A vast gulf of difference lies between science fiction mainstay Star Trek and the realities of life evolving across vast swathes of time and space, forced into suitably various paths by environments and atmospheres quite apart from our own. TV has limitations, and that’s the most likely source of Star Trek’s version of alien life–aside from the odd creature that defies this trend (telepathic space clouds, tribbles, various god-like entities, etc). Alien life is “people” in form, with small changes to foreheads or noses, and sometimes colourful skin. Newer iterations of Star Trek have pushed the makeup and effects of these beings, but still, even in the current spate of big-screen adaptations we mostly see bipedal aliens that look a heck of a lot like us, rather than, say, colonies of crystalline arachnids or methane-breathing slugs. Star Trek’s aliens generally breath air, and most have evolved vocal cords similar to our own, which allow them to speak languages much like ours, if not English directly (again, a limitation born of the television medium). Pushed to try, one could almost imagine creatures that communicate by rubbing mantis-like mandibles together, or by spraying foamy bubbles into the air, but these types of concepts would have taken too long to bridge and explain in an hour-long, plot driven story.
If we could for a moment put aside the reality of producing a weekly, serialized television show and imagine that this was all a purposeful choice, what might the creators of Star Trek be trying to say?
Our first possibility is that all humanesque life was seeded. If one stage of evolved life from a single planted species, regardless of planetary conditions, is Homo sapien in form, it would only make sense that Homo sapien-like life in the galaxy was placed on its multitude of appropriate planets (same atmospheric content) over the course of a very short cosmic period of time. It only took a few million years for us to go through several variations of hominids, from Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy), who had more in common with an ape, to modern homo sapien. If the travel time to traverse the entire galaxy and beyond, going from one planet to another, takes thousands to hundreds of thousands of years per jump, as is appropriate for long-distance space travel, we (us and the various sapien-like alien races) would be at vastly different stages of evolution. Some visited by Star Trek’s crew would be more like apes (those seeded more recently), and some far ahead of us–not just in cognitive function, but pure evolutionary form. In slivers of degrees we do witness this, but more often we find talking humanoids that wear clothes, who have have invented roughly equal levels of technology, and who exist in similar forms of society, give or take a few hundred years. They seem more like individuals from another country than life that has evolved in wholly separate biospheres. Even with Star Trek’s warp speed, the time and planning involved to locate suitable planetary homes and have all of these humanoid societies flourish within the same window would only be possible for an incredible, mind-blowingly advanced society (using worm holes or some such device), or an entity like Q. You could also hypothesize that they didn’t plant older versions of us to evolve into a Homo sapiens, but instead just plopped roughly modern Homo sapiens down on all of these planets, but that would discount many stages of the fossilized record that we have discovered, leading in a gradual line towards us, but would account for the relatively level plain of development.
A second theory would involve god(s). We’d have to assume that not only Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, but also those that have carried on the fictional universe might be quietly showcasing the handiwork of the only being capable of sprouting life in multiple places that are so biologically similar. I doubt that this would be his true message, but given the respect Roddenberry showed all forms of thought and religion (by not eliminating them in our advanced future society altogether) I can’t imagine that he would be offended by a god. Crossing out our first option, a god with the ability to simultaneously plant early hominids and then guide them towards similar physical and mental designs might be the only feasible choice.
For the sake of argument, a third possibility might go something like this: the goal post for all evolution is something human in form–that every creature on earth would in essence be striving on a genetic level to reach our “pure” state, or terminate their errant line of genes. This of course seems too far-fetched (if not mildly eugenical), because aside from our developed brains, which still have a long way to go, we aren’t anything special. We often forget our place in the animal kingdom, as just another squiggly branch in a vast tree that has given rise to many other forms of life with equal claim to the planet, from lichen and termites to elephants. Sentience has blinded us to this reality, along with religion and our societal enclaves. But, when considered in our look at Homo sapien-like beings found scattered across the mind-blowing span of the cosmos, it would be a possible answer.
The most likely culprit is the most obvious one. Television budgets are so limited that when the special effects department is called upon, it’s easier to whip out a nose prosthesis than design a warrior slime mould that moves by shooting out tendrils and dragging itself. Entertainment is often delivered in a way that’s easy for audiences to digest, like pre-chewed food. 2016’s Arrival perhaps goes the furthest in movie history to offer us something different, and did resonate with audiences, but it wouldn’t be something a weekly television show could tackle. Couch-lurkers everywhere would either tune-out or turn it off when confronted with concepts that complex and strange. Instead, Star Trek is a show not about aliens, but about the crew–about the relationships between strongly-driven individuals, and how their hopes and ambitions fit in among each other. The science and aliens are but vehicles for underlying conflicts that we can all relate to.
Featured Image Credit: Starloggers