Last night I watched an encore presentation of the CW’s new teen alien soap opera Star Crossed, which had premiered Monday night to lackluster ratings. Let me confess here that I am probably not the target audience for Star Crossed. I am at the tail end of the network’s 18-34 target age group, and last I checked I am also not female. Judging by the advertising and the title, the network is emphasizing a Twilight-style romance and seems to be targeting women.
The show was an odd confection, apparently trying for social commentary related to discrimination, segregation, and prejudice, but placing it in a context where the only major observable differences between the aliens and the humans is that the aliens have facial markings like tattoos; otherwise the two groups of attractive young white people are indistinguishable. Don’t take my word for it: The New York Times blasted the show for trivializing 1960s desegregation by casting only white actors, as though assuming the presumed-white audience would only sympathize with the oppressed if they looked like them.
The story was slight--Romeo and Juliet is a clear inspiration—and the pilot did little to escape the clichés of the CW teen soap. The best I can say is that it grew more interesting over the course of the hour rather than less. But this is to damn the show with faint praise. Taken on the merits of its own small genre, it is neither as intricate a teen drama as The Vampire Diaries nor as enjoyable as Teen Wolf.
The story of the brooding young man from another world and the girl who loves him is mostly that of Twilight but with an alien ghetto imported from District 9, where the aliens live a segregated and second class existence in the year 2024, exactly ten years after crashing to earth to escape their dying planet—another sci-fi trope, this one as old as Clark Kent and before him the question of whether the canals of Mars implied a former civilization.
In the pilot, Aimee Teegarden, 25, does her best to look and act like the teenager she previously played much better on Friday Night Lights, when she actually was a teenager. But her underwritten character has few personality traits other than a willingness to subsume her own identity into that of her friends and lovers—sacrificing herself over and again for her best friend and for the alien who comes to her high school as part of a government integration program. Presumably she is purposely a bit blank so the audience can better project themselves into her.
The actor playing the alien teen who loves Teegarden, Matt Lanter, is about to turn 31—he’s almost as old as I am!—and was a bit old to play 17 when he did it on 9021 at the age of 26 or in Vampires Suck at the age of 27. He has also been a teen in a bunch of other guest roles and as a voice over artist for Ultimate Spider-Man and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Who knew you could make a career out of being forever 17? That said, he is by far the best part of the show, imbuing the character of Roman with personality and a hint of an interior life; Lanter playing someone his own age might have made for a more interesting program. That said, it is his usual character, ripped from the Gothic mode: brooding Byronic hero with a heart of gold.
So much for the review. What I found interesting was that the few critics who did review the show tended to focus on the implausibility of the aliens that crash-landed to earth in their giant flying saucer being a race of attractive Caucasian underwear models. (This includes the one female alien we are introduced to.) The New York Times noted this, and Buddy TV wrote that the aliens’ look is “not exactly believable if you think too hard about what aliens from other planets presumably different from Earth would probably look like.”
What I find interesting is the way the depiction of human-like aliens, mostly or all white, neatly reflects the earliest UFO alien encounter narratives, themselves inspired by Theosophy and its Ascended Masters. Helena Blavatsky had claimed that the Venusians were tall, godly, and strikingly beautiful men. For her followers, this clearly implied that they had the image of the most beautiful of God’s creatures: Europeans. In the 1930s, Guy Ballard—a Theosophist—claimed to have met Venusians beneath Mount Shasta and founded a religion based on contact with them. In the early 1950s George Adamski made his claims for encounters with aliens that looked like blonde Scandinavians—the Nordic aliens—also from Venus. He, too, drew on Theosophy in his book (with Desmind Leslie), Flying Saucers Have Landed, which quotes Theosophical tracts about the arrival of the Venusians in ancient times. Howard Menger claimed to have met the same in the late 1950s. The Nordic aliens are essentially like those of Star Crossed: blond, blue-eyed, handsome, well-muscled, prone to form-fitting clothing, and mostly male. They are perhaps reflective of the alien from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), in contradistinction to the sinister, vaguely Asian alien menace of Flash Gordon.
Additionally, the Nordic aliens share with the beings of Star Crossed paternal benevolence, spiritual wisdom, and great healing powers—they are in essence the “white gods” of fringe history claims, and the audience is similarly invited to idolize them. We know this to be the case because the proto-ancient astronaut theorist Peter Kolosimo made the connection explicit when he fabricated a “quotation” from the Mayan books of Chilam Balam in 1968 asserting that the alien gods were spacefaring Caucasian supermen: “Creatures arriving from the sky on flying ships … white gods who fly above the spheres and reach the stars” (ellipses in original). This was Blavatsky’s ascended masters filtered back through the prism of the UFO movement and science fiction and tied to the racial fantasia of fringe history.
I’m not the only one to see this. Stephanie Kelley-Romano, a professor of rhetorical theory and criticism at Bates University whose PhD studies focused on alien abductions, makes a clear case that the Nordic aliens are reflective of the racial anxieties of the Civil Rights and decolonization eras, when the idea of Great White Gods who could save humanity helped to assuage concerns about the rising power of non-white groups. After the 1960s, the Nordic aliens all but vanished and were replaced by the Greys, reflecting new concerns and new social anxieties, often revolving around fears related to sex, reproduction, and gender. It was the age of abduction and anal probing, and the aliens grew proportionally more frightening than the benevolent white gods had been.
Star Crossed is no different than Roswell, Defiance, or any number of other shows that make the aliens into humans or mostly-humans to save on money and to tell human-based stories. You can’t have a romance with a giant blob of tentacles unless you are into weird Japanese tentacle porn. But in placing the white superhuman aliens into a role inspired by segregation to tell a story that takes its analogy from race, Star Crossed accidentally returned to the underlying meanings and motives of the earliest alien contactees, though in reverse form. Here the aliens have been transformed into the role of the magical minority, their ghetto essentially and Indian reservation. Like the pop culture Native American, the Star Crossed aliens are noble, self-sacrificing, wise, wary of white people, and possessed of preternatural wisdom and occult healing powers. Their facial markings resemble stereotypical war paint and tribal tattoos. Also like the pop culture Native American, the noble hero is out to romance a white girl, raising the specter of the classic Abduction Narrative, here transformed from the savage who abducts the white woman to an earthbound analog of an alien abduction—in either case the illicit thrill of forbidden sex serves to draw in the audience with fantasies of the exotic Other.
If only the show were half as interesting as the many meanings that can be teased from it.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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