Tired Sci-Fi Tropes That Must Be Retired!

This is a two-part post. Read Part 2 when you’re done!

If you read or watch a lot of science fiction, you may begin to notice certain themes that constantly crop up. Some of these, like the ridiculously sexy female scientist/alien/robot/whatever, detract from the realism — but no one is complaining about it. Not me, anyway. Hooray for Jeri Ryan!

But some of these overused cliches really need to go. I’ve collected a long list, which I have split into two parts. In no particular order, here are…

Tired Sci-Fi Tropes That Must Be Retired!

The Pinocchio Syndrome

Mr. Data has a skin condition.This is the non-human – robot, artificial intelligence, alien, alien-hybrid, etc. — that wants to be more human. This gives the lazy sci-fi writer an opportunity to explore that age-old chestnut, “what does it mean to be human?”

Star Trek has been the worst offender in the overuse of the Pinocchio Syndrome, giving us Mr. Data (the robot who wants to be human), The Doctor (the A.I. who wants to be human), Mr. Spock (the alien-human hybrid who wants to be less human and more alien), Lt. Commander Worf (the alien raised by humans who wants to be alien), Constable Odo (the alien raised by humans who wants to be human) and even Seven of Nine (the human raised by aliens who wants to be human).

And let’s not forget Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Andy the Android in Bicentennial Man, Boomer (and perhaps all the Cylons) from the new “Battlestar Galactica,” Annalee in Alien Resurrection, and the T-800 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

And that’s just robots. For aliens, there’s the Starman from Starman, Kal-El from Superman franchise, and all the characters from Third Rock From the Sun.

How about a robot who’s happy to be a robot, like Gigolo Joe in A.I., or Bender from Futurama? I’d like to see more of that. And what about Valentine Michael Smith from Stranger in a Strange Land, the human raised by Martians who wanted to be more Martian? Or Agent Smith from the Matrix films, who was perfectly happy to exist only as a program and couldn’t stand the stench of humanity? Then there’s Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who desired to become less human, if he could. Or at least less miserable.

I’m guessing that in this incomprehensibly vast universe, there are many things to be that are more interesting than “human.” Let’s give it a rest.

Ignoring the Butterfly Effect

Might as well stay in 1955 and found the Beatles.There are people who don’t like chaos theory, but that’s just because they don’t understand it.

If Marty McFly goes back in time and prevents his parents from meeting, there is no way to fix it. Even if Marty gets George and Lorraine to kiss at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, and they get married, and buy the house in the Lyon Estates, and have three kids, and buy a 4×4, Marty and his siblings will still never be born. The sperm that makes Marty will never be joined with the egg that makes Marty – too many details have changed. No Universal Cosmic Force will ensure that Marty is born, and the McFlys will give birth to a different son, perhaps one with the good sense not to hang out with crazy old inventors.

If humanity founds the evil Terran Empire instead of the good and pacifistic United Federation of Planets, there would be no starship Enterprise, no evil Kirk, no goateed Spock. These people would never have been born, and a different Imperial starship with different officers would have encountered the Kirk, Spock et al from our universe (except that the two ships would not be conducting identical transports on the same spot at the same time). Contingency requires that as the histories of the “mirror” universes diverged, they would become increasingly different. People in one universe would not have “counterparts” in the other. It might be a cool plot device to see how beloved characters would behave if they were evil, but it makes no sense and it’s old and tired. Better that Kirk is split into good and evil halves by the transporter.

If you have a time travel story, feel free to experiment with immutable timelines (Michael Crichton’s awful Timeline springs to mind). But any change in a timeline has to produce universal change over time. “Fate” has no place in sci-fi.

The Wish-fulfilling Alien

Q Bear is SOOOO cute!What’s the name of that movie where a spaceship encounters an alien entity that grants the protagonists anything they want or desire, thereby demonstrating the dangers of getting what you wish for?

Oh yeah, it was Forbidden Planet (1956). And Solaris (1972). And Event Horizon (1997), Sphere (1998), and the other Solaris (2002). Then there are all the Star Trek episodes, such as “Shore Leave.”

If we could have anything we wished for, we would have nothing to live for. Or it would be too much power. Yeah, we get it.

Humanoid Aliens

Excuse me, do you know where I can get my weird head polished?There are two reasons to make your space aliens humanoid. The first, common to both dramatic productions and literary fiction, is to make alien characters understandable and relatable. Some stories even have thoroughly alien characters transform themselves into humanoids, or create humanoid proxies, for the sake of communication (think the Tymbrimi from David Brin’s Uplift Universe, or the Starman in Starman).

The second reason, a plague upon film and TV sci-fi, is financial. It’s a lot cheaper to create a Bajoran by placing a lump of putty on the bridge of an actor’s nose, than it is to go with CGI or puppet-based aliens. Some TV aliens are less “alien” than perfectly real human beings with deformities. Star Trek didn’t invent the cheap-and-lazy alien, but it certainly perfected it.

I don’t have the space here to go into the reasons why an alien life form, even an intelligent one, is unlikely to be an upright bipedal, bilaterally symmetrical, four-limbed, endoskeletal, pentadactyl, binocular and binaural chordate.

Anyway, it’s lazy, it’s done to death, and we have cheap CGI now.

On a side note, if an alien can reproduce human speech, is mentally capable of doing so, and bothers to learn English, it’s going to speak in Received Pronunciation, aka the King’s English. Why would an alien learn a provincial dialect like American English? They’d speak it correctly. All aliens should sound like Hugh Grant.

Grey Aliens

Great!  Now he'll never have to star in 'Krippendorf's Tribe!'Done, done, and done. Grey aliens were cool in 1977. By the end of the credits roll in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, they were over. Whitley Strieber needs to make up some original shit. Move on.

Gigeroid Aliens

This is the single most overused visual concept in all of science fiction; more played-out than alien grays, saucer-shaped UFOs, and office-building-style spaceship interiors combined. Aliens are about as likely to look like giant, acid-spewing, face-hugging, vaguely humanoid black cockroaches as they are to look like a TOS Klingon with the blackface and the bandito mustache.

H. R. Giger hasss sssent hisss lawyersss?  I ssshall lay my eggsss in their chesssts!When H.R. Giger’s “xenomorph” debuted in 1979’s Alien, it was absolutely brilliant, and maybe the scariest thing anyone had ever seen or imagined ever. And of course, the “Alien” sequels had every reason to repeat and improve on the same design. (Not that Giger saw a dime for it.)

But I remember when Marvel’s The Uncanny X-Men introduced The Brood, and even as a teenager I thought, “Oh come on – can’t you guys be original?” Since then about one gazillion TV shows, movies, comic books and novels have ripped off the xenomorph alien. Giger even ripped himself off in Species.

Enough already. If you can’t be original (and there are plenty of underused alien concepts out there – get a copy of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials), then just use Ewoks. Imagine a cute little teddy bear bursting out of someone’s chest.

Vertical Spacecraft

Bringing a supply of tasty treats to LV-426!There’s no up or down when you’re in free fall. No north or south, either. All directions are arbitrary. Objects don’t have a top or bottom unless you stamp “This End Up” on one of the sides.

Unless a spacecraft is designed to enter an atmosphere and land, there is no reason for it to have a top and bottom. It should be designed functionally, to take into account acceleration, or free fall, or whatever relativistic situations the crew will find themselves in. (And if there’s no crew, all bets are off.)

There are two reasons sci-fi spacecraft are often portrayed as flying office buildings, with a top, a bottom, elevators, and unnecessary bottomless pits down which Darth Vader can throw the Emperor. The first is financial; TV shows and movies can’t or won’t spend the money to portray space travel accurately. (Props to those that do, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and… um… that’s it.)

The second reason is what I call “The Nautical Paradigm.” Space travel is represented as an allegorical equivalent to ocean travel. As with so many other things, Star Trek stretched this idea as far as it would go, to the point of presenting space travel and space combat as taking place on a 2-dimensional plane, as on the ocean’s surface. The movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn even turned this trope into a critical plot point.

Vertical spacecraft always have universal Earth-like gravity. This is usually explained as “artificial gravity,” a fun idea with absolutely no scientific basis whatsoever. (No, gravitons do NOT work that way.) This is often coupled with Trek-style “inertial dampeners” that prevent the ship’s inhabitants from being flattened into goo against the hull, but inexplicably do not prevent them from being thrown about, or injured, or from falling to their deaths down unnecessary bottomless pits.

As science and technology progress, manned space flight becomes less likely, rather than more; the future of space exploration, for better or worse, belongs to the robots. But if we’re going to present images of biological humans exploring the stars, let’s try to do it marginally realistically. If you want “gravity,” at least spin the ship, or have it accelerating at one gee. And please, design spaceships like spaceships, and not like clipper ships or oil derricks.

Slow down there, Missy!Slow-Mo in Zero Gee

God, this pisses me off. Things do not happen more slowly in zero gravity or microgravity. How do we know this? First, there is no basis for it in physical law. Second, there’s tons of video out there of real astronauts in real microgravity. Unless you slow down the film, they’re moving at normal speed.

In fact, sometimes things move a bit faster in microgravity. This is because they don’t weigh anything, and aren’t rubbing against the ground. Of course, objects without weight still have mass, and it requires energy to get them going and to slow them down again. So motion in microgravity is different from motion at the Earth’s surface. But not slower.

A person who is unaccustomed to low or zero-gee might move more cautiously until they got the hang of it. One may freely assume that trained astronauts are not such people.

Remember the slow-mo free-fall battle on the underside of the hull in the otherwise-entertaining Star Trek: First Contact? It made me want to tear my hair out. (And does the Enterprise’s artificial gravity field stop right at the hull? Really? How does that work? And why not extend it?)

Now be sure to read … Part 2!


  1. So you just want “hard” sci-fi? Cool. However as you will see from all of the many franchises you’re dissing many of us just want some simple, understandable escapism. Not against your type of sci-fi and wouldn’t diss it so please lay off ours. Just so you know up until now there is no such thing a truly alien creature so anything, no matter how humanoid or grotesque would be equal bullshit. We relate better to things we understand and do not find grotesque, so humanoids aid us in engaging with these on screen aliens. The grotesque ones are usually there for us to fear and find repulsive so there is room for both for differing purposes.

  2. Odo wasn’t raised by humans, he was raised (if you can call it that), by a Bajoran scientist, Dr. Mora Pol, under the rule of the Cardassians. And he didn’t want to be human.

Leave a Comment.