The Alien Among Us (2009)
“Slap a latex forehead on our emotional inadequacies and you can say what you like to them, argues Guy Haley.” So read the strap line in Death Ray 18, published in 2009. I’m not sure what I write below holds true right now, SF has undergone quite a change in the last few years, and the spaceborne shows this referred to have died out. They’ve been replaced by drama that is less clear cut in its view on Human (American) cultural superiority. Those Americans, they’re getting all complicated.
Since Star Trek gave us Mr. Spock, you haven’t been able to put together a crew of space-faring explorers without including at least one alien. And why not? Mr Spock. He was a fine character in a cast of fine characters. This half-ET, coldly dispassionate scientist was a foil for Kirk’s loin-driven hotheadedness and Bones’ world-weary, and equally emotional, cynicism. Spock was often right, but also struggling with his human side. Culturally, he represented the calm of scientific progress set at right-angles with the messiness of humanity. It’s part of science fiction’s infatuation with progress, as old as the genre itself. Spock’s character eventually hit a gravelly-voiced balance between logic and emotion, and that was a kind of adult thing to do. But times changed, and aliens don’t quite represent what they once did.
Spock was a humanisation of the kind of brainiacs depicted elsewhere in the fifties and sixties, the bigheads from This Island Earth, the omnipotent Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dr Morbius of The Forbidden Planet. These were themselves different sides of the same coin – they are depictions of rationalists, and represent the fears of and hopes for science. Spock is by extension the humanisation of the scientist, a previously distant, powerful and sometimes terrifying figure.
Aliens became somewhat de rigeur in starship crews after Spock, especially in a certain kind of show – the Trek franchise, Roddenberry’s grave-robbed offerings and their clones (that’s what we’re really talking about here, the almost military space ensemble, they can be everything from last Thursday to Jesus elsewhere), and these reached their peak in the 1990s. But whereas Spock was an equal, and in many ways superior, to his crew mates, the aliens who came afterwards lack the same balance. They fulfill a different function. Aliens in ensemble casts increasingly came to signify certain human personality types, while the humans themselves become more and more bland. There’s not much between Sinclair, Picard, or Sisko. They’re serious men doing a serious job, moments of ludicrously shoehorned levity aside. Their subordinates are worse. Is there really a massive difference between Riker, Chakotay and Garibaldi? With exceptions, these characters are almost unreal in their insipidness. They have nothing but the most artificial flaws or needs, and each has their own little pouch of trite wisdom. The roaring James Tiberius Kirk they are not. Instead we have to look to the aliens for any real representation of human traits. Aliens in the 80s and 90s allowed us to have contrite monsters like Andromeda‘s Rev Bem, emotional types like Troi, even buffoons like Neelix at a time when, suddenly, it seemed unacceptable for future people to be shown as anything but really, really nice.
By far the largest sub-grouping of alien hanger-on is that of the domesticated warrior. Worf, Star Trek‘s house-broken Klingon, has a lot to answer for on this score. Stargate and Andromeda have them in abundance in the sort-of-humans Teal’c, Ronon Dex, Tyr Anazazi and Telemachus Rhade. There’s even Bigfoot in Sanctuary. These creatures are handy in a fight, they are noble, they are loyal. Like Spock they struggle, but with rage. They are all also invariably patronised about their efforts to be more human. They are descendants of the noble savage encountered in much 19th century literature. All these aliens are emblematic of that great sense of rectitude once held by Western societies. They are a cultural residue, Victorian relics of racism. You can’t (thankfully) have a character say ‘Well done, Mr South Sea Islander, you have learnt that shoes are good!’ as was often the case in bygone adventure tales, but no-one gives a stuff if you do similar with a Talaxian. SF is retrograde in this respect, it recklessly rams the anodyne values of political correctness down speckled throats in a most un-PC way. The foibles of the aliens allow the humans to be flawless, to wear little half-smiles on their faces as they watch the aliens’ funny little ways or lecture them, bizarrely, on their inhumanity.
Humans in this kind of SF never complain, take the piss or get depressed. They don’t hold difficult beliefs or do anything vaguely shocking. They are really boring. In these shows, humans are our parents, and we are the aliens. So Worf or B’Elanna can get really mad and break things because they ‘aren’t human’, Neelix is a cock because he’s not a man, Londo can be sly because he isn’t one of us. Ronon can kill because he is not from Earth. Mankind in this kind of SF is irreproachable, and that’s just bollocks. Some shows might make better use of their aliens than others (witness the balletic, almost Shakespearean interplay of G’Kar and Londo Mollari in Babylon 5) but that doesn’t mean their humans are much cop. Alien characters are tokenism in the worst possible way. They present the moral superiority of mankind. Actually, no, they present the superiority of post-modern, American, middle-class values, a tedious, humourless, bland existence. This sheer niceness might seem an irony for shows set aboard warships, but the flying living rooms of the future demand their conformity just as the armed forces of today do, albeit of a different kind. When captain Picard says to Worf, ‘Well done Worf, today you behaved like a human’, he is really saying ‘Well done Worf, today you behaved like an American.’ Because a certain kind of American would like to believe that even in space, everyone wants be that certain kind of American, no matter how nobbly their foreheads. Like the Iraqis and the Taliban, the Klingons just don’t know it yet.
It’s probable now that this kind of science fiction has run its course. It is a product of the 90s, the ensemble show of nice but dull types, just as the 80s was ruled by lone, arrogant heroes with nought but a natty gimmick and a dollop of smarm between them and cancellation. (The Stargate franchise forms a seemingly endless rump to the exploratory space ensemble. In SG, the devolution of humanity has gone as far as it can, the people reduced to a band of indistinguishable nerds, barely competent to do their jobs, whose only real qualifications seem to be either a gruff voice or the ability to make bad jokes at inappropriate moments. Science fiction has always struggled on the seesaw between idea and adventure for all, of course, but at least the day before yesterday’s heroes had squarer jaws. In Stargate, aliens have become even more infantilised, and the humans are seen through a perpetual child’s eyes.)
Thanks then, to the likes of Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. Ensembles have, thankfully, changed. The rubber-nosed cypher has gone out of fashion.
But interestingly, the Spock archetype has never gone away. The balancing act between rationality and emotion (as opposed to acceptable and unacceptable emotiveness, which is what the alien is there for) has been taken up by the robot or AI. Bladerunner‘s Replicants and Data started this trend. The likes of the Holosuite Doctor and Romy took it up. These are the characters that can ask unflinchingly ‘Tell me of this human thing called love’. Their artificiality might ask us ‘What is personhood?’ too, for this is what our notions of ‘progress’ demands of us in the 21st Century, but when Arnie says, at the close of Terminator 2 “Now I understand why you cry”, he was speaking from the same therapy group as Spock. The Cylons, Cameron and others keep this debate alive to this very day. In real life aliens are as far away as ever, but machines become cleverer year by year, so this important theme is likely to remain central to SF for some time.
Hey, and it is! In my book! It was around the time I wrote this that I was writing Reality 36.