New Century – New Aliens

Watching E4’s new 6-part drama The Aliens, I was strongly reminded of the 1989 American TV series Alien Nation, based on the 1988 film of the same name. Initially, I was struck by the similarities between the two programmes: in each an alien ship crash lands on earth, spilling it’s refugees, who then commence a new life on our planet. But, if art imitates life, then the differences between the two shows may be a mirror of how society’s views and attitudes have altered in two plus decades.

Aliens in SF are often used to represent the other: the foreigner, the outsider, the ‘not one of us.’ In both The Aliens and Alien Nation, the offworlders are literally refugees and immigrants so the metaphor is clearly drawn. So how do the respective shows reflect the social attitudes of their time and place of creation?

Alien NationIn 1989, the US was still seen as the land of opportunity – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as the 19th Century poet Emma Lazarus famously said. In Alien Nation, the Tenctonese, or “newcomers” as they were called, were being gradually integrated into human society, although not without being on the receiving end of a fair amount of racism – they are referred to as ‘slags;’ given silly human names such as Albert Einstein; and often have the most menial of jobs. However, they live in human neighbourhoods; mix in human society; and work their way up the employment ladder – both the film and TV series feature a human/alien police partnership, for instance. The aliens are portrayed as victims rather than threats: tellingly, the ship that crashed was a slaver.

In contrast, E4’s spaceship was said to be a prison ship (according to the humans – the aliens have lost their memory of life before Earth) and the refugees are confined behind a wall, only allowed into the human side to work for a limited period each day, returning to Troy (their place of abode) before their curfew at 7pm each evening. They are portrayed as an evil influence, due to the fact that their hair, when smoked, has a narcotic effect on humans, and they take advantage of this by working as drug dealers and organising into criminal gangs.

Bearing in mind the media hysteria over immigration in Britain in the run up to the 2015 general election, with politicians of every stripe threatening to clamp down on it, it is obvious that The Aliens plays right into these fears and controversies. Although it suggests towards the end of the series that keeping them behind the wall is not a good idea, there is no indication that anything is going to change. Almost all of the alien characters are shown to be violent, no matter what side they are on.

Interestingly, in terms of actually living there, present day Britain is probably a better place for ethnic minorities than late eighties/early nineties LA, as evidenced, for instance, by the police beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots; but in terms of official, media and public attitudes to immigration matters have certainly deteriorated badly in the past 25 years and The Aliens accurately reflects this zeitgeist.

Although both series concern refugees, Alien Nation overall seems to be more about racism in general, whereas The Aliens appears to relate more to immigration (the aliens don’t actually look any different than humans, for example).  However, the biggest difference, to my mind, is that of perspective: Alien Nation was optimistic and full of millennial hope that problems may be overcome; The Aliens offers nothing but despair for the future, which sadly reflects the feelings of many in Britain today at the dawning of the new century.

The Aliens

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The Whole Picture

I’m sitting in the Melon Café, drinking a skinny latte, when the first touch of pain hits the back of my head.  Instantly, the ghosts appear.  There I am 4 years ago over by the window with my cousin James the first time we ever ate here (I know it’s the first time, because I never ordered the full breakfast again – too big).  There we are again a few months later the time I accidentally banged my head against the pillar (never sat in front of it again).  I’m here in groups, in twos and alone.  There I am last week with Carol, discussing the film she wants to make.  And then there are the future versions of me, some of them with people I don’t recognise.  None of them look any older than I am now, so I know I won’t be coming here for much longer, but I don’t speculate as to the reason why.  The possibilities are endless.  I know from experience that I have at most half an hour before the pain becomes excruciating, so I pay my bill and go home.

One of the interesting things about holograms is that if you break one into little pieces, each fragment still contains the entire image.  One of the many interesting things about life is that it works in a similar way.  One instant of a life contains the image of the whole – past, present and future.  This is not common knowledge however.  Just as you need a special light in order to be able to view a hologram, you need a special form of sight to be able to view your life.

I developed this ability at the age of thirteen along with the headaches.  The pain came out of the blue and with it the visions.  I was in my bedroom in my childhood home.  I saw myself as a baby, a toddler, a young child, as I was now, as a young woman, with others and by myself.  My mother must have heard my involuntary gasp, because she soon appeared at the door.  She explained that both the headaches and the “gift” as she called it ran in the female line of our family.  She answered my questions as best she could, although she knew no more that I do now of the origin or ability of this power.

The ability is location specific.  My first experience was in my childhood home, and I saw only times when I was there.  I only see other people’s lives where they intersect with mine.  I can’t see the future in places I haven’t been to yet, and I can’t tell you your future unless I am a major part of it.  I’m no fortune teller.

The gift cannot reliably tell me what will happen, but it can often indicate what won’t.  For instance, I never saw myself in my parents’ house older than perhaps mid-twenties.  My mother cautioned me not to speculate on what this might mean: she said that way lay madness.  As it happens, my parents were both killed in a car crash when I was 24, and I sold the house shortly afterwards.

I didn’t have a headache at their funeral, and there were so many real-time people there that there would have been no room for ghosts.  However, I visited the grave on my own many times afterwards, and on several occasions felt the familiar pain at the rear of my skull, and saw the many times I would visit in future.  I saw myself a lot older, with white hair and a stick, which was the first intimation I ever had that I would not share my parents’ fate of dying young.

When I’m introduced to Michael by a mutual friend I recognise him instantly.  I have seen him in my flat many times.  As we make love for the first time, I play these visions over in my head and for once allow myself to speculate as to why I have never seen him look much different.  A year later we marry, and move into a new home together.  I see us decorating, doing the garden, cooking together, relaxing in front of the fire on a winter’s evening.

When I fail to get pregnant after two years, Michael wants to discuss options – fertility tests, adoption.  I know there is no point.  The time has come for me to tell him what happens when I have one of my headaches.

He listens attentively, but I think he finds it hard to believe what I am saying.  I can’t blame him for that.  “Look,” he says.  “Even if I accept that everything you say is true, it might just mean that we will be living somewhere else when we have a baby.  Let’s move.  Let’s put the house on the market tomorrow.”  He is shouting.

I take his hand and try to speak very clearly and calmly.  “Michael, it’s not just this house, or this town.  Do you think I would never bring my child to visit my parents’ grave?  A defeated look comes over his eyes and he pulls his hand from mine and leaves the room.  I think he doesn’t want me to see him cry.

Six months later we move to Australia.  Michael wants to go, and I would do anything to save the relationship at this point.  On our first day we go to the beach, and I have one of my headaches.  To my delight, I see us building a sandcastle with a little girl.  Six months later I am with child.

It’s 20 years later.  I’m standing at my parents’ graveside with a young woman, my daughter.  It took us this long to make the trip.  Even now Michael wasn’t able to accompany us.  My vision was correct but my interpretation had been all wrong.  I did bring my child to visit my parents.  She just wasn’t a child at the time.

In the distance I can see elderly me with the white hair and the stick making her way up the path.  She is alone.  I don’t try and figure out what that means.

Mary Tynan