A race of aliens arrive on Earth in a fleet of 50 huge, saucer-shaped motherships, which hover over major cities across the world. They reveal themselves on the roof of the United Nations building in New York City, appearing human but requiring special glasses to protect their eyes and having a distinctive resonance to their voices. Referred to as the Visitors, they reach out in friendship, ostensibly seeking the help of humans to obtain chemicals and minerals needed to aid their ailing world, which is revealed to be a planet orbiting the star Sirius. In return, the Visitors promise to share their advanced technology with humanity. The governments of Earth accept the arrangement, and the Visitors, commanded by their leader John and his deputy Diana, begin to gain considerable influence with human authorities.
Strange events begin to occur. Scientists become in particular the objects of increasing media and public hostility. They experience government restrictions on their activities and movements. Others, particularly those keen on examining the Visitors more closely, begin to disappear or are discredited. Noted scientists confess to subversive activities; some of them exhibit other unusual behaviors, such as suddenly demonstrating hand preference opposite to the one they were known to have.
Television journalist cameraman Michael Donovan covertly boards one of the Visitors' motherships. He discovers that beneath their human-like façade--a thin, synthetic skin and human-eye contact lenses--the aliens are carnivorous reptilian humanoids with horned foreheads and green, scaly skin. He also witnesses them eating whole live animals such as rodents and birds. Donovan, who first took footage of one of the alien ships flying overhead while on duty in El Salvador, records some of his findings on videotape and escapes from the mothership with the evidence. However, just as the exposé is about to air on television, the broadcast is interrupted by the Visitors who have taken control of the media. Their announcement makes Donovan a fugitive pursued by both the police and the Visitors.
Scientists around the world continue to be persecuted, both to discredit them (as the part of the human population most likely to discover the Visitors' secrets) and to distract the rest of the population with a scapegoat to whom they could attribute their fears. Key human individuals are subjected to Diana's special mind control process called "conversion", which turned them into the Visitors' pawns, leaving only subtle behavioral clues to this manipulation. Others become subjects of Diana's horrifying biological experiments.
Some humans (including Mike Donovan's mother, Eleanor Dupres) willingly collaborate with the Visitors, seduced by their power. Daniel Bernstein, a grandson of a Jewish Holocaust survivor, joins the Visitor Youth and reveals the location of a scientist family, his neighbors the Maxwells, to the alien cause. One teenager, Robin Maxwell, the daughter of a well-known scientist who went into hiding, has a sexual relationship with a male Visitor named Brian, who impregnates her as one of Diana's "medical experiments".
A resistance movement is formed, determined to expose and oppose the Visitors. The Los Angeles cell leader is Julie Parrish, herself a biologist. Donovan later joins the group and, again sneaking aboard a mothership, he learns from a Visitor named Martin that the story about the Visitors needing waste chemicals is a cover for a darker mission. The true purpose of the Visitors' arrival on Earth was to conquer and subdue the planet, steal all of the Earth's water, and harvest the human race as food, leaving only a few as slaves and cannon fodder for the Visitors' wars with other alien races. Martin is one of many dissidents among the Visitors (later known as the Fifth Column) who oppose their leader's plans and would rather co-exist peacefully with the humans. Martin befriends Donovan and promises to aid the Resistance, and gives Donovan access to one of their sky-fighter ships, which he quickly learns how to pilot. He escapes from the mothership along with Robin and another prisoner named Sancho, who'd aided Robin's family in their flight out of occupied Los Angeles.
The Resistance strike their first blows against the Visitors, procuring laboratory equipment and modern military weapons from National Guard armories to carry on the fight. The symbol of the resistance is a blood-red letter V (for victory), spray-painted over posters promoting Visitor friendship among humans. The symbol was inspired by Daniel Bernstein's grandfather Abraham, a Holocaust survivor.
The mini-series ends with the Visitors now virtually controlling the Earth, and Julie and Elias sending a transmission into space to ask other alien races for help in defeating the occupiers.
Inspired by Sinclair Lewis' anti-fascist novel It Can't Happen Here (1935), director–producer Kenneth Johnson wrote an adaptation titled Storm Warnings, in 1982. The script was presented to NBC for production as a television mini-series, but the NBC executives rejected the initial version, claiming it was too "cerebral" for the average American viewer. To make the script more marketable, the American fascists were re-cast as man-eating extraterrestrials, taking the story into the realm of science fiction to capitalize on the popularity of science-fiction franchises such as Star Wars. V, which cost $13 million ($31,000,000 today) to make, premiered on May 1, 1983.
With the Visitor's swastika-like emblem and their SS-like uniforms, the miniseries became an allegory on Nazi fascism. There is a youth auxiliary movement called the "Friends of the Visitors" with similarities to the Hitler Youth, while the Visitor's attempts at cooptation of television news reporters suggests the Nazi-era propagandization of news through the film industry. The miniseries' portrayal of human interaction with the Visitors bears resemblance to Occupied Europe during World War II, with some citizens choosing collaboration while others join underground resistance movements. Where the Nazis persecuted primarily Jews, the Visitors were depicted persecuting scientists, their families, and anyone associating with them. As the Visitors start eliminating scientists who could reveal their true nature, a Jewish family is shown hesitating helping their scientist neighbor and his family, until their grandfather suggests that to do otherwise would mean they hadn't learned anything from the past.
The two-part miniseries ran for 200 minutes; the first part was the second most-popular program of the week with 40% of the viewing television audience at that time watching it. Its success spawned a sequel, V: The Final Battle, which was meant to conclude the story. In spite of the apparent conclusion, this was then followed by a weekly television series, V: The Series, from 1984 to 1985 that continued the story a year after The Final Battle. Johnson left V during production of The Final Battle due to disagreements with NBC over how the story should progress.
In November 2005, Entertainment Weekly named V one of the ten best miniseries on DVD. The article noted, "As a parable about it-can-happen-here fascism, V was far from subtle, but it carved a place for lavish and intelligent sci-fi on TV. Its impact can still be felt in projects like Taken and The 4400 " (The 4400's executive producer Scott Peters later helmed ABC's 2009 reboot.) " In December 2008, Entertainment Weekly put V on its list "The Sci-Fi 25: The Genre's Best Since 1982", and called Visitor leader Diana's devouring a guinea pig "one of the best TV reveals ever."
For many years, Johnson has campaigned to revive V, and even wrote a sequel novel, V: The Second Generation which picked up the story 20 years after the original miniseries (but omitted the events of The Final Battle and V: The Series). Warner Bros. Television (who own the television rights to the V franchise) declined to make a continuation as Johnson had planned, and opted for a remake instead. A reimagining of V premiered on ABC on November 3, 2009 and ran for two seasons. Though Johnson was not involved in the remake, which featured all new characters, executive producer Scott Peters said that it would nod to the most iconic moments from the original franchise and may potentially include actors from the original in new roles. Both Jane Badler and Marc Singer appeared in the second season. As of 2009, Johnson has also said he is still moving ahead with his plans for a big screen remake of his original V mini-series though no progress has been made.
The viral marketing campaign was unique. Posters appeared in train stations of a smiling man behind wraparound sunglasses, others grinning along with him, with only a motto "The Visitors are our friends" to explain it. Days later, those posters had a red "v" (for "victory") spray-painted on them. Nothing suggested this was an ad for a TV show, which made the marketing even more intriguing.
The miniseries was first released as V: The Original Miniseries on VHS during the mid-1990s, and later on DVD in 2001. The VHS release was in 4:3 fullscreen format as originally broadcast, while the DVD release is in a matted 16:9 widescreen format. The miniseries was originally filmed in open matte format, with director Kenneth Johnson stating he had also composed the picture to be more or less "widescreen safe" in the event that it got an overseas theatrical release (which it did not).
In 2012, SyFy broadcast the entire miniseries in high definition, leading to speculation that a Blu-ray release was imminent. However, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment currently has no plans to release the show on Blu-ray.
A. C. Crispin wrote a 402-page V novelization in 1984 for Pinnacle Books that combined both the original miniseries and The Final Battle. Following the release of V: The Second Generation in 2008, Tor Books re-released the original miniseries' section of Crispin's book, with a new epilogue by Johnson that tied the events of the first miniseries with Second Generation.