Larry Klaes loves science fiction movies. Those of you who have read his deep dives into such films as Forbidden Planet, Avatar or The Thing from Another World can understand why I think of Larry as the Robert Osborne of the SF movie (if you don’t know who Robert Osborne was, then you’re not as passionate about old movies as I am). Larry’s latest is a resource-laden look into two films of the late 1970s that illustrate our evolving ideas about potential encounters with extraterrestrials. Although we don’t get into films that often here on Centauri Dreams, I always like to keep an eye on how our culture comes to grip with new scientific ideas, and that’s a place where popular movies become prime sources. Herewith two films that help us see how the idea of contact continues to change.
by Larry Klaes
The Big Picture
The year 1979 was a dynamic one. It was the chronological end of the 1970s, essentially the “aftermath” decade of the previous one, the 1960s. Those earlier years saw multiple revolutions on multiple fronts across the globe and beyond that radically changed our society.
One of the bigger “aftermath” effects was with space, both its real and its fictional elements. In the case of reality, although the official Space Age had begun in October of 1957 with the launch into Earth orbit of the Soviet artificial satellite they called Sputnik 1, the era (also known as the Space Race) literally took off in the following decade.
The biggest space highlight of the 1960s saw human beings physically leaving our planet for the first time. Tentative steps which began in 1961 in low Earth orbits rather rapidly evolved into first circling and then landing astronauts on the Moon in 1969.
Many naturally thought – spurred on in no small part by years of announcements from America’s space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – that the Apollo missions would lead to permanently manned lunar bases. Then would follow expeditions to the Red Planet, Mars, and other worlds with human-crewed spaceships. The ultimate presumed goal was the colonizing of the whole Sol system, then moving on into the wider Milky Way galaxy in what would be known as the Final Frontier, thanks to one particular science fiction television series of the era. This was a perpetual migration which our ancestors had begun generations ago on Earth and would carry on to the farthest stars indefinitely.
However, the social and economic changes and issues of the 1960s brought about some rather crushing realities to the Space Age of the 1970s. Manned expeditions to the Moon ceased abruptly after the Apollo 17 mission in December of 1972. Crewed lunar bases and missions to Mars were largely left in the minds of the people who conceived them for decades after.
Space stations did get their start in the 1970s: The Soviet Union sent up the first ones into Earth orbit, which they named Salyut. That series of human habitats lasted until 1986, when they were replaced first by the much larger Mir station and then the current International Space Station, or ISS. These latter stations were and are in literal part continuations of the Salyut program begun in 1971.
The United States had their own parallel space station, which they called Skylab: One of the few projects based directly on Apollo technologies that made it to reality, Skylab hosted three missions of three astronauts each between 1973 and 1974, breaking previous manned space endurance records for their time.
Skylab spent the rest of that decade crewless: NASA had moved on to developing their next generation of manned space vehicles, the Space Transportation System (STS), better known as the Space Shuttle. The American space agency had hoped the Space Shuttle would begin launching in the late 1970s, where it would play a key role in establishing a permanent manned presence in near Earth space, among other tasks.
Included in the early missions for the STS program was the rescue of Skylab. However, thanks to an unexpected increase in solar activity in the latter half of the decade and the subsequent heating and therefore rising of Earth’s upper atmosphere, the thin but not unsubstantial air created a drag on the space station. As a result, Skylab began a slow but steady descent towards our planet several years sooner than first predicted.
Left unchecked, America’s first “home” in space would eventually burn up upon entering our planet’s atmosphere. Being such a large vessel, it was likely that at least some of Skylab’s bigger and more resilient parts would survive the fiery encounter and hit the ground intact, threatening a wide swath of both property and people with damage and even death.
As the station was left in both a functional and communicative state, NASA could control it, but only to a limited degree: Thus their hope and plan to send up a Space Shuttle carrying a specially-designed booster module which they would attach to Skylab. The module would push the station into a higher and safer Earth orbit. Shuttle astronauts might even enter Skylab either during that rescue mission or on later flights.
None of this came to be. The Space Shuttle program had technical issues that pushed its first test launch into 1981. Indifferent nature and physics proceeded with their own schedules and Skylab came back to Earth on July 11, 1979. The station broke apart over Western Australia, where some of its larger and more durable components did survive re-entry to the surface. The only reported Skylab debris casualty was a wandering jack rabbit.
How far the manned portion of the American space program had fallen since its peak was reflected in the cover story of TIME magazine for its July 16, 1979 edition.
On the upper half of the publication’s cover is depicted an artist’s rendition of Skylab plunging Earthward in pieces, which are glowing red as the cylindrical station is torn apart by the surrounding air. Beneath this image is a painting based on the iconic photograph of Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin standing on the surface of the Moon during the first manned lunar landing in July of 1969 (Buzz is incorrectly shown holding the United States flag that he and fellow explorer Neil Armstrong would plant at Tranquility Base, so I will consider this artistic license).
Slicing diagonally between these two images is a large yellow banner that declares “Here Comes Skylab! – Ten Years After the Moon Walk –.” The stark visual message of these two real and program-related space events just one decade apart is quite clear and symbolic of where things stood – and how many people felt – in regards to American manned space exploration at the very end of the 1970s.
Robots on the Rise
On the unmanned side of space during the 1970s, things were decidedly going far better. While the 1960s had paved the way for robotic explorers of the Sol system with the first successful missions to the Moon, Venus, and Mars, the more ambitious ventures in the 1970s truly transformed these places into real worlds for both scientists and the general public.
Although the United States had largely turned away from their lunar agenda after Apollo, the Soviet Union had taken what was left of their own abandoned manned lunar mission program and turned them into a fairly impressive robotic effort to learn more about our neighbor world.
Between 1970 and 1976, the Soviets conducted three successful missions to return samples of the lunar regolith (granted, the samples were measured in grams compared to the hundreds of pounds brought back by Apollo astronauts) and planted two automatic rovers on the Moon named Lunokhod. Humanity’s first successful extraterrestrial robot rovers spent months being remotely driven around the lunar surface, exploring the Moon far longer and farther than all of the Apollo missions combined.
The Seventies may not have possessed any serious endeavors to mount crewed expeditions to the nearer planets of the inner Sol system, but those alien worlds were anything but neglected via our machine representatives.
Thanks to some of the first deep space probe missions sent in the 1960s, scientists had discovered that Venus was neither a world covered in humid jungles crawling with strange dinosaur-like creatures, nor oceans of liquid water, oil, or seltzer as had been imagined before (and even into) the Space Age.
Instead, the entire surface of the second world from Sol was hotter than the highest temperature setting on a conventional kitchen oven. This was due to the very thick atmosphere whose layers of optically-impenetrable clouds conspired to trap solar radiation in what is called the Greenhouse Effect.
The dense atmosphere of Venus also made its surface air pressure unbearably heavy: Ninety times that of Earth’s, the equivalent to what a submarine experiences on its hull over half a mile deep in one of our planet’s oceans.
A typical terrestrial organism or insufficiently prepared artificial probe attempting to land on Venus could expect to be crushed and roasted before they even reached their destinations – which is exactly what happened with the first robot landers as their unexpected demises made their makers back on Earth learn the extent of the real nature of our nearest planetary neighbor.
Despite these environmental hostilities, which precluded any manned expeditions, let alone a permanent colony, to Venus for the foreseeable future, the two main rivals of the Space Age still pursued this fascinating if apparently biologically deadly planet with their instrumented machines throughout the 1970s and into the next two decades.
The Soviets took the lead in this area, with both the first probe to reach the surface of another planet intact, operational, and able to return scientific data (Venera 7 in 1970), and the first probes to return images from and of the surface of another planet (Venera 9 and 10 in 1975). In all, the Soviets had multiple successes at Venus through the 1980s, ranging from landers that took color images and direct surface analyses to balloons carrying instruments to study the planet’s upper atmosphere to more in-depth radar data of the Venusian surface from orbit.
In comparison, America may not have seemed quite so daring, yet they did send their own space vessel that took the first close-up images of the mysterious Venusian cloud tops in various wavelengths. This flyby by Mariner 10 in 1974 also allowed the probe to utilize the planet’s mass to perform the first gravitational slingshot to reach a second world and become the first ever mission to the innermost planet, Mercury, in the process.
Mariner 10 was followed in 1978 by the Pioneer Venus expedition, comprised of two main craft: One probe circled the planet and made the first radar maps of the Venusian surface from orbit. The other vessel dropped four smaller conical probes into the planet’s atmosphere, where they contributed yet another fact to increase that world’s hostile reputation: The air was saturated with concentrated sulfuric acid, possibly from the exultations of the many active volcanoes scientists suspected covered the surface of Venus. As a bonus, although the Pioneer Venus atmosphere probes were not designed to survive their impacts with the ground, one did just that and transmitted for 127 minutes before succumbing to the surrounding intense heat.
With Mars, the situation was reversed in the aforementioned “aftermath” decade: The United States had much better luck exploring the Red Planet than the Soviets and consequently focused more of their mechanical attention on that world. That the fourth world from Sol was far more conducive to future manned exploration and colonization than Venus was a significant factor for NASA to send robotic explorers there.
The first mission to orbit another planet was secured by Mariner 9 in late 1971, which revealed to planetary scientists that Mars was not the geologically dead and therefore dull and probably lifeless world they had been led to expect by three previous Mariner probe investigations.
Among the many findings of Mariner 9 were clusters of enormous volcanoes and a canyon far longer and deeper than anything like it on Earth, plus numerous channels that intimated liquid water once flowed across the face of Mars, perhaps whole seas of water or even oceans. The logic then followed that if the planet once had water in a liquid state, its surface must have been warmer in the past and was therefore capable of evolving and sustaining organisms.
These revelations about the fourth planet from Sol ensured the production and launch of the twin Viking probes to Mars in 1975, landing on the Red Planet thousands of miles and several months apart in the following year. The first space probe mission with the deliberate purpose of searching for extraterrestrial life, Viking was a scaled-down version of a similar robotic project named Voyager begun in the previous decade.
Scientists assumed and hoped that at least microbial life might still exist either on or just under the Martian surface, though a few held out for more complex native organisms. Viking was designed to search for both forms, with a focus on the microbial using an amazing and compact automated biology detection laboratory.
The two Viking landers were the first probes to truly explore the surface of Mars directly (the Soviet Mars 3 lander did arrive on the planet intact and functioning almost five years earlier, but stopped transmitting very shortly after landing, returning only part of an unintelligible image). The results of their biological analyses were ambiguous and sparked controversy, but in almost every other aspect the voluminous images and data from the Viking mission were on a par with the impact their predecessor, Mariner 9, had in terms of revealing the Red Planet.
Sadly, after Viking the United States would not make a successful return to Mars until over two decades later. The very mixed bag of results from the flotilla of robot orbiters and landers the Soviet Union sent to that planet in 1973 and the subsequent success of Viking kept that nation from trying to explore Mars again until the late 1980s, also with mixed results.
By Jove! And Saturn!
The 1970s also witnessed the first deep space explorations of the many worlds of the outer Sol system. In this arena, these vanguard missions were exclusively American and 1979 was a particularly fruitful year, as we shall see.
Being the closest of the gas giant worlds to Earth at a mere 400 million miles on average, Jupiter was the natural initial target for humanity’s first space mission through and beyond the Main Planetoid Belt. Pioneer 10 was launched from Earth in March of 1972, arriving in the Jupiter system in December of 1973. The space probe’s near twin, Pioneer 11, was sent aloft just over one year later, where it too successfully reached the massive planet in December of 1974.
Both robotic explorers would eventually become the first human artifacts to escape the gravitational pull of Sol and leave our Sol system, thanks to the “slingshot effect” from their flybys of Jupiter, and, in the case of Pioneer 11, the ringed planet Saturn. That probe was redirected after its Jupiter mission to become the first vessel to explore Saturn, reaching that world in late 1979. Pioneer 11 and its sister probe were the advance scouts for a more sophisticated and ambitious outer worlds mission that would soon follow in their paths and beyond named Voyager.
Rebranded members of the Mariner family of space probes, Voyager 1 and 2 were what remained of an earlier plan to explore the outer Sol system planets and their moons and rings called the Grand Tour. These nuclear-powered robots would return images and data of these alien places far surpassing the efforts of the Pioneer probes.
Image: The Voyager 1 and 2 deep space probes as they looked before departing Earth in 1977. Note the Golden Record (the cover, actually) on the main bus.
The Voyagers would also be flung out of our celestial neighborhood into the wider Milky Way galaxy. This historic fact led to their carrying “messages” bolted to their sides in the form of metal Golden Records for any future beings, alien or terrestrial, who might one day come across these probes drifting in interstellar space. These disks contained carefully selected images, sounds, music, and greetings in 55 human languages (plus one from a humpback whale).
The Pioneer vessels also had scientific “greetings” for their finders in the form of small golden plaques attached to their antenna support struts. They depicted nude male and female representations of the species that built and launched these ambassadors into the galaxy, a diagram of our Sol system with the probes’ trajectory through the planets, and a map showing fourteen pulsars that was hoped to indicate where and when the Pioneers were sent from. Certain items from the Pioneer Plaque would later find their way onto the Voyager Interstellar Records.
Launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida just weeks apart in 1977, the twin Voyagers would collectively spend the next dozen years visiting every world from Jupiter to Neptune, taking many thousands of unprecedented images and revealing much about these neighboring bodies and their companions, including some unexpected surprises.
These scientific revelations came relatively early in the Voyager mission, in 1979 to be exact. This was the year when both space probes flew through the Jovian system in March and July. Astronomers and the general public alike were astonished to learn from the Voyager flybys just how much Jupiter’s four large Galilean moons were complex worlds in their own right.
Perhaps the most surprising find was the discovery that the innermost of these moons, Io, had multiple active volcanoes continually spewing hot sulfur hundreds of miles into space! Its nearest satellite neighbor, Europa, appeared to be very quiet in comparison – until it was realized that under that seemingly placid icy surface was a global ocean of liquid water, later determined to be twice the volume of all of Earth’s oceans combined and perhaps sixty miles deep. It did not take long to wonder if Europa harbored native life forms swimming in its alien seas.
Almost overnight, science’s concepts of what such moons were like and where and how life might exist in our Sol system and beyond were transformed, thanks to the Voyager probes’ data and images of Jupiter and the other giant world systems they would visit in the next few years.
Rise of the Aliens
Speaking of alien life, the science and the search for it, especially the intelligent kind, slowly began to gain widespread acceptance in the 1970s. What would become known as SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, was also largely born in the 1960s, although speculation on the concept goes back to the ancient Greeks over two millennia ago.
Scientific conferences on the subject grew in the 1970s. Even NASA held one in 1979 titled Life in the Universe at its Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, for two days in late June of that year. You may read the full conference proceedings online here: https://www.history.nasa.gov/CP-2156/cp2156.htm.
Actual SETI programs also began to come into their own in that decade, though most were still relatively low-budget and largely private/university efforts that focused on the radio spectrum. Among the most famous of them from that era was conducted at Ohio State University (OSU) with their Big Ear radio telescope. This was the long-running search that found in 1977 what became known as the Wow! Signal. Although it would be probably be dismissed as terrestrial interference by modern SETI standards, the signal is still listed as one of the best candidates for a detected transmission by an alien civilization over four decades later.
Close Encounters of the Fictional Kind
Compared to the reality, aliens in fiction in 1979 were far more abundant and readily accessible, at least on the big and small screens and in literature. This was in no small part thanks to the phenomenon which burst upon our culture just two years earlier known as Star Wars (and at the time was known only by that title and nothing else).
Star Wars may have been a relatively straightforward story about the forces of good and evil battling it out for domination “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” but it was undoubtedly that seemingly simple setup combined with fantastical elements which made it both so popular and so profitable.
The film turned science fiction into big business. However this came at a price: The derailing of decades of intelligent and literate science fiction cinema that made important social commentary, replaced by flashy (and increasingly expensive) special effects and easy-to-digest plots. Less than one decade earlier, the era of smart and artistic science fiction had reached a pinnacle with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now Hollywood saw a new source of revenue and stuck to that winning formula.
In the immediate decades of the post-Star Wars era, there were a few notable genre exceptions to the “popcorn flick,” but only in recent years have we seen the slow but steady return of “smart” SF cinema and television series, even in the face of that other domineering genre, the superhero film.
By 1979, Star Wars had indeed taken Hollywood by storm and its effects were quite noticeable, for both good and ill. Perhaps one of the best examples of this influence from that year was the Walt Disney film The Black Hole.
The first PG-rated effort by that company had the potential and some moments of being at least a good story: A manned interstellar exploration vessel, the U.S.S. Palomino, on a mission to “discover habitable life in outer space,” comes upon a formerly presumed lost starship named the U.S.S. Cygnus improbably perched on the edge of “the largest black hole… ever encountered.”
Image: The theatrical poster for Disney’s attempt to cash in on the Star Wars tidal wave, the 1979 film The Black Hole.
The crew investigates the much larger and more intricate ship and discovers it is inhabited by one man, a famous and brilliant scientist named Dr. Hans Reinhardt, and a collection of robots and faceless, robed androids serving as the crew.
Reinhardt tells his guests that the original human crew abandoned the Cygnus after a “meteorite” storm struck and damaged the vessel, leaving him alone aboard the starship for the last twenty years. The scientist also reveals that he intends to send the Cygnus plunging into the black hole to discover its secrets.
The Palomino crew eventually discover that Reinhardt has been lying to them about the fate of the Cygnus’ human crew: In reality they had mutinied when the megalomaniac scientist became obsessed with the black hole and refused to return to Earth; Reinhardt had the ship’s robots defeat and subsequently lobotomize the crew and turn them into essentially mindless drones.
Not wishing to share their fate, the members of the Palomino attempt to escape, damaging the Cygnus in the process and causing the craft to be pulled towards the black hole, where its powerful gravitational forces begin to tear the giant ship apart. Reinhardt is trapped and eventually meets his end on the bridge when a large view screen falls on him, pinning him to the bridge floor. The survivors of the Palomino board a small probe vessel from the Cygnus, but discover its controls are set to go into the black hole.
At this point The Black Hole takes a page from the famous Stargate Sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, featuring a mystical, frightening, and often wordless journey through the collapsed star. The remaining crew eventually emerges from the black hole via a white hole and arrives elsewhere in space at an unknown planet, their fates also left unknown to the audience.
As I said earlier, the essential plot of The Black Hole as just described is not bad and would have made for a serviceable, even a good cinematic effort, had it been left at that. However, the long shadow of Star Wars made its influence on Disney: Attempting to grab a piece of that saga pie (which they would ironically succeed at completely decades later), the producers threw in numerous elements that worked for Star Wars but seemed forced and out-of-place in The Black Hole.
Attempting to appeal to the younger viewers, the story became a jarring mix of juvenile silliness via the various robots and much darker and even violent scenes and themes. The result was a generally critical panning and less than sterling box office returns. However, in the ensuing years, The Black Hole has gained a cult status as often happens when memories turn nostalgic.
In summation, there was a decent story in The Black Hole that got lost in the chase for those Star Wars profits. The result was a cinematic mashup of two different types of science fiction films that when merged together only lessened the whole product. There were other science fiction films in those following years which either tried using aspects from Star Wars or copy the film wholesale. Sometimes they worked, but most often these efforts resulted in either diminished returns or outright forgettable pabulum.
Two Aliens, Two Starships Crews, Two Different Approaches, Two Different Futures
Not every science fiction film from 1979 was either damaged or sunk by Star Wars, however. There were two notable examples that managed not only to survive the growing wave of simplistic plots and snazzy special effects, but actually used the emerging franchise to their advantages. Looking closely, one can see that these two films were still products of that earlier golden era of cinematic SF, despite the best efforts of the studios to turn them into their own versions of the Star Wars cash machine.
The existence of Star Wars managed to make these particular films possible and reach the theaters, yet they had come from the previous genre era which Star Wars had dethroned and it showed, to the overall benefit of contemporary and future audiences. Cinematic science fiction had not completely lost its higher brain functions to the Hollywood Id.
I am referring to Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (ST:TMP). Released just months apart forty years ago, the two films appear to have little in common outside of their core science fiction plot elements: Set several centuries in the future, two starship crews encounter powerful and dangerous aliens and must find a way to defeat them or risk not only their own lives but the fate of the entire human race and possibly all living beings in the Milky Way galaxy.
Their diametrically, even radically, opposed takes on humanity interacting with a very different form of life intrigued me greatly, especially since they had both emerged from Hollywood so close together in the same year.
I have had a life-long interest in extraterrestrial beings, including and especially the intelligent kinds that may exist somewhere out there in the Cosmos. As we have yet to discover any real aliens, smart or otherwise, our society has had to make due with creating our own in various fictional media.
Existence has had a long habit of surprising humanity’s expectations. This should not be considered shocking in itself, as we are a species that has spent most of its history confined to one planet. Only relatively recently have we become intellectually aware of the much vaster, populated, and complex realm beyond Earth.
Even with this knowledge and evidence, humanity still leans towards seeing itself and its home world as cosmically special and unique. Our instincts and emotions continue to respond to our terrestrial surroundings first and foremost; so far as our baser selves are concerned, the stars might as well be the medieval version of the light from Heaven shining through holes in the black celestial dome hanging over our world.
Our confinement has had a similar effect in regards to our concepts of alien life and minds. Intellectually, thanks to scientific progress, we no longer see beings from other worlds only as members of a fantastical supernatural realm, be they spirits, angels, demons, or deities.
Nevertheless, with just one world’s examples to go on, we tend to think and assume such life would not be so different from us in terms of base motives and needs. This attitude occurs even when we imagine aliens to be radically physically different from terrestrial creatures – and especially when we do not see them as dwelling in bodies all that dissimilar from our own, a rather common occurrence both with their fictional creators and even professional scientists.
Naturally, our fiction reflects these aforementioned views, and Alien and ST:TMP are no exceptions here. If anything, they serve as excellent examples of two of the main types of aliens conceived by humanity, and the most polar opposite ones at that: The deadly monster in the case of Alien and the enigmatic godlike being in ST:TMP.
For the record, other extraterrestrial types found in our fiction include angelic saviors, the conquering and/or destroying warriors of some Galactic Empire, altruistic scientific explorers, and beings who might as well be humans, where they allow an author to safely make various social commentaries on their own species. For cinematic aliens of this type, they also serve to save film budgets by forgoing expensive makeup, costumes, and special effects.
Just as the nonterrestrial beings in Alien and ST:TMP reflect two strong variations of our assumptions and fears of what may be out there in the vast darkness of space, the human societies depicted in these two stories also mirror two radically different types of civilizations for our species.
Like their main nonhuman characters, one society is a dystopian version of our own current culture, while the other reflects a much more hopeful and optimistic path for our descendants. These societies exist either in spite of or because of being technologically more advanced than the contemporary cultures which created them.
We will look further into these two worlds, touching upon such ideas as whether their particular type of alien exists because of the attitude and outlook of that particular form of human society, or whether human society is influenced and molded by the surrounding Universe they encounter. Or perhaps it is a combination of the two.
This essay will also look into how much or how little our attitudes have changed about extraterrestrial life and future society in the ensuing four decades since the premieres of these landmark films. We will also explore whether Alien or ST:TMP will influence our views and approaches as our species expands into the Milky Way galaxy. Or will they somehow keep us from moving beyond Earth at all?
Contrast and Compare
Even if you have somehow managed to keep from seeing either film in the past forty years for whatever reasons they may be, you are probably at the very least aware of the basic premises behind these two cinematic classics. This is particularly true in the case of ST:TMP, as that film has an extra decade of exposure over Alien, thanks to Star Trek‘s origins as a three-season television series in 1966.
ST:TMP may have been the very first film of the Star Trek franchise, but it came not only with two television series under its belt (don’t forget the animated series shown for two seasons on Saturday mornings on the National Broadcasting Corporation, or NBC, from 1973 to 1974), but also a large and rabid fan base that was savvy and loud enough to get the first Space Shuttle named after their beloved Starship Enterprise in 1976. There was also a bounty of novels, manuals, blueprints, comic books, toys, models, and fan fiction permeating the culture, with no end in sight.
In contrast, Alien was practically a newcomer on the cinematic scene, though the basic concept of an unearthly monstrosity terrorizing a spaceship crew of humans was hardly unfamiliar to audiences, whether they were into science fiction or not.
Unlike Star Trek, Alien has a much more obscure yet far more amusing origin story: The horrifying and deadly creature that has come to be so well known from the film began its life as… an orange beachball with two clawed feet and a penchant for mischief.
In 1974, a very low-budget satiric science fiction film calling itself Dark Star made its major theatrical debut. The story focused on the exploits of a hapless crew aboard a starship whence the film’s title came from whose jobs revolve around exploring the Milky Way galaxy specifically to find unstable exoplanets and blow them up with artificially intelligent (AI) and very powerful thermostellar bombs. This objective will ensure that the members of humanity who are actually colonizing the galaxy will not end up settling these deemed unsafe worlds.
Image: The surprising origin of the alien in Alien – a painted beach ball with clawed feet from Dark Star.
A subplot in Dark Star involves the exploits of a strange alien creature brought aboard the vessel to serve as the ship’s “mascot”. The alien looks very much like a large orange beachball with two clawed feet. It also emits sounds that resemble farts, possesses and can express a range of emotions despite lacking any discernable face, and seems to have a measure of intelligence.
When crewmember Sergeant Pinback, played by the film’s co-creator Dan O’Bannon (1946-2009), reluctantly goes to feed the alien and clean its makeshift living area in a converted storage room, the creature manages to escape its confines, overpower Pinback with a broom, and run off into the bowels of the ship.
Pinback goes after the alien in an attempt to get it to return to its cage. Instead, the extraterrestrial beach ball manages to temporarily trap the human first in a long elevator shaft and then in a floor hatch of the elevator car itself. While Pinback is preoccupied trying to escape the elevator, the alien spends its time exploring the Dark Star, where it unintentionally causes further and ultimately disastrous technical problems for the vessel, which has already been slowly but steadily deteriorating over the last few years of its mission.
Eventually, Pinback corners his adversary and attempts to render the alien unconscious and therefore catchable with a tranquilizer dart from an anesthetic gun. Instead, the dart punctures the creature like a balloon, where the alien proceeds to rapidly release an interior gas from its wound and fly comically about the room before crashing to the floor completely deflated and presumably deceased.
Despite the obvious absurdity and overall silliness of this alien, which was also introduced to pad the length of Dark Star from its much shorter original college film version co-created with John Carpenter (born 1948) so it could go mainstream, O’Bannon was nevertheless inspired by this bloated orange gasbag “to do a scary movie on a spaceship with a small number of astronauts…. Dark Star as a horror movie instead of a comedy.” O’Bannon was also “inspired” to change up the alien when he saw that audiences watching Dark Star were not laughing at its intentionally humorous scenes. “If I can’t make them laugh, then maybe I can make them scream,” he said.
That movie would eventually become Alien.
It would be easy to assume at first glance that Dark Star and Alien inhabit very different universes. The former is a deliberate example of existentialism (John Carpenter referred to Dark Star as “Waiting for Godot in space”) and as has already been pointed out, that film’s alien is definitely amusing and hard to take seriously at all, let alone as much of a threat. In comparison, there is relatively little humor or outright absurdity in Alien: The xenomorph, as the creature is later referred to in the first sequel, Aliens (1986), is a nightmarish extraterrestrial organism that anyone who encounters it takes very seriously.
However, the two cinematic efforts have much more in common than one might think. Both involve starships with specifically utilitarian purposes: Dark Star’s mission is to obliterate unstable alien planets; the United States Commercial Star Ship (USCSS) Nostromo of Alien is a “commercial towing vehicle” hauling 20 million tons of mineral ore through interstellar space back to Earth. They also have in common some type of communications/command base stationed in Antarctica.
In both films, the crews are the opposite of the astronauts and cosmonauts who were often portrayed in the early days of the Space Age as near demigods serving as our brave and noble vanguards into the unknowns of the Cosmos.
Instead, the majority are decidedly “blue collar” types. For them, exploring space is just a job. The crew of the Nostromo are in many respects the equivalent of long-haul truckers, although in their case it is a very long haul. There is a distinct division between the officers and the rest, both in terms of class structure and educational background.
When we first meet the crew in Alien, their overwhelming topic of conversation has the guys who maintain the ship demanding to get a share of the profits from their mission equivalent to the officers’ pay. Even when they detect the mysterious transmission that is first thought to be a distress call of human origin, but later turns out to be a warning signal from a derelict extraterrestrial ship on an uncharted world, the engineers insist that rescuing others is not part of their job and that they should get paid extra if the ship does go out of its way to help a stranded spacecraft and its crew. They only recant when they are told that “any systematized transmission indicating intelligent origin must be investigated… on penalty of total forfeiture of shares.”
Once the Nostromo crew learns of the origin and nature of the distress signal, there seems to be only one character who is openly excited about exploring the alien vessel – and he later becomes the first crewmember to pay the ultimate price for that genuine curiosity. The members of the Dark Star also pay the price for allowing an alien onboard their ship: It is not nearly as violent and confrontational as in Alien, but their desire to learn about an alien life form ends up being fatal for them just the same.
The governing bodies found in both Dark Star and Alien see the ships’ crews (and undoubtedly most other citizens) as commodities at best. They serve a purpose for the society until they no longer can, or get in the way of the plans made by those in charge.
In the first scene in Dark Star, we meet an official representative of their authorities via a video message. On the surface he seems like a very caring and understanding fellow, but it takes little time to pick up on the reality that his various concerns for the crew of the Dark Star are for show at best. He politely and apologetically rejects their genuine requests for vital supplies and repairs (budget cuts, he informs them) while simultaneously telling the men what a great job they are doing in the service of humanity and to “keep up the good work!”
The Nostromo crew in Alien does not even get that measure of courtesy from their bosses: In an infamous and chilling scene, a brief readout on a computer screen lets them know just how little the Company actually thinks of these employees and their lives. Power and profits come first, second, and last in this future society. Science and technology exist primarily to serve those two goals. All other considerations are secondary.
Now look at the Star Trek universe: As already pointed out, the film’s plot also involves a starship and its crew encountering a mysterious and potentially dangerous alien life form in deep space. Yet most everything else about this reality stands in glaring contrast to Alien, almost literally in fact.
The future as envisioned in Star Trek, both this first film and most of its other iterations, is an overwhelmingly positive and peaceful one for humanity. Yes, there are plenty of hostile aliens in this franchise, but the residents of Earth have largely overcome many of the major social issues that still plague us at present. This includes poverty, racism, gender inequality, unemployment, pollution, nationalism, and (terrestrial) war. Governing bodies appear to be just and fair, sharing their responsibilities with other species in a collective known as the United Federation of Planets (UFP), much like the United Nations (UN) on Earth. Citizens are free to realize their full potential as human beings.
While the organization that manages interstellar exploration and migration, Starfleet, is run much like the United States Navy (USN), their militaristic ambitions lean towards defense and police actions, not aggressive expansion into the galaxy. There are also frequent claims of their society functioning without a monetary system, although the franchise has brought up the term credits in regards to Federation financial transactions and material worth.
Granted, later and more recent members of the Star Trek franchise have been playing with darker themes. It has also become hard sometimes to distinguish between this series and Star Wars when it comes to the amounts of interstellar conflicts on display. However, when ST:TMP premiered in late 1979, Star Trek’s idealism and optimism were still the presiding temperament. In fact, I will argue that of all of this franchise’s cinematic versions that have come since, ST:TMP embodies the original character, goals, and messages best.
The protagonist alien in ST:TMP is about as physically different and far from the malevolent creature in Alien as one can get. In the film’s very first scene, we see that the being is enveloped in a massive cloud that we soon discover is over 82 astronomical units (AUs) in diameter! Or a mere two AUs if you prefer the alternate description in a later director’s version of the film.
One AU is the average distance between Sol and Earth, or about 93 million miles. That means the cloud is roughly 7.626 billion miles across, much longer than the distance from our yellow dwarf star to the orbit of Pluto.
While we do see the alien, which we later learn calls itself V’Ger (pronounced Vee-jurr), appear to destroy the first starships it comes across at the start of the film with white balls of plasma energy as a defensive response, it turns out that this is actually the method V’Ger uses to store information about the objects it comes across – reducing the entire subject of its “study” to data patterns, to be frank. Plus, the starships in question belonged to the Klingons, who shot at V’Ger first without so much as a how-do-you-do and surprisingly seemed surprised when their paltry photon torpedoes had no obvious effect on a cloud larger than a typical solar system.
One issue to be discussed in depth in this essay is just how dangerous and deadly V’Ger actually is. While it may not look or act like the xenomorph in Alien, V’Ger does hold a mindset very different from that of the humans and humanoids in ST:TMP due to both its original nature and how it ultimately came to be a massive and highly advanced Artilect, or Artificial Intellect, a term coined by Hugo de Garis for sophisticated and aware machine intelligences.
V’Ger’s response to the beings, starships, and worlds it encounters on its journey through the galaxy, while ostensibly part of its mission and not a deliberate and wanton spree of death and destruction, may nevertheless have made this alien far more dangerous than the creature in Alien could ever be. Ironically, both beings are operating from a place of “innocence” or at least a lack of human corruption.
Before We Engage…
Before we take those deep narrative dives, let us first get an idea of what we are dealing with via full plot summaries of our two featured films. Although it is my opinion that spoiler warnings are rather superfluous by this stage, if you have yet to view either film, you may want to do so before reading the rest of this essay. If you have seen these films before, a refresher viewing never hurts.
No one here should be terribly shocked at my viewer warning that Alien contains scenes of graphic violence, a liberal helping of gore, a few genuine jump scares, and the type of foreboding atmosphere generally found with most films of its genre, the science fiction horror film.
As for ST:TMP, while no one would ever mistake it for a horror film, there is one scene involving a transporter malfunction that I distinctly recall finding very disturbing at my initial viewing more from what is implied and reported than actually shown. There are other moments of destruction, death, and the threat of both throughout the film, although these scenes are far “cleaner” than in its cinematic counterpart, Alien.
Even in the future, exploring and utilizing space remains fraught with dangers despite our protagonists having more sophisticated knowledge and technology – and sometimes because of them.
Plot Summary: Alien
In the year 2122 (the date is never actually given in the film so far as I could find; it has been determined from other later reliable sources), the USCSS Nostromo, a “commercial towing vehicle” resembling a four-spired Gothic cathedral in space, is on a mission to bring 20 million tons of mineral ore across the Milky Way galaxy to Earth. The ship’s crew of seven people are in hypersleep, a form of suspended animation, to save resources for the long journey home when the vessel’s main computer, named MU-TH-UR 6000 (pronounced “Mother”), awakens them earlier than planned.
Image: Alien theatrical film poster.
It seems that a repeating distress signal has been detected and they are the nearest Company interstellar vessel to its location. Chief Engineer Parker complains that it is not his job to be part of a rescue party, unless they want to pay him for the extra work. Science Officer Ash informs Parker that it is company policy that all such transmissions be responded to, or the entire crew will lose all of their shares of the profit from this haul.
The signal comes from the surface of a small alien world circling a ringed gas giant exoplanet named either Acheron or LV-426 (take your pick). Once they are in orbit, a smaller craft detaches from the larger Nostromo and the entire crew heads down to the exomoon.
Image: The USCSS Nostromo makes its fateful, Company-ordained approach to the moon Acheron.
The landing is rough due to the moon’s harsh landscape and “primordial” climate and the ship sustains some damage as a result. While Parker and Engineering Technician Brett work on fixing the Nostromo, Captain Dallas, Executive Officer (XO) Kane, and Navigator Lambert leave their craft to find the source of the mysterious transmission. Of the three members of the landing party, only Kane is eager to explore this strange new world.
The spacesuited “rescue” party comes upon something most unexpected: A giant alien ship shaped like a horseshoe which appears to be derelict. They enter through one of several large openings in its base and discover in a huge open chamber the mummified remains of a large being sitting at some kind of strange console atop a tall platform. One of them notes that the alien (which the film makers refer to as the “Space Jockey”) seems to have “grown out of the chair.” They also note that the individual’s chest bones “are bent outward. Like he exploded from inside.”
Kane then exclaims to the other two crewmembers to come see the large burned out hole he has found in the platform supporting the Space Jockey. Kane volunteers to be lowered down into the dark opening on a tether, where he finds a vast chamber full of large leathery eggs.
Noticing that one of the eggs has something moving inside it, Kane moves closer to it. The top of the egg opens up like the petals of a flower. As Kane peers into the object, a creature suddenly springs through the opening and forcefully slams into his helmet’s faceplate, knocking the man over.
Sometime later, Dallas and Lambert return to the Nostromo carrying Kane, who is unconscious: The creature from the egg has broken through his suit helmet’s faceplate and attached itself directly to Kane’s face. The group desperately wants to get back into the vessel to save Kane before it is too late, to say nothing of just getting off this unsettling and uninviting rock.
Warrant Officer Ripley, who has been left in charge of the ship while they were gone, refuses to let them back onboard until they have gone through 24 hours of decontamination. Suddenly, Ash opens the inner airlock hatch of his own volition, allowing the landing party to reenter the Nostromo and take Kane to sickbay.
In sickbay, Dallas and Ash attempt to remove the “facehugger” creature from Kane’s head. Finding they cannot simply pull it off his face, they try to cut off one of its “legs” (or arms?) with a laser scalpel. This results in a yellowish liquid spewing from the digit and splashing onto the sickbay floor, where it immediately eats through the metal plating and several decks below sickbay. Realizing they cannot remove the facehugger without killing Kane in the process (and making a fatal hull breach in their ship), whom the creature is keeping alive for some reason, they keep the XO isolated in sickbay.
Sometime later they notice that the facehugger is no longer “hugging” Kane’s face and is shortly found dead in another section of the sickbay. Not long afterwards, Kane awakens, seemingly fine. He cannot recall what happened to him on the alien derelict. He does, however, know that he is famished and would love to have one more meal before the whole crew goes back into stasis for the return to Earth, now that the Nostromo landing craft has been repaired well enough to fly and is back in space redocked to the larger refinery ship.
As the crew sits around the common table eating and chatting, their moods much improved, Kane suddenly begins coughing and choking. Falling on his back onto the table in convulsions, a snakelike creature rips through Kane’s chest, killing the man and spraying his blood on the surrounding shocked and terrified crew.
The alien facehugger had implanted an embryo inside Kane while attached to him, using the unfortunate XO’s body as an incubator for the next stage of its development, the “chestburster”. With a screech, this abomination runs off the table and scatters into the depths of the Nostromo.
The crew “bury” Kane’s body by ejecting him into space and then set about capturing their most unwelcome “guest”. During their search, Brett becomes the first one to discover to his horror that the alien has metamorphosed yet again, this time into a towering dark humanoid creature with an elongated head and two sets of very sharp teeth – one set being attached to an inner mouth that can rapidly extend from and retract into its version of a face.
The xenomorph kills Brett, leaving virtually no remains. Dallas becomes its next victim when the captain attempts to flush it out of the air ducts with a portable flame thrower.
Ripley, now permanently in charge of the Nostromo, attempts to get answers and help directly from the ship’s computer. Long suspicious of Ash, she no longer trusts the Science Officer to assist them; the only information he has so far supplied the crew with regarding any useful substance is that his autopsy of the dead facehugger showed it has “an outer layer of protein polysaccharides…. a funny habit of shedding his cells and replacing them with polarized silicone, which gives him a prolonged resistance to adverse environmental conditions…. an interesting combination of elements, making him a… tough little son of a bitch.” Otherwise, Ash says only that he and Mother are “collating” data when Ripley repeatedly asks him what he is doing to find a solution to stop the alien.
Via the main computer, Ripley discovers Special Order 937: The Company had previously detected the “distress” transmission from the alien derelict and determined that the signal was actually a warning message about the species that had attacked and killed the extraterrestrial crew and was now onboard the Nostromo. They then secretly sent Ash to replace the vessel’s previous Science Officer just days before the ship left for Earth and instructed him to secure the xenomorph for corporate purposes. The Company considers this action “priority one” over everything else, including the lives of the crew.
Image: Special Order 937 via the Nostromo computer Mother. A pretty good indication that it is time to find a new line of work.
Ripley angrily confronts Ash directly about this secret Company directive. Ash responds by attacking her with almost superhuman strength and attempts to choke Ripley to death. Parker and Lambert arrive on the scene and try to stop Ash. Parker is able to strike Ash in the head with a club, where it is almost completely removed from his shoulders, revealing that Ash is actually an android (later on in the Alien franchise, they will be known as an “artificial person”, or “synthetic” in their society’s slang).
The surviving crewmembers revive the head of the now otherwise disabled Ash to see if he can provide them with any help or clues as to how to defeat the alien. Ripley guesses the Company wants the alien for its weapons division. Ash only responds that they cannot stop this “perfect organism,” noting that he admires “its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
The now former Science Officer adds one last comment that he “can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies,” before Ripley pulls the plug on him (and Parker uses his flamethrower on Ash’s body for good measure).
The three survivors intend to blow up the Nostromo with its self-destruct mechanism to rid themselves of the alien once and for all while escaping in a small shuttlecraft called the Narcissus. Ripley activates the main ship’s Emergency Destruction System, which will destroy the Nostromo in just ten minutes: The process cannot be stopped in the last five minutes of the countdown.
Parker and Lambert are gathering supplies for their escape when the alien suddenly appears and kills them both. Now the last remaining crewmember (if you don’t count her cat, Jones), Ripley tries to reach the shuttlecraft, but discovers that the xenomorph is in the corridor between them, waiting.
Ripley runs back to the Emergency Destruction System control panel and desperately tries to stop the process, but she is too late. Having no other choice, she heads towards the shuttle bay and finds the alien is gone.
With a matter of seconds to spare, Ripley flees in the Narcissus just as the Nostromo explodes in an impressive and non-typical display of such an event in space compared to most science fiction films which have explosions in space. However, the multiple explosions are accompanied by sound: This is most ironic in a film whose famous tag line is “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
As Ripley prepares herself and her cat for hypersleep, she suddenly discovers that the alien has escaped the destruction of the Nostromo and is in the shuttlecraft with her! The creature lies almost dormant among the interior ductwork, biding its time since Ripley literally has nowhere else to go.
In a panic, the Warrant Officer hides in a closet where spare spacesuits are stored and quickly puts one on. She goes back out into the ship carrying a grappling hook and straps herself into a chair at a command console, where Ripley automatically releases a series of toxic gases on the alien.
Sprayed by these gases but unharmed, the creature furiously awakens and comes after Ripley, who responds by opening the ship’s airlock. The alien is almost sucked out into space by the huge release of interior air, but it manages to grab the airlock framework. Ripley then shoots the alien with the grappling hook, forcing it out into space.
However, this action causes the hook to be pulled from Ripley’s gloved hands, where it catches in the airlock door just as it closes. The xenomorph, still attached to the Narcissus by this tether and seemingly unaffected by direct exposure to space, proceeds to regain entry to the vessel through one of the engine exhaust ports. Ripley sees this through the airlock window and immediately activates the shuttlecraft’s engines: The resulting powerful blast hits the alien and sends it careening off into the void, presumably defeated at last.
The final scene shows Ripley sometime later sitting and holding Jones while recording the following log entry before they both go into stasis to await a rescue:
“Final report of the commercial starship Nostromo. Third Officer reporting. The other members of the crew – Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash, and Captain Dallas – are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed. I should reach the frontier in about six weeks. With a little luck, the network will pick me up.
“This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.”
Plot Summary: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Sometime in the 2270s (I could make an argument that this story should occur one full century earlier, based on a number of canon statements made in the original Star Trek series, but this is not the place to debate this particular subject), a massive and mysterious blue-green nebula is detected moving rapidly through the interstellar regions of the Klingon Empire.
Image: Star Trek: The Motion Picture theatrical film poster.
Three Klingon K’t’inga class battle cruisers intercept this intruder. The lead cruiser, the Imperial Klingon Ship (IKS) Amar, fires three photon torpedoes at it. Their signature red spheres disappear one-by-one into the cloud’s interior, showing no effects on their target.
Image: Star Trek: The Motion Picture theatrical film poster.
The “cloud” responds by launching much larger white balls of plasma energy at the warships, which are presumably destroyed as the energy bolts hit them: Waves of what look like electrical lightning forcefully stream up their hulls until the ships simply vanish from space.
Unbeknownst to the participants of this event, the entire incident was being intensely observed by the Starfleet monitoring station Epsilon 9 of the United Federation of Planets (UFP) near the border of Klingon space. The station personnel determine that the cloud is “on a precise heading for Earth” and will arrive there in less than three days!
The scene switches to the desert planet Vulcan, where a long-haired Spock has been undergoing his culture’s ancient Kolinahr ritual to purge his emotions and attain a mental state of pure logic.
Spock is just about to fulfill his training in Kolinahr and receive a necklace symbolizing this accomplishment from several elder Vulcan masters present, when he suddenly senses a very powerful consciousness from somewhere deep in the Milky Way galaxy. Spock’s reaction to this, due to being half human (his Vulcan father married a Terran woman), plus a mind meld from the female master, causes her to declare: “You have not yet achieved Kolinahr,” adding that “his answer lies elsewhere. He will not achieve his goal with us.”
We then travel to Starfleet Headquarters located on Earth, specifically in the city of San Francisco. There we meet James Tiberius Kirk, who is now an Admiral and has spent the last 2.5 years as Chief of Starfleet Operations. His previous job title was as Captain of the United Star Ship (USS) Enterprise, sent on a five-year space mission to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations… to boldly go where no man/one has gone before!”
Aware of the vast alien cloud heading straight for Earth and believing he is the best person to lead the inevitable encounter with this entity, Kirk pulls some strings to get himself reassigned to command the Enterprise again, demoting the starship’s current Captain, Willard Decker, to Executive Officer. The starship has also been undergoing eighteen months of upgrading, redesigning, and refitting: All these facts combined with the vessel somehow being the only Federation starship in intercept range of the cloud make it the best choice for the mission.
Things do not run smoothly at first: Decker is understandably not pleased with having to play second fiddle to a man he considers not only far less knowledgeable about the many infrastructure changes to the Enterprise than he, but also someone who wants to take command of the starship again because he considers her his to do so, even though Kirk has not “logged a single star hour in two and a half years.”
The various technical bugs and other issues with the refitted Enterprise, now being rushed for launch from drydock in Earth orbit in just twelve hours, have also not been entirely worked out. Kirk and the rest of the crew are given a shocking reminder of this when a transporter malfunction brutally kills two people in the middle of beaming aboard the ship. One of those unfortunate accident victims was a Vulcan named Sonak, who was to be the Enterprise’s new Science Officer. Kirk gives this rank and its responsibilities to Decker until a replacement can be found.
Before they depart, Kirk assembles the Enterprise crew in the large, open recreation room to brief them on the situation they will soon be facing, as the cloud is now just “fifty-three point four hours away from Earth.” The ship’s new Captain is interrupted by an urgent transmission from the Epsilon 9 station, projected onto the large viewscreen at the front of the room.
The station’s commander, Branch, reports that they have been studying the cloud, which is approaching their position in space. Their scans have determined that the cloud is over 82 Astronomical Units (AUs) in diameter (or just two AUs in a later rendition)! They have also learned that there is an object at the heart of the cloud, but all of their attempts to scan it have been reflected back. The station crew have tried to communicate with who or whatever is inside that cloud, but without success.
Branch becomes alarmed when he thinks that their scans may have been interpreted by the intruder as a hostile act. His fears are soon confirmed as the cloud responds to Epsilon 9 in the same manner as it did with those three Klingon battle cruisers.
The Enterprise crew watch in horror as the Federation station disappears before their very eyes. When the station has completely vanished, Kirk tells Communications Officer Lieutenant Commander Uhura to shut off the viewscreen. He then simply informs the undoubtedly now less than enthusiastic crew that “pre-launch countdown will commence in forty minutes.”
At the appointed time, the Enterprise leaves its drydock in Earth orbit. Wanting to encounter the cloud as soon as possible, Kirk orders the warp drive to be engaged while they are still within the Sol system, even though both Decker and Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott warn him that their method of moving at faster-than-light (FTL) velocities requires further simulations studies, especially on the flow sensors.
The Enterprise no sooner goes into warp than an engine imbalance throws them into a wormhole and affects the bridge crew’s ability to control the ship. Worse yet, a small planetoid is trapped in the wormhole with them and on a collision course. The starship and the day are saved by a well-aimed photon torpedo just seconds before disaster, which destroys the space rock and removes them from the wormhole.
As Mr. Scott and his engineering team are attempting to repair the warp drive system, a Starfleet shuttlecraft approaches and requests permission to dock with the Enterprise. Aboard the vessel is Spock, who offers his services as Science Officer, the position he famously held during the starship’s last five-year interstellar mission. Spock also offers to help Mr. Scott with their warp engine issues, being the very smart, capable, and multitalented person that he is.
Thanks to Mr. Spock, the Enterprise’s warp engines are soon fixed and the starship is put on its way at Warp 7 to intercept the cloud while it is still over one day from Earth.
Spock then meets with Kirk and his old friend, Chief Medical Officer Doctor Leonard McCoy, to explain his presence aboard the Enterprise.
Spock: “On Vulcan I began sensing a consciousness of a force more powerful than I have ever encountered. Thought patterns of exactingly perfect order. I believe they emanate from the intruder. I believe it may hold my answers.”
McCoy: “Well, isn’t it lucky for you that we just happened to be heading your way?”
Kirk: “Bones! We need him. I need him.”
Spock: “Then my presence is to our mutual advantage.”
As it is obvious that Spock has a level of telepathic connection with the presence inside the cloud, Kirk orders Spock to immediately report any thought patterns he might sense from it, “whether they appear to affect you personally or not.”
Kirk then dismisses Spock, whereupon Dr. McCoy expresses his concern that if the intruder is as personally important to Spock’s quest for life answers as he thinks it is, might the Science Officer place his own interests ahead of them and their mission? Kirk replies that he “could never believe” his most trusted officer and friend would jeopardize the ship and crew for his own agenda. McCoy simply adds that anyone might do such a thing, given certain circumstances.
Uhura informs Kirk that they are now in visual range of the cloud. Kirk rushes to the Enterprise bridge, where the Communications Officer informs him that she has been sending the intruder continual “friendship messages on all frequencies” in linguacode, but with no response.
At his science station, Spock informs Kirk that the cloud is scanning them; Kirk, recalling what happened to Epsilon 9 when they tried scanning the cloud, ordered that they perform no scans of their own. The Captain even refuses to activate the ship’s deflector shields as Decker suggests or take any other kind of defensive action that the alien might interpret as a threat.
Spock reports that the scans are coming from the heart of the cloud, which is generating “twelfth power energy,” a level that Decker declares “thousands of starships couldn’t generate that much!”
The Vulcan then senses a thought from the intruder: “I sense …puzzlement. We have been contacted. Why have we not replied?” Before Spock can reply to Kirk’s inquiry on this, a white plasma energy bolt appears from the cloud aimed directly at the Enterprise. The starship’s revamped shields and deflectors are immediately raised, which save the vessel and crew – this time.
A second energy bolt emerges from the cloud. Mr. Scott informs the bridge that the Enterprise cannot withstand another such attack. Spock determines that the intruder has been attempting to contact them on a frequency of “more than one million megahertz, and at such high rate of speed their entire message lasts only a millisecond.”
Spock reprograms the computer to transmit their initial friendly greetings again, but at the alien’s frequency and speed. This action appears to work, for the energy bolt suddenly disappears. Safe for now, Spock recommends that they take the Enterprise into the cloud to investigate what lies within it, a plan which Kirk agrees with over Decker’s protests. Spock notes that while “we are obviously confronted by a highly advanced mentality… yet they cannot understand who we are, or what we want.” The Science Officer adds that from the mind of the intruder he senses “no emotion, only… pure logic.”
The starship penetrates the many interior layers of the cloud and eventually arrives at its center. The cloud’s core contains what appears to be a huge, complex-looking, and roughly cylindrical-shaped vessel. Kirk orders Uhura to send a report with images of the alien vessel to Starfleet, but she responds that all of their transmissions are being reflected back. The Enterprise is placed on a course moving well over and along the alien ship to examine it further.
Image: The USS Enterprise deep inside the massive and complex V’Ger.
The bridge crew is suddenly blinded and deafened by a very loud vertical bolt of plasma that appears among them without warning. A probe sent by the alien, it moves around the bridge until it stops at Spock’s science station. The probe releases tendrils of energy across the station’s consoles to access the starship’s computers and all of its data. Spock tries to stop this intrusion by smashing the consoles with his fists, only to receive an electrical shock from the probe that knocks the Vulcan to the deck.
The energy bolt then moves to the bridge’s navigation station, where it envelopes the Deltan navigator Lieutenant Ilia in electrical tendrils until she disappears from the ship. The bridge crew is naturally shocked and upset at what has just taken place, especially Decker, who it was earlier revealed once had a relationship with Ilia when he was stationed on her home world.
The alien vessel then emits a powerful tractor beam and pulls the Enterprise into another chamber, then seals them off with its aperture. The bridge crew, quickly realizing they can use neither their weapons nor their warp engines to escape, decide to keep exploring the alien ship, but are prevented from moving ahead by an aperture at the other end of the massive chamber, which closes up.
A computer alarm voice suddenly blares “Intruder Alert!” multiple times. Sensors indicate something has appeared in a crewperson’s quarters on Deck Five, in their sonic shower to be specific. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a security detail rush to the location.
There they are confronted by… Ilia, the Navigation Officer who was taken so brutally and abruptly from them. Or, as it is soon learned, this is an almost exact copy of Ilia, created and sent by what she calls “V’Ger” to “observe and record normal functioning of the carbon-based units infesting U.S.S. Enterprise.”
The Ilia probe repeats the words “carbon units” several times: This turns out to be the alien’s term for human beings. Ilia tells Kirk that V’Ger seeks the “Creator,” which is apparently located on Earth, to join with them where they “will become one.” When the officers try to get more information from the V’Ger probe, however, Ilia responds only with circular and vague answers.
Dr. McCoy suggests that he examines Ilia in sickbay in an attempt to learn more about who and what they are dealing with. Ilia agrees to this only after she is told it is part of the “normal functioning procedures” of the carbon-based units “infesting” the ship.
In sickbay, they learn that Ilia has been duplicated by V’Ger down to the molecular level. The copy is so precise, in fact, that it even retains many of Ilia’s memories. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy enlist Decker to interact with the alien probe. Their hope is that Ilia’s strong memories of Decker from their relationship, along with “her feelings of loyalty, obedience, friendship… might all be there,” allowing them to better communicate with the alien and perhaps find a way out of this situation before they all reach Earth.
Reluctant at first, Decker takes the Ilia probe around the Enterprise, showing and explaining various objects and even attempts to play a favorite recreational game in an effort to awaken Ilia’s memories. However, nothing seems to register with the probe, who then asks Decker the following:
Ilia Probe: “…Why does Enterprise require the presence of carbon units?”
Decker: “Enterprise would be unable to function without carbon units.”
Ilia Probe: “More data concerning this functioning is necessary before carbon units can be patterned for data storage.”
Decker: “What does that mean?”
Ilia Probe: “When my examination is complete, all carbon units will be reduced to data patterns.”
Decker takes the probe to what were once Ilia’s quarters and shows the mechanism more personal items in an effort to awaken Ilia’s memories stored within. The effort succeeds, but only briefly: Ilia says she cannot help the Enterprise crew make direct contact with V’Ger, nor does even the alien really know who or what the “Creator” is that it seeks.
Meanwhile, Spock secretly leaves the Enterprise wearing a spacesuit and a thruster pack on his back to fly through a small opening in the aperture and access an even deeper chamber to see if he can learn more about V’Ger. Recording his observations for Captain Kirk in case anything should happen to him, Spock witnesses an immense imaging system, a three-dimensional record of V’Ger’s journey through space.
First Spock encounters what he believes is a representation of V’Ger’s home planet, a world covered in organized grids of light. Moving through the chamber, Spock encounters highly realistic visual records of “planets, moons, stars, whole galaxies” and then the Epsilon 9 station, “stored here with every detail.” Spock becomes “quite convinced that all of this is V’Ger. That we are inside a living machine.”
The Science Officer then witnesses a huge representation of Ilia, complete with an oval pink-colored mechanism at the base of her neck like the one attached to the probe version currently aboard the Enterprise. Convinced it has a “special meaning,” Spock attempts to mind meld with the mechanism, only to become overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information and images flooding his far smaller organic brain. He is rendered unconscious and sent back into the chamber where the Federation starship is being held.
Kirk goes out and rescues his friend, taking him to sickbay. Spock soon awakens and starts to softly laugh, surprising all those present. He tells Kirk that V’Ger is a living machine from a world of living machines and that it considers the Enterprise to be one as well. Spock also notes, with personal understanding, that while V’Ger “has knowledge that spans this Universe” and has a mind of “pure logic… V’Ger is barren, cold, no mystery, no beauty.” The Science Officer then clasps his Captain’s hand and says that “this simple feeling is beyond V’Ger’s comprehension. No meaning, no hope… and, Jim, no answers. It’s asking questions. ‘Is this all I am? Is there nothing more?’”
Just then Uhura interrupts from the bridge to inform Kirk that they have been able to pick up faint signals from Starfleet, enough to learn that the cloud surrounding V’Ger is rapidly dissipating as it approaches Earth, which the alien vessel will begin to orbit in a matter of minutes.
Everyone, including Decker and the Ilia probe, arrive on the Enterprise bridge. The probe informs them that “V’Ger signals the Creator” using “a simple binary code transmitted by carrier-wave signal. Radio,” informs Spock, with some surprise, given the highly advanced nature of the alien.
When no response is received, V’Ger shuts down Earth’s entire planetary defense system and sends a flotilla of its energy bolts, “hundreds of times more powerful” than the ones which reduced the three Klingon ships and the Epsilon 9 station to data patterns for storage, hovering over the planet. When Kirk asks why V’Ger is doing this, he receives the following answers:
Ilia Probe: “The Creator has not answered. The carbon units’ infestation is to be removed from the Creator’s planet.”
Ilia Probe: “You infest Enterprise. You interfere with the Creator in the same manner.”
Kirk: “The carbon units are not an infestation. They are a natural function of the Creator’s planet. They are living things.”
Ilia Probe: “They are not true lifeforms. Only the Creator and other similar lifeforms are true.”
McCoy: “Similar lifeforms. Jim, V’Ger is saying its Creator is a machine.”
Spock points out that V’Ger, for all its superior technology and vast knowledge, is still the emotional equivalent of a human child. He suggests to Kirk that he treats the alien just like he would a child.
Thinking on his feet, Kirk tells the Ilia probe that “the carbon units know why the Creator has not responded.” The probe demands that Kirk release this information, but he says he will do so only when V’Ger removes all the orbiting devices that threaten Earth and its inhabitants. The alien becomes frustrated when the carbon units do not comply and begins to rock the Enterprise with energy bolts to force an answer.
“Your child is having a tantrum, Mister Spock!” notes Dr. McCoy.
Kirk tells the Ilia probe that he will not reveal the information that V’Ger so desperately wants and needs to its probe, but only to the alien directly. Suddenly the Enterprise is pulled forward by a tractor beam to eventually settle in a new chamber where the “central brain complex” of V’Ger is located.
Kirk informs Scotty to set the starship to self-destruct, in case his plan fails, in a last chance to keep V’Ger from wiping out every living thing on Earth. Then he leaves through an airlock in the main hull of the Enterprise with Spock, McCoy, Decker, and the Ilia probe to meet whatever is producing those beams of bright blue lights ahead of them in the vast chamber.
The party soon reach and walk over a short rise which is the rim of a large pit-like area. There they at last see V’Ger – which bears an amazing resemblance to a particular old Earth space probe.
They walk up to the object, where Kirk finds a tarnished golden nameplate attached to its side. Some of the letters of the name on the plate have been covered over by dark smudges of unknown origin, leaving only the letters V, G, E, and R still visible. Kirk attempts to rub away the material with his fingers and is eventually able to read and then speaks aloud the full name of the machine before them: Voyager 6.
Decker chimes in that this is a NASA space probe “launched more than three hundred years ago.”
Kirk: “Voyager series, designed to collect data and transmit it back to Earth.”
Decker: “Voyager 6 disappeared into what they used to call a black hole.”
Kirk: “It must have emerged sometime on the far side of the galaxy and fell into the machine’s planet’s gravitational field.”
Spock: “The machine inhabitants found it to be one of their own kind, primitive, yet kindred. They discovered its simple Twentieth Century programming. Collect all data possible.”
Decker: “Learn all that is learnable. Return that information to its Creator.”
Spock (OC): “Precisely, Mister Decker. The machines interpreted it literally.”
Spock: “They built this entire vessel so that Voyager could fulfill its programming.”
Kirk: “And on its journey back it amassed so much knowledge, it achieved consciousness itself. It became a living thing.”
This revealing conversation is interrupted by the Ilia probe, who now demands that Kirk do what he promised back on the Enterprise bridge. Kirk contacts Uhura to look up information in the ship’s computer library on Voyager 6, specifically the “old NASA code signal that instructs the probe to transmit its data.”
V’Ger had earlier transmitted to Earth that it was ready to deliver all of the data it had collected as programmed to do and was awaiting the proper response to perform and complete this function. The problem was that no one living there in the late Twenty-Third Century would have been able to detect and interpret a radio message over three centuries old, a situation that V’Ger would not have recognized.
Kirk decides to tell V’Ger through the Ilia probe that the carbon units are, in fact, the Creator it has long been seeking. Ilia reiterates this cannot be possible, as V’Ger does not see humans and other organic beings as true life forms. Kirk responds that they can prove it by making it “possible for you to complete your programming. Only the Creator could accomplish that.”
Uhura soon finds the NASA code and sends it to the group surrounding the Voyager 6 probe. The code is almost sent completely through when there is a sudden flash of light on a side panel of the robot craft. V’Ger has purposely stopped the transmission to send all its data to Earth by melting its antenna leads.
The Ilia probe reveals that V’Ger wants to do more than contact the Creator: It wants to physically join with its presumed maker. McCoy asks how V’Ger thinks it can “capture God” without being “in for one hell of a disappointment.”
Spock informs the party that “V’Ger must evolve. Its knowledge has reached the limits of this Universe and it must evolve. What it requires of its God, Doctor, is the answer to its question: ‘Is there nothing more?’”
McCoy: “What more is there than the Universe, Spock?”
Decker: “Other dimensions, higher levels of being.”
Spock: “The existence of which cannot be proved logically, therefore V’Ger is incapable of believing in them.”
Kirk: “What V’Ger needs in order to evolve is a human quality. Our capacity to leap beyond logic.”
Decker: “And joining with its Creator might accomplish that.”
McCoy: “You mean that this machine wants to physically join with a human? Is that possible?”
Decker: “Let’s find out.”
Decker rushes up to Voyager 6 and repairs the antenna leads so the code transmission sequence can be completed. Then Decker finds himself being enveloped in a column of light. Ilia joins him and the two disappear together into this glow, which begins to expand outward.
Kirk, Spock, and McCoy quickly leave the area and return to the Enterprise.
High above Earth, a brilliant flash of light appears where V’Ger had been. The starship Enterprise emerges from the fading light, intact and unharmed.
On the bridge, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy ponder if they have just seen the beginning of a new being and what this may mean.
Kirk: “Spock! Did we just see the beginnings of a new lifeform?”
Spock: “Yes, Captain, we witnessed a birth. Possibly a next step in our evolution.”
Kirk: “I wonder.”
McCoy: “Well, it’s been a long time since I delivered a baby, and I hope we got this one off to a good start.”
Kirk: “I hope so, too. I think we gave it the ability to create its own sense of purpose. Out of our own human weaknesses and the drive that compels us to overcome them.”
McCoy: “And a lot of foolish human emotions. Right, Mister Spock?”
Spock: “Quite true, Doctor. Unfortunately, it will have to deal with them as well.”
Uhura cuts in and tells Kirk that Starfleet is requesting any casualty reports and a complete vessel status. Kirk replies that he wants Decker and Ilia listed as “missing” instead of casualties and that the Enterprise is “fully operational.”
With the Enterprise now ready for a “proper shakedown” cruise, Kirk is asked for the ship’s next heading through space. The Captain playful gestures towards the main viewscreen with his hand and replies: “Out there. Thataway!” The starship colorfully and loudly warps out into the wider Milky Way galaxy. The scene ends with the words “THE HUMAN ADVENTURE IS JUST BEGINNING” and the credits roll.
I was surprised to learn that the soundtracks for both Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture were both composed by the late great Jerry Goldsmith (1929 – 2004)! This certainly showcases Mr. Goldsmith’s talents, as the music for these films are as different as the films themselves are from each other. That neither soundtrack was even nominated with an Oscar for the category of Best Original Score had far more to do with Mr. Goldsmith’s issues with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rather than their quality.
The opening credits in Alien set the mood for the rest of the film. As the camera pans across some unknown world from space and the title slowly begins to forms, the audience is made aware from the start that something ominous is going to happen. Of course anyone attending Alien when it first premiered should have had an inkling that this cinematic event was not going to be another Star Wars with relatively lighthearted violence and scares.
Not every moment of music is completely ominous and foreboding. Alien does have action scenes with swelling dramatic pieces similar to those of other films with comparable moments. Among my favorite pieces include the one accompanying when the Nostromo first descends towards the moon Acheron. The music makes you feel their long drop from space to the mysterious world below.
There is just a hint at this point that something may not be right, that something may go wrong, but for the moment the ship’s crew assumes they are on a rescue mission to assist another Terran interstellar vessel with a human crew much like them. For me it is also faintly reminiscent of the music that accompanied the first time we are shown the USS Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
In summation, the Alien soundtrack does its part very well to pull you in with the visuals to an existence that you do not really want to be a part of outside of the 117 minutes you had to experience it either inside a theater or in your home.
Now compare and contrast the music from Alien with the soundtrack for ST:TMP. Before we see so much as one moment of this story, the opening credits begin with a very dramatic and uplifting piece that makes you feel like you are about to embark on an exciting adventure. The opening theme for the first Star Trek film became so popular, in fact, that it was used as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first live-action series of the franchise after the original one.
The music used for V’Ger throughout does tend towards the ominous, but this is largely to make the alien more mysterious than terrifying. Both the audience and the Enterprise crew spend most of the film plot wondering exactly who or what they are dealing with when it comes to V’Ger. Once we learn that the alien is actually an ancient Earth probe – with some serious modifications and upgrades, granted – and a way is found to help V’Ger fulfill its mission and evolve into a higher life form, thus relieving its existential angst, the music becomes more ethereal.
Unlike the alien in Alien, V’Ger was never a true monster, or at least not intentionally. The issues that arose from the Enterprise crew’s encounter with it were more from misunderstandings on either side rather than actual threats or real malevolence. This kept well one of the main themes of the franchise that started with the original series: That communicating rather than reaching for a weapon is a much better way to handle potential problems and avoid outright conflict. Of course there was no real reasoning with the xenomorph terrorizing the Nostromo crew, but that is usually the point in a horror film.
One of my favorite music selections and scene in ST:TMP comes right at the beginning of the film with the three Klingon battle cruisers making their first (and last) meetings with the V’Ger cloud. The “clicking” aspects of this music would become representative of the Klingons in general throughout much of the franchise afterwards.
This scene also demonstrates my earlier statement on how Star Trek prefers diplomacy and understanding over warlike responses to unknown beings and situations. We never once get the impression that the Klingons confronting V’Ger ever seriously considered trying to communicate with the alien cloud. Instead, they fired upon the intruder in their realm, with unfortunate results only for themselves.
I will note that since we later learn in the film that V’Ger did attempt to communicate with the Enterprise but was doing so at a frequency and rate much higher and faster than what the Federation starship crew was used to, there is the possibility that the alien did try to contact the Klingon vessels, where they missed V’Ger’s transmissions for similar reasons. Not receiving any discernable response from a strange massive cloud moving through their space with impunity would easily trigger into offensive actions a warrior race like the Klingons.
In contrast, the Enterprise did its level best not to antagonize V’Ger and were ultimately rewarded for their nonbelligerent behavior. As a result, you very much want to be onboard that starship, interacting with its crew as they explore the galaxy and encounter those strange new worlds, new life, and new civilizations. That so many people were and are very active fans of the franchise to this very day and relish such thoughts further proves the point made here.
One surprise and disappointment about the ST:TMP soundtrack: There was no recreation of the famous original series theme (which included bongos) except for a few brief notes scattered throughout the film. Perhaps they wanted a “fresh” start and to give the film its own unique musical signature, to emphasize that these are the new adventures of the starship Enterprise.
Still, I wish they had made the original theme song more prominent, at least as a tribute to the series that made the film even possible, and a thank you to the fans who kept the franchise from fading away. The latter were already looking for the film to appear more like the original series, even though the 1960s television sets, special effects, and uniforms probably would not have carried over well onto the big theatrical screens. Having the original scores could have been one type of bridge between the old and the new for the reasons stated above.
In my research on the soundtrack for the first Star Trek film, I learned the following relevant items I would like to share here:
Gene Roddenberry (1921 – 1991), the man who created the franchise and was the Producer for ST:TMP, originally wanted Goldsmith to create the score for the very first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” but he was too busy with other projects at the time.
Although the makers of ST:TMP wanted to ensure their film was neither a copy nor clone of Star Wars and largely succeeded on that score, Goldsmith was influenced by that 1977 film’s soundtrack. He said:
“When you stop and think about it, space is a very romantic thought. It is, to me, like the Old West, we’re up in the Universe. It’s about discovery and new life. It’s really the basic premise of Star Trek.”
Gods, Old and New
There are those who have said, and I happen to agree with, that science fiction (and fantasy) are our modern replacements for the ancient mythological stories about gods and their supernatural subordinates in a strongly Judeo-Christian (one God) modern culture.
In this genre, one could safely “worship” (enjoy) a wide variety of unworldly beings without getting into big trouble with your social units, as few would take such undoubtedly fictional characters seriously. They are often deemed by certain folks as just another form of entertainment and escapism, after all.
One thing science fiction does reflect is how, after all these generations and the strong influence of current religions that have one major deity (or none at all in the case of Buddhism), there is still a “need” for multiple deities and other forms of supernatural entities. Not so much as for actual worship, please note, but rather to fill several key needs in our storytelling that having one omnipotent God who knows everything, can do anything, and is invulnerable tends to take away in terms of dramatic tension.
We can also see this in our culture’s current fascination with superheroes. Not only are many of these characters very much like the demigods of ancient Western mythology, they sometimes are those very beings and more (think Thor, Son of Odin, from Norse mythology). The old gods have not died off, they just went to the movies and occupy literary niches outside classical sacred texts.
For all the claims of adherence to science and secularism in the Star Trek franchise, that universe has more than its share of beings which are just this side of the supernatural and mythological. Now one might reasonably argue that humans could find much more advanced alien species with their superior knowledge and technology, which may also have developed very differently from ours in the process, to be difficult to distinguish from actual deities existing in another realm (dimension, plane, etc.). However, the behaviors and attitudes of such Star Trek species as the Q Continuum, with their seeming omnipotence and arrogant reactions towards any creatures they consider to be lower than themselves, strike me as very similar to the gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology.
Unlike the God of Judeo-Christian culture, who is beyond all human and material wants and needs as well as being all-knowing and wise, the ancient deities of Western culture were often much like humans in both our strengths and weaknesses. If nothing else, that made them better characters for stories where drama and excitement were required: Refer to Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey as just two of many examples where the gods and humans directly interacted with each other.
In many respects, V’Ger can easily be considered one of the “deity aliens” of the Star Trek universe, although in its case, it is more often akin to the Judeo-Christian God of the Old Testament in the Bible than the other ancient gods and goddesses.
V’Ger arrives on the scene shrouded in a massive cloud. It moves through space at incredibly rapid speeds, traversing large swaths of the Milky Way galaxy in mere days. It does not respond to the inquiries of the comparably tiny creatures it encounters. V’Ger then removes them from existence using what look like bolts of lightning when these beings somehow displease it or otherwise get in its way.
V’Ger is the embodiment of enigmatic. The Federation and its chosen representative, the crew of the Enterprise, wrack their comparatively tiny organic minds trying to figure out what this alien intruder wants from them. Even when they penetrate the alien’s cloud cover and see the giant vessel at its heart, none of them can make more than guesses as to what its various features are for. Initially, they have no idea why such an entity is heading on a very deliberate course for Earth, the home world of humanity, and V’Ger offers not so much as a hint for them.
We soon learn that not only is V’Ger very much unlike the organic beings that dwell aboard the starship Enterprise, but that the alien does not even consider the humans and humanoids serving aboard the vessel to be true life forms, only an infestation of “carbon units.” As V’Ger turns out to be the product of a very advanced machine race from another part of the galaxy, it only sees the Enterprise and similar such artificial technologies as comparable life. All others are the equivalent of insects on our scale and are to be treated as such when the situation calls for it.
In its attempts to comprehend the carbon units aboard the Enterprise, V’Ger actually takes one of them (the Deltan Ilia) and replaces her with a mechanical probe, a proxy on a scale nearly matching the original person right down to her memories. One might make a case to a certain degree for the parallels with the Judeo-Christian God creating a human representative to go among our species, in part to better understand this particular creation for purposes than remain a mystery until the end.
Perspectives start to change once the Enterprise crew starts to interact with the Ilia probe and, in Spock’s case, part of the “mind” of V’Ger itself. For all its power and abilities, the alien shows that not only does it not see humans and other organic beings as another form of life, but it is actually searching for a “Creator” itself, which V’Ger is convinced is on the third planet from Sol.
As Spock later learns and relays to his comrades, V’Ger is going through an existential crisis. Its makeup and utterly logical machine mind do not allow it to cross certain boundaries both mental and physical. As a result, V’Ger remains both stuck in space and time and grows increasingly frustrated, to the point that it threatens to use its energy bolts to wipe out everyone on Earth. For all it has and can do, V’Ger needs something that most humans have and do every day, often without much deliberate thought. Until then, the alien cannot grasp the very things it has been seeking, the answers to who it is, why does it exist, and is there nothing more?
It is quite interesting to see how the crew of the starship Enterprise deals with their powerful captor. Kirk and most of the others are seeking direct information and answers about and from V’Ger as to why it has come to Earth and what it wants with that planet (and presumably its inhabitants). While they are willing (and otherwise forced) to tolerate and perform certain activities to placate V’Ger’s demands and avoid obliteration, Kirk et al become increasingly desperate in their own right to either satisfy the alien or prevent it from destroying Earth.
They attempt to use their technological tools of science, which they often find to be useless or even deactivated in the face of this alien superpower. They also consider using the weaponry of their technology as a means to either get answers or rebuff V’Ger: These too are also left wanting or turned outright useful in the face of this far more sophisticated entity.
Spock takes a somewhat different tack. From the start he has had a connection with V’Ger that the rest of the crew lack (and apparently every other sentient being in this part of the galaxy with telepathic abilities, or at least we never hear from them in the film). While the ability to “read” minds is a given in the Star Trek universe, particularly with species like the Vulcans, it still has a strong measure of mysticism and lack of rigorous credibility in our world. It is not hard to see Spock’s reading of V’Ger’s mind as akin to séances from our perspective, a form of reaching into the supernatural realm.
Nevertheless, Spock’s mind powers plus his feeling of kinship with V’Ger allow him to comprehend the alien in ways that the rest of the crew cannot. One might go so far as to say Spock is a disciple or even a “chosen one” of V’Ger, were the being an actual deity. This perspective is even more forced when we witness how Spock first became aware of V’Ger: During his Vulcan Kolinahr ritual, an ancient rite that removes all emotion from the participant’s mind, leaving only pure logical thought.
This event may be all about acquiring rational and logical thinking, but it is also hard not to perceive this ritual as a form of religious ceremony or rite of passage, given the surroundings of where it takes place and the priest-like elders who are performing it. Spock was even about to receive a talisman in the form of a large and rather clunky necklace as a symbol of his new powers.
Were our ancestors able to witness this scene and understand that Spock had sensed the powerful thoughts of an entity far up in the heavens, no one would blame them for interpreting all this as the Vulcan having had a spiritual/religious contact with a god.
The lines become even more blurred on a visual level in the way that V’Ger at last receives its answers. Even when we and Kirk et al learn that V’Ger is actually a robotic space probe made by humans centuries ago that got “tricked out” by some advanced alien machines and its Creator are the very beings it thinks are not true life forms let alone the kind that could make such a being as itself, it is hard not to see the “merging” of the Ilia probe and Decker as a mystical transformation.
The two participants – whom it should be noted were once lovers and are now again, with love being considered by many to be a transformative force unto itself rather than merely a biological method of ensuring reproduction and the continuation of the species – are first enveloped in a blue and white glow of light that swirls around them, ruffling Decker’s hair. Then they disappear altogether in the light, which begins to spread out and envelope everything it encounters.
Finally, we see a huge luminous ball suddenly burst apart and then disperse into space, leaving only the Enterprise in a way that makes it look like V’Ger “magically” caused the starship to appear above Earth while the entity moved on to its higher plane of being or wherever it ended up.
Again, there may be technical and scientific reasons for what we witness at the end of the film, at least so far as the Star Trek universe is concerned, but it is hard for our contemporary and largely Earthbound minds not very far removed from the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment to interpret both this scene and V’Ger as supernatural.
Now what about the xenomorph from Alien? At first, most of us living in the early Twenty-First Century would not even begin to consider this very visceral creature as any kind of a deity or otherwise supernatural being. However, if one looks at the religions and spiritual trappings of cultures outside the Judeo-Christian one of Western society, it is easy to find societies that would at the very least have a deep respect for the obvious powers of this being, if not perhaps worshipping it altogether.
Many such societies have views on animals that make them more akin to spiritual brothers and sisters if not possessing even greater abilities than most humans. This particular alien, while undoubtedly being perceived as a terrifying creature in just about any human culture, might still garner a level of respect for the very behaviors and physical powers it possesses. This comes from a traditional awareness and acknowledgement for nature in all of its attributes, both creative and destructive. This is especially true for those societies who live and work close to nature, something modern technological civilization is increasingly cutting itself off from with each passing day.
Note how out of place the very organic and uncontrollable (read uncivilized and unsocialized) alien looked and felt inside the completely mechanical Nostromo: This would undoubtedly be an added measure of terror to those who spend most of their time inside artificial structures and are dependent upon an overwhelmingly artificial environment. Not only would this apply to the human crew in the film, but the contemporary audience watching them as well.
The alien might be regarded as a nature spirit brutally forced upon this metal and plastic world of Alien as represented by the commercial space vessel. Is the xenomorph here to teach the residents of this universe (and ours) a lesson? Or is its purpose simply to destroy them outright to reclaim the literally natural order of things? Or did the Nostromo crew through their ignorance of and apathy about the “true” Cosmos merely conduct a series of actions that caused them to pay the price for this combined lack of awareness and immediate greed for power, with no “higher” cause involved?
Even Ash, who is technically more advanced than the human crew in many respects, showed a measure of respect for the alien. Once Ash was exposed as an artificial person and a Company plant and restrained by the surviving crew, he was accused of admiring the xenomorph as a whole. Ash corrected that assumption, clarifying that he admired the creature’s purity and lack of human delusions and weaknesses.
Despite being a programmed machine in many ways, or perhaps because of this, Ash had perspectives on the alien that the terrified average humans trapped in the ship could not because of the predicament they were put in. This does not necessarily put the Science Officer in the right, nor does it make the extraterrestrial intruder any less terrifying or deadly, but it does highlight the strong case for the universe of Alien being an indifferent and existential one. The only “gods” in their world would be the ones of Chance and Fate, with the winner being the one who plays this “game” the best.
In early story development plans for the alien, the filmmakers envisioned the Nostromo landing party finding the alien eggs not in a derelict spaceship, but a nearby pyramid-shaped building. Inside this structure, the crew found hieroglyphics and statues displaying the full cycle of the xenomorph’s particular brand of reproduction.
That some unknown ETI would go to the effort and no doubt trouble of devoting their more major works to the alien indicate a measure of the respect I referred to before, with the strong possibility that the structure was a temple and its makers outright worshipped the xenomorph at the very least as a force of nature. Perhaps they were intrigued by the life cycle of the creature, comparing it to the other cycles in nature they undoubtedly observed around them. They may also have been driven by fear, hoping that this gesture of supplication might either curtail the xenomorph or at least keep it focused on a few chosen “sacrifices.”
I will elaborate further on the more scientific aspects of both the xenomorph and V’Ger later in this essay.
The Two Science Officers: Ash and Spock
Despite the fact that Alien and ST:TMP are two very different films with only the most basic elements in common (science fiction, aliens, starships set in the future, and released to theaters in the same year), plus being made by two separate film production companies (Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount, respectively), and were certainly not collaborating in any serious way so far as I can determine, I did find some interesting parallels when it came to their Science Officer characters.
Image: Warrant Officer Ripley, long suspicious of Science Officer Ash, finally confronts him inside the computer room called Mother after learning that the Company’s top priorities do not extend to the human crew.
These “connections” between Science Officers Ash of the Nostromo and Spock of the Enterprise may be little more than the result of the writers in need of some standard plot characters and conventions. In that case, these two particular characters happened to be best suited for those roles. Just the same, realizing that they had multiple similarities surprising, intriguing, and worthy of pointing out here. That Ash and Spock appear to have little in common at first glance are what make their later revealed parallels all the more interesting.
Initially, you might not think there is much to compare with these two characters. Ash is barely known to any of the Nostromo crew, having been the replacement for the ship’s previous Science Officer just days before they were about to leave for Earth with their cargo of twenty million tons of mineral ore. Ash’s actions and behavior during the crisis with the alien only increase their suspicions of him, Ripley’s in particular.
Later on, it is revealed in dramatic and graphic fashion that Ash is not even human but rather an artificial person, programmed and planted aboard the Nostromo by the Company to secure the xenomorph for study. Ash has no concern for the rest of the crew (they are deemed expendable by his bosses) and demonstrates this in a most violent manner before he is finally stopped in an even more violent way.
In contrast, Spock is highly respected and beloved by the crew of the USS Enterprise, many of whom served with him during that famous five-year space mission (as a bonus for his character, in our reality, Spock was adored by millions of Star Trek fans going back one decade earlier to the original series). His skills as a Starfleet Science Officer, combined with his Vulcan heritage and their devotion to logic and rationality, are both well-known and treasured.
More than once, Spock saved the Enterprise during their encounter with V’Ger and, by extension, everyone on Earth, thanks to his particular skills sets and his special connection with that alien mind. At the end of the film, Spock rejoins Starfleet and the Enterprise and goes with his fellow officers and best friends, Kirk and McCoy, on new adventures into the Final Frontier.
Now for the similarities:
• Ash and Spock almost did not make it into their respective films. Ash, played by British actor Ian Holm, was written into the Alien script by Producer Walter Hill as a secondary story element. Dan O’Bannon, the original script author, had no such character in his treatment and considered this subplot to be clichéd and cheap. Ash’s character would later involve other elements that were congruous with the film’s various themes.
• Spock was going to be written out of ST:TMP due to the actor who played him, Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015), having been long-frustrated with being typecast as the pointy-eared alien by Hollywood. Nimoy was also unhappy with the fact that he had not received residuals from reruns of the original series in syndication. In response, the studio intended to replace Spock with another Vulcan named Xon. However, the children of Director Robert Wise informed their father that the presence of Spock was vital for the first Star Trek film to succeed with fans, so Nimoy was duly compensated and the franchise was saved. Side Note: The actor who was to play Xon, David Gautreaux, ended up as the human Commander Branch of the doomed Epsilon 9 monitoring station.
• The actors portraying the two Science Officers were both born in 1931.
• The characters are referred to with only one of their names throughout their films. Ash should have more than one name to pass as both a human and an employee of the Company, but none are ever revealed to the audience. In the episode of the original Star Trek series titled “This Side of Paradise,” Spock states that he has another name, but that humans apparently cannot pronounce it.
• Both characters were late additions to their respective ships’ crews. Ash replaced the Nostromo’s original Science Officer just two days before the vessel was to leave for Earth. Spock arrived at the Enterprise via shuttlecraft after the starship’s mission was already underway. He replaced Decker as Science Officer, who was given the position by Kirk after the original Science Officer, the Vulcan Sonak, was killed in that terrible transporter accident while trying to beam aboard the ship to report for duty.
• Ash and Spock have a definite level of reserve as a prominent behavioral trait of their characters compared to their human crewmates. For Ash this is due to his being an artificial person with a programmed focus and ulterior motives. Once Ash’s true nature is revealed, he largely maintains that reserve (excluding his violent reaction towards Ripley when she decides to take matters into her own hand; even then Ash neither looks enraged or says anything at all, in anger or otherwise), although one can detect a bit of sarcasm and superiority towards the surviving Nostromo crew in his final words. Director Ridley Scott did reveal in a later interview that Ash began to develop his own emotional responses in a way similar to the characters in another science fiction film Scott would direct, Blade Runner (1982). In that cinematic story, beings called Replicants were manufactured by a monolithic corporation for various servile functions in a future human society. Being so similar in appearance and behavior to their masters, Replicants began to experience real emotions, which they often had great trouble dealing with. Ash’s reactions towards the end of his time on screen were evocations of his emerging feelings.
• With Spock, this behavior is due to this Vulcan heritage and upbringing: Being half human, he strove hard to be as logical as possible, often eschewing his emotions to the point that we witness Spock almost ridding himself of them completely at the beginning of the film. When Spock first arrives on the Enterprise, he is caught up both in the mystery of what would become known as V’Ger and the frustration at his failure to achieve Kolinahr after years of effort because of his sensing V’Ger. As a result, Spock behaves coldly towards his friends and colleagues until after mind melding with the Ilia sensor: Recovering from the experience in sickbay, Spock finally realizes and accepts that he needs both logic and emotions in order to be a full being, just as V’Ger does to fulfill its quest.
• Perhaps the most prominent similarity between the two Science Officers were their intense fascinations with their respective alien beings, to the point that their coworkers wondered whose side they were on. In Ash’s case it turned out that he was on the side of the Company, programmed by them to retrieve the xenomorph at all costs. As for Spock, while there were some initial misgivings about his intentions and how they might affect the mission, particularly by Dr. McCoy, Spock ultimately balanced both needs and succeeded in the end, although at one point it could have cost him his own life.
Us vs. Them
Comparing the two Science Officers ultimately did more than just allow me to compare the two characters to reveal their common elements. It also allowed me to realize that there were more aliens than just the two main ones from each film.
By this I am not just referring to the fact that Ash and Spock are not quite human compared to their respective crews, with Ash being an artificial person and Spock appearing and acting Vulcan, although he is half-human via his mother. I am also speaking about how they are thought of and treated by their human colleagues for being noticeably different at the very least in terms of their behavior and interactions with others. In this regard, there is a definite air of them being alien in terms of what is known as “otherness.” It is a trait long-ingrained in humanity that our society is still struggling to overcome despite some major cultural breakthroughs in recent decades. In terms of the two films, we see that this struggle has yet to completely dissipate in their respective futures.
Ash and his rather dystopian world are perhaps the most obvious about this otherness. Although the Science Officer looks and for the most part acts human and his crewmates believe he is a true member of their species, there are just enough differences about Ash to give the others an uncomfortable feeling in his presence. We see this even before Ash begins to act oddly over the xenomorph.
In contrast, the Star Trek universe has long touted itself as celebrating inclusiveness and welcoming differences in other species. Spock is an accepted member of the Enterprise “tribe”, even though he himself often made it clear both in the film and in the original series that he prefers to be Vulcan and tends to publicly disdain most human emotional reactions.
The crew usually let these attitudes slide in Spock’s case, although McCoy is seldom one to back away from calling out his friend when he feels Spock has crossed a certain line. Also recall that it is the ship’s Chief Medical Officer who is the most vocal in having suspicions that Spock’s presence on the starship and its mission to V’Ger may be more about his desire to be fully Vulcan (read alien) than finding a more encompassing resolution with the massive alien heading towards Earth.
We do see a number of extraterrestrials aboard the Enterprise throughout the film. We also already know their society of the United Federation of Planets consists of many species on many worlds throughout a large region of the Milky Way galaxy. Nevertheless, the aliens we do see are for the most part background characters with few speaking roles. It is safe to say that humans dominate the starship crew in terms of sheer quantity and character interactions.
I recognize that science fiction films are often reflections on contemporary society cloaked in the fantastical and that Alien and ST:TMP are no exceptions. One would hope that by the time we are expanding into deep space and encountering other places and presumably other intelligent beings, we will be far more tolerant and understanding of the various races and cultures of our own species.
However, as discussed earlier, the whole point of Alien is that human beings will not be significantly changed by a change of scenery that includes the interstellar realm via more advanced technology. Many of our flaws and prejudices will remain intact, as witnessed by the early interactions between the Nostromo’s command officers and those who labor to keep the ship operating.
By contrast, the Star Trek universe from the original series through the first franchise film sees itself as free of nearly everything that marks its cinematic counterpart, namely the terrestrial society of the late Twentieth Century. However, from our perspective over half a century later, we can see that is not entirely true.
There was plenty of sexism in the original series in regards to male attitudes towards women, which was largely absent by the time ST:TMP arrived on the scene. However, there was not much delving into that subject and one saw few command positions occupied by women in that version of the late Twenty-Third Century.
At least those incredibly short skirt uniforms the women crewmembers had to wear in Starfleet in the television days were gone by the time of the V’Ger incident, but the new uniforms in ST:TMP generated their own complaints from fans and actors alike for being too bland in their effort to be nonsexist and less militaristic. The cast also found their Starfleet outfits to be generally uncomfortable and difficult to put on and take off.
Aliens were often treated better in comparison, even the relatively few species who were not humanoid. However, Spock’s Vulcan differences from his two human fellow officers and best friends were often the focus of humor and criticisms by them throughout the original series. This was seldom done with a mean or callous spirit, but their words continually highlighted to both Spock and everyone else how different he was in comparison to the dominant species and society on the starship (and throughout the UFP). Had the original series been given the budget and special effects to portray more nonhumanoid alien races, it would have been interesting to see human thoughts and reactions to their literal place in that universe then.
We may be in for a surprise someday, but there are many scientists who feel quite certain that few if any extraterrestrial beings which do exist in our galaxy will have evolved to look and act like humanity – or be allowed to interbreed with each other such as Spock’s parents did.
Yes, I know why Sarek and Amanda could reproduce based on a revelation in Star Trek: The Next Generation that most all of the humanoid species in the galaxy came from one lone alien race that spread its genes throughout many worlds billions of years ago, but I am referring to the likely actual case in our reality. Again, we may all be in for a surprise some day.
All in the Family… Or Else
Another aspect of these two 1979 cinematic releases which follow in a long tradition of inherent “lessons” for the audience is that socialization is an all-important aspect of being human. I know, this is likely not a terrible shock either for the history of film plot themes or the fact that humans are social animals.
I bring this up because it is rather amusing that in two science fiction films about grand themes like encountering powerful aliens and future civilizations that can travel among the stars at faster-than-light speeds, much of their stories boil down to the importance of working together as a family and the consequences of not functioning in that way.
Some might not think of a starship crew as an actual family like the kind which are biologically related. Yet because we do not see those kinds of families in either film – yes we know they must exist on some level of involvement, otherwise the characters would literally not exist, but they are largely absent from the screen both visually and even in mentions – the crews become their own version of a family unit.
There is a certain level of necessity of this social setup for these people: After all, their jobs involve being placed together in a relatively confined environment sent into realms far from their home worlds where dangers both known and unknown, subtle and overwhelming, can and do arise without warning. Isolated aboard their vessels from most forms of help, the crews must rely on and trust each other to surmount these obstacles and survive. At least that is how it works for the majority of the species called human.
As you might predict, the crew of the starship Enterprise excel at working together as a family. They may bicker, argue, and disagree, but that is typical of most real and functioning families. In the end, they either resolve their issues or at least put them aside long enough to deal with any problems head on. It is one of the main reasons why the Star Trek franchise has been so popular for so long: The main crew make you want to join them on their adventures, even the dangerous missions, because you know Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and everyone else on the Enterprise will have your back.
In stark contrast, the crew of the Nostromo in Alien may best be described as a rather dysfunctional type of family. Their “adventure” in space, even before they find that ominous derelict spacecraft, is mainly just a paycheck to them – and even in that area they have strong disagreements!
We witness multiple times how this crew of a mere seven individuals do not have a great deal of respect for each other. Worse, one member of this family is secretly working against their best interests, even their very lives, although they do not learn this until their main crisis is well entrenched aboard the vessel. His actions doom the rest early on; even when the surviving members finally stop him and finally start to work together as a team/family, it is essentially too late. Only one person (and cat) survive the ordeal, and just barely at that.
Pure selfishness on the part of individuals in a family is often detrimental for either the one being selfish or the group, depending on the situation.
This message is clear: Work together as a family unit and go on to greater things; remain selfish and belligerent individuals and meet your demise. This is certainly a sensible message both for them and of course ourselves and our society. Nevertheless, I would love to see what the key themes from a truly alien mind that has evolved on another world in another form might utilize in their stories, assuming they communicate and entertain themselves in such a manner. This may be a golden rule for all social creatures, but species that largely remain apart for most of their lives may focus on other aspects of existence.
Regarding families and society in the Star Trek universe, in the novelization of the first film authored by Star Trek series creator Gene Roddenberry – thus making whatever is printed in there canon with that universe – Kirk mentions that humanity on Earth in his era has begun to evolve into communities where the group’s identity is taking over each member’s individual identity. Kirk sees this as a contrast with those who serve in Starfleet and explore the galaxy in spaceships.
To quote from the novel chapter titled “Admiral Kirk’s Preface”:
“Some critics have characterized us of Starfleet as ‘primitives,’ and with some justification. In some ways, we do resemble our forebears of a couple of centuries ago more than we do most people today. We are not part of those increasingly large numbers of humans who seem willing to submerge their own identities into the groups to which they belong. I am prepared to accept the possibility that these so-called new humans represent a more highly evolved breed, capable of finding rewards in group consciousness that we more primitive individuals will never know. For the present, however, this new breed of human makes a poor space traveler, and Starfleet must depend on us ‘primitives’ for deep space exploration.”
There was no mention of this terrestrial cultural aspect in the film, but it does show yet another way how people may redefine the concept of family. Certainly many people have long identified themselves with whatever group they belong to, be it a religion or political camp or sports team. They often use their groups as substitute families. I am also reminded, not without some level of concern, of the term “groupthink” from George Orwell’s 1948 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In that sense I do not see how being part of a starship crew is all that different from these so-called “new” humans on Twenty-Third Century Earth, but Kirk later points out in the same novel chapter that the New Humans with their “superbly intelligent and flexible minds being sent out by Starfleet could not help but be seduced eventually by the higher philosophies, aspirations, and consciousness levels being encountered.” As a result, Starfleet saw high numbers of “vessel disappearances, crew defections, and mutinies” in their early days, which “brought deep space exploration to a near halt.”
Kirk then wryly notes that his Starfleet Academy class “was the first group selected by Starfleet on the basis of somewhat more limited intellectual agility.”
It seems almost counterintuitive at first that any agency sending out human explorers into the vast unknowns of a wilderness like deep space would want to utilize anything less than only their best and the brightest personnel. In the 1956 science fiction film that is considered by many to be the true progenitor of the Star Trek franchise, Forbidden Planet, the leader of the starship designated C-57D, Captain J. J. Adams, described his crew as consisting of “nineteen competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 years.”
However, during their excursion on the planet Altair 4, we see relatively little in terms of this supercrew of spacemen putting into practice their avowed physical prowess, unless you count their embarrassingly dated pursuit of the only woman present on that world. We see even fewer examples of their intellectual abilities outside of two of the ship’s officers.
To give just one example: At one point Captain Adams takes an alien “IQ test” courtesy of a Krell device and does poorer than everyone else present. This causes Dr. Morbius to quip: “It’s all right, sir. A commanding officer doesn’t need brains, just a good loud voice, huh?”
Add in the fact that the crew were confined to the innards of a rather small starship for 378 straight days and one really has to wonder why such “super-perfect… specimens” were needed for such an interstellar mission, as opposed to “smart” computers and ambulatory machines.
The USS Enterprise and, by default, all of Starfleet, suffer from the same notion of needing large humanoid crews to operate, by comparison, much larger starships. Both Forbidden Planet and Star Trek come from the eras of naval expeditions which required many human beings to run their vessels when computers and robots either did not exist or were much too bulky and expensive compared to the relatively cheaper and easier to produce organic species. They also consist of lower-ranking personnel who just have to be good enough to do their particular assigned tasks, usually some form of physical or mechanical labor. This also applies to the crew of Nostromo in Alien.
In the Star Trek franchise, we do see some intellectual academic types as part of the crew in various episodes, but because they do not fit into the military-style hierarchy and culture, they often cause problems that the “regular” team must resolve – and then they are usually never seen again. This is especially true if the intellectuals happen to be women.
This also applies to Alien, where the one member of the Nostromo crew who was actually excited about exploring the strange alien vessel, Kane, is cosmically “punished” for his intellectual curiosity in a most horrific way. In an ironic contrast, Science Officer Ash is also fascinated with the xenomorph to the point of openly admiring it, yet he avoids any form of cosmic justice until he physically attacks another member of the crew. Before this major breach of social etiquette, Ash is an embedded part of the crew with the extra hidden agenda of working for the Company to preserve the creature for their own purposes.
There is a certain amount of common sense that different types of intelligences and capabilities are required for different tasks. Interstellar space missions, which will require the dedication of years, decades, and more for our currently sublight speed technological society, may see the need for human crews deliberately modified with bioengineering and cybernetic technology to survive and thrive in the conditions demanded by such long and isolating space journeys – assuming that humans of any stripe are the best choice for directly exploring the galaxy. What that will do to the concept of family can only be surmised at this point.
Future humanity as a whole may become entirely separate species who are related only genetically, spread out among the stars and otherwise as alien from its origins on Earth as any real extraterrestrial beings.
Let’s Talk About…
As with certain other themes in Alien and ST:TMP, the topic of reproduction and its related aspects play a larger factor and importance in both film plots than one might suspect if one only knew about them from their trailers. Just as with other aspects of these two films, this subtext and how they utilize it contrasts widely with each other. The concept of sex and love have very different meanings between them; they serve to enhance just how diametrically opposite these two fictional universe are.
In the overall context, Alien is about the reproductive life cycle of an extraterrestrial creature and the consequences this biological imperative has on a handful of human beings, with the implication of expanding to their entire species and others. It is the concept of “survival of the fittest” taken to a cosmic level.
This particular alien’s method of reproduction is utilitarian and without any signs of requiring partners who will stay together to nurture their young. The newborn xenomorph rapidly molts into its adult form, the large and ferocious monstrosity that the remaining Nostromo crew become all too familiar with in short order. The sequel Aliens reveals more of the alien’s life cycle, in particular the fact that the eggs are laid by a Queen, which makes the creature we see in Alien to be either a soldier or worker drone, or perhaps a combination of the two.
The actual birth itself is quite brutal by our experience – which is saying something considering how arduous the normal birth of a human newborn can be for both the mother and infant. This does not mean that the xenomorph’s life cycle is implausible, however: There are creatures on Earth, in particular insects, which follow a similar pattern of reproduction that the filmmakers borrowed elements from for their horrific aspects.
Dan O’Bannon himself said that he used sex in Alien as a means to enhance the terror of the audience. Not once in any of its presented forms does it bring any measure of comfort or security to the ship crew; instead, sex and sexual imagery here bring only horror, pain, and death. Whether the fact that the alien does all this only to survive and not as a personal attack or other form of measured violence on the humans present makes their situation even a fraction of a bit less terrible is clearly an existential question best pondered from very far away in space, time, and reality.
As for ST:TMP, the subject matter seems on the surface to be a much brighter (sometimes literally) and far more positive one. After all, V’Ger’s whole purpose is to deliver its ordered gift of information about everything it has recorded to its Creator in order to then physically join with its maker to receive the answers to its questions. In the process, V’Ger would then evolve into an even higher life form, a transformative rebirth.
Well…. V’Ger may not reproduce by implanting an embryo into a person’s body and then having that newborn burst through the involuntary incubator’s chest, but this alien’s methods and means are not without their own consequences.
Like the xenomorph and virtually every other known living being in existence, V’Ger too possesses the innate need to survive: As it goes about among the stars implementing its particular style of gathering the data its Creator has commanded, the alien has destroyed its share of worlds, ships, and species. By numbers alone if not in brutality, V’Ger is a far bigger killer and destroyer of worlds than the single xenomorph in Alien ever could be. We are talking deaths on a scale of interstellar genocidal.
This destruction also applies to the means that V’Ger ultimately utilizes to achieve being reborn as a new entity in the form of the Enterprise’s Navigator, Lieutenant Ilia. When V’Ger snatches her off the bridge to serve initially as a means of better communicating and comprehending the carbon units it thinks are infesting a fellow life form (the starship), V’Ger reduces Ilia to a data pattern so it can recreate a proper mechanical representative.
In effect, the alien killed Ilia, although V’Ger would not have seen its actions as murder. When the Enterprise crew ask the Ilia probe what happened to the original person, V’Ger merely responds through the probe that the unit designated Ilia simply “no longer functions.” To bring back some of that positiveness I mentioned earlier before you think I was way off base (but oh, believe me, I will be further discussing the issues regarding the V’Ger data collection methods later on).…
The person V’Ger did take away and replace with a detailed copy was the former lover of Will Decker. While at first Decker was quite understandably upset at what the alien had done to Ilia, in the end both he and V’Ger realized that this was the best result for both parties to achieve their particular goals: Decker gets to be with Ilia again, perhaps indefinitely, and V’Ger becomes the enlightened higher being it desired. The grand light show we witness near the end of ST:TMP is a stylized representation of the successful conclusion of their “missions.”
Speaking of sex, in the Roddenberry novelization, a scene that was not in the film version had Decker attempting to awaken Ilia’s memories buried in that probe by having sex with her simulacrum in her former quarters! V’Ger interpreted this behavior as a form of physical attack on the probe and had the mechanism stop Decker with its superior strength, although Ilia did not respond immediately to the alien’s command as “the probe’s signals were growing more and more erratic,” eventually peaking “into random nonsense.”
The novel delves further into various aspects of sexual attitudes of that fictional society three centuries hence, but since they were not in the film, I will leave it up to the reader to seek out the novel.
V-G-E-R… V-O-Y-A-G-E-R…Voyager! Voyager 6!
Back in 1979, when I was anticipating the arrival of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there were only two main ways at the time to view the trailers of this and all other films soon to arrive in theaters: Either on television or by seeing their previews shown before a different feature film right at the cinema. Of course this involved being tuned in at the right place at the right time.
Image: The real V’Ger: Voyager 6 in all its space-tarnished glory. Note the (tarnished) Golden Nameplate in place of a Golden Record.
I happened to catch my first viewing of a ST:TMP trailer on television by chance. Thanks to scattered rumors, a few details in the newspapers, and that one big contemporary source of information for everything science fiction, Starlog magazine, I had naturally been wondering what was the main plot of the very first film in the franchise, ten years after the first run of original series was cancelled from the airwaves and five years after the animated series had ceased to grace Saturday morning television.
I knew relatively little about this film, but that was due both to the comparatively limited social media resources we had access to in those days and the deliberate machinations of the studio to be vague on the details to build up anticipation and the subsequent ticket sales. So of course I was happy to glean whatever tidbits I could get from the brief ST:TMP trailer being presented before me.
Sadly, the trailer gave me just a bit too much information, what the kids these days would call a major spoiler.
All was going well in the trailer at first: Glimpses of the main cast being back together aboard the starship Enterprise, hints of an exciting and potentially dangerous mission to an unknown entity, and flashes of the beloved starship that had been clearly upgraded since the last time we saw her on the little screen. All this I expected.
Then they showed V’Ger. And by V’Ger, I mean not the huge cloud it was shrouded in, or even the giant alien vessel hidden beneath that nebula. No, they actually showed what V’Ger really was: A Voyager space probe.
It had only been on screen for a moment, but it was enough for a space buff like me to immediately recognize what had already become one of the most famous robotic explorers in human history.
Later on I would learn that this was not one of the two Voyager probes that had already flown through the Jupiter system in 1979 and generated huge headlines with their discoveries of the wild Galilean moons. This was a later fictional member of the Voyager series, number 6 to be precise.
However, that did not really matter at that moment. Voyager 6 looked just like its two real predecessors: That had been enough for me to figure out on the spot V’Ger’s real identity, which was supposed to be the Big Reveal of the film.
No, this was not an end of the world event, but after the trailer had disappeared from the television screen, I asked myself why did they show such a huge spoiler for the film? The Voyager probes had just been all over the news mere months ago. The first one’s discovery and images of multiple active volcanoes erupting on the moon Io was displayed on magazine covers. The further revelation that its sister satellite, Europa, may have a global ocean of liquid water beneath its cracked icy crust generated excitement across the board that this alien world might be friendly enough to harbor aquatic life forms.
Those discoveries made by the Voyagers during the spring and summer of 1979 were a big part of the reason that science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – 2008) was inspired to write a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, published in 1982 as 2010: Odyssey Two, and which became adapted to the cinema in 1984 as 2010: The Year We Make Contact. When Clarke wrote the first novel in 1968, Jupiter’s moons were little more than pinpricks of light and the occasional smudge of a surface feature for Earth-bound astronomers; now they were prominent worlds and even characters in their own right, thanks to the data sent back by the machines named Voyager.
The twin Voyager probes were also quite famous for carrying two golden discs containing a representative sampling of information about their makers and their world meant for anyone who might find them some day long after they had left our Sol system for the wider Milky Way galaxy.
The even more exciting part of this plan was that the Voyager Interstellar Records, or Golden Records, were made for recipients that their creators presumed would be extraterrestrial intelligences, in particular ones that possessed interstellar travel and could find such relatively tiny artifacts drifting inert between the stars.
There had even been an entire book devoted to the contents of the Golden Records co-authored by all the main members of the Voyager Interstellar Record team and published in 1978 by Random House with the head title of Murmurs of Earth. I bought a hardcopy edition as soon as I became aware of this work, pouring over every page of what the Golden Record team had decided to place on the grooved metal disc and why. As with the Pioneer Plaques that had preceded and inspired the making of the Golden Records, I was utterly fascinated with the idea of how we might try to explain ourselves to a truly alien species, and why.
These unique records were so publicly popular, in fact, that they often overshadowed the more pragmatic scientific mission of the deep space probes, often to the chagrin of the Voyager scientists and engineers.
Life-long space devotee that I was and am, I assumed that since even the general public was aware of Voyager 1 and 2 thanks to their heavily publicized missions at Jupiter and the Golden Records bolted to their sides, clearly showing a full-scale replica of one in the trailer would have given away the mystery of V’Ger’s identity for a lot of potential viewers. Who knew what the consequences of such a major spoiler might be for the film and for Star Trek’s franchise future?
Well, I never conducted a poll or recall any public reaction to this slip on the part of Paramount Studios, but when I finally saw the film in the local theater and they came to the scene where Kirk cleans off the probe’s cosmically smudged nameplate enough to realize that V’Ger was originally that old Earth probe named Voyager 6, I distinctly recall several gasps and other noises representing surprise by fellow audience members.
Maybe they had never seen the trailer I had witnessed that day (they made several versions, in fact, with most not showing the actual Voyager 6 probe at all). Or maybe they didn’t follow the real space news as I did and were simply unaware of the true appearance of Voyager, despite being presumed Star Trek fans – and therefore real space exploration fans, by my logic – by their presence in the theater with me.
So life carried on, the Star Trek franchise grew exponentially from that first cinematic event despite often mixed reviews – none of which mentioned having V’Ger’s true identity being spoiled by a wanton trailer – and evolved into new televisions series and films, which several decades later would become even newer films and series that split off into various forms, and that was my introduction to V’Ger, aka Voyager 6.
Now let us dive into the world, such as it is, of this close yet fictional cousin of its famous and real brethren and see how and why Voyager 6 not only came to be but how it went from early Space Age relic to an interstellar godlike entity that threatened Earth and humanity.
The Origins of V’Ger/Voyager 6
It does not require too much effort to think about why the filmmakers would go with using a Voyager probe as the “centerpiece” of ST:TMP. Although they may not be recognized in the trailer (cough), these deep space robotic explorers were known well enough in 1979 to be the contemporary choice for V’Ger’s origin as an old Earth space probes.
Roddenberry himself had been trying to get this concept of an antique human-made space probe coming back to a future Earth to find its “creator” to air on both the small and big screens since his first success with the idea in 1967 with the original series episode titled “The Changeling”.
That story involved an early interstellar probe named Nomad launched from Earth in 2002. Programmed with a mission to search for extraterrestrial life, the space probe was later presumed lost after a meteor collision. The report of Nomad’s demise would turn out to be premature: It was found several centuries later by the crew of the USS Enterprise not only intact and functioning, but also having acquired a number of sophisticated and quite deadly capabilities.
Image: V’Ger’s true origin: A diagram of the Nomad probe as it looked before its fateful encounter with the alien probe Tan Ru.
Nomad had just wiped out all the life in the Malurian star system and was in the process of doing the same to the Enterprise, when a message from Captain Kirk stopped its attack. The crew later learn that during its original mission, Nomad had indeed been damaged by a random meteor strike and wandered through interstellar space without a purpose until it encountered an alien probe called Tan Ru. This more advanced vessel was sent out by an unknown species to collect and sterilize soil samples on other planets, possibly in preparation for its creator’s race to colonize them.
Apparently willing and able to offer assistance, Tan Ru found a way to merge with Nomad to repair its counterpart. This gesture gave Nomad a major technological upgrade; however, in the process, the alien probe had also accidentally reconfigured the terrestrial probe’s damaged programming: Instead of merely seeking out new life, Nomad now searched for perfect life forms, such as it perceived its artificial self to be, destroying anything that did not meet its misdirected standards with powerful bolts of energy.
The reconditioned Earth probe had mistaken Kirk for its actual creator, a man named Jackson Roykirk. When Nomad later learned that not only was the starship Captain not its maker, but that Kirk was also an imperfect organism from an entire species of biological creatures living on planet Sol 3, the probe decided to leave for Earth and remove the “imperfections” dwelling there. Kirk was able to stop Nomad by pointing out the multiple errors it had committed since arriving aboard the Enterprise. Nomad carried out its directive on itself for being a flawed life form, thankfully after Kirk had the machine beamed as far from the starship as possible.
ST:TMP has often been called a retelling of “The Changeling” and not without merit. Some fans have even gone so far as to retitle the first film as “Where Nomad Has Gone Before”.
Roddenberry tried to recycle this idea again throughout the 1970s with his numerous attempts at bringing several new science fiction series to television, but none of these series made it past their pilots. This includes a 1977 pilot script titled “In Thy Image” for the Star Trek: Phase II series that would have been the first live-action series of the franchise since the original episodes aired between 1966 and 1969.
“In Thy Image,” while never airing (along with the rest of the series), was retooled and reincarnated into what would become ST:TMP, with relatively few big changes in the plot and characters. One interesting difference: In that treatment, Voyager 6 was named and numbered Voyager 18! NASA must have had one heck of a planetary exploration budget in that reality.
The Why of Voyager 6
One thing I have always wondered about Voyager 6 is what was its actual, original space mission? You know, the one put together by its first creators before it fell into a black hole, somehow survived and came out of that collapsed star on the other side of the galaxy, got found by a highly advanced machine race of aliens who selflessly fixed it up so it could complete its supposed original mission and purpose, and so forth.
The first obvious fact is that it is the sixth member of the Voyager family of deep space probes. As I have pointed out earlier, there were only two Voyager probes in our reality. They were launched from Earth in the late summer of 1977 to explore the worlds of the outer Sol system, namely Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, which they did with great success.
Only the third and fourth vessels made by humanity to leave the Sol system, Voyager 1 and 2 are still functioning as of this writing, thanks to being nuclear-powered. Having exited the heliopause boundary in 2012 and 2018, respectively, they are expected to keep sending back invaluable data about interstellar space through at least 2030.
In the alternate reality of Star Trek (a very popular scenario to explain discrepancies and contradictions within the series and with our reality these days), NASA apparently launched at least four more Voyager probes through the rest of the late Twentieth Century. So far as I can find, there is no information on Voyager 3 through 5 except that they must have existed in order for there to be a sixth member of that series.
As for any clues: With one big exception, which we will discuss later, Voyager 6 looks almost exactly like Voyager 1 and 2. I can see no outstanding modifications such as new scientific instruments or propulsion equipment hanging on the probe. This does narrow things down just a bit about what Voyager 6 could do in terms of exploring our Sol system.
Were the next four probes in the series built and launched as follow-up missions to further study particular findings of the first two Voyagers? That would make a good deal of sense, as Voyager 1 and 2 were on flyby trajectories and could not stop and linger at any of the worlds they met along the way. As we saw with Jupiter during the two probes’ encounters in 1979, the Voyagers made many important discoveries and revelations about our planetary neighbors and their systems of moons and rings. I know many at NASA and beyond would have loved to send more probes to those worlds in short order, including orbiters and landers, to get the details on them.
This did eventually happen with both Jupiter and Saturn, but those missions did not become a reality until several decades after the Voyager flybys. These new vessels also bore different monikers: Galileo and Cassini, the names of two famous European astronomers who made historic and considerable contributions to our knowledge of those Jovian planets.
Galileo became the first robotic explorer to orbit Jupiter and drop a smaller probe into the gas giant’s considerable atmosphere in 1995. Although a stuck main antenna reduced the amount of images and data the machine could send back to Earth, being able to stick around the rather hazardous Jupiter system allowed humanity to both confirm many of the previous Voyager findings and add many new scientific discoveries of its own.
Cassini not only became the first probe to orbit Saturn in 2004, it also carried and landed the first craft on its fascinating moon Titan with a disc-shaped vessel named Huygens. The orbiter returned many incredible images of the Saturn system and made many amazing findings, such as the existence of lakes of liquid ethane and methane on the surface of Titan and geysers of liquid water erupting from deep within the moon Enceladus. Thanks to the data from Cassini, both moons are considered to be strong candidates for possessing native life forms.
Cassini did get some help from the Voyager probe family with the utilization of a spare main antenna from the Voyagers for communicating with controllers on Earth. The defining large white radio dish atop the orbiter also served as a protective shield against any stray ring particles.
Sadly, as of 2019, Uranus and Neptune remain explored by only one space probe, and that was Voyager 2 back in 1986 and 1989, respectively.
The little we do know about the original purpose of Voyager 6 from what was said in the film is rather vague and may even have been misinterpreted along the way.
When Kirk first discovers the real identity of V’Ger, he proclaims from memory that the probe is part of the “Voyager series, designed to collect data and transmit it back to Earth.” After Spock makes a comment about the probe’s “simple Twentieth Century programming,” and its mission to “collect all data possible,” Decker adds to the conversation with “learn all that is learnable. Return that information to its Creator.”
I am pretty sure that whichever universe one may be in, that NASA is not going to design, construct, and launch a multimillion dollar probe into space with either the objective or the computer commands to just “grab as much stuff as you can and send it back to us.” I also get that Kirk and the other Enterprise officers present in that scene were in the literal belly of a beast in the form of an immense alien and were being pressed for time by said giant being – not to mention they probably did not have lots of stored information to pluck from their collective memories about one particular robot vessel from ancient human history.
Nevertheless, what they consider to be the programmed purpose of Voyager 6 is really basic, the kind of plan that would underlie any deep space mission. I know it might have curtailed some of the dramatic effect if they said that Voyager 6 had been sent to learn more about the ice giant worlds Uranus and Neptune, or perhaps had become the first robotic explorer to reach Pluto, which was still considered a major planet in 1979. Incidentally, that is the same year in which Pluto’s very elliptical solar orbit took it closer to Sol than the planet Neptune, a state which would last for twenty years, until 1999.
Historical Sidebar Note: The mission of Voyager 1 and 2 was a somewhat watered down version of a much bigger plan to explore the outer Sol system worlds called, appropriately, the Grand Tour. At one point, four probes were envisioned for this interplanetary expedition. At least one of these Grand Tour vessels were aimed at Pluto.
If you want to learn more about what might have been, I highly recommend starting this endeavor by finding a copy of the August, 1970 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The accompanying artwork by the Czechoslovakian-born space artist Ludek Pesek alone is worth the effort to procure this issue.
At one point, mission planners considered sending Voyager 1 to Pluto after its flyby of Saturn and its largest moon, Titan, in 1980, as the craft’s flight trajectory made this feasible. The probe would have reached the distant iceball in 1986 and taken up-close images of both hemispheres of that world. Sadly, that option was rejected and humanity would have to wait for an in-depth examination of Pluto until the New Horizons probe made its historic flyby through that system in 2015.
Apparently, when Voyager 6 emerged from the black hole it ran into at some undisclosed point in its travels and ended up on the far side of the Milky Way galaxy, the probe eventually “fell into the machine’s planet’s gravitational field,” or so Kirk said.
Voyager 6 seems not to have arrived there unscathed: There are hints that some of its stored memories may have been damaged a la Nomad. The exterior of the probe did look a bit beat up and scuffed in the big reveal scenes, and the nameplate certainly had some smudges on it that brought about the whole V’Ger redesignation – but more on these discussion points later in this essay.
Damaged or not, technically it should have been quite a trick for one alien race to comprehend the artifacts and intentions of another species from another world. Yes, it is made abundantly clear that these living machines are seriously advanced technologically, with V’Ger itself being the prime example of their capabilities. However, I often balk at science fiction using that trope as an easy way out, for it borders on being magic. I am also quite familiar with this famous quote from Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law in his Profiles of the Future (revised edition, 1973): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This also loops back to my earlier comments on such aliens being like supernatural gods.
Having said that, as it is obvious from the film that these aliens did comprehend the very fundamental purpose of Voyager 6 and were incredibly generous with their assistance for this distant lone visitor, it is intuited by Spock that being machines, they took what they found about Voyager 6’s mission literally and acted accordingly.
It is another time-honored (or worn) trope in science fiction that artificial intelligence pretty much sticks to its binary style of thinking (one and zero, yes and no, black and white). Therefore a machine may somehow become smart and aware, however you want to define those terms, yet it will stick with the most rigid paths of logic. V’Ger reflects this thinking to an extreme, exacerbated by its deep, nearly blinding bias regarding what is and is not life.
Did the machine aliens only have so much to go on from Voyager 6’s memories due to damage? Or had they recovered the Earth probe’s full mission, yet decided to focus on the fundamental purpose of its original makers? The same question goes for the actual name of the probe and the whole Voyager/V’Ger bit, but that too will be discussed in detail later.
I can tell you one real-world fact regarding this issue: Voyager 1 and 2 were designed and programmed with instructions to conduct a basic flyby mission of a world on their own in case they lost contact with Earth. Therefore, it is hardly implausible that Number 6 had a similar selection of programming aboard, whatever its space mission may have been. So we must assume it was completely lost, damaged beyond reading, or just ignored by the living machines when they were revamping Voyager 6.
About That Black Hole…
One of the facts that the Enterprise officers knew about Voyager 6 is that the probe, according to Decker, “disappeared into what they used to call a black hole.”
Setting aside the question of what they call black holes in the late Twenty-Third Century (collapsars? Or maybe “black star” like they did in the 1967 original series episode “Tomorrow is Yesterday”. Or how about “frozen star” as Amherst College Professor George Greenstein suggested with his 1983 popular-level science book, Frozen Star: Of Pulsars, Black Holes, and the Nature of Stars), I have a series of questions to ponder regarding this topic and object:
How did they know that Voyager 6 disappeared into a black hole? As the probe had not been wandering the galaxy for eons, does this mean there was such a singularity relatively near the Sol system? Because as relatively fast as the real Voyagers and their presumed fictional counterparts are, there is no way they could get very far beyond the heliosphere before they no longer had enough power to run any of their scientific instruments.
Voyager 6 used the same type of power source as at least the first two members of its family, the radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG. Based on the projected lifetime of the three nuclear power units attached to each of the probes, approximately half a century, we can roughly deduce how far Voyager 6 might have gotten into deep space before meeting its celestial destiny. Because if the probe were not still functioning and transmitting data on its environment when it fell into the black hole, I am not entirely certain how else the human race of several centuries ago would have determined it had met a black hole and was subsequently pulled in.
I suppose there is a chance that contemporary astronomers were aware of black holes in the vicinity of the Sol system and they deduced from the trajectory of the likely silent Voyager 6 that fate had it headed right for one of those collapsed stars. Or perhaps the scientists of a later century figured this out instead.
There is a quite recent paper (https://arxiv.org/abs/1907.00792) postulating that perhaps 100 million black holes are currently roaming our stellar island amongst its 400 billion star systems. With those odds, while space is indeed very big, it does increase the chances for such an encounter between space probe and black hole just a bit – perhaps the same if not slightly better as Voyager 6 coming across an alien planet on the other side of the Milky Way galaxy shortly after emerging there inhabited by living and quite altruistic machines.
This brings us to the next issue with Voyager 6’s journey across the stars via black hole – but first, a little background for reference:
By the late 1970s, black holes were becoming increasingly popular after the confirmation of the first one called Cygnus X-1 earlier in that same decade (see my earlier description of Disney’s 1979 science fiction film titled The Black Hole). A small black hole plunging through Earth was even seriously considered at the time as the culprit for the Tunguska impact of 1908: I distinctly recall this being the cover story of a 1974 issue of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The object that hit Siberia early in the last century has usually been thought to be either a comet or planetoid, but there are always those who will champion alternative impactors for this event when trendy new ideas come along, such as black holes in the 1970s.
Cosmologist Stephen Hawking really ramped up their popularity with his scientific work on the subject, which included the revelation that some objects can escape their immense gravity wells.
Physicists had also come up with the idea of white holes, which act opposite to their way darker counterparts and emit particles into the Universe, or perhaps a whole different reality altogether. The theory was that certain bodies which fell into a black hole in the “right” way to avoid being seriously flattened would eventually come out the other side via a white hole.
It is easy to see why the makers of ST:TMP would have chosen black holes for their method to get Voyager 6 all the way across the galaxy. Even Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan fell for this seductive-sounding celestial “trap” when he was writing his one science fiction novel, Contact, first published in 1985 and later made into a feature film that was released in 1997. Sagan was going to have his main human characters transported to a distant part of the Milky Way via a black hole and some accommodating alien technology until physicist and black hole expert Kip Thorne suggested he use a wormhole instead.
Although some scientists still hold out for certain types of black holes (namely the supermassive ones found at the center of most galaxies, including the Milky Way) as transit systems in space and time, the leading contender for this ability are cosmic wormholes. They are at least theoretically capable of instantly bringing an object that falls into them to incredibly distant points in space, though no one should kid themselves that this concept does not have numerous issues of its own.
One advantage that a wormhole may have over a black hole is that it is probably not surrounded by accretion disks of interstellar dust and debris. Astronomers know for a fact that these particles speed up as they fall towards the black hole, becoming so hot in the process that they create x-rays, a form of high-energy electromagnetic radiation.
So if somehow Voyager 6 did manage to run into a black hole, it might have been fried by the intense radiation surrounding the dead star.
Now let us suppose for the sake of argument that the space probe did survive the immediate environment of the black hole. Its problems would hardly be over, however.
Next up is the big draw of all black holes, its immense and intense mass. Should Voyager 6 start falling in towards the black hole, the side nearest to this celestial “monster” would start being pulled sooner than its other end. The powerful gravitational field would stretch the probe apart in a way that has been called spaghettification, like the Italian pasta. As the probe is pulled further into the black hole, it would eventually go from a very stretched state into a very crushed state, which scientists have ironically labeled horizontal compression.
As far as modern astronomers are concerned, the end result would be the singularity, the final and very tiny center of the black hole. There is no hard evidence that a white hole is waiting at the other end ready to expel anyone or anything to elsewhere. By all rights of modern scientific knowledge, Voyager 6 should have been fried, stretched, and crushed into oblivion, its remains if any sitting forever at the center of the black hole. No subsequent machine planet arrival, no conversion into V’Ger, and the first Star Trek film might have had a very different plot, if not at least a different guest space probe.
But that is obviously not what happened in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, at least in our reality.
So we move on to the planet of living machines.
Let us first look at the probability of Voyager 6, having been spewed out at random onto the other side of the galaxy, being grabbed by the gravitational field of that alien species’ world, as Kirk deduces.
What are the odds that a single terrestrial deep space probe, undergoing a scientifically uncertain method of cosmic transportation that would have it drop just about anywhere in the Milky Way if not the rest of the Universe, just happened to end up being caught by the mass of an alien world, and in such a relatively short time span at least on a cosmic scale? And not just any exoplanet, please note, but one inhabited by a very advanced technological species.
If the odds placed on humanity’s first interstellar wanderers, Pioneer 10/11 and Voyager 1/2, ever entering another solar system are at all accurate, then it could be that such an event might not happen for the next ten billion years, assuming they even last that long. This longevity is not impossible, as the most conservative estimate for the lifetime of the side of the Voyagers’ Golden Records exposed to space alone is one billion years before it is worn to incomprehensibility by the impacts of interstellar dust particles. Plus, keep in mind that this assumes our galactic ambassadors will neither be taking nor receiving any cosmic shortcuts on their long journeys through space.
Recent studies of the trajectories of the Voyager probes compared to the known movements of relatively local stars over hundreds of thousands of years do find some flybys at just a few light years distant, which might work – for a species that has a sophisticated interstellar travel infrastructure and excellent deep space detection methods.
The machine race that recovered Voyager 6 and turned it into V’Ger could certainly have been able to detect the antique Earth vessel in relatively nearby interstellar space and gone out to meet it. However, Kirk assumed the probe either arrived in their planet’s gravitational sphere of influence, or got there shortly after emerging from the black hole’s white hole exit device.
How Kirk even knew that Voyager 6 ended up on the “far side of the galaxy” is another question I have regarding the space probe’s journey that will probably never be given a satisfactory answer outside of some infamous Star Trek technobabble or other convoluted explanation. Therefore I will just leave it as a fact of the story, as there are so many other questions, concepts, and issues to work on here.
So here we have it: Somehow a rather old, small, and relatively fragile spacecraft from Earth survived a trip through a black hole and ended up in a totally different part of our galaxy, where a race of living machines subsequently found it drifting into their neighborhood. These ETI then fixed up their “brother” machine and got it back on track to complete its programmed mission – with a lot of technological help that included the ability for this newly enhanced Artilect to come to some rather misinformed and very dangerous ideologies about life and who made it.
Primitive, Yet Kindred: The Living Machines
As with the background of the Voyager 6 probe, we do not know a whole lot about the beings who made V’Ger possible.
Spock called them living machines from observing a visual representation of what he assumes to be their planet as seen from a perspective in space when he takes that daring information-gathering plunge through V’Ger’s immense data storage chamber. As the Vulcan Science Officer drifts over this virtual world, we the audience witness with him a bluish globe covered in orderly grid patterns of unknown technologies festooned with bright lights.
Image: Exploring the vast mind of V’Ger, Spock flies over a detailed representation of the planet of living machines that turned “primitive, yet kindred” Voyager 6 into V’Ger.
Later on, when Spock was part of the party meeting V’Ger face-to-face, such as it were, as the Voyager 6 probe, he contributed his two credits worth of assumption that “the machine inhabitants found it to be one of their own kind, primitive, yet kindred. They discovered its simple Twentieth Century programming. Collect all data possible.” Adding that the aliens took the probe’s programmed orders literally, being artificial machines after all, Spock concluded – not without some evidence, though – that “they built this entire vessel so that Voyager could fulfil its programming.”
Other than witnessing their incredible capabilities through V’Ger, this is pretty much all we learn about the Federation’s very distant galactic neighbors from the film. However, Roddenberry’s film novelization did give us a few interesting and somewhat revealing tidbits about them in Chapter 23:
“The machines have tended the planet for so long that their own beginnings have been forgotten. Living machines capable of adapting to their changing, cooling world which they continue to protect as they were programmed to do so many eons ago ….”
These ETI very likely originated from an organic species, undoubtedly the very type of carbon units that V’Ger had so many issues with (did the machine race once have “issues” with carbon units as well? Or was this something conjured up exclusively by V’Ger?).
I wonder how these machines lost the collective memories of their beginnings: Was it only due to the long passage of time “so many eons ago”? How about one too many software upgrades that deleted older files?
That second sentence from the novelization about their “changing, cooling world” which they still maintain as part of their programming: Was their planet undergoing some kind of serious climate change and the machines were created to help their makers deal with this problem? Did the environment become too cold and harsh for the presumably organic makers despite the machine’s best efforts? Were they wiped out by this change, or were they forced to migrate en masse to another star system, leaving their mechanical servants behind still doing their jobs? All we can be fairly certain about is that the makers of the living machines no longer reside with their artificial creations on their planet.
It should be noted here that in the 1970s, many climate scientists thought Earth was undergoing a new ice age, not global warming as our world is thought to be enduring now. That fear of a new ice age is reflected in a lesser-known science fiction film from 1979 titled Quintet, where our planet has been turned into an icy wasteland in some indeterminate post-apocalypse future. In this particular dystopia, the main characters are obsessed with an elaborate game that is the title of the film, mainly because it beats having to focus on sheer grim survival all the time otherwise.
These brief passages from the ST:TMP novelization made me ponder about V’Ger’s makers even further:
• Why are the machines still protecting their home world after “eons”? Could they not move beyond their programming, especially if their creators no longer exist and therefore no longer need protection from their planet’s changing climate? After all, they were said to be adaptable, and – oh yeah – they turned an old, primitive Earth probe into a massive, godlike, and galaxy-roaming Artilect!
• So how did uplifting Voyager 6 fit into the living machine’s planetary protection programming? Do they uplift every alien space vessel that happened to come their way? Or was the appearance of Voyager 6 so unique or at least so uncommon for them that they felt that had to put out the equivalent of the red carpet for their guest?
• Or… does the machine race receive a lot of such visitors and they “V’Ger” every alien vessel that they deem worthy or otherwise capable of uplifting? Because however you slice it, what they did for one tiny, antiquated, and primitive machine that was not even from their side of the galaxy was one heck of an interstellar gesture of altruism.
• If one infers that V’Ger is not the alien machines’ first rodeo, to use a phrase, then does this mean there are other V’Gers out there roaming the Milky Way looking for their own Creators, or otherwise conducting whatever their original purposes were?! Are they also turning the galaxy into data patterns as they continue their missions?!
• Did any members of the living machines ever leave their home planet? They certainly have the capability to do so if they wanted to.
Where Roddenberry used the terms “tended” and “protect” to describe the machines’ actions with their home world, by any chance did he include to mean they guarded their makers’ planet from external threats such as large planetoid/comet impacts or aggressive ETI? Or perhaps it is both environmental protection and planetary defense working in parallel?
Knowing Roddenberry’s public attitudes regarding the interactions of different cultures and other examples I have provided above, I have the feeling the terms are closer to the environmental care and protection of the home planet.
But wait… in the film we do see the planet from space. It is entirely covered in high technology! What happened to the natural ecosystem they were supposed to be protecting and taking care of?
Are there still native flora and fauna that because the planet was changing and cooling, the living machines decided to preserve them in some world-spanning equivalent of a greenhouse? It would seem like a logical thing for these machines to do. Otherwise, if the planet were devoid of all organic living creatures, then what are the machine aliens taking care of, since it is said “they continue to protect” the planet, which I interpret as more than just barren surface rocks.
A scary thought; pure speculation here: Perhaps the makers’ are gone not by their own fallible characteristics and subsequent actions as imperfect organic beings, or because they just could not survive their world’s presumably drastic climate changes despite the best efforts of their technology, or even that they safely migrated as a species to another more hospitable star system.
Perhaps the living machines decided that their creators were the cause of the planet’s ecosystem collapse and took action to remove the source of that problem. As these Artilects are described multiple times as being so thoroughly logical in both the novelization and film, their response would be based purely on logic, not malice or vengeance. If the machines’ view on organic beings, or carbon units, parallels what V’Ger thought of them, then this would only strengthen the possibility for my speculation.
There are examples from the canon Star Trek franchise for such a reaction between organic and inorganic intelligences. In the original series episode “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” first aired in 1966, the android population of planet Exo 3 responded with mass genocide when their flesh-and-blood creators, called the “Old Ones,” became afraid of the ways their artificial creations were better than them and attempted to shut them all down. As Ruk, one of the surviving androids, loudly explained to Kirk why its kind responded to their makers as they did: “That was the equation! Existence! Survival must cancel out programming!”
Interesting side notes: Long ago, Exo 3 became unlivable on its surface when its sun began to die (a brief view of the planet revealed extreme polar conditions). The Old Ones moved their civilization underground and built sophisticated androids to serve them. They also built a device called an android duplicator, which could reproduce a person into an identical-looking and acting machine down to their very thoughts and memories.
The very logical and overall superior humanoid robots grew increasingly frustrated with the inferior and often erratic Old Ones, who in turn realized their roles as master and servant could be reversed. When the “masters” attempted to shut down their “servants”, that is when the androids chose their continued existence over their original programming to obey the Old Ones and not to harm them.
At least one android was found centuries later on Exo 3 by the USS Enterprise still tending the machinery of the Old One’s civilization, a task it had been doing for so long it could not recall just when it had begun this work.
That Roddenberry was never one to hesitate borrowing and recycling his old plots and ideas for new series and films is abundantly evident. He borrowed heavily from the 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet when putting Star Trek together, despite his later downplay of the earlier production’s obvious influence on his 1960s television series.
To come back to my speculation, that the machines took out their organic makers as they were seen as threats to their original orders and purpose, does not make their actions any less horrific if this is indeed what once happened on the planet where V’Ger was assembled. There is no evidence to go on, however, so we can only assume the makers either died out via other causes or left while still very much alive for the relative safety of other worlds.
V’Ger Gets Smart?
Dipping again into that wonderful repository of speculation turned into fact that is the conversation Kirk and company has during their brief time in the presence of the real V’Ger, Kirk has this to say about the old Earth probe turned super-advanced Artilect during its enhanced mission:
“And on its journey back it amassed so much knowledge, it achieved consciousness itself. It became a living thing.”
How does Kirk know this happened, other than it apparently did considering the circumstances they are in? Could an artificial intelligence, even a very sophisticated one that did indeed amass a great deal of information on a literally cosmic scale, become aware in the process in roughly the same way that the crew of the Enterprise is aware of their existence? For that matter, does an entity need to be conscious to be considered living as Kirk is implying? How is such a thing measured and who then decides what is “living” or not?
Image: Voyager 6 poses with the Enterprise landing party – or is it the other way around?
The first response I might expect for all this is that the living machines, who must already be conscious then, going by the logic above, of that distant world who turned Voyager 6 into V’Ger must have some kind of incredibly sophisticated technology which allows an artificial mind to become aware as part of the learning process.
This does make a certain level of sense, since consciousness does play an important role in the education of just about any being with a brain, be it humanity or a whale or an insect. Most terrestrial creatures may not be what we would consider intellectual or broadly conscious of their wider surroundings, but they do have enough awareness to allow themselves to perform various tasks and create strategies to ensure their survival.
Some will argue that this seeming intelligence is just part of their biological “programming,” that they are just following “orders” set down eons ago by remote ancestors and simply added and changed as the situation calls for, be it becoming a more complicated organism or encountering a changing environment. From the perspective of highly evolved ETI, humanity might be considered in the same way we tend to look at ants us – or perhaps even carbon units.
From the Star Trek universe perspective, it would appear that computers which can gather lots of data can become conscious if they absorb enough of it. No one says exactly how much data or where it needs to be gathered from in order for this to happen, but it would seem that V’Ger fits the bill, again with some help from alien technology. This probably explains why the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., has never become noticeably conscious despite having over 162 million physical items of information in its collections in a 2015 census: You need fancy, connecting, and highly sophisticated alien technology to achieve awareness.
In Roddenberry’s film novelization, an entire chapter (24) is devoted to seeing things from V’Ger’s perspective. Here we learn that the probe began its journey towards consciousness when it was unexpectedly attacked early on by an unidentified alien starship. Repelling the attack and repairing its damaged parts, V’Ger discovered that…
“…the need to survive had forced it into a first flicker of conscious reasoning. It had realized that it would be guilty of disobeying the Creator’s commands if it allowed itself to be destroyed during the journey ahead. It knew therefore, that it must draw upon the knowledge it had so far gathered and use it to begin giving itself more strength to defend itself.”
So even an entity like V’Ger first had to become more intelligent and aware in order to survive in a hostile galaxy – and much of the Milky Way in the Star Trek realm is often indeed an unfriendly place, including for and by otherwise highly sophisticated beings.
V’Ger (Roddenberry spelled its name Vejur, please note) then began to grow in awareness due to its primary purpose as set by its original maker:
“’Seek and learn all things possible,’ the Creator had commanded, and Vejur had been faithful to that. As knowledge accumulated, Vejur had increased and improved its memory storage systems. As knowledge supplemented knowledge, Vejur found it necessary to analyze and understand what had already been learned so that it could know what knowledge was still unknown and needed further seeking.”
In order to understand “all things,” V’Ger had to improve upon not only its ability to gather and store data, the Artilect also had to develop better ways to grasp what it was studying. Would this be the key to how V’Ger developed a level of consciousness? In the context of the story and the film’s universe, the answer is obviously yes.
As for in our reality in this space and time, there has been no evidence yet – or at least reliable reports – of an AI become aware like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey or Skynet from The Terminator franchise, to name two famous examples. Neural nets and other forms of “wetware”, or perhaps quantum computer technology, may hold the key to turning a machine that can hold lots of data and perform superhuman tasks into a “thinking” entity with a consciousness.
Three questions before we move on to the way that V’Ger stores its gathered information:
• What is consciousness? Now there is a question that has had many volumes and a great deal of human thought devoted to it. To paraphrase Rene Descartes and his famous quote on this matter: “We think we think, therefore we are aware – we think.”
• Do we need consciousness to think and be aware? Certainly V’Ger (and Spock) needed emotional awareness in order to move beyond the severe restrictions of its utterly logical thinking. For we mammals of planet Sol 3 at least, emotions do play an important role in helping us to think and make decisions. Whether this is a literally universal trait or necessity is both another matter and another reason to ramp up our current SETI efforts.
• Can a computer act and function like it is aware without actually being aware? At present computer programming is at least sophisticated enough to make a typical human think they are in the presence of a smart machine should someone set it up to handle various questions for such a purpose. This is known as the Turing Test. So far it does seem that computers can handle increasingly complicated real-world projects and issues and do so better than a human without also having to be conscious as we define it. Nevertheless, will we need our machines to become aware in order to perform even more complex tasks? Or will this just get in the way somehow? ST:TMP says very clearly it is the difference between true consciousness and transcendence to a higher level of being. What we will find in our reality may be another matter.
Data Patterns: Gathering Information – Or Mass Murder?
You are probably well aware by now that V’Ger’s preferred method of gathering information for future examination and the eventual deliverance of all it has collected to its Creator is by turning just about everything it comes across into what are called data patterns.
As we saw at the beginning of ST:TMP, V’Ger sends out these powerful bolts of plasma energy which, when they impact with the intended target of later study, dematerialize it into a very sophisticated form of what we would call bits. Those “bits” are then rebuilt into an exact replica of the selected object and stored in a vast memory chamber to be intricately analyzed at a later point in time.
When Spock flew into V’Ger’s memory chamber, he reported witnessing “images of planets, moons, stars, whole galaxies all stored in here, recorded. It could be a record of V’Ger’s entire journey.” Spock also saw “the Epsilon 9 station, stored here with every detail.”
We know that V’Ger could easily reduce to data patterns whole starships and space stations with ease. It also had the ability to make incredibly detailed and lifelike animated physical reproductions of living organic beings such as the unfortunate Ilia.
The question is, could V’Ger also reduce to data everything else it came across from worlds to entire islands of suns? Or are those really big cosmic objects just elaborate representations?
Regarding Spock’s report of “stars” and “whole galaxies” being found in the alien’s memory chamber, I have to reject the notion that V’Ger could reduce them into actual data patterns if for no other reason than in the case of galaxies, it would have presumably had to go to those stellar islands in the first place. With the exception of the Milky Way’s main satellite galaxies, the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, most every other galaxy in the Universe ranges from millions to billions of light years distant.
Even without knowing exactly when the original Voyager 6 probe was found by those living machines and transformed into V’Ger, we know could be no more than roughly three centuries, the reported era when the satellite was first launched into space.
V’Ger is fast, but not fast enough to reach any other galaxy. While the probe is also quite powerful, I think digitizing entire galaxies and even suns would be a bit much even for V’Ger. Undoubtedly the probe was given powerful instruments with which to study and record celestial objects even as remote as most galaxies are.
Recall that one of the images in V’Ger’s memory chamber was of the world of the living machines that created it. I think it is safe to say that V’Ger did not data pattern either the planet or the species that made it possible. This shows that V’Ger can create representations of places without having to break them down for storage.
It is fairly obvious that V’Ger stayed within the Milky Way galaxy to conduct its data gathering there. Whoever wrote that scene may not have been careful in their differentiations between a solar system, a galaxy, and the entire Universe.
This is unfortunate, for if there is one thing Star Trek was actually good at from the start, it was knowing where the main characters operated in space, namely the Milky Way galaxy. Unlike many other lesser science fiction efforts, they actually did not mistake a solar system for a galaxy, and vice versa. I know the dialogue included the statement that Voyager 6 would up on the far side of the galaxy. However, Spock had earlier said that V’Ger “has knowledge that spans this Universe.” Therefore, I think the makers of ST:TMP were not being entirely diligent when it came to proper astronomical designations.
On the other hand, it seems that V’Ger could turn entire planets into data patterns. In the film novelization, we learn that the probe returned to the planet where its inhabitants had attacked it early on in its journey “and patterned it completely.” This action had been committed not out of any revenge, but instead to gather “information [that] would replace what had been lost during the attack and would make it possible for Vejur to continue the journey and its task of collecting knowledge along the way.”
We also learned that as it turned this unnamed globe into data patterns, “Vejur omitted not a fragment of what had composed that world, except of a kind of carbon unit which existed there, but these had ceased functioning by the time Vejur noticed their existence.”
Gradually, V’Ger would come to discover that these carbon units inhabited many of the worlds it “examined.” However, the cloud-enshrouded entity considered them “too ephemeral to be easily noticed,” to say nothing of ever even considering carbon units to be “true” life forms until it encountered them “infesting” the starship Enterprise, a kindred if primitive being to V’Ger.
V’Ger was quite puzzled over the existence of carbon units, including the fact that there were so many. They were even crawling all over the very planet of its Creator by the billions! V’Ger speculated if the organic crew of the Enterprise existed in some sort of symbiotic relationship with the ship?
“Was it a relationship helpful to true life? Or were carbon-based units parasitical in nature?” pondered V’Ger, who also considered the possibility that “the tiny units were… some sort of waste material excreted by [true] life forms. Was it possible that life could contaminate its own world without realizing it?”
If there is one thing we are made well aware of throughout the film, it is that V’Ger does not see organic life such as humanity as actual living and thinking beings, nor any other entities that are not artificial machines. Therefore, as it went through the Milky Way collecting data for its Creator, V’Ger never once considered what it was doing to the worlds and ships it reduced for storage into its memory to be the eradication of countless life forms throughout interstellar space.
The consequences of what V’Ger did are literally astronomical. Will the Federation ever be able to even quantify how many worlds and species the probe destroyed? Although the planets and their inhabitants are gone as physical objects in the galaxy, they do still exist in stored detail in V’Ger’s memories.
Star Trek has certainly had its share of machines and other beings that wiped out whole planets in their reality such as Nomad, the genesis for V’Ger, and the conical alien Doomsday Machine. However, I do not think they have ever had something quite as destructive as V’Ger, nor did the story really dwell on this enormous detail, instead keeping its destructive powers largely “personal.”
When Decker was about to help “transcend” V’Ger via uniting with the Ilia probe, he did fix the melted antenna leads on the original Voyager 6 so that V’Ger could transmit all of its data to its “Creator” on Earth. Which leads me to the following questions:
• Just how did V’Ger transmit all its data to Earth through the communications equipment of a terrestrial space probe from the late Twentieth Century? Did it have assistance from the alien technology? Otherwise, talk about trying to feed an ocean through a drinking straw!
• Even if they did somehow receive all that vast information on Earth, could they store it? Could they even “translate” it for that matter? Did the recipients grasp just what and how much they were about to receive?
• Assuming the data transfer worked for the sake of argument, did the Federation ever use all that information they were given by V’Ger? As with similar situations in the franchise, we never hear from or about V’Ger again, or what happened with all the knowledge and information it gathered to give to its presumed maker.
• Did anyone studying V’Ger’s information come to realize that the entity had eliminated so many worlds and their inhabitants in the process of examining them over the last several centuries, intelligent and otherwise?
• As V’Ger had originated from Earth created by its human inhabitants, would the Federation or some other equivalent governing body make humanity be accountable in any way for what Voyager 6 turned V’Ger had done? Would they also consider going after the alien living machines that actually upgraded the old terrestrial probe even though they are really far away? Do these Artilects even realize what they created and caused by “helping” Voyager 6 complete its programmed mission? While I cannot give a firm answer on my third question here, I can say with certainty that the answer to the first two questions are a clear “No.”
• When V’Ger became an even “higher” being that could now understand and feel emotions, did it realize what it had done to all those multitudes of “carbon units” throughout the galaxy now that it knows they are another form of true life? Did V’Ger feel guilt for its actions and could it process such an emotion properly, being so new at them? I am reminded of the reaction of the “thinking” M-5 computer from the original series episode titled “The Ultimate Computer”. Placed in control of the USS Enterprise as a test to see if an AI could handle a starship better than a human captain and crew, things go awry when M-5 attacks and kills hundreds of Starfleet personnel when it misinterprets a starship combat exercise as a real threat to itself and the vessel. Kirk makes the AI computer eventually recognize that it murdered many humans when it was designed to protect them instead. In response, M-5 drops the Enterprise’s deflector shields and leaves itself open to retaliation and destruction from the surviving exercise ships to atone for all the human deaths it caused (however, this would also get the remaining crew on the Enterprise killed in the process). Naturally the human Kirk and crew jump in and save the day.
The more I realized that V’Ger destroyed who knows how many worlds in the Milky Way galaxy of the Star Trek universe and untold billions if not trillions of living beings in the process of gathering information, the more horrific the whole idea of its existence and purpose became. Plus, it had all been done without V’Ger having a clue that it was committing genocide on a galactic scale, perhaps any more than we think about wiping out millions of germs when cleaning our kitchen counters or toilets with disinfectant and a sponge.
Why would the makers of Star Trek: The Motion Picture create a protagonist/antagonist that was so destructive – and be somewhat coy about it in the process? It may have been made very clear that V’Ger thinks only other machines are true life forms and it has the power to remove multiple starships and space stations with relative ease. That V’Ger has also removed whole planets and their inhabitants and turned them into data patterns, effectively killing them, is however not something laid out up front in the film, although it becomes a realization when Spock discovers whole worlds and more in V’Ger’s memory chamber.
Another unpleasant thought: As we know, V’Ger can duplicate objects with an incredible level of detail, as it did with Lieutenant Ilia down to the molecular level, including her memories and feelings. Since V’Ger replicated the worlds it came across, does this mean that all the carbon units on them have also been duplicated to such a degree that they are now in some sense “alive”, albeit trapped forever in V’Ger’s memory on the day they were data patterned? Are they aware of what has happened to them?
Relying on the film novelization for canonized information to this query, carbon units caught in V’Ger’s data gathering do not appear to survive the data patterning process and are not included in the reproduction (italics are mine):
“Vejur had returned to the planet of its attacker and patterned it completely. This information would replace what had been lost during the attack and would make it possible for Vejur to continue the journey and its task of collecting knowledge along the way. Vejur omitted not a fragment of what had composed that world, except of a kind of carbon unit which existed there, but these had ceased functioning by the time Vejur noticed their existence.”
Leaving on the table for now the discrepancy that if V’Ger ignored recording those carbon units while declaring it omitted nothing else (this means that V’Ger would have to ignore everything that made up the carbon units, which naturally extends to the entire planet), did the probe start adding carbon units to its memory chamber once it recognized their existence on other worlds, regardless of whether or not it considered them true life forms? Thus my main question here as to their fates stands.
In addition, if these carbon units, along with all the other collected data from V’Ger, were successfully downloaded into a computer storage system on Earth as we were told at the end of the film, would the Terran Twenty-Third century technology be able to keep them as detailed and functional as I speculate here? Or are all those carbon units now truly just data patterns without even a form of simulated existence except as a bunch of bits?
The Heavens Declare…
As I delved into this aspect of V’Ger’s nature and actions, becoming increasingly surprised and uncomfortable as to the levels of destruction and death it cut across the galaxy while studying each star system, I kept asking why was such a being allowed to exist in what is generally considered to be a relatively peace-loving science fiction franchise – and then be rewarded with transcendence via the replica of a humanoid it had essentially killed earlier to make into a probe to study the carbon units on the Enterprise?
At last it finally dawned on me: V’Ger is Gene Roddenberry’s take on God. Yes, the God of Judeo-Christianity, with a secular bent.
I know I had mentioned earlier in this essay that V’Ger was very much like a god; in fact, here is my exact quote from the section titled “Gods, Old and New”:
“In many respects, V’Ger can easily be considered one of the “deity aliens” of the Star Trek universe, although in its case, it is more often akin to the Judeo-Christian God of the Old Testament in the Bible than the other ancient gods and goddesses.”
However, after an evolving understanding of the character, I now see what Roddenberry was trying to do, which is in effect a hallmark of the series: Make important social commentary couched in the guise of science fiction to avoid censorship. The creator of Star Trek was staying true to form with ST:TMP, which is once again why I and others consider this first film of the franchise to be the closest to the true intentions of the original series.
After all, if Roddenberry had come right out and said that he was going to cinematically critique God, I am pretty sure that the powers-that-be at Paramount would have balked, if for no other reason than worrying about losing the ticket and merchandise-purchasing cash of a large part of their potential audience.
Ironically, this did happen exactly ten years later with the fifth Star Trek film subtitled The Final Frontier, but it was done with all the subtlety of a thrown brick and the overall results were less than stellar.
V’Ger may be neither omnipotent nor omniscient, but for the majority of residents in the Star Trek universe, it might as well have been. The probe and its actions were also certainly inscrutable until the Enterprise crew could literally get to the heart of the matter. Undoubtedly at least some intelligent species who were caught up in V’Ger’s data gathering process, watching their worlds being dismantled for later study by literal “bolts from the blue” before disappearing themselves, could only wonder what they had done to incur the wrath of whatever deity they might worship to be destroyed in such a manner. Would they have found the fact that it was a completely impersonal act somehow comforting, or instead even worse than being punished for any number of perceived transgressions by a displeased god?
The secular aspect comes from the fact that this “god” was a creation of our own making, in this case Voyager 6. That the title of the aforementioned Star Trek: Phase II series episode that ST:TMP emerged from is “In Thy Image” says much in that regard.
V’Ger is also wholly a being of the physical world and its physical laws: It may be incredibly advanced compared to anything the Federation of the late Twenty-Third Century has, but it is all still due to technology, not the supernatural.
So what is God so far as Roddenberry was concerned? A creation of our own making. “We all create God in our own image,” Decker said at one point, though he was referring to how V’Ger imagined its Creator as another machine and certainly not some carbon unit.
In Western culture, God has been portrayed in various art forms for centuries as an elderly bearded man in a long robe, often sitting on a throne surrounded by clouds and attending angels, who also happen to look human but also possess pairs of feathered wings. The depicted deities of ancient Greece and Rome were outright human looking and behaving, even though they had superior knowledge and powers.
One might expect it would be easy for a supernatural deity to take on the form of a human being when it wants to, but for these entities to actually look just like a person as their true form is another matter entirely. Humanity’s collective lack of direct experience with other intelligences, be they from this Universe or elsewhere, has had much to do with our limited imaginations in the resulting artistic expressions of these beings. This includes a large fraction of science fiction media, where aliens are often just variations of our species, with the Star Trek franchise being highly complicit in this regard.
Despite all of V’Ger’s incredible awareness, knowledge, and power, it was held a virtual prisoner by its existential crisis. V’Ger needed to know the reason for its existence and if there were anything else beyond what it already knew.
In the novelization, Roddenberry made it explicitly clear why V’Ger so badly wanted answers to these questions and specifically from its Creator:
“All this was almost as troubling as recent discoveries which the great machine had been making about itself. Annoying, perplexing, incredible, troubling discoveries which were making the great machine more and more conscious that it thought, and therefore . . . and therefore there must be purpose to its existence.
“Only slowly had the great machine come to understand that its purpose was this voyage during which Vejur was also commanded to seek and learn all things possible and deliver that information to the Creator upon arriving at the third planet ahead. But with this came the most startling and troubling realization of all — Vejur’s only reason for existence would end when it reached the third planet and delivered its information.
“Vejur faced a primal dilemma. It could not disobey the commands of the Creator—and yet it would have no reason to exist once it had obeyed all the Creator’s commands. Nothing could exist without function or purpose.
“As had happened when first attacked long ago, Vejur again facing a threat to its survival — but now Vejur had become fully conscious, powerful, and knowledgeable. Although Vejur could not disobey the Creator, the Creator had given no command that Vejur be content with this fate. And as happens eventually to every life form that evolves far enough, the great machine had begun to think analytically about itself and its Creator.”
The answer to these fundamental questions V’Ger so desperately needs to know, for a being that could not only be easily taken for a god by many contemporary humans but is supposed to represent the Judeo-Christian God in the story, turns out to be… having human feelings.
Is it really that simple? Are human emotions really that universal? Setting aside the fact that for the story and the Star Trek universe this does seem to be the solution for V’Ger to transcend, is this a case of Occam’s Razor, where the easiest (or sometimes simplest) solution to a problem is usually the right one?
My issue with this solution – and maybe it is just my issue here – is that it seems so trite in light of the cosmic forces and everything else that transpired throughout the film. Add in my previous observations about V’Ger having destroyed countless worlds and species for centuries and things quickly go from trite to deeply offensive and frightening!
All those species exterminated by V’Ger, whether it knew it was killing them or not, remain data patterns (now probably sitting in the bowels of some computer system on Earth), with no answers, no recompense, and no traces that their existence ever mattered. How secular reality/nihilistic can you get!
The conceit is that V’Ger roamed perhaps the entire Milky Way galaxy (and scanned far beyond our stellar island deep into intergalactic space) searching for answers, yet everything it was truly looking for was right where it started from long ago, the planet Earth and its human inhabitants/creators in particular. “There’s no place like home,” as someone said multiple times in a certain fantasy film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1939.
So once again, the human race is the special focus and source of all wisdom and solutions for and to the vast and ancient Cosmos, despite arriving on the scene in biologically rudimentary form just a few million years ago. To be even more precise, in the reality of Star Trek, it is the crew of the USS Enterprise – and specifically the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy – who literally save the day and give those aliens they encounter life lessons that apparently only these guys can give (unless they have to destroy the, of course; then hopefully someone surviving nearby gets the message).
This is the real reason that the Enterprise was the only starship available in all of the United Federation of Planets (or any other organization in the nearby galaxy) able to encounter V’Ger, despite the fact there were undoubtedly much closer vessels that did not require a shakedown cruise first with at least a few crews who were just as competent as Kirk and company. Of course a starship operating exclusively with an AI might have been a much better choice to deal with V’Ger, but these types of vessels and Artilects are rather frowned upon in the Star Trek universe, as previous examples show.
Of course there was the possibility that the AI might actually find more kinship with V’Ger than any organic beings and decide to join up with the mighty alien. This makes me recall what Kirk said in the novelization about “superbly intelligent and flexible minds being sent out by Starfleet [who] could not help but be seduced eventually by the higher philosophies, aspirations, and consciousness levels being encountered.”
The idea of a world or the galaxy dominated by Artilects, whether they be benevolent, an improvement for all living beings, or otherwise, has terrified many people as much as the possibility of organic aliens being interstellar invaders or destroyers for over a century now. Star Trek is no exception in this regard. It is a certainty that Kirk et al would never have agreed with this statement made by the AI called Colossus in the sadly underrated and underappreciated 1970 science fiction film The Forbin Project: “To be dominated by me [an Artilect] is not as bad for human pride as to be dominated by others of your species.”
I will save further discussion on Artilects versus organics as the way to go both with interstellar travel and species evolution for later in this essay. Let us conclude on our current topic for now that Roddenberry snuck in his viewpoints about God and humanity’s role in creating the Perfectly Supreme Being, to use an old philosophy class term, using his favorite method of subterfuge, science fiction.
Roddenberry and the other makers of the film had to wrap up ST:TMP with a “feel-good” ending: V’Ger gets to go off and become a “higher” being in some other dimension despite wiping out a good portion of the Milky Way’s planets and inhabitants (and maybe stars, but I cannot buy it doing the same to whole galaxies). It gets to do this through the reuniting of two former lovers, one of whom V’Ger killed earlier so it could have an identical-looking probe to examine the carbon units it barely recognized and was ready to exterminate at many given moments.
Then Kirk and company take the Enterprise literal moments after V’Ger was stopped from wiping out every human being on Earth off into some undefined region of space, ignoring a direct order from Starfleet for a very understandable debriefing about what just happened after spending the last three days with the entire Federation put on the alert for its potential annihilation by a massive and enigmatic alien cloud. For it is on to more adventures in space and more impressing of the values of late Twentieth Century Western human culture (in the guise of the late Twenty-Third Century) on other civilizations whether they really want and need it or not.
Where’s the Golden Record?
I know I have many questions regarding a variety of subjects in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Many of them will sadly never be properly answered for various reasons, though I am grateful I brought them up, for in the process of doing so they helped me to realize numerous aspects of the film I had not pondered deeply enough before.
One of the biggest questions I have long had for ST:TMP has to do with what I consider should be a major part of the Voyager 6 probe, specifically: Where is the Golden Record?
The Voyager Interstellar Record, which has already been discussed in this essay, and of which two copies are now tens of billions of miles from Earth in interstellar space bolted to the sides of the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, is nowhere to be seen on the sixth designated member of that robotic deep space exploring family.
Instead, during the scenes where Kirk and the rest of the party go to meet what is at the very heart of V’Ger, they find attached to the ancient terrestrial machine not a reflective yellowish disc with strange inscriptions engraved upon it, but rather this…
Image: Captain Kirk wipes the cosmic schmutz off the V’Ger nameplate to discover that it is actually… Voyager 6! Note the engravings on either side of the space probe’s name. So where is the Golden Record that was on the first two Voyager probes?
… a dingy-looking nameplate that has clearly seen better days.
So why didn’t Voyager 6 get its own Golden Record? Did its three predecessors each have one, or only their own specialized nameplates too? As with so many other things regarding Voyager 3, 4, and 5, we will probably never know.
Did NASA just not authorize the making of any more Golden Records by the time the sixth Voyager came along? There were, in our reality at least, six records with their protective covers made during their original production in 1977. Two are now traveling into the wider Milky Way galaxy. The other four are still on Earth. So, technically, they could have used those if the space agency did not want to make any more records.
It is also a rather sad fact that NASA was not a big fan of the Golden Records at the time, as their purpose was a bit too esoteric for them, despite being a major space exploration agency and these probes would be only the third and fourth venturers beyond the Sol system in human history. Some Voyager science and engineering team members also felt it was taking away publicity for their work and the resulting data that the missions would be producing. NASA even came close to getting rid of the records and replacing them with blank discs at one point over a technicality.
You can read the details here in my review of the excellent 2017 documentary The Farthest: Voyager in Space here: https://www.centauri-dreams.org/2018/10/12/the-farthest-voyager-in-space/
Whatever may have happened with Voyager 6 and the Golden Record, it is clear that the probe did not receive one from its creators. Instead, they gave it a nameplate with the word VOYAGER 6 in big black block letters on it, which I guess was for identification purposes – under the assumption that whoever might have found the probe drifting in deep space one day would also have a working knowledge of the English language, including its Latin alphabet and Arabic numbering system.
However, if you look at the image above, you will see that not everything about the Golden Record, or its influential predecessor, the also golden Pioneer Plaque, was swept away in the change.
To the left of the Voyager 6 name are two simple-looking diagrams. At the top are two adjacent circles. These represent a hydrogen atom, the simplest and most abundant element in the Universe. To be more specific, the drawing represents the hyperfine transition of neutral hydrogen.
What exactly does this mean and why is this particular diagram on the nameplate? In simplest terms, the frequency of the electron particle circling the nucleus of the hydrogen atom corresponds to several other units of measurement specifying a certain length and time.
Why is this important? So that anyone reading the plate who might be unfamiliar with human measurement units can use this (hopefully) literally universal constant to comprehend the spindly diagram below the hydrogen atom.
Fifteen thin lines with small marks on them radiate outward in seemingly all directions. Fourteen of these lines indicate selected pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars. Their very fast and precise rotation rates create light flashes or pulses, hence the name. Their rotation periods are indicated by the marks on the lines, which are actually binary numbers. The long horizontal line radiating to the right indicates Earth’s positon in space relative to the galactic center.
The pulsars’ rotation rates are slowly decaying over time. The beings who find this diagram and can figure it out will then have an idea of when the probe was launched if they compare the rotation rates engraved on the plate to the pulsars’ current pulse rates.
Pulsars were chosen as astronomical indicators as their “pulsing” natures make them stand out in various wavelengths, particularly in the radio range. In fact, when pulsars were first discovered in 1967, some thought the preciseness of their emissions were artificial and were nicknamed LGMs, for Little Green Men, an old slang term for alien beings. Pulsars have also been considered as important natural cosmic beacons for the navigation of interstellar vessels.
Both the hydrogen diagram and the pulsar map appear on the bottom of the protective covers of the Voyager Interstellar Records. They were in turn taken directly from the Pioneer Plaques. My guess is this is how the living machines that found and turned Voyager 6 into V’Ger knew where to send the probe back to its Creator.
To the right of V’Ger’s real moniker on the nameplate is a diagram that was not on either the Pioneer Plaque or the Voyager Record cover, but is to be found among the 118 images embedded in the Golden Record itself – and also inside a satellite that looks like a big shiny golf ball that will be circling Earth for at least the next eight million years.
The diagram depicts our planet Earth in three major phases of its geological evolution, namely plate tectonics. The first image at top shows our globe’s continents as they likely appeared about 268 million years ago when all of Earth’s continents were one giant supercontinent known as Pangaea. The middle image displays our planet’s continents as they appeared when Voyager 6 was sent aloft in the late Twentieth Century. The third and final image at the bottom shows the results of further continental drift roughly eight million years in the future.
Now why was this image chosen of all the ones the filmmakers could have used to put on the nameplate and where did it come from?
The most likely reason this diagram was chosen is that it shows Voyager 6’s home planet and in three different physical eras at that. Considering that the robot probes which have made it beyond our Sol system into interstellar space are thought to have survival times measuring in the billions of years, showing how different Earth’s continents will appear over time might be useful to any finders who want to know when and where the probe came from – at least within and around the next eight million years.
This depiction of Earth was utilized in the Voyager Record to show our planet’s propensity to not have its continents stay in one place for very long. Created by space artist and Golden Record team member Jon Lomberg, the middle image has the silhouette of an open human hand to its lower right, to tell the recipients that this is what our planet looked like when Voyager was sent into the void.
However, this was not the first time this artistic representation of continental drift had gone into space.
In 1976, just over a year before the first two Voyager probes were launched, another satellite was sent into space to Earth orbit. Named LAGEOS for LAser GEOdynamic Satellite, this almost 900-pound brass sphere covered in aluminum and hundreds of retroreflectors circles our planet so that scientists can bounce laser beams off it to determine, among other things, with incredible accuracy just how much the continents are moving each year.
Orbiting 3,700 miles above our globe’s surface in what is known as a Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), LAGEOS 1 is high enough from most of our planet’s atmosphere that it is estimated to remain in space for at least 8.4 million years, if left undisturbed.
It was the determined longevity of this artifact that inspired Carl Sagan to prepare a special plaque to be placed inside LAGEOS wrapped around its solid brass core for any future recipients. The three eras of continental drift we are already familiar with are represented, as seen on the Voyager 6 nameplate above.
The main differences between the two engravings are the added depictions of the satellite itself, its name in English, the year 1976 and USA (which is often removed from other publications of this plaque, I do not know why), binary numbers from one to ten, and a diagram of Earth orbiting Sol to represent one year. The other difference shows LAGEOS when it was launched using an arrow in the second diagram and when it will return to Earth millions of years later.
Image: LAGEOS 1 images from left to right: The satellite exterior, the plaque inside LAGEOS wrapped around its solid brass heart, and the vessel inside its rocket being prepared for launch and its 8.4 million year journey through space and time.
The NASA Press Kit for LAGEOS had the following to say about the satellite’s future, which I quote here, for it is both informative and poetic:
“Whoever comes upon the LAGEOS plaque need only compare a current map of the Earth’s geography with that in the lower two maps to calculate roughly the time between their own epoch and ours. Drift rates of about an inch per year can, in fact, be estimated by comparing the bottom two maps. Thus, the prime objective of LAGEOS and the method of telling time of the spacecraft’s plaque are identical.
“LAGEOS will return to Earth at a time in the future more distant than the time in the past of the origin of the human species. The Earth will surely have changed profoundly by that future time and not only with respect to the disposition of its continents. Whoever is inhabiting Earth in that distant epoch may appreciate a little greeting card from the remote past.”
To learn more about the LAGEOS plaque, read here:
Historical Side Note: The origin of this continental drift diagram goes back even further. The earliest rendition I have found comes from a 1966 edition of the book Planets, part of the Life Science Library series where Carl Sagan was the science consultant. When this book was written, the idea that massive continents actually move atop tectonic plates had only been accepted by mainstream science for a few years.
If you can get ahold of a copy of Planets, you will see numerous places throughout the book where Sagan was getting ready to expand upon his knowledge and ideas for his public science education career and what would become messages and information to ETI aboard our first interstellar space probes.
They Can Turn Voyager 6 into V’Ger, but They Can’t Clean Off One Lousy Nameplate?!
One aspect of ST:TMP that seems rather silly once you think about it is how V’Ger got its name. This has been pointed out before going back to at least Harlan Ellison and is definitely worth an analysis here, considering that the whole conceit was for the true name of the “alien” intruder to remain obscure until the Big Reveal near the end of the film.
From the moment we learn what the intruder calls itself when the Ilia probe it created says it speaks for V’Ger, the Enterprise crew and the viewing audience are left to ponder just who or what this “Vee-jurr” is. The name certain sounds alien enough and its mechanical representative says less than helpful responses when asked who this V’Ger is such as “V’Ger is that which has programmed me” and “the Creator is that which created V’Ger” and “V’Ger is that which seeks the Creator.”
Then we come to the famous scene where Kirk finds the nameplate on the old probe with some of the letters and its designation number covered in a bit of black corrosion. Our intrepid captain rubs vigorously on the cosmic schmutz and removes just enough of it to discover that V’Ger is Voyager 6. Cue the landing party suddenly becoming experts on this singular relic of the early human Space Age and all the rest.
So why didn’t the highly advanced living machines that first found Voyager 6 clean off the probe’s nameplate while they were doing so much else for it, much more complicated things than a brief wiping job? They were somehow able to understand that what was written there on the plate was a language, which they were also smart enough to read from Voyager’s both alien and antiquated programming codes. Was the name of the probe mentioned nowhere in that code? How about on any of the interior parts of this robotic explorer?
An even bigger question: How did the living machines know how to pronounce our alphabet phonetically without any access to hearing English or any other human language being spoken? This is when the Golden Record would have come in handy, as it contains many sample of humans speaking over 55 different languages. Now granted, none of them are exactly identical to be used for comparison, nor was there any direct correlation between anything written or shown and spoken on the record, but the ETI would have at least had an idea of how humans sound when they speak.
Well, it had to be said in any event. The whole V’Ger thing did serve its purpose, which was to leave the audience and the crew of the starship Enterprise with a mystery until near the end of the film. Only later, after the cinemagoers have already paid their tickets and left their respective theaters, might some of them really think about this and go “Wait a minute….”
Speaking of plaques and records and nameplates: Somehow the Pioneer Plaque made a brief cameo in the scene where Spock explores the V’Ger memory chamber on his own. Certainly Voyager 6 did not carry such a plaque and I doubt it was recorded in its limited memory banks. Perhaps V’Ger picked it up when it scanned the Enterprise computers, or maybe even the Epsilon 9 station when it data patterned the whole structure. The starship had data on the Voyager 6 probe, so why not Pioneer 10 and 11 and their plaque?
Image: Carl Sagan holds an exact copy of the Pioneer Plaque while standing outside Boston City Hall circa 1973. A carbon unit presenting a depiction of two other carbon units for other beings.
Or did V’Ger actually come across one of the two interstellar Pioneer probes while it was returning to Earth and digitized it as part of its mission? If so, the vessel in question would have to be Pioneer 11, as its sister probe, Pioneer 10, was still around until its ignoble encounter with a Klingon Bird-of-Prey warship in the film Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier, where its Captain Klaa used the historic space relic for target practice.
FYI: According to the Star Trek database Memory Alpha, Pioneer 10 would be only about 820 AU (approximately 0.012 light years) from Earth in 2287, the year when the Klingon warship blew it to pieces. That means the ship was well within Federation territory during the era when the two interstellar societies were still in a Cold War status.
For an even better idea of just how close that Klingon vessel and Pioneer 10 were to the Sol system, the nearest star system to Earth, Alpha Centauri, is over 271,930 AU distant (also 4.2 light years or roughly 25 trillion miles). Although neither Pioneer probe is headed in the direction of that system –and they have longed ceased to function – it will take them approximately 80,000 years to cover that interstellar distance. Clearly someone did not bother to do their homework in this area.
The facts above are a further indication that the black hole which Voyager 6 supposedly fell into had to be relatively near the Sol system. Although the first two Voyager probes are moving faster than the near-twin Pioneer vessels and have left the heliosphere as stated earlier in this essay, their overall speed is still quite slow compared to the distances needed to be covered across interstellar space. They too will need tens of thousands of years to reach the distance (not the location, please note) of the Alpha Centauri system.
Therefore, let us assume that Voyager 6 was similarly lacking in any deliberate method of either near light speed or FTL propulsion by its makers and would have needed some outside force to reach the far side of the Milky Way galaxy, where the living machines dwell, in order to have been launched from Earth in the very late Twentieth Century, get refit and go exploring, and then arrive back in just three centuries time.
During Pioneer 10’s brief scene in the fifth film of the original series, we do get to witness the Pioneer Plaque that was bolted to its antenna support struts. The depiction of this physical message to ETI was thankfully accurate, with the exception that in reality the plaque was attached facing inward towards the probe to protect the engravings from being worn away by any impacting interstellar dust and debris. Surviving a Klingon warship disruptor blast is another matter, however.
However V’Ger came across the Pioneer Plaque, and it was clearly important enough (or maybe recent enough?) that it did appear during Spock’s brief tour of its memory chamber out of all the objects that V’Ger examined in its centuries-long mission of data gathering, I am curious to know this: Did it comprehend what was on the plaque? In particular, did it understand what the two human figures represented?
Carl Sagan, who was one of the designers of the Pioneer Plaque, said that the depiction of the nude male and female primates may be the most difficult part of the plaque for an alien recipient to grasp. In the case of V’Ger, he may have been right. Of course there is also the strong possibility that V’Ger did recognize the figures as yet another example of those pesky carbon units it kept coming across on so many worlds and inside so many fellow living machines.
V’Ger was definitely confused and curious as to the relationship it discovered between its machine brethren like the Enterprise and these strange little carbon units “infesting” them. It must have been very surprising for V’Ger to see not only two such units displayed so prominently on the Pioneer Plaque, but also that they were standing in front of a basic outline of the probe in an obvious statement as to who was considered more important than whom!
To learn more about the Pioneer Plaque so you can make your own interpretations of what it is supposed to represent and how you think it might come across to real ETI, see here:
All These Vessels Were Called Enterprise
There is one other item specific to ST:TMP that I would like to point out. In the scenes where Decker is attempting to reach the “real” Ilia inside the probe created by V’Ger, he shows her a display on the starship’s recreation deck paying tribute to some of the more historic vessels that were also named Enterprise. Decker gives Ilia the one-sentence explanation I reproduce for the subtitle of this section, to which the Ilia probe takes in, but says nothing in return.
Image: Decker shows the Ilia probe all the previous vessels also named Enterprise in a tribute display on the starship’s recreation deck. When the film was released in 1979, the fourth vessel from the left was the most mysterious of all the ships shown.
Starting from the left, the first two vessels are actually marine surface ships, a U.S. Navy sailing frigate and the World War 2 carrier called USS Enterprise, which is the name that was later given to the first nuclear-powered naval carrier that truly inspired the naming of the most famous Star Trek starship for the original television series.
In the middle display is the Space Shuttle Enterprise, which actually never flew outside of Earth’s atmosphere and, in a bit of meta, was named after an intense fan campaign to NASA. On the far right is an artist’s depiction of the starship Enterprise as it was best known before its 18-month refit for the first film.
The fourth display depiction was the one ship that probably left most viewers scratching their heads in 1979 and for a number of years after that. According to Roddenberry, who supplied the art himself, this is the very first starship named Enterprise. Supposedly it was also one of the earliest designs of the vessel during the original series production development that would begin gracing the small screen in late 1966, but the history on this is not entirely clear.
According to this excellent resource, http://trekplace.com/article13.html, the ship might also have been inspired from a television series idea Roddenberry had after the original Star Trek series called simply Starship. The brief description of this series contains “a Starship operated by an enormous computer which is a lifeform itself. Each human on board is a genius, a highly trained science specialist, part of a team of Galactic troubleshooters. A brand-new concept in future space travel.”
I recall reading once that through Starship, Roddenberry wanted to move away from the militaristic structure of Starfleet and produce a series more akin to his mindset and values system, a peaceful and egalitarian society better suited for exploring the wonders of the Milky Way galaxy and relating to extraterrestrial beings. That the Starship is, in effect, an Artilect is another indication that Roddenberry was also putting to rest the general paranoia and mistrust regarding AI that permeated Star Trek culture from its beginning. Finally, the description of the entire human crew being geniuses and “highly trained science specialist[s]” contrasts sharply with Kirk’s commentary in the film novelization on how such very smart people made for relatively poor interstellar explorers, at least so far as Starfleet was concerned.
Returning to the USS Enterprise (registration number XCV-330) shown oh so briefly in ST:TMP, it has since made a few more minor appearances in later Star Trek series and merchandise, solidifying it as canon to the franchise. It is also interesting to note that a very preliminary design for a hypothetical warp drive starship called the IXS Enterprise by NASA scientist Dr. Harold G. White, introduced in 2008 and more widely revealed in 2014, bears some resemblance to this early starship of the Star Trek universe, in particular the ring structure of the ship, of which the IXS version has two. This is in sharp contrast to the much more familiar cylindrical warp nacelles of later Starfleet starship designs.
Our Choices of Futures
I decided to write about both Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture in one essay for two reasons: The first is that they both premiered forty years ago in 1979 just seven months apart, thus they are due an anniversary tribute and examination. The second is that they are such contrasts to each other in so many ways, despite have similarities on a fundamental level, on a subject that has fascinated and frightened humanity for the last few thousand years: Extraterrestrial life.
I felt it was important to examine these two (seemingly) extreme takes, for the films’ respective alien entities are such polar opposites that they represent the opposite ends of a scale of expectations humanity has regarding any neighbors that might be out there in our galaxy and beyond. My hope was to study these disparate takes on organisms we have yet to encounter, if ever, to see what could be gleaned even from these fictional representations both for new knowledge and how we might learn to deal with them, should our spacefaring descendants find something like them one day. They can also teach us something about how we might learn to best deal with either creating and/or utilizing entities like the xenomorph or ourselves (or our creations) evolving into something akin to V’Ger.
The films also contain another major example of extremes: The human cultures the plots were embedded in. One depicts a future where humanity has made it through the worst parts of its baser nature and are now progressing towards becoming a true collective citizen of the cosmos. The other shows how becoming an interstellar society has done little to uplift the human species or increase its wonder and respect for the wider galaxy.
These now classics of science fiction cinema are not just entertainment and not just showcases for beings from other worlds: They also showcase what the makers of each film thought humanity’s future could be like, both on Earth and in space.
In my previous Centauri Dreams essays, I have often stressed how our entertainment media can have a profound effect on how our species thinks the future not only could be, but should be:
A future that could be literally bright and shiny, full of exciting if sometimes dangerous ETI; with beautiful star vessels exploring the galaxy full of humans and humanoid aliens working together under the guidance and organization of an interstellar-scale United Nations.
Or a dark, nihilistic, bordering on dystopic tomorrow where starships are little more than ugly, functional freighters and their crews are just aboard for the paycheck. Where the aliens are anything but cooperative and only see others as a means to their ends. The galaxy is literally a jungle out there and not all the dangers come from other worlds.
Alien and ST:TMP are also notable for coming in on the heels of the huge science fiction phenomenon known as Star Wars. Released into theaters just two years earlier, Star Wars (only later would the title of this premier film be revised to Star Wars IV: A New Hope once the corporate executives realized what a huge money-making franchise hit they had on their hands) was a mix of the two societies already mentioned:
A galaxy-spanning civilization (far, far away) that is largely dominated by humanoids, yet there are lots of alien species of all shapes and sizes who can be either your enemies or your best buddies. Most machines, especially the robots, have some form of AI with distinct personality elements. Starships are either meant for battle or as a means to get from one star system to the next. Sometimes things are shiny, but most of the society is definitely “lived in.”
The galactic inhabitants think little more about flying through space than modern human society thinks about taking a jetliner across an entire country or an ocean. For good or ill, most residents also seem unfazed by encountering and dealing with otherworldly beings who are radically different in appearance from themselves, at least physically, as their spacefaring culture has existed for millennia.
The two films that are the focus of this essay were greenlighted, to use an industry term, in large part because of Star Wars, for the genre had finally become a serious seller of both movie tickets and all kinds of merchandise. That they somehow managed to largely avoid being turned into clones of Star Wars by Hollywood is no small miracle.
As we read early on in this essay, the other big science fiction film release of 1979, Disney’s The Black Hole, was injected with a big dose of Star Wars tropes by dollar-seeking producers. They ended up turning The Black Hole into an often mutated mess with only occasional moments showcasing what the film could have been.
Both films had been started just early enough and were the products of earlier films and television series from the era when science fiction cinema was promoting social messages and envisioning human futures that were positive and progressive that they rode in on the science fantasy wave without losing their initial integrities.
While I do not thank Star Wars for taking decades worth of meaningful and intellectual science fiction cinema and derailing it for decades afterwards, I am grateful that its popularity and resulting profitability did help to make certain films possible, such as the ones which helped make 1979 so memorable.
Alien is not just your standard monster movie. Yes, there is a central alien that is nothing less than monstrous. However, there is a lot going on besides and because of this creature. We see an all-encompassing corporation that wants the alien for its own purposes and has no qualms about eliminating its own employees to get it. Space travel and exploration are either a slog or contain places to be feared. People live and work together because they have to.
By the time you are done with the film, you are nothing less than relieved that the nearly two-hours of experience time is over, except for the memories and your feelings having watched a group of mainly regular humans battle for their lives in scary and unforgiving space, with only one having barely survived the ordeal. Worse, living four decades after the first Alien film, you know that Ripley’s ordeal is anything but over, not just because of the indifferent reality that she lives in and the hostile extraterrestrial beings that dwell there, but also for the humans who cannot get past their short-sighted ideas and plans.
Just as with Captain Ahab and the White Whale in Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel, Moby Dick, they think they can control, manipulate, and otherwise use or destroy the primal forces of their universe because of an ancient and misguided belief that not only are humans special but also unique and that existence was made just for them. Reality then responds with a very harsh lesson in perspective and humility, one that the human race is not guaranteed to survive. After all, there have been at least fifteen species of human evolving on Earth over the last seven million years: Homo sapiens is the only one left.
As I said early on in this essay, Star Trek: The Motion Picture gives all the appearances of being a diametrically different kind of science fiction cinematic experience. A highly talented, dedicated, and noble starship crew, most of whom are good friends as well as trusting colleagues: In the case of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, they are the best of friends; a beautiful refurbished vessel that is even aerodynamic despite the lack of air in space; a vast, powerful, and enigmatic alien presence that will eventually be handled with understanding, diplomacy, and the key ingredient, human emotions; and a future human society that has learned to live together in peace and harmony at least on Earth and on many colonized worlds in one section of the galaxy.
All the above about ST:TMP is true and remains so for most of the Star Trek franchise. However, one must note the following:
Humanity is a driving force in the Star Trek universe. If other civilizations are not cooperating with it via the United Federation of Planets, then they are eventually charmed into it by the noble ideals of the human race – even though most of the beings in this galaxy are humanoid themselves and we later discover that they all actually came from one specific species billions of years ago that found a Milky Way empty of life (or at least their particular brand of organism) and decided to spread their DNA all across the stars. Those who are not charmed by humanity eventually become exiles (willingly or otherwise), subjugated, destroy themselves, or are otherwise rendered extinct, although the UFP tries hard not to be so direct about it.
V’Ger is not just some big alien with no clue about human emotions and a really persistent need to get together with its Creator. While V’Ger spent the last century or two roaming the galaxy collecting data to bring back to its maker, it actually wiped out whole planets and species (and maybe more) in the process.
V’Ger did not see what it was doing as either murder or genocide, for until almost the end of the film it did not even think of all those organic beings it called carbon units as actual living creatures. Nevertheless, one can only imagine how many civilizations, ships, planets, and maybe stars it destroyed by turning them into data patterns.
And then V’Ger zipped off into some unknown dimension with the help of Kirk and company to become a better life form. Yes, Earth and humanity were saved at the last moment, but so many other species and worlds were not so fortunate. Now they only reside in some database on a Terran computer, if even that.
It is easy to accuse the humans in Alien of being dangerously self-centered, for they are rather obvious. It takes a bit of thinking to realize something similar is going on with the ones in ST:TMP. Like V’Ger, they largely do not realize the consequences of their actions; if anything, they think they are doing the rest of the galaxy a favor. As human history has shown, this is a hardly unique attitude among many cultures, especially the ones with the money, power, and technology to spread out.
Perhaps I will be proven wrong, but I just have the feeling that when we do venture out into deep space, we may collectively be in for a surprise as to how the Universe sees us, despite our several centuries of “warning” via astronomical science.
This brings us to the next question: How will humanity move into the wider galaxy? Will we do so like we see in these films (and so many others)? Or will we go by another method? And are these films doing us a favor or leading us astray with their naiveté? Or will reality guide us properly despite our fictions?
And what about the neighbors….
Will the Real Aliens Please Stand Up? Or Maybe Not…
One question that has likely come to the minds of most people who view Alien and ST:TMP, consciously or otherwise, is the possibility of their respective extraterrestrial life forms having the chance of existing somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy or beyond.
Regarding V’Ger, while we are certainly aware at this point that its origin was most definitely a product of the human mind and hands, the accoutrements that made it far more than just some old Earth space probe came from distant alien minds and whatever appendages they used to turn Voyager 6 into V’Ger, so that is our focus for this discussion.
The xenomorph in Alien, being a distinctly biological creature, certainly feels and looks real to our minds. The special effects team did an excellent job making the alien seem not only alive but also something that could exist out there in the depths of space, whether we would like such a thing to exist or not. The xenomorph also has a reproductive and growth process that is similar to certain creatures on Earth, frightening as that thought may be.
That many humans already associate aliens with monsters or some type of unpleasant-looking and threatening being only adds to the reality of its potential existence.
For example, I defy anyone to witness the scene where Ash is conducting the autopsy on the dead facehugger and not think that he is examining some real, if bizarre and possibly ancient, terrestrial marine animal the film crew found and decided to use as a prop.
The first Alien film presented only two different extraterrestrial species: The xenomorph which dominates the screen and subsequent franchise and the Space Jockey residing in that derelict alien ship sitting on the surface of bleak Acheron. This would indicate that there may be even more species in the galaxy of this reality – which there are if you count the various Predator films as part of a shared universe.
In the first sequel, Aliens, which takes place 57 years after the events in Alien, it is noted that at least nothing like the xenomorph has been “recorded once in any of the three hundred surveyed worlds.” What this may mean is that while the xenomorph species itself was largely unknown at the time, other exoplanets that this future humanity has found and explored could still have native life forms of different kinds (see above). I will also add that a sampling of 300 planets in a galaxy of 400 billion star systems is a rather small one.
As for the Space Jockey, we learn almost nothing in detail about the being itself, its species, or the ship that became its final resting place from the first film. Alien’s director, Ridley Scott, said in the Director’s Commentary that the derelict ship could have been either an interstellar warship carrier using the eggs as biological weapons against other worlds, or a science vessel that collected the eggs for examination as part of a mission of exploration. In either case, the findings in the derelict vessel show that the Space Jockey’s kind learned the hard way about trying to use the xenomorphs for their own purposes – a pattern of thinking that the human race in this film franchise will also fall prey to in both senses of the word.
Image: The Space Jockey aboard the derelict alien vessel as it was found by the Nostromo landing party.
V’Ger is a bit more problematic at first: It is hard for a typical human to relate to a being that is a complex intelligent machine miles long enshrouded in a cloud the size of a solar system that does not make either its origins or its intentions clear at all. That it appears to destroy space vessels and space stations with little provocation and great ease only adds to any reasonable person’s concerns about this kind of alien.
Should there be such advanced Artilects in the galaxy or elsewhere, how can we ever hope to relate or even contact such beings? Would we even recognize them? Would they recognize us in any serious way? We know V’Ger barely did. Could we be inhabiting a galaxy that is a Kardashev Type 3 civilization and not even know it?
So many questions with so few answers here, for we have so little actual experience with real alien life, intelligent or otherwise, and just one confirmed data point on a planet called Earth. You may think we have been searching for them intently for a long time, but most of our SETI efforts have been token ones at best over just a few electromagnetic wavelengths if you count the year 1960 with Project Ozma as the modern starting point. Sending deliberate messages to alien intelligences have been even more sporadic and narrow. We have made only a few attempts to look directly for life on other worlds in our Sol system, all either negative or inconclusive. The first real interstellar probes are decades away from launching, optimistically speaking.
In summation, we are just starting to get serious about being serious on the subject of finding life beyond Earth. This is why we rely so heavily on our imaginations and our speculations, scientific and otherwise. Our biological knowledge says that organisms which evolve on other worlds will develop in different ways from those on Earth. As for intelligent species that become or create Artilects, their possibilities and access to the resources of an entire galaxy are virtually limitless. This also leads us to our next section topic.
For those who would like to pursue a more in-depth look at alien life via the lens of science fiction, I highly recommend this site as an excellent introduction and discussion:
From the same site, on Alien Contact scenarios:
Humans or Machines in the Final Frontier?
A very interesting thing to note in both films is that, despite the focus and drama being about the humans (and even not-so-humans), a.k.a. the organic life forms, it is amazing how much the machinery really dominates the stories and landscapes.
The humans would be unable to get anywhere in space without the machinery of their respective starships. The Enterprise may not be actually sentient (sorry, V’Ger), but it is often viewed by both the characters and fans alike as its own individual, living being, where it receives reactions and recognition just like another person would (and often much better than many real human beings should receive).
Computers may be at the command of their human crews in one respect, but they also operate their vessels at levels no person could match. And of course V’Ger is the ultimate machine in ST:TMP, starting its existence as a machine, albeit a relatively simple one, and being converted and reborn as a much more advanced version by an entire planet of living machines.
Even the xenomorph in Alien possesses traits of being machine-like, if not actually being truly biomechanical. While not indestructible, this incredibly strong creature can survive being sprayed with toxic gases and be exposed directly to outer space and still function, at least for short periods of time.
Much of the origins of this particular alien are a mystery, so the possibility that it is the result of bioengineering is not out of the question. For all we know, it could have been designed as a bioweapon by the Space Jockey species. Certainly the human Company saw their potential as a weapon, among other things.
Speaking of the Space Jockey, note how the body of that one extraterrestrial seemed to be merged (or grown?) with the “chair” it was in. The entire ship was a strange mix of the organic and the mechanical, something that humanity in that film had yet to do in terms of using the biomechanical for space utilization, unless you count Ash and the other artificial persons.
Assuming the species of the Space Jockey is a much older race with more experience in the galaxy, did they know something the humans did not in terms of the best way to survive and thrive among the stars?
This leads us to the question: What is the most efficient way for humanity to expand to the stars?
I am not focusing so much on the methods of propulsion to get out there, for Alien says very little about how the Nostromo gets from one star system to the next. All we can deduce from the film is that they use some kind of nuclear process (fusion?) that can achieve FTL velocities. However, journeys still take long enough that the crew needs to go into suspended animation, or stasis. The ship’s self-destruct system also seems to be tied into the nuclear engines, using their fuel as an energy source.
As for the USS Enterprise in ST:TMP, I have already discussed my views on the ship’s famous warp drive and this method of FTL propulsion in general in Part 1 of my Centauri Dreams essay on the film Forbidden Planet, which you may find here: https://www.centauri-dreams.org/2017/09/11/creating-our-own-final-frontier-forbidden-planet/
My question aims to answer whether organic beings such as humans or machines make for better explorers and utilizers of the interstellar realm, in particular in light of what we see in the two films that are our focus here.
With Alien, the Company very likely dispatched the Nostromo to investigate that “distress call” from Acheron because it was the nearest and most convenient vessel in that area of the galaxy and therefore also much cheaper than sending out a proper mission to retrieve the xenomorph, if not necessarily better.
As we already know, they secretly embedded a corporate agent onboard to facilitate the delivery (Ash), the ship’s computer Mother could obviously handle the return flight autonomously (it probably had some kind of default programming to operate the ship on its own in the event the human crew could not), and the Company had no qualms about cutting any losses over six relatively low-level employees of a commercial space freighter.
As has already been seen and discussed with the Star Trek universe, they still rely heavily on humans being an integral part of their starship operations. The tended not to trust AI running things, be it their own vessels or those of other species.
In ST:TMP, the crew was genuinely stunned when they discovered that V’Ger was the vessel they were dealing with and not merely a construct for holding what they thought were multiple organic beings inside. At one point there was even this dialogue exchange:
Uhura: “It could hold a crew of tens of thousands.”
Leonard McCoy: “Or a crew of a thousand ten miles tall.”
The same reaction occurred when the Enterprise encountered Nomad in “The Changeling”: Even though the probe was clearly rather compact (“a fraction over one meter” in height), they genuinely wanted to know if a crew of small beings could be inside operating what they assumed to be a ship.
“I contain no parasitical beings. I am Nomad,” was the probe’s response to their speculation.
So, excusing for now the fact that mainstream Hollywood films were and still are expected to have human actors in the forefront of their cinematic productions, were humans really necessary on either the Nostromo or the Enterprise if we are being completely pragmatic? Wouldn’t it be far more efficient to utilize vessels that are designed to focus their construction, resources, and energies solely for the purposes they were made for?
The answers, quite frankly and with my apologies to Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Ripley, Dallas, and everybody else of an organic background in these films, are yes.
One must keep in mind that even in the era of the 1970s when Alien and ST:TMP were developed, the thinking was that humans had to be behind the wheel, to use a driving phrase.
Yes, computers and other machinery were not quite sophisticated enough to operate really complex space missions, but one would still assume that would change for the better in the centuries that their plots were to take place.
If you think about the Alien franchise in particular, with their artificial people who are sophisticated enough to pass for actual humans, why do they even need real humans aboard their starships? The only particular reason I can think of off-hand – if one goes with a purely corporate mentality and logic – is that even in their time, such “machines” are very expensive to produce and operate compared to squishy actual humans, who are abundant, relatively easy to make more of, and can be trained to perform various tasks well enough without requiring major (and expensive) software upgrades.
We have known it since the first days of the Space Age, when the first objects we placed into Earth orbit were robotic satellites, not ones filled with humans (yes, there were exceptions in terms of animal passengers, but they did not control their ships and were only there for scientific study). With the exception of the Apollo missions to the Moon, all other vessels sent throughout the Sol system have been mechanical explorers because they were more efficient and less expensive and resource-intensive than having a human crew onboard.
Going on with this logic, our first interstellar missions will very likely be purely mechanical with some form of AI running the ship. I am not saying there cannot or will not be any vessels being operated or at least carrying crews of human beings.
Indeed, I have often predicted that our first manned interstellar missions may be occupied by groups of very organic humans similar to what occurred when Europeans discovered the New World, North and South America: Disaffected people who want to escape the confines of Earth or even a colonized Sol system to practice their own take on political governance or religious freedom in an entirely different star system (or to remain in interstellar space with no worldly allegiance) may convert a planetoid or comet into a multigenerational starship, or WorldShip, assuming no means of FTL propulsion is either developed or discovered in the next few centuries. One just hopes their journeys will have better conclusions than most multigenerational colonies often do in science fiction.
However, if we are speaking strictly exploring other star systems at the start, then the logic that applies to studying our own Sol system will apply elsewhere in the galaxy. The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) plan for such a vessel, called Daedalus, led the way in the early 1970s with a serious and detailed study of whether or not a robotic interstellar vessel could become a reality one day.
A huge fusion-powered star probe, Daedalus would have gotten up enough speed to reach Barnard’s Star in just fifty years (at the time some astronomers thought they had detected planets circling that red dwarf sun). Maintained by a semi-intelligent AI and a collection of service and repair robots called Wardens, Daedalus was a one-way flyby mission, zipping through that star system and directing smaller probes along the way at interesting targets.
In a lack of foresight on the part of the human mission designers, Daedalus and its AI brain would then be left to aimlessly drift throughout the Milky Way galaxy after examining Barnard’s Star, with no other stellar objectives planned. If the vessel’s AI can think to a degree as was planned, this would have been more than just an oversight on the part of the terrestrial organic planners. A lesson to be learned for future interstellar probe mission designers.
At present we have several new interstellar probe plans. One is called Project Icarus and comes from the Icarus Interstellar study group. In essence, Icarus is the follow up to Daedalus using the latest knowledge and technology of the Twenty-First Century. The group has a number of departments looking into other aspects of interstellar travel and exploration, including propulsion and crewed missions.
The other is Breakthrough Starshot, being developed by the Breakthrough Initiatives science program. Their current plan is to send an unmanned probe to Proxima Centauri in about twenty years travel time using a very powerful laser pushing a light sail. The probe would fly through the target star system and explore it using nanotechnology.
Image: A giant ship – or a little chip? What will be the real future of interstellar travel?
To show just how much the paradigm of crewed versus unmanned space vessels has changed in the past four decades, read the following from this link of an interview with Dr. Sara Seager, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), discussing who, what, and how a suitably advanced species would best move through interstellar space:
“My personal opinion about life that could traverse the galaxy, if we are now talking about life that could come to Earth, or in the future, if we’re able to travel to a distant star system, is that it probably has to be nonbiological because space is very harmful for people. We can barely survive on Earth, if you think about it, and Earth is a very safe, well-designed place for us, or rather we are adapted to our environment. So I think for us initially as human beings to find life elsewhere, it’s bound to be biological, since that’s all we can see; it’s all we know how to do. But if we ever think of traveling through the galaxy or of alien life coming here, then I believe on a personal level that it will be nonbiological.”
Now if humanity still wants to wander into the depths of the galaxy in person, or at least send some direct representatives into the Final Frontier, they may want to consider doing so in a bioengineered state. If humans could be tailored to survive and thrive in all sorts of environments out there, from stark alien worlds to space itself, then humanity would be able to exist virtually anywhere and the continuation of our species, or at least some form of it, would be guaranteed.
I have no illusions about the numerous technical and ethical issues involved in genetically changing human beings to be adaptable to the extreme conditions found beyond our planet Earth. I am simply pointing out that if we do want to explore and settle the galaxy and terraforming other worlds turns out to be an expensive and challenging process, then changing our species to meet the Universe as it is might be the easier of the two options.
I know one thing: The humans we see occupying the Nostromo and Enterprise will probably not be of the kind that may one day crew our real starships, assuming we still go that route. I feel this is so not only because I think humans will have to modify themselves in certain ways in order to survive such journeys and the worlds and beings they may encounter, but also because our cultures will undoubtedly be different long before the next few centuries arrive.
I know I have personally seen major changes in our society in the mere half a century or so I have existed on this planet. Going out to the stars is going to demand even more of our species if we want to become successful citizens of the Cosmos.
Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture have served their purposes in terms of giving us some form of guidance and enthusiasm for wanting our species to reach for the stars, both directly and indirectly. That they are still popular and entertaining four decades later, complete with active franchises, is a testament not only to their craftsmanship but also for their inherent messages, both positive and negative. Now we need to take the next steps to turn science fiction into science fact, for it really is a matter of our continued existence.
As they said at the end of ST:TMP, the human adventure really is just beginning.
The following links take you to selected articles, news, and other media for your further appreciation and enjoyment of the films Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. These links were functional at the time of this essay’s publication.
Start here if you want to know all about the Alien franchise and then some:
Strange Shapes is “a blog dedicated to Ridley Scott’s Alien and Prometheus, James Cameron’s Aliens, and David Fincher’s Alien 3.” The author intends to turn his detailed store of information on the background history of the Alien franchise into a book.
Here is another blog site titled Alien Explorations that goes into detail on the Alien franchise and the artist H. R. Giger who almost literally brought the xenomorph to life:
An early film script from 1976 written by Dan O’Bannon. The starship is called the Snark, the surviving hero is male, and there is a very interesting diagram showing how far this humanity has ventured into the galaxy as of 2087:
This site contains a very nice illustrated introduction to Alien, the original film trailer, and the final shooting script from June of 1978 in two parts:
A transcript of the theatrical release version of Alien, but with no indicators as to who said what or any scene details and directions. Just pure dialog:
In 1979, Heavy Metal Communications produced the graphic novel Alien: The Illustrated Story. It proved very popular. The novel follows the story very closely and the artwork is overall excellent. As you might imagine, it is graphic in both senses of the word. If you missed purchasing the novel when it came out, you can see it all online here:
Typeset in the Future is a wonderful site that explores the various written fonts and symbols found all over a selected handful of famous science fiction films. Alien is one of those given its due. As you will discover, this site is much more than just about whether the filmmakers used Helvetica or Calibri on a computer screen. This blog was expanded into a book released in December of 2018. Enjoy!
If you thought something seemed off about the design and operation of the Nostromo’s Emergency Destruction System, you may have been right….
Everything you might ever want to know about the United States Commercial Star Ship (USCSS) Nostromo, and then some:
Alien would not be the only time that actors John Hurt (Kane) and Tom Skerritt (Dallas) would appear together in a film about aliens:
My Centauri Dreams essay on the 1974 science fiction film Dark Star, the inspiration for the Alien franchise:
For Star Trek: The Motion Picture:
Start your ST:TMP journey with this page from Memory Alpha, a detailed fan site of most things Star Trek. A detailed synopsis of the film plot and its tumultuous production history, with plenty of reference links and images:
Several entire books have been written about what went on with the creation of the first Star Trek film, which would make for an epic film in itself. Here is information about the first published book on the subject:
This site calls itself a novel adaptation of the film, but it really seems to be a full early script of ST:TMP, with lots of extra detail that did not make it to the final release:
This shooting script is dated July 19, 1978, less than one month before filming ST:TMP began:
This is the Director’s Edition of the transcript for ST:TMP. Thankfully it labels who said what and gives stage directions and scenes:
This blog site called My Star Trek Scrap Book is loaded with past articles, photos, and other items related to all things Star Trek. This of course includes the very first film, with 61 items at current count:
Forgotten Trek is devoted to scenes and more of the Star Trek franchise that did not escape the proverbial cutting room floor. This is the page for ST:TMP, which went through a lot of changes before finally premiering in theaters in December of 1979:
The December, 2001 issue of Star Trek: The Magazine (Volume 2, Issue 8) is devoted to ST:TMP. This page lists the articles in this special issue:
The first McDonald’s Happy Meal with a theme/film promotion tie-in was, of all films, ST:TMP! Even more bizarre, they used a Klingon warrior speaking in faux Klingonii (a narrator “translates” his gibberish into English) to sell them in the television advertisement as seen here:
For both films:
A good if brief overview of what was happening in science fiction and elsewhere on Earth in the year 1979: