Whoa! The "average person" has to be convinced that spaceships aren't tagging along on a comet's tail? More than three centuries after Galileo, the average person doesn't know that a comet is a ball of cosmic debris? The average person is, in other words, a gullible dope?
Maybe that is why viewers devote hours, evenings, even whole weeks to watching television shows and movies on aliens. In fact, it is tempting to blame the whole alien phenomenon on mass media. Acting in perfect pod-people conformity, the media- programmers, news organizations, advertisers-have flooded us with the damn things.
Aliens, which have been around at least as long as the concept of outer space (longer if you count ghosts and angels), are terrific metaphors-empty vessels into which any notion of "the other" can be poured. In the '50s, the others were Commies in extraterrestrial drag, secretly infiltrating our neighborhoods and reducing us to mindless blobs.
If Cold War paranoia spawned the last alien invasion, the post-Cold War version seems inspired by a '90s malady: boredom. Face it, nothing much is happening on Earth.
In this context, is it any surprise that an alien made the cover of Time, which seems to be taking its editorial direction from The Star? In a year that has produced almost no real news, the extraterrestrial may be the leading candidate for Time's 1997 Man of the Year.
Feeling out of touch with Alien Nation, I tuned in last week to the Sci-Fi Channel special Roswell: Cover-Ups and Close Encounters. Americans who have no idea where Turkey is know that this nowheresville New Mexico town, where something fell out of the sky 50 years ago, is ground zero for "scientific" UFOism.
As the program breathlessly documented the unexplained mysteries of the Roswell crash site-metal that could not be bent or dented! The hieroglyphic-covered debris!-I thought I had stumbled on a special about the Shroud of Turin.
Then there is the alien himself-or herself. (It's hard to tell, since the alien who goes under the knife in Fox's soon-to-be-repeated Alien Autopsy does not seem to have any primary or secondary sexual characteristics.)
As depicted on Time's recent cover and immortalized in Roswell's UFO museums, he/she/it is a cross between Caspar the Friendly Ghost and those sad-eyed children mass-produced by Keane. That is, with a notable exception: The eyes are slanted. Shades of the Yellow Peril? Maybe not.
In the '90s, aliens, like everybody else, are less ideological than in the days when Michael Renny tried to ban the bomb by extraterrestrial fiat in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The invaders of Independence Day, for example, cut right to the chase: We're here to kill you, they explain, the better to get on with the special effects. In Men in Black, which I have yet to see, but which strikes me as a Ghostbusters knockoff in Ray-Bans, the ubiquitous space creatures are played for laughs. They're pesky vermin, like cockroaches from outer space, only cuter.
These days, the Reds have bit the dust and purely terrestrial aliens have been kicked out of California schools. Where on Earth are we going to find others to alleviate our conflict-starved boredom? E.T., phone your agent.