Most superheroes at some point deal with aliens. Heck, many of them are aliens. I’m looking at you, Superman. The same holds true for science fiction that goes into space in any way, shape, or form. In fact, space-based sci-fi that completely omits aliens might be more noteworthy than the ones that include them. Aliens have a tendency to be silly at times when they aren’t handled right, and it is way too easy to not handle them right. Glue a forehead ridge on an actor, give him a couple of odd quirks, and then call it a day.
Aliens in fiction offer too much of an opportunity to really stretch a creator’s creativity. It is easy to see why so many would look down on aliens, so let’s consider some of the more successful attempts to create otherworldly races and cultures.
To start, let us consider what I am talking about when I speak of alien cultures. By this, I mean a fictional scenario where a race of beings from somewhere other than the Earth exist and the audience gets a good understanding of that race’s culture. Biological differences can be considered, but need not be the only factor. In fact, killjoys known as scientists are often quick to point out that many famous aliens couldn’t possibly exist. E.T. has a neck and arms that would work for a creature that evolved on a low gravity planet, but the feet and lower body suggest the exact opposite. Meanwhile, the xenomorphs in the Aliens movies would probably collapse under their own body weight, since creatures with exoskeletons, like real world insects and spiders, can only get so large before they can no longer support their own body weight. These same jerks would probably also tell you King Kong couldn’t support his own body weight, but Kong was a native to this planet so he doesn’t count.
My statements above are fairly on the money when it comes to the fictional portrayal of alien races. Star Trek is rather notorious for simply smacking a forehead and some quirks on a character and sending them out. I do want to be fair here, though. Limits in special effects and budgetary concerns are going to mean you can only do so much with an alien. It would be almost required to be at least human-shaped since a human actor would be required the play the character in some way. Technically, there’s no reason for any creature from somewhere other than here to be the dominant species on his or her planet and still possess two arms, two legs, and a head while walking upright and having thumbs. Even today with CGI, aliens do tend to look basically human. Adding an extra limb doesn’t really count, either.
Aliens can be an excuse for laziness, too. Many alien races in fiction seem to be ruled either by a council of scientists or a monarch of some kind. It usually depends on where the race falls on the “enlightened vs warrior society” scale. Heck, Edgar Rice Burroughs used both on his fictional version of Mars with the civilized Red Martians and the “noble savage” Green Martians in the John Carter books. Arguably that could describe Star Trek‘s Vulcans on one end and the Klingons on the other. Such laziness can also be outright silliness when done wrong. That would be a reason why some science fiction just outright ignores the possibility. Edward James Olmos supposedly said he would quit the show if any aliens were brought into the newer Battlestar Galactica. The original briefly mentioned that the Cylons were the product of since-extinct race of lizard people. Nothing like that on the revamp.
Alien life, if it isn’t an outright threat, can often represent hope, the hope that we are not alone in the universe. There are other people out there, people we can meet and…well, do whatever with. Fight. Befriend. Both. There may be some minor differences, but these can be overcome at least for the sake of communication.
But the biggest thing to remember is aliens must, above all, be alien. This is something many works of fiction forget. Differences would need to be more than biological. In my opinion, the best examples of aliens came from the TV shows Babylon 5 and Farscape, and the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Babylon 5 was set on a space station that acted as an intergalactic United Nations. Ambassadors from different civilizations came and went, and some of them had customs that were outright baffling, not only to the humans onboard, but sometimes to other races as well. One minor race, the Drazi, had periodic conflicts to determine leadership for their people. Factions were chosen by the random distribution of different color sashes. The Minbari based everything they had on spiritual fulfillment and trinities. And then elder races like the Vorlons could barely communicate with the others due to their level of advancement. I always gave B5 a bit more credit in other areas as well. Humans were not the top of the food chain. In fact, they were somewhere in the middle. Too many works of fiction often go the “humans are special” route.
Another show where humans weren’t that special was the Henson Co. co-production with Australian television, Farscape. In fact, one episode allowed the ship’s token Earthman to save the day because he was less evolved than all the others. Farscape‘s creators went for all-out weird with other races, and having the Henson Creature Shop on their side in creating their aliens certainly helped. Diminutive Hynerians could fart helium when nervous. Living ships acted as transportation with large, mutli-limbed other aliens grafted directly to the control center to act as Pilots. Two races at war were opposites, with the mostly-human-looking Sebacians being incapable of tolerating high temperatures, while the horse-faced Scarens gave off deadly blasts of heat. The series’ big bad was a hybrid of those two races. There were fire-burping frog men, acid-vomiting bird men, and a plant-based race that got high off certain types of sunlight. These may not have all made much sense in real science, but they sure made for some weird and fun times. These aliens were truly alien.
Finally, there was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The movie actually plays the central concept rather straightforwardly. Friendly aliens come to Earth from an advanced civilization. They don’t know our languages, but math is universal and the only way to communicate is with musical tones. Much of what follows is the awe and mystery of alien life appearing on Earth. Most of the hostility comes from the government trying to control what happens. The aliens themselves stay largely hidden until the end, but the purpose of the movie may have been more to see how humanity would react to such an event and no so much what they were like.
Aliens in science fiction are a popular trope that isn’t going anywhere. The way in which the concept is taken would only be limited by the imagination of the very human creators coming up with them for the entertainment of geeks everywhere.