Fun But Flawed Thought Experiment: a Review of Alien Worlds

By Joyce Yixuan Wang

The new British series Alien Worlds narrated by Sophie Okonedo is a blend of sci-fi and documentary. By applying the laws governing life and basic physics and chemistry on Earth, four imaginary exoplanets (planets orbiting stars outside the solar system) with different aliens living on them are conceived and presented using beautiful computer-generated imagery (CGI) animation.

Each episode focuses on one exoplanet whose environment influences the ways organisms live there: the strong gravity of Atlas leads to its dense atmosphere, enabling specialist airborne creatures to thrive. The extreme environments on Janus pushes one alien species on it to evolve different phenotypes to become highly adaptable, while the oxygen-rich atmosphere on Eden contributes to a teeming biosphere where seasonal cycles of predation and reproduction takes place. For the super-advanced species on doomed exoplanet Terra, they need to quickly colonise another planet using their AI robots. Throughout the four episodes, the sci-fi scenes coexist with segments of Earth life documentaries consulting experts in a wide range of fields explaining the Earth analogies of alien biology. The last episode also includes sections showing how people have been searching for extraterrestrial lives and explains why it is hard to find them, if any exists at all.

The comments of the series are in discrepancy and the thumbs up and down seems to be nearly 50:50. For people who praise the sci-fi-documentary, their reasons are mainly in accordance: brilliant CGI, great idea of imagining alien forms and lifestyles by applying Earth’s rules, informative and interesting. Indeed, I found the CGI a real attraction: being super-real, the scenes appear to be recorded by camera directly. The documentary sections are also well-shot: through interviewing experts of various fields, lots of interesting biological phenomena and concepts are introduced in the Earth documentaries. I also find most of the Earth rule application easy to follow and universally applied. For example, the pentapod aliens living in the dark regions on Janus mimic their prey’s warning lights to trick the prey into their vicinity. This is adapted from the deceiving light signals some organisms on Earth exhibit for certain purposes, e.g. females of a predatory firefly species imitate the light signals used by the females of their prey firefly species to lure the male prey and eat them. Moreover, the lesson of adaptability the series gives is vivid: on Atlas, compared to the “generalists” scavenger who has high adaptability, the “specialists” well adapted for airborne life are subjected to extinction if the environment changes drastically. Generally speaking, the fun thought-experiment nature of the series is interesting and has left me a good impression.

 Plenty of critics of the series concur with the approvals and the majority are summarised as below: frustration due to the short alien sections which are played repetitively throughout each episode as the trailer intensely advertises the aliens and the series itself is named Alien Worlds, raising the audience’s expectation incorrectly. On the contrary, the episodes spend considerable amounts of time depicting Earth biology which are documented beautifully and are more inviting than the repetitive and sometimes bleak and creepy alien scenes. The evolutionary background and the biology of the aliens are also absent, making the aliens much less convincing. The Earth biology, such as sexual selection, are explained superficially and there are times that the Earth analogies are poor or irrelevant in the context of the alien biota, e.g. the different morphologies of the pentapods as a result of environment adaptation are explained by polymorphism of Leafcutter ants due to their roles (workers, soldiers, queen etc.). To explain life is tough for young animals, the need for baby skygrazer aliens to outrun predators is compared to a lengthy segment about young meerkats learning to eat scorpions. The features of the aliens (e.g. the reproductive methods or physical traits) leading to the Earth analogies also appear randomly.

I share most of the disappointments above and I can more or less understand the discordance of the comments. With only four 40-50 minutes episodes, the series is short. They are more focused on applying Earth’s rules rather than explaining evolution and biology. Plus, the series are not pure documentaries and the public, rather than biologists, is the target. Thus, it is relatively understandable that the biology is not explained thoroughly. Also, biologists would certainly see a lot more loopholes than non-specialists. Nevertheless, I am still disappointed that alien biology is not elucidated and, personally, think the biggest flaws of the series are the failures to provide good Earth analogies for every alien feature and connecting the biological concepts logically.

Besides, despite the seemingly purposeful designs to make the aliens appear as distinct from the Earth organisms as possible, it is frustratingly easy to see how the looks of most aliens are created e.g. the Eden aliens closely resemble the hybrids of monkey/koala/galago and moth/rabbit, and the advanced life forms on Terra are reminiscent of the cybernetic organisms called the Borgs in Star Trek. There are also occasional far-fetched products which are designed almost certainly without consulting biologists e.g. the rabbit-like land-living Eden aliens lay worm-like mobile gametes that come together to form cocoons which hang themselves on trees to prevent predation of tree-living monkey-like aliens. It makes little sense to me at least.

Overall, I regard the interesting idea of deducing life forms on exoplanets through the understanding of Earth biology, the beautifully-shot documentary sections, and the CGI effect as the most successful parts of the series. However, there are a number of disappointing imperfections (mostly concerning the alien biology) that lower the series’ quality significantly. I encourage people to watch the series and share their own views and comments.

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