Monday, November 29, 2010

Human Or Alien?

One of the more common speculations that occurs in science fiction is not just whether life exists on other planets, but if it did, what on earth (pardon the pun) would it look like? If we assume that such life forms evolved independently, we would no doubt expect them to be so foreign and in fact, unexpected, that they would truly fit the meaning of the term "alien". The reason, of course, is that life on our planet, when we discover new forms, constantly surprises us with its strangeness, even though it is all based on the same basic chemistry and DNA-based machinery. Thus, life forms that arose in a completely different environment than that of earth would surely be even more foreign that what we find on this planet, incredible as it is.

Many classic sci-fi stories have explored the idea of the nature of alien life as a central theme, such as The Andromeda Strain, Alien, War of the Worlds, and countless others. Many more have explored the even less likely possibility of entire races of intelligent beings, focusing on their foreign technologies, cultures, and languages. Given the obviously much longer evolutionary time frame it would take for any type of intelligent life form to emerge in our universe, the opportunities for the biological substrate upon which this intelligence eventually sits to deviate from our own would be more numerous than any non-intelligent form of life by comparison. What I am trying to say is that if two intelligent races have absolutely no connection or commonality of origin prior to their first encounter, logic dictates that the biological makeup of these two races should be more different from each other than the two most radically differing creatures one might find on our own planet. This is why it is so ridiculous to see so many alien races depicted in sci-fi films and TV serials looking like slightly modified human beings. This entry, after that long introduction, is dedicated to the impossible ubiquity of humanoid aliens.

Now I realize that there is a practical reason for this resemblance of alien characters to us, at least on film, which is simply that it is much cheaper to dress up a person in a suit than to attempt something more difficult and costly, and probably even less convincing. In the earliest films, like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, the alien races were not much more than people with fancy wardrobes.
In the sixties, Hollywood's makeup skills improved enough so that they could try putting people in crazy looking suits. There are numerous examples of this in various TV series like Outer Limits and Star Trek, as well as the various monster films of the decade. But even if we excuse the early film and television sci-fi for insufficient technology or budgets, this would not explain the persistence of these humanoid aliens up to the present day. I believe there is a much more subtle explanation, and it has more to do with artistic laziness than anything else.

I first thought to use Star Wars as a modern example of this phenomenon since it spans several more recent decades, but then I realized it is really an anomaly. You see, Star Wars claims to take place in a completely different galaxy where you would expect every living creature to look nothing like an earth being, yet all the most important characters look exactly like us, and most of the others are close cousins. The obvious assumption one must make is that artistic license is being used to portray the main cast like ourselves so we can relate to them, including things like their emotional makeup and sense of humor, etc. But this breaks down when you see, mixed in with the human-like cast, all manner of alien beings with very different biological forms, including the intelligent ones! Certainly Yoda is a central character, as is Chewbacca, and Jabba the Hut has an even less human-like form, even though the behavior of the aforementioned characters is still quite human. I suppose you could characterize this as artistic license at best, or else as arbitrary, or worse still, schizophrenic.

So lets pick some of the more recent television series like Bablylon 5 and Star Trek (pick your spinoff). In all of these, various episodes will center around intelligent life forms that differ greatly from life on earth, which often constitutes the main point of the story. However, all of them have regular cast members that are aliens which look like modified humans. Klingons, Romulans, Narn, and Centauri; All of them very human like in form and especially so in psychological makeup. The one more striking exception being the Vorlons, which not only hide their form behind a cloak and communicate with musical sounds, but also seem to be more other-worldly in their manner, beliefs, and customs. Why are the regular cast so much like us? I believe the main reason is simply convenience. The easiest way to get an audience to relate to a main character is through mental and emotional connection, and so any type of intelligent interaction needs to hit close to home. This extends to the character's facial expressions and body language, which is most easily interpretable if they use the same expressions and body language as our own, and that implies a similar looking face and body. And this of course allows the actors not to work as hard at portraying the characters. Trying to weave an effective story without these tools takes a lot of extra thought that is less important than the day to day drama upon which most serials thrive. If my theory is correct, it means humanoid aliens are here to stay, despite their unlikely existence.

Once in a while, a serial will attempt to explain this commonality among the races. In the the original Star Trek series, it happens in one of the early episodes of season 3, and one of my own favorites, called The Paradise Syndrome. In the beginning, the crew discover a planet with a culture exactly like early Native Americans, and the flora and fauna look exactly like earth as well. They comment on the striking resemblance right in the beginning. Near the end, Spock discovers the people were relocated there from Earth by a group of ancient beings called the Preservers, who supposedly went around relocating groups of less advanced people/aliens deemed unable to survive on their own planet. It is Dr. McCoy who makes the key observation: "I've always wondered why there were so many humanoids scattered throughout the galaxy". Aside from being an interesting case of political correctness way before its time, it is a rather far-fetched invention by the writers to explain such a hugely important detail in one fell swoop. However, it is certainly not as distasteful as the ridiculous explanation attempted by Star Trek: TNG. In one episode, they receive a message from some ancient alien race which produces an apparition in the form of a basic humanoid-shaped being. It tells an audience of various races that the reason they all look alike is that their DNA was seeded by this original race throughout the galaxy aeons ago and they've finally become mature enough to be informed about their mutual brotherhood. To top it off, the message was supposedly hidden all these years in our DNA code. Ugh! I try to pretend that episode never happened.


  1. I love this article. . .I've been thinking about this forever. Even movies, with extremely high budgets, fail to imagine aliens that are non-corporeal or 'non humanoid', 'humanoid' being kind of an unoriginal word/idea in itself (used, of course, well in books as a descriptor).

    KOSH is a fantastic example though, once revealed, the different alien species saw THEIR gods in KOSH and, of course, they looked 'humanoid' as well. But, as you said, it comes down to relation and budget.

    Though I usually hate Star Trek books (read too many as a kid and now, a writer myself, I realize it is glorified-pay based fan fic) but the Titan series, featuring Riker on his first command, the USS Titan, features a lot of odd creatures and species that a TV series and a movie budget couldn't cover the near-non-humanoid-ness (word?) of the new crew. . .I say near because it still is close to humanoid to not be completely original.

    Thanks for this.

  2. Great to read this, even as a child i was disappointed every time an 'alien' in a movie, series or even a drawing was depicted as any type of 'suit' that could be worn by a human being. The typical monsters of category "biped with extra's" (wings, horns, extra arms whatever) always annoyed the hell out of me. Especially when drawn in a comic, as if the artist took in account that a low-budget movie had to be made of it later (what other sickening human reason could there be to limit creativity like that? Unless there wasn't that much fantasy / creativity present in the first place.. ^^)
    Anyway, thanks!

    1. Welcome to the blog! You know what they say - great minds...