Alien Worlds

Netflix has this new series, Alien Worlds, that I sort of half-watched yesterday. It was nice brain candy to munch on while I was more focused on grading, but nah, sorry, not a lot of substance to it.

It’s only 5 episodes long, and each one is built around a different imaginary planet with somewhat different parameters, with different challenges for the life that evolved there. Within each episode, there’s a fraction that uses CGI to model the imaginary creatures of the imaginary world — and the CGI isn’t bad, we’ve come a long way from the clumsy models of old Discovery Channel “Walking with…” shows — and there’s a larger fraction dedicated to describing the earthly research that inspired it.

The problem is that the real world stuff, with interviews with real scientists, was far more compelling than the CGI gimmicks. The “Janus” episode, for instance, is supposed to be about a tidally-locked planet with huge extremes in the environment, but it’s really much more about terrestrial arthropods, with researchers explaining their work in interesting environments with complex organisms. Their imaginary pentapods were sterile and cartoonish — it was a world with a nearly negligible amount of species diversity, just their one cartoon alien scampering about, plucking out 1-dimensional prey creatures on rather barren landscapes. Every time they were on screen, I was grumbling “Get back to the leaf-cutter ants”.

That’s how I felt about every episode. The central gimmick of imaginative CGI aliens was less impressive than the real biology being done on Planet Earth, and was just a distraction. Human imagination is just not as good as evolutionary reality.

One big plus about the show: they were working with actual researchers in various places around the world, and that meant they escaped from the usual trap of one narrator (usually a white person who isn’t involved in the science) providing third person descriptions of what’s happening. Instead, we get lots of diverse people, women and brown people with accents, describing in first person what they find exciting about their work. The researchers have a lot of enthusiasm and joy about the biology.

One big negative: skip the last episode, it’s terrible. I knew it was going to suck when they opened with the “alien autopsy” footage. They then move on to an imaginary planet populated with brains in vats faced with the death of their star…and they lack any earthly analog, so instead of cutting back and forth between CGI and enthusiastic scientists doing real research, it’s switching between animated robots tending blobs floating in tanks (boring!) to human SETI researchers (even more boring!).

I’m not looking forward to a continuation of the series. It’s nice background noise, but if I were to make any recommendations to the producers, it would be to ditch the whole CGI/aliens nonsense, but that’s probably the premise that got them a Netflix deal.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    A nearly 20-year old film with a similar concept that still is watchable is the one depicting the biosphere of the hypothetical world Darwin IV, I think it was made after konsultation with John S. Lewis at Arizona University.

  2. William George says


    That’s 20 years old now?! Great Gort I remember it like it aired recently.

    I think I need to go have a lie down.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    “Expedition ” illustrations by Wayne Douglas Barliwe- was the book that got turned into the 20-year-old virtual exoplanet documentary. I assume the film has the same name.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    William George @2.
    It might have been fifteen….BTW
    it feels like yesterday when they discovered Hubble’s mirror was faulty, a side effect of reaching middle age.
    Also, if we had Gort and other “strong AI” around, really long space journeys would not be such a problem. Just set the alarm clock to when you arrive.

  5. says

    They could have had so much fun by taking terrestrial arthropods and putting forehead prosthetics and greasepaint on them. Damn they missed a trick.

  6. acroyear says

    The Walking With was still pretty impressive for its time. :)

    One issue is that as humans, we generally only relate one-on-one at the time – our stories involve that kind of simplicity and so by extraction, so does our view of any particular part of the universe.

    The Walking With… (and many such documentaries since) often had one protagonist animal and one-at-a-time its relation with other animals or plants in its ecosystem. The (sorry Dirk Gently) interconnectedness of all things is akin to chaos theory – too much to grasp. Thus that hole viral post a few years back (whether entirely accurate or not) about ALL of the things that changed in Yellowstone after the wolves were reintroduced – it was massive the level of interactions that could even be proposed: like all of the interactions that are part of climate and weather, it often was too much for people to get through.

  7. batflipenthusiast says

    “Human imagination is just not as good as evolutionary reality.”

    I think this is not true.

    I think it’s simply that, rather, to use human imagination to come up with something that has even somewhat comparable depth and complexity to a process like evolution and all it’s attendant factors would be such a massive undertaking that it’d be far outside the scope of a netflix miniseries. Or probably any work of illustrative fiction, really.

  8. wzrd1 says

    Well, could’ve been worse. I remember one specimen that, thankfully was aborted, where an example “lifeform” bore a striking resemblance to qwerty.
    As memory serves, I was so irritated as to actually disconnect the TV and not a soul in the house objected.
    Seriously, it made “The Terrornauts” look like a documentary.

  9. strangerinastrangeland says

    I remember a British TV show with a similar premise (2-3 hypothetical worlds and the life forms that might have developed there) that I saw over a decade or so ago. I remember I enjoyed it at that time, both from the point of a Science Fiction fan and from that of a biologist. While PZ is right that reality is already interesting and the science to learn about it fascinating, by stepping away from Earth, the underlying principles of ecology and evolution were quite well presented without the “distraction” of what we are experiencing in reality and see as normal. I think, through the trick of using alien worlds, the audience might therefore understand the basics of ecology and evolution better.
    So, while I haven’t seen the Netflix show yet, it is definitely on my watch list for the coming weeks.

  10. lasius says

    I think the show that did this premise the best so far was “The Future is Wild”, though it doesn’t use an aline planet but hypothetical future states of our own planet instead. “Extraterrestrial” also did a better job of crafting more plausible and complex ecosystems. (What planet is this where every apple tree requires a dead deer and a dead tiger to complete its lifecycle? And how do the “eggs” of the herbivores grow to this size without apparently consuming any food)

    Alien Planet is a bit different from the lot, since it was originally designed by an artist to justify hauntingly beautiful paintings (similar to LotR was created to justify the authors conlangs). But it made for an interesting documentary because there were a lot more designs to work with, even though the original lifecycles in the book weren’t very plausible either.

    But seriously, for any authors, have an actual biologist check the biology you invented. Otherwise you get ridiculous stuff like Star Trek’s Ocampa’s reproduction rates, parasitism in herbivorous herd animals of Ringworld’s Puppeteers, or the abundance of sterile food dispensers in Mother of Demon’s Owoc.