Humanity has a complex relationship with extraterrestrials.
Sometimes they come shooting, sometimes they come probing.
Whatever form they take in our imagination, portrayals of beings from distant worlds mostly tell us, paradoxically, about ourselves. Throughout history, the aliens encountered in popular culture reflect our many fears and insecurities. Sometimes, our greatest hopes.
Humans are a species largely out of context. We don’t know how we got here, and we don’t know if there’s life like us in the unfathomably large universe. It’s a bummer, but it makes for great entertainment. Whether it’s the suburb-stranded Alf or moral giant Optimus Prime, our depictions of alien life are an attempt to annotate the quagmire that is human life on Earth. Aliens in popular culture are like mannequins, dressed to reflect the climate and fears of a particular era.
Take the most recent film that came dressed to impress: Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. We’re presented with a world without consensus, awash with ignorance and on the brink. The difficulty of human communication and the ambiguity of language are central themes. Arrival was released in 2016, a year that saw the global proliferation of misinformation and fake news.
Depicting the madness of the world through the lens of science fiction dates back to the birth of the genre. Sometime around the year 150 AD, the satirist Lucian of Samosata published an outlandish tale that can be seen as a progenitor to what we now consider sci-fi.
His story, sneeringly titled A True Story, covered all the bases: lunar travel, colonization, interplanetary war, and of course: aliens. And as they do today, these creatures served a purpose. Lucian’s depictions were a critique of his society’s belief in mythical gods and their cosmic misadventures.
From the shapeshifting alien bounty hunters that chased Mulder & Scully to the insect hunting warriors in Starship Troopers, modern science fiction owes a debt to Lucian’s work.
A True Story was Lucian’s attempt to offer biting commentary on the fantastical stories of ancient texts, and the masses engrossed by them. Lucian was Syrian, but wrote his satire almost exclusively in ancient Greek, so he could drag the Grecian religious institutions and superstitions that were prevalent at the time.
Lucian wrote with a matter-of-fact snarkiness and sarcasm laid on so thick, it was sometimes hard to translate. The writer who would “invent” science fiction didn’t shy away from blurring the lines between fiction and reality.
The Warring World
Centuries after Lucian’s tall tale, H.G. Wells popularized science fiction with works that include his famous invasion story — The War of the Worlds. This story reflects a time when reputable scientists seriously contemplated the idea of Martian civilizations. In August of 1894 the scientific journal Nature even published a paper pointing to mysterious flashing lights emanating from the red planet’s surface, thought to be alien communication.
But War of the Worlds is about more than wild Martian theories. Many at the time imagined Mars as a sister planet, whose population had warred or exhausted all its resources. Wells’ Martian invasion story can be read as a reflection about these fears for our own future—an allegory on the evils of imperialism, and the fears and tension that came with rapidly evolving technology in the lead up to WWI.
In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells moves warfare from the open battlefield to cities. A prophetic vision which would soon become a reality throughout Europe. Even further, the novel describes the Martian invaders deploying ‘black smoke’ to kill groups of humans, a terrifying prediction of what would later be known as chemical warfare.
The War of the Worlds is famous to this day because of what supposedly happened in 1938. Orson Welles, the story goes, performed the radio drama as a live newscast—and accidentally triggered a mass public panic. Despite the urban legends that grew up around this broadcast, the majority of listeners knew the play was a work of fiction. But the next day, newspapers across the country ran bombastic headlines that pointed to nationwide panic from listeners who believed the dramatic broadcast was actually occurring, and that Martians were attacking Newark, New Jersey.
Whether there was actual panic, it says a lot about the uncertainty of the time that newspapers thought stories of confusion credible: on the other side of the world, Nazis had begun their siege of Europe, and had already invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia.
Science fictioncontinues toprovide a platform for confrontingthe issues of war and politics that plague society today.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States declared war against Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, leading to the longest war in American history, one that still rages to this day. Soon after, the U.S would also invade Iraq. That same year, former Star Trek writer Ronald D. Moore reimagined 1978’s Battlestar Galactica for the post-9/11 world.
Rather than continue the modus operandi of challenging our demons through not-so-recognizable alien species, Moore throws viewers in the mix with “aliens” that look, speak, dress, and unfortunately, discriminate just like we do. The only difference? These “humans” are from another planet.
Battlestar Galactica pulled no punches, examining the use of torture during war in early episodes, commenting on the real-world controversy surrounding “enhanced interrogation.” Episodes contemplating the rights of prisoners, the use of biological warfare, and genocide are all brought to the table for discussion during the span of Battlestar Galactica.
The ultimate twist of the show is that these people from another planet and their unruly machine offspring are actually the distant ancestors of the human race—a poetic way of saying that we’ve made these mistakes before, and we’ll make them again. Many of Battlestar Galactica’s characters are loosely based on and named after the gods of Greek mythology, some of whom appear in Lucian’s A True Story.
The flower child era of the sixties and seventies offered a more hopeful vision for the future. It was the era of Carl Sagan and the Pioneer Program and Voyager probes, which carry humanity’s first message to an alien civilization.
Out of this era also came Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, an expansive universe that would stretch its canon across decades of television shows and movies. Star Trek allowed humans to face their own differences through the exploration of the universe, sometimes finding the ugliest parts of human nature that we left behind. The show explores how humans engage social issues beyond Earth, mostly in times of war.
In Star Trek’s depictions of aliens, the physical differences are downplayed. Aliens are mostly bipedal and communicate easily with humans through technology that is readily available in the future. With these barriers removed, Star Trek became a weekly series of morality tales and thought experiments to examine racism, sexism, inequality, and human rights.
The original Star Trek would run between 1966-1969, during the climax of the Civil Rights Movement here on Earth. With that backdrop, Roddenberry saw his Star Trek future as a “utopian” human society free of poverty and disease, where individuals act for the greater good rather than for personal gain. The diverse cast reflected this utopia. Nichelle Nichols, as Uhura, was groundbreaking as a black female character in a prominent role. Early on, she debated leaving the series.
But Martin Luther King Jr. saw the impact pop culturecould have on society,and he persuaded her to stay.
With humanity living in a golden age of exploration and enlightenment during Star Trek, many of humanity’s vices and more unsavory traits are generously dispersed elsewhere—among the varied species the Enterprise encounters throughout the galaxy. As the struggle for social justice continued and the sexual revolution changed life in America, each episode of Star Trek was a way to safely discuss subjects mainstream society considered taboo.
But even in the diverse universe portrayed in Star Trek, LGBTQ stories didn’t make their way into the fabric of the franchise’s canon until the recent premier of Star Trek: Discovery. While previous Star Trek shows didn’t depict openly gay characters, George Takei, who portrayed Enterprise helmsman Hikaru Sulu, became the first actor from the franchise to come out. In the modern JJ Abrams-produced Star Trek reboot, Sulu is portrayed as openly gay.
In retrospect, Star Trek’s early embrace of racial and gender diversity contradicts the decision to ignore issues throughout the canon. There was no real attempt to depict alien sexuality in a way that challenged the social norms of the time.
Gene Roddenberry later admitted that his attitude toward homosexuality was still evolving. Right before his death, he spoke candidly to The Humanist magazine about his change in perspective. “I came to the conclusion that I was wrong,” Roddenberry admitted, “I would, sometimes, say something anti-homosexual off the top of my head because it was thought, in those days, to be funny. I never really deeply believed those comments, but I gave the impression of being thoughtless in these areas. I have, over many years, changed my attitude about gay men and women.”
Roddenberry had promised to start including LGBTQ crew members on Star Trek: The Next Generation but died before he could do so. Ronald D. Moore, who helped take the reigns of Star Trek after Roddenberry’s death, argued that no matter how many fans wanted there to be a gay character on the show, those at the top wouldn’t let it happen.
“Tell me why there are no gay characters in Star Trek. This is one of those uncomfortable questions I hated getting when I was working on the show, because there is no good answer for it,” Moore said in a 2000 Fandom interview, “There is no answer for it other than people in charge don’t want gay characters in Star Trek, period.” After leaving the Star Trek franchise, Moore would later depict an openly gay character on Battlestar Galactica.
Back Home on Earth
Back on Earth in 2019, reality collides with fiction. The mainstream media, once opposed to these kinds of stories, are now helping to stir curiosity themselves. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post published serious stories last year about the Department of Defense’s engagement with UFO phenomenon and startling video evidence that certainly raises some eyebrows.
The person responsible for that research? Former Blink-182 member Tom Delonge, who founded an organization to investigate UFO-extraterrestrial connections. It might sound crazy, but this organization listed prominent members from the defense and intelligence sector as their advisors.
One of those members, Christopher Mellon, was deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence for both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee. He now works for Delonge’s To The Stars Academy.
In The Washington Post, Mellon argues that the U.S military continues to encounter UFOs but has failed to properly investigate. His case included a third-declassified video that clearly shows an object maneuvering with capabilities not seen before in avionics — sharp and immediate right turns. It raises the question of whether we are in fact being visited by an advanced civilization.
The pentagon outsourced much of this UFO research to hotel chain magnate Robert Bigelow, a vocal believer in the existence of aliens and their presence here on Earth. The billionaire also happens to be the only private citizen with a permanent habitation module attached to the International Space Station.
Bigelow was reportedly given $22 million to investigate UFOs or what the Pentagon referred to as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, all while still continuing to own and operate Budget Suites of America. Bigelow’s fascination with the existence of aliens, which he openly claims are already here on Earth, stems from an intimate childhood memory passed to him by his grandparents.
The story is familiar and one told in many science fiction stories both in literature and on the screen. During a 60 Minutes interview, Bigelow explained that his grandparents had what they described as a close encounter with a UFO near Las Vegas. “It really sped up and came right into their face and filled up the entire windshield of the car,” he said, “And it took off at a right angle and shot off into the distance.”
In the past, our aliens were metaphors for Cold War paranoia or morality plays about racism. Modern alien stories reflect our culture the same way. But now they involve celebrities — and billionaires.
Scared of Our Own Reflection
The world of 2019 is chaotic. An international consensus warns that our planet is succumbing to climate change. War and environmental catastrophe have caused the largest mass migration since World War II, and nationalism, along with its more darker symptoms of xenophobia and intolerance, is prevalent again.
The late Stephen Hawking, who himself appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, had frequently warned during his long and celebrated career that if an alien species were to reach Earth, we’d be done for.
“Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach,” Hawking said, “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.”
Much of contemporary science fiction reflects these fears. The alien societies in blockbuster comic book films are often conquering hordes, killing and enslaving with no regard for a less technologically advanced civilization. It feels familiar, like a way to understand the worst of what we’re capable of. We seem to still be working out those nightmares from our own past.
For now, we’ll process these demons through superhero movies.