Ask JKM a Question: Where are the aliens in modern sci-fi TV?



A reader named Don writes:

“Hi, John:

The more I read your blog, the more I enjoy it! (And I think your views on casting for Princess Leia are spot-on.)

A question for consideration as part of your "Ask JKM" segment:

What happened to the aliens? 

My wife and I are fans of Killjoys and Dark Matter, but aside from the latter's android, the galaxy seems filled entirely with humans. The Battlestar Galactica reboot, too, had Cylons becoming human-like. It seems like the more advanced film-making gets in terms of technological advances, the less exotic these worlds are becoming. 

Star Trek--in all its previous series--was limited in how it could render its aliens (a lot of ridges in foreheads!), but at least there was variety of species. Farscape, too, was great about that. Why are current series losing this?



Thank you for your question, Don, and I know you asked a second question too, which I will get to separately.

But first, I have to compliment you on the question. I liked some qualities of the Battlestar Galactica reboot but the thing I disliked most about it was the series’ overall lack of curiosity about the universe; the idea that there could be other life-forms out there, beyond Cylon (human-created, in the re-imagination) and human.  

Firefly (2002), which I liked better, also featured a universe without aliens.

I am happy that Discovery (2017) is coming soon, and looks to be honoring Star Trek’s legacy of creating incredible alien characters, but it has been disheartening, since 2001, to see so many TV series turning away from the possibility of alien life.

It is disappointing for two reasons.

First, this choice demonstrates a lack of imagination and curiosity, as I noted above. 

There’s almost no world exploration in the rebooted BSG, and that just seems -- to quote Contact (1997) -- a terrible waste of space. By contrast, the original Battlestar Galactica had no shortage of aliens beyond the Cylons (Ovions, Borellian Nomen, Boray, Eastern Alliance, etc.), so the new series didn't love up to the legacy of the original in at least one very significant way.



Secondly, what were the aliens replaced with on some of these new series?  

Well, I think in a misguided attempt to see more “real” to modern viewers, aliens were shunted into the background or forgotten, and the focus became soap opera foibles

You know, this character is a recovering alcoholic. This other character is sleeping with this person’s wife. This character isn’t talking to his father because he blames him for the death of his brother.


I think the writers and producers thought they were being dark and gritty, and realistic. Perhaps they thought they were freeing themselves from Star Trek’s limits on how characters could interact. 

They were actually porting As the World Turns into sci-fi TV, and the impact is still felt today.

What we have seen replace the aliens in these newer series is pure soap opera plotting. Again, more realistic, perhaps, but far less imaginative in terms of science fiction.  I understand that believable aliens are difficult to come up with, and expensive to create. But I would argue that it is worth the effort.

 Imagine if Star Trek had gone this route, and we had never gotten Mr. Spock.

One of the key functions of science fiction TV is to comment on the human condition. It is so much easier to do that, I think, from an outside or alien perspective. I see a lot of modern science fiction TV abandoning this approach, either because of budgetary constraints, concern about realism, or due to the aforementioned lack of curiosity about what life might look like on another planet.

I certainly hope Discovery brings about a new era of aliens on TV.

Thank you for the question! 


Don’t forget to ask me your questions at Muirzone@aol.com.  And while I’m at it, don’t forget to send me your top twenty Star Trek episode lists at the same e-mail address.

Comments

  1. John, wonderful thoughts on aliens in sci-fi tv today. My Battlestar Galactica will always be the original 1978-1980 series because of my lack of interest the soap opera storytelling of the 2003-2009 reboot. Science-fiction television needs aliens like The Walking Dead needs walkers. I loved the bug-eyed Ovions design in the origin series and would have loved to have seen them return in the reboot.

    SGB

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  2. Anonymous9:22 PM

    You truly are the lead on these concepts, John. I would only add that Doctor Who has kept a variety of aliens in place throughout all of its seasons/series. That's not always the case in British SF, but it has been consistent over the years. --Hugh

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  3. Answer: lack of money.

    Television budgets (especially 'series' budgets) are much smaller today. For example, "Firefly" runner Josh Whedon admitted they could not afford much in the way of the exotic.

    The by-product of the above issue is producers are forced to focus on unimportant things like story and characters. Outside of CGI there are not a lot of crutches about. (Points to those old shows that managed to include both exotic aliens and good storytelling.)

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  4. I, for one, can only accept a certain level of extravagant aliens. For instance, the Ferengi on 'Discovery' are so unusual looking and possess such a truly disgusting looking makeup that I have found their presence in a episode unwatchable. Klingon's with their wrinkly foreheads and Vulcans with their pointy ears all about all my adult sensibilities can withstand.

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  5. Hi John,
    I enjoyed the question and your reflections of course.
    And I would say that it has been generally lacking in an effort to be gritty and real as you suggest.

    Stargate Universe (2009-2011) did a nice job of incorporating alien life in an imaginative fashion.

    Colony (2015-) appears to be suggesting alien life but hasn't quite done a lot of the reveal yet, in favor of the human drama (and no doubt budget), but its still very good.

    But yes no wild Farscapes to be found for sure.

    There is a new comedy sci fi a la Galaxy Quest headed this way along with the Star Trek. I forget the name.

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  6. Great question and I think your answer is spot on. That drive to be gritty and realistic has forced a lot of "serious" sci-fi shows to abandon alien encounters. As you pointed out, an examination of humanity from the alien perspective can actually give us even more "serious" plot lines. It feels like we may be finally getting away from the gritty realism permeating everything these days. So I hope that "Discovery" helps point shows into that direction again.

    Also, sci-fi video games have been keeping the concept alive. The Mass Effect trilogy did a great job with this. Alien that humans went to war with after their first contact end up being allies, and that creates tension and very different viewpoints in the later threats from beyond.

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