Slipping under most people's radar in 2016, The Aliens is an excellent science fiction drama series that unflinchingly explores discrimination, exploitation and ghettoisation. Created by Fintan Ryan, previously noted for his writing on In the Flesh, Hustle and the TV movie Little Brother, the series ran to a tight six episodes. Direction was split between Lawrence Gough (Doctor Who, the Snatch series) and Jonatha van Tulleken (Top Boy, Reprisal, Upload). The directors had both previously worked on the earlier E4 comedy drama Misfits, and bring to The Aliens the same unforgiving, realistic, even brutal take on a science fiction concept that might otherwise seem too silly to accept.
The series explores contemporary, indeed timeless, concerns including racism, xenophobia, and hatred of the other. The public panic of the so-called migrant crisis of the mid-2010s that continues to rear its ugly head in Britain, along with the ongoing discrimination of people from various ethnic and national backgrounds, are clear inspirations for the series. The series is set in a roughly contemporary world, except that forty years earlier an alien ship crashed into the Irish sea, its many survivors settling into a walled-off enclave in Great Britain called Troy. In this respect there's a similarity to the apartheid parable District 9, except that the alien “prawns” seen there are unsettlingly inhuman. The Morks, as the British call the aliens of this series in a fun reference, look, act and sound completely human. There are subtle differences: the aliens are sensitive to high-pitched noises, incapacitated by devices called dog whistles; they get high off dishwasher tablets; and in an inversion of this, humans can get high off their hair, or “fur,” leading to an underground narcotics industry that underpins Troy's economy. In what seems like a jokey detail, male Morks are stupendously well-endowed, which comes across as a crass joke but is a biting allegory of white people's fetishisation of black men.
The series centres on Lewis, played with profound sympathy by Michael Socha. An actor who can make your heart hurt with his eyes, there's no way not to side with any character played by Socha, otherwise known for Being Human, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland and This is England '88. To begin with, though, Lewis is not a particularly likeable character. He works at the border control unit that polices aliens moving in and out of Troy for work, and, while not an outright bully like some of his co-workers, still looks down on the Morks. His miserable home life doesn't do him any favours, and his only real personal connection is with a camgirl. Then he discovers that he is, in fact, half alien, a supposed impossibility which throws his life into disarray and gradually changes his outlook on the situation.
If this sounds like it could get sanctimonious, then rest assured, The Aliens never does. It never sugar-coats its issues, but it's infused with a brilliant, in-your-face humour that makes its rough edges easier to take. There are some stand-out moments of comedy, but also visceral scenes of violence and destitution. The Troy scenes, filmed in the Nu Boyana standing studios in Sofia, Bulgaria, are squalid and crime-ridden, yet they're not vastly removed from the life Lewis has on his estate. He has far more in common with the Morks than he thinks, even before he finds out he is one of them. His search for the truth behind his life, as well as his sister's ill-advised fur deal, sends him deeper and deeper into the volatile world of Troy, where criminal gangs vie for control and unrest is brewing.
It happens that the camgirl Lewis has a thing for, Lilyhot, is in the middle of the power struggle. Played by the incredible Michaela Cole, since rightfully a sensation for I May Destroy You and also known for Black Mirror, Chewing Gum and Black Earth Rising, Lilyhot is a captivating, seductive but utterly untrustworthy character. Cole is magnetic in the role, intimidating yet vulnerable, and with an undeniable alien quality to her. She uses Lewis shamelessly, and while she seems to be developing some feelings for him during the series, she never gives him any reason to believe her feelings. Yet Lewis keeps falling for her games, which becomes frustrating as the story progresses. However, this is really the point; Lewis makes a lot of very stupid decisions over the course of the series, but he's not supposed to be a hero, just an ordinary bloke in over his head.
Lewis is accompanied through his journey of discovery by Dominic, a cheerful but downtrodden alien who works as a cleaner at the checkpoint offices and is mercilessly bullied by his human overseers. Played with good-natured optimism by Jim Howick (Horrible Histories, Sex Education, Ghosts), he's also secretly gay and harbours feelings for Lewis. Their unlikely team-up grows into a rather heart-warming friendship, and Dominic shows some hidden depths. I had hoped it would have been revealed that he was the master criminal behind the power struggle but alas, he didn't have depths that hidden.
Lewis is reunited with his alien father surprisingly quickly. Michael Smiley (Kill List, Luther, Spaced) portrays Antoine, imprisoned for the duration of Lewis's life so far, and the one-time overlord of the Mork criminal network. Smiley is brilliant as an ageing criminal who just wants to get through this all alive and make the most of finding his son, but can turn on people in an instant if they get in the way of that. Having a Northern Irish actor in the role, against the backdrop of urban unrest, adds a hint of real world tension to the mix which may or may not have been deliberate. Other actors in the series are generally English, although the vicious drug lord Fabian is played by Welshman Trystan Gravelle (Anonymous, The Terror, A Discovery of Witches). In an interesting touch, the aliens generally have French names, perhaps to add an element of foreignness to the very British production. After all, if there's one group of people the British really love to hate, it's the French.
While the themes of racism are blatant, there's absolutely no physical difference in ethnicity between aliens and humans. People of every colour are found on both sides of the wall, with the most vehemently prejudiced character of all, Truss, being played by Black British actor Shaun Parkes (recently in Lost in Space, but frankly in almost everything). It hammers home the absurdity of racist and xenophobic attitudes by making the two peoples so diverse and yet so alike they are virtually indistinguishable. The fact that Coel experienced racist violence both before and during filming the series makes it painfully clear how vital this programme's message is.
There's also a theme of classism, with the sense that everyone in the area, human or alien, has been dumped by those in power and left to fend for themselves. Lewis lives in near-poverty with his family, and it's no surprise that his sister Holly (an excellent performance by Holli Dempsey, Harlots) tries to break out of her situation by trying a quick score. No one in this rundown corner of the world is doing well, not even those, like Fabian, at the top of the food chain.
There's nowhere to hide in this story of people who are desperately trying to hold onto what little they've got. Even as Lewis opens his mind and Coel fights and manipulates her way into power, neither ends the series in a good place. Unfortunately, while there's a clear stepping off point to another run, E4 declined to renew the programme and it was cancelled after only one series. In spite of an effective viral marketing campaign, the series simply didn't reach the audience necessary to be considered a success. It is, though, well worth seeking out. It's about as subtle as a punch to the gut, but issues this important shouldn't be subtle.
Review: Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on May 6th, 2021. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.