A popular science fiction theme is 'arrival of the aliens.' What will first contact between humanity and extraterrestrials be like? Will they be all-knowing and benevolent superior beings like Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still? Or hostile attackers bent on obliterating New Jersey, as in War of the Worlds? Love them or fear them?
What if there were a third option? The arriving aliens are neither gods nor monsters. Instead, they are refugees: just another huddled mass of immigrants yearning to breathe free. Could someone make a story out of this? Kenneth Johnson did and it was called Alien Nation. For twenty-two episodes and five television movies the Tenctonese and their problems held up a mirror to life in late 20th-century Los Angeles.
In 1988, science fiction writer Rockne S O'Bannon wrote a sci-fi noir film, Alien Nation. The film featured two police detectives, a human (James Caan) and an immigrant alien from the planet Tencton (Mandy Patinkin). Alien Nation enjoyed moderate financial success and gained a cult following.
When the Fox television channel approached showrunner Kenneth Johnson (The Six Million Dollar Man, V, The Incredible Hulk) about making a series, the producer was unimpressed by the film. The only scene that interested him was one in which the alien detective interacted with his family at home. The idea of alien assimilation to Earth culture formed the basis of the new series.
Johnson's weekly series ran from 1989-1990, for one season. Although popular, the series was cancelled due to financial problems at the network. This left the audience unsatisfied: the series ended on a cliffhanger1. Beginning in 1994, a series of five made-for-television movies resolved the cliffhanger and continued the story of the Tenctonese.
[Image of large flying saucer] That was the scene in California's Mojave Desert, five years ago: our historic first view of the Newcomers' ship. Theirs was a slave ship, carrying a quarter-million beings bred to adapt and labor in any environment. But they've washed ashore on Earth, with no way to get back to where they came from. And in the last five years the Newcomers have become the latest addition to the population of Los Angeles.
– Alien Nation opening credits
The alien Tenctonese come from a crash-landed slave ship, which mysteriously exploded after the 250,000 newly-liberated slaves had been rescued. After quarantine in the Mojave, the Newcomers, as they are called by polite people (the impolite call them 'slags', a racial insult2), join the population of Los Angeles.
Newcomers are distinctly different from humans: although humanoid, they are easily recognisable by their large, hairless, spotted heads. (The heads are large because the actors are wearing prosthetics.) They have three genders, reproduce differently from humans, and have different strengths and vulnerabilities. For example, their tissue reacts to sea water much as humans' would to hydrochloric acid. On the other hand, the Newcomers are better learners, faster, and stronger than humans: a slight Tenctonese woman can easily throw a large human male through a window.
Newcomers eat vegetables and a wide (and humorous) variety of raw meat products. They dislike the smell of cooked meat, but appreciate a good weasel doughnut. They are indifferent to alcohol but get a buzz from spoiled milk ('that was a good month').
Newcomers have their own holidays such as the Day of Descent, a kind of Thanksgiving for their arrival. They have ceremonies to mark special rites of passage. They sing hymns to their Divine Couple, Andarko and Celine. The balance of male and female is important to them and they honour the third gender, the binnaum, without whom reproduction is impossible.
Newcomers are not presented in a rosy light in the series – nor as an alien menace. Instead, the immigrants are portrayed realistically as a mixture of good, bad, and indifferent. Tenctonese are found in all walks of life, from janitor to politician and from homeless addict to glamorous movie star. It isn't possible to tell the 'good guys' from the 'bad guys' at first sight: not even when the former Overseers, the kleezantsun'3, have tattoos on their wrists. The kleezantsun' aren't in jail unless they've broken laws on Earth, in spite of the clear message that their behaviour aboard the slave ship was beyond reprehensible.
A constant source of humour in the Alien Nation series is provided by the names of Newcomer characters. With Tenctonese names being difficult to pronounce, we are led to believe, the immigration officials assigned names in English. Faced with so many Newcomers to name, the authorities got creative. This is supposed to be the reason Tom Edison runs a lighting store and May O'Naize sells sandwiches and Mitch (X-Files) Pileggi plays an arrogant kleezantsun' named Jean-Paul Sartre.
The truth, of course, is different. The ludicrous names are a play on a persistent myth in the US: that immigration officials at Ellis Island changed hard-to-pronounce names. Researchers in the field of immigration history insist that this is not true, and if your great-grandfather changed his name from Goldschmied to Goldsmith it was his doing, not theirs: he just wanted to fit in. Ellis Island name-change stories used to make for good jokes, and calling a drug bosslady Betsy Ross is good for a laugh from a US audience.
And the language! Do you know what 'nyuk, nyuk, nyuk' means in Tenctonese?
– Cathy Frankel on why she finds The Three Stooges offensive.
Tenctonese isn't one of those complex artificial languages invented by a comparative linguist, like Klingon. Kenneth Johnson and his teammates weren't nearly that nerdy. It's an amalgam of bits and pieces of other languages, especially Russian, with the rest made up of reverse English with the syllables reversed.
The lyrics to the opening them are: E take nas naj...nah sus gah nilpa. Katie Johnson is Kenneth Johnson's daughter. Susan Appling Johnson is his wife. That sort of thing and some artfully placed clicks make for a satisfying linguistic experience without killing the actors.
The writing, which is seen everywhere in the series, isn't really in Tenctonese. It's English using a font based on Pitman shorthand. The fonts were designed by Joe Hawthorne, a sign writer in the Fox art department. So if the sign says 'No Smoking' in English, it says 'No Smoking' in Tenctonese, too.
The main characters are:
Matt Sikes (Gary Graham). Matt is an experienced police detective. He's basically a good-natured guy with a tendency to put his foot in his mouth around the aliens, but he is curious, friendly, and willing to learn. By the end of the series he is in a committed relationship with Cathy Frankel, a Tenctonese scientist who is a lot smarter than he is.
George Francisco (Eric Pierpoint). Matt's Tenctonese partner. George is a good family man, a sound detective, and an upwardly-mobile member of Tenctonese society. He can be naïve at times. He is basically mild-mannered until provoked: then, he is dangerous to enemies.
Susan Francisco (Michele Scarabelli). George's wife, an advertising executive on Earth, mother of three children. As a mother, Susan carried the children to pod status: after that, the pod was transferred to George, who gave birth to the children. (This happens on-camera with the third child, Vessna.)
Buck Francisco (Sean Six). The Franciscos' rebellious son. By the time the series is over, Buck has been a gang member, a religious acolyte, a telemarketer, a political campaigner, and has finally settled down at the Police Academy.
Emily Francisco (Lauren Woodland). The Franciscos' older daughter, who had the bad luck to have aged from 11 to 14 during the hiatus. This is never explained. Emily is a bright student who bravely faces discrimination challenges while growing up.
Cathy Frankel (Terri Treas). A Newcomer biochemist and Matt's love interest. She's very perceptive about human and Tenctonese nature.
Albert Einstein (Jeff Marcus). A Newcomer janitor and binnaum to the Francisco children. His love interest is May O'Naize (Dana Anderson).
Uncle Moodri (James Greene). George Francisco's uncle. Born on Tencton, Uncle Moodri is an Elder with a lot of knowledge to share and a sharp sense of humour. Also a pet goat.
How to Enjoy
There's nothing wrong with dating males. You're not falling into that human hydrophobia, are you?
Alien Nation is a warm, funny franchise that takes a sharp look at human nature but is largely optimistic about the species' potential for growth. If you enjoy being challenged in this way you may want to look this series up. Here are some Youtube links to get you started. And may Andarko and Celine be with you.