Terraforming in Pop Culture

Welcome back to the wonderful world (pun!) of Terraforming. In my last post on the subject, I came to see that it emerged in fiction in the early 20th century as part of our growing awareness of the universe and humanity’s place within it. As western civilization grew and came to encompass the entire world through exploration, conquest and colonization, human scientists simultaneously discovered that our universe was much larger than previously thought, and began to postulate that life could exist on other planets.

In short, while our world grew smaller, the universe grew much, much larger. With no more nooks  or corners left to explore and conquer, we began to set our sights to the heavens for the next frontier. It’s such a fertile topic, but I shan’t get into it here. If I start waxing philosophical on all the thought that goes into exploring new worlds, we’ll be here forever.

Onto to the subject for today, which is terraforming in popular culture! As you can guess, there are quite a few instances of this taking place, and for good reason. Wherever science fiction and exoplanets have shown up in pop-culture, the concept terraforming was sure to follow. In some cases, this constituted a mere mention, but in others, detailed descriptions were given. Here is a list of just a few examples that I could find:

Aliens:
Central to the plot of Aliens was the fact that LV-426, the planet where the Nostromo and its crew encountered the Xenomorph in the first movie, had become a settler colony. As the executive at Weyland Yutani told Ripley, it was what they referred to as a “Shake and Bake Colony”, where terraformers were sent on ahead to run the atmospheric processors and make the planet suitable for human use. This was all in keeping with WY’s motto of “Building Better Worlds”. Pshaw!

Shortly after they arrive on LV-426, Ripley and the compliment of Colonial Marines determined that the colonists had been moved into the atmospheric processor, specifically to its lower levels where the air was hot and humid. Apparently, these conditions were favorable to the Xenomorph hatchlings, which began to use the colonists as hosts to breed”Chestbusters”.

After their disastrous confrontation in the hive, the atmospheric processor suffered a rupture to its coolant systems, which meant that the entire thing would go thermonuclear in just a few hours. After being all but eradicated in their first encounter with the Xenomorph and losing their only transport back to the ship, this served to add further urgency to the plot. And in the end, it was the destruction of the atmospheric processor which ensured that the Xenomorph colony was destroyed and all traces of them (with the exception of the Queen) wiped out.

Cowboy Bebop:
Set in the not-too-distant future, this anime from from the late nineties was set in a universe where humanity lived throughout the Solar System. This was made possible due to the discovery of hyperspace gates; however, due to the explosion of one near the Moon, Earth found itself being bombarded by meteorites which devastated large sections of the planet. As a result, much of the human race had to relocate to the Inner Planets, the Asteroid Belt, and the moons of Jupiter.

Many episodes of the show take place on the planets of Venus, Mars, Ganymede, Io, Callisto, and Titan, where terraforming has rendered them partially of fully habitable. Though the concept is treated as a sort of given, some degree of explanation is given as to how it took place and the varying degrees of success that resulted. In the case of Mars and Venus, the terraforming was so successful that Mars became the new hub of human civilization and Venus a major population center.

With this background firmly in place, the series plot arc – which involves a motley group of bounty hunters patrolling the system Space Western style – is then able to unfold. Though the show last only 26 episodes, it did achieve a cult following and a level of influence, similar to Joss Wedon’s Firefly (another Space Western that died prematurely).

Firefly:
Speak of the devil, or in this case, a show that made good use of the concept of terraforming. Intrinsic to the plot of this show, so much so that they opened every episode by referring to it, is the fact that in this future, the human race was forced to relocate to a new star system after Earth had been “used up”. Arriving at the “White Star”, they found dozens of planets and hundreds of moons around the system’s central sun and its many dwarf suns. These planets were then terraformed, a process which took generations, and began populated them soon after.

Another fact which is central to the story is the fact that while the central worlds were terraformed successfully and boasted large, advanced populations, the outer planets were poorly terraformed, leading to dry, desolate worlds that became havens for crime and backwards populations. Though life was show to be difficult in these colonies, they were also the only places where people can still enjoy a life free of the repressive Alliance regime.

But more importantly, this back story gave Joss Whedon an excuse for the look and feel of his acclaimed Space Western! It also played perfectly into the show’s historical narrative, where the expanding Alliance represented the closing of the American frontier and the death of a way of life. For not only were the First Nations and their culture being sacrificed in the name of “Manifest Destiny”, a great deal of the American Dream of an open frontier was as well.

Red Planet:
Set in 2056 AD, the plot of this film centers around ongoing terraforming efforts on Mars. Faced with the dual problems of overpopulation and pollution, NASA and other space agencies begin sending automated probes to Mars that contain atmosphere-producing algae. These probes have been seeding Mars for twenty years as the first stage in a terraforming effort that will make the planet suitable for human settlement. When the oxygen production is inexplicably reduced, a crew is sent to investigate so that the  terraforming efforts can be put back on track.

When the mission arrives, and endures numerous disasters,they eventually discover that the introduction of Earth algae has stirred up the native Martian life. This consists of nematodes that have come to the surface to feed on the algae, emitting oxygen in return. This, they realize, has changed the parameters of the original project, but leaving it otherwise intact.

Star Trek II and III:
What is generally hailed by fans as the best movie of the franchise (Wrath of Khan) opens up with a rather unusual take on terraforming. In fact, the plot of both the second and third movie revolve around a project known as Genesis, a means of instantaneously transforming a planet from a lifeless husk into a habitable M-class planet.

In Wrath of Khan, things begin when the starship Reliant, while searching for a lifeless planet in the Ceti Alpha system, is taken over by Khan Noonien Soong and his band of genetically-modified people. Having learned of their mission, Khan becomes obsessed with finding the Genesis device so that he can restore the desolate landscape of Ceti Alpha V, presumably with the intention of resurrecting his dead wife.

In the end, Kirk and the Enterprise disable his ship inside a nebula, prompting Khan to set the Genesis device to self-destruct in the hopes of taking Kirk with him. With their warp drive non-functional, the Enterprise could not escape, prompting Spock to sacrifice himself in order to bring the engines back online. Though he dies from radiation poisoning, the ENterprise escapes as the Genesis device detonates, which has the effect of turning the nebula itself into an M-Class planet.

At the very end of the movie, Spock’s body is placed inside a torpedo casing and fired into orbit around Genesis. After landing on the surface, the “Genesis wave” heals Spock’s body and he is reborn. This, as all fans of the franchise know, was the basis for the third movie where Kirk and the Enterprise come back to Genesis to retrieve him. In the course of doing so, the Genesis plant is examined in more detail and the effects of the project. Ultimately, though the device was capable of creating life out of lifeless, it proved unstable and resulted in the total collapse of the planet created.

Total Recall:
The film adaptation of Philip K Dick’s “We can Remember it for You Wholesale” differed from the source material in many key ways. For example, in addition to the central theme of memory and the dividing line between real and artificial, there was also an extensive backstory involving Mars. Ultimately, the character of Quad (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) learns that he is drawn to Mars because that is where he is from, and his false identity implanted because of something he witnessed there.

In the end, it is revealed that this secret has to do with an ancient alien device that lies at the heart of the planet, a device which has the power to terraform Mars into a habitable world. Apparently, this involved some super-heated coils that, when activated, would plunge into the planet’s watery core, evaporating them and filling Mars’ atmosphere with water vapor. When Quad activated the device, it had the effect of creating breathable atmosphere within a matter of minutes.

Not the most realistic depiction of terraforming, but it did have it’s upsides. For one, it took advantage of contemporary scientific theories that stated that Mars might have underground sources of water and ice. Second, it incorporated speculation of how these could be used to eventually create oxygen-creating plants on the surface and hence, an atmosphere. Last, it worked into the plot in that the villain, Coohagen, knew that if Mars had a natural atmosphere, it would destroy the basis of his power (controlling the air supply).

Serenity, Best Lines!

And we come to the final installment at last. Given the sheer kick-ass nature of the show’s writing, it took me three whole posts to get all the best lines from the single season that the show produced. And it was not even a full season! But of course, honoring Whedon’s criminally under-appreciated sci-fi creation wouldn’t be complete with including the movie Serenity. Much like the show, it had all the elements of classic sci-fi, space westerns, and the touching themes of loss and the ties that bind. So here she is, the fourth and final installment! Shiny!

Serenity:
Quick recap: The crew of the Firefly are still flying, albiet by the seat of their pants. The Alliance continues to expand into the outer reaches of the system, making it that much harder to get freelance work, honest or otherwise. At the same time, the Reavers seem to be pushing inward, raiding systems closer and closer to the core. Meanwhile, an “Operative” is looking for River and will stop at nothing to find her. His appearance coincides with the crew’s realization that her condition goes far beyond anything they’ve seen before. In addition to being a “reader”, she is also programmed to kill and knows things about secret Alliance projects. Following a lead, the name “Miranda”, the crew uncovers a massive planet-wide conspiracy which could threaten to destroy the Alliance itself.

River: People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.
Teacher: River, we’re not trying to tell people what to think… only how [cut to lab where River is being experimented on]

[My favorite line of the movie, so chilling!]
Operative
: “Key members of Parliament”. Key. The minds behind every military, diplomatic and covert operation in the galaxy, and you put them in a room with a psychic.
Dr. Mathias: Look… even if River Tam did by any chance read the minds of any of the visiting Parliment members here, whatever government secrets she may have read she may not even remember any them for they are all probaly buried under layers of psychosis.
Operative
: Secrets are not my concern. Keeping them is.

Mal: What was that?
Wash: Did you see that?
Mal: Was that the primary buffer panel?
Wash: Did seem to resem-
Mal: Did the primary buffer panel just fall off my gorram ship for no apparent reason?!

Wash: Yeah well, if she doesn’t give us some extra flow from the engine room to offset the burn through, this landing is gonna get pretty interesting.
Mal: Define interesting.
Wash: ‘Oh god oh god we’re all gonna die?’
Mal: [through the intercom] This is the captain. We have a…little problem with our engine sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then…explode.

Mal: Come a day there won’t be room for naughty men like us to slip about at all. This job goes south, there well may not be another. So here is us, on the raggedy edge. Don’t push me, and I won’t push you. Dong le ma?

Mal: Doctor, I’m taking your sister under my protection here. If anything happens to her, anything at all, I swear to you, I will get very choked up. Honestly, there could be tears.

Jayne: Shiny! Let’s be bad guys.

Mal: You all wanna be looking very intently at your own belly buttons. I see a head start to rise, violence is going to ensue. Probably guessed we mean to be thieving here but what we’re after is not yours. So, let’s have no undue fussing.

Zoe: [to a security guard] You know what the definition of a hero is? Someone who gets other people killed. You can look it up later.

Mal: Listen up! We’re comin’ down to empty that vault.
Guard:
You have to give me your authorization password. [Jayne fires into the vault] Okay.

Mal: [negotiating with guard where to shoot him] The leg is good. It’ll bleed plenty and we avoid any necessary organs.
Guard:
I was thinking more of a graze?
Mal:
Well you don’t want to look like you just gave up.

Jayne: Gee, it sure would’ve been nice to have some GRENADES don’tcha think?!

Jayne: You shoot me if they take me! [sees Mal’s gun pointed at him] Well don’t shoot me first!

Simon: Oh ‘one simple job, she’ll be fine’!
Mal:
She is fine! ‘Cept for still bein’ crazy she’s the picture of health!

Zoe: Sir, I don’t disagree on any particular point. It’s just…in a time of war, we would’ve never left a man stranded.
Mal:
Maybe that’s why we lost.

Jayne: I’ll kill a man in a fair fight. Or if I think he’s gonna start a fair fight. Or if he bothers me. Or if there’s a woman. Or if I’m gettin’ paid. Mostly when I’m gettin’ paid.

Mal: Kaylee, this is a place of business. We can talk about Simon-
Kaylee: When he’s four worlds away? Or the Alliance gets ahold of him and River?
Mal: That ain’t my worry. I gotta finish this job, get us another one. Can’t do that carryin’ those two.
Kaylee: How can you be so cold?
Zoe: Cap’n didn’t make them fugitives.
Kaylee:
But he coulda made ’em family. ‘stead of keepin’ Simon from seein’ I was there. And I carried such a torch! And we coulda…goin’ on a year now and I ain’t had nothin’ twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries!
Mal:
Oh God! I can’t know that!
Jayne:
I could stand to hear more.

Mal: Fanti. Mingo.
Mingo: He’s Mingo
Mal: He’s Fanti, you’re Mingo.
Mingo: How is it you always know?
Mal: Fanti’s prettier.

Fanty: Do you know that girl?
Mal: I really don’t.

Mal: I’ve staked my crew’s life on the theory that you’re a person, actual and whole, and if I’m wrong, you’d best shoot me now…
[River cocks the gun she is pointing at Mal] Or, we could talk some more.

Mal: What in the hell happened back there?
Wash:
Start with the part where Jayne gets knocked out by a ninety-pound girl, ’cause I don’t think that’s ever gettin’ old.

Malcolm: You had a gorram time bomb living with us! Who we gonna find in there when she wakes up? The girl? Or the weapon?
Simon: I thought she was getting better.
Jayne: And I thought they was getting off. Didn’t we have an intricate plan on how they was gonna be not here any more?
Kaylee: We couldn’t leave them now.
Jayne: No, now that she’s a killer woman, we ought to be bringing her tea and dumplings.

Wash: Inara. Nice to see her again.
Zoe
: So… trap?
Mal
: Trap.
Zoe
: Are we going in?
Mal
: Oh, it ain’t but a few hours out.
Wash
: Yeah, but, remember the part where it’s a trap?
Kaylee
: But how can you be sure Inara don’t just wanna see you? Sometimes people have feelings. And I’m referring here to people.
Mal
: You all were watching, I take it?
Kaylee
: Yes.
Mal
: Did you see us fight?
Kaylee
: No.
Mal
: Trap.

Mal: Zoe, ship is yours. Remember: if anything happens to me, if you don’t hear from me within the hour, you take the ship — and you come and you rescue me.
Zoe: What? Risk my ship?

Mal: She is a mite unpredictable. Mood swings, of a sort.
Operative
: It’s worse than you know.
Mal
: It usually is.
Operative
: That girl will rain destruction down on you and your ship. She is an albatross, Captain.
Mal
: The way I remember it, albatross was a ship’s good luck, ’til some idiot killed it. [to Inara] Yes, I’ve read a poem. Try not to faint

Operative: I already know you will not see reason.
Mal: The Alliance wanted to show me reason, they shouldn’t have sent an assassin.
Operative: I have a warship in deep orbit, Captain. We locked onto Serenity’s pulse beacon the moment you hit atmo. I can speak a word and send a missile to that exact location inside of three minutes.
Mal: You do that, you’d best make peace with your dear and fluffy lord.
Operative: [Mal tosses a mechanism, he catches it] Pulse beacon…

Operative: I want to resolve this like civilized men. I’m not threatening you. I’m unarmed.
Mal: Good. [shoots him]
Operative: [grabs Mal from behind] I am, however, wearing full body armor. I am not a moron!

Operative: You are fooling yourself, Captain. Nothing here is what it seems. You are not the plucky hero, the Alliance is not an evil empire, and this is not the grand arena.
Inara: And that’s not incense. [the “incense” explodes and knocks The Operative out]

Mal: Half of writing history is hiding the truth.

Jayne: Oh yeah, hidin’ up the Shepherd’s skirts, that’s a manful scheme.
Mal: You wanna run this ship?!
Jayne: Yes!
Mal: Well y-…you can’t!

Operative: I’m sorry. If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to. You should have taken my offer. Or did you think none of this was your fault?
Mal
: I don’t murder children.
Operative: I do. If I have to.
Mal: Why? Do you even know why they sent you?
Operative: It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
Mal: So me and mine gotta lay down and die… so you can live in your better world?
Operative: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there… any more than there is for you. Malcolm… I’m a monster.What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.

Mal: Ah, hell, Shepherd, I ain’t looking for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.
Book: Why when I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God?

Book: [last words] I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.

Mal: This is how it is. Anybody doesn’t wanna fly with me any more, this is your port of harbor. There’s a lot of fine ways to die. I ain’t waiting for the Alliance to choose mine. [shoots Alliance soldier crawling from wreckage] I mean to confound these bungers. Take my shot at getting to Miranda. Maybe find something I can use to get clear of this. So I hear a word out of any of you that ain’t helping me out or taking your leave, I will shoot you down. Get to work!

Dr. Caron: These are just a few of the images we’ve recorded. And you can see, it wasn’t what we thought. There’s been no war here and no terraforming event. The environment is stable. It’s the Pax. The G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate that we added to the air processors. It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Well, it works. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work, they stopped breeding, talking, eating. There’s 30 million people here, and they all just let themselves die.

Mal: This report is maybe twelve years old. Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried till River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear because there’s a whole universe of folk who are gonna know it, too. They’re gonna see it. Somebody has to speak for these people. You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything I know this, they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people…better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.
Jayne
: Shepherd Book used to tell me, “If you can’t do somethin’ smart… do somethin’ right.”

Zoë: It’s a fair bet the Alliance knows about Mr. Universe. They’re gonna see this coming.
Mal: No. They’re not going to see this coming.

Wash: I’m a leaf on the wind…watch how I soar.
Mal: [smiling at battle around them] Chickens come home to roost!
Wash: [flying debris glances off ship’s hull] It’s okay… I-I’m a leaf on the wind!

Jayne: Cap’n’s right. Can’t be thinkin’ on revenge if we’re gonna get through this.
Zoe: Do you really think any of us are gonna get through this?
Jayne: Well I might!

Mr. Universe: [via his buffybot] Mal. Guy killed me, Mal. He killed me with a sword. How weird is that?

Simon: My one regret in all of this is never being with you.
Kaylee
: With me? You mean to say, as in… sex?
Simon
: I mean to say…
Kaylee
: [cocks her gun] Hell with this. I’m gonna live!

Operative: Do you know what your sin is Mal?
Mal: Ah Hell… I’m a fan of all seven. But right now… I’m gonna have to go with wrath.

Operative: Do you really believe that?
Mal: I do.
Operative: You willing to die for that belief?
Mal: I am. [shoots the Operative repeatedly] Course, that ain’t exactly Plan A.

[Deleted scene]
Operative: Serenity… you lost everything in that battle. Everything you had, everything you were. How did you go on?
Mal: If you’re still standing there when that engine starts, you never will figure it out.

Mal: You know what the first rule of flying is? Well, I suppose you do since you already know what I’m about to say.
River
: I do. But I like to hear you say it.
Mal
: Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love. She’ll shake you off just as sure as the turn of the world. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down. Tells you she’s hurting before she keels. Makes her a home.

[last line]
Mal: What was that?

Final Thoughts (on an awesome series!):
Well that’s it I guess, show’s over… (Sniff, sniff) Excuse me for a moment! Okay, now that I got that out of the way, let me offer some final thoughts on this series that I didn’t think to mention before. One thing I am impressed with about the movie is how they really got into the mentality of the Alliance in greater detail. All throughout the original series, it was clear that they were motivated by a desire to expand and consolidate, and generally justified themselves with the whole “civilizing mission”, calling to mind the age of Imperialism and the American Frontier, “Manifest Destiny”, “White Man’s Burden” and all that crap!

But here, they got a little more in-depth. Calling to mind more recent phenomena like the goal of “spreading Democracy” and questions like “why would people not want to be like us?” And what was brilliant about the execution was the fact that the people who asked these questions and did these things really weren’t evil. At least, they didn’t think they were. Even The Operative, a self-confessed monster, wasn’t all bad. He truly and honestly believed that he was doing the right thing, that there would be a payoff for other people as a result of his murderous actions. And he accepted the fact that, come the day of a perfect society, he wouldn’t be allowed to live in it. In a way, he was kind of selfless. In a way…

And ultimately, Whedon and the cast captured the other side of the equation perfectly as well. Whereas the powers that be saw their mission as a civilizing one, a drive to create a utopia, they saw the horrors inherent in such a vision. As all fans of dystopian literature know, the whole premise is based on the idea that the drive to create the “perfect society” quickly gives way to a very imperfect one. For in the end, the drive for perfection is an illusion, and dreams can give way to nightmares very quickly!

Wow, deep stuff, and to be found in a space-western of all places. And with so many cheeky and fun lines to boot. Is it any wonder why people who love this show love it as much as they do? It’s a cult classic, man! And now it’s gone… (sniff!) I’m sorry, I thought I was all cried out! But can you blame me? This movie is emotional, and it’s big finish was a fitting sendoff to the show. Climactic, full of resolutions, but still with enough uncertainty to keep the viewers wondering if someday, there might be more to come…

Alas, seems like this show was destined to succumb to its own central theme. Much like the Browncoats, it was stamped out by an unfeeling, remorseless giant known as Fox. But alas, there’s still hope. If I get rich one day, I have said that I would purchase the rights to the show, recruit as much of the old cast as possible, and put it back on the air. Or, maybe just spring for a couple DVD movies, or a some sequels… Or maybe I’ll just buy the damn Fox Network, force them to re-air this show and many others they so foolishly cancelled. It could happen… Yeah, and monkeys could fly out of my ass! Ah well, until next time, keep on flying!