Happy 25th Anniversary, Alien Nation!

That was the scene in California’s Mojave desert three years ago today; the historic first view of the Newcomer ship upon its dramatic arrival….

AlienNationPoster

25 years? Are you freaking kidding me?

It’s the “not so far off” year of 1991: An alien spacecraft has landed, carrying without it a quarter million extraterrestrial beings. The aliens, “Newcomers,” as they’ll come to be called in polite company (or “Slags” by those who aren’t so polite), turn out to be genetically engineered slave workers who were being transferred to some unknown planet for labor. Instead, they’re now living in Los Angeles as the newest minority demographic on the block, keeping mostly to themselves in one section of the city most people call “Slagtown.” When two Newcomers murder a cop while in the midst of committing a robbery, the slain officer’s partner, Matthew Sykes, vows to track down the killers even if that means partnering with a newly promoted Newcomer police officer, “Sam Francisco.”

Sykes has no use for the aliens in general or Francisco in particular, but as the pair continues to work together he finds himself warming to his new partner, whom he has nicknamed “George.” Though not officially allowed to work his old partner’s murder, Sykes and Francisco’s investigation of another Newcomer death soon intersects with the other case and the cops eventually find themselves uncovering a massive drug manufacturing and distribution scheme aimed at exploiting the Newcomers.

And hilarity ensues.

Released on October 7th, 1988, Alien Nation didn’t seem to attract a great deal of attention at the time. For those who took notice, the film’s most intriguing aspects usually revolved around its putting a science fiction twist to the well-used “buddy cop” movie trope. The story also offered a metaphor for the ongoing issues of immigration and strained race relations, though much of this potential seemed to be left untapped as the story proceeds along more predictable paths, following the cops and their attempts to solve the murders and uncover the drug operation. One of the film’s most interesting aspects, namely the Newcomers and their differences and similarities when compared to humans, definitely gets short shrift. Yes, the Newcomers get drunk on sour milk instead of alcohol, and sea water is like acid for them, and a few other tidbits are offered, but mostly in passing in service to the murder mystery. Most of the reviews offered up at the time of the film’s release cited the “better in concept than execution” nature of the premise, though much credit was given to things like the alien make up, the creation of “Slagtown” and the Newcomer’s written and spoken language along with other glimpses into Newcomer culture, and the performances by leads James Caan (Sykes) and Mandy Patinkin (Francisco).

Still, the idea behind Alien Nation certainly intrigued some people at 20th Century Fox, who greenlit the development of a spin-off series for the 1989-90 TV season. While Alien Nation the film is an entertaining enough flick, for me the premise shines much better in the subsequent series. With more room to explore the characters and the Newcomer culture, many of the topics hinted at in the movie–racism, immigration, assimilation into a distrusting society, civil rights, or the steps one might take to retain one’s unique heritage or cultural identity–were able to get some decent time in the spotlight. Also, despite some changes to the characters and other things for the TV version, the series pilot does follow up on certain continuity and plot threads from the movie before striking off in its own direction.

Along the way, Pocket Books published several original Alien Nation novels and Adventure Comics produced a series of comics mini-series taking different looks at the concept…including an odd crossover with another fan-favorite Fox property, Planet of the Apes. There even was a one-shot comic which resolved the cliffhanger from the TV show’s first season following the series’ cancellation. Pocket Books also provided their own continuation of the TV cliffhanger’s storyline.

As for the television series, its cancellation actually was not due to low ratings. Indeed, it was one of the few successful Fox shows during the 1989-90 season. Instead, the show was a victim of an attempt by Fox to reorganize their finances, as the studio ordered all of their scripted drama shows struck from the schedule in favor of cheaper-to-produce half-hour comedies. Yeah, I don’t remember any of those, either. Fan support for the series remained popular after its cancellation, and a few years later Fox produced what ultimately came to be five sequel television movies.

I’ve been a fan of Alien Nation pretty much since I read the novelization of the original film in the fall of 1988, and I remember thinking back then that this was a great premise that deserved to be further explored. I didn’t see the movie during its original theatrical run, as I was stationed overseas at the time, and I didn’t even know a television spin-off was in development until I rotated back home early the next year. I was a faithful viewer of the show every Monday night, and as much as I thought Caan and Patinkin did pretty well with the material given to them for the movie, I much prefer Gary Graham and Eric Pierpoint as, respectively, Sikes (renamed) and Francisco.

It’s been eight years since the last of the five television movies, and I still think Alien Nation is definitely one of those concepts that could be revisited, and you could even do it while using at least some of the characters (and actors) from the TV series. There have been rumors of just such a continuation–as well as the inevitable reboot rumors–here and there in recent years, but so far as I know, nothing is in any sort of active development.

(And if any sort of tie-in novel line were to come about as a consequence of such efforts, well…I’m listening.)

If you’re only familiarity with Alien Nation is from the TV series, it’s worth tracking down the film to see how it all started.

Just go easy on the sour milk, eh?

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About Dayton Ward

Freelance word pusher. Husband. Dad. Trekkie. Rush fan (the band). Tampa Bay Bucs fan. Observer/derider of human behavior. I know where my towel is.
This entry was posted in feelin' nostalgic, movies, tributes. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Happy 25th Anniversary, Alien Nation!

  1. I was a fan from the beginning and liked it when the TV series came along. The ideas that got short shrift in the movie had intrigued me as well. I do have a set of the tie-ins and you doing one would be “snap it up instantly” time for me.

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  2. Jim Arrowood says:

    I was running a movie theater when the movie was released. I loved it and also enjoyed the television series a lot. I now have all of the DVD’s and watch them from time to time. I was not aware of the novels, so thanks for the heads up. I was very disappointed in the way the series was left hanging and will be reading them soon.

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    • Dayton Ward says:

      I recently did a rewatch of the series and subsequent TV movies, and I think the premise and the performances hold up. The series also added a level of humor and warmth that largely was missed in the film, and one of the show’s coolest aspects is the evolution of Matt Sikes over the course of the series…something which likely would’ve felt forced when compressed for the film’s running time.

      The only thing against the show itself is its placement in time, as we’ve long since passed when the show was supposed to have taken place, but that’s a very minor complaint, and one that affects any SF series set in “the near future.” I’d love to see someone take a crack at revisiting these characters.

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  3. liquidcross says:

    For some reason, I thought the original film was even older! I suppose this makes me feel better.

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