The Star-Trek Dilemma- In Search of Unfamiliar Aliens

The interior of the landing craft shook violently as the retrorockets flared, slowing the descent of the ship from that of a hurtling meteor to more of a controlled fall, a gliding sensation that Markus was intimately familiar with. How many times was this now, 23? 24? The red-orange fire of reentry snapped away from the windows lining the sides of the craft, and the strange green algae colored sky grew into view and stretched beyond the horizon. The techs said it was going to be green, but Markus figured it would have matched something from a coloring box, something a kid would scribble with on a wall, like Jungle Green or Shamrock, but whatever this was, it was alive. Like Electric Lime, he decided.

A low hum grew to match the roar of the rockets as the landing gear extended. They were close to landfall now. As the ship swooped in lower, Markus could see forms taking shape, spiraling things towering miles into the sky, with little branch like protrusions that fanned from it in all directions. It reminded him of a picture he once saw of the interior of a lung. They were even similar colors, he noted. The ship banked heavily to the right to dodge one as it swelled, nearly tripling in size,the blood red of the vessels expanding and contracting, as if breathing.

“What do you think those are for?” Tearson, the ship’s heavy, said in his deep, rolling voice. He pushed his face closer to the window. To say he was a big man would be like saying Godzilla was a moderately large lizard. Markus had always considered himself a tall guy, with more of a stretched quality like Gumby, but Tearson, he was huge, like some hero out of mythology who gained a foot or two with each retelling of his story.  Slabs of muscle stretched his sanitized-white atmospheric suit to its limits, and in places patches had been attached to keep it from bursting apart. A tumble of sun-bleached dreads poured from the port on the back of his atmospheric helm. Tearson made a point of exposing his hair to every atmosphere they encountered, that way, he had said, a little bit of the galaxy would travel with him wherever he went.

“I don’t know,” Markus replied. “Maybe natural filters for the atmosphere or something. I wonder why the techies didn’t mention them.”

“I think they wanted us to have at least a few surprises on this meeting, in the event that, well, you know, that the locals aren’t anything new,” Tearson said as he turned towards Markus.

“I swear, if I see another human looking thing with stripes on its face, or an overly large forehead…just shoot me now.” Markus shook his head. “I just want to see something that actually looks like an alien, you know?” Tearson nodded as Markus continued. “Tentacles, or eye stalks, or a floating blob. I thought the galaxy would look a little more different than it does.” Markus joined Tearson at the windows, the two looking out over the alien landscape below. The landing site was covered in what looked like waves of tumbleweeds that moved in counter clockwise patterns. As they watched, the tumbleweeds would spiral into a tight circle and then explode outwards, only to repeat the pattern again. “Well, at least the planet is different.”

The retrorockets gave off a last burst of fire and then the shuttle settled onto the ground, sinking several feet into the soft earth. Yellow warning lights winked on and off throughout the bay, signaling that the bay door would soon open. Markus and Tearson checked each others gear. As they prepared, a warning voice from one of the techies told them that the ships scanners were picking up bio signatures advancing on the shuttle, and that they should be in sight soon. “Remember, Tearson,” Markus said as he grabbed his particle rifle stowed in the side compartment. “If we don’t see any eye stalks, or tentacles, shoot me. Right here.” Markus pointed at his face. Tearson chuckled, then grabbed his rifle. Both of them activated their personal shields. Slight, human sized eggs of blue briefly covered the two before the energy settled and became transparent. A bright red sign in the shape of an old Earth shuttle flared above the door. Planet Seekers, the insignia of their Order.

“Are you ready?” Markus asked as he stood before the door. Tearson nodded, and then Markus slapped the insignia and the bay door began to open. An electronic hum permeated through the shuttle as the door detached from the overhead lock and descended. The green aura from outside flooded into the bay covering the two explorers.

As the door lowered, the explorers could see shapes moving through the tumbleweeds, which now that they were planet side, the two could see that the tumbleweeds were house sized. I wonder how much one of those weighs… “Moment of truth!” Tearson shouted. He sounded optimistic. Markus didn’t want to get too excited, he’d been disappointed 23 times in a row, or was it 24? He wasn’t sure.

Twelve, he counted. Twelve forms slipped from the cover of the tumbleweeds and came into the clearing that surrounded the shuttle. The forms were hard to discern, as they were the same color and texture of the tumbleweeds. Must be using some sort of camouflage. Markus switched the visor on his helmet through different spectrums of light until the forms became clear. Humanoid. They were humanoid. Thousands of solar systems, millions of planets, endless possibilities for diversity of life, and they were humanoid. Two arms, Two legs, a head, and a face that he swore if it had a stripe on it he was going to shoot himself. The humanoids came closer, and he switched back to the normal spectrum of light to get a better look.

Each had one big purple stripe that went right down the center of their familiar human faces. “Figures.”

Tearson formed his hand into a gun, put it against Markus’s head, and pulled the trigger. “Boom.”

Markus shook his head and raised his hand near the Planet Seekers insignia. “You ready to go?”

“Yup.” Markus slapped the insignia and the door began to rise.

The humanoids came closer to the shuttle, one, the possible leader because its face had other stripes and markings, and it was holding a spear, raised a hand as if questioning why they were leaving. The bay door closed before it got an answer.

“Olympus, this is Hopper-One, come in. Over.”

“Hopper-One, this is Olympus.  We read you. Over.”

“Olympus, Planet Green is a no-go for unfamiliar aliens. Over”

“We read you, Hopper-One. Sure is a shame. Shuttle is ready when you are. See you back at the ship. Over.”

“Over and out, Olympus.”

“How much do you think one of those tumbleweeds weighs?” Tearson said with a chuckle as the lift rockets began to fire. Markus laughed.


Unfamiliar Aliens have become a serious problem for the Sci-Fi genre. You would think with the boundless limits of the universe that something other than a humanoid would appear as the alien in a movie or other piece of visual media, but unfortunately, you would most often be wrong. Studios, both movie oriented and gaming oriented often set a humanoid type creature as the alien, which given the diversity of life on earth, and the mountains of originality that are available through literature and other visual media to develop completely unique and unfamiliar aliens, can only come across as lazy. Incredibly, disappointingly, horrendously lazy.

I’m going to coin this issue as the Star-Trek Dilemma”, because Star-Trek is the worst offender, by far. The Star-Trek Dilemma is when movie studios, game studios, and other visual media studios create creatures that are clearly humanoid, and only have small cosmetic differences, but yet still try to label the creatures as “alien”. Just about every alien race in the Star-Trek Universe is just a rehashed human with slightly strange facial features and a different color palate. Here are three examples,

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A Romulan

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A Cardassian

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Cosplay of Worf, a Klingon

These are three different aliens within the Star-Trek Universe, and except for the facial features, they are nearly anatomically the same. Two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth. All three of these faces could reliably be said to be human, familiar even, albeit with some slightly changed features. But Star-Trek isn’t the only universe to fall to originality.

A recent, massive, AAA game, Mass Effect Andromeda, from the studio Bioware, also fails the unfamiliar alien dilemma. The short on the plot is a group of races from the Milky Way Galaxy take a 600 year trip to Andromeda to develop a new home for the Milky Way races. And when they get there, do they find unique, intelligent aliens that are foreign and unexplainable in their anatomy? Nope, more humanoid familiar aliens.

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Kett

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Angara

Now granted, the Kett are getting there when it comes to being original and alien esque, but the Angara and Kett suffer from the same dilemma as the races from Star-Trek. Humanoid, two arms, two legs, similar facial features, and similar human movement. Familiar, hardly original, and very disappointing given the studios astronomical success with its previous Mass Effect Trilogy.

Star-Trek and Mass Effect aren’t the only offenders when it comes to unoriginal and familiar aliens, but they are at the top of the list.

So now that we know what not to do when it comes to aliens, lets look at some examples that have absolutely blown away the competition.

Reapers! City sized robotic aliens with only one purpose, to purge the galaxy of all intelligent organic life.

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Reaper

In the Reapers, Bioware created one of the most original and terrifying aliens that have ever graced the visual scene. Imagine if the Terminators had advanced to the level where they could leave Earth and conquer the galaxy, and then had a couple million years to improve their organic destroying technology, and you would have the Reapers. No likeness to humans, no culture similar to humans, completely and utterly alien, both in design and intentions. A perfect example, which makes Mass Effect Andromeda even more frustrating given just how awesome the Reapers are.

The next example is a staple in the industry for how aliens should look because it was one of the first and because of the nightmares they have induced since their introduction decades ago. Xenomorphs.

14102287852_379e59a1f9_bXenomorph9649858731_c57575dd9b_bConcept art of Xenomorph

Introduced in 1979, Alien became a blockbuster hit that has spawned a franchise that has defined what an alien can look like. Created by H.R Giger, Aliens have a unique, almost mechanical/industrialized look that is at once both beautiful, and terrible. Their blood is acid, they have no eyes, they can move on any surface whether it is vertical or horizontal, and are only beholden to their queen. While they may have a similar anatomy to humans, (two legs, two arms, etc) they have this anatomy because somewhere in the past a creature they impregnated had a similar anatomy, possibly the Engineers from the recent Prometheus movie. This means that these creatures are constantly changing, constantly evolving, and can adapt to possibly any form. H.R Giger’s Aliens are the epitome of the unfamiliar. We don’t know where they came from, their motives, what they eat or how they live. All we know is that they collect humans and other creatures for the sake of reproduction, and that they come from some dark, distant place in the vast reaches of outer space.

The final alien example is from a recent move. The Heptapods form Arrival.

arrival-pictogramsHeptapods and their writing style

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An attempt at physical contact between the translator and Heptapod

If you haven’t seen Arrival yet, go see it now. It is everything an alien movie ever should be. We cant understand their writing, their speech, their body language, or why they are here. They have something important they want to tell us, our best translators know that much, but they are alien in every sense that an alien cane be. Our anatomies couldn’t be further apart, they stand on a series of 7 legs which also act as their arms, and possibly even their mouths. We have little idea of what the rest of their form looks like, but from what the heavy fog surrounding them would reveal, they seem similar in structure to the octopi of our oceans. They also experience time differently. While we experience time in a linear, forward fashion, Heptapods navigate time as if it were a road to freely travel upon in any direction, and use this distinction to influence the events of the story in Arrival. 

With these three excellent examples of how to create imaginative and enthralling aliens, its a wonder why movie studios and other creative studios still fall into the Star-Trek Dilemma. Creating original aliens can be hard. Given that a lot of creatures on Earth fall into the two arms, two legs pattern, its easy to see why most aliens in visual works never ascend to a truly unfamiliar form because a great deal of the diversity of life on Earth falls into a similar, familiar anatomical pattern. But that doesn’t mean we should settle for the familiar when we are searching for the strange and bizarre. When it comes to Sci-Fi and exploring the vastness of the universe, we shouldn’t limit our creative structures to only things we are familiar with. We should push the boundaries, we should actively search for the unfamiliar, and create things and creatures that would never be possible on Earth, never familiar.

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9 thoughts on “The Star-Trek Dilemma- In Search of Unfamiliar Aliens

  1. Loved “The Arrival”.
    I think the problem in Star Trek is budgeting. Since most actors in Hollywood are human (at least so I’ve heard), it’s cheaper to just add make-up. However, Star Trek TNG had and episode called “The Chase” (S6 Ep. 20) which sought to solve a DNA puzzle. An early race of humanoid space explorers seeded the galaxy with their DNA. Hence the reason why 99.9 percent of ST aliens are humanoid.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes we should push those boundaries! The issue, I guess, is the ‘strange but familiar’ balance that movie/tv makers must have – an alien that was TRULY alien would be so odd that audiences would walk away. Easier to do in literature (and I wrote a novella a while back exploring just that issue), but the issue still exists. I’ve often read stories where the aliens are more ‘human like’ than not – thinking here of Niven’s Puppeteers and Kzin, both of which simply reflected aspects of the human condition in their natures. All that is kind of trope-ish now, especially the Trek alien who’s really human with a lobster glued to their forehead. The answer? As you say, push those boundaries!

    Liked by 1 person

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