The Measure of an Alien
It’s a curiosity that Star Wars and Star Trek are so often grouped together when they’re so patently different in themes, appearance, and format. The differences can be obvious or subtle. An example of the latter is the design of the two works’ aliens.
Star Trek is famous for its “rubber forehead” aliens, actors with latex prosthetics on their foreheads, eyebrows, or ears that give them an alien appearance. The modifications are usually minor, like Vulcans’ pointed ears, and leave the actor easily identifiable. More “otherworldly” aliens are rare. The full-CG Species 8472 from Voyager is the exception that proves the rule: in one episode, they take human form so they can be played by human actors. While Trek crews occasionally run into truly ineffable lifeforms like the Crystalline Entity, they virtually never see alien monsters or animals, no matter how many planets they visit. Finally, thanks to the Universal Translator, Star Trek aliens almost always speak English.
Star Wars aliens couldn’t be more different. Prosthetics are rare, much more pronounced, and mostly restricted to sexy aliens like the Twi’lek. Instead, Star Wars’ trademark aliens are Jim Henson’s puppets. These are fully constructed props performed either by puppeteers or by actors completely concealed within the suit. They exhibit a wide amount of variation not seen on Star Trek: Extremely large or small size, varying numbers of limbs, bizarre faces, and so on. They often speak alien languages or communicate only through grunts, clicks, or roars, even when talking to an English-speaking human. And Star Wars’ landscapes are crawling with alien wildlife.
Some of this may be put down to budget, but both franchises have such a purposeful aesthetic that it’s obviously an intentional choice, not merely a budget-enforced limitation. Let’s look at the basic themes of each franchise and how their alien designs fit in.
Star Wars is an adventure. The franchise is fundamentally less thematic than experiential: You’re meant to feel as though you’ve been transported to a completely different world and to enjoy all the sights that world has to offer. Therefore, Star Wars’ aliens are supposed to be fundamentally “other.” They don’t look, talk, or behave like us because we’re tourists in the Star Wars world enjoying an escape from our mundane lives and the more unusual the aliens, the better the escape. The variety of alien animals give the whole thing the feel of an off-world safari.
Star Trek, on the other hand, is a metaphor. It’s not just about seeing other cultures, but about getting to know them, learning to communicate, and understanding that we’re fundamentally more alike than different. The aliens look like us and talk like us because they are us. When the crew meets a civilization that ages backwards or speaks only in metaphors, we’re supposed to recognize all the human cultures who do things differently than we do, and when they and the crew inevitably come to an understanding, Star Trek is presenting a model for how people can learn to get along despite our differences.
The different types of aliens portrayed in Star Wars and Star Trek are well-chosen to fit the different types of stories the two franchises are telling. Both demonstrate how strong, thoughtful world-building not only fleshes out a fictional universe, but also makes the message of the work stronger.
Images are from Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Return of the Jedi.