Monday, April 29, 2013

The Humanoid Alien Problem and Syfy's Defiance

Syfy's new show Defiance is trying to fill a lot of big shoes. It wears its biggest influences on its sleeves: Joss Whedon's Firefly is the western-future mashup spiritual ancestor on one side, and Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica is the other clear tonal influence. Syfy is invested in attracting and keeping new viewers, but its approach runs the risk of alienating the same fans they seek to attract: the similarities to Firefly may make the new show look bad in comparison, and many science fiction fans have "grit fatigue" brought on by the generation of "darker" shows already following in BSG's footsteps (Syfy's own Stargate Universe is an example of how the tactic has already backfired). But it's the similarities to another Moore show, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, that risks alienating the most potential new viewers - with aliens.

Sure, a lot of science fiction fans like aliens. Heck, I like aliens. But aliens are often the first thing that turns a new sci-fi viewer right back around to the door. Forehead wrinkles, contacts, skin paint, spots, false teeth - easily cheesy. A more gradual approach to introducing the outlandish has been what's roped viewers into things like Game of Thrones (that, and wanton sex and violence).

As a science fiction fan, I've got to ask the question: why are do so many "aliens" have to be so human? Why do we keep on making TV shows that have aliens that look so much like us?

I get that there are budgetary concerns. And CGI is only just getting to the point now that it's cheap enough to have weirder aliens at an affordable price. But let's run through some of the problems with humanoid aliens.

  • It's incredibly unlikely that one, let alone several, alien life forms will evolve such similar height, weight, limb number, skeleton type, genital location, etc to humans. I'm glad that Defiance has some "giant" and "dwarf" aliens, and a glowing ball of energy alien, but the three primary races are human-norm. And everyone but the glowing energy balls has two arms, two legs, two eyes, one mouth, five fingers, etc.
  • Alien "culture" often takes the place of actual character. Essentially, every member of an alien "race" (more on that term in a minute) is 99% a product of his/her/its imaginary culture rather than a thinking, feeling character. The best alien characters are those who are the product of their culture but also act as independent people - something we take for granted with human characters.
  • There's a whole lot of alien racism. Think about it for a minute: all ___ of the ____ race has these characteristics. If we're not talking about aliens, that's a pretty shameful statement, so why is it so easy for science fiction writers to treat it casually? This isn't unique to sci-fi either; fantasy has the exact same problem. Have you ever heard of a fat elf? Why is there so much variety allowed and recognized among humans and so little among aliens?
  • Language: everyone in the universe has somehow evolved languages that everyone can (physically) speak, with similar conceptual and grammatical rules? While I'd love to say that it's some sort of comment on evolutionary linguistics... it's not.
  • And let's not forget the whole gender/species question. a) Why do all humanoid alien races have all the same gender characteristics? b) If we can reproduce with aliens, are we the same species? What?
It's not that I don't think there's a place for humanoid aliens. But so many other shows have gone there before that it begs the question of what new can Defiance bring to the table? Can it be more than a sum of parts gathered from other shows?

There are enough examples of doing stranger aliens, better, that Defiance seems a little lazy (Farscape did weirder, better, though there were a lot of humanoids there too). To me, the best, most inventive work on alien races came from a video game: Mass Effect had more interesting, more varied, and more variable alien life-forms and alien cultures than anything I've seen on the television. In addition, there's a hint as to why there might be so many bipeds in the ME world (a shared galactic ancestry, intermittently destroyed by #spoilers).

It comes down to this: if tomorrow aliens landed, and they had two arms, two legs, one head, five fingers, etc, I'd want to know why they look so human. It would be weird, and we would want to know why there was such a close resemblance. So why don't we apply the same rigor to our science fiction?

And why do we keep giving Julie Benz work?


  1. I agree with you 100% about the character design on alien races. Mostly it's just lazy special effects and a lack of creativity. I'm glad you brought up Farscape; Brian Henson did a fantastic job with the character design. If we're going to give credit where credit is due, Star Wars always impressed with its inventive civilizations and aliens.

    I think you find that some directors and producers are just more technically minded. They begin by thinking about what they can accomplish visually and then try to push it as far as they can. Others seem to come at it from the opposite perspective. They focus on the writing and the acting and then try to produce it. Or they just make poor technical choices. My favorite example is the bad CGI you get in some episodes of Dr. Who. A lot of those effects could be done much better manually.

    I think some of your other points are nitpicking. Alien languages are a nice opportunity for a show to inject a little color, but functionally it's easier just to cheat and write it all in the vernacular. Even Douglas Adams cheats here.

    As for racist aliens. Part of the appeal of science fiction is that it gives the writer some distance for his own culture, this gives him greater freedom to write about aspects of his culture without alienating his readers. Racism is simply a subject matter, and the quickest way to explore it is racist aliens. There's still no excuse for doing it poorly.

    1. You should have seen some of the nitpicky stuff I took out! Good points all around. Especially that CGI can't save us... for now, at least. But think about how cheap they made District 9, and how the good writing in that movie made something that looked utterly alien so sympathetic.

      I think I'd just like an acknowledgement once in a while that yes, it's strange that the aliens are really human-looking. And maybe just once or twice it could be a plot point.

  2. defiance is just a western with aliens. You are better off watching Hell on Wheels. The alien races could just as well be Africans, Indians and Chinese. I can't see Defiance offering any new stories or ideas to science fiction. The stories will mostly be about power - boring. Not about exploring science and the future. If you want to watch some innovative speculative fiction, I suggest the BBC series Misfits and the horror thriller series The Fades.

    1. Some good suggestions Graham! I've actually watched all of both shows - both good. Sad that the next will be the last series of Misfits!

  3. I'd like to have seen a nod to the aliens altering themselves en route to be more human. Flashbacks where familiar characters were strikingly inhuman in appearance would go a long way.

    Of course that doesn't fit with "we thought the planet was empty" but I doubt anyone believes that anyway.

  4. Why humanoid aliens? Simple. Life on earth tends toward bilateral symmetry. Even other human species (Neanderthal, Denisovan, H. Erectus and others) tend to look similar. Even the great and lesser apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, bili apes, gibbons) look humanoid. I don't expect any weird body type or shape from highly intelligent, space-faring aliens, except of course humanoid shape.
    If you want weird, alien shape creatures, look no further than here on Earth. Just don't expect them to have any technology, starships, etc.