Grapevine: Alien Nation

Alien Nation DVD setI have an intensely stupid confession to make. Back in 1989, when I found out that there was a weekly TV series starting up based on Alien Nation, I purposefully avoided it because I had the movie Alien Nation confused with They Live, which I hadn’t liked (I like it better now, though possibly not as much as the story it’s based on, “Eight O’clock in the Morning”).

I mean, actually, I hadn’t really liked Alien Nation either. The movie is basically Lethal Weapon crossed with Trancers (the first one, when it was trying to be a serious, gritty science fiction action film, not the rest of the franchise were they just went nuts with delicious Low-Budget Science Fiction Cheeze), and that’s not really my thing. But neither did Kenneth Johnson when Fox approached him to make the show. The thing about the movie is that, looking back on it as an adult, there isn’t really all that much reason for there to be aliens in it. It’s a movie about a white cop who has to set aside his bigotry when he’s partnered with a black alien cop in order to bring down an illegal drug smuggling operation and avenge his slain former partner (who, presumably, was two days from retirement). Yeah, sure the drug in question is an alien steroid and it makes addicts turn into The Incredible Hulk, and sure, the head of the drug ring dies by dissolving in seawater, and sure, the partner gets drunk on sour milk, but why bother? The first scene of the movie is basically District 13, but then it just turns into a buddy cop movie — there’s no serious exploration of what it means for humanity to make extraterrestrial contact at all, let alone in the form of three hundred thousand permanent refugees, and we learn basically nothing about the alien culture. It’s a technically proficient movie with good makeup and good acting and solid writing, but there’s just not enough of an idea behind it to justify its existence when there are already one 48 Hours, one Lethal Weapon, and two Beverly Hills Cops by this point.

The Hidden video coverDo you get the feeling that Buddy Cop Shows were hot right now? Cagney and Lacey had just ended its run in May of 1988, and Miami Vice would end its a year later. In the Heat of the Night premiered in ’88. I’ve already mentioned more than once that the first season of War of the Worlds feels at times like it’s trying to be a Buddy Cop Show about alien-hunting. Alien Nation would premier on Fox about a month before the second season started up. 1988 also gave us the Treat Williams/Joe Piscopo film Dead Heat, a buddy cop film with zombie cops, A year earlier, we had the Kyle MacLachlan buddy cops-but-one-of-them-is-an-alien film The Hidden. Dolph Lundgren would have a Buddy Cops vs Aliens film in 1990 with I Come in Peace.

It’s reductivist and misleading and probably insulting to pretend that the past is simply a failed draft of the present. But it’s equally true that the present didn’t just spring fully formed into existence one day out of nowhere. And more to the point, when we look back on a history full of failures — failed TV series, if you’re me, but, y’know, it’s a metaphor — we should recognize that a lot of the time, things don’t fail because the people involved were stupid or backward or ignorant. Rather, they were caught up in an impasse between the world they actually lived in, and the world that was coming into being. That tension basically ripped War of the Worlds in two. I like to say that the past is haunted by the future, mostly because I take a certain pleasure in contradicting Derrida. The past is full of things that don’t work because they don’t belong there. Captain Power failed because 1987 was not the right place to do that kind of show. War of the Worlds failed because 1988 was not the right place to do a protracted Cold War metaphor and 1989 was not the right place to do a protracted religious extremism metaphor. Here, at the tail end of the nexus, there’s a concerted drive to make the next big Buddy Cop Science Fiction Action Adventure. And it doesn’t work in 1989, because we all know what the next big Buddy Cop Science Fiction Action Adventure is going to be: 1992’s Mann and Machine.

No, wait,1993’s The X-Files. Sorry. Freudian slip. No idea where that came from.

So Johnson wasn’t especially into Alien Nation, but there was one scene he liked where alien cop Sam “George” Francisco is with his family. So he decided to retool the whole thing from Lethal Weapon with aliens into In The Heat of the Night with aliens, with the focus being less on buddy cop action, and more on how human and alien cultures interacted and influenced each other, particularly highlighting mutual distrust and the hollywood-friendly sort of racism that is explained away as the work of uninformed or malevolent individuals rather than systematic hegemony woven into the structure of society at all levels. Depending on who you ask, it kinda sounds like that was a big part of what Rockne S. O’Bannon was shooting for when he wrote the script to the movie, which makes plenty of sense given his resume (He’s the Farscape guy, in case you didn’t know), but I don’t see much of that in the finished product.

It’s cult science fiction television in the late ’80s, so of course the handling of racism is going to be primitive and hamfisted and built around simpleminded platitudes written by middle-class college-educated white guys who know approximately balls about being on the receiving end of social injustice that comes down too hard on the side of, “Oppressed populations should just be patient and trust the system to work this all out eventually, and above all, try not to freak out the white folks.” What do you expect? Science fiction has a long history of being about social commentary, yes, but it also has a long history of being awfully superficial about it, and also of being heavily skewed toward middle-class college-educated white guys who know approximately balls about being on the receiving side of social injustice. Like, every time Star Trek tried to be all deep and literary, they just took another swing at doing Moby-Dick (Did you know Moby-Dick is hyphenated? I didn’t) in space. Don’t get me wrong, Moby-Dick is a classic. But the fourth time you rip off a work of literature typically taught in middle school, people should stop calling you deep.

What’s memorable about Alien Nation isn’t the social commentary, but the level of detail that went into depicting the alienness of the aliens. We’re not all the way to Farscape levels here yet, but there’s definitely more thought gone into them than Star Trek‘s approach of “Pick an existing ethnic stereotype and glue gumball-machine toys to their nose.” The backstory to the series is that in 1988, a gigantic, crippled space ship landed on Earth, carrying a quarter-million alien refugees. These aliens, the Tenctonese (also called, depending on how racist you are, “Newcomers” or “Slags”) were a genetically manipulated slave race that had overthrown their masters. We never learn anything about these masters, since it wasn’t where the show wanted to go and also because the Tenctonese didn’t really know much about them either as they were a shadowy and distant sort of overlord, acting through intermediaries.

Once the Tenctonese work out that they can’t fix the ship, the US government, kind of unbelievably, naturalizes the lot of them and declares them US citizens with the full rights and responsibilities thereunto. They all go through immigration, where bored INS workers give them all stupid names like “Oliver Clothesoff” and “Sam Francisco” (“Passive-aggressively give the foreigners stupid names as a life-affecting joke” is possibly the most realistic thing about how the whole event is treated), and most of them move to Los Angeles, where, yeah, they face racism and bigotry, but not, say, rioting in the streets by armed religious extremists determined to exterminate the abominations from space or anything like that (There’s a cult right at the end of the series who tries to commit genocide using a bioweapon, but, again, we’re just talking about a small group of extremists, not, as happens to minority groups in the real world, serious elected officials suggesting we should round them all up and execute them, or at least give them a different and lesser set of de jure rights from straight white Christian male human people). It’s very much romanticized in the vein of the stories we like to tell ourselves about the struggle of late-19th century immigrants from Europe, because those stories have happy endings that don’t involve, “And a hundred and fifty years after they gained citizenship, you still had regular incidents of cops shooting their unarmed children in the streets and facing absolutely no legal consequences for it.”

Physically, the Tenctonese are fairly close to human in form, superficially. They’ve got slightly bulbous heads with spots instead of hair (the spots are also erogenous zones), which fade when they’re mentally incapacitated. They’ve got a third biological sex (nominally counted as male) that facilitates reproduction but doesn’t contribute genetic material. Salt is caustic to them, while arsenic is a condiment. They can’t eat cooked food. Sour milk is an intoxicant. They’re more susceptible to poisons due to their faster circulatory systems. Because they were genetically modified for manual labor in harsh conditions, they’re a bit stronger than humans on average, and, because TV sci-fi loves evolution but does not have a clue how it works, they can apparently evolve over the course of a generation or two to adapt to a new environment. Humans and Tenctonese can’t interbreed, but it’s implied that this might change a few decades down the road (A human-alien hybrid hoax is the plot of one of the post-series movies, and in one of the post-series novels, a Tenctonese woman is impregnated by a human, but the fetus is non-viable). Also, cross-species relations require special training to avoid severe injury. They’re sexually liberated — the worst judgment you’ll get out of them is that they think treating sex lightly is childish. Same-sex and inter-species marriages are accepted (Remember, this is the eighties. I would so love to see the dissenting opinion in Heywood Jablome v. California to hear how Alito tried to explain that a Newcomer marrying a human was totes different from Loving v. Virginia). Oh, and the menfolk carry the young for part of the gestation cycle, seahorse-style, mostly because we as a TV-viewing culture find the concept of a pregnant man hilarious. Relevant to a cop show, they have no fingerprints, their eyes change color when embarrassed, and their feet swell under stress.

But all that’s the sort of thing you see all the time in science fiction. In fact, I think at least half of them turned up in Star Trek Enterprise. What I think really set Alien Nation the series apart from most shows in the genre is the detail it puts into the alien culture. Yes, they have their own spoken language, which is, par for the course, pretty clearly English with all the words swapped one-for-one with an invented lexicon (Which, it turns out, is mostly mispronounced Russian with some clicks thrown in). They’ve also got a written language which is kind of neat because it’s cursive (a rarity for invented Sci-Fi writing systems) and kind of resembles an EKG. But most interestingly, they’re not a monoculture. They totally could have gotten away with them being one, what with the whole, “This is the first generation that hasn’t lived under an extremely oppressive regime stunting their societal evolution” thing. But the Tenctonese are a pretty varied culture. Many assimilate fully into human society, others don’t. They’ve got more than one religion — at least four big ones, near as I can tell, with smaller sects and cults. You’d normally expect that even if a writer did deign to give an alien race more than one religion, they’d be a pretty much random assortment of faiths, probably thinly veiled equivalents of the most popular Earth religions. And while there certainly are obvious parallels to Earth religions, what’s even more prominent is the sense that these religious traditions evolved together and informed each other. We’re told that the ancient Tenctonese were a matriarchal society, and while their modern society is at least as egalitarian as ours (probably a bit more), there are still artifacts of that preserved to varying degrees in their various religions. The oldest religion is a form of goddess worship, and strictly matriarchal; the newer but now more prominent Celinist faith practices a form of hero worship with a backstory vaguely similar to Christianity, and its traditions aren’t strictly matriarchal, but its clergy remains predominantly female. Some of the religions have some practices in common as well, like the dreamcatcher-like artifacts they place near their beds, and gift-giving traditions (Never give a Newcomer cut flowers, especially when they’re sick. They would prefer something that hasn’t been, y’know, murdered in the prime of its life). There are elements of their culture that reflect their history of slavery as well: they really dig clowns, what with professional entertainers not being something they ever had access to before. But they find slapstick distasteful, since Moe Howard slapping his brother for incompetence isn’t as funny to someone used to being brutalized for every failure. This being the first generation of Tenctonese in a long time that were able to choose their own mates, a lot of them have trouble adjusting to the freedom to date, and resort to dating services and taking “love potion” drugs.

Alien Nation the Movie

You may by this point have noticed that I haven’t really talked about the show itself, or its characters or its plots or anything like that. Like I said, I didn’t watch it at the time. The show is set around 1995, when the Tenctonese aliens have integrated themselves into human society enough that they’re just starting, in limited numbers, to find their way into positions of wealth and influence (Though they still don’t have the vote for some reason, that not having just happened by default by virtue of them all having been naturalized as US citizens in the backstory). The majority of them, of course, are still living in ghettos and doing manual labor — a role for which their biology gives them certain advantages, and as you’d expect, creates tension with blue-collar human communities whose jrrbs they’ve taken. The human lead is Matthew Sikes. In the movie, he’s played by James Caan, but for the series, the role goes to Gary Graham, who you may know as Ambassador Soval, the Vulcan buzzkill from Star Trek Enterprise, or from his leading role in the 1990 stop-motion giant-robot mecha gladiator movie Robot Jox (A film notorious for the way that it just completely stops dead about three seconds after its climax). He’s your typical Archie Bunker-style good-hearted-bigot who starts out obnoxiously racist, but very quickly turns around and limits himself to microaggressions that the audience is supposed to find cute, but which in reality would get you a visit from HR. As you might expect given the genre, he eventually develops a comfortable rapport with his Tenctonese partner George, and they become close friends, in spite of the fact that even by the time the series ends, he still has a freak-out when George is promoted to a superior position, even as he gets romantically involved with his Tenctonese neighbor.

Alien NationThe other male lead of the series is Sam “George” Francisco, played by frequent-’90s-sci-fi-guest-star Eric Pierpoint, taking over for Mandy Patinkin. He’s a family man (Sikes is divorced, in accordance with cop show tradition, with an adult daughter), with a son and a daughter (He gives birth to a second daughter near the end of the season). His wife, Susan, is played by Michelle Scarabelli, which is why this article goes here, instead of closer in time to when the show began or ended its run.

Much like the movie, the individual episode plots tend to be straightforward police procedural stories with a sci-fi twist. But in contrast to the movie, in the series, these are backed up with a B-plot that focuses more on Tenctonese society and the process of integrating with contemporary American culture, with the two plots tending to converge at the end when some detail of the B-plot’s examination of Tenctonese culture proves the key to unraveling the crime George and Sikes are investigating. Also, compared to the movie, the crimes tend to be a bit more “alien”: rather than simply chasing alien drug dealers or alien murderers or alien bank robbers, George and Sikes go after humans murdering Newcomers to sell their blood or organs on the black market, or serial killers who reenact Tenctonese mythology, or try to prevent an escaped Overseer from signaling the former slave-masters in space. Even when they do have a straightforward murder plot or a straightforward drug ring plot, there’s a greater emphasis on the particulars of Tenctonese culture and Tenctonese-human racial tensions that are at work. There’s also a recurring villain in the form of the “Purists”, human anti-alien extremists who, by the end of the series, release a biological weapon that threatens to exterminate the Tenctonese.

What I said before about shows that failed because they happened at the wrong time is particularly true for Alien Nation. The show had a loyal fanbase and wasn’t a failure by any of the usual metrics, in fact, it was one of the few shows FOX had that year which actually made them money. The 1989-1990 season wasn’t a financially successful year for the fledgling network. This was the year that introduced the network’s powerhouses: Married… With Children, The Simpsons, and COPS, but it would take another year or so for those to start really bringing in the money. FOX decided to go all-in, and canceled all of their dramatic series: 21 Jump Street and its spin-off Booker were out (Jump Street would survive one additional year in first-run syndication), along with an adaptation of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders and Alien Nation. The 1990-1991 season would see FOX fill out its lineup with sitcoms, sketch comedy and documentary-style true crime shows. Beverly Hills 90210 would be the only drama to air on FOX until the network added a Tuesday night lineup in the fall of 1992, and it would be another year before any of them were actually successful.

By 1994, management had changed at FOX. The network had gained proper respectability with a major network realignment and picking up Monday Night Football. The X-Files was heading into its second season, and though The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. hadn’t survived, they still had faith in this whole Science Fiction Action Adventure thing, so their lead-in to The X-Files would be the new superhero show M.A.N.T.I.S. (which, coincidentally, featured Gary Graham in a supporting role), and, caving to fan demand, the scripted second season opener for Alien Nation was retooled into a TV movie, Alien Nation: Dark Horizon, a direct continuation of the first season cliffhanger. Four more Alien Nation TV movies would air between 1995 and 1997, and FOX would keep on trying to make a go of prime time science-fiction action-adventure well into the next decade despite the fact that only The X-Files managed to last longer than a season (Dark Angel managed two, but this could not possibly have been on any merits other than Jessica Alba).

In addition to the movies, Pocket Books published an Alien Nation series of eight novels plus a novelization of the movie. The series was written by pretty much exactly the people you’d expect for this sort of thing: Peter David, Alan Dean Foster, KW Jeter, LA Graf (A pseudonym for the writing team of Julia Ecklar and Karen Rose Cercone), and Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. If you’re like me, those names will be pretty familiar from Pocket’s Star Trek novels of the ’80s and ’90s. Three of the books were based on unproduced second-season scripts, two of which were later adapted into the first two TV movies, though the books and the movies diverge considerably. Malibu Comics also produced six mini-series and a one-shot based on the series.

In 2009, SyFy announced its intention to completely ignore the trends of the past decade and reboot Alien Nation as a dark-n-gritty cop drama more in line with the tone of the movie, with Tim Minear writing, but by 2014, the channel had remembered that it was run by a bunch of morons who actually kinda hate science fiction, and development was halted in favor of more reality shows about ghost hunting and professional wrestling.

And that would be the end of the story if I were faster about writing this blog. But back at the end of March, FOX announced that, due to their love of sweet, sweet feature film franchise dollars, they were going to work on a feature film reboot of the franchise, starting with a film based around the initial arrival of the aliens. Which, honestly, I think is a dumb idea. The interesting thing about Alien Nation was always that it told the story of aliens integrating with human society; the story of their arrival is more interesting as background than as the story itself. But they’re shooting for a multi-film franchise, since that’s where the money is, and you always need to start a franchise with an origin story, because the audience might be confused if they don’t actually get to see this version of Peter Parker get bitten by a radioactive bat after his space pod crashes in Kansas following the destruction of his planet from super-soldier serum when his parents were killed by a mugger.

There’s something to the concept of Alien Nation that seems determined to keep coming back. Why now? Well, if I’m being cynical, perhaps it’s a matter of people being really eager for a narrative where we’ve got a minority underclass made up of former slaves and their descendants, but it’s not the majority’s fault, so they can safely pat themselves on the back for deigning to extend them any sort of civil rights at all. Which of course leaves us with the question: why would they go back to the origin story now when surely this would be the perfect time to do a story about a good and noble Human Cop who singlehandedly roots out the FEW BAD APPLES WHO TOTALLY ARE NOT REPRESENTATIVE OF MOST COPS who’s brutal toward Newcomers and shoots an unarmed child?

It sounds like FOX may have missed the point, but I bet the second movie will be really good.

6 thoughts on “Grapevine: Alien Nation

  1. Nate

    “because the audience might be confused if they don’t actually get to see this version of Peter Parker get bitten by a radioactive bat after his space pod crashes in Kansas following the destruction of his planet from super-soldier serum when his parents were killed by a mugger.”

    Humans are a superstitious and cowardly race. They need someone to lead them into the light.
    So I shall become something they fear most… I have it! A PRINT JOURNALIST!!!

    With great Kryptonite comes great, wow man, colours.

  2. Pingback: Parenthesis: JM Dillard’s Novelization of War of the Worlds: The Resurrection | A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

  3. Daniel

    I would love to see the Alien Nation series, although not as dark & gritty as the movie. Maybe a compromise / combination of the grittiness of the movie & the somewhat serio – comedic / dramedy tone of the series.
    BTW – ” Syfy ” ( I hate that name, I still think of it as SciFi ) is steadily returning to its roots as a science fiction / fantasy / horror channel after running a seemingly endless spate of paranormal, ghost – chasing, etc., type series, so MAYBE they could handle a reboot of Alien Nation. After watching ” Killjoys “, Dark Matter “, ” The Expanse “, I find reason for hope. Let’s let them take a crack at this, if they choose.

  4. Pingback: Prosthesis: I, for one, anticipate a renewal of their adventure (MTV’s War of the Worlds) | A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

  5. Ross Post author

    Sorry. I stopped watching about six episodes in because, while it was just incredibly beautiful to look at, the dialogue was just about the worst I’d heard in a production by someone respectable who wasn’t George Lucas.

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