The Russians Are Coming!

Here’s something you can file under “what was lost” and has not yet been found: The two great 80’s Soviet invasion TV miniseries. On the big screen, in the 80’s, we had Patrick Swayze fighting Cuban paratroopers, the ultimate in jingoism in Reagan’s new America. But it’s what was playing out on the small screen that scared the shit out of us. The Day After, Threads and Testament drove home the point that the nameless, faceless Soviet monsters had nukes pointed at our backyards and, if World War III hit, it would all be over in about twenty minutes. There would be no more noble battles, no more armies clashing. We would simply be vaporized by an unimaginable force. Or, worse, we would survive to die slowly in a poisoned wasteland.

When it came to a conventional invasion, the ultimately successful efforts of the partisans in Red Dawn had no place on the small screen. America was a big, soft target, ripe for the taking. We’d become lazy, weak. There was no Fortress America in the 80’s. We rolled over for the fascist aliens in V, and when the Soviets came knocking we were helpless, hopeless, and alone. Missing from my DVD collection are two classic Soviet invasion serials, neither of which have been released, with the exception of limited and out of print VHS versions. The first is World War III, an Emmy-awarded Rock Hudson vehicle from 1982, and the second is Amerika, ABC’s 1987 condemnation of an apathetic generation of post-Hippies and disappointing Gen Xers.

World War III opens up in the near future (1987) in Alaska, at an outpost somewhere along the pipeline. The first casualty of a stealthy Soviet invasion is none other than Ben Harrison — the original Battlestar Galactica’s Boomer before the Ronald Moore reimagining replaced all the black people.

Which, by the way, kind of bothered me. Moore acted like it was daring to replace the original show’s sexist womanizer with a woman, but then he purged the original’s groundbreaking firsts — namely two strong black leads in non-fatal officer roles. Colonel Tigh was Adama’s rock, always ready to step in when needed and, often, a practical voice of caution. An efficient sidekick for the patriarchal Adama, and the real military face while Lorne Greene sat in his quarters talking about spiritualism. Boomer, meanwhile, was the voice of reason amongst the pilots, and a tempering force in a friendship triangle with the often obstinate Apollo and wildcard Starbuck. Half the shit those two assholes got into was resolved by Boomer’s slow, steady, balanced presence.

To have black characters like that in late 70’s sci-fi was groundbreaking. Replacing them with a hot Asian and a drunken cracker is not.

Anyway! Poor Ben Harrison. Betrayed by the dreaded Soviet sleeper agent. Here’s his death scene:

There’s an eerie sort of realism to World War III. For the most part, all the action is played out between the somewhat ineffectual invasion force and a small, feisty band of National Guardsmen who defend the pumping station, even though it means a Dirty Dozen-style slow decimation. Meanwhile, President Rock Hudson frantically works with Soviet diplomats to come to a resolution. The tense political intrigue is intercut with terrifying scenes set in the bitter Alaskan night where brave Guardsmen are machine gunned in uncomfortable places. Ultimately, talks break down, and the miniseries ends with nukes being launched, and a moody montage of you and me and our everyday lives as the air raid sirens scream.

Amerika took things a step further. With an all-star cast, the series aired over seven nights and is one of the longest miniseries ever made – longer than most of our cable series today. With an alarming $40 million budget (in 2011 dollars, that would be roughly the same budget as Cowboys and Aliens had), Amerika was a cautionary tale inspired by Ben Stein, of all people, who, in an Op-Ed column, encouraged Hollywood to stop focusing on the reality of a nuclear holocaust but, instead, look to why we’re in danger. Why our great nation has come to the point where we’re held prisoner by mutually assured destruction. He proposed a day-in-the-life film about a Soviet America.

Amerika opens up a decade after the Soviets crippled the United States with EMP blasts and, in the ensuing confusion, staged a bloodless coup. It focuses on several movers and shakers involved in the final stage of “The Transition” – which sees the separation of the United States into regional SSR’s. Though that’s more information than the series originally gave us. Deleted scenes on the VHS release and the novelization filled in the gaps later. During the original airing, we’re given no explanation for anything. By and large, the Soviet overseers are unseen (with the exception of the two main guys). For over 14 hours, we follow collaborators and dissenters as they go about their daily routines.

The series belabors how sad our lives will be in a Soviet America with rationing, bread lines, massive unemployment (over 50%), and general suffering. Dissention from Middle America crystallizes into a partisan nation that, ultimately, attempts to break away from the rest of the country and nearly ignites the “second American Revolution.” But such hopeful imagery – including the triumphant raising of the American flag over grain elevators, and the successful first volleys of resistance – are tempered by the passive-aggressive savagery of the Soviet leaders and betrayal from within the burgeoning breakaway revolutionary state that pretty much guarantees their failure.

Amerika is full of lengthy reaction shots, and dialogue-free scenes of life under the Soviets that, at times, feel like they’ll never end. Most infamous is the “Lincoln Week” parade, which stretches on for nearly 30 minutes. Peppered throughout the 14 hours are tense scenes, shot through with Dark Knight-style squirm-in-your seat music, where the characters consider their actions in grim silence, often intercut with scenes depicting the disastrous results of those actions. Such as when Samonov, Amerika’s Soviet administrator, orders the destruction of the Capitol and the mass murder of the House of Representatives:

Amerika is hard to sit through, and a bit of a mind trip, but it’s far superior to World War III. There are times, deep into the series, where you start to wonder about the madness that possessed the creators. The exploration of Soviet America is so lovingly constructed that, even watching it as a teenager, I was somewhat suspicious about the loyalties of the show. Despite some compelling patriotic undertones, all sympathy lies with the tortured Soviet overlords who want nothing more than a peaceful, humane transition but are trapped between the bloodthirstiness of the Kremlin and the blindness of the American dissidents.

If you’re an apocalypse geek like me, both are worth checking out. If you don’t mind suffering through VHS rips posted piecemeal on Youtube, that is. Though, in Amerika’s case, that medium does lend a weird sort of historical archive feel. A window to a slow-moving, oddly plotted, strangely disturbing parallel past.

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