Alien civilizations, they ignite our imaginations and spur on our wildest fantasy’s. Yet in a great many sci-fi works, there are two portrayals of extra-terrestrials: 1) Aliens that come from a civilization that mirrors our own or 2.) Aliens who come from a civilization that will uplift humanity and save us from ourselves. Sure, from time to time we’re been graced with a depiction of an alien civilization (as opposed to an ambiguous invading force, which I would argue is different) that deviates from the norm, but as of late many the recent depictions of alien civilizations seem to fall into these two categories. To be fair, both models were at one time ground-breaking, particularly the portrayals alien civilizations which seem mirror several of humanity’s sins. Let’s not forget, it was the father of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, who made those kinds of portrayals into their own art form.
A prime example of the first model can be seen in one of Roddenberry’s landmark episodes of Star Trek named “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, during which he makes numerous cultural comparisons to the ongoing Civil Rights struggle at the time. This comparative model, has been reused in various television shows and novels. Some great examples of where this model is particularly prominent, are shows such as Stargate, Farscape, Andromeda, and Babylon 5. More recently, shows such as Defiance and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have also relied on this model, though less so than their predecessors.
The second portrayal of alien civilizations and culture, started to take off in the 1970s and was influenced by novelists such as Robert Heinleine, L. Ron Hubbard, and Frank Herbert. Many of their works portrayed humanity’s conflicts as insignificant on the cosmic scale. From Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land novels, to Herbert’s Dune, aliens and alien ways of thinking oftentimes offered up hope. Director Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi works are heavily influenced by this model, and it appears frequently in his work.
Finally, there is the flip-side to both models. It’s when alien civilizations find Earth, and are wholly uninterested in its inhabitants, seeing them as little more than pests to be exterminated or ignored. With shows like Falling Skies and films like Independence Day, this model has started to become commonplace as well. Fortunately, shows like Syfy’s Helix and the BBC’s Doctor Who are taking alternative concepts of alien life further than they have been taken in the past. Let’s applaud those new writers who dare to upset the apple cart and transcend our understanding of existence in the cosmos. It’s time to once again take storytelling to places where no one has gone before.