Aliens are all over science fiction, and many of them I adore. Characters such as Spock and Kira from Star Trek, Neytiri from Avatar, and most of the Mass Effect crew are some of my favorite characters from any fiction in any genre, ever. But all of these characters I’ve just mentioned are distinctly humanoid, and I wonder if that’s a problem. After all, even though the foreignness of aliens in sci-fi piques my curiosity, it’s the personalities and backgrounds that make me light up and really like them. I appreciate being able to relate to similarities — and even the physical similarities make these aliens appear easier to get to know.
Stereotypical aliens have plagued science fiction since the genre’s inception (with many notable exceptions, of course). The cause of their overrepresentation in science fiction TV and film isn’t hard to deduce: they’re the most feasible types of aliens for actors to portray, usually when covered in prosthetic makeup.
But that doesn’t explain why these familiar-looking bipedals crop up so much in video games, which don’t require human actors. A better explanation may be that we relate to the humanoid Turians, Quarians, and Asari of Mass Effect with greater empathy than we do the Elcor or the jellyfish-like Hanar, who only appear a few times for short conversations or fetch quests in the series.
I’m totally into out-there ideas for alien races, such as the changelings in Star Trek and Solaris’s sentient ocean. After all, those ideas aren’t based on anything we have here on Earth, and that makes them quite possibly more realistic than humanoid aliens. Yet when I think of those alien races, the characters I most love are the ones who still have human characteristics. Odo is a prime example: he’s a shapeshifter in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but on screen he primarily takes the shape of a human — and certainly whenever he’s interacting with others. In fact, he takes human form largely to thrive in a society made up of humanoid aliens. So is that way I relate to him? Is that why I like him as a character in the first place?
When it comes to well-developed aliens, Star Trek is my favorite sci-fi series. Sure, the early days saw some silly-looking creatures, but the alien cultures have such depth that I want to believe they really exist. With a few intriguing exceptions, most of Star Trek’s aliens are humanoid, but the show attempts to give an explanation for that — and an alternative theory offers another suggestion, for those who don’t buy it.
1. Seeding Theory — In The Next Generation episode “The Chase,” it appears that many of the races in the galaxy come from the seed of an ancient alien race. The elder race scattered its seed across the empty galaxy to populate it and allow evolution to take its course. Different planetary environments created slight physical differences — such as scales or different skin coloring — in the humanoid species. (Apparently this theory is in a lot of other sci-fi, too, and there’s always the possibility that aliens descended from humans but grew up in a foreign environment, or vice versa.) This theory is beautiful, but all you have to do is look at all of the non-humanoid animals on Earth to start poking holes in it. After all, as humans we share nearly 60 percent of our DNA with fruit flies and even more with dogs.
2. Convergent Evolution — For those who don’t buy the seeding theory, an alternative theory suggests that humanoids evolved in similar environments, and those similar environments shaped their appearances. This explanation makes the most sense to me. I can imagine a galaxy with many types of planets, and those with a similar makeup to Earth have the ingredients for life that’s much like ours. And unlike the seeding theory, it’s not the ingredients that are key, it’s the environment that forces life to adapt into bipedal creatures with two eyes, for instance. Of course, all you have to do is look at all the non-humanoid animals on Earth to start poking… wait, I think we have the same problem.
Both of these theories are elegant in their simplicity, but they have so many exceptions-to-the-rule on Earth alone that it’s difficult to buy either of them. This makes me think that humanoid aliens are sadly not realistic, but I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d also love to see alien species painted with more creativity, especially as CGI busts open the possibilities for alien portrayals in films and TV.
But after all this, the biggest question I have is why science fiction is so fond of featuring blue-skinned aliens…