THE ALIENS are among us in E4’s new sci-fi series. Stephen Kelly checks the creator’s credentials
It’s the new Misfits! Kinda. Behold E4’ s new sci- fi series.
We were keen that the show felt very grounded in reality
ccording to Greek mythology, the great walls of Troy were strong enough to withstand a 10- year siege. But what if instead of keeping invaders out, those walls were trapping people inside? And what if those people weren’t actually people at all? Such is The Aliens, the new comedy- drama from E4 that reimagines Britain as a country of segregation: where extraterrestrials, 40 years after crashing off the coast of North Wales, have been swept away to “Troy”, a grim, walled- off slum that is set in the UK, but is being filmed today in Sofia, Bulgaria.
“There was excitement when they crashed here and then there was mass- disillusion,” says Fintan Ryan, the show’s writer. “For a time, they were allowed to go wherever they wanted, but wherever they went there would be trouble. They’re built for crime, you see – their DNA isn’t traceable, their hair is smokable. So then they get concentrated into one spot because the Home Secretary says, ‘ This is crazy, there’s crime wherever they go.’ So the big question is: are they victims of prejudice or are they just like that?”
The idea for the show originally came from Clerkenwell Films’ Petra Fried and Matt Jarvis, executive producers of E4’ s fellow sci- fi comedy- drama Misfits. “We were looking for another contemporary, British spin on genre,” says Jarvis, “and we thought that there was lots of alien mythology in popular culture to play with, especially the idea of ‘ aliens living among us’.”
Pitching the show as more dramatic than
Misfits – “a ‘ drama- with- funny- bits’” – they approached Ryan, an Irish writer whose TV credits include Hustle, Rev and In The Flesh. “They came to me with the idea of aliens and a guard who works on the border between the human and alien worlds. I think we both had an idea in our heads of Toontown in Who
Framed Roger Rabbit. That thing where you go to a place where it’s completely different.” For some, the more obvious comparison is
District 9, the 2009 feature film debut of director Neill Blomkamp. It also depicts aliens stranded on Earth, forced to live in the shanty towns of Johannesburg – Blomkamp’s take on South African apartheid.
“In District 9 there’s a massive ghetto with aliens and in The Aliens there is a massive ghetto with aliens – I can’t deny that. But I didn’t actively think, ‘ We have to make it different to District 9’, because it is completely different. In [ The Aliens], it’s almost a joke that they’re the same as us. It’s not about difference or differentiation.”
According to Ryan, The Aliens is perhaps not the bleeding heart allegory that you might expect, insisting that the show’s timely parallel to immigration and refugees sells short an unflinching take on prejudice.
“The conceit in the show is that there’s this massive unquestioned prejudice against aliens. We even ended up not writing a liberal voice for the human side – even a low- level apologetic for them. Lewis [ the protagonist played by Michael Socha] is more that guy.
“The idea was that you owed them nothing because they came from somewhere else. You don’t owe them the British Empire, or the fact that they’re humans just like you and me. They can be objects of everyone’s prejudice, and they behave disgracefully in return. It’s the thing that we keep doing in order not to make it any kind of polemic. They’re not victim- victims. It’s supposed to be about if you had a group that were subject to the ultimate level of prejudice, what would happen?” The answer is desperation – and crime. For
The Aliens is less concerned with the wider issues, and instead roots its story in the self- contained community of Troy, a world within a world that – as SFX sees on set today – is not just dirty and poor but alive, vibrant and odd. “Despite its dark underbelly, it feels like an exciting place to escape to,” says Jarvis, who cites references such as Blade Runner and
Gomorrah. Taking their nickname from ’ 70s alien sitcom Mork & Mindy, today the streets are lined with “morks” in shell- suits, getting high off of dishwasher tablets, walking past make- shift tents and stalls selling second- hand scrap. And there’s hair everywhere – Troy’s most valuable export.
“There’s a drug lord [ Fabien, played by Trystan Gravelle] in charge,” says Ryan. “Because the aliens’ hair, if humans smoke it, is a drug. So there’s an industry of selling hair and getting that out [ to humans] by smuggling it across a checkpoint. It’s a system of crime. Some people go to work on the human side – low- paid, of course. They can’t sell their hair because it gets sprayed at check point. There’s also an entertainment industry within Troy which is in the first episode, with the clubs being run by Fabien. That whole world is controlled by criminals.”
Exploring this weird world for the first time is the aforementioned human Lewis ( Michael Socha), a checkpoint officer who works on the border between two worlds. Apt, given that he soon finds out that he’s half- alien himself.
“Just before the wall went up his mum had an affair with an alien,” explains Ryan. “So a lot of the series is him finding out that his real dad
is this alien gangster, and also falling in love with an alien girl. It’s that notion of, ‘ Which way is your destiny?’
“At the beginning he’s just as anti- alien as everyone else,” says Socha, best known for roles in This Is England and Being Human. “Then he finds out he’s half- alien and he’s disgusted with himself. We all cling on to a certain group for self- worth reasons, so we’re not ostracised and cast out. I think that’s the only reason he does what he does on the human side anyway. But then he goes to Troy and his eyes are open.”
That “alien girl” Ryan mentions is Lilyhot, played by the writer and star of E4 sitcom
Chewing Gum, Michaela Coel. We’re first introduced to her as a camgirl, who the lonely Lewis, not knowing she’s an alien, becomes infatuated with. When Lewis actually meets her, however, he finds that she has bigger ambitions: to play the gangs of Troy against each other – until she’s the last one standing.
“She’s very cold and calculating,” says Coel. “She’s grown up in a very poor area and has learnt to disassociate feelings and empathy to get to where she wants. But Lewis is the one that starts to bring out her capacity to love.”
“With her,” adds Ryan, “a lot of the struggle was getting away with the femme fatale thing, that stock noir figure. I think we pulled it off. We don’t go too deep into her backstory, but she has been wronged. Her plan is to be Queen of Troy, and in this world nothing else will do. But her big thing is to suppress her feelings for Lewis so she can get on with becoming a queen.”
But Lilyhot isn’t the only one with gangland aspirations. Lewis’s biological father Antoine ( Michael Smiley), an imprisoned gangster, is also looking to oust Fabien and return to his former role as king.
“When Antoine got banged up there was a burgeoning new society within the ghetto,” says Smiley, “but since he’s been away, it’s been driven by Fabien’s drugs. He’s come back to rebalance it slightly... He’s not necessarily a freedom fighter but he’s not necessarily a gangster either.”
this is gonna hurt…
Because of those such as Lily and Antoine, Lewis gets dragged into a gang war that sees him, “witnessing murders, robberies and all the shit he shouldn’t be doing.” Needless to say, it gets pretty violent.
“I wanted to be in a kind of Shane Meadows, Coen brothers kind of place,” says Ryan, “where the comedy is funny but the violence is real and felt. I think the violence should just be awful when it’s awful.”
“We were keen that the show felt very grounded in reality,” chips in Jarvis, “that it felt like it could happen in Britain today. Fintan pulled back on many of the heightened sci- fi elements and ideas that didn’t feel ‘ real’. [ The Aliens] is much closer in story and tone to, say,
Breaking Bad than Star Trek.” Michael Smiley has an equally superlative comparison: “I think that what The Aliens does is it draws you in to that universe and makes you believe in it. When I watched The Wire, I fell in love with Baltimore. Not the city of Baltimore but the story – because The Wire is about the city of Baltimore and I wanted more of that. So hopefully Troy will be able to do it on that level, as in you can park up your expectations and just let the story be told. The art of storytelling is very important.”
Jim Howick, Michael Socha and Michaela Coel step onto the streets of fire. Ashley Walters has a knife. A big knife. Looks like such a nice chap.
This role is a bit of a departure from Mr Selfridge for Trystan Gravelle. Michael Smiley ( left) is also packing heat. “I’m in a worse spot than I was in Being Human!”