Sensor Scan: Species

(11 comments)

1995 was a major turning point in my association with pop culture. It was the year my family first got satellite TV, and while this meant I finally had access to television besides three channels of varying degrees of snow for the first time ever, it also meant the end of my association with Star Trek for five years.

I've of course told this story a lot, but it bears repeating one more time. In the 80s and early 90s, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had an unusual direct-to-syndication deal, whereby they would be included as first-run series as part of a syndication package local affiliates of the major national networks could bid on to fill gaps in their programming schedule, which would otherwise include stuff like game shows or reruns of popular series from past decades. For those outside of the US, in this country our national networks have local regional partners for every municipal area, and while they all get the network's primetime shows, stuff like local news and weather will be different station to station. Back in those days the syndicated shows were different too, which could lead to weird things, like, say Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine competing with each other (and sometimes even reruns of each other) because two different local affiliates for two different networks decided to air them both in the same timeslot. It...wasn't always the best system, let's say.

But even though I only had three channels, it never bothered me. I've never been a huge TV person (partly because of this), so I didn't care. I had PBS, cartoon shows and Star Trek. What more could I possibly want? But all that changed in 1995 with our shiny new satellite dish. And while it was certainly exciting to have so many new channels to explore, it came with a serious price. In the mid-90s, the satellite provider my family used didn't offer local channels, instead providing a generic national version of PBS and the networks with no regional content whatsoever. This included syndication, so that was the abrupt end of my association with Star Trek on television, I thought forever (while Star Trek Voyager was sold as an exclusive to UPN, Paramount's ill-advised attempt to make a network to compete with ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, UPN wasn't included in our satellite package either until Voyager had ended. In fact, we didn't get UPN until midway through Enterprise's first season).

This also means that 1995 is where I drop out of Vaka Rangi's narrative, effectively for good. I'll pop by to check in on Star Trek every so often over the next half-decade (usually with a somewhat baffled and concerned expression on my face) and it will always be something I default to saying I broadly like, but my fever for adventure At the Edge of the Final Frontier will be nowhere near this intense again. My passion will briefly return to flashpoint levels once TNN picks up Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns in 2000 and the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine DVD box sets are announced three years later, but I've already talked a lot about that in the Next Generation section. I'll also have an Indian Summer romance period of sorts with Enterprise's first few seasons, and then the 2009 movie will kickstart a period of nostalgic self-reflection and contemplation that will eventually lead me, well, to Vaka Rangi and Eruditorum Press. But here in 1995, that all may as well be a lifetime away. From this point on, my interests will take me elsewhere.

But I won't leave without sharing one last examined memory with you. I want to show you where I went after Star Trek.

Upon getting my shiny new satellite dish, the places I gravitated to first were Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and The Discovery Channel. Cartoon Network helped foster my love of animation and animation history (a project unto itself), and Nickelodeon was fun because I got to see what youth culture out in the real world was like (this was back before Nickelodeon made cartoons) but The Discovery Channel was great because it was the first time I had 'round-the-clock access to documentary nonfiction. I absolutely ate that up, and the kinds of shows I watched there are still the shows I prefer to watch if given the opportunity today (also, we were speaking earlier about Multimedia CD-ROMs and I can't tell you how many Discovery Channel-branded interactive CD-ROM suites I had. None of them worked properly, of course). Though I liked the history and archaeology programmes (remember, I had long been a fan of Robert Ballard's oceanography work), my absolute favourites were the nature documentaries. Perhaps it's because of where I grew up, but the natural world has always been one of my oldest loves and it's something I try to be mindful of every day. The quiet, informative and relaxing tone of those old documentaries were really compelling to me not just as educational tools, but as media sensory experiences.

But alongside all these new documentaries and cartoons I was watching, I also naturally saw a lot of commercials. There were commercials of all sorts, of course, but some of the earliest ones I remember seeing in crystal clarity on my 80s CRT thanks to my satellite service were for movies coming out in the summer of 1995. And they were certainly a weird bunch: There was Outbreak, a movie about the CDC fighting a pandemic that I think involved brushfires and was an action movie for some reason, the third Die Hard movie (I hadn't seen either of the first two), Unzipped, an...unexpected documentary about supermodels and the fashion industry, Congo, a movie based on one of Michael Crichton's earliest works that, in hindsight, was made probably just to compete with Steven Spielberg's 1993 Jurassic Park movie (which I had seen, or was at least well aware of thanks to my interest in paleontology) Judge Dredd (which Eruditorum Press readers most assuredly know more about than I do) and Batman Forever (I've already written about my history with the two Tim Burton Batman movies, and you can say what you will about the two Joel Schumacher ones, but I'll tell you what: The trailer for this one at least was a trip and a half at the time). And then there was Species.

Of all the movies that came out that summer, only one truly managed to capture my imagination, and that was Species. I recognised Batman, of course, and I was interested in Congo because it was about an African rainforest and gorillas and had a female lead and that seemed cool, but Species was what I was really interested in and Species was what I wanted more than anything: That film absolutely lodged itself in my psyche from the trailer alone and it's never really left. Perhaps you're familiar with Species and its...reputation, and, if so, I'll let you decide for yourselves what you think that says about me. But at the time I thought Species was simply mesmerizing: I could tell from the commercial it was science fiction, and since the only science fiction I really knew in 1995 was Star Trek and perhaps the odd video game, Species was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. The title and the trailer both evoked zoological and natural history themes, and, given what I was getting more into in 1995, that definitely caught my attention. And then of course, there was everything else about it.

I want to handle this as delicately as possible without implicating myself in any direction, but it's impossible to talk about Species without talking about sex and sexuality. And believe me, we'll get to the meat of that in due time. To start with, I'll just say I definitely noticed the sex (as profoundly unsexy as that first trailer is in a lot of ways: It tries to sell the movie as a 90s thriller on par with everything else that came out that summer, which it is. Sometimes.) and that was certainly part of the reason I was so interested in the movie, but not for the reasons you probably think I was. In spite of its reputation, most of what's sexy about Species is actually what it doesn't show and conveys only through implication: It leaves the bulk of that kind of stuff to your imagination, and I maintain the movie is generally speaking more nuanced and subtle then it gets credit for being. I suppose I intuited the sexual themes in Species the same way I did Jadzia Dax's sexuality in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and was subconsciously drawn to it that way.

Species also had a truly formidable-looking female lead, and I'm not talking about Marg Helgenberger.

I can't remember if I saw Species that summer or not (I can't see how I would have): It *might* have been one of the rare movies we got second run at our little village cinema, back when we still had one, but I'm sure I would never have dared go see it even if we did. Even then I knew this was something I probably wasn't “supposed” to like as much as I was starting to think I probably did. Most of my understanding of Species at the time was derived from watching the trailer whenever it showed up during commercial breaks and making educated guesses about what kind of movie it was and what it was trying to say based on what little information I had. And that commercial really was the bulk of what I had: I wasn't getting science fiction magazines anymore at this point, and even though Species was the big tentpole sci-fi movie of 1995 and was heavily profiled in all of them, I never knew that until years later long after I got the Internet, mostly doing research for this project, in fact.

Either way, for better or for worse, this where my interest in science fiction led me for the next several years. With no new Star Trek to watch, it turned out to be Species that more or less defined how I viewed science fiction and my experience with the genre from 1995-2001. It kind of became a closet fandom of sorts for me. In fact, Species was so influential on my critical development that it shaped how I reread Star Trek after I went back to it. It's more a topic for the sequel (which I will not be covering) because it came out the same year, but remember that Star Trek Phase II book Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens wrote? You know, the one that had the complete original script for “The Child” included as an Appendix? Yeah, that came out the same year as Species II. I was *absolutely* comparing and contrasting those two, and they sort of...cross-pollinated each other in my mind. Over the years, I would occasionally catch glimpses of Species and its sequels on the Sci-Fi Channel where they would show up as weekend shlock features every so often, always with more than a slight twinge of embarrassment at having done so. But it wasn't until much later that I actually got to watch the movie all the way through from a critical perspective and fairly evaluate what it did and didn't do: I knew Species was going to have to be a major milestone for Vaka Rangi from the very beginning, and thankfully, it's really not bad. Wonky and full of plot holes, but not bad.

As some of you may know, Species is very intimately connected to the Alien series. Some would call it a spiritual successor to the original Alien, others would call it a shameless ripoff. Which of the two it is I'll leave you to decide for yourselves. I personally think it's a little bit of both. In fact, knowing I was absolutely going to have to cover Species once I hit 1995 is the reason why I even bothered to look at Alien and Aliens as part of Vaka Rangi in the first place, even before I remembered the Tasha Yar-Private Vasquez connection, because to really understand what this movie is doing (or trying to do), you need that context. If you'll recall, the big thing that was special about the original Alien (and significantly less so its sequels) is that it was a sexual horror movie: It takes Western culture's hangups about sex, as well as its patriarchal oppression, and throws all that back at it in the form of a lumbering penis monster. It *literally* shoves it back down its throat. Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon said his primary goal was “to make the men in the audience uncomfortable”: Alien is a movie that shows how monstrous rape culture is by turning rape culture into a monster.

And Species is a sexual horror movie too, just like Alien. In fact, I'd argue it's more one than any of the Alien sequels or franchise films and comes the closest of any of them to being a true follow up to what that first movie achieved. Species had a very painful and difficult birth, even by Hollywood standards, and some of this does blunt its effectiveness: It has a tendency to be laughably incoherent at points and it does basically go off the rails spectacularly in its final act, but when it's good it's really good and gets at some truly compelling ideas. The cornerstone of the whole film is Sil, played first by a young, pre-Dawson's Creek Michelle Williams, and then by Canadian model-turned-genre queen Natasha Henstridge, in her debut performance. Sil is the result of a covert government experiment to genetically engineer a new life-form out of human and alien DNA (no, not that kind, but you wouldn't be too far off in thinking so). Her handlers get cold feet though, and decide to “terminate the experiment” (read: gas her) at the start of the movie. Needless to say, Sil doesn't take that well and breaks out, going on the lam to survive and setting off a nationwide manhunt.

Half the movie thinks Sil is its leading lady. The other half thinks she's its Great Beast to Be Slain. I think she's the heroine.
 
Sil's alien form was designed in part by H.R. Giger, who was brought on to oversee some of the visual look of the film. It wasn't a fun experience for him, and he wrote at great length about how he felt creatively constrained by the whole process. But Giger, just by his mere presence here, can't help but invoke Alien (certainly the filmmakers wanted him to), even though he tried very hard to differentiate the two films. In particular, Giger wanted Sil to be a kind of defining statement for a side of his work that hadn't gotten mainstream respect yet at that point: Its feminine side. Sil was meant to be an “aesthetic warrior”, “beautiful, but also deadly”. Partly as a result of this, the twist Sil brings to the sexual horror formula is that while Alien depicted a certain type of sexuality as horrifying, Species depicts a certain, different kind of sexuality as horrifying diegetically and it wants us to think about the ramifications of that. Unlike the Alien, Sil doesn't stand in for rape culture, but what is, to my eyes, a perfectly innocent flavour of feminine sexuality. As the characters in the movie never tire of pointing out, Sil wants to mate and have a baby, an idea that she likes and feels nice to her. And that's it.
 
The script tries to paint this as a kind of invasive biological attack on humanity because Species originated as a pitch about an alien invasion through “wetware”, and the project on the whole has a somewhat bonkers grasp of natural selection and a somewhat worrying fixation on evolutionary psychology. But we never get any indication in the finished product that this is something Sil actually wants: She doesn't seem to want to hurt anyone (though the movie is inconsistent about this because it's inconsistent about everything) and generally just seems more interested in exploring herself and her desires in privacy and safety. Natasha Henstridge deserves a ton of credit here (as does Michelle Williams) for bending over backward to make Sil sympathetic, even when the script plainly doesn't want her to be, and it's really hard not to cheer for her when the actresses are left to their own devices. Thanks to Sil's powers of rapid growth and maturation, she grows to adulthood in days and picks up a lifetime of experience in hours: So here's a young woman coming of age into a world that hates and fears her who knows, as a hybrid who's neither fully one or the other, she's never going to fit in anywhere.
 
That alone could lead into some potentially really interesting discussions about diaspora and second-generation immigrants, but that's a discussion someone will have to have somewhere else. What I want to focus on, because I can't help but focus on it, is the sexual component. Because the real reason Sil is hated and turned into a monster is because she's a woman who has feminine desires. Her sexuality and sexual agency is feared and scorned and depicted as dangerous and threatening. There's a lot of ways you could interpret that from a feminist perspective and most them admittedly aren't terribly appealing, but I choose the redemptive tack that the movie is on our side...at least for enough of its runtime to leave the right impact. It *wants* us to notice that Sil is being hunted just because she's feminine and she's different and people don't understand her. It *wants* us to feel bad about that, and to feel for her innocence and her desire. At least, that's what I think Natasha Henstridge wants. Part of that comes from the fact that the rest of the cast is delightfully incompetent and unlikable (I mean hell, “Our Heroes” open the film by trying to gas a little girl to death because they were scared of her for no obvious reason), but most of it is, again, due to Sil herself.
 
That Species does, on one level, depict those selfsame feminine desires as monstrous can be read a number of different (negative) ways. This could be saying that all femininity or feminine agency is bad (which doesn't really gel because the back half of the movie really wants us to get behind Marg Helgenberger's Laura Baker and her romance with Michael Madsen's Preston Lennox wherein she is very much depicted as the proactive agent), or perhaps it's saying it's bad that 90s RIOT GRRL feminism has made women afraid to embrace certain desires. Or maybe it's a criticism of that very criticism. I personally don't think any of these hold though, because again, Sil is so sympathetic for so much of the movie. But also, consider the unique physiology she inherits from her...species: Perhaps because Sil matures at such a rapid rate and possesses incredible healing powers that allow her to come back from any injury, pregnancy, childbirth and development are casual things to her and can happen within the span of a few hours. And they're pleasurable to her. Isn't the movie then saying that women can enjoy being pregnant and having children without that defining everything about who and what they are? Isn't that a good thing?
 
Also, I personally always imagined this gave Sil an enhanced level of empathy and sensual maturity connected to her sexuality...Just like the Deltans and the Betazoids in Star Trek. This is the part of the movie that really does tie into the original theme of the human race potentially driven to extinction by introduced species: Sil isn't a monster, she's actually better than us, and that's what truly scares the human characters, even if they'd never admit it. Sil is pure, uninhibited feminine energy and creative power unbridled from Western patriarchy, and that positively terrifies Xavier Fitch and his crack team of US government stooges. Best to kill off that which you don't understand (and what has been more othered and less understood throughout human history than woman?) quickly so as not to bother yourself with a potentially serious challenge to your worldview and entitlement. Sil is life force and the combinatory energy of becoming in its purest and most supercharged form, and she is not in the least bit embarrassed, ashamed or intimidated by it. Whether or not this prospect terrifies *you* as well might determine how you understand what Species is saying.
 
Of course, Species then wants to have it both ways. It wants Sil to be this, but to also be a horrible monster we don't feel bad about seeing killed off in a spectacular and exciting fashion, leading to the movie's truly messed up and upsetting climax. This constant confused balking about its own thesis statement, probably due to its difficult production that likely passed through a few too many different hands a few too many times, is what ultimately undoes the film. It's a classic “too many cooks” problem, resulting in something I get the distinct impression was not quite what any one creative party involved with it wanted it to be. But even so this is still a movie I really enjoy and have a lot of tender feelings about. Whenever I rewatch it I surely laugh at the countless plot holes and janky exposition (I love how, by the way, Forest Whitaker's character Dan gives a shout-out to The Discovery Channel in one such scene) and the cast, all of whom (save Natasha Henstridge and Michelle Williams) are clearly taking the piss out of the whole hot mess. But I also can't help but see the the good in the film too: There's a germ of something truly brilliant and inspired here. No, more than a germ: It's in full bloom if you know where to look. I believe in Species and in Sil, more than I believe in a lot of things.
 
Back when I was getting into Species, I had no idea about the Alien connection. I'm not even sure I knew what the Alien series *was* in 1995. So what most people probably saw as an unrepentant and exploitative knockoff, I saw as something really intriguing and new. But more than anything else, it was Sil who fascinated and inspired me. Maybe it's because there weren't any real leading ladies in science fiction at the time who weren't part of an ensemble (at least none that I would have been aware of) that she stood out to me, though I'm guessing her sexuality was equally as important...Probably more so. I'd never seen anyone that forward or...open in pop culture before, at least not in a way that wasn't masked behind some kind of euphemistic metaphor (like Dax and Deanna). But I want to backpedal away from this a bit before I end up in a compromising position I can't recover from, and there is more about Sil I resonate with besides that.
 
Chief among them is her upbringing, or rather, her lack thereof. Sil may be brilliant (she has the savant-like ability to read an entire book just by glancing at the the pages, and can pick up difficult skills and concepts just by watching other people), but she's cripplingly ignorant when it comes to human culture and social interaction, especially in the West. This isn't her fault; she had a very sheltered and isolated childhood (she grew up in a literal cage after all), but it means that once she escapes into the real world her straightforwardness and honesty gets her into trouble and she starts from a handicap when it comes to social interaction. In fact, Sil spends a lot of time watching TV to try and get a better understanding of the world she finds herself in...which may or may not be to her benefit. As an only child living alone in the Actual Wilderness whose sole window into the outside (human) world was television and pop culture (and before 1995, and even after, secondhand pop culture at that) this really left a big and lasting impression on me. For this, and other reasons, I genuinely, honestly saw a lot of myself in Sil...and a lot of her in me.
 
Because I relate to her on so many different levels, I guess I kind of...refuse to accept some of the ways Species seems to want to characterize Sil. I feel compelled to defend her actions whenever and wherever possible, though that doesn't mean I blind myself to the actual intent of the text either (however that said piecing together what the actual “intent” of something like Species is proves to be unusually difficult, even for a movie, because so many people were pulling the project in so many different directions it's not altogether clear the *movie itself* knows what it wants to be). I'd never seen a character quite like Sil anywhere before, and I don't think I've seen one since either. I desperately want her to get a happy ending, because if she gets away, there may still be hope for me yet.
 
In my head, I have a version of this story I like and accept and is “canon” to me and that tends to override my more base critical tendencies. This is, I suppose much like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Hearts and Minds, a work I am altogether too close with to provide what I guess you'd call “proper critique. I think my reading of Species is a good and valid one, but I wouldn't force anyone else to subscribe to it if they don't want to or can't make themselves. This movie is something of a mess and I readily admit that, but it's stayed with me longer than most things for a reason. Species is kind of the definitive example of how I feel about the overwhelming majority of Vaka Rangi: If you don't share the exact unique and perverse positionality and circumstances that I do, a whole lot of this probably isn't going to make sense to you. All I can hope for is that I do a decent enough job *explaining* myself in a way you don't find totally repellent.
 
Why any of you are still reading, I may never understand, but thank you if you are.

Comments

Jack Graham 8 months ago

No, Josh, thank *you*.

Incidentally, Shabcast 31 - which be posted on Friday - features Josh and I talking about 'Species'. Pardon my cross-promotion.

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David Faggiani 8 months ago

It's been (and will continue to be) our pleasure!

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Sean Dillon 8 months ago

Your work has always been interesting to me, even when I don't fully grasp what you're talking about. When those times happen, I try to explore for the things you refer to in the text and read them because they sound interesting (I was the kind of person who, while in middle school, read the entire Divine Comedy because of the VGA trailer for Dante's Inferno, essentially a God of War clone that missed the entire point of the Comedy). I'll always be grateful for the new and interesting ideas put in my head, be they of the terrors of the telephone or a pair of bisexual swingers and their pet cat or even the simple pleasures of actually wanting to watch Star Trek rather than peoples opinions on it. Thank you, and here's to many years to come.

Best to kill off that which you don't understand (and what has been more othered and less understood throughout human history than woman?) quickly so as not to bother yourself with a potentially serious challenge to your worldview and entitlement.

Ok, one more thing. If experience has taught me anything, it's that the better phrasing is "Best to kill off that which you almost understand," as understanding what you think something is and what something is are two different ideas entirely. This all ties into the implicit implications of "Everyone's the hero of their own story" i.e. everyone shares my politics. Many of us believe people will act the way "we" have acted in certain circumstances (hence bullshit ideas like White Genocide) and, should people "we" despise get into power, they will try to do what "we" did to them to "us," no matter how often we are corrected. I could be wrong, and I'm willing to learn.

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Josh Bernhard 8 months ago

Thank you, Josh. Your unique thoughts and perspective have challenged how I approach and consume media.

We are still reading.

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Jacob 8 months ago

I'm definitely still reading. Can't wait to see what comes next.

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Froborr 8 months ago

Still reading. Just haven't commented much because I'm usually not comfortable commenting on discussion of something I haven't watched/read/experienced, and it's been quite some time since you covered something I'm familiar with. (Actually, that's true of Eruditorum Press in general the last few months.)

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Philip Sandifer 8 months ago

You should check out Star Wars, Jed.

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Froborr 8 months ago

I commented on at least one of the Star Wars posts! But not the Rogue One posts, because I only watched it on Friday.

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rusty 8 months ago

Still here, still reading since the TOS review days. It can be hard to engage with some of your show critiques when you're always holding it up to that headcanon of yours, but this project has changed my perspective on trek more than anything since the phase II book you so helpfully mentioned earlier. As someone slogging through their own big project it's always an inspiration to see the posts go up, and I'm excited (scared) to see what's next.

PS: The Dominion war arc was good and cool.

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John G. Wood 8 months ago

Still reading, still mostly lurking. I've never seen Species, but I can certainly relate to many of the things you say in different contexts. When we first got Freeview I gorged myself on documentaries - mostly history and natural history - for a few months, before sinking back to my previous state of only watching TV a few times a week.

I'm sorry your personal story is dropping out of Vaka Rangi - I hope you will continue to include your reactions, even though they will be coming from a later perspective. I do like it when your personal viewpoint shines through and transforms what we watch. I see Vaka Rangi as a kind of grand scale redemptive reading (which doesn't stop you from being harsh on individual episodes), and that's not really compatible with what you call 'proper critique' anyway. Though I feel the self-criticism implied by that phrase is about as valid as saying that genre fiction is automatically not proper literature...

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David Dukes 8 months ago

Great article and I can't wait to listen to the podcast. I've never seen Species but you've made me want to track it down. My early memory of it is of a large billboard at the end of our street with the picture of Sil at the top of the page featuring prominently. I remember being interested in it and only just begining to understand why...

I started reading this blog as just an interesting companion piece to my own Trek rewatch. As I caught up with the various other paths you go down, your personal history with Trek became as much a part of it as the readings of the episodes. Even if I don't share your positionality (I'm more of a movie fan and aren't much of a gamer) getting an idea of how other people see the world can't help but grow the model of the Universe we have in our heads. I think Deanna Troi would say It's what empathy is all about ultimately.

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