As boomers began watching the science fiction movies of the 1950s, we were subjected to the prevailing perceptions of space aliens of the time. In the pre-space days — before the U.S. or the Soviet Union had launched a man into space — filmmakers were free to imagine what space, and space beings, would be like. What they imagined was mostly creatures very different from us, though with superior technology. The other thing that most of the sci-fi of the era had in common was that the aliens were not asking, “Take me to your leader.” They were bent on world domination. Consequently, aliens were categorized in the “fear of the unknown” column.
Movies such as Invaders from Mars (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) played on those fears with creatures who wanted our minds and our bodies. In the end, Earth always prevailed, but the fear factor was a reminder that we must be ever-vigilant. In other words, aliens were often used as Cold War metaphors.
By the early 1960s, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had launched men into space. While still a scary experience, our fear of the unknown was dispelled a little because what we also found out was just how empty space is. Perhaps the familiarity of space launches helped to modify our views of aliens, or maybe the spirit of the sixties found its way into the space alien zeitgeist. In any case, the 1960s brought about different ways to view our alien counterparts.
TV shows were getting into the sci-fi mix with a variety of shows that took the bite out of the 1950s aliens. One of these shows was My Favorite Martian (1963-’66). Bill Bixby played newspaper reporter Tim O’Hara and Ray Walston was the alien from Mars who was called Uncle Martin. Now instead of a growling, big green monster, we pictured our aliens a lot like us — only with a few added powers, including built-in antennae that could expand from the alien’s head. Despite the Martian’s super-human abilities, here we presented ourselves with a benign alien who only wanted to get home. Along the way, he was kind-hearted enough to help humans out. We were instilling human traits into our aliens.
Lost in Space (1965-’68) gave us a different view of aliens. This time we were the ones heading out into space. Nonetheless, the show demonstrated that very often humans were to be feared more than aliens. Dr. Zachary Smith (as played by Jonathan Harris) became the show’s antagonist, sabotaging the crew’s efforts at every turn.
Star Trek (1966-’69) was described as “Wagon Train in space,” but as far as the perception of aliens is concerned, it was much more than that. Star Trek presented aliens that were every bit as good — or evil — as humans. All the foibles of the human condition were on display, including the ability to evolve into more intelligent, peace-loving species.
When 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was released in movie theaters, we were still a year away from landing on the moon. Here, though, we showed ourselves yet another aspect of the aliens we were yet to meet. Though unseen, these aliens were vastly superior in intellect, and may very well have been guardians of our species, responsible for our very evolution.
By the time the mid-’70s rolled around, trips to space were a been there, done that occurrence. Maybe that’s why a Richie Cunningham dream sequence on Happy Days (1974-’84) was so easily parlayed into the Mork & Mindy (1978-’82) spin-off. Robin Williams played the role of the alien Mork while Pam Dawber was Mindy, the human who looked after him during his visit. Like many other TV shows and movies, Mork from Ork was sent to observe human behavior and was trying to get home. Now our aliens, though still possessing vastly superior technology, were presented not only as benign but laughably out of touch.
A year after Mork & Mindy hit TV screens, Alien (1979) opened in theaters across the country. We’d come full circle in our view of aliens. Once again the aliens were creatures very different from us, seemingly out to destroy all that we held dear. Indeed, Alien put the fear back in our view and gave us the nightmare that we might all have a little alien within us.
Flash forward to today, where when it comes to aliens, the sky’s the limit. We’ve imagined all sorts of creatures, human-like and not, good and bad, ugly and transcendent. Boomers may not have been the first generation to imagine what space aliens would be like, but we bore witness to the largest explosion of imagination that boldly set the bar for generations to come.
Who was your favorite alien, boomers?