While “V” might at first appear like a strange Reagan-era artifact, ABC and the producers have concocted an updated reboot that’s unexpectedly timely — a strange amalgam of post-Sept. 11 paranoia and science-fiction soap opera. The pilot busily races through too much business, but it dangles a tantalizing array of plots, and features a knockout performance (in more ways than one) by Morena Baccarin as the cool, beguiling alien leader. The network’s scheduling gambit — four weeks on in November, then a hiatus — is either genius or folly, but “V’s” maiden voyage rates near the top of the alphabet.
Recognizing the similarities to “Independence Day,” a cast member specifically references that film when the huge spaceships begin hovering over major cities. Actually, one could throw in “District 9” and the closer parallel to “The Twilight Zone” episode “To Serve Man,” where seemingly benevolent aliens might have more nefarious plans for humanity.
After an initial bout of understandable panic, people are reeled in by Baccarin’s Anna, the alien spokesmodel with the big brown eyes, who promises that this is just a stopover and that the Visitors will use their advanced technology to leave mankind “hopefully better than we found you.”
Yet when she reaches out to an ambitious TV journalist (Scott Wolf) to explain the V’s to residents of Earth, she coyly prompts him not to “ask any questions that would portray us negatively,” threatening to cancel the exclusive interview at the last moment.
Others are skeptical about the Visitors’ motives, including FBI agent Erica Evans (“Lost’s” Elizabeth Mitchell) and a priest (Joel Gretsch) who wonders how to resolve their arrival with his faith. Both characters receive mysterious tips that lead toward revelations about the aliens, and — not really a spoiler here for anyone vaguely familiar with the earlier show — triggers talk of building an underground resistance.
At least initially, the real breakout here is Baccarin, who might be TV’s coolest alien since the invention of the Vulcan nerve pinch. The idea, moreover, that extraterrestrials would come wrapped in an attractive package and shrewdly manipulate the media feels especially eerie given the state of our media today (though there is one unfortunately clunky line of dialogue about “universal health care”).
For the most part, though, writer Scott Peters and company — updating Kenneth Johnson’s original — have assembled an appealing and diverse cast that highlights the “We’re all in this together” aspect of dealing with such a fantastic threat. And the idea of being unsure who to trust deftly taps into the same vein of malevolent foes and “sleeper cells” hiding in plain sight that “Battlestar Galactica” mined.
The best science fiction always has something to say about the present, and the show does that without skimping on the soapy or dramatic elements. Whether the serialized storytelling can be sustained is potentially another matter (witness the growing pains experienced by ABC’s “FlashForward”), but at least in terms of the acrobatics that go into a polished launch, “V” sticks the landing.