After managing a trio of entries over a fairly short time span, I allowed more than a month to go by without revisiting this inconsistently recurring “blog feature. ” One of these days, I’ll figure out how to make this more of a regular thing, but until then? Surprise!
The basic idea is pretty simple: I present a nostalgic look at a favorite series of movie or TV tie-in books. Usually this means something from Way Back When, but I’m also up for taking a look at more recent entries to the genre if inspiration strikes. To this point, previous installments have included looks back at novels based on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, Planet of the Apes, Space: 1999, and others. However, the Die Hard one was something of an odd duck that demanded a little attention. See? Unpredictable.
This time, I’ve decided to revisit a fondly remembered television series from the late 1980s/early 1990s as well as the film that spawned it, and in turn the novels it produced: Alien Nation.
This unlikely franchise began life as an oft-overlooked and underrated science fiction/noir/action flick that most people seemed to ignore when it was released to theaters in the fall of 1988. The story goes like this: in the “near future” of 1991, it’s three years after a giant spacecraft crashes in the Mojave Desert. We find out the ship was carrying 300,000 aliens, “Newcomers,” who end up settling in Los Angeles in a perhaps not-so subtle nod to the 1980 Mariel Boat Lift, during which more than 125,000 refugees fled from Cuba to Florida. After his partner is killed by a Newcomer during a robbery, Detective Matt Sykes teams with another alien who’s recently been promoted from uniformed cop to detective, and hijinks ensue. What follows is a fairly standard procedural with the added discussions and observations about racism, immigration, law and order, and civil rights all filtered through a science fiction-y lens thanks to the Newcomers being the marginalized group.
The film was written by Rockne S. O’Bannon, at that time formerly a story editor on the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone and still a few years away from giving us seaQuest DSV (the first season of which I will die defending and I remain convinced it would have been a better show throughout if he’d stayed with it) and the oh-so-amazing Farscape. So, right away genre fans should be thinking, “Okay, I’m listening.” The movie cast James Caan and Mandy Patinkin as its two leads and Terence Stamp as its main bad guy, so at this point you’re like, “Holy, shit! How can this not be awesome?”
While it wasn’t “awesome,” it was still a tight little SF/action hybrid. Caan as human detective Sykes and Patinkin as Sam/George Francisco make for an entertaining team in the best 1980s buddy cop tradition. Though it received mixed reviews from critics and enjoyed only a modest box office return, Alien Nation has since become something of a minor cult classic. Like many films of the 1970s and 1980s, Alien Nation received a novelization of its script from author Alan Dean Foster, who is pretty much a king of this particular corner of the tie-in writing field. It was thanks to this novel that I came to even know about the film, as I was stationed on Okinawa and so missed a lot of first-run American movies during this period. I scratched that itch with novelizations for several films and even a TV series or two which hit screens during the year I spent on “the Rock.” Indeed, my copy of Foster’s Alien Nation novelization still bears the stamp showing I purchased it in a Pacific Stars & Stripes bookstore.
What I don’t think many people were expecting was that the film would generate enough interest to inspire a television series, but that’s exactly what happened. Developed by TV veteran Kenneth Johnson — who’d already brought The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk and V to our television screens — Johnson took O’Bannon’s already juicy setup and characters in directions the film itself didn’t have time or space or even money to do. Premiering on Fox during the fall of 1989, Alien Nation the TV series ever so slightly tweaks the film’s original premise to ease it into the weekly format. The heightened emphasis on the partnership between Matt Sikes (now played by Gary Graham and yes, they changed the spelling) and George Francisco (Eric Pierpoint) as well as the Francisco family allowed for further exploration of Newcomer (now known as “Tenctonese”) society and culture and a deeper look at prejudice, racism, rights, and all the other social issues the film hinted at but never got to really pick apart.
Despite being a critical and ratings success, Fox canceled the series after a single season (which ended on a pretty hefty cliffhanger!) due to financial issues larger than the show itself. However, fan support for the series remained high enough that it did return in 1994, in the form of what ultimately would be five television movies over the next three years, each reuniting the original series cast. The first film, Alien Nation: Dark Horizon, was a modified version of the storyline which would’ve served as the second season’s first episode, resolving the first season’s cliffhanger finale. This story in particular has its own odd history within the franchise. Hang on, we’re getting there!
Despite the series being cancelled in 1990, Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books imprint — which regular readers of this blog should recognize as a longtime publisher of Star Trek novels including several written by your blog host — began publishing novels based on the series. Eight novels were released between March 1993 and July 1995. The first of these, The Day of Descent written by Judith and Garfield-Reeves Stevens, is arguably the strongest of the lot. A prequel to the film as well as the television series, the book reveals how the Newcomers came to Earth and what police sergeant Matt Sikes was doing as life changed not just for the citizens of Los Angeles but indeed people all over the world. It’s a meaty little tome and does a terrific job filling in a story hinted at yet never really examined throughout the TV series’ tragically short run.
The next three novels in the each draw on unproduced scripts for what would have been Alien Nation‘s second television season. Dark Horizon by K.W. Jeter is particularly notable as it does a very effective job giving fans of the series what they so desperately wanted at that point in time: a conclusion to the cliffhanger season finale. In fact, Adventure Comics (an imprint of Malibu Comics), who’d begun publishing Alien Nation comics in 1990, beat Pocket to the punch with their own adaptation of this story. Likewise, Peter David’s Body and Soul gets a chance to examine the growing romance between Sikes and Newcomer Cathy Frankel, which had been hinted at during the series. These two stories would later form the basis for the first and second Alien Nation TV movies and while fans welcomed the return to television, there are those who prefer the prose version of the events depicted.
Meanwhile, The Change was the first of two Alien Nation novels written by renowned science fiction author Barry B. Longyear, a name genre readers should recognize for – among many other things – Enemy Mine, the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novella which was adapted into a cult classic film of its own. His next contribution to the series, Slag Like Me, is one of the line’s strongest entries. Inspired by journalist John Howard Griffin’s groundbreaking book from 1961, Black Like Me, Longyear places a human journalist undercover as a Newcomer to expose the systemic racism and discrimination endured by the aliens as they strive to assimilate to life on Earth. When the journalist is murdered, Sikes goes undercover as a Newcomer to find those responsible.
The series’ final entry, K. W. Jeter’s Cross of Blood, is also one of its high points. Whereas the romance between Sikes and Cathy Frankel had attracted scrutiny and varying flavors of commentary since its introduction during the TV series, Cross of Blood kicks things up several notches when Cathy becomes pregnant with Sikes’ child. The idea of such a child had already been the subject of Body and Soul but of course it’s a much bigger deal here as it involves main characters, and there’s much more focus on the social and political ramifications of humans conceiving children with members of an alien species. It’s the sort of thing at which Alien Nation excelled throughout its brief TV run and Cross of Blood honors the spirit of the show in fine fashion.
Like so many other book series that came and went during my formative years, the Alien Nation novels were over and done with long before I even entertained the crazy notion of entering the realm of professional writing. They suffered the same fate experienced by many such books based on television shows: once the parent property is no longer active on TV (or movie) screens, interest tends to dwindle as fans and readers move on to other things. There are exceptions to that unwritten rule of course; Star Trek is a prime example but let me tell you some time how novels based on Murder, She Wrote continue to be published two decades after that TV series ended.
But for the most part? Such books tend to have a pretty limited lifespan, which is a damned shame. Like many fans almost certainly did, I came up with a couple of ideas on how to revisit Alien Nation, either as a continuation of the series and character or else a sequel set years if not decades later. Don’t take me too seriously, though, as I’ve harbored similar notions and dreams for pretty much every science fiction TV series I’ve enjoyed for the past 40-odd years. It’s a sickness, I tell you!
Meanwhile, if you’re a fan of Alien Nation, particularly the series, and you’ve never sampled these novels, here are eight stories you may have missed which might feed your fannish fever.