03 August 2010

The Ghost-Grey Cat Presents: (7) All Unregistered Aliens

Episode 779:  All Unregistered Aliens
First aired:  9 February 1978
Author:  Victoria Dann

Play the teaser

A doctor helps anywhere.  What is so special about here?  -- Uncle Stefan

This past week saw a Federal judge set aside most of Arizona's infamous SB 1070, one day before it was to take effect.  The news reminded me of one of the most unusual episodes from the CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

"All Unregistered Aliens" starts as a hospital drama, but writer Victoria Dann needs only a couple of minutes to steer away from that well-worn path.  For one thing, the center of this drama isn't a hospital, but a free clinic in a struggling urban neighborhood now dominated by immigrants and street gangs.  Dr. Anne Quiller (voiced by Ann Williams) grew up in the area when it was a little more prosperous, and, for reasons she doesn't quite understand, she has just come back to run the clinic.  Her uncle Stefan (Court Benson), proprietor of the local cafe, never left, and she finds herself turning to him for advice on navigating a terrain she no longer recognizes.  Apart from an immigration-obsessed cop's efforts to convince her to snitch on her clients, Quiller's life has settled into a comforting, if not entirely comfortable, cadence.

A botched warehouse prank sets triggers the main story.  One of the would-be pranksters, a teenager named Cleo, has been shot, and his brother Eli (Earl Hammond) must try to get medical attention.  A full-scale hospital isn't an option:  it could treat his wounds properly, but it might also expose his status (and Eli's) as an illegal alien.  Eager to avoid deportation (effectively a death sentence for them), they go instead to Dr. Quiller's clinic.  Without the resources to treat him, she can only leave poor Cleo to die at Eli's side.

Suddenly, Quiller finds herself in a difficult spot.  Cleo dies, but his body disappears.  The police won't help her; in fact, they think she's hiding Cleo.  She must solve the case herself, and that means answering some uncomfortable questions.  Who are Cleo and Eli, really?  What is their nationality?  And why has Quiller herself really returned to her old neighborhood?

The story feels more like a tour than a mystery, but it does exemplify Radio Mystery Theater's willingness on contemporary social issues every now and then.  "All Unregistered Aliens" made its debut just ten days after the ultimate midpoint of the RMT run.  By then, the series had already addressed not just illegal immigration but also even touchier subjects like race and abortion.  RMT certainly didn't do that every night, but it did so more directly than most crime-drama series do today.

Score:  89/100.  Not great, but solid, provocative and, for 1978, even innovative.

Why do I call it "innovative?"  The reason includes a spoiler, so I'm putting it beyond the fold.
The idea of extraterrestrials emigrating to the U.S. became part of pop culture a decade later, with the 1988 release of Alien Nation in theaters.  The Men in Black franchise and, more recently, Peter Jackson's District 9 both won box-office success using the same theme.  The migrants in "All Unregistered Aliens" turn out to come not just from another planet, but another universe.  In that sense, the episode probably marked the first appearance of otherworldly immigrants in any medium other than print.

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