It’s ‘V’ Day for Sci-fi Fans
VANCOUVER, B.C. - Morena Baccarin, stunning in a tailored gray suit, has lined up a group of identically clad aides on her spaceship, demanding to know which of them is a traitor.
Except that despite appearances, none of them is actually human: They are reptilian-skinned alien "'visitors" with a veneer of attractive flesh. And the spaceship doesn't exist. The actors are standing in front of a 112-foot-long "green screen," peering occasionally at a nearby monitor that displays how the vessel will be digitally inserted behind them.
"You feel like you're floating a little bit," she says during a break between scenes. "It gives you a headache after a while, staring at that green."
She's not the only one with a headache. ABC's 'V', premiering Tuesday night (8 ET/PT) as a four-week event, with nine more episodes to come later, is a remake of a 1980s pop-culture touchstone. Like others ("Bionic Woman", this fall's "Eastwick"), it's not without behind-the-scenes hiccups.
The on-screen drama is about an outwardly benevolent band of creatures who venture from spaceships hovering over 29 world cities, promising to trade technology for water. But their real motives are far more sinister.
Some welcome their arrival, but the suspicious form a resistance movement, which leads the visitors' charismatic leader, Anna (Baccarin), to enlist an ambitious TV reporter (Scott Wolf) as a propaganda tool.
On their case is FBI agent Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell), a single mom whose teen son, Tyler (Logan Huffman), is enthralled by them. The resistors' ranks include a priest (Joel Gretsch) and a Wall Street whiz (Morris Chestnut).
The show, set in New York City, is based on a smash NBC miniseries that drew 40% of the TV audience when it first aired in May 1983, and nearly as many for its sequel a year later.
Like other remakes, the title "has a lot of marquee value; certainly a lot of people in my generation remember it fondly," writer and executive producer Scott Peters says, even if their recall is limited to signature moments: the aliens consuming rodents; a human mother giving birth to a forked-tongued reptilian baby.
But unlike many alien sagas since then, from "Independence Day" to ABC's short-lived "Invasion," ''we don't have aliens landing with giant phasers blowing things up," Wolf says. "We have aliens landing with this incredibly loving posture, saying, 'We're here to help.' Instead of destruction, it's full of possibilities."
The original series was a thinly veiled allegory of the Nazis' takeover of Germany, down to the jackbooted visitors who sought to eat the Earth's population until a band of humans intervened, aided by a few alien turncoats.
The 'lemming mentality'
The new version represents a post-9/11 worldview, against the backdrop of wars, an economic meltdown and enemies hidden in plain sight.
"There's a lot of bad news out there and it's really depressing," Peters says. "I thought it was a tremendous wish-fulfillment fantasy, if there was some deity that said, 'Look around, everything's going wrong, and we're going to fix it for you.'
"There's a lemming mentality that goes on in our humanity, and the idea of blind de'votion, to me, is really fascinating. If you don't ask questions about things you ha'V'e faith in, it could wind up coming back to bite you."
Contemporary viewers may have differing interpretations, as do the show's stars. Mitchell sees 'V"s as a religious cult; Wolf believes they represent terrorists.
Others on both sides of the political spectrum may point to the visitors' explicit promises of hope, change and universal health care as a pointed reference to pledges of the Obama administration. But Peters says the show has been in the works since 2007. Reality was "never really a factor," he says. "There's no political message being shoved down anyone's throat."
Kenny Johnson, who created the original 'V', says via e-mail that in any guise, the series offers "a timeless story" in depicting "the struggle of resistance against oppression, how ordinary people react to extraordinary circumstances."
Johnson is not involved in the new series and hasn't seen it. But he says "they are using very different characters and stories and style than my original. It's very hard to recapture lightning in a bottle - but I hope the new 'V' team will do well," in part to boost prospects for a 'V' feature film he hopes to make.
But the series remake has run into roadblocks. 'V"s pilot episode was well-received by advertisers and critics, but ABC's late-summer decision to start the show two months earlier than planned - in part to dodge "American Idol" and the broadcast of the Winter Olympics, also in Vancouver - led to script problems, which forced reshoots and a five-week production break.
The first of three planned story arcs was condensed from six to four fall episodes. And the show will test viewers' loyalty with a three-month hiatus; remaining episodes won't surface until March. A promotional campaign that called for planes to skywrite red 'V's over national landmarks was scuttled after publicity over potential environmental effects.
And Thursday, in a response to the show's production problems, Peters (USA Network's "The 4400") was replaced at the helm of the show by Scott Rosenbaum ("Chuck," ''The Shield"), though he is expected to stay aboard as an executive producer.
"We had a great pilot, then a couple of great episodes, but we had a disconnect on where we were going from there," says ABC Entertainment Group chief Stephen McPherson. Though no stranger to tinkering (he made extensive changes to the original "Grey's Anatomy" pilot), "I hadn't had the experience of that before." But McPherson accepts "a little blame for rushing them."
Mitchell, who plays hero FBI agent Erica Evans, says the resulting changes merely speed the pace of storytelling to pack a bigger wallop, including big cliffhangers in the Nov'. 24 episode. Filming on that episode is set to wrap today, gving actors another unexpected 10-week break as the show is retooled. (Mitchell will trek to Hawaii to shoot new "Lost" episodes.)
"They didn't do anything different. They heightened it, they took it up," she says. The changes are meant to recapture the big-event appeal that started 'V' in a different era. "The idea is to make it a movie, something where we are on the edge of our seats, wondering what's going to happen."
Early research and blog chatter indicate the show's core base of alien-conspiracy fans are stoked about a cast that includes alumni of many geek touchstones, not least of them ABC's own "Lost," which ends its run in May.
Erica is 'more fun' to play
Mitchell says Erica is "not as tortured, so that makes it a lot more fun." Juliet "was so deeply, deeply, deeply sad and so deeply angry, to carry that around all the time was quite a bit."
Erica is "trying to be a fantastic mother and obviously failing; she's trying to save the world and obviously failing," Mitchell says. "But they're both kind of kick-(butt) ladies, which is fun."
Mitchell, a self-described "sci-fi dork," is well aware of the challenges of appealing to such a devoted audience. "I kind of like the fact that people obsessively get into shows; I'm hoping this is one of (them)." But, she says, "I don't think it will ever be hard-core enough for some people, and it may be too sci-fi for others."
And wooing the sci-fi crowd alone isn't enough to sustain a major-network drama. A weekly series spawned by the original 'V' was a dud; it lasted just 19 episodes. So ABC pushed producers to develop deeper, rich character stories, much as it did for genre dramas such as "Lost" and this season's new "FlashForward."
Wolf's television reporter is "vulnerable because of his own ambition," he says. "He's clearly someone who feels he's being held back. The visitors' arrival has provided him with the opportunity of his lifetime." The show, he says, is "a mind-bender, because things most probably aren't what they seem."
Chestnut says: "This was not a science-fiction show that was going to be driven by special effects. This was a science-fiction show that was going to be driven by the characters with special effects as a backdrop, and that was what appealed to me."
Says Peters, "If it becomes too magical, too fantastical, the comic-book crowd will love it but no one else will." He concedes it's "difficult not to go over the top with the visitors."
So the burden of striking that balance falls to Brazilian-born Baccarin, already beloved by the sci-fi crowd through her roles on "Stargate SG-1" and Joss Whedon's short-lived space Western "Firefly."
"I don't want to go into the land of melodrama and evil and mustache-twirling," she says, wrapping a down coat over her 'V' duds in a cavernous soundstage on this rainy Vancouver day.
"I have to be threatening but at the same time nurturing and nice," as Anna's placid demeanor is at odds with a malevolent streak. "There's something so dynamic, scary, sexy, smart; everything about her is a challenge."
And though in Tuesday night's premiere she's "more of a powerful political figure," in subsequent episodes "I get a little more down and dirty and deal with some dissension from other people."
Or aliens. "Skin him!" she orders in a steely voice, dispatching the turncoat.