Social Commentary In Entertainment: The 30th Anniversary of Alien Nation

I’m going to pretend for just one minute that I didn’t start watching Alien Nation because the main character’s name is shockingly close to my own. I didn’t see an advert for it on the Sci-Fi Channel at the age of 13 and hear “Detective Matt Sikes” and think to myself, “That’s almost my name! I have to watch this show.” No- it was the incredible social commentary that drew me in, the social commentary that was entirely absent from the advertisement. The truth was, 13-year-old Matt Dykes heard Detective Matt Sikes and saw an action-packed cop-show advert that happened to have aliens in it and wanted to watch the show. But you know what? I am so glad I saw that advert because when I was able to sit down and watch Alien Nation, I was blown away by the series. It wasn’t long before I was recording them on video. Once the DVDs were finally released in the UK, my pre-order was placed immediately. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have watched all 22 episodes of the series close to 30 times over the last 18 years. What is it about the series that drew me in, apart from sharing a very similar name to the main character? The answer really is this: everything. The characters, the setting, the stories, the music, everything about the series. It was interesting, it was different and it had something to say.

James Caan and Mandy Patinkin in the 1988 film.

Alien Nation was originally a film that was released in 1988. The film starred James Caan and Mandy Patinkin and was a largely forgettable buddy cop film that just happened to have an alien in it. There wasn’t really much explored about the aliens (‘Newcomers’) or their culture in the film. Harris Cattleman approached Kenneth ‘Kenny’ Johnson, writer and director of the original V mini series (for more about V see my previous article here) and producer on various successful TV series including The Incredible Hulk. Cattleman asked Kenny if he would have a look at the movie, as Fox were interested in making it into a series. They thought they had Lethal Weapon with aliens.

For the most part, Kenny was disappointed with the film. He saw it, as he put it, as “Miami Vice with Coneheads.” Save for one scene- the alien cop waves goodbye to his family. Kenny saw that scene and wanted to know who the family were. The idea for what the series would become came to him, and it was not Lethal Weapon with aliens. It was In the Heat of the Night with aliens. A series that could provide valuable social commentary and address issues of racism, homophobia and xenophobia all disguised as a fun cop show.

When it came to casting, the first call that Kenny made was to Eric Pierpoint. He had worked with Eric on a show called Hot Pursuit in 1984 and felt he had not only the talent, but also a zen quality which would be incredibly important to be able to work the long days in full makeup that were required. When Eric got the call, he was under the impression that he was being approached for the character of Sikes, until Kenny told him that he wanted him for “the alien” (or George Francisco as his character was known). The second call he made was to Jeff Marcus who he had worked with on the 1981 film Senior Trip. When he called Jeff, Kenny’s words to him were, “I’ve written a character for you, it’s a retarded alien janitor named Albert Einstein.” Jeff signed on immediately. Michele Scarabelli was discovered whilst they were looking through headshots- she had a natural beauty to her. When they brought her in to audition, she acted the scene from the pilot- on the stairs, where she is telling George that she wants to move back to ‘Slagtown.’ Her audition was powerful and showed that she had the chops for the dramatic elements the character had. Her character, Susan, was named for Kenny’s own wife. The very last character cast was that of Detective Matt Sikes. They had seen a lot of different actors and Gary Graham was one of them. They did a brief chemistry test with Eric and it was obvious to them that they were great together and it really showed in the series.

The original pilot was written as a 1-hour episode, but Barry Diller contacted Kenny and told him that he wanted a 2 hour pilot. The story was fleshed out and Kenny added the storyline that revolved around the death of Sikes’ previous partner, Bill ‘Tuggs’ Tuggle. They edited together elements from the original film of Tuggs’ death to tie the character in. For the script, Kenny had two endings; one that concluded Tuggs’ death, and one that didn’t. For the actual shooting script, they went with the ending that solved his murder.

The budget for the pilot episode was set at $3.5 million- $450,000 of the budget was on the makeup alone. To put that into perspective, the majority of TV dramas at the time had a makeup budget of around $50,000. They actually approached Stan Winston, the makeup effects wizard behind films such as The Terminator and the original Alien Nation film. Stan apologised and said that he was too expensive for them, however, he did point them in the direction of one of his proteges, Rick Stratton. Rick would create the alien makeup for the whole series and all five of the TV movies. In the original film, the Newcomer makeup was comprised of three pieces- for the series, they had to simplify the makeup. Rick turned it into a one piece that sped up the application process so instead of three and a half hours, it would take one and a half hours for the male performers and around two and a half hours for the females to get their heads applied. The difficulties from the makeup ranged from being incredible hot to making it close to impossible to hear anything. In the end, they had to put small holes in the ears to make it a little easier for the actors to hear. Jeff Marcus preferred to keep his makeup without the holes, as he found being unable to hear helped him play up the slow side to his character as he was forced to read lips and try to figure out what was being said.

In order to help them get into character one day, during a makeup test, Kenny took Eric and Michelle to Union Station in their makeup and let them walk around. Eric talked about how uncomfortable he felt; he could feel people staring at him and pointing. Michelle went to an immigration office and the official there didn’t even bat an eye, they just handed over a form for her to fill in. Rick Stratton deservedly won an Emmy for his makeup work on the series. Because of how fine the edges of the latex heads were, they could only be used once, so each day they would remove the head and it would be a completely new head the following day. There were a couple of instances where Eric started to freak out because of the makeup, each time Gary would walk him out into the parking lot and just stand there with him until he calmed down. The friendship that built up between the two actors really translated onto the screen.

The series was shot on location in and around Los Angeles and had their production offices and standing sets at Lacy Street Studios. In the pilot, the police station set they used was the same set from Cagney and Lacy, and Sikes’ apartment was the same set that was used for Cagney’s apartment. The large train set in Sikes’ apartment was there for the simple reason that Kenneth Johnson liked train sets. The character of Sikes was fascinating; in the pilot he defends George’s daughter in a powerful scene ending with the incredible line of “She belongs here,” and yet in the next scene he is complaining about a Newcomer moving into his building. The bigoted elements of his character really worked to build tension in the scenes that needed it with George, and slowly over the course of the series you saw his bigoted side fall away. The series was about relationships- Matt and George’s friendship was one that you saw evolve and build up to where they are more like family than co-workers. The relationships in the series are one of the reasons it makes for such satisfying viewing. You can see each characters getting closer to one another throughout the course of the series. Unlike a lot of series at the time, the characters did actually evolve throughout the course of the series. The most notable is that of Buck, George and Susan’s teenage son. He starts off in a criminal gang, but by the end of the season he starts to become more of a social activist, fighting for worker’s rights in one episode. In the subsequent TV movies, he even ends up joining the Police.

The Tenctonese language was developed by Juliet, Kenny’s daughter, and for the most part the language was just English in reverse with clicks added in. However, there were some Russian words dropped in here and there. It was revealed that the Mothership that the Newcomers arrived in was called the Gruza- this is the Russian word for cargo. The opening theme has the lyrics “E take nas naj…nah sus gah nilpa,” the lyrics are actually the names of Kenny’s wife and one of his daughter’s backwards. The music for the pilot was composed by regular collaborator Joe Harnell. Harnell composed the music for the original V mini series and brought an interesting sound to the series, which was replicated by series regular composers Steve Dorff and Larry Herbstritt. Bringing what they felt was the kind of music that the Newcomers would listen to into the score gave it a unique sound. They also composed pieces of Tenctonese music that would be heard on radios and stereos in the background. These pieces were used to set up that they were in Little Tencton or “Slagtown” as it was colloquially referred to. The unique sound of the musical score really pulled you into the series and you could watch any scene from any episode and know you were watching Alien Nation from the music alone.

Kenny made sure to give the Newcomers different religions like humans; this made a lot of sense to me because I always found it strange that in almost every other Sci-Fi series, other aliens had one singular religious movement that everyone followed. Realistically, other species- if they had any kind of religion- would have multiple ones much like we do. Sexual biology was also explored where it was revealed that not only did the Newcomers have a third gender that was required to fertilize the female for procreation, but both the male and female carried the child. The female would carry the “pod” to a certain stage and then it would be transferred to the male who would carry it to term. This served to create a source of humor in the episodes that covered the Newcomers’ pregnancies, with fantastic lines such as “If you women went through what we men go through, there probably wouldn’t be any babies at all.” The humor in the series was prevalent; it ranged from fish-out-of-water styles, to poking fun at social conventions, to straight up sarcasm and smart-assery (of which I am a huge fan of). Instead of the episodes having shared storylines, they would generally have a theme to them. Each storyline within the episode would fit in with the theme. Sometimes the cop and domestic stories would intersect, while other times they would be separate, only sharing the theme but always feeling related due to how the writing worked the theme of the episode into each storyline.

Unfortunately, the series never made it past the first season. Production had already begun on season 2 with several scripts written, they were actually a few weeks away from filming season 2 when Fox cancelled. Everyone was blindsided by the decision to cancel the show. Despite the critical acclaim and the strong ratings, Barry Diller had decided that comedies would be better suited and cancelled the series. A year later, after the comedies had failed, Fox executive Peter Trennen got up in front of the Television Critics Association and admitted that the biggest mistake they had made was cancelling Alien Nation.

Kenny spent the next three years asking for them to bring back Alien Nation in some way, and he was eventually given the go ahead to produce a TV movie sequel to the series to close off the cliffhanger ending. When the TV movie, Dark Horizon, was a huge hit, two more TV movies were greenlit with a further two more being produced. Whilst the series ended after it’s first season, Alien Nation lived on in the TV movies and eventual DVD releases. The actors who played the Newcomers all said that as soon as they saw themselves in the TV movies, with all their makeup, the character came flooding back to them and it was like riding a bike. I am hopeful that one day there will be a Blu-ray remaster of the series, as the DVD doesn’t really hold up well image quality-wise. (I am mentioning Blu-ray in this article purely because: I mentioned in my V article about wanting a Blu-ray release of V and this year a Blu-ray was released. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the same happens this time).

Alien Nation wasn’t just any series; it was a series that broke down boundaries and exposed our behaviors as people. The series was a huge hit with minorities because they could relate to the Newcomers. They had all felt what it was like to be discriminated against because of the way they looked at some point in their lives. Eric Pierpoint talked about how he was on a Subway car in New York one night after a play. He was one of the only white people on the Subway car and a woman recognized him and pointed saying, “You’re that guy, you’re that George.” Once everyone knew who he was they all wanted to speak to him and had questions for him. Eric rode the Subway car 15 stops past his own stop talking with the people about the series. What other show could have that impact? I can’t think of any. Kenny said he envisioned the series as a show that could provide valuable social commentary and he was completely successful.

I will never get tired of Alien Nation– what may have started off for me as a show that had a character whose name was very similar to mine, became such an important part of my life. Of the 22 episodes produced, there isn’t one episode in there that I would ever skip on re-watching, I cannot think of any other series that I feel the same way about.

There has been talk of a remake for years. Netflix even copied the premise with Bright, and films such as District 9 have been influenced by the series. It’s clear that even 30 years later, the impact the series had is still being felt and I hope it will continue to be felt for another 30 years.

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