The main title sequence of Alien Nation sets the series up perfectly:
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 labour 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.
Samuel “George” Francisco (Eric Pierpoint) is the latest recruit to the L.A. police force. When Detective Matthew Sikes (Gary Graham) loses his partner in a shootout he is paired up with the Tectonese newcomer, much to his initial chagrin. Both men are weary, yet curious of one another but their differences will have to wait as they’re soon forced to hit the streets and patrol an area known as “Slag Town”. Together they must rid the streets of those who dare violate them and face up to the ignorance of a city heading for total ruin. Along the way George and Sikes must learn to work together as a team and place aside their differences if they’re ever to learn about one another and become a bigger part of each other’s life.
The first unique moment hits Alien Nation early on when we discover that the events taking place are between 1994 and 1995, just five years after the Newcomers crash-landed on Earth, which of course would have been the year that the series went into production. It’s certainly uncommon for a science fiction series to root itself firmly in our present day, but then considering Alien Nation societal relevance it makes perfect sense. The series is simply an alternate universe that mirrors present surroundings but adds a few interesting layers on top. Graham Baker’s original film from 1988 which starred James Caan and Mandy Patinkin laid the foundations and kick-started what was to be a phenomenal, albeit short lived series that not only provided some fine science fiction storytelling, but also managed to balance it with several dominant issues, ranging from racial tension and crime, to our own teachings, practices and philosophies in life.
That might not sound significantly original by recent comparisons and it would indeed be understandable for someone to think obvious thoughts when pitted with a show that’s trying to be highly intelligent by having racism and slavery as a core fundamental, along with action packed and funny storylines which are all fitted within a 45-minute run time. Much to Alien Nation’s credit however it never overplays its hand. What it succeeded in doing was to take the original concept of the film and broaden it so that we could become truly immersed in a world that reflects our own, without being annoyed by any display of pretentiousness. So to get the obvious out of the way first, yes Alien Nation is all about bigotry; it does break through by examining what it is to be human in a screwed up society, but above all it never takes sides. This isn’t a case of Black Vs. White for instance, because in Alien Nation’s reality everybody is to blame; black, white and Tectonese included. Of course it can also be taken as an allegory for humanity in general. The real strength behind the series is that it takes all that we know to be flaws about ourselves and wonders if we can ever iron them out. The truth of the matter is that we probably can’t, no matter how many years we might protest in order to attain a peaceful, coexistent world. But Alien Nation just wouldn’t be able to sustain itself long enough if it were to stick to such a simple rule. The movie touched upon the subject but the end result was really not much more than standard buddy-cop fare with aliens. The series triumphed because there were no limitations. Kenneth Johnson adapted it in such a genial way that this fascinating universe could expand far greater, and at its heart was an ensemble that was absolutely perfect. Above everything else Alien Nation is a series of genuine sincerity.
Because we’re looking at science fiction here it’s understandable that the Tectonese need to have plenty of exposure, after all people are tuning in initially to see what was being billed at the time a thrilling sci-fi show with an alien species. With Alien Nation this exposure was handled very well, furthermore it never dominated so that the humans would merely play second fiddle. What better way to see the Newcomers assimilate than to side them together with humans and have them experience a wealth of new emotion and vice versa? After an initial by the numbers set up - Alien gets partnered with human cop, they bicker a bit and solve crimes - the series eases into itself and progresses in a naturalistic way. The pilot episode serves as a simple way to get to know our protagonists; it remakes the movie, adding humour and far greater emphasis on family life. In fact it is quite steadily paced and not the kind of thrill ride that would be expected for a pilot episode that is trying to ensure a full season. As things continue from here we then become more emotionally attatched to these characters.
While the series is made up of stand alone content wherever Sikes and Francisco’s cases are concerned it’s the little things that soon resonate far beyond the actual investigations that make up most of each episode’s run time. We soon begin to see more of George and his family at home and that’s where our affiliation with them truly becomes something special, whether it be seeing them trying to grasp the simplicities that we never even have to think about or trying to run a family in a way that’s obviously different, yet tries to maintain values that are in essence similar to our own. In addition we have Matthew Sikes, who is in a sense as much a Newcomer as the visitors themselves, and of course he’s the guy we all identify with; whose fears and insecurities we face everyday. He’s suddenly found himself in a situation where 50% of the things he witnesses on a daily basis is foreign to him. And so the series becomes as much of a learning experience for Sikes, coupled with the fact that his new neighbour is also a Tectonese. This soon takes him on a path whereby he can appreciate Newcomer tradition even if the concept behind it often eludes him. To mix things up the storylines soon become involving to a point where the writers begin to pair together Sikes and his neighbour Cathy (Terri Treas). The relationship works well because of how slowly it evolves. It’s not a question of will they/won’t they, it’s about how they’ll reach that point, and it’s that curiosity that constantly keeps us pinned to each moment.
Not only that but it’s the cast themselves that make it what it is. The series was something that I was subjected to before seeing the film upon which it was developed from, so with some admitted bias I say that I just adore the portrayals of everybody here. Having said that I do feel that the cast of the television series expanded these characters in a way that the film could never hope to. Granted the film had some great lines of dialogue and made its point with just a few simple exchanges, but here we have these characters now evolving into fully fledged three-dimensional beings and upon reflection there is no one else who could do these roles justice. To start with Gary Graham was a solid counter-balance to Eric Pierpoint and we weren’t quite sure where his character was going, but it’s later on that Graham really digs deep into his character. Sikes doesn’t initially come across as being overly emotional, in fact you could say early on that he’s a stereotypical kinda guy; however we soon get the chance to know him on a level that exceeds expectations. There’s a wonderful amount of undiscovered detail in Sikes’ past and it takes an entire season for bits and pieces of it to come together and give us a far better idea as to just what kind of man he is. Graham realises his character and instils a great amount of empathy and sympathy within him. There are several crystal examples throughout the series where Sikes is haunted by his childhood or his worse days as a police officer or is burdened by his troubled relationship with his daughter who he so rarely sees, and it is during these reflective moments that Graham generates such an emotional intensity; his portrayal complete with his given storylines draw the viewer in as much as Pierpoint’s does.
Speaking of whom Pierpoint is simply a marvel, bringing to his character a sense of innocence, while retaining an authoritative and commanding presence. Francisco - like Sikes - has that double edged quality which means he can turn either way: one moment he can be extremely naïve and the next he can suddenly explode and become a fearsome character. Pierpoint imbues within himself so many little nuances, he’s simply charming throughout; a moment of laughter can show us so much as if he’s trying to grasp the concept of laughing for the first time in order to fit in. And then there are the many moments where he screws up things like jokes or simple human proverbs and phrases. Together Pierpoint and Graham match each other line for line during many exchanges, from seeing them grabbing each other by their lapels in almost every episode, to taking good cop/bad cop turns and reacting to one another’s differing family traditions. While they are indeed the real stars of the series their support mustn’t be forgotten: Michele Scarabelli, Sean Six, Lauren Woodland, Teri Treas, Jeff Marcus and James Greene infuse it with so much heart and soul that I honestly can’t go into any details for each individual, lest this review suddenly becomes an essay.
Going back to the episodes though and looking at the detective aspects it’s clear to see that there are several influences at hand. Alien Nation takes some cues from slasher flicks when presenting manhunt cases and then adds its own spin on them. Some episodes are simpler and immediately recall moments from cult cinema: for example the episode “The Takeover” which conjures up memories of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Most of these instances are subtle nods however, which I imagine may escape some viewers, but for those well and truly into cinema and all its forms they’re bound to find many rewarding treats hidden throughout.
So if we go into more detail about the kind of things that the series tackles then we find plenty to savour: holiday traditions, delinquency, pregnancy and rituals all make up key aspects of what the series is all about. Just about every aspect of human life is paralleled against that of the Newcomers; there’s a great amount of ethical material handled through the series, some of which is particularly strong in content and others which are simply defining examples of how to live life. Some episodes take very large steps in bringing to light our justice system, whereby the contrast between species is never greater, but which can be looked upon as an obvious divide. With racial and political content there are moments of obvious finger pointing, just as there is in line with violence which perpetuates throughout the city of LA. From the pilot episode we’re treated to some brutally truthful scenes that depict ignorance amongst the “purists” – those who wish for clean world, which means it shouldn’t have Tectonese polluting it, which of course then introduces the voting ammendment and full rights for Tectonese. Later on we have the showdown between Buck and a gang of black thugs, which is something that steers from the stereotypical device that might otherwise have had them fight a gang of white youths. This goes back to my earlier comment and illustrates the point that no one here is favoured. In the pilot episode Buck fatally wounds his attacker and is subjected to weeks of hell before standing up for himself and facing the courts. But the series isn’t all doom and gloom; it also has our characters adjusting to the finer things in life. Buck also gets a taste of romance for example but it’s one moment that isn’t given the chance to further develop. These examples and much more give Alien Nation a solid foundation.
So obviously Alien Nation’s intentions are quite clear from the start, it’s meant to be a progressive show and in that sense it’s a disappointment that it was cancelled at the end of its first season. By the time it reached that point it was at a pinnacle stage where everything just gelled perfectly; the characters were well into their stride and new faces were introduced that included the newest addition to the Francisco family, Vessna. With the baby (a superb piece of animatronic kit which still looks great) entering the series the family bond becomes stronger, and so by the end of the season when the family is hit hard the viewer naturally begins to wonder as to whether or not their future is safely assured, not to mention Sikes and Cathy’s blossoming romance which was bound to create all kinds of interesting side stories. While the final episode of the season is compelling it’s something of a drawback that there’s no solid conclusion. In light of this it remains a highly frustrating end to a series; the same would be said about any series in the same predicament. At that time the cast and crew were riding on the assumption that the series would be renewed and when it wasn’t, well I can assure you there was a lot of disappointment. As a fan myself, along with friends there was plenty of disgruntled talk over Alien Nation’s premature demise. It was resurrected however, almost five years later and the story did continue as it would have had season 2 been commissioned. Sadly this TV movie is not available on DVD and I’m disappointed that Fox couldn’t at least throw it in as a bonus so that newcomers (pardon the pun) or otherwise could get a sense of complete fulfilment.
But if that’s the only disappointing aspect of the series that I can mention then it aint all bad really. If anything else were to slightly taint it then it would be the needless melodramatic scoring that crops up during some of the most poignant moments, care of composer Joe Harnell, who otherwise has created a wonderfully unique sound for the series; that which echoes several ethnic traits but manages to feel a part of the Newcomer's world. In all honesty though Graham, Pierpoint and co’s performances are so good that they sell the emotion without any forced musical cues. Thankfully it doesn’t happen too often, and neither does it take away from the performances, despite coming across at times as typically clichéd heart-tugging rather than a complimentary side dish.
That just about wraps things up then. In all honesty Alien Nation is just about as perfect a series as you could hope for. It managed to last without jumping the shark and it set up plenty of promise for future runs. I suppose at the very least it went out with a bang, proving to not only be a brilliant single season but one which never had the burden of trying to live up to itself. Had it lasted a little longer who knows what might have been in store? It may have been able to surpass anything that came before it, or its ambitions may have hurt it. All of this is purely speculative and certainly the series has generated such deserved speculation. I’m not sure that I can say the latter movies ever bettered anything that the series served up, despite trying so hard to develop some of its most intriguing aspects, but I hope I can save any such discussion for another time, as I barely remember any aside from the first couple.
For better or worse Alien Nation has made it onto shiny roundness. 20th Century Fox tend to do generally good jobs with their TV shows, however some of the older ones aren’t so lucky. The complete series has been released on three double-sided, single layer discs which contain two episodes per side; I personally don’t like these at all and there’s a fair betting that should they arrive on these shores we’ll be seeing six discs (but don’t quote me on that). As for the packaging it’s laziness of the highest order. The discs come in slim cases and each cover is identical to the image on the outer card sleeve. As for the disc content, the menus are static affairs that share the same picture of Sikes and Francisco, just with different background colours: very poor and cheap all round.
Alien Nation is presented in its original ratio of 1.33:1, which is standard for any TV show of its time. I’ve a feeling that these have been mastered from broadcast copies as they show some signs of tape wear of brief occasions. Also whenever the Tectonese language is spoken we get large, burnt in subtitles, just the same as when it aired originally. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing it would have been nicer for Fox to have splashed out and used the original negatives and add player generated subtitles. As it stands the material on display here doesn’t stand up very well at all. For a start the colour levels are inconsistent; flesh tones appear too pink on many occasions and particular colours such as bright pink and reds have a knack of bleeding and looking too garish. Contrast and black levels vary and on several occasions they look a little muddy. Softness, aliasing, Edge Enhancment, dot crawl and rainbows further damage the experience. Granted after a couple of episodes it’s easily adjusted to, but this really did deserve a lot more effort put into it.
Note: I have been informed by Kenneth Johnson that the series was shot on 35mm film and was then transferred direct to video from the negatives; this would likely have been Beta SP. Fox have since informed - and I quote - that they used the original tape masters in their vault and that given the niche audience and small number of sales they were looking at, they did not have the budget to go back to the original film elements.
Thanks Kenny for looking into that.
For sound we get original English stereo, again as it was broadcast. The audio levels tend to go up and down at times: the main titles are punchy, as are brief moments of scoring, but dialogue sometimes comes across as being a little subdued. It’s more a case of turning up your television to get the most out of it. There is a slight background noise in the form of hissing, which again leads me to believe it is tape sourced. It’s not overly distracting, being most noticeable during quiet moments, but should you turn the speakers up a little it’s one of those things you’ll need to put up with as being a drawback.
This is where we’d have loved to see new interviews etc but we’ll have to make do with what Fox wanted to put out. The main draw is an audio commentary on the pilot episode by series developer Kenneth Johnson. Johnson proves to be an engaging speaker, as well as a passionate one who has many fond memories of working on the series. He never pauses for thought and constantly provides us with useful information and fun anecdotes; amongst these are insightful looks into the creation fo the alien language, the extensive make-up proceedures that added considerably to the budget and one or two nice little behind the scenes stories involving the actors. He also addresses developing the series from the feature film and talks about many of the prominent issues, including racism, bigotry and news media relations. Clearly this was a labour of love for the man and it is nice to hear his thoughts.
The second and final extra appears on disc three, side two and is a behind the scenes featurette. True it does take us behind the scenes, but only for five minutes. This is basically a FOX advertisement which bills it as a must see new show. Shame we don’t have any proper making of footage or nowhere near as much insight as we could have.
It truly is a shame that Fox cancelled the series when things were really starting to look up for it. It took them five years before they decided to commission a new TV film that tied up the season’s tense cliff-hanger, but so many of us would have loved to have seen the series go on for a few more rounds. This was a show that had so much to offer at a time when Fox were looking for innovative programming, so it is somewhat perplexing that they failed to grasp this at the time. Alien Nation to put quite simply is an amazing show that remains as relevant today as it did fifteen years ago; wonderful writing and a superb cast ensures that this will long be remembered as a classic contribution to the Sci-Fi genre.
All that’s left to say is that I hope Fox can finally put out a nice set comprising of the five TV movies and throw in some good extras to boot. Come on Fox, you know the saying: “You gotta spend money to make money”. So to all the fans out there, let’s give them that extra little push.
Read my interview with actor Gary Graham here.