Spoilers on Stun.
Full disclosure: I loved the original V as a kid. When it debuted, I was 10 years old. In many ways, that was the perfect age to enjoy it wholly and unreservedly. I didn’t see the “Big Twist” coming, and the articulation of said twist in the famous Jane Badler vs. prairie dog scene frankly blew my young mind. In a TV landscape populated by “Family Ties” and “Falcon Crest”, that was not stuff that you saw every day. Unfortunately, the regular series that ran subsequent to the two event minis could not hold it together, and the show quickly faded.
Cut to today. Scott Peters, the guy behind “The 4400”, has taken Kenneth Johnson’s original story and premise and updated it with a combination of modern social relevance, current production values, and a savvy awareness of the promise and pitfalls of continuing science fiction/fantasy television. The pilot episode, then, is a fast-paced affair, putting half a dozen characters in motion and unleashed the Big Twist as part of a hook designed to bring viewers back next time.
The story in short terms: On a day like any other, the sky suddenly fills with 29 massive alien vessels. The fact that “Independence Day” cribbed this moment from other sources like the original “V” gets a nice, fan-aware reference in an early scene. The aliens aboard the vessels happen to look just like us (only none of them are unattractive) and swear that they come in peace, needing only water and a mineral necessary for their survival in exchange for the secrets of their advanced technology. We see various characters react over the period of three weeks, including FBI Counterterrorist Agent Erica Evans (the great Elizabeth Mitchell) and her son Tyler (Logan Huffman), skeptical priest Father Jack (Joel Gretsch), a man with a mysterious past (Ryan, played by Morris Chestnut), and frustrated news anchor Chad Decker (Scott Wolf). The Visitors, as they become known, establish relations through their High Commander Anna (Morena Baccarin), and all seems to be going swimmingly. Tyler even seems to find a mutual attraction with Lisa (Laura Vandervoort), essentially a Visitor Youth Outreach officer.
Unfortunately for Planet Us, things are a lot less “E.T.” and a lot more “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers”. Erica’s investigation into a sleeper cell leads her and her partner (Alan Tudyk) to a resistance movement that has some surprising news: the Visitors have been here for years. They’ve been promoting terrorism, destabilizing the economy, launching illegal wars, and presumably distracting us with reality television. (Yes, the last one’s a joke.) This has all been in advance of the Final Phase of their plan, which has begun with their “arrival”.
As it happens, the resistance meeting gets busted up by blade-wielding Visitors. Before it’s over, Erica is attacked by her partner. And in fending him off, she discovers the Big Twist: not only are the Visitors the bad guys, they’re wearing fake human skin over their actual reptilian forms! However, we also see that not all of the Visitors are bad, as we learn that RYAN is actually a Visitor, but a traitor to his own people that wishes to help humans.
Against this action, Decker is forced to compromise his principles by running a softball interview with Anna. In return for his tanking the hard questions, he’s rewarded with the promise of future exclusives and worldwide fame. Decker sees the obvious value in this, but his journalistic instincts wage their own interior struggle. We close out the episode with Tyler joining the Hit—er, Visitor Youth, Erica and Jack resolving to help keep the resistance going, Ryan wussing out on leaving his human love, and Anna watching the Earth with a smile.
Peters and the gang keep things moving extremely quickly. It helps that the cast is loaded with genre veterans; seriously, the cast is a horror/SF/fantasy murderer’s row, with representatives from “Lost”, “Firefly/Serenity”, “The 4400”, “Smallville”, and more. This matters because everyone brings conviction to their roles. No one appears to have a hang-up on the fantastic circumstance, which is something that’s crept into small screen S-F before.
Overall, this is a great start. Clearly, this is all set-up, but the series could spread out and become more complex as the Visitors put more elements of their plans into motion. The social relevance provides both some smart commentary and some humor. One great example: Decker’s double-take at Anna’s sentiments during the interview, leading him to ask if she’s promising “universal health care”. Not only is this a clever pun on the S-F implications of the word “universal”, it’s a clear play on something that’s absolutely of the moment. (Let’s just hope that this doesn’t make Glenn Beck accuse Obama of being a lizard.) After this episode, I have to say that I’ve raised the bar of my expectations. What did you think, fellow Earthlings? That is, if you can be trusted.