Movie: Science fiction is typically used to convey contemporary (progressive) ideas in a setting that doesn't directly confront the more sensitive elements of society. You can go back to Jules Verne if you like or go to the standard episode of the original Star Trek but exploring ideas of equality between gender or race (as a few examples) were handled much easier in the futuristic tales than in current settings for a whole host of reasons. Another television show, and the subject of this review Alien Nation: The Complete Series, did likewise as it explored a host of similar themes, all to the trappings of a buddy cop series. Brought to the small screen by Kenneth Johnson, the creative force behind The Incredible Hulk series among others, the show lasted only a single season on the fledgling Fox Network but spawned a series of television movies as well (sadly, they weren't included in this so-called "complete set"). Here's a brief take on the series from someone who remembers watching it when it aired on television as well as now (allowing me the opportunity to put it in context).
Originally a modest hit of a movie starring James Cann and Mandy Patinkin, the show mirrored the usual cop show of the 1980's in terms of the general dynamic with one small exception; the fact that it was set in the near future when a large space ship had crash landed in the Los Angeles area. The ship was a cargo ship full of genetically developed Tenctonese slaves from another galaxy. They were biped humanoid in appearance with some strikingly different physiological characteristics; they were much stronger, intelligent, and adaptable with a programmed subservient mentality (that could be overridden with time).
The exact numbers of this race were never discussed but it amounted to a few hundred thousand with a number of overseers mixed in as well. The overseers were essentially the modern day equivalent of slavers from our past and always scheming to contact their people in order to reclaim the Tenctonese cargo lost to Earth but also mine the resources of this new planet (they would turn Earth into another source of albeit weaker slaves). The slaves themselves were a mostly agreeable lot who shared the various difficulties of assimilating into the local culture. At times, it was clear the show was poking its inquisitive eye at Asian immigrants (who were upsetting the educational system by virtue of hard work more than genetics), blacks (with repeatedly references to slavery, the superior physical attributes of sport stars, etc.), Hispanics and a number of others in the way it looked at the difficulties of adapting a culture to a new one. This was also the basis for much of the humor from the show, with characters mistaking words or phrases regularly.
The focal point of the show was the partnership between two police detectives, human Matthew Sikes (Gary Graham), and Tenctonese newcomer George Francisco (Eric Pierpoint) and his family. Sikes is a bigoted man who is offended that George was handed his position as part of his department's diversity program rather than earning it over time. Even 17 years later, the argument over racial quotas continues with both sides firmly entrenched that their version of the truth is the correct one. In Sikes' favor, George is still wet behind the ears and for all his superior attributes, has yet to develop a sense of the street and human nature (it takes time to learn these, time usually required in the trenches of patrol). In George's favor, his superior genetic adaptability and the societal need for newcomers (the favorable slang word for the aliens as opposed to the negative "Slag") to assist in dealing with all the problems of the large alien population make his position something of a necessity, even if a bitter bill to swallow for the established status quo.
Each week, the duo would be confronted with a murder or other crime to solve that involved the newcomers as the major thread of the week. This would be combined with a few lesser threads that dealt with the two (and their immediate circle of family and friends) learning to deal with life and the challenges it presents. From George learning the difference between bribes and minor gratuities over his culturally accepted "gifts" to Sikes figuring out that the newcomers weren't all slimy aliens (even developing an awkward relationship with one as the series progressed), the two grew into their roles as time went on. You could've stripped out the fantastical elements and it would've been the relative equivalent of any number of similar series but the writing was done in such a way that those elements often added in something special, something that elevated the show at least a little bit, as it explored a variety of socially interesting topics.
Over the years, the series has also spawned a number of others that incorporated a measure of imitation such as the anime show DearS (that took a decidedly adult way of looking at alien slaves), but the string of TV movies were also pretty cool. For the record, I never believed Fox cancelled the show over special effect costs as was reported years ago, making it another example of science fiction squashed before its time (like the well received Firefly) but at least in the case of Alien Nation, they financed a series of movies to further the plot and characters. The acting wasn't anything special but the writing and plots were pretty interesting on average so I can see why it developed a substantial following (had it been released after the popular advent of the internet, it likely would've received at least a second season). Here's a guide to the season's episodes:
1: Alien Nation: The TV Movie Pilot (9/18/1989)
2: Fountain of Youth (9/25/1989)
3: Little Lost Lamb (10/2/1989)
4: Fifteen With Wanda (10/9/1989)
5: The Takeover (10/16/1989)
6: The First Cigar (10/23/1989)
7: Night of the Screams (10/30/1989)
8: Contact (11/6/1989)
9: Three to Tango (11/13/1989)
10: The Game (11/20/1989)
11: Chains of Love (11/27/1989)
12: The Red Room (12/18/1989)
13: The Spirit of '95 (1/15/1990)
14: Generation to Generation (1/29/1990)
15: Eyewitness News (2/5/1990)
16: Partners (2/12/1990)
17: Real Men (2/19/1990)
18: Crossing the Line (2/26/1990)
19: Rebirth (3/12/1990)
20: Gimme, Gimme (4/9/1990)
21: The Touch (4/30/1990)
22: Green Eyes (5/7/1990)
In my opinion, I think the show succeeded in most ways, even though it almost always came across as a slightly updated cop show. The DVD set had some significant technical limitations that will be discussed below but it was still worth a rating of Recommended by me for all it provided. It holds up better than most of the pap from the 1980's television landscape and helped launch the Fox Network's efforts to become the fourth network. Yeah, it sucks that the TV movies weren't included here and the technical factors could've been much better but the show itself was always interesting to me, showing some thought into the weekly moral plays it broadcast. If you liked the original movie, you'll almost certainly appreciate the series as a surprising cut above it; something fairly rare in the history of conversions from big screen to television productions.
Picture: Alien Nation: The Complete Series was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color as it aired on the Fox Network in the 1989-1990 television season. This was the biggest area of weakness for the boxed set. The picture looked like it was poorly mastered, showing all sorts of flaws like rainbows, grain, video noise, and compression artifacts. Some episodes were pretty solid by comparison and that made watching the weaker ones all the more frustrating but this was definitely on the low end of the conversion to DVD for a (relatively) modern television show. To put in perspective though, recent releases of the MacGuyver (a contemporary show to Alien Nation have looked equally weak but as a fan, I have to admit that I had hoped for more. It wasn't unwatchable but it looked much like a UHF channel that wasn't quite tuned in correctly.
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo English and a 1.0 monaural Spanish, both with optional subtitles in either English or Spanish. I didn't hear any separation between the channels on the English track and the dynamic range wasn't anything to write home about but it was basically clean with few major issues. I did not notice any replacement music used in the episodes as many other contemporary series have been released with, but the score was unique to the show and it used precious little music to be swapped out over copyright matters IIRC.
Extras: There were very few extras on the set, with the best easily being the audio commentary by director Kenneth Johnson on the two part pilot episode. It was clear he really liked his time on the show and he was able to provide a lot of anecdotes about the series and how it came about. I wish he had been given more of an opportunity to provide such insight on other episodes but I'm crossing my fingers that he'll be included on commentaries for the TV movies if they're ever released on DVD. Heck, he was more entertaining than some of the weaker episodes (I know that sounds like faint praise but commentaries in general suffer from inherent limitations, many of which he transcended). There was also a short feature of Behind the Scenes footage but it really didn't manage to provide much value (lasting a handful of minutes).
Final Thoughts: Alien Nation: The Complete Series was not without its flaws but the strength of the show's themes and writing shined through over and over again; just as it did when the series first aired back in 1989. There were a lot of lame cop show clichés (the grouchy boss, the stupid white male lead, a dystopian world where economic conditions were far from sunny) but the overall appeal of the show had less to do with the manner in which it examined the police aspects of society so much as George's attempts to "fit in" to an ever-changing world full of the hope he finds having escaped a life of slavery as well as the possibility of having to fight to keep that newfound freedom from those who'd take it away (one of the running themes was a group of well financed humans seeking to rid the Earth of the aliens by one means or another; a vast contrast to the dopey Klan from America's past). If you enjoy science fiction, cop shows, or moral dramas, you'll probably find this series one of the best things about the 1980's so check it out.