Review ~ Fascist Lizards from Outer Space

This book was provided to me by McFarland & Company via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Fascist Lizards from Outer Space: The Politics, Literary Influences and Cultural History of Kenneth Johnson’s V by Dan Copp

When Kenneth Johnson’s science fiction miniseries V premiered in 1983, it netted more than 40 percent of the television viewing audience and went on to spawn a sequel, a weekly series, novelizations, comic books and a remake. Entertainment Weekly named the show one of the 10 best miniseries of all time and the franchise continues to enjoy ardent fan support at science fiction conventions around the world. Yet the 2009 V reboot was cancelled in its second season, despite a robust premiere. Both versions of V were products of their respective times, but the original was inspired by classic works by the likes of Sinclair Lewis and Leo Tolstoy. Johnson’s predilection for literature and history helped give his telling of V a sense of heart and depth that the contemporary version sorely lacked.

At first impression the original two-part alien invasion epic may seem a mishmash of science fiction cliches. Yet behind the laser pistols, anthropomorphic reptiles and flying saucers lies a compelling treatise on the nature of power, oppression and resistance, inspired by both classic literature and historical events. Featuring exclusive interviews with cast and crew, this book examines V’s cultural impact and considers the future of the franchise. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I was eight years old when the original V miniseries premiered on NBC. Living in a household that appreciated science fiction, it was certainly a viewing event for us. In my wider world, even Star Wars wasn’t playground fodder, so I had no concept of how popular V was.* What I knew then was: V aired in the 8pm-10pm time slot and my bed time was 9pm. I begged and begged to be allowed to stay up. My mom relented. I could watch on the little TV in my room (black and white, btw), but I had to be in bed and the TV was to be turned off at 10pm sharp.** I was glad to have my covers to hide under, because the second half of the first night, when the villainous Diana eats a hapless guinea pig whole, was pretty heady stuff for an eight year old.

At that age, I knew nothing about WWII or the Holocaust, but I still felt that V had a different weight to it than its TV contemporaries (Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica). V‘s story was happening in something closer to the real world than other sci fi. When the character of Abraham Bernstein, a Holocaust survivor, refers to the past, it’s actually the real past. While I didn’t understand it, it wasn’t lost on me as a kid.

* Note also: I’m a girl. Maybe the boys were playing Visitors vs. Resistance…
** Even though it was kind of a big deal to have my own TV in my room, I don’t recall abusing the privilege. My parents might remember differently.

What Worked
Dan Copp does a really good job showing how Kenneth Johnson, writer and director of V (and many other sci-fi shows), grounds his speculative fiction stories in literature. V is more or less a retelling of Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, a novel published in 1935 about the possible rise of fascism in the United States, with strong nods to the scope of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Copp also looks at Johnson’s career before V for evidence of science fiction strengthened by literature and finds it in the classically heroic underpinnings of Johnson’s The Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Woman episodes. Copp also notes how, without Johnson’s influence, V: The Final Battle and the V television series in 1983 and 2009 rarely rise above a shoot-em-up or the usual prime-time drama.

One of the other things the V does really well that  its later siblings doesn’t do, Copp points out, is show the use of media to control a population. In 1983, that was easily achieved by the Visitors taking over the small number of TV networks. The 2009 TV series (which I personally had forgotten existed until mentioned in Fascist Lizard‘s introduction) missed a great opportunity to similarly take advantage of how a fascist regime might levy social media.

What Didn’t Work
Much of Fascist Lizards from Outer Space is about how bad both TV series are. There is a nearly episode-by-episode breakdown of things that the TV shows do wrong. Some of it illustrates the choices that NBC (the 1983 series) and ABC (the 2009 series) made concerning the show’s budget and what they thought made the original popular. That part is interesting, but after a few strong examples, the litany of errors just gets boring.

I was also a little disappointed that Copp didn’t extend his evaluation past V to include Johnson’s Alien Nation. I was inspired by Fascist Lizards to rewatch both the original V and the Alien Nation TV series (1989). It’s hard not playing the “currently relevant” card right about here.

Overall
If you like reading about the history of science fiction in the movies and on television, this is solid choice.

Publishing info, my copy: ePub ARC, McFarland , April 1, 2017
Acquired: 1/17/17, NetGalley
Genre: nonfiction, pop culture

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