To Seek Out New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring the reality of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Aliens
Star Trek: The Next Generation introduces us to a wide array of alien life. Whether it’s returning species like the Vulcans and Klingons or one-time run-ins that either help or hinder Captain Picard and his crew, these life forms are relatively diverse, but also unconvincingly similar.
Obviously, the main reason for all the humanoid life forms is for the sake of plot flow and costume design. The Enterprise and its crew need to be able to communicate easily (with the help of their Universal Translator, which is basically Google Translate on steroids) with other life forms, new or familiar. We also need to be able to identify with these species on some level, and having human-like characteristics helps maintain that empathy.
But if life on Earth is any indication, the odds of running into bipedal organisms with virtually identical organs, speech mechanisms and appearances so similar to ours are exponentially low.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is science fiction, so obviously we need to suspend our disbelief to an extent, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hurt to muse over what this experience would truly be like in the 24th century.
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Aliens – Physique
While Star Trek: The Next Generation offers us different alien species who vary in height, it appears that muscle mass and bone structure are almost identical to our own. This would be highly unlikely thanks to a little thing called physics.
Our size and strength isn’t arbitrary. It’s influenced greatly by our planet’s gravity. Bones and muscles need to be strong enough to support our skeletal structure to maintain our upright posture and interact with heavy objects in the environment. Even the strongest bodybuilder on the planet would be squashed like a soda can on a planet the size of Jupiter, while being on the moon would cause our bones and muscles to degrade from lack of heavy use. In fact, astronauts who spend extended periods of time on the International Space Station have to exercise on machines regularly, or they’ll return to Earth in a dangerously weakened state.
Similarly, there’s the issue of atmospheric pressure. A denser atmosphere puts more of a strain on our body. That’s why Venus, despite being virtually identical in size to Earth, exerts a surface pressure equivalent to being 1km under the ocean, which would crush us — plus the intense heat, sulfuric acid rain and lack of oxygen might be a problem as well.
So how does this pose a problem for Star Trek: The Next Generation? Well, this means that every humanoid alien would need to be from a planet that exerts the same level of strain as ours, either through size, atmospheric pressure or a balance of both. This part could easily have been skirted around by having aliens vary in strength and size (which still does occur on the show in some cases), but as it stands now, the scenario we have is highly improbable.
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Aliens – Organs
If we take a look at the Klingons, Vulcans, Cardassians, Romulans and Ferengi, for instance, we see a consistent pattern. They all have eyes, bones, ears, blood, spinal cords, voices, digestive tracts, diets and central nervous systems that function just like ours. Sure, Worf has two livers (which saves his life after a controversial spinal surgery), but that just stretches things even further.
Yet we don’t have to venture outside of our solar system to see why this is a problem. Insects, for instance, breathe through their skin. Some animals have bones, while others (i.e. sharks) are made primarily of cartilage. Owls have spectacular night vision, while earthworms don’t need eyes at all. We have herbivores, insectivores, carnivores and omnivores, indicating a variety of potential diets.
Who’s to say that real Klingons didn’t evolve on a planet covered in perpetual darkness? Would they even have eyes, or would their eyes be so advanced that they rival that of an owl’s? What are the chances they’ll need vocal cords like ours to communicate? After all, scientists just recently discovered that dolphins actually have a basic language in their sonar. Perhaps that’s how other alien races talk too. Heck, would all aliens need to breathe oxygen? Plants don’t; they breathe carbon dioxide. We even know of simple organisms who survive in the most extreme conditions, such as acidic “lakes” at the bottom of the ocean.
The point is that, when it comes to evolution, the environment is a massive driving factor. Even on an Earth-like planet, there’s no guarantee that life will take the same evolutionary path (or emerge at all). This is why it’s virtually impossible for a real-life Federation to actually meet and interact with other intelligent life on a human level, let alone breathe the same air or share meals.
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Aliens – Diseases
Even with today’s modern medicine, there are plenty of contagious diseases that still elude us in terms of a cure. One thing we know for sure is that our immune system needs to “know” how to fight certain viruses or bacteria in order to keep us safe — a lesson that many learned the hard way.
When the Europeans first came to North America, they brought a lot of things with them, including the flu and other common health inconveniences. But to the Native Americans who lived there, it was a disaster. Having never been exposed to European germs, these seemingly inconsequential colds proved deadly, wiping out entire populations as a result. And we were only separated by an ocean, not light years of space.
Imagine what illnesses would be like on another planet. It’s highly likely that, unless in a sterile environment, Picard and his newfound alien friends could both drop dead within hours, depending on who carries what. Scientists are very well aware of this, which is why contaminating another planet with our own biological matter (or vice-versa) is a serious ethical and safety issue, even if the destination shows no signs of potential life. Every piece of space equipment sent to explore the unknown is thoroughly sterilized.
Check the (star)date. Is it a day ending in “y”? Then yes, the debate still rages in the Trekkie community over who of the Star Trek captains is truly the best. Most of us have heard the arguments before. Some say that Captain James T. Kirk is the best captain because he paved the way for all captains after him. Others identify Captain Catherine Janeway due to her flexibility and scientific intellect. Still others look toward Captain Jean-Luc Picard due to the way he inspires confidence in his crew [Click here to read more…]
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Aliens – Psychology and Customs
This brings us to our biggest wildcard that Star Trek: The Next Generation fails to address. Humans are a social species, which means we rely on group cohesion to survive. This is why behaviors that help our society (i.e. saving lives) is commended while bad behaviors (i.e. murder) are condemned and punished.
Now, we do see some fundamental differences. Vulcans, for example, strive to abandon emotion and focus strictly on logic to guide their actions — something that humans will likely never be able to achieve. Klingon society has very strict codes of conduct when it comes to honor, and they don’t seem too opposed to euthanasia or settling disputes with fights to the death. But this doesn’t mean that, as humans, we don’t value common sense like the Vulcans, or honor, like the Klingons.
These days, we understand that some matters require tact and delicacy. Many world leaders and business executives, for instance, need to keep their emotions in check when negotiating important deals or settling disputes. Like the Vulcans, we acknowledge the damaging effects of emotions in at least some capacity.
Duking it out with swords or pistols isn’t exactly foreign to us either. Fighting to the death to settle a dispute was often encouraged throughout history as a way to seek compensation for being wronged. The image of cowboys shooting each other in the streets didn’t come from out of the blue either.
Our governments also follow the same basic structure. While some countries are democratic and others are more dictatorial, the formula is pretty simple: there’s a leader and we follow him/her based on that status. It’s what keeps the aforementioned society together and provides the cohesion we need to survive as a species. Every major alien in Star Trek: The Next Generation seems to follow this pattern. Again, it’s difficult to see how the politics in an alien race could mirror our own so closely.
The idea of meeting intelligent alien life has captivated humans for centuries, and most people would agree that this might happen one day. But who we meet and how they look or act probably won’t be the same as we see in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s aliens. Regardless of the circumstances, the day will probably come where we’ll be faced with this scenario. For now, we can only speculate about how this will play out once we boldly go where no one has gone before.
Featured Image: courtesy of CBS / Paramount