A few weeks ago, Lost in Translation looked at Alien Nation and the difference between film and TV. The Alien Nation TV series got into more world building and character development than the original film could, thanks to the time a TV series can provide over a film’s 120 minutes run length. Movie’s main strength is delivering a spectacle bigger than life, but blockbuster leaves little time for introspection. TV has time to spare.
Another science fiction movie and subsequent TV series also shows the difference. The 1990 film, Tremors, spun off into a franchise with four sequels, a prequel, and a TV series. Tremors is a monster movie, inspired by older B-movies, with writing that shows the writers are well aware of what normally happens in such movies. Starring Kevin Bacon as Val McKee, Fred Ward as Earl Bassett, Finn Carter as Rhonda LeBeck, Reba McIntyre as Heather Gummer, and Michael Gross as Burt Gummer, Tremors tells the story about a monster attack on the town of Perfection, Nevada.
As the movie unfolds, Val and Earl discover the existance of a subterranean monster. They rescue geology student Rhonda and return to Perfection to spread the word of the danger. The townsfolk dub the monsters “Graboids” for lack of a better word, but do ask Rhonda about them. She guesses that they are prehistoric, having never appeared in the fossil record. The townsfolk learn quickly about how graboids hunt – they sense their prey using soundwaves carried through the ground. Graboids can burrow quickly under soft soil, but hard rock stops them. One is killed by forcing it to run into a hard rock outcropping. Another breaks in the wrong goddamn rec room. Yet another is killed by luring it with thrown stones before tossing a pipe bomb for it to eat. The problem is, graboids are smart and can learn. What works with one won’t work with the next.
The movie had a strong cast, with Michael Gross playing against his previous role of Steven Keaton on Family Ties, the complete opposite of Burt Gummer. Ariana Richard played Mindy and would later play Kathy in Spaced Invaders and Lex in Jurassic Park. Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, and Finn Carter had amazing on-screen chemistry together. Boosting the strong cast was a well written script that had the light touch of humour along with the action and scares a monster movie needs. Finally, the graboids weren’t front and centre. The tension in the film came from not knowing when a graboid would appear, leaving a lot to the imagination to the audience, similar to how /Jaws/ worked around the problems of the mechanical shark.
A cult classic in the 90s naturally spawns direct-to-video sequels. Tremors 2: Aftershocks was released in 1996 and brought back Fred Ward and Michael Gross to deal with graboids at a Mexican oil refinery. Earl went after the $50 000 reward and, when he realized how severe the problem was, called in Burt. However, the graboids themselves had a twist. While Earl and Burt were ready to deal with graboids, the monsters went through a change. Part of the graboid life cycle sees a different form, shriekers, tear out of the monster as part of reproduction. Shriekers hunt on the ground, seeking out prey using its heat sense, and tend to multiply with the more they eat. Burt and Earl are over-gunned for the situation, leading to creative use of heat and explosives to deal with the shrieker incursion.
Tremors 3: Return to Perfection was a 2001 direct-to-video that saw the survivors of the original film return, including Ariana Richardson as Mindy, Charlotte Stewart as Nacy, Mindy’s mom, Robert Jayne as Melvin, Tony Genaro as Miguel, and introduced new characters Jodi Chang (Susan Chung), niece of Walter and the new owner of Walter’s store and Jack Sawyer (Shawn Christian), who has started a graboid tour for tourists. Of course, Burt Gummer is still around. This time around, it’s the shriekers who have a new twist. As part of graboid reproduction, shriekers begin a moulting process to turn into a new form, one capable of launching itself and gliding for distances. This new form is dubbed “Ass-blasters” by Jodi. Ass-blasters complete the reproduction cycle by carrying a graboid egg, and their ability to glide allows them to take the egg far from the original hunting grounds.
When Burt returns to Perfection, he finds out that there are a few problems happening. Three graboids are in the area as are a number of shrikers and, soon, a number of ass-blasters. Each form as their ideal means of eradication, and each form learns. Burt and the townsfolk fight off the shriekers and ass-blasters and two of the graboids, The US Department of the Interior steps in, though, as graboids are an endangered species. The final graboid,an albino one dubbed “El Blanco” is placed under protection. An uneasy truce exists between Perfection, now federally protected land, and El Blanco. However, an ass-blaster does survive the film, having been captured and sold by Nancy to fund Mindy’s college tuition.
Over the course of the first three movies, there is a lot of worldbuilding. Once graboids became known to the general public, tourism started. Walter Chang’s ideas of creating graboid merchandise isn’t far fetched. There is worldbuilding and a cult following. The SciFi channel needed a new series, and with the producers working on a Tremors series, the inevitable happened. Tremors: The Series began airing on SciFi in 2003. While the order of episodes got jumbled, it didn’t affect the series as much as Fox’s maltreatment of Firefly.
Characters from Tremors 3 returned, though with new actors. Lela Lee took over as Jodi Chang and Marcia Strassman picked up the role of Nancy. Mindy was off at college, as set up by Tremors 3. Robert Jayne, though, returns as Melvin Plug, a role he had in the original Tremors. New characters came in as well, with Victor Browne’s Tyler Reed buying Desert Jack’s Graboid Adventure tour business and Gladise Jimenez as Rosalita Sanchez who bought a ranch in the area to get away from her Vegas life. Dean Norris portrayed WD Twitchell, the Department of the Interior agent assigned to keep an eye on El Blanco. However, only one man could be Burt Gummer.
The first three filmed episodes, “Feeding Frenzy”, “Shriek and Destroy”, and “Blast from the Past” act as reminders of what the graboids, shriekers, and ass-blasters can do. It doesn’t take long for El Blanco to claim a victim in the first episode, and Tyler almost became the second if not for the timely intervention of Burt. Twitchell from time to time has Burt and Tyler investigate possible graboid sightings elsewhere, seeing that Gummer is the foremost expert on hunting graboids.
Tremors: The Series explores the idea of living in an area where there is a man-eating monster lurking around and how the townsfolk adapt to the threat. The series also looks at how the rest of the world reacts to the idea of graboids. For the most part, the graboids are an oddity. People in the know treat them as a threat, but graboids are an endangered species. There are extreme fans of both El Blanco and Burt Gummer. There are animal rights activists trying to free the graboid. Everything is within the realm of possibility if giant man-eating worms lurked under the ground.
There is also a mini-arc of episodes dealing with Mixmaster, a method of conjoining DNA from various animals. While the graboids aren’t results of the secret experiments, being older than fossils, other creatures that appear in and near Perfection are, creating a threat to not just the town but the world. Key behind Mixmaster is Cletus Poffenberger (Christopher Lloyd), who has been monitoring the situation for several decades. Even Burt was unaware of a secret corporate facility in the valley.
The TV series allows the cast and crew to explore the relationships between the townsfolk of Perfection, where they get along and where they don’t. Burt and Nancy represent the history of the town. Jodi is very much her uncle’s niece, to the point where Nancy gave her a back-handed compliment about being better suited as a CEO for a multi-national corporation. Rosalita and Tyler are the newcomers trying to adjust to life in a town where death is always underfoot and each of them reacts differently.
The casting is strong, in all of main, guest, and supporting cast. The characters are treating the situation as serious, even if the audience is being allowed to laugh at situations. It wouldn’t be a Tremors TV series without Burt, the breakout character from the original movie, thanks to Michael Gross’ portrayal of him. The writing maintains the mix of action, humour, and tension that the movies introduced, still nodding to the B-movie monster movies while remembering modern sensibilities.
/Tremors: The Series/ follows the previous movies seamlessly. What helps is having the same creative team continuing to tell the story of Perfection. They are familiar with the characters, the setting, and the premise, and can build upon all of that while still remaining true to the original. The series gives space to expand the Tremors-verse and make the world a little more weird. Like Alien Nation: The Series, Tremors: The Series takes advantage of the TV format to expand the world and dig deeper into the setting and the characters, something the films didn’t have time to do.
Science fiction has been used to examine modern problems in a framing that allows for some separation, showing the issue in a way that is non-threatening while still laying out the problem. The separation makes the acceptance of the work palatable. Sometimes, the work can go a little too far, and sometimes, going too far is needed. The Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” was blatant about the absurdity of hating people based on skin colour, but the message needed hammering in 1969. However, movies have limited time to delve into deeper ideas. Film has a limited run time, so the action tends to get the lion’s share of screen time. It’s a balancing act.
As seen in the History of Adaptations, the Eighties[http://psychodrivein.com/lost-in-translation-the-history-of-adaptations-1980-89/] saw more popular original works than popular adaptations for the first time in film history. If something became popular, studios tried to jump on the bandwagon only to discover that the bandwagon popped somewhere else. Still, some genres became popular, even if they don’t appear on the list. The buddy cop movie, like the Lethal Weapon series and Beverly Hills Cop movies, did grab attention, especially when the pairing, or grouping as in Beverly Hills Cop, were made of opposites. Still, to get attention even in a popular genre, a film needs to have its own hook.
In 1988, Alien Nation added a science fiction hook to the buddy cop film. Set in the near future of 1991, just three years past the release date, the Earth has been visited by a spaceship filled with alien refugees. Kept in camps until the ACLU argued that the Newcomers still have access to the inalienable rights in the US, they’re allowed out of their camps to find homes and employment. Not everyone is happy about it; some Americans are worried about being able to compete with Newcomers, who are smarter and stronger than humans.
Because of the hostility, Newcomers, called slags by bigots, tend to live in neighbourhoods known as Slagtown. At the same time, companies are just as happy to take Newcomer money as anyone else’s and will tailor ads to the new demographic. The movie frames everything from the view of Detective Matthew Sykes, played by James Caan, who has issues with Newcomers. From his view, they’re alien, odd, and dangerous.
Sykes has reason to believe that, though. He and his partner, Bill Tuggle (Roger Aaron Brown), come across an apparently armed robbery at a corner store. Two Newcomers have the Newcomer own and his wife at gunpoint. When the robbery goes apparently wrong, the shopkeeper is killed, and Sykes and Tuggle try to stop the robbers from escaping. When one of the Newcomers has slugs capable of putting holes through cars, things get tense. Tuggle is killed and Sykes is injured while chasing the robbers.
The next day, Sykes gets a new partner, the first Newcomer to make detective, Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin). While his colleagues are surprised that Sykes volunteers to take Francisco as a partner, Sykes has an ulterior motive. His reasoning is that since a Newcomer was responsible for his partner’s death while robbing a Newcomer’s store, a Newcomer partner could shed some light on what’s going on. First, though, Sykes deals with his new partner’s name. He just can’t see anyone taking him seriously when introducing his new partner, Sam Francisco. Newcomers received names when they came off the spaceship and were processed and some of the people providing names got a little silly. Sykes gives Francisco the name George.
Sykes and George get assigned to a different homicide case also involving a Newcomer. Sykes doesn’t mind; he suspects that the cases are related. That case begins in the coroner’s lab. While Sykes talks with the coroner (Keone Young), George notices something off with the Newcomer corpse and talks to the Newcomer assistant.
The case naturally leads to a Newcomer strip club, where Sykes and George are hoping to interview a suspect. Instead, they talk to his girlfriend, Cassandra (Leslie Bevis). The suspect had been killed earlier through immersion in sea water by Newcomer businessman William Harcourt (Terrance Stamp) and his bodyguard, Rudyard Kipling (Kevyn Major Howard). As Sykes and George spend more time with each other, they start trusting each other more. George reveals that narcotics are involved, narcotics far more potent than anything found on Earth, narcotics that were used by the Overseers on the ship to control the Newcomers. However, as Harcourt points out to potential investors, the drug is harmless to humans and isn’t yet classified as a controlled substance in the US.
Sykes and George catch up to Harcourt, leading to a car chase that ends with a crash near the harbour. Harcourt darts into a warehouse with Sykes on his heels. Sykes, having learned the hard way that regular weapons aren’t effective on Newcomers, had picked up heavy artillery in the form of a revolver that fires .454 fusil rounds also capable of shooting through cars. Heavy artillery, though, depends on being able to hit in the right spot, and Harcourt gets away again long enough to take a large dose of the narcotic.
Thinking that Harcourt is dead, Sykes returns outside where police cruisers have arrived. Sykes explains what happened, the dead are picked up and placed into the coroner’s van, and Harcourt’s body is taken away. George compliments Sykes in his shooting. Sykes drops the bombshell; Harcourt overdosed. George knows that Harcourt isn’t dead, but changing. The coroner’s van is found, both attendants dead. When Harcourt is found, he is bigger, stronger, and violence incarnate. He focuses on Sykes, blaming him for destroying his nascent criminal empire, and chases the cop.. Sykes tries to escape by jumping on to a fishing boat, but Harcourt follows. The only solution Sykes has is to tackle Harcourt into the ocean.
The movie hits the buddy cop tropes. Sykes and George are opposites. George is a family man and operates by the book. Everything has a place with him. Sykes is off the rails, though recently pushed that way through the death of his partner. The two start antagoinistic towards each other by figure each other out, leading to George risking losing his arm to pull Sykes out of the ocean. And George helps Sykes in getting to his daughter’s wedding.
The science fiction elements does give enough of a twist to let the movie stand out. There is some work on how different the Newcomers are, from food and drink to sports to language. The alien element has an effect on the plot; it’s not a human businessman pulling string behind the scenes. At the same time, a few things fell by the wayside because of the nature of a theatrical release. The big one, the nature of racism, lurks but doesn’t really get addressed. The audience gets a glimpse at how Newcomers are adjusting to their new lives.
In 1989, the still growing Fox network was looking to expand from Saturday and Sunday programming. Alien Nation, having been released by 20th Century Fox, had enough going for it to make the jump to the small screen, becoming a science fiction police procedural. The new cast included Gary Graham as Sykes, Eric Pierpont as George Francisco, Michele Scarabelli as George’s wife Susan. New characters came on board; George’s family expanded from one nameless son to a son, Buck (Sean Six) and Emily (Lauren Woodland), and the recurring character Uncle Moodri (James Greene), who may have found a way for Newcomers to adapt to their new home. At the precinct, a new captain, Bryon Grazer (Ron Fassler) is brought in. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs appears as Sergeant Dobbs, replacing the colleagues in the movie. Jeff Marcus plays Albert Einstein, an awkward Newcomer who is the janitor at the precinct. Rounding out the new cast is Molly Morgan, playing Jill, Emily’s best friend, and Terri Treas as Cathy Frankel, Sykes neighbour and possible love interest.
The new format allowed for more drama to happen, with character arcs that can play out over the series. George’s homelife isn’t idyllic; Buck gets involved with the wrong crowd and is arrested and convicted of minor crimes. Susan has her own career. George and Susan decide to have a third child, and it is George who carries the fetus through its development. For all their alieness, though, the Franciscos have recognizable problems.
Sykes has his own problems. Like his movie counterpart, he is divorced with a daughter in college. He’s being forced to examine his bias against Newcomers, not just because of George and his family, but also because of his new neighbour, Cathy. It gets hard to hate someone if you know them. Sykes’ daughter appears and while he wants to be the cool dad, he has to step up and parent.
The cases Sykes and George take on are a mix. Some deal with Newcomer culture and history, delving into what happened on the spaceship before landing and how the Newcomers are faring in their new world. Others deal with the human side of the equation. The focus is more on the life that refugees and immigrants face, having moved to a strange new land. That the refugees and immigrants are aliens not from Earth add to the adjustment that everyone, Newcomer and human, have to make.
With the extra time that a 22 episode season provides, there’s more room to explore the themes of racism, of immigration, of refugees, of adapting, of the other and the lack of differences with them. But the series was cancelled after one season. The fledgling Fox network ran into financial problems and cancelled all their dramas, Alien Nation included. In the 90s, though, five made for TV movies with the original cast were made.
For a science fiction series that tackled the issues of the late 80s, it is a show that still resonates, particularly now. Immigrants and refugees arriving in the US are not treated well. Alien Nation is something that should not be needed today, but is.