Sunday, November 09, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: Alien Nation -- A Buddy Cop Show With a Sci-Fi Twist

Gary Graham (L) and Eric Pierpoint (R)
The very best kind of science fiction works by using a fantastical palette to tell stories aimed at illuminating the human condition. On television, that's why The Twilight Zone worked. That's also why the original Star Trek worked so well. I'm pretty sure Alien Nation arrived with a similar set of goals in mind, and while it didn't quite achieve the same lasting degree of longevity as those hallowed brands, I think it managed the feat pretty well, all things considered. Of course, before it ended up on TV, Alien Nation (ah, I love a good punny title) first debuted as a theatrical feature in 1988, directed by Graham Baker and released by Fox. Check out the trailer:

Set in the near-future, film posits the arrival of an immense alien ship containing Tenctonese refugees, called "Newcomers" and distinguished by their oversized bald heads covered with spots, who are soon trying to assimilate and claim their piece of the American pie. The movie isn't terrible, but as written by Rockne S. O'Bannon (who'd go on to create seaQuest a few years later), it used its premise mainly as an excuse to run through a litany of cop movie tropes. You know the drill: Human detective Matt Sikes (James Caan) is unwilling to work with his new alien partner Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) until they bond over the usual buddy cop stuff, yadda yadda, while working to dispatch alien baddie Terence Stamp.

The movie just kind of came and went when it hit theaters in '88, neither succeeding spectacularly nor bombing horribly, but it did at least well enough to warrant the then-new Fox network to attempt to refocus the concept onto the small screen, and this is where it really came to full flower when it debuted as part of Fox's 1989 lineup. As developed by writer-producer Kenneth Johnson (of The Incredible Hulk and V), TV's Alien Nation picked up where the film left off, with Gary Graham in the Caan role and Eric Pierpoint stepping in for Patinkin (with the character now called "George" following the events of the film). Here's the show's intro:

Per Johnson, while the network execs had more of a weekly Lethal Weapon-type thing on their minds (a la the film), he was hoping for something in the vein of the In the Heat of the Night, which is what he ended up doing, with stories dealing with prejudice, morality, and just generally the kind of stuff that makes for good drama (the aliens are pejoratively referred to as "slags" and "sponge-heads" by antsy Angelinos), all the while delving into the particular peculiarities of Tenctonese culture. It helped that Graham and Pierpoint were genuinely likable, and had terrific chemistry to boot. Here's a promo hyping the pilot ep, which really emphasizes the racial allegory they were going for:

Now, by no means is anyone going to accuse Alien Nation of reinventing the wheel. In a lot of ways, it's a pretty standard issue hourlong of the era, but in a lot of other ways it did its job darn well, which is why it's such a shame it didn't last long enough to warrant the effort. While it had a loyal audience, and actually did well ratings-wise, network politics led to the show getting canned in 1990, after a single season of 22 episodes. The cancellation was so unexpected, in fact, that the series ended on a cliffhanger that the creatives fully expected to resolve the following year. Not so much. But that wouldn't turn out to be the end for Alien Nation, as it turned out.

The concept held enough continued appeal with auds and certain Fox honchos that a few years later, when the net started delving into made-for-TV movies, they brought Alien Nation roaring back in fall of 1994 with a movie-of-the-week that resolved that massive cliffhanger. That flick, Dark Horizon, was well received both critically and in the ratings, and was thus the leading edge of four more telefilms that aired over the next four years, all directed by Johnson. Boasting compelling scripts and impressive production values, the movies were actually my entree to the brand, as the series was long cancelled by the time we moved back to the States from Saudi.

While Alien Nation's media presence pretty much went fallow after the last of those movies, The Udara Legacy, aired in summer of '97, there was talk earlier this year of some manner of reboot happening, as is the case with any IP that has even a modicum of nostalgic favor with auds. Unlike a lot of other reboots, though, there's actually enough juice left in the premise that they could conceivably do something interesting with it if they so chose. Regardless, both the TV show and the TV movies have been available on DVD for awhile now, and if you are indeed a Newcomer to post-Tenctonese Los Angeles, you've got a pretty solid run waiting for you.

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Two Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: What the Dr. Ordered...

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