In 1989 a science-fiction movie landed in cinemas, bucking the trend for major special-effects and ‘adventure romps’ – instead, it had a unique voice, and something very serious to say about the times. Alien Nation was a milestone at the time, and a police procedural like no other.
The original film is set in 1991 when the Newcomers, a face known as the ‘Tenctones’ crash into the Mojave Desert. They had escaped slavery under another race of imperial like authority. Once freed, they became a part of society, taking on any and every walk of life. They settle all over, but our story takes place in Los Angeles – a melting pot of different cultures existing side by side, though not always quietly. The Newcomers become a new part of society but as always in such situations, not everyone is happy with the changes in social order. Hot on trail of two Newcomer criminals Detective Matthew Sykes (James can) loses his partner Tuggle in a gunfight. Filled with fear, hatred and a sense of vengeance Sykes wants to track down the people responsible and as far as he’s concerned most of the Newcomers are as bad as each other.
But there’s an immediate problem when Sykes is buddied up with a new partner, a Newcomer police officer Sam Francisco (the aliens have all been allotted names and clearly some officials have a sense of humour). There’s no love lost between the two new partners, but Sykes will need Sam’s help if he’s to navigate the newer strands of society in downtown LA. Together they uncover a new drug circulating called Jabroka which can give the aliens a superpowered boost. It’s only one of the ‘secrets’ that is going to be uncovered.
It’s a hero’s journey for Sykes, and for Sam also. For Sykes it’s a story of vengeance, and ultimately to justice as he finds the truth in the crimes happening in the newcomer community… and a chance for him to come through from initially being prejudiced towards them, and then treat the community fairly. For Sam it’s learning to be less rigid, loosen up and be less ‘by the book’ as he tries to fit in. The inclusion of Sykes into the family and his life makes for some interesting pop culture and eighties references along the way. During their search for the drugs and the murderers of Sykes’ partner, they come up against Brian Thompson – best known in action circles as a great character actor: he’s been in Wrong Bet, Terminator and Star Trek among may others and he’s great.
James Caan essentially plays James Caan. You always know what you’re getting with Caan. He’s often a go-to tough guy and it’s true here, although with a direct moral compass, one he bends now and again to the rougher landscape. He’s loyal, and strong but conflicted after the loss of his original partner. Caan/Sykes’ reaction to much of the newcomer world is our eye into the world. Much of his dialogue is funny, but also dry and sardonic, especially on the different things the newcomers have done to join Earth.
Playing Sam Francisco is Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride, Homeland) who arguably steals the show, even under layers of prosthetics. (The character was originally going to be ‘George Jetson’, but they couldn’t get the rights, so Sam Francisco was used instead, though Sikes prefers ‘George’). Mandy, as always, is 100% on point in a role that could have been played quite comically but it’s played so straight the inevitable gags work even when laced with potent social comment and, sadly, ever-topical examples of bigotry.
Terence Stamp, always a pleasure to watch, plays Harcourt, a newcomer business man who is actually running the Jabroka drug manufacturing behind the scenes and it’s clear Stamp is taking the role as seriously as any othe rin his long and distinguished career – though also relishing the chance to stretch.
The story came from the pen of legendary writer Rockne S. O’Bannon, with the equally talented Gale Ann Hurd on production duties. Graham Baker directed – probably his most successful film. The concept it later became the basis of the tv show of the same name starring Gary Graham as (the slightly-renamed) ‘Sikes’ and Eric Pierpont as George and acquired quite the fan-following, though it only lasted 21 episodes between 1989-1990. It was a critical success for the new FOX network, but because of financial issues, none of its drama-slate was picked up – leaving events of the Alien Nation finale on a cliffhanger. The premise of its S2 opener was later adapted into comic-book form. However its popularity meant that several tv movies with the same cast would ultimately get made – five in all Dark Horizon, Body and Soul, Millennium, The Enemy Within and The Udara Legacy broadcast between 1994 and 1997.
There has been talk at various times of a reboot and in 2009, the then Sci-Fi Channel did announce they were talking to Tim Minear (Firefly, Angel, 911) about a reboot, tough the channel pivoted away to wrestling and reality shows. Rumours of another attempt in 2015 failed to materialise. But today the story of Alien Nation is as prime for a reboot as much as ever, perhaps with the same success as Battlestar Galactica or a host of other shows getting the wash-and-brush-up by people who remember the originals fondly but can give them a new spin.
Adam will be covering Alien Nation on Lethal Mullet Podcast. You can check it out on FPN fpn.podbean.com