“That was the scene in California’s Mojave Desert five years ago: our historic first view of the Newcomers’ ship. Theirs was a slave ship, carrying a quarter million beings bred to adapt and labor in any environment. But they’ve washed ashore on Earth, with no way to get back to where they came from, and in the last five years the Newcomers have become the latest addition to the population of Los Angeles.”
Cue funky opening music and credits.
Los Angeles, 1995: Aliens are everywhere.
After their very massive starship crashes on Earth, 250,000 genetically engineered aliens who call themselves “Tenctonese” find themselves forced to assimilate into a world very different from the one to which they’d been heading. The people already living here also find themselves dealing with the very harsh reality that not only is there life “out there,” but there’s actually quite a lot of it. If one ship full of alien slaves can find their way to Earth, what about the people who enslaved them? What about any other enemies they might have? What would such people think of humans, and what if they decide we’re a threat?
Meanwhile, the Tenctonese just want to live, pay their bills, watch crappy TV, and basically take advantage of the unexpected gift of freedom they’ve received, but are they truly free? While many humans have welcomed these “Newcomers,” there are many others who’d be happy to see them climb back into their ship and fly away. Since that’s not really an option, such people are okay with taking more extreme steps to keep “Earth for earthlings.”
Then there’s Matt Sikes, cynical and halfway burnout police detective, who’s kinda sorta okay with the Newcomers, even though his last name when translated into Tenctonese is two words that mean “excrement” and “cranium” or “shit head.”
Then they make a Newcomer his partner. Whoops.
That’s the premise for Alien Nation, the television series adapted from characters and situations created by Rockne S. O’Bannon (seaQuest DSV, Farscape, Defiance) for the 1988 feature film of the same name, which premiered on the Fox network 30 years ago today. Developed by veteran TV producer Kenneth Johnson (The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, V), the series uses the basic setup and even a plot thread from the original film as a point of departure, stepping away from the movie’s “noir crime thriller” feel to what at first looks like yet another spin on the well-worn “mismatched buddy cop” TV/movie trope.
Naturally, any characters pulled over from the movie are recast. Gary Graham takes the reins of Matt Sikes (“Sykes” in the film) from James Caan, while Eric Pierpoint dons an updated (and simplified, ostensibly for TV purposes) version of George Fransisco’s Tenctonese makeup first sported by Mandy Patinkin. The series also does a little bit of minor retconning at the outset, such as moving forward the date of the Newcomers’ arrival to 1990 (1988 in the film), and the show begins five years later (as opposed to three). This is only really noticeable because Sikes visits the grave of his fallen partner, killed in the film and who’s been “gone a month, already” at this point. Elsewhere, Sikes’ daughter will soon be depicted as a teenager preparing for college, whereas in the film she’s a bit older and about to get married. George Francisco (originally named “Sam” in the movie as part of a running gag through the film and series about how immigration officials got punchy after assigning Earth-like names to 250,000 Tenctonese) has a wife, Susan, and a son – “Richard” in the film, “Buck” here – but there’s also a younger daughter, Emily, introduced at the start of the show.
As described by Kenny Johnson, he wanted the show to have less of the network-desired “sci-fi Lethal Weapon” feel and instead embody more of an “In the Heat of the Night” flavor. So, the “partners who start off as rivals and end up being friends” thing ends up being something of a clever disguise. This becomes evident in the opening moments of the series’ first episode, when Sikes defends Emily Francisco on her first day attending a “human” school from protesters and “purists” who want the Tenctonese gone. They want her and other “Slags” like her to go back to “Slagtown,” the part of the city where many Newcomers have settled. After all, the aliens are moving into nice neighborhoods and trying to go to the good schools and they’re taking too many of “our jobs!”
(Golly, if this sounds a little topical or even prescient, you should probably keep watching.)
Anyway, Sikes wades into the protest, in what may well be one of the show’s best scenes right out of the gate:
“Why stop with running them back to Slagtown? Why don’t we just kill them? Teach them a lesson! Keep them in their place. Keep America pure! We don’t even need to paint little stars on them to recognize them, do we? Hell, they’ll be easy to round up. Look at them! They stand out even better than the Japs that we threw into concentration camps back in 1942! This’ll be a piece of cake! And if enough of us get together, it’ll almost seem legal, won’t it? Put little white pointy sheets on our heads, and hang us a few Slags.”
Sikes then takes Emily’s hand – slyly winking at her to tell her it’ll be okay.
“Well, let’s start with this little one right here. Just because she’s an American citizen, that doesn’t make her a human being, does it? So what if she’s a little brighter than some of our kids. We can beat that out of her! Discourage her enough, she’ll give up. So what if she might’ve come up with a cure for cancer someday? She’s not civilized like us! So why don’t we just put a gun to her head and end it all right here, huh?”
He offers his pistol to the crowd, daring anyone to take it and pull the trigger. “Put your money where your mouth is,” and all that. He even calls out the protest leader, “Ms. Purist,” who of course stands motionless. When he finally declares he has to do the deed himself, that’s when one of the protesters (also a neighbor of the Franciscos. That’s awkward, amirite?) finally speaks up, he gets what he was waiting for:
“We don’t want her dead. We just want her to go back where she belongs.”
That’s when Sikes gets to drop the mic. “She belongs…here.”
Boom. You’re dismissed, fuckbags. And we’re off.
It’s not as though he’s innocent of having similar thoughts and attitudes. The series will spend a great deal of time examining issues of racism, immigration, civil rights, equality, workers rights, social justice, and a number of related topics, all filtered through Sikes’ perspective as he learns to address his own prejudices. His working relationship with George and his friendship with him and his family will drive much of that, of course, as will his feelings for Cathy, the Newcomer who’s just moved into the apartment down the hall from him. Sikes is a “work in progress” throughout the show’s run. He and George will clash several times over bigoted things Sikes says, with George constantly pushing him to be a better person. He’ll even compare Sikes to the purists and other outright racists in one early episode and tell him, “You are better than they are. You’re worth it.”
Indeed, Alien Nation spent the bulk of its single season growing far beyond the more straightforward, even simple setup of the feature film which inspired it. A talented cast of supporting characters – humans and Newcomers alike – helped to flesh out this near-future L.A. The year was a mix of stories that wove police procedurals around exploring Sikes and George’s partnership and friendship, George and Susan and their quest to build a normal life for their children, and greater glimpses into the Tenctonese culture and their ongoing struggles to assimilate into their new home on Earth.
Along the way, George and his wife Susan conceive a third child, and we’re all treated to the intricacies of Tenctonese reproduction, which of course definitely raised some eyebrows among the “Manly Man contingent” both on the show and in real life. A sinister subplot also emerged toward the end of the season, with an organized group of Purists planning a major attack against the Newcomer population. Many of these subplots were left hanging with the airing of the season’s final episode, but most people were certain the series would be renewed for a second year. Scripts had already been written and the cast and production team were gearing up to get back to work.
Then, Fox happened.
Despite being a decently rated series on Fox, the fledgling network was looking for ways to scrounge up quick cash in the spring and summer in 1990. This resulted in the cancellation of all scripted drama programs, including Alien Nation. Everyone from the showrunners to fans and even casual passers-by were surprised by the news of the show’s axing. It would be four years before viewers were reunited with Sikes and the Franciscos when Alien Nation: Dark Horizon premiered in the fall of 1994. Picking up (more or less) where the series left off, this TV movie resolved some of the lingering cliffhangers while leaving the door open for some sort of continuation.
Sidebar: Hardcore fans had already been treated to two different takes on this story, first with a one-shot comic from Malibu Graphics in 1992 that billed itself as “The Lost Episode.” This was one of several Alien Nation comics projects produced in the early 1990s by Malibu (most of them under their Adventure Comics imprint). In prose form, Pocket Books and author K.W. Jeter also adapted the broad strokes of the first season finale along with an unproduced teleplay of what would’ve been the second season premiere into 1993’s Dark Horizon, the second of what turned out to be eight Alien Nation novels published between 1993 and 1995 under license from Fox. Speaking of the novels and if you can find them, I highly recommend The Day of Descent. Written by Judith and Garfield-Reeves Stevens, it’s a prequel to the TV series and details the events leading up to the Newcomers’ arrival on Earth.)
Dark Horizon the TV movie was successful enough to spawn four more such films. Alien Nation: Body and Soul premiered in October 1995, followed by Millennium (January 1996), The Enemy Within (November 1996), and The Udara Legacy (July 1997). Throughout the production of these films, rumors abounded of a return to a weekly series but that never materialized, with The Udara Legacy being the last time we got to see Sikes and the Franciscos on screen.
I enjoyed the original Alien Nation film well enough. I didn’t actually see it until almost a year after it hit theater screens as I was stationed overseas from mid-1988 to mid-1989, so I had to satisfy myself with Alan Dean Foster’s novelization, purchased from a Stars & Stripes bookstore on Okinawa. However, it’s the series where the potential hinted at in the movie’s setup really pays off. I remain a huge fan of the show and it’s one I’ve revisited several times over the years. Hell, I even bought the series two episodes at a time on DVD from Columbia House in the early 2000s before a proper series set was released to retail, followed by a separate release of the five TV movies. Twenty-odd years ago, before my head was filled with delusions of grandeur about writing professionally, I even wrote my own bit of Alien Nation fan fiction. Don’t bother asking to see it. The original manuscript is in a secure location (along with one based on the War of the Worlds TV series), I’ve burned all copies, and disappeared all witnesses.
These days, more idle chatter about some form of Alien Nation reboot surfaces every so often. An article from back in July indicates any such plans are on hold while Disney sorts out all the cool new toys it has thanks to its acquisition of Fox. But given the era of reboots and revivals, I figure it’s only a manner of time before this one’s revisited in some form. My first choice would be for Kenny Johnson to come back and pick up however many years after the series, but I suspect that ship has long sailed. Still, if Johnson or even Rockne S. O’Bannon’s up for the challenge either as a continuation or a fresh take on the concept, then count me in.
Meanwhile? Happy 30th anniversary, Alien Nation the series. If you’ve never sampled it, you’ve missed out on one of the best TV science fiction shows of the 1980s/90s, and that’s enough to irk Matt Sikes here.
2 thoughts on “Happy 30th Anniversary, Alien Nation the TV series!”
A great show. I considered it the best SF-as-social-commentary since STAR TREK. And I bought into its reality so much that there were times when I saw a bald man in the distance on the street and briefly thought he was a Newcomer. I *wanted* to be in that world.
As I understand it, the reason for the cancellation was that FOX wanted to expand its lineup to another night or two (it was only on a few nights a week) and figured out they could make four half-hour sitcoms for the same cost as ALIEN NATION. They loved the show, though, and kept trying to work out a way they could afford to bring it back, which was where the movie-revival scripts came from. Eventually it seemed they’d given up, so the novels happened, but then they made the movies after all.
As for DARK HORIZON, it didn’t so much resolve the series finale’s cliffhangers so much as replace the season finale in the continuity. It retold the inciting cliffhanger event in a new, shorter way and ignored most of the other subplots from the finale, since many viewers wouldn’t remember them after 4 years. I was actually glad of that, because I didn’t care for the finale “Green Eyes.” It was the kind of season finale that went out of its way to put every character in a different, extremely bad cliffhanger situation at the exact same time, which felt very contrived and forced to me.
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Reblogged this on Christopher L. Bennett: Written Worlds and commented:
It’s the 30th anniversary of one of my favorite TV series, Kenneth Johnson’s ALIEN NATION, and my friend and fellow novelist Dayton Ward has written an excellent retrospective on it at his site. Check it out!
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