A Rant About Alien Planets in Film and Television

It should come as no great surprise that as well as being a lover of science fiction I’m a geek for the real thing. From my youth I was fascinated with technology and the natural world, and the innovations and discoveries of history’s greatest minds. I loved boring my parents with the trivia and factoids I read in books and learned from documentaries (truth be told I’m still boring them with my enthusiasm).

Like so many other kids I was most obsessed with space. I learned about the American and Russian’s race to launch the first man into orbit. I learned about the Apollo missions and the NASA space shuttle. I marveled seeing the images of the cosmos captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Now grown up my love for space hasn’t diminished at all. The discoveries being made today are coming thick and fast, and for the astrophysicist and layperson alike they still have the power to inspire and capture the imagination.

In the last 20 years the discovery, cataloguing, and hunting of exoplanets has become one of the most exciting new fields in astronomy. In the last decade the CoRoT and Kepler missions to detect alien planets and solar systems around other stars have produced unexpected and unexplained results: planets orbiting rapidly spinning pulsars, hot Jupiters whose outer layers of atmosphere are being vaporized by their proximity to their parent stars, super Earths and smaller rocky planets found in the habitable zones where liquid water may exist.

Strange new worlds in the vastness of space have been explored by authors of science fiction, old and new. They’ve created weird and wondrous planets that were once thought only to be flights of imagination, but now — looking at what planet hunters have proven exists within our galaxy — many of them don’t seem so farfetched. One particular subset of the genre, known as hard science fiction, is interested in conceiving stories and worlds that are plausible and correspond with the laws of physics. They also coincide with the most recent findings in scientific papers and studies. Hard science fiction values realism in its depictions of the future and of alien planets.

So it’s a shame that film and television is so far behind in this respect.

For all of the variety found in nature and in literature the planets on display in science fiction filmmaking and television are distinctly lackluster. The vast majority of them suffer an absence of creativity or originality in what their fictional worlds look like and how they function. While there are fair reasons as to why older science fiction films and TV shows didn’t invent and visualize true extraterrestrial worlds modern productions don’t have the luxury of resting on their laurels. Science fiction on the large and small screen needs to change; it needs to present us with the diversity of planets literary science fiction and astronomy have shown us exist across the universe.

The biggest grievance I and many other science fiction fans have with film and television’s alien worlds is that they’re not alien enough; in actuality they’re too familiar to the place we call home. Extraterrestrial planets on screen are too often simply analogs of Earth — they have a tendency to have the same surface gravity; a breathable, non-toxic atmosphere; an equivalent climate with identical weather; a sun-like star; and a surface topography remarkably similar to what is found on Terra. Think of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, where both Arachnid planets visited by the Mobile Infantry — Klendathu and Planet P — seemingly have identical gravity, blue skies, oxygen-rich atmospheres, and deserts resembling those found in the western United States. Or how whenever a spaceship crash lands on an alien planet in a film or TV show there’s a better than even chance it will have many, if not all, of the properties found on Earth.

I understand why filmmakers and showrunners are prone to making extraterrestrial planets into Earth-like duplicates: given the cost and complexity needed to realize locations that are completely alien it’s cheaper and easier not to. It’s simpler to excuse or ignore the convenience that planet X or planet Y is a lot like planet Earth. The trend has become so commonplace in film and television that a casual viewer will just accept it, and not question the logic of the preponderance of Earth doubles. But if films and TV shows can go to the trouble of faking zero gee with special effects rigs, isn’t it possible they can realize worlds with higher and lower surface gravity? Why is it they can add fake moons using CG, but they can’t have a red sun burning in the sky? Is it that inconvenient for a character to be wearing a spacesuit?

Another convention of space operas and pulp science fiction on screen is themed, single biome planets. Desert planets, ice planets, forest and jungle planets, volcanic planets, ocean planets, and so on. In contrast to the vast variety of terrains and conditions found on Earth writers on films and TV series conceive worlds that are limited to a single feature. The Star Wars franchise is especially guilty of reducing entire worlds to having one property: Tatooine, Geonosis, and Jakku are all deserts; Dagobah is a swamp planet; Hoth and Starkiller Base are ice worlds; Endor and Kashyyyk are forest worlds; Yavin 4 is a jungle moon; Mustafar is a volcanic moon. And all of them can comfortably accommodate humans.

Such locales are emblematic of laziness and a disinterest in creating complex and diverse planets. Rather than building a universe filled with well thought-out and imagined bodies we’re served generic samples, once again, of what we find on Earth.

The situation in film and television isn’t a complete loss; there are a handful of titles that have taken the time and effort to envision worlds that are not mere Earth analogs or single biomes. The moon LV426 from the first Alien film is an inhospitable hellscape, which a character describes as primordial. The atmosphere is poisonous and violent, the gravity is weak, and the sun is a faint disc on the horizon. The body is nightmarish, and the crew of the Nostromo can’t wait to leave, but not before they take on a new passenger.

Although I dislike the storytelling and characterization in James Cameron’s Avatar the world of Pandora — a moon orbiting an alien gas giant — is shown to have varying geography (jungles, grasslands, mountain ranges, oceans) and a wide assortment of flora and fauna that loans the movie a greater sense of authenticity. It feels like a living, breathing planet not designed for humans; it is a truly alien world. (The unobtainium, however, remains a nonsensical plot device.)

Syfy Channel’s series The Expanse, an adaptation of a series of novels by James S. A. Corey (a pseudonym of their two authors, Danial Abraham and Ty Franck), does not take place in an extrasolar system but does detail and explore the effects of living beyond the confines of Earth. It shows how microgravity environments alter the development and physiology of the humans who inhabit the asteroid belt, Mars, the moons of the gas giants, and aboard space stations — many men and women are shown to be taller, thinner and brittle. In the first episode of the series Earth’s gravity is used as a method of torture against a suspected spy, born and raised off-world. When a Martian delegation lands on Earth in the second season they are overwhelmed by the brightness of the sun in relation to its intensity on the red planet.

The Expanse’s adherence to physics, understanding of biology, and depicting the challenges life would face on other worlds makes the series unique in genre television. If screenwriters and filmmakers could follow the example The Expanse has set, and transpose its ideas to depictions of extrasolar worlds in other science fiction stories, I’m confident that viewers would take notice; that they would appreciate the attentions to detail that have long been neglected and brushed aside.

The opening monologues from the original series of Star Trek and The Next Generation say their mission is to seek out new life and new civilizations, but also to explore strange new worlds — to boldly go where no one has gone before. The promise of strange new worlds in film and television has long fallen short. The extraterrestrial planets found on our screens have a lot of room for improvement.

From the exoplanets detected by telescopes to the science fictional worlds of literature we are shown what can and could exist in the farthest reaches of space. When films and TV shows overwhelmingly present us with worlds that look and behave just like home we’re seeing a narrow picture. What we’re seeing — over and over again — is more of the same, when screenwriters, concept designers, and modern special and visual effects artists are capable of accomplishing so much more. The conventions have to be overturned — the tropes need to be averted.

I want something fresh and inspired. I want the unfamiliar. I want the alien.

Coming soon: Who Said “San Junipero” Has a Happy Ending?

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Will Oremus
Feb 25 · 22 min read

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