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‘V’ creator Kenneth Johnson talks about a return to reptiles

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Kenneth Johnson was one of the more successful science-fiction creators in television in the 1970s and early 1980s after working as a producer on ‘The Six Million Dollar Man,’ creating the character of Jamie Summers, the ‘The Bionic Woman,’ and creating the popular television adaptation of ‘The Incredible Hulk.’ But his greatest success came in May of 1983 with the unsettling miniseries ‘V,’ which became one of the high points in the history of science fiction television.

‘V’ tells the tale of human-looking (at least for a while) aliens who come to earth and present themselves as benefactors but actually have something else on their minds: dinner. Johnson created a story that had a tense, simmering quality to it, and the Nazi echoes of the alien campaign on earth added a dark depth to the miniseries. There is a stirring of interest in ‘V’; a new edition of the novelization of the miniseries is back in bookstores, and a sequel from Tor Books, written by Johnson and titled ‘V: The Second Generation,’ hit shelves earlier this year. There’s also talk of either a film or television series revival of the property, although not all of these projects are dovetailing in a tidy way.

Lee Margulies, a writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times since the 1970s, wrote about the show and its creator when ‘V’ first aired. Margulies got back in touch with Johnson for this Hero Complex Q&A about a sci-fi story that continues to shed new skin some 25 years after it first grabbed the attention of the world.

LM: Incredibly, it’s been 25 years since the original ‘V’ aired. What are your memories of it?

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KJ: The speed at which ‘V’ happened was amazing: I literally told [then-NBC Entertainment chief] Brandon Tartikoff the story in his office; he approved it in the room; I wrote the 230-page script in 19 days; he read it overnight and greenlighted it. NBC was in trouble and needed ‘V’ quickly. My prep time should have been three months but was only two and a half weeks! ‘V’ became the No. 1 show in America, got NBC’s highest rating in over two years, a staggering 40 share, 80 million viewers -- and well over 200 million more when it aired overseas, beating the Olympics two to one. Plus it was critically acclaimed by all the major reviewers. All incredibly rewarding for me as a writer-director.

LM: Do people still ask you about it?

KJ: Constantly. I get swamped at such gatherings as Comic-Con [International in San Diego]. I put an e-mail address on the DVD released a few years ago, and I’ve received tens of thousands of notes from wonderful people around the world -- all wanting more. Warner Home Video thought the DVD would be a cult item, selling maybe 15,000 units. It sold that many on the first day on Amazon alone. It has now sold over 2.5 million units for revenue of $50 million.

LM: What was the key to its success?

KJ: ‘V’ is a timeless story of resistance against tyrannical oppression. It was never about big spaceships and aliens. ‘V’ was about power: ruthless people who possessed power, those who sucked up to it, and those everyday people who risked their lives to fight against the abuse of power. Though I based much of it on happenings in World War II, ‘V’ also has resonance of Apartheid, the American Revolution and Spartacus’ revolt of the slaves. That historical underpinning gives ‘V’ a depth and substance that helped to make it, as some reviewers noted, an instant classic.

LM: Of course, the initial sequel in 1984, ‘V: The Final Battle,’ and the subsequent, short-lived ‘V’ series were not so well received. But you weren’t involved in those.

KJ: Though I supervised the writing of that 6-hour sequel, I left Warners over creative differences before it was produced. To this day I have never seen it, except for one minute by accident -- in which I saw them make every wrong choice possible, so I knew I’d never survive watching the entire thing.

LM: Why do you think people would be interested in another sequel all these years later?

KJ: Because the themes and allegories of ‘V’ were so enduring, they naturally lent themselves to further exploration. My original brilliant cast and crew helped me to create nuanced characters that people could deeply identify with. Audiences clearly wanted more. And the idea of exploring what the world looked like 20 years later was intriguing to me.

LM: How long have you been trying to get a sequel made?

KJ: I sold the idea of a new miniseries, ‘V: The Second Generation,’ to NBC in 2002. Alas, it was not like working with Brandon. Years passed. They even had me write a second miniseries screenplay to remake my original mini, which was to air first. But while NBC dawdled, long-form TV waned. So I arranged a publishing deal and wrote a novel of ‘VTSG’ to help spark the project along. The book was well received and got some lovely reviews, but my miniseries remained unproduced because virtually all the outlets for minis dried up -- except for SciFi Channel, who wanted to make it, but Warners has been unable to make a deal with them on any project.

LM: Now the novelization of the original miniseries has been rereleased, with what is described as an all-new ending ...

KJ: A.C. (Annie) Crispin did the original 1984 novelization based upon my original four-hour screenplay plus the script for the ‘V: The Final Battle.’ As part of the deal to publish my new novel, ‘VTSG’ [which came out in hardcover and trade editions last February and will be out in mass-market paperback Dec. 12], Tor and Warners were interested in also rereleasing a new version of the 1984 novelization that would be based only on my original 1983 miniseries.

I agreed to write a lengthy epilogue (some 50 pages) that would include material from my original script that Annie had omitted -- and also allow me to introduce characters who appeared in ‘V: The Second Generation.’ One of my favorites is 7-year-old Margarita Perry, who actually pushes the button to send the Resistance’s distress call, hoping to contact an enemy of the Visitors. In ‘VTSG,’ which picks up the story 20 years later, Margarita has grown up to be a leader of the Resistance.

LM: Are you involved in the TV series that is being developed for ABC?

KJ: Last August, Warner Bros. TV [which controls the TV rights] told me that they were going out with a “new take” on ‘V’ as a one-hour series and my services would not be required. They were particularly enthused because another of my creations, ‘The Bionic Woman,’ had been “reimagined” and everyone was certain it would be an enormous hit. The new ‘V’ idea had been pitched to WBTV by a very creative guy from the video game world named Jason Hall, whom I have since met and have a lot of respect for. WBTV went out with the concept last fall, but got no takers.

The day after WBTV told me their plans, my producer friends David Foster and Ryan Heppe uncovered the fact that I owned and control the motion picture rights to ‘V.’ I suddenly had a lot of suitors at the major studios and could have sold ‘V’ a year ago. But having seen several iconic projects of mine redone disappointingly by others, without capturing the essence of what made them so popular and acclaimed, I want to make an arrangement that will allow me to best protect the quality and integrity of my original ‘V.’ I would truly prefer that ‘V’ never got remade rather than see it be made in less than the best way possible.

We were in final negotiations with one studio to make the movie when WBTV announced they had secured a script development situation with ABC for a possible pilot. This has complicated our theatrical undertaking somewhat, but only made us more determined to make the movie of ‘V’ that will exceed the expectations of the hundreds of millions of fans worldwide while stirring new audiences with the exciting adventure and the timeless, epic, human drama that has always been the heart and soul of ‘V.’

-- Lee Margulies

Photo credits: NBC

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