One can critique V for its over-glossy production values, acting, or ridiculously hyped return. What's my quarrel with the show? V is trying to do what Battlestar Galactica did, only it's doing it a whole lot worse.
Network television has been capable of extraordinary sci-fi: think back to the glory days of when Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine aired on syndication and then the now-defunct UPN. Actors like Avery Brooks, Brent Spiner, Wil Wheaton, or Sir Patrick Stewart were talented stars of film or theatre. Those shows genuinely challenged audiences both in subject matter and execution. Heck, as '80s as that ship might have looked (not to mention the hairdos worn by most of the actors – sorry, Sir Patrick), Paramount was clearly devoted to making audiences feel like the NCC-1701-D was a real and futuristic place. Even though TNG was obviously a reboot of a decades-old cult show, it genuinely tried to boldly go in new directions.
V, instead of finding its own voice, is clearly trying to simply grab onto the coattails of Battlestar Galactica, but doing an inept job. If the story didn't make this obvious (They're not human, but they look just like us, and they have a plan! Oh my!), the casting would. One of the recurring cast members is Rekha Sharma-Tory Foster and one of the Final Five on Battlestar-as FBI Agent Sarita Malik, who just happens to look suspicious all the time. Will she turn out to be a nonhuman villain again? Michael Trucco, the eye candy that was fellow-Final-Five Sam Anders on Battlestar, had a guest spot as the pivotal alien John May. Seeing a pattern? The producers of V have also tried to hook Whedonites by dangling Firefly cast members Morena Baccarin as the ultimate alienne-fatale Anna, and fan favorite Alan Tudyk as an evil alien sleeper agent.
The ethics of V are where the more egregious problems of the show become most obvious. If either Baccarin or Christopher Shyer (who plays her second-in-command Marcus) had moustaches, you can bet they'd be twirling them throughout entire episodes, like nineteenth century melodramatic villains. Anna arbitrarily murders her own followers, seems devoid of emotion except when she shows glee at ordering torture, and is determined to exterminate humanity. And guess what? After she mates with a fellow alien, she bites his head off, preying-mantis style. She has more in common with a two-dimensional video game sprite like Mortal Kombat's Mileena than with a dramatic character.
The good guys don't fare much better. Whatever their individual failings-one is lying to his girlfriend, another to her son, another is a murderous mercenary terrorist, but nobody's perfect, right?-they're united to defeat Anna. The "Fifth Column," a group of alien rebels who have for some bizarre reason taken their name from the human Spanish Civil War, similarly display no mixed feelings about trying to take down the leading lizard lady, by any means necessary. And any of these means are portrayed as acceptable, even the suicide bombing which opened one episode and was portrayed as a glorious and effective self-sacrifice. The only characters to display any shreds of moral ambiguity are Chad Decker, a human news anchor who has been roped into becoming Anna's minister of propaganda, and Lisa, Anna's daughter, who has fallen for a human boy.
The reimagined Battlestar worked so well because it was full of moral ambiguity. Until Dean Stockwell's Cylon took on the mantle of Big Bad, the show essentially lived in a grey area between (or beyond) good and evil. Gaius Baltar and the smokin' Cylon Six, the couple directly responsible for the deaths of billions, became sympathetic characters throughout the show, and even Adama and Roslin, the moral centers of Battlestar, periodically became heartless, vengeful, egotistic, ineffectual, or drunk and full of self-pity. This moral uncertainty reached its climax when Duck suicide-bombed a secret police graduation ceremony during the Cylon occupation of New Caprica. Although the bombing was portrayed from the point of view of the insurgents it was still shown as a horrific and traumatizing event.
Politics, in addition to morals, was a shifting ground in Battlestar. The audience would be shown the point of view of a President rigging an election, an Admiral leading a coup against an elected leader, or a tribunal conducting secret show trials and summary executions. Even if we weren't asked to sympathize with such events or the individuals who engaged in them, the show made us understand how they could appear necessary in a time of crisis. With the one notable exception of a march staged to look like German soldiers walking down the Champs-Élysées, the politics of the show could never be directly related to the real world. Perhaps Battlestar was referring to the Bush administration or the war in Iraq or other events or figures, but it never let us know that it was doing so, or, if it was, precisely what was the signifier and what was signified.
In contrast, the writers of V pepper their scripts with current-event phrases like "universal health care" or "green...ahem...blue energy." In particularly poor taste was episode eight, "We Can't Win," when an island nation that might-as-well be Haiti was struck by a disaster and needed aid. The writers want the analogies to be so obvious that even someone who only reads People magazine can catch the reference.
Exciting and challenging sci-fi is possible, even on network television (R.I.P. Dollhouse), and can be profitable, too. Science fiction relies on imagination, not imitation. If ABC encourages the writers of V to take some risks, stop trying to imitate Battlestar, and stop taking cheap pot shots at current events, this is a show that could still come into its own.