Sound Review of ABC’s “V”
V premiered in the fall of 2009 and has just finished its first season. It is a remake of a 1980s science-fiction miniseries of the same name, and is about the arrival of “Visitors” or “V’s” on planet Earth. The V’s are an advanced, alien race who seemingly look and talk just like humans. They arrive under the pretense of peace, but unbeknownst to the citizens of Earth, they are in fact a reptilian species with ulterior motives. The supervising sound editor on V is Gregory M. Gerlich, and the score is composed by Marco Beltrami. Elizabeth Mitchell plays Erica Evans, one of the key protagonists. (She is easily recognizable as Juliet from another one of ABC’s shows, Lost.)
First off, V’s score. Most of the show’s underscoring consists of low brass played in minor keys to create an air of an ominous, looming threat. This is particularly effective when we are with the human characters on Earth, because it serves as a sort of aural reminder that the V’s are always watching from the massive “mothership” that looms above. Drums in V are loud, thundering ones that are used to either give importance to a scene or intensify it. The strings in V are used more inside the “mothership” – the long, high-pitched notes played by multiple string instruments help create an eerie effect which is appropriate when aliens are on screen. V‘s title sound is surprisingly similar to that of Lost. When the title slowly appears on screen, it’s accompanied by a high-pitched string “squeal” as the note bends to get progressively higher. This is repeated in every episode and the effect is almost identical to Lost‘s.
What Makes V’s score unique, however, is the inclusion of pulsating, electronic bass. This thick, digital sound does what tribal drums do for Lost – places the viewer in a setting. (In this case, a futuristic world where aliens are now a part of daily life.) The thumping bass sounds build tension and are particularly prominent in action sequences and fight scenes. It also helps sell the series’ fictional technology, because with futuristic technology, of course, must come futuristic underscoring! Also unique to V is an eerie, vocal chant in the score, particularly aboard the mothership. Combined with strings, they produce a good contrast to the brassy Earth scenes.
The sound effects in V are quite unique, and do fit the visual effects quite nicely. In one scene, an alien craft flies around off-screen. “Whooshes” and electrical fuzz accompany the on-screen flashes of green light to create a more or less believable “UFO effect”. In another well designed scene, a tiny robot “bug” is inserted under someone’s skin (a-la-Matrix). The metallic sounds of the bug’s legs wriggling around work very well and once it is under the victim’s skin, it really sounds like it is eating away his flesh. A whole host of metallic sounds are used in V for the array of weapons used by the characters on the show. Of course, this must include the metallic “shink” of a sword being brandished, a ridiculous necessity for every sword fighting sequence ever made!
One of the greatest accomplishments of the sound design in V is the acoustic environment within the mothership. Contrasting sharply with the noisy, ambient sounds of Earth, the mothership is a sterile, quiet environment. This fits what we see on screen very well as the interior of the mothership is depicted as a large open space, bright lights and an abundance of the color white. Whenever characters speak to each other inside the mothership there is slight reverb or echo, creating the illusion of being in this huge empty space. The viewer is fooled into believing that this computer-generated environment really exists around the characters that they are seeing. This notion is further sold by the prominence of footsteps in this environment. V’s can be heard walking into and off the screen, and no-one’s footsteps are as prominent as the tall, high-heeled ones of Anna, the series’ antagonist.
Anna’s voice is extremely well done. Her voice digs itself underneath your skin, and this is attestable to her pronounced sibilance. This “hissing” is almost snake-like, and for Anna, being the leader of a reptilian race of aliens, is highly appropriate. When she addresses human cities from the mothership, however, her voice takes on an extremely different texture and personality. In this case it is soothing, monotonous and almost hypnotic. She reassures the people of Earth that the V’s come with no intention of harm, and listening to her speak, it is difficult not to believe her. When she broadcasts, her voice sounds ad if it has a shadow – it leaves a ghostly trail. Her tranquil voice is symbolic of the Visitors’ intent with the human race – to hypnotize them all into an emotionless state of “bliss”.
Technologies on the mothership make some rather strange sounds. Holograms pop up and whoosh back down all over the place, and glowing translucent balls that act as communication devices make horrible grinding sounds even though they seem to have no moving parts whatsoever. In one scene, a tiny, round flying robot makes bleeps and bloops, reminiscent of R2D2. It seems believable until the tiny robot enters and exits the screen in a flash, creating a thundering, bass-y “whoosh”. It’s almost as though the Enterprise has just flown by! A smaller, more humble “whiz” would have been more believable and much more appropriate.
Looking past minor flaws like those, V has quite a well designed soundscape. The unique properties of the score give the show a nice flavor. The aural environment inside the Visitors’ mothership contrasts with that of Earth very effectively, but individual sound effects are most of the time hit or miss because of the strange sci-fi technology invented for the show. Granted, it is not easy to design sounds for fictional, futuristic objects like some of the things seen on V, and for that, one must applaud the sound team.
Now, if only the writing and acting were worthy of applause too.