Oops. Sometimes a network cancels a great show, then actually has second thoughts about it. Long before Jericho, that was the fate of Alien Nation. Which just happens to be another resonant character-driven drama of ordinary folks, faced with cataclysmic social upheaval, forced to find the inner strength to step up and take action to do what's right. Do we sense a pattern here?
If so, maybe Jericho fans should hope to see some kick-butt TV-movies continue the story. That's what took shape when Fox canceled its 1989-90 Alien Nation series after a single season's Monday night run. But Jericho fans might have a bit of a wait. It took Fox seven years to broadcast the five follow-up Alien Nation TV-movies, which finally out on DVD in wide release this week (after several months as a Best Buy exclusive).
The April 15 release from Fox Home Entertainment does do right by the fan fave, loading up its three discs with making-of featurettes, recent cast reminiscences, storyboards, and commentary from showrunner Kenneth Johnson on all five films: Dark Horizon (1994), Body and Soul (1995), Millennium (1996), The Enemy Within (1996), and The Udara Legacy (1997) -- and that's way more extras than FHE provided on its 2006 Alien Nation complete-series DVD.
That's probably because fans snapped up the earlier set, proving they were hungry for more, more, more. And for good reason. Alien Nation was one of those rare series, like M*A*S*H, where the TV series is arguably better than its big-screen progenitor.
That 1988 Alien Nation theatrical film, with James Caan as a hardboiled human cop and Mandy Patinkin as his new space-alien partner, was a gritty action flick with a single story to solve. The subsequent Fox TV series had time to unravel the nuance of the intriguing culture-clash background the movie had pretty much glossed over. Since the story was created by Rockne S. O'Bannon -- later beloved of smart-TV fans for his Farscape tapestry -- there was plenty of meat to munch.
The alien cop's Newcomer race, recently crashlanded near L.A., had been slaves on their own world, so American sanctuary opened up vistas they'd never dreamed possible. Yet the 250,000 Newcomers also ran up against fresh kinds of prejudice while trying to assimilate into human society. Their "strange" ways made many of their human neighbors feel invaded, resentful or otherwise threatened by what was derisively called "slag" culture.
TV's Alien Nation could be read as blatant allegory -- racism is bad; see? -- but producer Johnson's stories went far beyond the film's one-note bigotry in exploring the Newcomers' reactions to the society they were joining, and vice versa. Childraising, criminal behavior, politics, corporate intrigue, drug use, disease, gender roles, religious beliefs, psychological problems -- all were fodder for scripts that took the issues seriously while presenting them with a humorous touch and emotional authenticity that made the show not some "alien" tale but a compassionate character study. And, yes, an eye-opening mirror on "human" behavior.
Who knew men could be pregnant? The Newcomer cop, George Francisco (played by Eric Pierpoint), had to share gestation with his wife (Michele Scarabelli), making for both rich comedy and sharp gender commentary. Human cop Matt Sikes (Gary Graham) found himself falling in love with a Newcomer woman (Terri Treas), which created all kinds of interspecies sex questions. The aliens could get drunk on sour milk, and they chose their new human names with a degree of irony. George was originally "Sam" Francisco, and the police squad's simple-minded janitor called himself Albert Einstein.
Alien Nation had fun with the foibles, while never forgetting that its police work, human-Newcomer integration and continuing threats from the alien slaves' Overseers were serious business. The scripts came from top-notch writers like Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider (who penned everything from Northern Exposure to The Sopranos), and Steven Long Mitchell and Craig Van Sickle (The Pretender, Tin Man) -- all of whom would refine and extend that basic fish-out-of-water story foundation in their future work.
Too bad Fox couldn't see what it had back in 1990, when the still-fledgling network was programming just three nights a week (Saturday-Monday) and its only other drama exponents were an aging 21 Jump Street and spin-off Becker. By that fall, Fox had expanded to five nights a week with mostly forgettable sitcoms (Good Grief was aptly titled) and, oh yes, a little throwaway teen soap called Beverly Hills, 90210. The youth movement was on.
Fox never completely gave up on sci-fi-tinged character drama, but the network didn't learn to treat them any better, either. New legions of fans for the likes of John Doe, M.A.N.T.I.S. and Firefly would likewise be disappointed by executives' lack of faith in what they had and bad scheduling in presenting it. The survival of The X-Files was a minor miracle.
Another one was Fox 'fessing up to its mistake by ordering and airing those five Alien Nation TV-movies we see on DVD this week. Some can also be seen upcoming on cable. Alien Nation: Millennium runs Wednesday, April 16 at 10:30 AM on Cinemax. Alien Nation: Body and Soul runs Tuesday, April 22 at 8:45 AM on @Max. And 1988's Caan-Patinkin big screen original unreels Sunday, April 20 at 4:25 AM on HBO Zone. (All three of these plus Alien Nation: Dark Horizon also air throughout May on the HBO and Cinemax digital channels.)