If Ray Bradbury had written 'Planet of the Apes' . . .
The creator of ''The Incredible Hulk'' and ''The Bionic Woman'' is now introducing to American TV audiences a horde of reptilian ''Visitors'' from deep space.
V (NBC, Sunday, 9-11:15 p.m.; Monday, 9-11 p.m.) is the most expensive project ever made for television on a per-hour basis, claims its creator-writer-director Kenneth Johnson (also executive producer). He envisions ''V'' as more than a mere science-fiction miniseries but rather as a continuing sociopolitical action-adventure series.
I found ''V'' a bit of an Orwellian comic strip. It's as if Ray Bradbury had written ''Planet of the Apes'' - on one of his off days. But Orwell and Bradbury would both be worth watching even on their off days. So is ''V.''
This two-part pilot for a new series concerns the appearance on earth of 50 huge space vessels carrying thousands of smaller spaceships and seemingly humanlike Visitors who say they come in peace. They turn out to be lizardlike creatures who plan to destroy the earth after gaining control step by step, in the Nazi manner. Scientists become the persecuted Jews of this weird totalitarian regime, and resistance among earthlings grows until it becomes a widespread liberation movement.
In the midst of some rather simplistic plotting and too-obvious analogies, author Johnson manages to make some telling comments about life on earth. There is valid social commentary on our misuse of water, our dependence on mass communications, our commercialization of daily life. For example, a few weeks after the Visitors take over, there are Visitor dolls in all the toy stores.
There are scenes of shock and horror in ''V,'' but they are used to make the scenes of reality seem even more real. The dazzling special effects reflect big-screen production values. ''V'' harbors a great deal of relevant social commentary within the framework of its sometimes hackneyed science-fiction format. Perhaps comparing it to Orwell or even Bradbury may be reaching a bit . . . but it certainly is superior commercial-television fare.
Chat with author-director Johnson
I previewed the 4-hour-and-15-minute pilot miniseries the other day, then asked to speak to its creator. Next morning, with the sound track of the final print audible through the projection booth window, he called me from Warner Bros. TV, not far from the Malibu coastline and Santa Monica Mountains, where much of the spaceship action was filmed.
Johnson's seemingly artless and enthusiastic comments zoomed cross-continent like an unending flow of flashing laser beams. I felt a bit like the host of the Miss America competition calling out the topic, with the contestant (in this case Johnson) eagerly expanding on the category.
How did it all get started . . . ?
''About two years ago I began to be concerned about my own complacency and the complacency which many of us in America share. We have our own trials in our lives, but few of us think that our lives can ever be affected by something on a grand scale from the outside. That's a dangerous state of affairs, so I began researching what societies have been like as they began to be taken over by totalitarian regimes - the rise of the Third Reich, for instance. I was intrigued by the notion that people in America would probably polarize in the same way.
''I began looking for a way to tell the story, building off the roots of neofascism as I saw it in the country today. But NBC was not sure that we would be able to convince American TV audiences that a home-grown police state could come to exist, so I thought of an occupying army like the Russians or the Chinese. But I couldn't convince myself that they would have the power to sustain a prolonged occupation of the United States.
''Then it came to me that this alien occupation army should really be alien . . . from space. But I didn't want it to be typecast as just another science-fiction melodrama. The story I wanted to tell was not the story of space visitors, but rather about how people change and decay or grow into heroic proportions, based upon an extraordinary set of circumstances.
''The heart of the story deals with the human dilemma and the moral conflicts people get into when a strong external force comes into their lives. I am hoping my fellow Americans will begin to question their own complacency the same way I began to a couple of years ago.''
Mr. Johnson's story focuses on the Los Angeles area, but he hopes it will be seen as a microcosm of the world. He is flattered when some critics have referred to the story as Tolstoyan drama with certain science-fiction elements. ''It is a drama that focuses on the individual in the midst of grand events. The invading Visitors are not all bad guys - I hope there is a three-dimensional quality to them that you don't find in a lot of science fiction.
''I was raised in a restricted country-club society and in my adult life I have always rebelled against that and tried to make amends for it, I guess. One of the most important things about this series is that it shows how Hitler-like characters can make just about anybody the object of persecution.''
If Mr. Johnson sounds just a bit naive, there is a kind of sly-ingenuous Tinseltown sincerity in almost everything he says. It comes across as honesty, slightly mixed with good business sense.
'' 'Winds of War' cost $2 million per hour. 'V' cost $3.25 million per hour. We spent $13 million. The bulk of the money went into trying to make the special effects not too noticeable. Well, obviously there are some spectacular effects, like the three-mile-wide mother spacecrafts, but at the same time I was trying to bring a level of reality to the film, unlike 'Star Wars' and even 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' where so much of the action takes place at night against dark skies. I wanted to be able to see the spacecrafts landing during the day in our neighborhoods, so there would be a real sense that they are here among us.''
Why reptilian Visitors?
''I wanted to point out that their evolutionary pattern is only slightly different from ours, and had ours been a little different 50 million years ago, we, too, might have looked reptilian. And the reason they eat live rodents is because that's what reptiles eat naturally. I did a lot of anthropological research.''
Why does water play such an important part in the film? Many shots include water, and as viewers will come to see, water is a major motivational factor.
''We take water for granted here. I wanted to focus on that complacency. The reason I did the show was because I want people to stop and appreciate what they have.
''I know it sounds corny, but the heart of the story is the need for all of us to recognize the wondrous life that we have, not only in this country but on this planet, and appreciate it a little more. That's more important to me than whether the show goes to series or even how many people watch it. All I want is that the people who do watch it are a little changed by it and a little bit more thoughtful about the wonders of our everyday existence.'' Rothko conspiracy
What price art?
Must the price include manipulation, dishonesty, fraud?
The current state of financial maneuvering in some parts of the art world is cruelly but probably accurately symbolized by The Rothko Conspiracy (PBS, Tuesday, 9-10:30 p.m.). The film is all about money, very little about art.
This ''American Playhouse'' dramatization of the legal battle between the executors of Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko's estate and his daughter is detailed in the film, down to the last penny. It concentrates completely on the high-finance aspect of the art gallery world, the machinations of some dealers, the alleged utter disregard of an artist's wishes by self-serving associates. Almost the entire 90 minutes concerns itself with high finance; practically no time is spent with Rothko's works.
Wouldn't it have been wonderful to see a film that explained and illustrated the work of this amazingly creative man, who took his own life, leaving behind around 800 unsold paintings? Most of the samples of his work seen on screen in this uninspired, strictly parochial film appear to be dummy paintings, used for dramatic effect. And the actual paintings shown seem to miss both the sharpness and delicacy of color one should expect from Rothko.
This was a marvelous opportunity to try to explain the man through his paintings; instead we have a nasty tale of nefarious scheming. Perhaps the Rothko Foundation will now underwrite a film about Mark Rothko and his paintings for people outside the art gallery world.