Whenever humans imagine being invaded by an alien race, it’s pretty much always a big deal. Flying saucers land and what follows are mind-blowing technological developments, intergalactic war, the White House being evaporated, or Sarah Jessica Parker’s head winding up on a Chihuahua’s body. Rarely is first contact no biggie.
Except in E4’s The Aliens, a new comedy sci-fi written by Fintan Ryan (Rev, In The Flesh, Never Better) set forty years after an extra-terrestrial craft crash-lands in the North Sea. Out of it came a few hundred humanoid aliens who travelled ashore on rafts and were, for a short time, integrated into British society before political resentment and intolerance eventually forced them into a ghetto. Known as Troy, this lawless walled town is now ruled by gang warfare and home to thousands of intergalactic first and second-generation immigrants.
Aside from that and the influx of a new alien-origin drug, human life more or less goes on as normal in The Aliens. Humans go to work, booze, get high, and treat the new underclass like, well, an underclass. “Morks” (a pejorative term that’s presumably a tribute to the late 70s sitcom that made Robin Williams famous) are allowed out of Troy to perform menial labour, but by nightfall, must be back on their own side of a heavily controlled border.
A border guarded by people like Lewis, The Aliens’ lead played by Michael Socha (This Is England, Being Human, Once Upon A Time). When we first meet Lewis, he has strident views on what is right and wrong, namely, that humans are right and Morks are wrong.
“At the beginning he’s quite pig-headed, he’s got that anti-alien attitude,” Socha tells me when we met for the show’s launch. “I suppose society taught him to hate them. It’s all so embedded in human society to not mix with these aliens, that’s why they were put in Troy in the first place. But he changes, which I like.”
“Lewis makes a horrible speech at the start going ‘If they were going to come over here…’ I made it deliberately patronising and horrible so that when he changes, the pay-off was great.”
Circumstances force Lewis to shift his position. Like another character in Michael Socha’s repertoire, he has to learn tolerance. “I think if Lewis is similar to any character that I’ve played, it’s probably [Being Human’s] Tom McNair. His pig-headedness towards vampires is like Lewis’ pig-headedness towards aliens. But also, there’s an innocence in Lewis that Tom had.”
Despite the hate-speech that opens episode one, Lewis is a sympathetic character, made even more so by Socha’s natural sincerity and comic timing.
“He’s quite a sad, lonely bastard in his human world, says Socha. “His life’s quite shit. He’s got no mates, he’s got no girlfriend, his father’s a pisshead, his sister’s a drug addict and dealer. Even though Troy is, unless you’re from it, it’s probably quite a scary, dangerous place, I think that’s where he finds himself.”
It’s also where he finds the object of his affections, glamorous, hard-nosed schemer Lilyhot (played by Chewing Gum and Top Boy’s Michaela Coel).
“He loves Lilyhot and he’s doing some bad shit for her,” says Socha. “He’s doing things that he wouldn’t normally do for the sake of love. She’s a wrong’un, really. But I don’t know, I’ve had girlfriends where even though I know they’re sort of bad for me I can’t help but love them, you know what I mean? I think Lewis’ relationship with Lilyhot is like that, but to an extreme. He’s massively infatuated with her.”
If Lewis is infatuated with Lilyhot, then he also has his own admirer in the form of his alien colleague Dominic. Played by Horrible Histories, Yonderland and Peep Show’s Jim Howick, Dominic starts out as Lewis’ comedy sidekick. When the pair get dragged into a criminal world of gangs, drug deals and prison breaks, Dominic is the one person Lewis can count on, even if he’d rather not. It’s a great double-act.
“He got cast really late,” remembers Socha. “Beforehand, I’d gone for a few chemistry tests with a few different actors. It was about a week before we started to film and no-one had been cast and all of a sudden, Jim Howick came about. I think one of the ADs had seen him in town and said ‘Why haven’t we used Jim Howick?’ and as soon as I heard the name, I was like ‘Why have we never used Jim Howick? He’s incredible!’
“Jim’s the comedy element in this. It’s like Kenan and Kel, one of them’s straight, one of them’s a bit crazy. Lewis isn’t a typically funny guy. I think the circumstances and his surroundings and the people he keeps company with and his reaction to the bizarreness is what’s funny. He’s the bit of us, the straight guy. He’s the bit of us in it, whereas Howick is the crazy comedy one.”
Despite a similarly riotous, youth-oriented sense of humour and, in Socha’s words, the same “cool, current, urban vibe” as its E4 predecessor Misfits (Socha and his This Is England co-star Chanel Cresswell came down to the final four for the roles of Nathan and Kelly, eventually won by Robert Sheehan and Socha’s sister, Lauren), The Aliens carries a stronger message about tribalism and the cruelty of intolerance.
It’s not all crude humour and gangster action. Alongside that is a social commentary that could scarcely be more relevant at the moment. With stories about borders, tunnels and migrants recurring on the news, Socha hopes the series won’t just entertain, but will provoke its young audience to reflect on those issues.
“I think they’d find it hard not to, especially with all these camps that have come up. You hear the news saying how appalling the camps are, and there’s no fucking help and no-one really gives a shit and that’s Troy, that’s exactly what Troy is. No-one gives a shit. The humans don’t give a shit about it, they’re left to their own devices and expected to survive behind these walls. If people watch the news, I think they’ll definitely find the similarities.”
The Aliens starts on Tuesday the 8th of March on E4.