Perhaps the single most attractive objective of space travel for most people is the search for aliens. The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is today concerned largely with devoting computing power to the deciphering of background radio noise in the hope that a non-random pattern can be discerned, which would indicate purposeful transmissions from another technologically advanced intelligence; exciting as the project is, it is a passive effort. Arrays of large satellite dishes scour the heavens, but it is a sedentary activity by the definition provided by today’s technology. Star Trek’s infinitive-splitting slogan makes it plain that waiting for intelligent life to pop by is not an option: ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’ (or ‘no one’ since The Next Generation, which I think suffers from having two vowels meet and gains nothing from its gesture at being ‘PC’). Also, most science fiction considerations of the consequences of an intelligence advanced enough to come to Earth doing so possess overtones of the apocalyptic: when Independence Day came out whilst I still lived in the USA as a young child, I remained convinced for some years that the 4th of July celebrations we attended were in deed an attempt to ward off potential alien invaders. At least several mediocre television series have been produced on a similar basis that visitors would have sinister intentions; Philip K. Dick had Palmer Eldritch return hosting non-human intelligence that procreated in human minds through the reality-altering drug Chew-Z (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, 1965); Klaatu came to our planet with a message of peace, but becomes convinced by his treatment by mankind and by what he witnesses of the species’ small-mindedness that ‘elimination’ is the only appropriate response (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951; a narrative recently needlessly revisited by Keanu Reeves in 2008).
The object of obtaining space travel, then, is to meet new life on an equal footing, since the technology that enables the distant transit required would presumably afford appropriately advanced defensive equipment. The value of finding life elsewhere that is capable of communicating in a meaningful and culturally significant way is, I venture, incalculable (nevertheless, the SETI Foundation receives no public funding), and it is no surprise that much of sci-fi concerns itself with finding astounding new permutations of life in a dazzling array of forms. Except, of course, that this is not quite the case, particularly on the television screen. Perhaps the ‘reptilian’ Gorn and the green-skinned Orion slave girls were the best that the 1960s’ special effects, costume, and make-up departments could cobble together, but there are surely two influencing factors at play in the conceptual process of developing an alien character.
One is this practical consideration just alluded to: with a tight budget, limited production time, and the constraints of technology (CGI can create anything you like, but it does not necessarily look realistic, and it costs money to ensure that it does), it is easy to understand why Spock merely has pointy ears and green blood. The unexpected alteration to the facial structure of Klingons in Star Trek identifies the problem quite accurately: when the brow ridges were added in 1984 (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), the budget had swelled considerably and cosmetics had advanced to the point of affordability. There is a second motivation behind Spock’s very human appearance, and it is not merely his human mother (that is a wholly separate score of improbability); Spock, as the second-most important character on the cast, must attract empathy, the audience must be able to recognise their own motivations and values within his actions and his speech. Were Vulcans floating, faceless orbs who communicated with shrieks that had to be subtitled, the producers would be setting themselves far too great a challenge in terms of making the character relatable. Thus there is an artistic motivation as well as a practical one behind the essential familiarity (is there a better antonym for “alien”?) of many television E.T.s.
From a perspective of realism these creatures are plainly anatomically suspect. In a marriage of easily relatable characters and the desire to have real actors play the roles, we are rarely faced with an intelligence that does not have a precisely human physiognomy: two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth that is capable of managing the vowels, consonants, and diphthongs of American English despite its origins on a world where it was not necessarily evolutionary advantageous. Forget the universal translator: when they introduced the Klingon language in Star Trek III it could not have become so well known amongst sci-fi fans without the quality of reproducibility by the human speech apparatus. This makes sense when using actors, since the surgery for the relocation of sight organs is a little beyond even Hollywood’s resources; yet it is hardly exotic, and leaves something to be desire on the originality front. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Kirk kicks an attacking alien in the knee, which, to his and the audience’s surprise, completely disables him, and the humorous quip is duly supplied: ‘Not everyone keeps their genitals in the same place, Captain’.
Perhaps not; perhaps the prime-time, non-HBO slot of Star Trek has prevented us from witnessing a plethora of alien sex organs; but everyone does seem to keep their eyes in the same place. The eyes seem the most important thing to retain; noses and ears are the most often altered, and sometimes mouths are too, but eyes are vital to generate that sense of empathy with a character. Just think of the Na’vi (why the apostrophe?) in Avatar, with those large, Disney-esque eyes, inviting us to appreciate their innocence and naïveté. Hey, that last word looks a bit like Na’vi…. The Stargate film and series dealt with these problems quite well: humans are the single most populous species in the show’s universe, and the primary antagonists operate by parasitically controlling humans. They are, however, subject to that sin beholden of all writers seeking to establish the non-Englishness credentials of a word by introducing unnecessary apostrophes: “Goa’uld”. Amongst the more adventurous portrayals of foreign intelligence we have received is in the Mass Effect series of video games, which boast a touch of the cinematic to rival any Hollywood action film, and which makes effective usage of the fact that every character is computer generated, permitting possibilities unavailable on a regular basis to television producers. The Hanar are hexapod (I cannot decide if I prefer “sextupedal”) jellyfish that refer to themselves in the third person, the Elcor possess similar speech-based curiosities and, like the Hanar, seem to lack the ability to manipulate objects with any ease. But neither of these species is anything except a side attraction, a notional gesture at the possibilities awaiting us in space; certainly neither of these species is available as a romance option, which is reserved exclusively for bipedals with breasts.
I committed an error of terminology just now that Star Trek is serially guilty of perpetrating: the Hanar are obviously not jellyfish. Jellyfish are native to Earth and are members of the phylum Cnidaria. Obviously I used “jellyfish” as a convenient metaphor to describe the Hanar’s outward appearance; the supposed scientists who crew the USS Enterprise seem incapable, however, of equipping themselves with appropriate taxonomic terminology. Amongst the most common of misnomers applied to creatures that patently did not evolve within terran taxonomy is ‘reptilian’, but an entire series of Star Trek: Enterprise drearily devoted itself to interaction with a civilization whose unique selling point was that its sentient constituents were divided into the phyla and orders of the family animalia: avians, insectoids, primates, and reptilians, with only the ‘aquatics’ and ‘arboreals’ not explicitly being so assigned. Many aliens are what I want to term ‘Neelixes’: extra make-up to the point of bizarreness and unattractiveness, often humorous in appearance, and with special attention paid to their hairstyles; but they are beneath all the embellishments an archetype. This archetype is summed up by the chief adjective applied to ‘life signs’ in any Star Trek outing: ‘humanoid’. As Spock responded to Kirk’s adage, ‘Everybody’s human’, ‘I find that remark… insulting.’ (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country)
The meaning is clear behind Kirk’s remark: Star Trek is deeply concerned with what it means to be human, and it translates our petty concerns into the future and abstracts aspects of human existence into extreme examples: the emotional nature of the Klingons, the unfeeling cruelty of the Cardassians, the cerebral qualities of Vulcans, the greed of the Ferengi. Incidentally, it needs to be pointed out that the Ferengi are not capitalists, as they are intended to be, they are mercantilists: individuals do not have the right to earn profit in Ferengi society, that is a privilege granted by the state, the very opposite of a free market. It is not merely a convenience of make-up and SFX that humans are so present in Star Trek, since it is humans who act as a median amongst the extremes of disposition residing in the alien species they encounter. Further in Star Trek’s defence, there is something credible in the idea that any potential intelligence capable of communicating with us to a substantive degree might resemble us. Star Trek briefly and somewhat weakly dealt with the similarity of appearance amongst the ‘humanoid’ races of the Alpha Quadrant in an episode that explains they are all the spawn of genetic seeds planted by a precursor race, (‘The Chase’, Star Trek: The Next Generation) but such contrivances are perhaps unnecessary. It seems unlikely that a technologically capable species would not have some form of manipulative appendage, and that such an appendage would be analogous to hands; also that it would have sight, and the usefulness of stereoscopic vision is evidenced in more than one unique instance of evolutionary development on Earth; even that it would be bipedal is not unlikely. But I think that if you are going to make the effort to tread between stars, we ought not to stop until we find something truly remarkable, and I cannot believe that the inventiveness of the writers that proposed a language composed of metaphor (‘Darmok’, Star Trek: The Next Generation) could not stretch the conceptual boundaries further still, indeed I think it is a duty.
Given the sheer size of the subject matter, I am keen to return to it again from another direction sometime, hence ‘part I’: I think I have expressed my take on Star Trek-type interpretation of alien life adequately and I think I have shown that I appreciate the portrayal of aliens in those series as being particular to the artistic objectives of Star Trek. I want to continue my own stellar journey, however, and see what can be discovered amongst the annals produced in the realm of sci-fi, and see what avenues have been taken already.