Saturday, April 27, 2013

Alien Faces

I just finished watching the premiere of the new SyFy series 'Defiance'.  I like sci fi on television.  A lot of my favorite tv shows have been sci fi.  I like seeing human behavior through the eyes of aliens, or from the perspective of the future.  But 'Defiance' reminded me of one of my pet peeves about tv sci fi:  the aliens.

Movies can do a lot with aliens.  They can use digital effects, animatronics, elaborate prostheses, and puppetry to make the aliens more alien and less obviously people in suits.  I know that tv shows don't have the time or budget for that.  I don't expect to see the coolest inhuman aliens on a tv show.  And let's be honest:  We only know humans, and we only have humans to provide the actors and voices.  We can imagine aliens that are not at all like us, but we wouldn't find them very easy to relate to as characters in a weekly tv series.  Even one of my favorite series, 'Farscape', still had aliens that were essentially human.  They had two eyes, one mouth, two arms, two legs.  They talked like us, they walked like us.  I know we're never going to get away from that, especially not on television. 

But recently tv shows seem to have become very lazy about doing extraterrestrials.  The various incarnations of Star Trek had their "funny forehead of the week" aliens.  It's an easy way to maintain the actor's ability to speak and show facial expressions, and it's not too hard to glue some forehead ridges on an actor every day.  Now shows like 'Defiance' have gone even farther with the lack or originality.  One species has white hair and yellow eyes, but they are otherwise entirely human in appearance.  Another species has an extra broad nose bridge.  It makes me want to weep for the lack of imagination shown by their makeup effects designers.  SyFy also features a series called 'Face Off' that shows makeup effects artists competing for a prize.  Some of the things they do are far too complicated for a regular character on a weekly tv series, but one would think they could adapt some of those ideas into something a little more series-friendly.

One of my favorite alien makeups comes from 'Farscape':  The character of Pa'u Zotoh Zahn.  Zahn's multi-shade blue skin, adorned with organic-looking patches of gold, was simply breathtaking.  I was impressed by actress Virginia Hey's willingness to shave her head for years for that role.  It's hard on an actor to wear that kind of full-body makeup.  It takes hours to apply, and it's hard to remove.  All you have to do is look at how much 'Star Trek - The Next Generation's' Brent Spiner (Data) ages over the course of the series to see how wearing it is to be completely covered in makeup every shooting day.  I can understand why a series producer wouldn't want to put the actors through that.  But surely there are other things that can be done to make a human actor seem less human.

Star Trek was certainly guilty of a lot of funny forehead aliens, but they also did some cool things.  'Deep Space Nine' did a lot of work with the Ferengi, who had quite differently shaped heads and ears, yet they were possible as regular characters because the prosthetics could be applied in only a couple of pieces to cut down on time in the makeup chair.  The actors also wore dental appliances.  If the producers of that series could do that 20 years ago, why can't tv series do something even better now?

I can think of many things I'd be delighted to see on a tv show.  Feathers, quills or scales instead of hair.  Teeth that are a different color than human teeth instead of just a different shape.  Females with facial hair instead of the males.  Females that are bigger than the males.  Color the inside of the mouth blue or black.  Head tentacles.  Small prosthetics like the Andorian antennae on 'Enterprise'.  Prehensile hair like the Naavi in Avatar.

I realize I'm not a professional makeup effects artist, so what I'm suggesting may not be as easy as it seems to me.  But surely if amateur cosplayers can come up with clever ways to make themselves look like the characters from Avatar using only commercially available supplies, then an experienced makeup artist should be able to design something that looks cool and sufficiently alien without breaking the budget or killing the actors. 

There are other things besides strange physical characteristics that can make aliens seem more alien, too.  Maybe a certain part of the body other than the face and hands is always exposed, or the hands are always covered.  Some extraterrestrials could wear veils or special spectacles most of the time.  Maybe they speak in a sing-song rhythm or pronounce their vowels oddly, or use peculiar grammar like Yoda.   Perhaps they sniff everything, or taste things, or touch things more often than a human would.  Unusual body language, inappropriate laughter, flattened or excessive emotion - these can all seem alien too.
So come on, Hollywood, put your imaginations to work.  Let's have some genuinely alien aliens on tv.  

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