of "V." This is a very warm and personal commentary and Johnson is more than willing to give credit to his cast and crew and he even points out what they’re up to today. He also offers very touching eulogies for the cast members that have since passed away, including Dominique Dunne who was originally slated to play Robin Maxwell but was brutally murdered four weeks into production of the series. Johnson also offers in-depth information on the special effects shots that really makes one appreciate how much was accomplished with the minuscule budget allotted the project.

Next up is a 25-minute behind-the-scenes documentary. This featurette was made at the time of the filming and offers interviews with some of the cast as well as very interesting peeks at the filming of the show. What struck me most about this feature was how seriously everyone involved was about "V" and it’s this single-minded dedication to the story being told that made the miniseries such a success.

The final extra on the disc is a very short cast and crew list that offers no biographical information or filmographies. I would have liked to see some of the very original promotional materials used to advertise "V" presented on the DVD as they were quite memorable and were a key ingredient in the success of the miniseries but, given the excellent <$commentary,commentary track> and nice featurette, I really can’t complain.

"V" was a huge hit for NBC and a follow-up miniseries designed to tie up the loose ends and offer a more uplifting conclusion to the story was quickly given the green light. Unfortunately, Kenneth Johnson disapproved of any tampering with the message of "V" and left the project in disgust. As a result, "V: The Final Battle" (I’m ignoring the awful weekly television series that soon followed) lacked the magic of the original creation and, while still entertaining in its own right, should really be considered as a wholly separate story. Not that I would complain should Warner Brothers see fit to release the sequel on DVD but it’s hard to imagine it comparing to this very fine presentation.

"V" stands as something of a pop culture litmus test for my generation and its legions of fans have firmly entrenched it as a true cult classic. Sure, the message of "It can happen here" has been done before and the ham-fisted delivery seems a bit clumsy at times, but it’s the willingness of those involved in creating "V" to take this same message seriously that helps to elevate the program above being just another low-budget sci-fi spectacle. On top of that, "V" is also flat out fun with solid performances and characters that truly benefit from the extended running time provided by the miniseries format.

Kenneth Johnson and the fine folks at Warner Brothers are to be applauded for providing as fine a DVD presentation of "V" as any die-hard fan could have hoped for. The remastered video and audio breathe new life into the production and the inclusion of a few very insightful extras is just icing on the cake. "V: The Original Miniseries" comes very highly recommended.