Animals Under the Martian Heel

Aliens may be awe-inspiring, but more often they play the terrifying threat to human tranquility.  All that power translates into impossible odds, and there’s nothing quite like watching the plucky underdogs of humanity standing against beings of arguably-higher intelligence. It gets our heart rate pumping and our superiority complex firing on all cylinders. But which invaders have proven the best threats? Are there aliens whose menace, to put it bluntly, rules?

5. The aliens in Attack the Block


Art by Alex Pardee

 This is a case where the aliens are cool, but wouldn’t be anything particularly special. But the film they’re introduced in is so special, so glaringly unique and fun, that they demand to be included. If you haven’t seen Attack the Block, please remedy that, because this little British gem takes the invader alien trope and makes it a non-stop blast. With a rookie director and a cast of unknowns (save for Nick Frost), this story about a bunch of hooligans who start out mugging people and end up defending their apartment block from vengeful space creatures breathes life into a genre fraught with melodrama. What’s lovely about the film is the way it makes the awful sympathetic. The marauding street gang become the heroes. Even the invaders have a soft fluffy motive—it doesn’t take away from the terror of them stalking the apartment dwellers, but it adds depth to the heartless Earth-conqueror trope.

4. The Network, from The World’s End

This is another one where I’m including it partially because the film is so, so good. The grand finale of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy isn’t just an incredible alien story—although yes, yes it is—it’s an incredible story of human malaise, weakness, and the strange metamorphoses of self-esteem and friendship. Simon Pegg gives the performance of a lifetime as aimless Gary King, with Nick Frost as the perfect adult foil in Andy Knightley, all proper life experience and barely simmering rage.  When the chums face the Network, an evil alien collective hell-bent on”civilizing” humans by replacing them, their barbaric yawps against a relentless system capture the essence of humanity, stubborn and bullheaded as we are.  The World’s End succeeds not only in having a rip-roaring scifi adventure, but also in having a rawly human story about coming to grips with age and the passage of time.  A film that can combine space aliens with the alien parts of human progression is a winner in my book.


3. The Vogons in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

My husband challenged me on the Vogon inclusion, but in the end I don’t care what he says, I’m counting them as invaders. At the very least they are eliminating human life and and threatening the existence of Earth, so even if they aren’t technically invading terra firma, they are absolutely invading humanity’s sense of safety and security and life.  So here they are, on the list.

VogonaieIt would feel strange to talk about alien lifeforms without some nod to Douglas Adams,* and, to me, the Vogons are one of the most delightful twists on alien threats.  It’s so bureaucratic, so droll, and their unseemly visage is just the wart on top of the boil. Making the otherworldly stand-in for unfeeling corporations, the humanoid embodiment of slugs is so on the nose and yet exhibits the Adams brilliance (and special shout out to Henson’s Creature Shop for designing something so beautiful in its grotesquerie). These invaders are wonderful because they encapsulate the regular invasions that manipulate our life—boring, staid, and often with terrible poetry.

2. The aliens from Independence Day

It’s impossible to talk about aliens with an agenda without bringing up the aliens from Independence DayID is the epitome of alien movies, and if you don’t agree let me show you the technological door, because you aren’t welcome here. Will Smith at the height of his powers. Bill Pullman as a president whose speeches make grown men break down and weep like the giant babies they are on the inside. And Jeff Goldblum. JEFF GOLDBLUM, rocking that intergalactic Mac OS like a boss. But the aliens themselves are the paragon of invaders. With an off-putting form, borrowing from xenomorphs and the mystical strangeness of the deep sea squids, those aliens inspired terror. I think that the moment when our heroes stumble upon communication with the beasts, via one unlucky scientist, is the first jump moment I experienced in a film (it’s either this or some scene in Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Or something from The Last Unicorn). No image instills terror quite like those large spacecrafts obscuring the sky, and no moment inspires patriotism more than their defeat. Welcome to Earth indeed.

1. Invader Zim


Invader Zim has to be the number one. I mean, invader is in his name. Also, I think he’s by far the most ruthless invader of the bunch. Essentially, his only characteristic is his quest to destroy Earth and prove his worth to the rest of the Irken’s (an alien race determined to conquer the entire universe). The fact he infiltrates Earth by adopting the disguise of a poor, defenseless child is proof positive of his brilliant maliciousness. Armed with the insane robot Gir, thwarted at every turn by the giant-headed Dib, and only truly foiled by meat products, Zim is everything an invader should be—relentless, unhinged, and utterly awesome.

*Almost as strange as it feels realizing that we haven’t touched on Star Wars, Star Trek, or The X-Files in this alien-centric month.

Guiding Stars

I’m a little distressed at how few (too few) aliens and alien-related topics we can actually fit into one month’s schedule. And then I do the maths and see that the amount we each get to cover is half the size of “too few.” Which is why we’ve kept track of things we didn’t make it to and will likely have another Alien month some time. This is what we keep reminding each other as we, over and over again, realise there’s something we haven’t found a way to fit in that totally owns us.

Now, here I am, down to my last post for the month (thank goodness we’ve got a vlog coming next Monday!), and I need to make the most of it without writing a novel. To help me stay kind of concise and to hit on some aliens of import to me, I’m going with a Top Five. Except that I’m doing a Top Six (unless Cat catches me and protests…I swear I tried to cut it down to five).

Ziggy StardustObviously, aliens were a big part of my life from as far back as I can recall, so you won’t be surprised to learn that this is my list of my top alien role models. I’m focused on those from younger years and those that sprang to mind with no prompt other than the topic title. They’re presented in order of discovery, not import. Prepare for some potentially questionable choices!

Ziggy Stardust
(from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie)

If you were with us last month for Glam month, you already know how important this particular David Bowie character is to me. But it goes beyond enjoyment and the glam inspiration. The first time wee Amber closed her eyes and imagined her future, it was the Ziggy Stardust version of her rocking out on an arena stage. In case you didn’t read the Glam month stuff or you don’t keep constant track of my thoughts…Ziggy helped set some of my ideas about gendering of looks and behaviours, about rigid sexualities, and about being imaginative with my own looks.

(from Star Trek, the original series)

Can we all pause a moment to feel sad for the loss of Leonard Nimoy? So sad. You see, right around the time Ziggy was inspiring my passion, I was also acting alongside Star Trek (the original series) reruns. (By which I mean standing in front of the telly and mimicking the characters. I like to think my acting skills even then were sufficient to not make it entirely annoying.) Spock, and then other Vulcans, helped me to hold to some self-control and logic. Plus, he was this alien on a human ship. By this point, I knew I wasn’t just like the other humans, and I thought I could learn from him how to navigate that situation. I was also inspired by his friendship. Sobbing like a baby as he said goodbye to Kirk in Wrath of Khan helped me remember that I could have logic and also be a good, loving friend. That he was part human became important as I tried to make peace with my own humanity and the way it seemed to play against my desires to be so much more than human. (Special shout to Spock’s mother for helping me be more okay with my humanity.)

(from the original V mini-series/programme)

I should explain myself. Imagine that you’re just starting to realise that men have more power than women and that your beloved scifi is, in fact, also similarly skewed. And then you stumble across this programme where the main leaders you see are female (if not at first, very quickly). And one of them is an alien scientist (you love science) who, like you, is dark-haired (you’re also starting to realise that blondes are privileged). And they really can’t seem to destroy her (even though she is a bad guy and can, therefore, never win). And she is in charge of spaceships. And she is strong. Yeah, instant adoration. Even after her true intentions were revealed. Especially once she booted out the man who was her boss. (Also, I haven’t always been as nice as I am and people who knew past-me aren’t surprised by this…Man, she was vicious, brutal, cunning.) And, yes, I shrieked with delight when she showed up on the V reboot…When I think of aliens I aspired to be, she is always first to come to mind.

(from Babylon 5)

After the last entry, you’ll be pleased to see that it’s basically benevolent from this point. Basically. Delenn is the leader of her species’s religious caste, and brings some serenity and some attempts to find peaceful resolutions. I was at a place where I was ready for some serenity and to see, as I saw in Delenn, someone who was also strong. As with Diana, she wasn’t cowed or kept down by the men around her. Important to the me that was struggling with hating that she was a girl was the fact that Delenn had all this power and was still very feminine and didn’t squash down her emotions. She also accepted a transformation that would make her more human-like in order to do some good in the universe, and this was key to me in that aforementioned struggle to make peace with my own humanity. I unabashedly admit that I have copied the way she holds her hands in repose for use when I meditate. When I first started meditating, she was one of two figures that I felt were good examples as I tried to find my serenity. (The other is farther down this list.)

The Doctor (Twelve of him)The Doctor
(from Doctor Who)

First off, I’m telling you right now that I’m not going to compare the different regenerations of the Doctor. I have a favourite, but that’s irrelevant, because he isn’t the only one who puts the Doctor on this list. I know it seems a bit obvious, but I liked the symbolism of how each Doctor looked differently and acted a bit differently, just as we humans are multi-faceted and capable of changing which facets are our most dominant, even if we only get one body to do it in. Again, timing was important. I feel like it took me into my late teen years to really embrace the greatness of allowing oneself to be multi-faceted, allowing oneself to explore new facets or to change when one you were putting foremost didn’t feel like your best fit. I’ve also always appreciated that the Doctor, in a violent and dangerous universe, is mainly full of wonder and tries to save people (and spare enemies) cleverly rather than going in guns blazing. A younger me had to put some effort into not going for the attack. And every age of me has loved this grown man who helped me maintain a sense of wonder.

ZhaanPa’u Zotoh Zhaan
(from Farscape)

Zhaan is another spiritual-ish figure. She committed a justice-inspired murder and ended up in prison. And went mad. And then turned to spirituality to pull herself together. She was, after that, a mainly spiritual and serene being with a violent current running through her core. Zhaan taught me, along with Delenn, to stand up for my spirituality. Taught me that the ugly bits in my core weren’t always just something to be ashamed of (they could even be useful). She made me ponder the strengths of my friendships and the causes I threw in with. And when she, a member of a plant-based species who are generally vegetarian, needed meat because she was starving…I know it will sound silly, but ceasing to be vegetarian was a big deal thing for me. And if the compassionate Zhaan could sometimes embrace her need for meat, maybe I wasn’t horrible for doing so. (That’s right: I unabashedly find my morality, among other places, in scifi programmes.) Plus, as someone whose very fair skin has resisted any efforts to even carefully enjoy sunlight, I envy her sunlight-induced ecstasy. And was inspired to see what ubiquitous things (like the sun, but not the sun) could move me deeply (though not necessarily to that level of ecstasy, because the last thing I need is one more way to be awkwardly, deeply FEELING in public). Also, honestly, how cool does she look? If I were another colour, blue like her would be one of my top picks!

Save Our Aliens!

So, the alien is the other, right?  All that’s implied in the name.  Alien = unknown, often scary, destructive, omnipotent, over-arching, all that jazz.  There are a ton of movies that cover the implicit terror of the aliens taking over.  The type of shows that thrive on large spaceships obscuring the skyline, on gray-green scales and tentacles and the sudden, spine-chilling gnashing of outcropping teeth.  When we talk about aliens in movies, more often than not they’re standing in for the natural human fear of things outside our control.  Something I cannot comprehend is out to get me.  Something greater than myself is taking away my hard-earned security, and humanity is powerless against it.

Aliens serve as a great MacGuffin for human insecurity.  Though that’s usually depicted with invasion, it’s not always the case.  Sometimes, instead of using aliens to showcase the indomitability of mankind’s spirit, aliens can show the depth of mankind’s tenderness.  Sometimes the alien is not powerful.  It’s merely other.  And in that innate otherness, it demands a protection.


The Grand Poobah of this sort of alien movie—not the first, but arguably the best and the catalyst for an entire spate
of Peter Pan, starry-eyed optimist films—is undoubtedly E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.  E.T. makes the aliens so benign and so wise, that instead of a looming threat they become precious.  E.T. isn’t an eerie reminder of Elliot’s ultimate fallibility.  He functions as a treasured jewel, something to be protected and valued and cherished throughout the years.  He’s Elliot’s childhood, but with an elevation that serves to remind us of the power of innocence.

E.T. is not just otherworldly, he’s everything pure and good about humanity.  What are his most distinctive traits?

  • Curiosity.  This can be extended to his entire species, if that’s the right word for it.  (Civilization?  Does that work better?).  His kind are first introduced as scientists, collecting plants and functioning as passive but voracious learners.  E.T. himself exhibits these traits as he interacts with Elliot and the rest of the world, mimicking movement and learning from that television set as diligently as any toddler sponging up Sesame Street.
  • Innocence.  At the same time, E.T. knows nothing of the world.  The learning doesn’t happen with the edge of cynicism.  It’s not the scholar studying in order to tear down a schema of thought.  It’s the ingenue seeking to expand the limited knowledge of the world, and standing in wonder at it all.  It’s almost like Spielberg is harkening back to childhood, extolling the virtue of an unencumbered view, isn’t it?  Hmm.  Interesting.
  • Compassion.  Partway through the film, it’s revealed that E.T. has strong psychic connections, a connection he foists on Elliot now that his entire clan is far beyond the stars.  Now this might be a stretch, but stick with me here—I think that this addition of psychic connection is showing a type of superior community developed by the alien species, showcasing what might been seen as a childlike trust in each other and twisting it to make a strength.  Because of this mindlink, the aliens care more about the members of their society.  They’re fostering a utopia.  And because Elliott tastes a little bit of this union, he is more loving and caring towards E.T.  In return E.T. shares knowledge.  Heck, he makes Elliott so powerful he can fly!  Which leads to…
  • Powerful.  Just because there’s all this laudatory highlight of childish traits, doesn’t mean that these aliens are big ol’ dummies, or completely incapable and in need of humanity to show them the way.  No, these aliens are bosses, with powers and understanding that far outstrip our own.  They can bring life to that which was dead (smacks of some omnipotence there, eh?), make things float around, and essentially bend all the laws of physics to their will.  No slouching there.
  • Fragility.  In spite of all that ultimate power, E.T. has weaknesses.  He fades the longer he’s on Earth.  Without the support of his people, his system, he’s stripped of his life force.  It’s sort of a scathing commentary—the longer you live on the Earth, the more it robs you of those essential traits possessed in childhood.  In short, the world is a dark terrible place and can destroy you if you don’t hold on to what’s good and pure. Subtlety, thy name is not Spielberg.


With E.T., saving this concept of the alien, which is really just the concept of childhood, becomes the ultimate goal.  It drew in kids with the Reeses pieces, the hilarious underage drunken-ness, and the madcap adventure. It drew in adults by reminding them of something long ago lost, and renewing them with a vigor to protect that in the next generation.  In the end, tears were had by all.

This are ideas developed and even mimicked in later movies.  The film Paul, that Simon Pegg-Nick Frost-Seth Rogen vehicle that is the forgotten nugget in the Pegg-Frost oeuvre, completely builds upon the foundation E.T. established.  And I even mean beyond the cherished joke that Spielberg has a direct line to captured alien Paul, and is using him to vet all his sci-fi movies.

Paul_iyyyNo, Paul takes all the premium placed on youthful innocence from E.T. and sets it in a millennial world.  Paul is the best (and most maligned) segments of humanity.  He’s forever juvenile, irresponsible, and fun.  He laughs his deep stoner laugh and bombs around the desert with nary a care, two nerds in tow.  And yet, even with all the trappings of the eternally adolescent male, Paul is still wise, resourceful, and ten times smarter than the oppressive government seeking to drain his life force.

In both films, the emphasis is placed on preservation of the alien traits, traits that aren’t so unfamiliar to us after all.  Elliott saves E.T., and Graeme and Clive help Paul elude capture, because they are all trying to preserve the best versions of humanity.  Or at least what humanity should be.  The impulse to protect the alien comes from the almost selfish urge to shelter our own promise, innocence, and instincts, long before the concepts of what we “should” be enter our lives.  Humanity’s greatest moment isn’t conquering the alien invaders.  It’s proving the goodness of humanity by recognizing and saving the best of what we are.

Star Stuck

Let’s get right to it and see what happens when an alien finds themselves stuck with, well, another alien. No amount of stalling will spare you from the ending…

Everything I’ve chosen is old enough that I’m hoping my SPOILER ALERT is unnecessary. Really, I’ll be a little sad for you if you’ve missed any of the five things I reference.

Stuck With Them

The Last Starfighter promotional image (Alex Rogan gazes skyward)The first set of aliens marooned with aliens that I want to talk about are Earthlings (that’s us) suddenly among people not from Earth. The case where we are the alien and it wasn’t on purpose. In this set, we’ve got a token human as our point-of-view character to help us engage with the story. Once they leave the Earth, they might be our only point of familiarity (until we are shown the ways in which another species might have similar traits or concerns). I’m going to set aside the cases where the aliens are entirely malevolent or where we’re out there and know there could be alien life. For me, the fascination is with what happens when this wasn’t the plan. In the interest of brevity, I’ll talk about just two stories: the film The Last Starfighter and the TV programme Farscape.

In both, our token human is someone we might expect to adjust a little easier than the “average” human without being too different from average. In The Last Starfighter, Alex Rogan is a teenager who is really into trying to get a high score on a video game and who’s dreaming of bigger and better than his very-small town life. When he gets the high score and discovers—via being picked up by an extraterrestrial agent—that the game was a recruitment device to find pilots for an interplanetary war, he’s surprised but manages to get it together quickly enough to be helpful.

John Crichton, astronautIn Farscape, John Crichton is an astronaut who accidentally gets hurled through a wormhole during an experimental flight. Again, sure, he’s got some adjusting to do. But he’s an intelligent and capable guy who, obviously, already had his eyes on the stars. Fortunately for us, as he meets loads of different species over the life of the series, he’s one of those lovely open-minded humans. With Crichton, as with Alex, our experience is shaped both by their capability to survive and thrive and by their open natures. Their willingness to work through fear and surprise, to be open to the other species they meet, gives us a more positive window into their stories. (If they’d been full of fear and suspicion, acting in hate, we too would have hated the aliens and found the stories chances to feel superior to or afraid of Them.)

Aliens from The Last StarfighterBoth Alex and Crichton also meet multiple sorts of aliens rather quickly. The lone human scenario can be a great way to let us (and the writers) experience many species. I don’t know about you, but that’s got great potential for enjoyment and making my brain soar into its own flights of fancy. The Last Starfighter has the advantage of being so short that it avoids the pitfalls that arise when trying to build realistic alien cultures (something especially likely when trying to build multiple realistic cultures). Farscape mitigates this by keeping our main exposure to that of Crichton’s new crew. They interact briefly with other species, but we mostly get to know a band of self-confessed misfits and outcasts. From my perspective, and looking at this from the view of how the human’s perspective impacts our experience, this is also a great way to show us that, just like humans, some aliens are good and some aren’t. Again, no furthering of a xenophobic agenda. Hopefully, if humans ever do meet aliens, experiencing the stories of Alex and Crichton will keep us from jumping immediately to “kill ‘em all!”

Farscape aliensThe last part of this sort of scenario I want to touch on is the homecoming, because, obviously, that’s what those unexpectedly stuck outside their lives want. Again, seeing the stories through these two characters gives us a different experience than if we’d been on the run from dangerous predators the whole time.

For Alex, having completed the mission for which he was taken, he can now return to his home (easily dropped off) without any sense of guilt. We’re thrilled he’s won, but we’re with him in being a little unsure that going home is the best ending. So, rather than looking forward to him running away from the aliens and settling happily back into Earth life after the adventure helps get his hunger for something bigger out of his system, we’re hoping he makes another choice. Even though the writers gave him a human love interest that they’ve made us want him to stick with. Yeah, he left to battle an enemy and we know it’s not safe, but there’s got to be more to the story, at least for him. (There was actually a sequel scheduled to happen at one point, but I’m afraid this was all the story we got.) What happened to Alex? You really should go watch and satisfy your curiosity.

More Farscape aliensWith Crichton, he’d been through so much and had constantly been looking for ways home. We really wanted him to find that way. And then he did…and we realised that we had grown as fond of his new friends as he had and we kind of didn’t want to see the team broken up. We don’t forget the dangerous and ugly parts of his experience, but we also realise that the life he has out there is something we can’t really rival on this pale blue dot. (And the only way we get to keep sharing in those wonders is if he keeps experiencing them.) And maybe, just maybe, having learned this lesson through Crichton and Alex, it’s a little easier for us should we unexpectedly find ourselves on an interstellar adventure.

Stuck With Us

The second set of aliens marooned with aliens that I want to talk about are extraterrestrials stuck on Earth. They are the outsiders and, in the cases I’ve chosen, not invaders or actual threats. And here we have plenty of humans to relate to, but we might not like what we see. Just like we saw that, among the multiple species of alien Crichton and Alex encounter, some are good and some aren’t…It turns out that we humans aren’t all good. In fact, be prepared to see just how ugly we can be. In the interest of brevity, I’ll talk about just three films: The Man Who Fell to Earth, Escape to Witch Mountain, and District 9.

Bowie in human and alien formsThe Man Who Fell to Earth was based on a book of the same name (which I read ages ago but, as previously noted, my recall for books is rubbish). . The story is a grim one, centred on Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien posing as a brilliant, human inventor. He was heading to Earth to get resources that would save his own planet from dying, but he crashed. Now, he’s got to hide his identity whilst earning the capital to build a ship he hopes will get him home.

As long as humans think he’s just rich and eccentric, they’re intrigued but he gets the privileges of the rich, white, and attractive. However, in spite of him never doing anything harmful to humans, all it takes is the knowledge of his alien origin and the government moves in, with the help of a human who should know better but betrays him, and breaks him (physically, mentally, emotionally). He’s entirely rejected by even the woman he trusted most. This isn’t a happy film and, worse, his betrayals ring true. Faith in humanity battered.

Escape to Witch Mountain promotional picture (Tony, Tia, UFO)Did you laugh when you saw I’d listed a children’s film? Just enjoy this less-grim break, because the brightest point in this section shows up in Escape to Witch Mountain. (This one was also based on a book, which I haven’t read but might need to add to my reading pile…) I re-watched the original a few months ago (thanks, Netflix!) and found that it was far less cheesy than I’d worried it might be. Missed this one? Don’t worry; I’ll spoil it for you.

For the bulk of the film, we don’t know that Tony and Tia are aliens. In fact, we think they’re just charming orphans. And, as long as everyone thinks that, it’s fine. They’re well-behaved and cute and only the orphanage bully has an issue with them. But, once again, when they start to show their inhuman sides, it gets less cuddly. In fact, in this case, it’s almost worse, because the humans don’t see an alien threat; they think they’re just looking at fellow humans with unusual abilities. But none of us are actually surprised to learn that we’re willing to be horrible even if we just think another human is, in a non-extraterrestrial way, alien to us somehow, are we?

Escape to Witch Mountain screenshot: Tony, Tia, cute cate who looks beseechingly at the cameraLuckily for us, this is a children’s film, which means that not everyone is bad. There’s a kind older man with an initially gruff exterior who helps them escape the rich, old, white man trying to exploit the kids. Even when the pieces come together and we learn they’re aliens whose people crash-landed on Earth, gruff old Jason O’Day still thinks they’re the neatest kids. As he reunites them with their remaining people, it’s clear that everyone hopes to see each other again. Not all of us are horrible! The aliens are still marooned but reunited in a happy little valley with their people! All is not grim!

Did you enjoy that little respite, that piece of hope that maybe we wouldn’t be entirely inhuman should we meet aliens? Get ready to get over it, because I’ve saved the grimmest for last. (I’ve included an extra picture from the film, complete with a cat, whose beseeching look suggests he knows you need rescue too. You deserve a cat for all the horrors of humanity you’re reading.)

News clippings from the District 6 Museum with non-fiction stories of inhumanityDistrict 9 is the most contemporary of my examples, and we see that we’re as sure as ever that any aliens marooned here would be sorry. The film is based on a short film previously created by the director and quite unabashedly, for those who pay attention to human events, inspired by events in District Six, Cape Town during the apartheid era. So, to be clear, we start out knowing that this is definitely about how inhuman humans can be, even to each other.

In this case, it’s bad from the get-go. The poor aliens in this film look, by human standards, scary. Which means that, even if they were the sweetest beings and showed up with cancer cures and wealth for all, humans would treat them poorly. Instead, their ship is crippled and they’re stuck here. Stuck here and forced to live in a ghetto, experimented on, and seen both as a danger and as garbage. If you watch this and don’t feel horrified by humanity, I hope we never meet. Especially now that I’ve pointed out the very obvious fact that this is based on how actual humans were treated by actual other humans. Shame, shame!

District 9 alienBut, just to drive home the horror of humans, the plot includes a human who starts transforming into an alien after exposure to an alien chemical (that the aliens were carefully keeping away from humans, but humans came in and messed things up and brought this on themselves). And do you know what the other humans did as soon as they realised what was happening to their brave and, let’s be frank, injured-in-the-line-of-duty soldier? They decided to vivisect him. But, wait, we’re about to look even worse, because when this soldier escapes and goes to the very aliens he messed up for help? THEY HELP HIM. Are you ashamed of us yet? When the aliens find a way to escape Earth (the only actual bright spot in this film), I can’t be the only person not entirely concerned with whether or not they’ll do as they promised and return to heal the soldier. Faith in humanity destroyed.

Bowie from The Man Who Fell to Earth, in the torture chairI loved this film, but it’s so grim that it’s one I would own and never watch again. Unless I were already depressed and figured it couldn’t get worse. Seriously. (But you should totally watch it. Maybe it will shame you into being one of the good humans…)

And now that I’ve gotten myself down, I’m afraid I don’t have a pithy summary. I just hope, for the sake of everyone, that we’re the ones who get stranded. That we get a chance to show how big we can be instead of being likely to show just how very small we are. (Let’s end with one more relevant Bowie picture. That always soothes me…) Now, go out and be the best kind of human you can, whether it’s to other humans or to aliens. That will help scrub some shame off our collective souls…


Star-Born Shams and Saviours

Ancient egyptian image: Wisdom beaming down from spaceOne 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.

Stargate screenshot: The Goa'uld who passes himself off as Ra.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.)

Promotional picture of Thor and Loki for Thor: The Dark WorldIn 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 Day the Earth Stood Still screenshot: Klaatu and GortThe 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.

Animated gif: Leeloo shows us her MultipassLet’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.

V screenshot: the Starchild saves the planetA 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.

Cover of Stranger In A Strange LandContinuing 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…

Screenshot from David Lynch's Dune: Paul Atreides in a Fremen stillsuit and blue-in-blue eyesFinally, 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!

Higher Power

Let’s face it—it’s illogical to believe we are all alone on this pale blue dot in the grand masses of the cosmos.  That in the trillions and zillions of galaxies out there, stars and space innumerable, we are the only signs of intelligent life.  I, for one, subscribe to the belief that we are not alone.  Have we been visited by lifeforms?  I can’t say for sure, and I admit, as much as I love the idea of Area 51, I find it unlikely that the American government are the sole keepers of alien lifeforms (other secrets, yes, just perhaps not this one).  But is the universe full of possibility?  I, for one, believe.


Why yes it is.

Still, whether the enigmatic “they” have visited us or not, the idea of alien life form is an indelible part of our mythology.  Who really built the pyramids?   What’s the deal with Stonehenge?  Or the Easter Island sculptures?  It’s easy to say there was some sort of divine interaction.

And that’s the point where I look at aliens and see a blurred line.  A fuzziness between extra-terrestrial and godly.  Think about it.  Aliens—beings from the heavens, possessing a power and knowledge beyond what we humans can comprehend.  After all, we don’t often get aliens that are “lesser.”  No aliens come to earth and stand in wonder at our technology.  Nope.  Not a thing.  They are always advanced.

So what are gods?  Omnipotent, all-powerful beings who influence humanity.  They affect how the earth runs, rule seasons, harvests, creation itself. Often, they will visit their chosen people.  Think Zeus and Apollo scamming on women.  Or Christ, the son of God, coming down to dwell with man.

If you stand back and squint, aliens and gods aren’t all that different.  Two sides of the mirror, tweaked ever so slightly.

Amber is covering more god-like creatures on Thursday, giving far more examples, but for now I want to look at one of the end-all be-all alien franchises.


THE alien.

The Alien franchise.

The perfect blend of horror, action, and survival tale.  The Alien movies might not seem like obvious god-examples, but let’s begin by taking the last and making it first.  Let’s talk Prometheus.  Many people hated Prometheus, and many people were wrong.  It’s a killer flick, with a magnificent Fassbender the android, the deliciously icy Charlize, and Idris Elba.  Idris. Elba.

But it’s also film that fairly explicitly deals with the conflation of science and religion, all through the unknown question of other life, and how external influence could have changed our world.  This idea is discussed excellently here (and touched on here, and also here, although that last one is a bit out there).  Essentially, Prometheus sets up a clear mythology from the very first moments.

There’s the creation aspect. Greater life—in Prometheus, the Engineers—are responsible for cells, for DNA, for us being mere shadows of their glory.  It’s implied that Earth is an experiment, an attempt to create something new.  Then there’s the further implication that they kept checking in on humanity (the pyramids!), which, as a whole, disappointed.

This led to the vengeful gods, the destroying angels.  Those who came not with a plow, but a sword.  This is where the remaining Alien films sprout from.  Something only vaguely humanoid, but completely indestructible and awesome in its malevolence.  Acidic spit?  Unholy appetite?  A seeming lack of any weakness? This is where the xenomorphs come in, to become wrathful divinity.

The spectrum of aliens always shifts between savior and demolisher.  Most are either here to help or here to enact harm.  It plays on the mortal fear that whatever is actually in control doesn’t have clear motives.  That we are small, and here to act on the whim of those above.


Men in Black, a documentary?


Loving the Alien

Portion of Hubble Extreme Deep Field.  Every spot and smudge in this image is a galaxy.  Credit: NASA, ESAI can’t think of a time when I didn’t know about or believe in aliens. I was raised in a home where everyone read scifi and fantasy, where we listened to David Bowie in his alien persona, where we understood, as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson will confirm, that this was not the only planet with life on it. That doesn’t mean, aside from a brief stint of buying deeply into conspiracies when I was 13 and had learned—from Ender’s Game and Dune—not to trust authority, that I focused a lot of time or thought on the possibility that aliens were already here and being hidden by the government. Nor does it mean that our household was somehow constantly centred on or discussing The Aliens. It was more just that I never considered it remarkable to believe aliens existed. This always made the universe seem full of possibility.

Gif of David Bowie looking a bit blue in his Loving the Alien videoWhen I was in the dreaded throes of puberty and feeling a bit like an alien myself, I sometimes told myself that maybe I had just been born on the wrong planet. But, even more effective for soothing my sense of discordance with my environment, I also spent as many hours as I could immersed in fiction that was full of aliens and space travel and the like. I was a scifi girl long before anyone might argue that I should call myself a woman instead. So, as we discussed how to pull apart “scifi” and make it into a few themes for Most Worlds, spread it over multiple months, I was entirely on board with Aliens getting a month of their own. Let’s be honest: we could spend the lifetime of this blog on aliens and never run out of subject matter.

Screenshot of the non-humanoid alien character Pilot from the programme FarscapeEven people who don’t really think of themselves as geeks have made up the movie-going and TV-viewing public that keeps scifi films and programmes profitable enough to keep making them. The alien as a character type serves so many purposes. They give us a new enemy or a new saviour, they open up possibilities for plots and solutions beyond the repetitive constraints of this one little planet, they let us explore themes of outsiders or difference in a roundabout way (they’ve stood in as symbols to call out the inhumanity of humans or the illogical nature of our knee-jerk prejudices against those who aren’t like us). For the truly brave writer, they’re a chance to create a character who doesn’t even look like anything we’d consider humanoid or maybe we wouldn’t even initially recognize it as life at all. You can go so many places with a chance like that!

We won’t cover every alien, every franchise/film/programme/book, or even every type of alien or alien-involving situation. We’ve narrowed this month down to the topics that, in our planning week, were currently most interesting to us (and then had to narrow even more given that we each write basically three posts per month). In good news, it means we have no choice but to revisit aliens in the future. So, set aside your xenophobia (but keep your weapon handy, just in case) and come hang out with us and some folks who aren’t from around here.

Screenshot: Little aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind