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V: Kenneth Johnson on Sci-Fi Series' Themes, Being Ahead of Its Time

V creator Kenneth Johnson discusses the enduring legacy of the NBC series/miniseries as a cult classic, essential themes & more.

The legacy of the 1980s classic science fiction franchise V can't be understated, given how timeless the social commentary of the Kenneth Johnson miniseries and series have become. The series premise is that "V" stands for Visitors, which are extraterrestrials clad in red. They take on the appearance of humans under a banner of peace and benevolence. The truth is – beneath their surface skin – they are a reptilian species in disguise and take anyone who resists and uses them as a food source. V featured an all-star cast of Marc Singer, Faye Grant, Jane Badler, June Chadwick, Jennifer Cooke, Jeff Yagher, and Robert Englund. The narratives of a shadow government in control still resonate with audiences, especially with conspiracy theorists 40 years later according to Johnson.

V: How the Kenneth Johnson Sci-Fi Series Was Ahead of Its Time
Jane Badler in "V." Image courtesy of Warner Bros

"I got to thinking, God, how would everyday people feel if suddenly there was a sea change in our life that turned it all around, if suddenly some hyper power rolled over us, just like the Nazis rolled into Europe?" Johnson told Vanity Fair when he conceived V. "I've gotten emails over the years and letters from people on the fringes who say, 'Oh, you get it!' 'You know that there are lizards among us!'" The Warner Bros series lasted from 1984-1985 on NBC, but its lasting cult classic status led to the 2009 ABC reboot that starred Morena Baccarin and Elizabeth Mitchell.

V: How the Kenneth Johnson Sci-Fi Series Was Ahead of Its Time
June Chadwick, Frank Ashmore, and Jane Badler in "V". Image courtesy of Warner Bros

When creating V, Johnson was inspired by Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis' dystopian 1935 novel "It Can't Happen Here" at the time of Benito Mussolini's rise to power in Italy and Adolf Hitler's rise in Germany, becoming a commentary on fascism. Johnson pitched it to then NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff, who many credits with ushering a golden age of programming at the network, "He said, 'I don't know that Americans will get fascism,'" he recalled. "I said, 'Well, it's not a complicated concept, Brandon. You put on a brown shirt, you shave your head, and you beat somebody up.' But he said, 'Couldn't it be an outside force? Like the Soviets or the Chinese?'"

Another executive chimed in, "A young guy named Jeff Sagansky was sitting in the corner. He said, 'How about aliens, Kenny?'" Johnson said. "And I went, Aaaggghhh! I just didn't want to go in that direction." Sagansky has since moved to become president of CBS Entertainment and later co-president of Sony Pictures. "I got up, I went to the window, and I said, 'Picture small spaceships buzzing up and down Burbank Boulevard,'" Sagansky says. "These aliens, they say they're coming 'in peace.'"

Johnson wasn't a fan at first. "I freaked out," he said. "I didn't want to get so typecast as the sci-fi guy. I went home that night, and I realized that Jeff had a really brilliant idea. 'V' was always about how individual people react to power. Some will suck up as the Vichy French did to the Nazis, and others will try to keep their heads down. The heroes say, 'This power is being abused, and we've got to fight back.'" For more, including what Johnson wants to do for the V franchise's future, the infamous Anna-guinea pig scene, how Dominique Dunne's murder affected production, special effects, lingering legacy in the current pop culture zeitgeist, comments from Englund, Grant, Singer, Bader, and more, you can check out the feature here.

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Tom ChangAbout Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangoria. As a writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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