In the world of on-screen science fiction (or sf lite), most writers can agree on one truth: if extra-terrestrials exist, the government knows about it. Sometimes they’re fighting evil aliens, sometimes they’re protecting us normies from mind-exploding truths, and sometimes they’re the bad guys; any way you cut it, they all make us just a little more paranoid and we love it. This week the news has been full of a government that needs a little help pulling together and Getting Stuff Done; in honor of high-pressure situations, let’s go over some of the ways governments handle the grey and the green in TV and film.
The bad guys: greys in tentacle suits
Independence Day is the classic us vs. them film, served up with some apple pie and a giant helping of US patriotism. Yes, cities around the world get torched, but we focus on the ones in the US, and it’s the combo of a “cool nerd” and various brave soldiers and citizens that bring about victory.
But what about the government? Oh, a top-secret section of higher-ups (that don’t include the President) knew about the evil aliens all along – they’ve got their secret Area 51-type bunker in the desert. But other than providing a crashed ship for Will Smith to fly, all their knowledge is relatively useless. Shady and useless, the ID4 government.
The bad guys: the government. And science teachers.
E.T. taught me to have a good, healthy suspicion of the government early on. We have some kids who rescued the completely benign E.T., only to have the entire family terrorized by both national and local law enforcement (those were guns, not radios, revisionists). Oh, and there’s also that totally creepy frog dissection scene that probably put me out of a career in the field of biology forever. Who watches their dissection subject die first? Yikes.
To be fair, there was that one nice government agent, but in general we still don’t view the government as a collection of individuals.
Doctor Who and Torchwood
The bad guys: Depends on the week
The Doctor has dealt with more than his share of governments, both on Earth and abroad, but he has a particularly special relationship with a few located in the U.K. First, there’s U.N.I.T., an international military organization. U.N.I.T. typically means well, but they tend to shoot first… or shoot redundantly… or, well, shoot.
Then there’s the Torchwood Institute, which is one step higher. Unlike U.N.I.T., Torchwood is “above the UN,” and they also collect alien technology for the benefit of mankind. Torchwood became its own spinoff show, and is relatively unique in that its members pretty much are the higher-ups, so it’s lacking some of that conspiracy/corruption that has become familiar since The X-Files (though the latest season is covering it in spades).
The bad guys: everyone else
The X-Files is the ultimate in delicious paranoia. Yes, the aliens and other monsters of the week don’t seem too friendly, but the governement – including the FBI, who created the X-Files division in the first place – is full of grumpy old men who want to silence Scully and Mulder (and whoever else wanders in before the end of the series). Trust No One!
The bad guys: depends on your perspective… but definitely the government
This lesser-known Sci-Fi Channel miniseries is basically following a few families through history, starting with the Foo Fighters of WWII and the 1940s alien crash. The government knows that aliens exist, and in fact even collect some tech over the years, but don’t have many successful face-to-face encounters, due mostly to the fact that the ET division is run by people who are creepy and evil as hell. Sure, every so often the aliens abduct people, they might be doing experiments in cross-breeding, and you’re not really sure what their motives are… but you also meet some nice E.T.s. Meanwhile, a government agent is putting a hamster in a microwave. I’m not even joking.
The bad guys: aliens… but only the bad ones
For a good ten, twenty years or more, the Men In Black or MIB were shadowy characters, ostensibly sent by an authority (ours or maybe an extraterrestrial one) to intimidate or silence people who had seen proof of alien life, or talked about their alien abduction. Drawings of these guys were often freakier than the depictions of the aliens themselves.
However, now we tend to think of Will Smith. In the movie MIB, the MIB are an Earth institution who know full well about the presence of alien life – and their job is to keep it from us normies. Luckily for us, most aliens quietly live out their lives in the suburbs or (I presume) on reality TV shows. Also luckily for us, they silence us not by intimidation, but a simple flash device that wipes our memories.
They are the ultimate good guys, saving the world without ever getting acclaim. They have access to fun alien tech, and heck, they make government work look fun.
So what have we learned? Well, a cynic might say that we don’t trust the government and we trust the general public even less. But I think it says a lot more that in our fiction, the government almost always knows about alien life. So there’s some part of us that takes comfort in the idea that if there’s something scary or huge out there (even if it’s fictional), someone’s already worrying about it.
Now, take a step back from real-world politics, and pop some popcorn. Because aliens totally aren’t partisan.