One of the themes with aliens we see some people treat as both fiction and non-fiction is that of the gods really being aliens. How that plays out varies, and, technically, if God/the gods/the higher power of your choice aren’t from this planet, I guess it’s the truth. Whether we’re handling this belief as a fiction or a non-fiction, I suspect part of the appeal for modern man is that we know there are a lot of big problems that we are unable or unwilling to fix ourselves. But, surely, out there among the stars, someone has the capability to fix it for us. I want to call out just a few of the extraterrestrial god figures from TV, film, and books (though, for someone who has read so much and who loves reading, I have a rubbish recall if it’s been more than a month or so…sadness!). I’ll be dividing them into two camps: the ones who are just advanced and taking advantage of us, and the ones who seem to legitimately be gods (or at least Saviours).
Arthur C. Clarke, a great scifi writer, famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Now, this doesn’t mean all magic is technology, but the kind of technology advanced enough to look like magic is part of how this fake god ruse works. Throw in differences in physiology sometimes that make them seem immortal, and watch the primitive mortals fall! Don’t tell me, if you discovered you had the ability, you wouldn’t at least be tempted to pass yourself off as god-like to your fellow humans or other beings who aren’t as gifted.
Even in this group, you’ve got two main divisions: the intentionally and brutally exploitative deceivers and the ones who just don’t bother to correct the misunderstanding or to apologise once the humans get smart enough to know the truth.
The Goa’uld in the Stargate franchise are obvious examples of the former type. These nasty parasites are all about universal domination. One of their usual ploys is to show up on a planet, use their technology to pass themselves off as gods, and then enslave the native population. Which, hey, is nicer than the ravages of war, right? Playing god lets them live in a little luxury instead. And, if they do it right, they manage to feign immortality. Of course, given they first showed up pretending to be Egyptian gods (I have a soft spot for ancient Egypt) and the actor playing Ra was a pretty boy (we covered this soft spot in Glam month), I wasn’t entirely opposed to them. (So, aliens, if you want to turn me against the rest of the humans, be pretty. That’s the lesson here. Also, I won’t pretend I think your tech is magic, but I’ll still be impressed.)
In the other camp, and more familiar to most people these days, we have the Asgardians. It’s no longer just comic book lovers who’ve heard of this version of Thor, Loki, Odin, Freya, etc. Nor is it just those Nordic people whose religious heritage was an inspiration for those comic book characters. You’ve likely sat and cheered on Thor (whilst maybe secretly not being entirely against Loki). We haven’t taken the time to define what it means to actually be a god, and my tenure as a student of philosophy and my readings of assorted cultures’ beliefs as a child tell me that we could spend days on that topic and never reach full consensus. So, are Thor et al gods? They sure seem to think so, but they are also arguably just extraterrestrials with a better constitution, longer life, and more advanced technologies than Earthlings. Fortunately for us, they’ve mostly stopped meddling in our lives. Or had until Thor got kicked out and suddenly made our pale blue dot interesting again. (I’m not going to complain. I like the Asgardians, and not just because of Loki.) Of course, you can see in the reaction to Loki trying to get god-like on us that we humans are unlikely to actually fall for the sham gods again.
The saviours are an altogether different group. In this group, whether or not they succeeded, I’m placing the extraterrestrials who show up with good intention and the ability to do some actual saving of humanity. For this, in order to narrow things down, I’m including those who worked their mission with what appeared to be “magic” (not just advanced tech). So, for instance, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu came to save us from ourselves (arguably), but he came with tech. So, whilst I dig him, he can’t count here. Who does count? Well, here are a few different examples, each a little different from the other and each fitting a different definition of alien.
Let’s start with an easy one to argue. In The Fifth Element, Leeloo is actually a saviour. The everyday man of that film might never hear about her (poor sods), but that Supreme Being came from the stars with a mystical power and one mission: to save us from a Great Evil that will, otherwise, destroy our world. Given her power is meant for that one purpose, and the Great Evil appears only once every 5,000 years, the power isn’t going to qualify her to be a superhero (though she’s got some fighting skills that might). She has her one moment of releasing divine light…Given her pose in that moment is arms out in an iconic Christ pose whilst in a cross of light? Yeah, saviour.
A step less alien, the original V TV programme brought us the Starchild, aka human/alien hybrid and product of crossbreeding experiments, Elizabeth Maxwell. We never got to see the full extent of what she could do, because this was TV and the story got cut off when the programme was cancelled (you can find what story we did get on DVD). But the message was clear: this rapidly-aging and powerful girl was destined to save us from the Visitors (the alien threat) and lead us to a peaceful future. There was an un-aired series finale where she was revealed to have a destiny to find an artefact of the Visitors’ gods and do just that. I’m going to call that a saviour, even if the network didn’t let viewers see the final pay-off of her mission.
Continuing to get a little more questionable here in holding to straight-forward definitions of both “alien” and “saviour,” we’ve got Valentine Michael Smith from Stranger In A Strange Land, the influential book by Robert A. Heinlein. First, I’ll acknowledge that there are problematic things in this book (though I won’t get to read the uncut version until it shows up in the post…maybe that solves some of the philosophically problematic things I found in the cut version?), so this isn’t an endorsement of the philosophies that Heinlein is advancing here. No need to fire any shots in my direction. Now, that aside…Smith is a human, but he wasn’t born on Earth and he was raised by aliens (Martians). Arguably, he fits some definitions of alien. Smith is the first example listed that tried to bring salvation to humanity via religion. I’d say that the psychokinetic powers he developed when raised by Martians (and his ability to speak from the afterlife) add some credence to him as a saviour, not just a prophet. Though he manages to teach other humans some of what he can do and the god he brings us to is the god that each of us are, so that might weaken the case in some minds. It might also be harder to argue his case given the enemy he’s trying to save us from is less clear-cut than Leeloo’s Great Evil or the Starchild’s Visitors. I’d feel wrong leaving him out though, so, here he is…
Finally, I’d love to put Paul Atreides in here, the Kwisatz Haderach, but I’m pretty sure that his humanity is part of the point of the books (plus, one of Herbert’s running themes in the 6 Dune books was the way that humans manage to cock it up when given great amounts of power, no matter their best intentions), so I might be stretching to wedge in one of my absolute favourites. Or maybe his son, Leto II, the God Emperor could fit here…But that would take too much explaining. Instead, look at me, managing to make a nod to Dune anyway! (If you haven’t read the books by Frank Herbert yet, I hope your curiosity is at least piqued enough that you’ll go watch David Lynch’s film adaptation of the first book or maybe even treat yourself to reading all those books. Then, come back and let’s talk about whether Maud’ib belongs here. Is he alien? Is he a saviour? What about Leto II? Is he alien? And is he a sham god or a saviour?)
Confession: This month is turning into a great excuse to re-read and re-watch a load of favourites. I hope you follow my lead. Let me be a saviour (or at least a wise sage) to show you the way out of grey reality and into the promised land of great media!