Sunday 6 November 2022

First Contact: An Alien Encounter

What kind of moment would the confirmation of extra-terrestrial intelligence be? This was the premise of an (ostensibly) intriguing First Contact: An Alien Encounter the BBC aired this week. Unfortunately, as a work of scientific speculation it failed to live up to the exciting proposition because it committed the cardinal sin. The show was boring.

First Contact begins with one of the Voyager probes picking up a narrow band signal, which is a sure sign of an artificial origin. The scenario then plays out over 12 days as the source is revealed to be a 200km-long object approaching the solar system. Oh dear. Grainy images are obtained of 'The Artefact' and it appears artificial in character. Spectroscopy readings shows metals, but the craft is seemingly tumbling in space and out of control. The boffins get to work on tracing its fight path and settle on a star system some 500 light years away, implying the craft had been in transit for over 100,000 years. No wonder it's not taking any messages. NASA direct the new James Webb Space Telescope at the system and finds evidence of a shredded planet, but with traces of manufactured materials showing up in the analysis. Meanwhile, the Artefact sails past the Earth and away. First contact is over.

The story could have been told in a 10 minute YouTube video if I'm honest. But the main purpose was to show off the science, and was therefore seemingly aimed more at a general audience. SETI's infamous Wow signal from 1977 gets its umpteenth showcase. It too was a narrow band signal and was much stronger than the background noise, and it (apparently) moved with the stars - as you would expect anything inbound to - but that was it. The best candidate for contact so far, but it has never repeated. Nor has it been satisfactorily explained by earth-bound or natural celestial phenomena. The question mark remains and may never be resolved. We're also told about how difficult it would be to communicate with aliens anyway, given how different our environments, biologies, and psychologies are likely to be. Just look at our miserable efforts at trying to establish a dialogue with whales(!). And we had to have a wee segment on ╩╗Oumuamua, the first identified extra-solar object that passed by these parts in 2017. What the show skipped over were claims, such as those coming from Harvard's Avi Loeb, suggesting it could be an artificial object.

Surprisingly, while First Contact was humdrum and not a good way to fill 85 minutes it did at least get the sociology right. As noted a while ago, chances are news of an alien civilisation would perturb the froth of social media for a day or two and fade from view. Because this premise is a close brush with some derelict spaceship things are likely to be different. People lighting candles, American shock jocks forecasting armageddon, little kids hoping the aliens would be friendly, talking heads arguing the toss. Social media getting rammed with little green men memes was definitely on the money. And then we have people rioting because they suspected governments were concealing knowledge was a bit of a stretch. Then again, who could have foreseen anti-mask/anti-vax protests as a global pandemic ripped through the population?

When all is said and done, it's difficult to see who this programme was made for. Anyone slightly interested in the topic would be caning the YouTube videos already, and the casual channel surfer wouldn't have found something compelling enough to stick with. Science programming does get a lot of flack, and rightly so given how plodding and simplistic the output tends to be. I can't imagine anyone young watching this and feeling inspired enough to pick up a telescope, which surely is the criteria by which any flight of speculative fancy should be judged.

Image Credit


Ken said...

Or, anything in the genre of speculative fiction.
My vote would be for z Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “The Gates of Eden”, although other titles are available with less science.

Unknown said...

Whales don`t do calculus. Aliens (with spaceships at least) probably do. Instant Rosetta Stone.

Old Trot said...

The critical consensus seems to be that 'First Contact' was utterly dull. So why on earth did the BBC commission such a turkey ? To science fiction fans it surely must seem like a very poor, drama-removed, rip-off version of the 1972 Arthur C Clark SciFi cult classic, 'Rendezvous with Rama'. In this superb novel a vast, hollow, metal tubular alien object does a fly-through of our solar system - but human astronauts intercept it and gain entry.

The rest of the novel is a hugely imaginative description of the internal alien ecosystem and layout of the spaceship, which is nevertheless devoid of its intelligent alien makers. Rama then simply continues out of our solar system forever. A superb novel, full of huge imagination and vivid description. Pity the BBC didn't just use that for the story. Maybe the tiny budget available only supported its boring tale . Or maybe the ideological purpose of the dull story was to basically tell us dissatisfied proles that we need to forget ideas about alternative, better, more rational civilisations existing elsewhere in the cosmos, because our collapsing capitalist civilisation is all there can ever be ?

Blissex said...

The story hypothesized here looks to me taken very much from "Rendezvous with Rama" by A.C. Clarke, minus the "rendezvous":

There is another similar story where a powered down alien vessel is found in jovian orbit, containing the tomb of a nearly dead alien, whose soul then posses the protagonist (can't remember the title).

Both cases are *somewhat* realistic because in both cases the authors presume that the ships took a very long time to arrive. The problem with these kinds of things is that they always assume an engine based some kind of not-yet-known physics, because the amounts of energy (and thus fuel mass) involved in interstellar travel are enormous, unless there is a shortcut. The one scheme that is slow-ish but might work is solar sails with an initial boost with enormous fixed (around some outer planet) lasers firing for many years.

BTW there is a story (The lady who sailed the "Soul") on that theme by what I think was the greatest scifi author, whose works I think are high literary art.

Robert Dyson said...

Blissex - I found "Rendezvous with Rama" a gripping read. Even several decades after reading it some episodes still pop into mind.