Aliens… And Why Every Science Fiction Series Should Have ’em…
“My problem with most aliens is that they just aren’t alien enough, biologically, culturally, or psychologically. Especially psychologically… Most of the SF writers who take their alien-building projects seriously think like evolutionary psychologists… The biology of the species and the evolutionary environment in which it developed inform what a typical individual’s needs and desires might be and how it perceives the world.”
Personally I think that is a fair point. If you’re going to write about aliens, wouldn’t it be nice to write about something truly alien? The problem for me is that a lot of today’s science fiction doesn’t rest in the traditional form of a novel. There’s television and feature films as well as other media to consider where alien interaction usually means… wait for it… dialogue.
Surprisingly, SF in the visual medium has swung back and forth so much in its depiction and usage of alien characters, that it is sometimes difficult to remember what phase we’re in. In the 1930s and 40s aliens were essentially humans dressed up in outlandishly theatrical costumes – think of Ming the Merciless from the planet Mongo. And although SF novels were still being published and exploring all manner of concepts, the films and emerging television of the period during the second world war and its aftermath focused very much on human conflicts that mirrored the turmoil and political struggles of the war. Of course those interpretations make perfect sense. Art reflects life, and while books of a certain genre might seem to appeal to a niche market, films are considered populist and have to appeal to a larger audience.
Typical films of the period put forth the agenda of the day’s politics and the stories often reflected that, such as in the plot of The Purple Monster Strikes. In the story, astronomer Dr Cyrus Layton works on plans for a spaceship in his observatory… (talk about multitasking)… Upon seeing a meteor fall to Earth, he goes off to investigate and meets the pilot of a space ship – a distinctly human-looking being purporting to be from Mars. Mistakenly thinking the alien to be friendly, Layton takes him back to the observatory. But once there the alien only wishes to see the designs for Layton’s spaceship, and in fact tells Layton that his mission is to steal the designs, fly back to Mars, and have his people build a fleet of Layton’s spaceships in order to invade the Earth. When Layton objects to this plan, the alien kills him with a “Martian” weapon that emits a “carbo-oxide” gas. The alien then transforms into a ghost and takes over Layton’s body. Of course the plot goes on, but what is essentially being told here is a story typical of the period and of the emerging cold war. To me, The Purple Monster is akin to a Nazi spy, there to steal Allied technology in order to turn it against us. Who else but a horrible Nazi would use gas to kill people? And the taking over Layton’s body seems very much a metaphor for infiltrating the society itself, of becoming an informant or a spy for the enemy, living amongst us.
The 1950s and 60s weren’t any better at disguising this political agenda in popular culture. Much of the politics of the cold war I learnt from television shows that seemingly had nothing to do with actual events. The stable of television series from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson could have easily depicted the Russians as the baddies and not alien beings. Aliens in shows like UFO were almost on a par with us technologically speaking and no matter what was thrown at our heroes, they would manage to thwart the alien efforts to convert or subvert us. What made the drama work for me was that the aliens in UFO were almost like us as well, physically speaking and if it wasn’t for the fact that their faces were stained by the hue of a green oxygenated liquid, they might in fact almost pass for us. To my young mind seeing repeats of the show, that was more frightening than the amorphous eye that terrorized a Swiss village in the Trollenberg Terror or giant spiders roaming the Californian desert in Tarantula. These aliens were so alien that they could be your next door neighbour. That is probably why the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers scared the crap out of me and why the ten-year old me absolutely refused to watch the 1978 version with Leonard Nimoy because I knew it would be even more terrifying because it was in colour.
The 1970s and early 80s was my golden period for cinema going and I saw so much science fiction and fantasy that all other drama could have disappeared off the map and I wouldn’t have noticed it. My father was the manager of several cinemas when I was younger and I was able to get backstage passes to the projection booths as well as the popcorn machine. I learnt a lot about films and the process of getting them up on that silver screen, but I also got to watch movies over and over again, sometimes on my own in middle of a matinee that was attended by a mere handful of patrons. I have wonderful memories about those days and even today the smell of cinema popcorn brings back almost intangible impressions of my youth. I remember seeing Rollerball, a film that my mother absolutely forbid me to watch but my father allowed me to catch more than a few glimpses of during its two week run. That’s how I built up seeing the whole thing – in chunks when ever my mother wasn’t around to drag me out of the theatre. Naturally I didn’t know it at the time but Rollerball was directed by the great Canadian director Norman Jewison, a man I would later get to meet and tell that story to at one of his garden parties. But I digress…
Aliens… yep, we’re back on that topic and of course the late 70s also saw a series of films sharing variations on that name. If anything, the aliens in Alien were so alien that they were in fact monsters, not aliens. I suppose that was the basic difference to me when I was growing up. Was the baddie an alien or a monster? Was it a Science Fiction film or a Monster movie? Was there a difference really? I suppose as the 80s turned into the 90s and aliens were popping up in all sorts of places, from V to Battlestar Galactica to Star Trek: The Next Generation to my favourite, Doctor Who, I was aware that most of these aliens weren’t anything like monsters at all. Aliens had their own politics and their own agendas, which obviously had to conflict with those of our heroes. And yet, stories started emerging, like mini-plot lines, of the aliens themselves having adventures. It was no longer just our Earth heroes encountering those races, but those races encountering us. I suppose that is why I became a follower of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I liked the idea that our heroes were in fact aliens themselves, even though it was obvious that they were humans wearing prosthetics. It didn’t matter that much to me. They had great adventures, told good tales, suffered and loved, experienced loss and wondered at the universe itself. There was something interesting there, but the genre had changed so much from its earlier roots because aliens had to interact and talk and share stories rather than simply offer idle threats.
So how does this tie in with Flashback I hear you ask? Yes, thanks for the little essay on the history of Science Fiction, (as abridged as it was), but how does any of this relate to this new audio series? Well actually, it does build upon everything you’ve just read and it relates back to the opening quote from Daryl Gregory.
When I came to envision the two aliens that form the backbone of the Flashback, I wanted to make them as human as possible so that the audience would relate to them, but also as alien as possible so that their actions wouldn’t be so predictable. Being an audio series, it wouldn’t do to have my aliens squidging about beeping and growling their dialogue. It might convey a sense of atmosphere but it certainly wouldn’t advance the plot much for me. I prefer to leave squidging aliens to the realm of visual media, whether that be film, television or video games. However my aliens, (and let’s not forget Michael’s creations too), had personalities that needed exploring. Michael had given them names… humorous names… Bev and Beverly to be exact, and he had mixed up their sex so that Beverly was the man, or at least… the perceived man of the pair. Michael was like that though. Always finding a place to bring sexual politics and gender issues into his work. In the video version of Flashback, our aliens were very human looking with a penchant for wearing identical grey hoodies and baseball caps. They spoke in flowery language and their jobs were as the narrators of the show, posing as they did as historians come to not only interfere with the course of humanity but also to document the tale as it unfolded. There’s a scene that was written but never made it into the video of Bev and Beverly playing with puppets of the aliens that menaced our heroes. The implication was that as historians, they were not only documenting facts but creating them as well. Michael was more political and socially aware than many people give him credit for.
But for the audio series, Bev and Beverly had to be re-envisioned, as much as the other characters because as brilliant as Michael was at pointing out his agenda, that obsession with pointing it out never stopped and certainly was never subtle. In many ways his characters had become stereotypes by standing so long on their soapboxes and spouting “important” points of dialogue. I didn’t want to lose listeners by hitting them over the head with some decade-old agenda that, although it still makes sense today, is a wee bit cynical in nature. I wanted the new series to be funny and fresh and a bit lighter than the one Michael and I had originally written. So I took a page out of Russell T Davies’ re-invention of Doctor Who and gave Bev a family with some very typical family issues.
I soon found that giving the aliens a sense of their own history helped strengthen their relationship to each other and helped to separate their values and needs from those of the other characters in the story while also engaging the listener. At least, I hope it will do that. The proof will be in the final product I guess and the way in which the actors convincingly convey those lines I’ve written. But just because it is essentially a comedy series, don’t expect my aliens to sit around bitching about how overweight their sister-in-law is or telling tasteless blond jokes. The humour must come out of the situation and along with humour there should also be a balancing element of sadness. I recall watching American sitcoms of the 70s and where they really worked well was when they paired up belly-clutching laughter with progressive social commentary. We as an audience trusted the characters because they made us feel good when we laughed, so it made sense that when they discussed racial issues, hatred or child abuse, we listened because we trusted them. I want my listeners to trust my characters, to go along for the ride with them. If they can’t do that, then what’s the point in telling a story that no-one wants to hear? Besides, it is a Science Fiction series, and as everyone knows, there just has to be aliens in a Science Fiction series…