Amazingly, over an inadvertent Alien marathon weekend, it wasn’t watching the recent Aliens vs. Predator, nor rewatching the Joss Whedon scripted Alien Resurrection that got my attention. What kept me glued to the TV until the wee hours was the completely awesome “what if” documentary Alien Planet on the Discovery Channel. Using the magic of CGI, and based on a book called Expedition, a few imaginative and scientific minds got together to produce a visual record of what the first mission from Earth to the nearest planet with life (some 6 light years away) would be like. The story involves an unmanned ship traveling at 20% the speed of light arriving at the planet Darwin IV a few decades after leaving Earth. With sophisticated computers, scanners, and artificial intelligence, the ship scans the planet to find a landing target. It sends out three robot probes to explore (though one gets demolished on impact).
On the surface, these probes are equipped with hydrogen hover sacs and float over the planet’s surface, scanning and recording what they see. With A.I. equivalent to the mind of a young child, the probes go about the exploration of the planet, seeking out new life forms—and they encounter plenty.What the probes (nicknamed Ike and Leo) find are the most incredible creatures (no big-eyed E.T.s here) including: two-legged ‘antelopes’ called gyrosprinters; sonar-emitting ‘t-rexes’ called arrowtongues; spear-headed, predatory, living jet planes called skewers; and awesome 7-storey bipeds called emperor sea striders, who walk on an amoebic sea. Granted, though posed as speculative fact it’s all still science fiction, but watching leaping talon-handed predators called daggerwrists fly from tree to tree attacking their prey (the trunk suckers) feels more like watching National Geographic or Animal Planet than something out of Star Wars or the X-Files. There’s even a compelling plot that follows the adventures of Ike and Leo. They have different A.I. personalities and when Leo’s signal is mysteriously lost, Ike is sent on a quest to learn what happened—and believe me, you’ll want to know too. Inter-cut with the alien footage are comments from scientists and experts (including George Lucas and Stephen Hawking) discussing the types of creatures on Darwin IV, how they relate to Earth beasts, as well as the possibilities of human exploration of other planets in search of life. Altogether this seamless blend of the imaginary and the speculative is so intriguing that it will make you eager for humans to go out into space with giant butterfly nets. Unfortunately, one expert speculated that 2014 would be the watershed year when we might actually begin. Add to that the decades that it would require to get to a planet like Darwin IV and it seems again like something that’s more fantasy that fact. Nevertheless, if Alien Planet does anything besides entertain, it’s the reminder of the wondrous possibilities that might be out there.
Alien Planet will be rebroadcast on Discovery Channel Canada on Oct. 16, 2005.