V (1983): It can happen here

The popular 1983 SF miniseries V begins with a solemn and genuine tribute: “To the heroism of the Resistance Fighters – past, present, and future – this work is respectfully dedicated.”[i] Kenneth Johnson, a successful TV writer and producer working in several genres wanted to adopt Sinclair Lewis’ classic 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here about a fascist takeover in the United States for television. Johnson ultimately decided SF was an effective genre with which to explore the novel’s treatment of fascism, totalitarianism, systemic oppression, civil rights, and failing democracy.[ii] Johnson’s two-part series portrays the sudden arrival of ostensibly helpful humanoid aliens known as the “Visitors” who slowly assume control over democratic institutions and media to conceal their true purpose – harvesting humanity for food and resources. In time, the Visitors are unmasked as fascist bipedal lizards posing as humans, manipulating us into enabling our own genocide. The Visitors wear Nazi-like uniforms bearing a variation of the swastika and swear loyalty to a charismatic “leader” on their home planet. Like the Nazis, the Visitors are also plagued by vicious internal rivalries leading to the adoption of the most radical measures possible. Kenneth Johnson’s V is a thinly disguised classic World War II story featuring Nazis, collaborators, and resistance fighters engaged in an existential war for the planet. “The Nazis showed us one face for a while and then they took it off and showed us their real faces – metaphorically speaking,” Johnson explained.[iii] In V the historical context of fascism and genocide is integral to the story. Johnson carefully researched the history of the Third Reich and the resistance, Triumph of the Will, and Night and Fog in his imagining: “All of them contributed ideas, visuals, characters and tonal concepts to V.”[iv]

The Visitors offer peace and friendship, but their true purpose is genocide.

V, like the popular miniseries Holocaust produced a few years earlier, focuses on how families cope with an emerging crisis. The Bernstein family includes three generations under one roof, each of which have a different reaction to the Visitors. Abraham Bernstein (Leonard Cimino) is a Holocaust survivor who is immediately suspicious of the Visitors’ rhetoric, promises, and polished demeanor; his grandson Daniel (David Packer), a socially awkward outcast, eagerly joins the Friends of the Visitors, a veritable Visitor Youth which evolves into an auxiliary police force comprised of collaborator humans; Stanley (George Morfogen) and Lynn Bernstein (Bonnie Bartlett), Daniel’s parents, do not share Abraham’s cynicism or Daniel’s enthusiasm. They muddle along until the danger is too great to ignore. Johnson’s characters are complex and evince realistic arcs. There are “good Visitors,” “bad humans,” and a multitude of others feeling their way through the darkness, but the strongest characters invoke history and experience to light the way. After the Visitors designate scientists an enemy within, presumably because they can discover the truth about the Visitor’s reptilian nature, most people turn against scientists and their families, rounding them up for an uncertain fate. After the Visitors demand humans “register” scientists in a database, Stanley brushes it off, “This will pass.”[v] Abraham counters, “That’s what I said in Berlin.” Abraham sees history repeating itself. When scientists crucial to the resistance seek shelter with the Bernsteins, Stanley balks, understandably fearful of the consequences, but Abraham demands they hide them. Stanley is weary of hearing his father’s Holocaust story once more, but Abraham reveals what he has hidden from his son for decades:

Stanley: I know the story!

Abraham: No, you don’t! You don’t. Your mother, b’shalom [In peace] . . . .Your mother didn’t have a heart attack in the boxcar. She made it with me, to the camp. I can still see her, standing naked in the freezing cold. Her beautiful black hair was gone. They’d shaved her head. I can still see her waving to me as they marched her off to the showers – the showers with no water. Perhaps, if somebody had given us a place to hide . . . don’t you see, Stanley! They have to stay. Or else, we haven’t learned a thing.[vi] 

Abraham Bernstein is skeptical of the visitors and uses historical memory as a weapon.

When Abraham encounters children defacing a Visitor propaganda poster, he decides to teach them what he learned as a young man and sprays a “V” for victory.[vii]

            The primary villain in V is the beautiful and sinister Diana (Jane Badler), an ambitious scientist in her own right who, like Josef Mengele, is interested in performing medical experiments on captured humans. Diana resents serving under John (Richard Herd), signifying one of many rifts in the Visitors’ command structure. As the Visitors’ genocidal plan approaches fruition, dissenters emerge and make common cause with the human resistance led by biologist Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant), who Johnson modeled after French resistance fighter Andrea Dijon, and Mike Donavan (Marc Singer), a TV cameraman. Donavan asks Martin (Frank Bashmore), a pro-human Visitor how his “Great Leader” came to power. Martin responds with a familiar history lesson: “Circumstances. Promises. Financial backing. A doctrine that appealed to the unthinking. Assurances that he, as their leader, would bring them to greatness. Not enough of us spoke out to question him, or even took him seriously, until it was too late. It’s happened here on your planet, hasn’t it?”[viii]

Like the Third Reich, the Visitors contend with bitter infighting.

In a stunning scene revealing the Visitors’ plans to harvest people, Martin shows Donovan an immense storage room filled with humans in suspended animation. Johnson included the scene to convey the Visitors’ “fixation on the use of human beings reduced to cattle, as sources of meat and leather” which is a “Holocaust derived Gothic artifact.”[ix]

Johnson believed it was as important to address humanity’s failings in this SF story as it was the malevolent intent of the Visitors – our opportunism, inaction, and outright collaboration with evil. Near the end of part two, Abraham dies because of his own grandson’s betrayal, but he issued a call to arms for the resistance: “We must fight this darkness that threatens to engulf us.”[x] The original V miniseries is an exciting SF story imagining a totalitarian civilization invading Earth. The same “circumstances” which gave rise to Hitler occurred on Sirius 4, the Visitor’s home planet. Earth is just one victim of the Great Leader’s quest for Lebensraum.  

[i] V, The Original Miniseries, Part I, written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, NBC, May 1, 1983, DVD.

[ii] Dan Copp, Fascist Lizards from Outer Space: The Politics, Literary Influences and Cultural History of Kenneth Johnson’s V (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2017), 7.

[iii] Copp, 34.

[iv] Copp, 161-62.

[v] V, The Original Miniseries, Part I.

[vi] Quoted in Copp, 37.

[vii] Kenneth Johnson noted that Morse code for V is dot dot dot dash, a reference to the BBC using the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony when broadcasting to European resistance movements. Copp, 28. 

[viii] V, The Original Miniseries, Part II, written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, NBC, May 2, 1983, DVD.

[ix] John Edgar Browning, “Holocaust-as Horror, Science Fiction and the ‘Look’ of the ‘Real/Reel’ in V (1983)” in Judith B. Kerman and John Edgar Browning, eds. The Fantastic in Holocaust Literature and Film: Critical Perspectives (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2015), 168.

[x] V, The Original Miniseries, Part II.

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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