The ‘V’ of the early 80s was right on time (or I should say ‘they’ were right on time), culturally speaking. The first two-part mini-series ran in 1983, followed by V: The Final Battle, a three-part mini-series in 1984, followed finally by a regular run TV series that lasted all of one season.
Just three years before ‘V’ began, the U.S. Congress passed the Refugee Reform Act of 1980. The legislation came in response to an enormous influx of refugees from Indochina between 1975 and 1980 fleeing communist regimes in the wake of the Vietnam War.
Roughly 400,o00 people fled Vietnam and Cambodia as the governments of those countries collapsed, most seeking asylum in the U.S. The 1980 Act expanded the definition of ‘refugee’ and instated federal resettlement assistance for anyone qualifying under the new definition–a much larger number than before. Shortly after the enactment of the Act, 125,000 Cuban and Haitian refugees entered the U.S. seeking asylum.
Switching back to TV land — ‘they’ arrived — carnivorous reptilian aliens who blend in with the rest of us, all along planning to take over our world. The Visitors of the 80s represented a growing fear that immigration in the U.S. was out of control. The government unwittingly sanctioned their arrival and integration into our society just as Congress had opened the flood gates to accommodate an ever-increasing demand to enter U.S. boarders.
Popular media has always been invested in exploiting public fear. The makers of ‘V’ capitalized on one of our biggest fears–that external forces are incrementally invading us and we’re powerless to stop it. Or are we? Perhaps a courageous resistance will rise up and push back the invaders so that we can return again to a purer state of being.
Ironically, ‘V’ met its popular demise a year before the next major piece of immigration legislation was passed: the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. It came down like an anvil on illegal immigration, addressing, in part, the public outcry that our boarders had become a sieve.
When the IRCA was enacted in 1986, the number of undocumented aliens being tracked by the Immigration and Naturalization Service was more than 1.7 million (three times the number from just 10 years earlier). By 1987, that number decreased to 1.1 million. The resistance was indeed pushing back.
Fast forward to November, 2009. The Visitors have returned, and if you watched the series premiere, you noticed how ‘they’ have changed. In the post 9/11-world, fears of invasion are stoked less by wanting to preserve cultural institutions, and more by wanting to stay alive. The Visitors now organize in “sleeper cells” and have taken on the trappings of a well-organized terrorist network. Compared to the campy Visitors who plodded into our lives in 1983, these invaders are stealthy, shrewd logisticians. The game has changed, and so have our fears.
The flip side of pop media’s exploitation of our fear is its commitment to exaggerating our nobility. In all of our prime-time nightmare projections, we always rise up, fight back, assert our humanity in the face of any evil. This formula is so well-ingrained that we hardly notice its ridiculous bipolarity. We’re either scared witless or fighting the good fight. We’re either about to become BBQ for voracious Visitors or fighting them back into deep space for the good of all humankind. Victims or heroes — we’re always one or the other in TV land.
And I have to wonder how much that black and white bifurcation affects us–whether our fears of “invaders” are amplified by dire two-dimensional narratives. Then again, popular media is a product tailored to our tastes. Maybe we’re just getting what we want.
In either case, The Visitors are back among us, and the noble resistance has a chance to defeat them once again.