As the U.S. celebrates Thanksgiving and we all prepare to watch Avatar, yet another movie where we invade the aliens, it's worth asking: why aren't there any movies or TV shows where humans come in peace and try to coexist?
Before really digging into my question, let me offer a few disclaimers. The "First Thanksgiving", as it is popularly known, is a mix of real history and folklore, and most accounts gloss over the complex nuances of early relations between the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony and the Pokanoket Tribe. And even if the First Thanksgiving does help promote an image of peaceful relations between Europeans and Native Americans, it's hard to ignore that centuries worth of disease, war, and oppression were to follow that idyllic scene in 1621.
But even so, for all these complications, it's surprising how rarely media science fiction has been willing to consider first contact between humans and aliens that is premised on peaceful settlement and coexistence, rather than invasion and occupation, as depicted in the popular conception of the First Thanksgiving.
By my count, five films this year deal with human-alien relations — the pleasantly diverting Monsters & Aliens, the vaguely didactic Battle for Terra, the awesome District 9, the kinda stupid Planet 51, and the, um, Avatar-ilicious Avatar. Oh, and I guess I shouldn't forget television's V.
Beyond suggesting that no one is willing to depict aliens in full live action anymore, these six works all have similar conceptions of how aliens and humans would interact: One is going to invade the other. (District 9 is the only exception, but then we never do learn what the aliens' original goals in coming to Earth were.) Indeed, in most cases, the invasion is militaristic in character, whether it's General Hemmer in Battle for Terra or SecFor in Avatar.
There are some recent works of popular science fiction that fit the pilgrim archetype, but only imperfectly. The inhabitants of the Outer Rim in Firefly don't just act like Pilgrims; they also dress and talk like them. Indeed, Joss Whedon has famously described the "River almost gets burned at the stake as a witch" episode "Safe" as "The Crucible in space."
Malcolm Reynolds talks a lot about moving just a little bit further into space to escape Alliance oppression, something meant to recall the pioneer spirit of the 19th century that just as easily fits the ethos of the Plymouth colonists, who fled first to the Netherlands and then to the New World in search of religious freedom. The Pilgrims might be there, but with the exception of an upside down cow fetus, there weren't any aliens to complete the setup.
It's the same problem with Battlestar Galactica. The 50,000 survivors of the destruction of the Twelve Colonies were fleeing a rather more tangible threat than the religious policies of King Charles I, but the opening titles always made their real objective clear: they were looking for a home. Again, that's a decent fit with the Pilgrims' goals, and the on-ship tensions that led to the creation of the Mayflower Compact recall the factional tension that formed a key part of BSG's dramatic backbone. (And that's not even mentioning all the religious zealotry.)
But again, since the Cylons remained fundamentally tied to their human origins, the humans never really encountered any aliens. Well, unless you want to get into some rather tedious arguments about the humans in the finale. But that part was over with in about thirty seconds.
So what's left? Even an old warhorse like Doctor Who hasn't really explored the notion of peaceful coexistence between humans and aliens. Last year's "The Doctor's Daughter" at least ends on a hopeful note, but a lot of Hath had to be slaughtered to get there. Probably the best example of this sort of idea is 1971's Colony in Space, in which humans fled the polluted, overcrowded Earth in favor of Uxarius, where they eke out a living as farmers and live in an uneasy truce with the planet's "primitive" indigenous inhabitants.
The only problem is that the serial is just as much about an evil mining company, ferocious reptiles, and the Master trying to get his hands on an ancient super-weapon, and as such the human-alien relations angle doesn't get to be developed quite as much as it deserves.
And even in Star Trek, where the complexities of human-alien interaction is at the franchise's core, that pesky Prime Directive keeps humans from just up and settling any already inhabited rock, vastly limiting the space pilgrim potential.
Perhaps part of the reason science fiction has eschewed this approach is that the Pilgrims don't feel terribly relevant today. The age of exploration and colonization is now in our past (and, if we're lucky, maybe our future), and in a world where pretty much all territory is already known and claimed, invasion and forceful conquest seems a far more plausible way for boundary lines to be redrawn between humans and aliens.
Well, maybe it's just the tryptophan talking, but I think science fiction is seriously missing a beat here. Recent works ranging from Battlestar Galactica to District 9 have intelligently explored how hoary old science fiction cliches might work when approached realistically, but all have pretty much assumed it would be impossible for all parties to approach such situations in good faith. After all, even when attempting to forge a truce with the humans, the Cylons always (allegedly) have a plan.
But since I'm pretty sure we're still supposed to be in a bold, optimistic new age, I'd like to see what happens when you take a bunch of human separatists, throw them in a rickety old spaceship, and have them try to coexist with those already living on the planet they choose to settle. I'm not saying it would end well - if history is any indication, it won't - but it would be interesting to see, just once, humans and aliens both start out with the best of intentions.