by Karina “Cinerina” Montgomery
The Hollywood Reporter has announced that a reboot of the 1988 film Alien Nation is now being written by the scriptwriters of the first Iron Man. As a fan of the movie and the short-lived 1991 TV show, I leapt in immediate excitement at the news. Witty screenwriting can go a long way to excuse retreading beloved material (I’m looking at you, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters!). So far, we just know that the plan is to reimagine the story and explore early days (see Planet of the Apes), but I think if the movie takes the same brave steps as the show did in its day, it might be a worthy reboot.
The original premise is that an alien ship has crashed on earth. Its crew died but its cargo, a slave race called the Tenctonese, survived and they are now stranded here. Similar to District 9, which vividly illustrated the agonies of apartheid, Alien Nation dealt obliquely with race and was possibly the grittiest fish out of water tale of its day. The Tenctonese, or Newcomers, are accepted as a fait accompli, though still colliding with human privilege. The story followed unwilling partner detectives Matthew Sykes, human, and Sam Francisco, Newcomer, investigating a drug ring circulating a compound that only works on the alien physiology, as well as some possibly related murders.
The rich narrative potential of aliens unwillingly stranded on earth and integrating their culture into ours coupled with an odd couple cop team naturally led to a series. That series being on Fox, it was of course immediately cancelled, but not before its 22 episodes explored more deeply the seismic effect of integrating a new, truly strange minority overnight into our world, while also being a great cop show with a surprising amount of comedy.
Alien Nation on television explored the sociology and psychology of how former slaves make their way in post-Reaganomics America. It was able to handle head-on, as science fiction can so readily do, the millstone of racism as well as other culture clashes. It commented on immigration and social classes, with often humorous collisions of religion and traditions. The show even made some tentative forays into gender and sexuality, as the Tenctonese require a third gender to reproduce. They were genetically engineered to be the perfect slave species and as such are stronger than humans in many ways. They are different and so present a threat to the human populace’s vision of normal or the status quo.
The show covered much in a short time without being bogged down: Newcomer teenagers rebelling by donning a wig; cultural norms and clashes in the simplest of contexts; the advantages of having been bred to be slaves versus choosing one’s destiny; slave overseers blending in with their former charges, and the urge for vengeance; differing vulnerabilities exploited by criminals; religious ritual and family units in the context of living so long as property, but also unwilling immigrants trying to build a home and assimilate.
The show ended on a cliffhanger, and fans were so fervent about resolving it, they finally produced a TV movie and 4 network sequels. Original screenwriter Rockne S. O’Bannon has been continuing to explore some of these themes that Fox abandoned on the Syfy series Defiance. Outsiders trying to make a place for themselves in an environment that’s been wound up tight like a different drum? These themes resonate with us; a reboot was probably inevitable. In the right hands, it could be a narrative touchstone for our national discourse.
With all that has happened in our country between 1991 and 2015, we are primed to tackle these issues through the more comfortable lens of science fiction. Racial tensions from 9/11 to Katrina to Ferguson, struggles for gender equity, the growing acceptance of homosexuality, advances in artificial intelligence, and the increasingly frustrating debates about whether science is real, a reboot of Alien Nation could have a lot to say. The important thing is to not turn this goldmine of analogy into a loud, obnoxious message movie/series.
I hope they cast Karl Urban as Matt Sykes and Michael Ealy as Sam Francisco for their delectable chemistry, box office mojo, and as a redress of the unfortunate cancellation of their promising comedic buddy cop show Almost Human (also cancelled after one season by Fox). That show was a modern incursion of some of the territory Alien Nation tried to explore 24 years ago, but with contemporary attention on the humanity in a machine. I’d prefer to see Alien Nation rebooted on television (preferably on a progressive network like HBO or AMC) rather than a standalone movie so it can take its time and develop. However, I will be there on opening weekend, humming “E take nas naj…nah sus gah nilpa” merrily under my breath.
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