Alien Nation #2: Alien Nation (Pilot)

Sikes and Francisco track a giant insect, oppose racist "purists" and try to solve Sikes' old partner's murder. Meanwhile, Francisco's family struggles to integrate in the suburbs, Sikes gets a sexy Newcomer neighbor, and a plague breaks out when a Newcomer disease jumps to the human population.
SLAGS LIKE US: The TV show is more clearly about Segregation in the American South, with humans calling the Newcomers terms like "boy" and "uppity", trying to prevent Newcomers from attending their schools or moving to their neighborhoods, and burning circles (instead of crosses) ignited in Newcomer front yards. Slavery is still a theme, however, as is the connection to immigrants in low-paying, servile jobs (housekeepers, janitors, etc.).

REVIEW: Recognizing that the film presented a world with a lot of untapped potential in an easy-to-episodize package (a cop show), the concept went to series. Due to its TV budget, Alien Nation's cop elements lean towards detective work rather than action, but more interestingly, the series expands on the world a great deal more. The Newcomers now have a proper culture (more than one, actually, just as humans do), and there's a much greater focus on the aliens' impact on society. The proper development of a family for Detective Francisco - exuberant wife Susan, precocious (but not annoying) daughter Emily, and rebellious teenage son Buck - creates an entry point in drama isn't dependent on crime. It's in many ways the best part of the show (even if my mind went to the Coneheads for some reason), or at least the Pilot. Father and son present a different view of the minority experience; Francisco believes Newcomers need to be model citizens if they are to be accepted, while Buck refuses to integrate believing Newcomers should be true to themselves. These are ideas worth debating, even if it draws Buck into a delinquent element and might cause us to recoil from his ideals. Emily is bullied at school, which makes Susan, as played by the rather wonderful Michele Scarabelli, despondent and willing to give in to the racist demands of "Purists" and move back into Slagtown. Francisco and Sikes will solve crimes week to week, but it's these supporting characters whose continuing struggles will keep the show interesting.

Francisco and Sikes' TV personalities feel a little watered-down from their more iconic movie selves, but that's because they need to be more complex to sustain a full series. The show begins slightly later than the film, with Sikes' partner already dead and Francisco already his partner. Sikes has a racist streak, but it only comes out when he's angry, and his second scene already has him tell off the Purists at Emily's school. So his personality and attitude is kind of hard to pin down, but since he has his own, estranged daughter, we can accept that he would treat a child with more compassion than an adult. Similarly, he's not interested in talking to his new neighbor Cathy, a sexy Newcomer, but he eventually comes to her defense when she's attacked by Slag bashers, and is more and more intrigued by her as time goes by. This a younger, softer, prettier Sikes (Gary Graham), not as strongly drawn as James Caan's, but definitely built to accommodate love interest subplots and so on. Francisco, as played by Eric Pierpoint, is a much darker figure than Mandy Patinkin's, more serious and dour than the movie original, and with a violent streak that isn't necessarily reserved for criminals. The moment where he raises his hand to his son is a memorable one, though it's balanced by the tender relationship he has with his wife. As partners, they're still learning about each other, and trust hasn't been entirely established.

The point of a pilot is to introduce a cast of characters, which includes several police people at their precinct (one of which is a traitor to the badge; we can't tell which one because it's only the pilot), a clumsy Newcomer janitor called Albert Einstein, kids at school (including a best friend defying her Purist mother's edicts for Emily), a gang for Buck, and recurring neighbors. It's a varied cast in different situations, which should be good for the series. The pilot also sets up problems and mysteries that will fuel character arcs for the year to come. There's the outbreak of a disease that might have jumped species; it's been killing bums, but Susan has the lesions. Buck will have to deal with the guilt of having shot a human hoodlum now in critical condition. Politically, the Newcomers are waiting on a referendum giving them right to vote. The Purist movement, though discredited here, will likely make a comeback. Sikes' old partner uncovered a conspiracy to enslave the Newcomers with the same gas that was used by their former masters to keep them docile. And it's be a shame after teasing us with the possibility of seeing their Overseers if we never did. That's a mystery and a half right there. Why does no Newcomer remember the Overseers? This is all more interesting than the pilot's actual plot, which turns out to be a hoax, and is dependent at times on massive coincidence (a missing body was stolen by Sikes' new neighbor, the same Purists who are at the school are behind the hoax, etc.).

I'm not expecting much from the plot of the week anyway, because I'm more interested in discovering the Newcomers' culture. As of the pilot, they have two distinct religions, they own myths and music, their own racial slur for us (Terts), and an apparent interest in art (just from the set dressing). I love that the theme song is in the Newcomer language, and this more than anything else serves as the series' new mission statement. We will discover a culture, the gunplay is secondary. This is welcome given the film mostly left it to a language and a collection of biological differences (but add to that lot a tendency to be knocked out by compressed CO2 and some very acute senses). The allegorical themes are a little heavy-handed, with Sikes' speech at the school particularly long, and persons of color frequently placed in a position to be racist towards Newcomers. We're all capable of this, even if we've been victims of it; we get it, there's way too much egg in your pudding. The n-word is used liberally as a sign post. Those points made, I'm ready for them to drop to out of the foreground. Hopefully, the series will be more subtle in the future. To end on a directorial note, the series obviously isn't as atmospheric as the film, scenes on sets especially bright and flat (the TV norm of the era), and Los Angeles probably played by a Canadian city. I am encouraged however that the director did have some flair: Our first visit to the police precinct in a single uninterrupted shot, for example, or the simply stellar idea to play the traitor's confession over the preceding realization of whodunit. Hopeful, those kinds of stylistic flourishes will become part of the series' available "vocabulary".

THE MOVIE LEGACY: Obviously, it's a similar set-up to the film's, though there are minor differences in the characters' names (Sikes for Sykes and George Francisco for Sam "George" Francisco. The TV movie actually uses footage from the film, specifically the news items at the start of both, our walk through Slagtown (the Rambo 6 marquee, Newcomers dancing, hooking and playing sports), and though the new actors have reshot the Sikes' partner's death, the same convenience store hold-up is edited in. Exposition, whether it's about burning salt water or eating beaver meat is usually delivered differently. The show expands greatly on some of the material, notably the one shot of Francisco's wife and child in front of a white picket fence, and the partner's murder. Once again, Sikes becomes a bit of a peeping Tom as a female alien turns her back to disrobe.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Not as exciting as the original source material, but I like it better. Full of promise and willing to explore what the movie had little time for.



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