Friday, November 27, 2009

V for Vexation

It may seem strange I’m reviewing a pop culture event on a science blog, but it actually isn’t, and I’ll explain why.

First, a little background: I grew up with the original V. My Dad was a big fan of the concept of the television miniseries and felt that it could tell stories in a big way that a regular series couldn’t. My older brother and I had all of the minis, often on original VHS (with the tang commercials intact!) and we loved to curl up at Christmas and watch our parents’ old tapes of Shogun, V, Marco Polo (my personal favorite!). In fact, whenever I go home there is a Christmas tradition at our house was to watch all ten hours of Shaka Zulu.

I recently watched the original V again for the first time since age 12, and I was expecting a cheesefest like the original ugh-inducing Battlestar: Galactica. I was actually surprised at how truly scary, smart and subtle it was; it was four hours long, but it felt much less because of how economical and fast-moving the plot was. Mark Singer was Harrison Ford-esque in his breezy, cool-guy charm, and I always liked how the blonde female resistance leader was disabled and walked with a cane as opposed to being the physically perfect leading lady. What was most startling was how, despite the fact she stole the show and became symbolic of the series, Jane Badler’s Diana was actually only in four or five scenes in the original V. I have no idea why Jane Badler didn’t become more famous than she actually did, as she was undoubtedly the breakout actor.

The original V had a real sense of creeping fear. The scenes where the aliens were revealed was a downright horrifying revelation. And the speed and ease with which the alien Visitors took over Earth was chilling.

In many ways, the original V was a disturbing reminder of what a different country we were in 1982. For instance, the “Jews” of the original V were scientists, and viewing scientists as valuable and sympathetic feels like an alien planet compared to an America that thrives on slamming intellectuals and “academic elites.” This was never as true in the past as it is now, where entire segments of discourse (e.g. the Global Warming debate) are centered around telling those smarty-pants pointy-heads to shut up, and an entire demographic can be appealed to with political theater about “regular guys” that stand up to “self-proclaimed experts.”

In addition, one of the main heroes included a Mexican border hopper who is not only shown as clever, sympathetic and resourceful (and even heroic, standing up to alien torture without breaking) but who actually uses his skills to benefit the other characters. I had forgotten this and I was nothing short of totally blindsided, especially in today’s absolutely poisoned political climate, where expressing sympathy for Mexican immigrants is beyond the pale of the arbitrarily acceptable window of debate. Personally, I think regardless of race, language or place of birth, anyone that is willing to work hard and get an education deserves to be here, and a whole lot of “natural born Americans” that jam firecrackers up the assholes of cats don’t.

What’s more, the Visitors are not shown as genetically evil…something a lesser alien invasion story would have done - as Independence Day, a rip-off of the original V in every way except the ones that matter (and why that slow-witted effects film has its defenders downright baffles me). A few of them were presented as heroic and willing to help earthlings, a great concession to the complexity of thinking, moral beings.

As for the current series…

The current V is a critique of the Obama administration. I have no idea why that is even in doubt at all, since it’s the only way for it to have anything like coherent metaphoric power, with a charismatic leader (played, incidentally, by Monica Baccarin, and here, her inability to deliver dialogue like a human being is actually an advantage!). The clincher that made this inarguable was the out-of-left-field and explicit use of “universal health care” as the spookiest word imaginable.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a decent social critique, particularly of a big-time social phenomenon like the current national direction. The problem is not their target but the way they go about it and the images they invoke.

In the original V, those that doubted the sincerity of the Visitors were smart, skeptical people that asked more questions than average. Those that doubted the sincerity of the Visitors in the new version are cranks and crackpots and conspiracy theorists…who we are meant to empathize with!

I’m serious! I finally only realized what it was that troubled me about the current series when the new V did an episode about secret evil chemicals placed into tampered flu vaccines. Let me repeat that: the episode’s dramatic power comes from playing on fears about the safety of vaccination. This, friends, is what would happen if that guy on your street that is always yelling things finally got to executive produce a television series.

There was even a scene where the FBI agent played by Juliet from Lost decides to go through every listing for every message ever sent to law enforcement about UFOs or aliens pretending to be human. The series ought to be entitled “V: We Told You So!” There was even one character that is a scruffy, dysfunctional, indigent loner meant to appeal to the demographic that padlocks their refrigerators, which judging by the popularity of the new series is a big segment of the audience.

With my astonishing powers of foresight, allow me to predict the plot of the next few episodes:

1) The Visitors have been sending people tormenting radio messages through dental fillings.

2) Floridation of the water supply is revealed to be a Visitor plot.

3) The Visitors create a ray that plants mind-control compulsions via every fifth word in advertising. Only tinfoil can deflect the rays.

Now does everyone understand why my review of the new V belongs on a science and rationalism blog? This is a series about the schizophrenic crank view of reality.

There are many valid reasons to be skeptical about President Obama. However, this series doesn’t go for that, but instead appeals to conspiratorial themes of hidden evil and infiltration, with anxieties about charismatic leaders with secret, hidden motives. This is particularly relevant because Obama attracts much, much more than his fair share of crank theories. Whether one agrees with Obama’s policies or not, he was inarguably born an American citizen. One of the major plot points of the new V concerns itself with a group of “Peace Ambassadors.” Those with poor memories of the 2008 elections may not remember a sinister (and of course, untrue) rumor that Obama wanted to create a civilian peace organization that conspiracy theorists saw as a modern Gestapo. The fact that the rumors were untrue and the domestic organization never happened and never was going to happen did little to end the panic among the schizos (it never is, is it?).

On a final note, here’s the one thing that I definitely liked about the new V: the way it handled, intelligently, the way the television news functions. There was a great quote from the Devil’s Dictionary: “the media is always run by the people whose political views you don’t agree with.” I always laughed at that. There’s no way the press could have a liberal and conservative slant simultaneously. Nonetheless, it is obvious there is great suspicion of the journalistic profession. What V seems to argue is that media bias is due to careerism. It’s much easier to advance yourself by sucking up to powerful people. The single most sympathetic and intriguing character was Party of Five’s Scott Wolf (all growed up!) and his conflict between his journalistic instincts and his ambition.

Gah. I just did a post that touched on politics. I feel...dirty inside, in a way no soap can clean. I swear, I promise, guys, I'll do a dozen posts on minor chemical elements or insects to make up for this.

On Another Note...Marco Polo

The story of Marco Polo always captured my imagination. He lived the adventure most merely dream about, traveling to Asia and China during the age of the Great Khan.

What is often forgotten about the story of Marco Polo is that skepticism about it is nothing new. Indeed, most people assumed he was a liar for the simple reason that his message was that, in the 12th Century, European civilization was downright second-rate, compared to places like China that had paper money and indoor plumbing. In other words, most Europeans just assumed he was a liar and read the book because they liked the adventure and the romance.

More modern critics have brought out a the old claim that Marco Polo might have been lying based on very basic things about China and Chinese culture that Polo just didn't mention. For instance, tea drinking, women's foot binding, and the Great Wall of China. Not to mention that no Chinese records mention him.

As for why Marco Polo could have spent years in China but never mentioned these things...

Tea drinking, at least at the time in question, was not universal in Chinese culture, and started in the southern regions. As Polo's visits were mostly to the northern part of the country, he could have gone for quite some time without seeing any tea.

As for women's foot binding, it was only practiced by upper class women, who were frequently kept at home and out of sight from visiting men, especially foreigners.

And as for the Great the 13th Century, there was very little that was "Great" about it, since much of it had fallen into disrepair. In fact, the most famous and visible parts of the Great Wall seen today were portions rebuilt in the 16th Century.

As for why no Chinese records mention him...okay, obviously Marco Polo may have exaggerated how important he was to Kublai Khan. This is human nature. I had a friend that interned at a Hollywood agency and loved to talk about his best buddy Samuel L. Jackson. Do I doubt that he ever met Samuel L. Jackson and went to Los Angeles? No. But I doubt Samuel L. Jackson will remember him as clearly!

1 comment:

  1. I never had much interest in watch this "updated" version of "V" before reading this. I have even less interest now. I'll still continue reading your work, though.