Kenneth Johnson discusses Alien Nation

Back in 1989 Fox TV brought us an unusual twist on the cop show. Alien Nation partnered up human cop Matthew Sykes with George Francisco, a spotty-headed “Newcomer” from the planet Tencton. The show addressed many big issues - particularly the cluster of concerns surrounding immigration. Sadly, it only lasted one season before the axe fell.

On 8 January the show is being released on DVD by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment (RRP £39.99). Executive producer Kenneth Johnson (whose credits also include The Incredible Hulk, The Bionic Woman and V) kindly took time out to talk to us about the show. You can visit his website at Kenny tells us “I love hearing from fans, and if they have questions or comments I’m happy to answer them.”

Alien Nation started out as a feature film. How did you get involved in developing into it something else?
“Well, my friend Harris Katleman was running Fox Television at the time. He called me and said, ‘We’ve got this movie we think could be a series, would you be interested in taking a look at it?’ And I said, ‘Gee, no! I’ve done so many alien things and larger-than-life things, I’m really trying to do things that are a little more grounded’. And he pleaded to me on the basis of our friendship and I said, ‘Yeah, okay Harris!’ I looked at the film and I thought it was a great premise that had gone astray. It sorta devolved to Miami Vice with Coneheads, y’know, cos it was really a drug movie with an overlay of the science fiction aspect of it. But there was one scene where Mandy Patinkin’s alien was picked up at home by the human cop and waved to his family on the porch. And there was one shot - just one shot in the movie - of his family, this alien woman and her two little alien kids, standing on the porch. At that point it was like a bell went off! I said, ‘Wait a minute, who are they? What is it like to be the newest minority off the bus?’ So I went back to Fox and said, ‘Look, Lethal Weapon with aliens is not interesting to me, but how about an updated version of In the Heat of the Night where we can really explore the culture clashes?’ Fox said, ‘Er... okay’, they sort of got it, and that’s the way I took it on.
“I loved the opportunity to be able to talk about culture clash, about intolerance, about prejudice. I was raised in a very anti-Semitic, bigoted household, I was born in the deep south, but I had always sort of known that that sort of intolerance was intolerable. My mother and stepfather were very anti-Semitic and bigoted about just about everybody except them, , y’know! I was an only child, and yet somehow - I've never quite figured out where it came from - I realised that it was just all bullshit and was wrong. People have asked me over the years which of the characters in Alien Nation that I most identified with, and in the pilot it was the little human girl across the street from the new aliens in the neighbourhood whose parents were very anti-alien, and the little girl wanted to play with her their kid. And that’s sort of how I felt.’

Was there resistance from the studio execs to making the show into something more political, more societal?
“Well I had the same meeting with them about six times where they kept saying, ‘Wel,l we just wanna understand exactly what the show is about’. I finally said, ‘It’s about an hour!’ At first they didn’t quite get it but then when I pointed out to them that rather than just doing a police procedural with one guy who happened to be an alien it was going to be much more interesting and allow us to do much more soul-searching drama if what the piece was about was the societal stuff. So I kept the police procedural thing alive, but every episode that we did had a very strong theme running through it. We always wrote thematically, we were always concerned first with what the episode was about and then we would work out a police story to follow that would reflect that theme, and also we’d see how that theme resonated in each of our characters. We’d pick up a subject like greed - okay, how does greed manifest itself in each of our different characters? Then the overlay of the police story would have something to do with greed as well. And I think working from that thematic basis gave the show a depth and a substance that it wouldn’t have had otherwise and certainly made it far more interesting and connected it to so many more people that way.

One striking thing about the show is that there aren’t really any clear-cut good guys and bad guys – even the hero Matthew Sykes sometimes slips into casual racism...
“Oh of course, exactly - he’s got that built-in stuff that virtually all of us have underneath. I think one of my favourite pieces from the pilot that I wrote was when he has just been at the school where Emily the little alien girl is being rejected and I've got a line of people with virtually every ethnicity in the United States saying, ‘We don’t want her kind here’, and he makes his impassioned speech about how this is a lot of crap and she belongs here - maybe a bit heavy-handed, but on the point. Then he goes home to his apartment that night and sees that an alien girl is moving in across the way, and of course his reaction is ‘Why my building?’. I think that’s a perfect example of what I wanted to achieve with Matt, and in the show in general. He was a guy that clearly was a hero, we loved what this guy did at the school, but we see that he can go home and feel like, ‘Not in my backyard!’ And obviously, we tried to do that in all of the episodes. There was a wonderful one about a Nazi hunter - it was a version of the Simon Wiesenthal story, about a guy who was trying to kill the aliens who had been Overseers, and it becomes a question of when do we become them if we are suddenly killing them off as arbitrarily as they once killed us off. Are we better off to try and rise above that?
One of the beauties of the character that Eric Pierpoint played, George, was he was the heart and soul of the piece, the one that wanted to always do right and be honourable, and everyone else orbits around George's honour and sensibilities. And Sykes - who has his own brand of honour - is constantly bumping up against it, and that was fun to play.

To what extent did you think of Alien Nation as a cop show, and was it difficult to get the balance right between the more naturalistic side and the more outlandish elements?
“No, that was the fun part actually because god... how many cop shows have there been? Thousands of them! What we would always say is, ‘What makes this episode an Alien Nation episode? What makes this episode something that could only play on our series? So the police procedural side of it was really just like a coat-rack to hang the coat on. It was the tree that we decorated, put it that way! It was great fun to come up with all of the various attributes of their culture and their society that would allow us to show conflict and to highlight conflict - conflict being the essence of drama - and the more we got into it the more we realised, ‘God, this show could go on forever!’ I mean, I've been back to Fox in the last year saying, ‘Gee, illegal immigration - sort of a big issue now. Why don’t we do Alien Nation again? And they still don’t quite get it. One of my problems is that I have always been a little bit ahead of the curve, and we were with Alien Nation. It was a remarkable experience having the show be so successful and having Fox cancel it after one season.”

What was the story behind that?
“Well what happened was this. Fox was just opening, it was a fledgling network at the time, when we went on Monday nights it was the first time Fox had had a Monday night on their schedule. It had always been that their affiliates would fill it up, cos they didn’t have the programming. We went on and did much better than they ever expected us to do in terms of ratings, but Barry Diller, who was running the network at the time, suffered from a little bit of hubris I think, and felt that he could get bigger ratings if he put comedies on. So he cancelled virtually all of his one-hour dramatic shows and put on comedies. I remember when they called me to tell me I said, ‘What a huge mistake you’re making, because this show has such a life’. A year later Fox had lost so much in the ratings that they’d had to give Monday night back to the affiliates, they didn’t have any programming, their comedies had tanked. And they got up in front of the Television Critics' Association and publicly apologised, said, ‘It was the biggest mistake we ever made cancelling Alien Nation’. Naturally I was on the phone that afternoon saying ‘So?’ cause when we heard about the cancellation it was like hearing a dear young friend had just been killed in an auto accident. It was like, ‘What? That’s impossible!’ because we could see that there were years and years of material here that could go on and on and on, it was just such a devastating blow to us... and then a brilliant, wonderful sun came out when I finally managed to get Dark Horizon, the first of the Alien Nation movies, made a couple of years later. It was like a gift from the gods.”

Why do you think the show managed to survive beyond cancellation when most don’t?
“I think because people seemed to realised - and the critics certainly realised, as well as our fans around the world - - that the show just had a life that should have been allowed to go on and on and on and reach fruition. I had been pounding on the doors of Fox literally for a couple of years when finally a woman named Lucy Salhany took over Fox Television and was looking at their titles, and she called and had the brilliant idea that maybe we should do an Alien Nation movie. And I said, ‘Yeah, no shit! What have I been saying for the last couple of years?’ I have nothing but great praise for her cos she had the wisdom and the foresight to see that there was still a demand for it. Everybody came running back incidentally, the whole cast, everybody loved each other, the whole thing was one of the best experiences that I have ever had in my professional life. There were no jerks on Alien Nation. Everybody was just so happy to be there and so primed to be there and so anxious to see the next script and get on the stage and work together. And as many of the crew came back as possible too, because we had all had such fun doing it, and we also recognised the potential of the show and the ability of the show to speak on so many different levels to so many people. It’s funny, Venita Ozols Graham was my first assistant director and she’s a very strong, bright, intelligent commanding woman - as you have to be when you’re an assistant director, cos you really hold the whole thing together. And we were doing a make-up test for dark horizon to make sure everybody’s make-up still fitted. I was going out to take a look at it myself and I found her learning against the make-up trailer in the parking lot absolutely sobbing! And I said, ‘My god, what's wrong? And she said, ‘I just saw Eric in his make-up.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, well what’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘I didn’t realise how much I missed George!’ And it was true, it’s how we all felt because the characters they had created were so impactful.”

How much of the culture of the Tenctonese did you map out in advance and how much was done on the hoof as the show developed?
“It was a bit of both. I sort of developed rules for myself early on because I feel when you’re doing something in the area of science fiction and fantasy it is very important to have rules. Back when I was doing The Bionic Woman people would come in and tell me, ‘Well, she’s gonna come and turn over a truck...’ and I’d say ‘She can’t do that’. ‘What do you mean? She’s bionic!’ ‘That’s right, she can turn over a car but she can’t turn over a truck.’ There were very definite rules and I established quite a bit of those going in and a bit of the history and the backstory in the pilot. Then once we went to series and I had the benefit of having a number of really strong writer/producers with me - people that I had worked with over the years and a couple of new faces - we all sat down together and just began to brainstorm and say, ‘Okay, what about thia? What about that? What is too far out? What is realistic?’ Then there would also be times where I would have a brainstorm. I remember walking into the production office one morning and sitting down with my supervising producers on the show, and I said, ‘What if it takes three of them to have sex?’ They said, ‘What are you talking about?’ and I said, ‘Well if they just want to have sex to enjoy themselves two is fine, but if they wanna procreate suppose it takes three sexes.’ And immediately everybody’s heads started spinning. and the whole notion - which was also my idea - about how on Earth the male seahorses carry the baby to fruition. Coming up with that sort of stuff was just great fun. I said, ‘Suppose his wife gets pregnant, she passes it off to George, and George has to carry the baby to fruition’, it ended up as what is still one of my very favourite episodes of the show, ‘Real Men’, where george is pregnant. We got to do all of the cliches of pregnancy and stand them on their head. And again, the theme was ‘What mnakes a real man?’ Is it the bodybuilding world the cops are investigating a crime in? Or is it George’s world where he can say, ‘I just don’t feel fulfilled as a male until I’ve given birth!’ It’s delicious stuff and it makes people think. I think the key thing about Alien Nation is that it gave us a way to look at the human condition through a different lens, through the lens of the alien people. To me it’s very much of a humanist drama in spite of the fact that there are people with these funny heads walking around.”

Not that many SF and fantasy shows have picked up the baton in terms of doing this societal drama since. do you think you cvould make a show like this now?
“Oh, absolutely. I was trained in the classic theatre. I went to Carnegie Mellon, which is a theatre school, and I studied all of the great classic writers from Sophocles all the way up to Harold Pinter and beyond and I think good storytelling and essential human drama is timeless. I mean you pick up Les Miserables and Victor Hugo brings those characters to life so thoroughly, as does Dickens, as does Thomas hardy – I’m a great fan of the English writers. My wife was saying last night that she has only one more book of Dickens that she hasn’t read, and she wants him to come back and write some more! So I always feel that good storytelling and good character construction are going to attract an audience. So yes, for sure. I mean, this is a show that could go on and on because it’s about the ongoing situation of race and culture in society.”

What’s latest with your efforts to make another V mini-series (V: The Second Generation). Are you still trying to get the funding together?
“Oh yes... it’s like pushing a rock uphill, y’know! A couple of things have happened. I’ve written a novel which is coming out and is gonna be published by Tor in hardcover Fall of next year, and I’m also right now in the process of organising the foreign sales. When I wrote the screenplay I always knew that there was a book in it, there were a lot of things that I didn’t have time to get into the screenplay, because of the length of time of the screenplay, that I was able to really mine and get into more deeply in the book. Also I thought, ‘Well, if I get a book published maybe that’ll make it more easy to get the mini-series made!’ And I’m still hoping that that will happen. It’s a big project, a $19 million mini-series. Warner Home Video has come on-board to help finance it. The problem is, the market for mini-series and TV movies in the United States has all but dried up, so finding an appropriate broadcaster domestically, which is the last link that we need, is what we’re endeavouring to do. But we’re all determined to make it happen. Everybody at Warners is working diligently to make it happen so... hold the good thoughts! Also I should tell you that right not we’re working on the box set of all five Alien Nation movies which will be coming out in the US probably the middle of next year, and shortly after in your territory.”

Interviewer: Ian Berriman

Read our review of the box set in SFX153, on sale 17 January.