Fox // 1989 // 989 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Cynthia Boris (Retired) // January 18th, 2006
"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'd 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..."
"Never bet on the goodness of the human race," says Detective Matt Sikes to his Tenctonese partner, George Francisco. Sounds like a good call to me. Slavery, the Holocaust, terrorism in the name of religion -- as a race, we've never been very good at dealing with our differences. Even though the United States is referred to as The Great Melting Pot, I say it isn't so. Writer/producer Kenneth Johnson is right there with me.
Alien Nation is as different as the people who populate the series and is equally misunderstood. It's labeled as Sci-Fi because there are aliens in the series. It's labeled a police drama because the lead characters are cops. But you have only to watch the show once to know that labels are never a good thing -- not for people and not for TV shows. So if you hate Sci-Fi and dread cop shows, set your prejudices aside, because that is the real message behind Alien Nation: The Complete Series.
In the early 1990s a space ship crashed in the Mojave Desert, instantly adding a quarter of a million new people to the population of California. The "Newcomers" were slaves controlled through the use of a mind-altering gas by a group of people known as "Overseers." Most of the aliens had never seen their home planet of Tencton, as they were born into slavery on the ship. Slavery is the only life they've ever known and frankly, freedom isn't looking that much better.
The aliens were processed Ellis Island style, each given a new name (since their birth names were unpronounceable by human tongues) before being sent out into the world. Names like Betsy Ross, Albert Einstein, Morris Code and Gayle Warnings were just the first in a long line of insults. Called "slags" and hated by purists, the Newcomers got a taste of what it's like to be any minority in a majority neighborhood.
The show picks up five years after the landing. It is centered around the lives of two men: one alien, one human -- both cops. The alien is Detective George Francisco (Eric Pierpoint). He has a lovely suburban home, a charming wife, Susan (Michele Scarabelli), a precocious daughter, Emily (Lauren Woodland, Port Charles) and a rebellious son, Buck (Sean Six) who fears the loss of his cultural heritage.
The human is Detective Matthew Sikes (Gary Graham, Enterprise). Tough and cynical on the outside, he's got a soft spot (especially when it comes to George and his family). Also on Matt's side of the fence is his alien neighbor and eventual romantic partner, Cathy (Terri Treas, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). Rounding out the cast are a variety of human and alien cops such as Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Welcome Back, Kotter) and Jeff Marcus as the janitor, Albert Einstein.
Generally, the stories revolved around a criminal case for Sikes and Francisco, while minoring in the societal problems of George's family. It was this careful balance of the two that kept the show from looking like a futuristic Cagney & Lacey (even though they were filming in the same police set!).
I don't know why they call this a Sci-Fi show. We've had aliens in Los Angeles for years! Just take a walk down Hollywood Blvd on a Saturday night. (Rim shot) Okay, so our aliens didn't come from outer space, but the concept still holds. The country that is known for its open borders is the same country that interred Japanese Americans who were born here when Pearl Harbor went down. Face it, we're not as tolerant as we pretend to be; that's what Alien Nation is all about.
The TV series was based on the 1988 movie of the same name staring James Caan (The Godfather) and Mandy Patinkin (Criminal Minds) as Sikes and Francisco. Like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the movie was a flop while the series became a cult hit. When Kenneth Johnson (Six Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk, V) was asked to take a look at the script he agreed to make the series -- on one condition. He wanted the show to be about prejudice, not about cops finding the bad guy or about aliens invading the Earth. He cast largely unknown, but excellent (and patient) actors, found a way to streamline the intensive make-up process, and invented a language that would actually be studied at universities! (Big joke here: Many of the words were just English words pronounced backwards).
The joy of Alien Nation is in the opposites Johnson created to make his fictional race stand apart from their human companions. Tenctons adore foods we would normally throw away such as sour milk and animal bladders. Sex and procreation are intimate concepts among humans but easily discussed among the Newcomers -- especially since making a baby requires TWO males and a female (and it's the male that gets pregnant). The Tenctonese are stronger, less physically vulnerable (unless you hit them with salt water), and they have an ability to adapt rapidly to the world around them. But if they were super humans the show wouldn't work at all. The trade offs are horrendously painful feet when they're stressed, they're super sensitive to yucky smells, and they are haunted by the horror they lived as slaves on the ship.
Throughout the series, Matt Sikes plays the audience's point of view. He's a human who wants to teach as much as he wants to learn. One scene that particularly hit home with me was when Matt witnessed the Tencton blessings while dining at the Francisco home. It reminded me of my childhood when this Catholic girl shared holiday meals with my best friend's Jewish family. Everything they did seemed so strange to me and I wasn't sure how to fit in, or if I should even try. Matt does try, and even though George often tries his patience with his naïve, tactless way of speaking ("Matt has been with a prostitute, perhaps he'd care to explain.") he continues to learn along with the audience.
For all his cynicism, Matt Sikes is a man who believes in the power of getting along, of each of us sharing what it is we do best. Sure he's a bit of a rogue, a less than articulate fumbler, but his heart's in the right place. The chemistry between George and Matt fills me with glee. They fight, they banter, they swear they'll never understand each other -- and then Matt will offer George a carton of sour milk and there they are one step closer.
Powerful plots about hate crimes, exploitation, and societal hierarchies keep this from being just another cop show. Sure, Matt and George track down plenty of thieves and murderers, but there's always a Newcomer twist to remind us of where we are. Newcomers are sacrificed so that humans can live a longer life. Purists murder "Binnaums" to keep the Newcomers from multiplying. And a deadly game from the slave ship claims new victims.
Action, humor, drama -- you'll find some of each in every episode of Alien Nation.
As far as the series goes, I don't have a bad word to say. I loved it when it was on TV and I found it just as enjoyable when I popped in that first DVD.
My only complaints go to the boxed set itself. The outer packaging (three slim cases in a slipcase) is quite nice, but the inside is nothing to smile about. Double sided DVDs! Enough said. No, not enough. Double sided DVDs with tiny little lettering that lets you know if you have Disc One or Three and if it's side A or B. I hate them. And though my copy played fine, I've already seen the complaints by people who had pixilated or unwatchable discs.
The navigation screen is a still picture with standard choices. Nothing special or inventive here. And though I very much enjoyed Johnson's commentary on the movie, the Behind the Scenes featurette is actually a five minute commercial made by Fox to promo the show before it hit town. That's it for the extras and it's a shame. There's so much depth to this show Fox should have sprung for actor commentaries, maybe a feature on the make-up process? Anything else would have been nice. Not to mention...
Okay, I'm mentioning -- where are the FIVE made-for-TV movies? All of these movies advanced the characters and the plot of the original show, featured the original actors, and are as much a part of the series as the episodes themselves. Boo hiss, Fox. I want the movies, too!
Under the guise of Sci-Fi, Alien Nation explores the emotions and actions of a prejudiced society, and it's a pretty decent cop show to boot. The writing is clever, the direction is clean, and the acting on par with most popular shows on TV today. But the real reason everyone should watch Alien Nation is so they can take a good look at themselves. When a black man objects to George's daughter Emily attending a "human's only" school -- it's a reminder of how little we have learned from our past. Sure, we talk a good game. No segregation, equal rights, one for all and all for one. But honestly, if a space ship landed in the Mojave Desert tomorrow, would we welcome the aliens with open arms? Or would we lock them inside a prison until we learned to trust? You know the answer to that as well as I do. That's why you should watch Alien Nation: The Complete Series.
This court prides itself on being completely fair and impartial. There will be no special treatment given and no one penalized because of his race, creed or planet of origin. Alien Nation says we're all guilty and the court is inclined to believe.
Review content copyright © 2006 Cynthia Boris; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 989 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Kenneth Johnson on Alien Nation: The Movie
* Behind the Scenes Featurette
* A Guide to the Tenctonese Language