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Alien Worlds: Imagining Life Beyond Earth- with Earth as our Guide

Netflix’s docuseries Alien Worlds, released in 2020, is an imaginative docuseries about potential extraterrestrial life. The series is produced by Victoria Weaver and Leila Battison and directed by Suzy Boyles and Daniel M. Smith, with narration by Sophie Okonedo and film editing by Zoe Davis. Scientists in this series travel to several remarkable places on Earth to better understand how life may exist on other planets. The show uses imaginative science fiction animation, informed by science, to imagine what natural life and intelligent civilization may look like on extraterrestrial worlds. The animations are colorful and bright, and imagines vast worlds that look like a science fiction Planet Earth.

What is unique about Alien Worlds is that it utilizes science because it captures the desire for discovery and connection, even when humans have yet to find life beyond our solar system. The series draws on the expertise of scientists in several fields to answer questions such as, “how does life survive in the most hostile of environments” and “what makes a species able to form intelligent civilization”? The answers are, that they adapt to chemicals in their environment; and that a species needs to have the ability to build upon knowledge from past generations. Alien Worlds is beautifully edited, and it is bright and colorful in design. This series taps into curiosity about life beyond earth using scientific knowledge about life here on earth.

In episode 2, titled “Janus”, astrobiologist Kennda Lynch is moved to tears as she hikes through the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. The episode opens with her voice over, she recalls how her mom used to tell her that she was an alien because “she always had her mind on the stars.” She stopped and looked around. “This is what I imagine other planets looking like.” she said. “It’s incredible.” She tested the naturally boiling water for life, and found that there was, in fact, life in this hostile climate.

The series is full of vignettes of interviews with scientists about their knowledge of the natural world. Later in Episode 2, microbiologist Diana Northup explored Cueva de Villa Luz in Mexico, which she described as “full of good ways to die.” Northup collects samples of snotties in this cave, which survives off of the deadly sulfuric acid.

The search for life on other worlds is best explained by astrophysicist Adam Frank, who compared looking for extraterrestrial life to looking for life in the ocean by looking into one bucket at a time. “Do you think that the fact that there’s no life in my bucket to tell me that there’s no life in the ocean, right? There is all kinds of life out there...that’s why this is a perfect metaphor for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.” He explains that satellite technology can only look at a tiny fraction of the sky at any given amount of time, but it is very likely that there is extraterrestrial life.

Reviews for Alien Worlds have been positive, with more than one critic drawing comparisons to BBC nature documentaries. My only criticism of the show is that some of the fictional animals appear off-putting, and it may not be for people with a fear of insects. Forbes writer Sheena Scott, in her piece Netflix’s ‘Alien Worlds’: Fantastical British Mini Series Blending Facts With Fiction, wrote that elements of the show drew comparisons to science fiction icons including The Matrix and Star Trek. Thrillist writer Emma Stefansky, in her story titled Netflix's 'Alien Worlds' Is the Ultimate Escape From Our Doomed Planet, described the animators’ work as fun. She wrote, “If you're into, for example, the insane amount of time and energy James Cameron and his crew put into describing and providing Latin names for every single bug and weed that appears in Avatar, you'll find endless joy in watching all the "what ifs" play out in Alien Worlds.”

Alien Worlds is the furthest project from a dry lecture series. The series explores the existential longing behind the search for alien life. The last episode features animations of intelligent life being maintained by robots in fish tanks and extraterrestrial civilizations built by robots with the intention of human settlement. Planetary physicist Phillip Metzger tells his story about how his father worked for NASA and how he witnessed the Apollo 11 mission firsthand when he was only seven. Meanwhile, Adam Frank discusses his thoughts on UFO and alien abduction lore. He is seen standing outside of Area 51, and states, “The reason why so much UFO-ology sounds like a science fiction story is- it is a science fiction story. Despite the silliness of UFO-ology, I do believe that there is another life in the universe.”


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