The best science fiction holds up a mirror to the world we live in. “Alien Nation” was never quite a household name, but the brief cult sci-fi franchise of the late ‘80s still holds up today.
The story is simple – a spaceship crashes into the Mojave desert, with a cargo of half a million alien slaves, ‘bred to adapt and labour in any environment,’ left stranded on Earth. These alien “Newcomers” aren’t quite like us – they have spots on their skulls, drink sour milk to get drunk, and prefer their food alive – but they’re close enough to awkwardly begin to integrate into human society, which is where “Alien Nation” picks up the story, five years after they landed.
The saga began with the 1988 film Alien Nation, a moderate hit with James Caan and Mandy Patinkin. George Francisco is the first Newcomer detective on the LAPD, paired with bigoted human partner Matt Sikes. Let the culture-clash hijinks ensue! It’s gifted with a great premise, but the movie doesn’t really deliver on its potential, turning into a generic “Lethal Weapon” cop buddy picture by the end and never really exploring what an entirely alien race blending into Los Angeles would be like.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the end for “Alien Nation,” which debuted as a series on Fox TV in September 1989. It’s in the short-lived TV series where “Alien Nation” really blossomed, spearheaded by Kenneth Johnson, creator of another great ’80s cult sci-fi series, “V.”
“Alien Nation,” the series, is a perfect mix of cheesy late-80s cop show and progressive science fiction ideas, and as long as you don’t mind big hair, pastels and synth-heavy soundtracks, it’s great viewing. The series features a wide cast of Newcomer wives, children, professionals and criminals, priests and prostitutes and the Newcomers (or Tenctonese as they call themselves) are as plausibly drawn as the Klingons or Vulcans.
The story carries on with the same odd-couple detective duo from the movie, but recast and given more satisfying depth. Gary Graham’s Detective Sikes is all ’80s mullet and brash trigger-happy cop cliches at first, but the character becomes convincingly more sympathetic and layered as the series progresses. Eric Pierpoint is excellent as Francisco, who balances personal courage with frequent frustrations over the racism he encounters and the culture he’s left behind. The story of his family trying to fit in – his wife, teenage son and daughter – is often more fascinating than the TV show’s cop mystery of the week storyline. The cop stuff is goofily fun, but it’s the examinations of the human and alien condition that linger.
The series gets deeper and deeper into the fascinating Newcomer culture as it goes. An episode, “Three To Tango,” which goes deep into Newcomer mating rituals (it involves two males and one female) is surprisingly explicit and thought-provoking for 1980s broadcast TV. The show also delves deep into the Newcomers’ origins as a slave society and who they were slaves to.
Unfortunately, “Alien Nation” was a bit too ahead of its time (it’d go great today on a streaming network) and only lasted one season, but it did get five sequel TV movies which nicely expanded and wrapped up the saga. You can see its inspiration clearly in a movie like 2009’s District 9, which for my money was a lot less subtle and thoughtful.
It’d be nice to say that 30 years on we could all view “Alien Nation” and say how far we’ve all come from prejudice and hatred of the other in our lives, but unfortunately that’d only be science fiction.