Voyages to alien worlds
In comparison to Voyage to the Planets, Alien Planet uses no human actors. Instead, the fictional characters are robots and alien lifeforms, with real scientists making appearances.
The show is based upon a highly-regarded 1980s science fiction book by artist Wayne Barlowe called Expedition. Expedition was written as a report of a visit to an alien biosphere in the 24th century. The expedition itself was led by a race of intelligent aliens who had taken humans under their tutelage. The book was heavily illustrated and attempted to describe a completely alien ecosystem as if it was real.
Barlowe served as executive producer of the TV version, but Alien Planet departs from the book in a number of key ways. The story is set at some unstated time in the future, when Earth detects a life-bearing planet in orbit around the star Darwin, several light-years away. The planet is named Darwin IV and Earth sends a sophisticated robotic spacecraft to explore it. The spacecraft, the Von Braun, travels at 20% of the speed of light and it arrives at Darwin IV five decades after leaving earth. As the narrator notes, many of the scientists who are there to study the data returned from Darwin IV were not even born when the craft was first dispatched.
The Von Braun enters orbit around the planet and deploys a large orbiting station to monitor it from space. It also dispatches probes to the planet’s surface, each equipped with smaller craft to perform a comprehensive evaluation of the planet and its biosphere.
The technology in Alien Planet, although far more advanced than what we have available today, is based upon careful extrapolation from the present. For instance, although the spacecraft and its probes possess artificial intelligence, they are not the super-intelligent computers of typical science fiction movies. Instead, the computers are based upon informed speculation. The two probes that explore the surface, Ike and Leo, are described as possessing the intelligence of a four-year-old child. Their key asset is their ability to learn and to change their behavior according to the situation. They also have different programming instructions in order to not make the same mistakes. One probe is designed to be careful, whereas another is bolder and more inquisitive. One is designed to evaluate plant life and the other animals.
The probes are essentially blimps, equipped with inflatable gasbags and propellers: they can float above the surface of the planet and cover significant distances. They are also equipped with a fleet of miniprobes that they can deploy. These include weather balloons, flying disks, and crawlers that can walk along the ground and even climb trees. The writers have performed some inventive but logical extrapolations of current technology. Many of the robots depicted in the show are currently under evaluation for military applications today, and NASA robotics experts have proposed things like autonomous walkers for exploring Mars.
As the narrator explains, when the Von Braun was dispatched to Darwin IV decades before, its builders expected to find life on the planet. But they expected to find microbial life: bacteria and maybe some primitive multi-celled organisms. But when Ike and Leo begin roving the surface, they quickly encounter a far more complex and rich ecosystem. The planet is teeming with life, but it is bizarre and nothing like Earth.
It is here that the show becomes largely fictional. The animals are bizarre and frequently border on the implausible. They do not appear to have been developed with any single biological theory in mind, although several of them have clearly adapted to their particular environment. But their strangeness is thought-provoking. Science fiction in the movies and television usually cheats. Alien lifeforms often look much like humans, usually both because of production costs and lack of imagination. How many times have the heroes of Stargate SG-1 emerged from their wormhole to an alien planet that looks exactly like the forests of British Columbia? How many times did the various Star Trek shows slap a nose prosthetic on an extra and call him an alien? Alien Planet is freed from this production constraint because all the animals are computer generated. But it also makes the point that alien life, if it is detected, will challenge our abilities to understand and even comprehend it. There are no telekinetic powers or shapeshifters on Darwin IV, but the life there is strange, and even when it does not seem overtly hostile, it is creepy.
The animals that the probes encounter are given descriptive names. There’s the Arrowtongue and the Gyrosprinter, the Daggerwrist and the aggressively deadly Flying Skewer. And then there are the giants, such as the Sea Strider and the Eosapien. But as one of the show’s experts points out, on Earth we are dominated by plants and animals, but it is entirely possible that on an alien world such definitions are far more blurry. Perhaps the strangest example of this is the colony of organisms that have adapted to cover the planet’s only remaining sea, trapping the water underneath them so that it cannot evaporate like the rest of Darwin IV’s oceans. It is unclear if they are animals or plants or some new form with characteristics of both.
After each new animal or organism is encountered the show cuts to various scientists to comment on the lifeform, or to make more general statements about the existence of life in the universe or on Earth. The producers have assembled a broad range of expertise, from physicist Michio Kaku, author of the book Parallel Worlds, to dinosaur hunter Jack Horner, to George Lucas (who says nothing interesting, but was probably in the studio to flack some Star Wars product). NASA Chief Scientist James Garvin is perhaps the most animated and thought-provoking of the experts, and points out that we may not have found life elsewhere in the universe not only because we have not been looking that hard or long, but also because our own understanding of what life is remains quite limited. This is something that astrobiologists will chatter about endlessly, until you finally push them away; although the planets have not changed in the past century, our understanding of biology has undergone a revolution in only the past two decades. Even Stephen Hawking, the famed physicist, makes a potent observation: if life is something rare, why did it evolve so early in the history of planet Earth? Such evidence implies that life can, and will, evolve early and often.
At times it is possible to detect a note of hesitation in the voices of the scientists who have been asked to comment on some new Darwinian beast such as the Sea Strider. They are not actors, but they have been asked to pretend that they are reporting on a real space mission, like the energetic Steve Squyres regularly talks about the Spirit and Opportunity rovers at Mars. Clearly some of them think that the animals that they are supposed to report about are barely plausible. But how would a scientist in 1900 have reacted if you had told him about extremophiles living inside volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean? How would Benjamin Franklin have accepted the existence of bacteria? (Actually, come to think of it, Benjamin Franklin s probably one of the few people of his era who could have accepted such ideas.)
The writers and producers of Alien Planet have managed to successfully transcend current definitions of biology and yet still remained within the realm of the possible.
All of this is done with computer animation, of course. Both Alien Planet and Voyage to the Planets rely heavily upon computer-generated imagery. Although not cinema quality, in both cases it is pretty good, bordering on the best CGI available on a television budget today. Alien Planet clearly was inspired by the Discovery Channel’s previous success with shows such as Walking With Dinosaurs, and the animators obviously enjoyed working with fewer constraints.
If there is one weakness to the DVD, it is the lack of extras. Although the Discovery Channel itself has largely converted to shows about muscular motorbike manufacturers, it has several offshoots including Discovery Science, where most of its space-themed documentaries now reside. Every Tuesday night the Discovery Science Channel shows several space documentaries, including ones on planet hunting and the search for alien life. Few of these are available commercially, and it would have been nice if some of them had been included on this DVD. According to one senior producer for the network, space-themed documentaries bring in the biggest audience for the network. We can only hope that they continue to produce more shows like these two.