The Strangerers follows two aliens that have taken human form on a visit to Earth to find out more about the planet. Written by Rob Grant, The Strangerers ran for a single series on Sky One in 2000, hasn’t been repeated and doesn’t have a DVD release, which are all good reasons why I’d never heard of it. It’s way outside my usual televisual perusal grounds – my archive TV delving tends to be pre-1990 – and though we were lucky enough to have Sky by 2000, my evenings were spent watching Dungeons and Dragons and Spider-Man on Jetix.
The Strangerers came to my attention because the SciFi Ball, in lieu of being able to host an event in 2021, streamed a series of broadcasts on Twitch. Among these was a recording from their 2001 event of a Q&A with Paul Darrow and Jacqueline Pearce. Paul was asked about his experience on The Strangerers and he seemed to have relished his role and had huge fun. Curious, I looked it up. I knew Rob Grant’s name from Red Dwarf and recognised others like Mark Williams, Milton Jones, David Walliams and Meera Syal, though generally all from programmes coming a few years later. Combined with a brief synopsis, I was intrigued enough to seek out The Strangerers.
In the first episode, Space Cadets, Flynn (Mark Williams) and Niven (Jack Docherty) arrive on Earth with their Supervisor (Milton Jones). They have a shambolic experience trying to understand customs such as purchasing items in a shop, while also struggling to move and communicate in their new bodies.
Having presumed the series to be a sitcom, I was really missing a laughter track at first. When I look at Wikipedia, the programme is described as a comedy drama and after watching the first two episodes I certainly feel mistaken – that drama aspect is evident in how the series is filmed. As Space Cadets progressed, it became apparent that much of The Strangerers was shot on location, although by episode 2, Vegetables, we’ve moved to studio for more scenes. It’s interesting to think back across the two episodes I’ve seen now and realise how much freedom the show has compared to a traditional studio-bound sitcom. There can be far more variety in the types of shot used and scenes move quickly between different sets. In short, I’m not used to watching something so modern.
There is great physical comedy attempted with the Supervisor, starting from the moment he is knocked down dead while attempting to thumb a lift from a truck. It’s sudden and the shock should make you laugh, but it’s built up for too long – we cut to the tired, distracted driver too much and I found the situation predictable. Somehow, being knocked down has decapitated the Supervisor, so his two cadets now must carry his head and body around, planning to put him back together again as soon as they can. As we know that sticking the Supervisor’s head on won’t help the fact that he’s obviously very dead, it does begin to seem as though the cadets will be carrying him around for the entire series. I hope for more interesting situations for disguising the corpse.
Flynn and Niven’s immediate challenges in human form include trying to learn how to eat: their stomachs are rumbling, they know that humans have to consume food through their mouths, but they don’t know what to do once it’s in there – their brief training clearly hasn’t covered chewing. While I didn’t find much of this amusing, I did find it interesting to see humans examined from such an alien perspective as this.
Unsurprisingly, the presence of two men conspicuously carrying a body and its head separately attracts attention. The head is precariously reattached using sticky tape, but when it falls off in a café-cum-diner, the patrons flee, and the police descend, followed by a couple of investigating agents, Rina (Sarah Alexander) and Harry (Mark Heap), two people with more powerful badges than the local cops. I enjoyed a brief cameo from Gareth Thomas as one of the officers; I haven’t seen him in anything else post-Blake’s 7.
Where on Earth?
One of the show’s challenging aspects is that it is set on an Earth that doesn’t match up with reality. All the cast have English accents, but there are several aspects that would seem to set it in the US: there’s the truckers’ stop with a diner (though serving full English breakfasts); the police officers’ old-fashioned uniforms; and the dodgy area of town that Flynn and Niven end up in, which looks more like something from a US film than late-night London or Birmingham. Yet the currency appears to be neither dollars nor sterling, so it’s apparent we’re not on any genuine section of the Earth we know. And that’s a problem for me. We are experiencing Earth through Flynn and Niven, where everything from walking to sleeping is a new experience for them. They neither act nor speak like regular humans. I felt I needed something familiar, some vaguely recognisable situation, just anything to grab hold of. This is one of the reasons I wasn’t gripped by the first episode. I found it hard to care about Flynn and Niven and there was a dearth of humour for me.
I was also uninterested in the relationship between the two agents – are they supposed to be our identification point? I hope not and I don’t think so because we don’t see a great deal of them. We’re introduced to Rina and Harry with a backstory wallop within a few sentences (not an issue in itself), discovering that they were previously a couple. Now, they’ve been assigned to work together at whatever probably-made-up-anyway government agency they work for. Harry seems a bit desperate, but Rina definitely doesn’t want him back. I didn’t find either of them particularly likeable and as they start to track down Flynn and Niven, they don’t appeal to me as either nasty or bumbling baddies. They’re the only people that Flynn and Niven spend much time with, and I did enjoy those scenes more. So far, I’ve concluded that I’m not so entertained by Flynn and Niven when it’s just the two of them, yet it does get better when they have humans to interact with properly.
There are further opportunities for this in Vegetables, where I enjoyed Flynn’s scenes with C.D. (Paul Darrow), a man whose name reflects his business and perhaps also his personality. He runs an unsavoury hotel where you can pay by the hour and he makes it perfectly clear that he doesn’t mind what his patrons get up to in the privacy of their own rooms. Yet we know he isn’t a complete swine because, unlike the cashier who served Niven last episode, when a large bundle of notes is presented for payment, he merely extracts what he needs, admittedly with what looks like a small tip. Flynn is clearly oblivious to the real nature of what goes on at the hotel and C.D. unexpectedly served as the ‘something familiar’ for me to latch on to; the seedy hotel with its equally grim and unwholesome manager is so recognisable from other fiction. I can certainly see why Paul Darrow had fun with the part.
The two aliens’ awkward walking technique hadn’t provided many titters in Space Cadets, but it is utilised better in Vegetables. Flynn emerges from the hotel lift as C.D. is checking in two other guests, a dominatrix and her client. As they watch Flynn stagger out, looking in awkward pain, there’s a realisation for the audience of what must be going through the other guests’ minds. It’s enough to put one off entirely: having assumed that Flynn’s wobbly state has come from the dominatrix’s hand, he decides that’s going further than he fancied.
Space Cadets runs for around 45 minutes, so an hour with adverts, while subsequent episodes are all closer to 25 minutes. I found those 45 minutes hard work and the plot moved slowly, yet I was intrigued enough to give episode 2 a try, which I suppose means it was partially successful. I enjoyed Vegetables far more, though I still feel The Strangerers has a way to go in gaining my approval. But again, I can’t deny it’s succeeding – the second episode leaves us on a fantastic cliff hanger, which I won’t spoil here because I’m doubtful of how many people have seen it. This completely threw me and left me curious for even more, so I will definitely be continuing with the series.