Aliens in Popular Science Fiction

Above: a Pov-Ray model of the famous Dalek from Dr Who - external link: Dr Who.

Earthling sci-fi has made some interesting attempts to imagine possible alien life-forms. In this article we will explore aspects of some of these aliens and how they draw on or relate to scientific concepts and we will also touch upon cultural influences.

Tentacled Brains


Tentacled brains are one of the most intriguing and most successful concepts in science fiction. One of the earliest Was the Martians in H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.

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"I think everyone expected to see a man emerge - possibly something a little unlike us terrestrial men, but in all essentials a man. I know I did. But, looking, I presently saw something stirring within the shadow: greyish billowy movements, one above another, and then two luminous disks - like eyes. Then something resembling a little grey snake, about the thickness of a walking stick, coiled up out of the writhing middle, and wriggled in the air towards me - and then another."

"A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather.

Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.

Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth - above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes - were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread."

"They were, I now saw, the most unearthly creatures it is possible to conceive. They were huge round bodies - or, rather, heads - about four feet in diameter, each body having in front of it a face. This face had no nostrils - indeed, the Martians do not seem to have had any sense of smell, but it had a pair of very large dark-coloured eyes, and just beneath this a kind of fleshy beak. In the back of this head or body - I scarcely know how to speak of it - was the single tight tympanic surface, since known to be anatomically an ear, though it must have been almost useless in our dense air. In a group round the mouth were sixteen slender, almost whiplike tentacles, arranged in two bunches of eight each. These bunches have since been named rather aptly, by that distinguished anatomist, Professor Howes, the hands. Even as I saw these Martians for the first time they seemed to be endeavouring to raise themselves on these hands, but of course, with the increased weight of terrestrial conditions, this was impossible. There is reason to suppose that on Mars they may have progressed upon them with some facility.

The internal anatomy, I may remark here, as dissection has since shown, was almost equally simple. The greater part of the structure was the brain, sending enormous nerves to the eyes, ear, and tactile tentacles. Besides this were the bulky lungs, into which the mouth opened, and the heart and its vessels. The pulmonary distress caused by the denser atmosphere and greater gravitational attraction was only too evident in the convulsive movements of the outer skin.

And this was the sum of the Martian organs. Strange as it may seem to a human being, all the complex apparatus of digestion, which makes up the bulk of our bodies, did not exist in the Martians. They were heads - merely heads. Entrails they had none. They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins. I have myself seen this being done, as I shall mention in its place. But, squeamish as I may seem, I cannot bring myself to describe what I could not endure even to continue watching. Let it suffice to say, blood obtained from a still living animal, in most cases from a human being, was run directly by means of a little pipette into the recipient canal.... "

Wow! Such lucid and entertaining descriptions! The Martians also lacked bony parts, either having lost them during the course of evolution or having evolved from boneless jellyfish-like or squid-like creatures. (They did have some dead humanoid creatures they brought with them, which did have bones, though too weak to stand up to Earth's higher gravity, and these may have been used a s food, i.e. a source of blood.) Although they may have been much more agile on Mars, they nevertheless appeared to be largely degenerate, relying instead on their machines, of which they made several different types. Crab-like or spider-like handling machines were the most dextrous, but the tripod fighting machines were also quite agile, higher than a steeple and faster than a steam engine. Their joints appeared to be operated by electromagnetic pistons, evidenced by the visible workings (H.G. Wells' description is like something futuristic even by modern sci-fi standards!) and of course they used poison gas and lasers as their primary weapons, which they wielded by means of mechanical tentacles. The Martians were trying to refine flying machines, but they were having difficulty adapting to earth's greater gravity and denser atmosphere. These machines all had 'hoods' in which a Martian controller sat, operating the various levers with great dexterity. Wells was keen to convey the notion that the fighting machines were not rigid as some may imagine. The hood could turn like the hooded head of a man in a cowl. The five-legged handling machines were the most dextrous and wells likens them to living crab-like creatures. H.G. Wells was clearly well ahead of his time!

This theme has been a recurring one - the possibility that reliance on machines could cause a race to become mere tentacled brains, capable of pushing buttons but of little more athletic prowess. The Martians also used automated robots, one is seen excavating and fortifying a pit around one of the capsules in which the Martians arrive (capsules that are fired from a giant cannon to launch them from Mars).

The narrator of War of the Worlds goes on to discuss means of communication between the Martians. It is well known that their fighting-machines produce various simple sounds to communicate general signals, such as 'victory' or 'alert', but the narrator refutes the opinion that the Martians themselves may have communicated by means of sounds. They do make a single hoot prior to feeding, but he is of the opinion that this is merely the expulsion of air in preparation for injection. Wells writes:

"I have a certain claim to at least an elementary knowledge of psychology, and in this matter I am convinced - as firmly as I am convinced of anything - that the Martians interchanged thoughts without any physical intermediation."

In other words he believes that the Martians use telepathy.

Wells himself was a qualified biologist, with a degree in zoology and makes it clear that his inspiration for the Martians were the squid and their kin, here on Earth. In his earlier short story, The Sea Raiders, Wells describes a fictitious species of cephalopod, Haploteuthis ferox, which wanders onto land along a certain sea shore, over a period of time, predating people having grown a liking for human flesh! It is described as follows:

"... In shape somewhat resembling an octopus, and with huge and very long and flexible tentacles, coiled copiously on the ground. The skin had a glistening texture, unpleasant to see, like shiny leather. The downward bend of the
tentacle-surrounded mouth, the curious excrescence at the bend, the tentacles, and the large intelligent eyes, gave the creature a grotesque suggestion of a face. They were the size of a fair-sized swine about the body, and the tentacles seemed to him to be many feet in length. There were, he thinks, seven or eight ... of the creatures."


"And then, slowly uncoiling their tentacles, they all began moving towards him - creeping at first deliberately, and making a soft purring sound to each other." There tentacles are also described as "... copious olive-green ribbons ..." and at night they can be seen to phosphoresce "... like creatures of moonshine ...". It is observed that they seem to swim with a curious rolling motion.

Here we clearly see the beginnings of Wells' concept of the Martians!

In my opinion, many of the best aliens of sci-fi are inspired by earthly creatures of Mother Nature. Often adding a highly-evolved technological component can create inspiring 'monsters' be they Cybermen or Daleks. The Cybermen evolved on the missing tenth planet orbiting Sol, Mondas. Mondas was earth's twin planet, only it began to spiral away from the Sun and necessity accelerated the rate of technological progress upon it. The Mondasians had evolved along parallel lines to earth-people and were humanoid. As their planet began to sicken and die and they longed to extend their lives, so they replaced worn out body parts with cybernetically-engineered robotic parts, until only part of the brain remained organic.

Interestingly, there was an elleventh planet around Sol, in the Dr Who cosmology, actually the Fifth Planet which was reduced to the rubble that is now the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and/or trapped in a time-loop by the Timelords of Gallifrey. It was here that human-like people first evolved in this star system, but they became infected by the Fendahl, an entity which fed off the life-force of living beings itself. It was a gestalt, a creature greater than the sum of its parts, being comprised a core and 12 Fendahleen. After the destruction/containment of the Fifth Planet, the Fendahl survived as psionic energy programming life on Earth to evolve along similar lines to create a suitable host for the Fendahl: it requires a core, an infected humanoid, and 12 other hosts which aretransformed into the tentacled worm-like Fendahleen to feed it. Presumably, this directed evolution on Mondas too, such that three planets around Sol, in all, developed human-like people by parallel evolution.


The best ideas often take popular themes and modify them in such a way that connections to the original idea are not obvious. Tolkien did this in his outstanding Lord of the Rings - borrowing from Saxon and Nordic myths, and perhaps from their Celtic counterparts which are, at any rate, quite similar. Thus Gandalf, or Mithrandir, is similar in many ways to Odin or Merlin, and the Elves resemble those of Nordic myth, or the Fay of Celtic myth. One such great leap in sci-fi was so well done that it took me an embarrassingly long time to spot the connection - Terry Nation's Daleks! Another great sci-fi contribution, but one which is based along similar themes to H.G. Wells' Martians - tentacled brains, the degenerate remains of a race (that was once the human-like Kaleds in the case of the Daleks, 'Dalek' being an anagram of 'Kaled'). Like Wells' Martians, the Daleks are one of my personal favourites. They are not robots, but they too are tentacled brains encased inside a fighting machine.

Pov-Ray Dalek model sideview

The exact descriptions of the organic part of a Dalek vary, sometimes attributed to their continued (and even repeated) evolution, sometimes due to a new strain appearing (like that which was based upon genetically engineered human parts taken from dead people in Resurrection of the Daleks) or to parallel development in a parallel Universe (until recently the Doctor was easily able to travel sideways between universes, until that is the Daleks defeated the Time Lords in the Time Wars, since the Time Lords resolved the anomalies arising from such mixing between universes!). Sometimes, the Daleks were feeble, vaguely humanoid creatures whose bodies were feeble and almost useless unassisted, other times they were simply blobs, though quite vigorous in their movements and with a poisonous bite! Most recently, they have been depicted as essentially tentacled brains. Always, they have been green!

Dalek technology is impressive. However, their capabilities vary, from the earliest descriptions to the most recent, sometimes the Daleks have been vulnerable, lacking mobility, and other times they have been almost indestructible. Perhaps it depends which time period one is in, though it also seems to defend on their purpose - resources are always limited and it makes sense to give the best weapons, armour and power units to main battle Daleks, technicians having less need for such. The latest Daleks are quite capable of hovering and flying, since the Daleks gradually miniaturised their anti-gravity technology, dispensing with the large anti-grav discs of earlier forms and incorporating the anti-grav units into their own casings. Daleks also have defensive energy fields (thermal or electrical or some other energy) capable of instantly vapourising incoming projectiles. Disappointingly, we have never really seen how the toughest models stand up to heavy weaponry (that would make a good episode!).

The Kaleds were human as far as we can tell, or at least humanoid. The series offers no explanation for how human-like aliens, like Time Lords and Kaleds, could have evolved. However, a good explanation can be found. In the Dr Who story 'Image of the Fendahl' we learn that human-like creatures existed, long before humans on Earth, on what was then the 5th planet, now the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. These people were known by the Time Lords (may they be related in antiquity?) but were destroyed by the Fendahl, who fed upon them parasitically and which was eventually defeated by the Time Lords. However, the Fendahl influenced evolution on nearby Earth, causing life to evolve into its desired human-like vehicles. Maybe they also caused such parallel evolution on Mondas, the tenth planet, which was somehow linked to Earth, being Earth's sister planet, and on which a human race also evolved (and which became the Cybermen). I think that would be a neat explanation, but nobody else seems to have spotted it!

Pov-Ray model angled view

The Dalek transition from humanoid to tentacled blob occurred as a result of nuclear war on their homeworld, Skaro. The intense radiation produced caused its inhabitants to mutate. This war was interminable and very few were left. The Kaled scientist, Davros, himself crippled by a radiation blast, accelerated the mutation of Kaled subjects, hoping to reach a stable and viable adapted end-point. However, he also took the liberty to abolish their emotions, except perhaps for 'negative' emotions like hate and anger and arrogance. The result was the Daleks - fighting machines concerned only with their own survival, they largely exterminated the inhabitants of Skaro (though some remained to mutate full-cycle) and even turned on Davros! The horror of the Daleks, born out of an all-out war, taken to its ultimate conclusion, was also inspired by Earth's WWII and the fanatical and desperate experiments of scientists to develop more destructive weapons, typically with complete disregard for the 'Rules of War' or ethics. The Kaled rulers, in particular, are reminiscent of the Nazi Party of WWII Germany, with Davros, hell-bent on creating his 'master-race', drawing criticism from all but those most loyal to him. It is a poignant reminder of the fragility of civilisation, especially civilisation confined to a single planet.

So, Daleks can fly and they are tough and powerful, but critics might say that their cumbersome size and shape would make it easy(ish) to hide from one. The eye stalk is also sometimes a vulnerability, although the hemispheres around the Dalek's casing are sensor-globes of some sort (so I am not sure it should be so easy to sneak up on one, unless it isn't paying attention to its sensor readouts). The panels around the neck region are also photosonic screens that detect and record light and sound waves.

The pair of protuberances on the head, which flash when Dalek's talk, are energy dispensors that discharge excess or waste energy. [This would make sense if Dalek's are designed for stealth - supposing they are designed not to radiate much heat to avoid detection on infrared sensors, then they would need to store and discharge that heat at some point in a controlled manner). Dalek's have also been known to experiment with invisibility, though only with partial success (just as well!).

Many people who expect a powerful alien race to be super-strong and super-tough, however, often miss the point. In the future, the most important battles will be fought and lost in space. The combatant that gains control of space will eventually win. Sure planets can be very well defended, but they can be sieged and laid to waste slowly if need be. Lose control of space and their is little one can do in the long-run! [Feel vulnerable humans? Good, then perhaps you will get off your behinds and colonise space!] Besides, a Dalek spaceship can easily destroy whole planets! Another Dalek strength is their power to multiply - like all living beings the power of multiplication can more than compensate for any weakness of the individual. In The Power of the Daleks, human colonists on the planet Vulcan (with its liquid-mercury geysers!) discover an ancient Dalek capsule and reactivate the Daleks who trick the humans into believing them benevolent, whilst all the time they are draining the colony's power supply to create an army of Daleks!


Parasites are often bizarre organisms and induce both fascination and disgust, and hence they make excellent sci-fi monsters! Just looking at the range of parasitic life-forms on Earth, a diversity of 'alien' forms becomes apparent! Parasites are also top of the food-chain and in some senses they are superior organisms.

The Wirrrn

Parasites, and especially intelligent parasites, are also popular in sci-fi. One example is the Wirrrn, (as they call themselves, more usually spelt Wirrn) shown above. These larger (more-or-less human-sized) insect-like creatures are parasitoids and human beings make suitable hosts! A parasitoid is similar to a parasite, except that a parasitoid must consume and destroy one host in order to complete its development. Examples are found in the insect world, for example, certain wasps lay their eggs in other insects, generally the host is a larval insect like a caterpillar, and one of the eggs will go on to develop, consuming the host in the process. Generally the host larva will pupate as normal, during which stage the parasitoid consumes its tissues and emerges from the pupa in its place!

The Wirrrn progenitor or queen had been floating through deep space in a near dormant state for countless ages (fleeing destruction on another planet) until eventually she is activated by and attracted to the light emanating from a human space station toward which she drifts. The space station is the Space Ark. Set in Earth's future during a time when the Sun is predicted to undergo a period of intense activity, almost sterilising the Earth, the chosen few go into space and sit in deep-freeze (suspended animation) until the Earth is again suitable for recolonisation. (Those left behind don't all die, but manage to colonise other planets and these colonies survive). Entering the Ark and wounded by the station's automated defense systems, the progenitor manages to lay eggs in one of the sleeping humans before she dies. This human is consumed, but more than that, some of their memories (and possibly some of their genetic information) is incorporated into the resulting Wirrrn, but the instincts become largely Wirrrn. Thus Wirrrn produces more larvae (perhaps by parthenogenesis ('virgin-birth') or asexual reproduction.

The development of these free-living larvae differs from the parasitoid stage. The first-stage larvae are multinucleate
plasmodia (similar to
plasmodial slime moulds) and colonial, capable of transmuting into a viscous slime, fragmenting and coalescing, multiplying by fission, or solidifying into masses of green 'crackling bubbles' which luminesce. These larvae are ciliated, presumably the cilia assist in locomotion. They can grow very rapidly with the aid of intense solar radiation (presumably elements are scavenged from a variety of sources with help of their acidic secretions) and reproduce asexually by fission (this is the process of polyembryony - the asexual reproduction of larvae to produce more larvae). Bubbling and acidic, they coalesce to form man-sized 'slugs', the second-stage larvae which crawl, leaving slime trails behind them, and possessing a ventral row of red suckers. These can produce large globules and tendrils which are capable of actively seeking a host to infect, by skin contact, using their acidic secretions to penetrate the host's integument.

The final larval stage resembles a cross between a giant caterpillar and a giant maggot. With green skin, sensory bristles surround a large gaping mouth and at least the anterior part of the body has two rows of ventral suckers for locomotion.

Symptoms of infection

Initially the infective slime enters the body through the skin, almost immediately upon contact and later reemerges at the infection site as larval Wirrrn skin, causing pain and disorientation, as internally the brain is infected. An infected limb has 'a life of its own.' The host struggles between self and Wirrrn identity, as the Wirrrn takes control of the host's nervous system. Either some of the host's nervous system persists for a long time, or the Wirrrn incorporates memories from the host. laser lances are effective at burning away pieces of larval tissue.


the pupae are cloudy-translucent ovoid 'crystalline' structures, attached to surfaces. The forming Wirrrn can be seen moving within. The adults hatch by using their razor-sharp leg spines, causing splintering of the pupal case.


The adults, or imagos, hatch from the pupae, or form directly from an infected host. The latter inherit human knowledge and typically become the leaders of a Wirrrn swarm. Typically over six feet tall and immensely strong, though quite slow moving in Earth-strength gravity, as they drag their leathery abdomens. Six limbs sprout from the mid-torso (thorax). When developing on an infected host, they do so by shedding the host's skin around the head, but by smothering growth elsewhere on the body and the limbs burst-out from the position of the host's arms.

The abdomen ends in a powerful pincer capable of slicing sheet-metal. The spines on the legs are used in defense and also sound-generation by stridulation (used in communication). At least some retain the host's ability of speech (is this eventually lost?). In addition to retaining memories from an infected host, Wirrrn have a vivid and accurate racial memory, recalling the memories of past host and Wirrrn generations. Somehow, memories are encoded in the cells that pass on from generation to generation. The abdomen possesses an egg-tube or ovipositor, capable of laying eggs in a host, and probably also responsible for asexual or parthenogenetic production of free-living larvae.

The large yellow eyes are capable of controlled luminescence, either as a sign of anger (communication) or to assist night vision. Large mandibles are present, and a very large brain. Intelligence is obvious. Wirrrn adults, at least, are capable of surviving rapid decompression in a vacuum and also rapid recompression. Lungs are present and used in olfaction as well as breathing and can store oxygen, which can be enzymically recycled from CO2, allowing continued respiration for prolonged periods such that lungs require infrequent refilling. They can survive in space for thousands of years and must be capable of some directed locomotion in space. Massive electrical discharge can damage adult tissues and very intense heat can melt them into a glass-like substance. Other than that, they appear very hard to damage!

The alien in the classic film Alien, was also a parasitoid and may have been inspired by the Wirrrn, which again proves my point - taking a good idea and changing it significantly can be a very successful recipe. The Wirrrn itself was inspired by a natural phenomena (Nature's great 'ideas') discovered by science. Sci-fi writers should not shy away from science - the audience need not understand jargon like 'ciliated' or 'plasmodial' or to have ever encountered parasitoids to appreciate the story, but these things add relish to those of us who do understand them! [No dumbing-down of sci-fi please!]

The final stage Wirrrn larva.

A Diversity of Parasitic Aliens

Other fascinating parasitic life-forms have appeared in Dr Who. In 'The Seeds of Doom', the Krinoid was a type of alien plant-life whose seeds had been scattered through space. Two seeds fell to Earth and germinated into tendrils that lacerate the skin of their unfortunate human victims. Vegetative growth rapidly smoothers the human host and eventually grows into a giant motile and sentient plant, with the psychic ability to animate nearby plants and turn them into formidable adversaries, larger than a house, green and tentacled - a terrible tentacled thing, immune to laser beams that only serve to nourish it. Fortunately, this mature Krinoid is destroyed before it sporulates. Parasitic life-forms form the centre of the popular sci-fi 'Stargate' and the theme has also been explored in Star Trek.

In the Star Trek (The Original series) episode Operation Annihilate (one of my favourites) the crew of the Enterprise encounter curious cell-like organisms, about one foot across, that have infested a federation colony of Deneva. The organisms cling to surfaces, in the shade, and will drop (or propel themselves through the air) onto a target into which they inject spores. The spores develop into a mass of entwining tendrils that ensheath the central nervous system, allowing the sentient organism to take control of the host, by administering excruciating agony as a punishment. The aliens are attempting to use the Denevans to construct space-ships for them, so that they can infect more planets. The aliens are from another Universe, with different physical laws, and are comprised of a matter which resists all energies thrown at it, except for UV light, which is ultimately used to sterilise the planet of the aliens. Each alien was apparently but a single 'brain' cell in a large collective brain, with the macroscopic cells physically separated in space but connected by some other means (such as telepathy) and able to draw power from one-another.

Sophisticated viruses (not necessarily viruses in the strict biological sense) also make good science fiction. [under construction]

Strange Matters - It's life, but not as we know it!

Few aliens can be more alien than those composed of strange matter. Of course, it would be naive to expect an alien's biochemistry to be of terrestrial type, though most aliens are at least organic. Some aliens in sci-fi are silicon-based, rather than carbon-based, since silicon has some similarities to carbon in its chemistry (though it is no substitute under terrestrial conditions).  In the Star trek (Original series) episode 'The Devil in the Dark', a curious silicon-based alien murders a number of humans, but only, as is later learned, in order to protect its eggs. In the episode 'The Savage Curtain' the Excalbians are rock-like creatures, whose body temperature is so high that their touch burns human flesh. They have clawed hands and several luminous eyes irregularly distributed over their bulbous heads. These creatures live on the highly volcanic planet Excalbia and have the (technological) ability to manipulate the form of matter at will.

In Dr Who, the warlike Sontarans (or at least their warriors) are clones, mass-produced, and each fitted (on joining the Star Corps) with a probic vent, at the back of the neck, through which they feed on raw energy, requiring no organic sustenance. This is their only weak spot to such primitive weapons as clubs and knives (though swords can allegedly cut their flesh), since their tough tissues can withstand most normal attacks. Their biochemistry is quite alien, their tissues consisting of 'hpercatalysed polymers' which it is implied may be capable of synthesising atoms from the raw energy food stuff. Their brains are described as like 'wet seaweed' and their lungs like 'iron wool'. It is not clear whether or not they have a water-based solvent, their saliva is black and oily and their breath releases noxious chemical vapours which are sometimes hissed from their red glowing eyes or nostrils as jets of toxic (to humans) gas. After a recent energy-feed, the Sontarans possess great strength, essential to their life on Sontara, a planet, in an unknown region of space, with many times Earth's gravity. One Sontaran is described wielding a 300 kg gravity bar like a stick! (Suggesting that they are at least ten times the strength of an average human).

Some aliens are made from even stranger forms of matter. In Lovecraft's 'The Whisperer in Darkness' (Necronomicon) the Outer Ones claim to originate in the dark voids outside the normal stellar space. They are a kind of pale-red fungous organism with green blood, disc-like heads bearing 'pyramidal fleshy rings or knots of rope-like stuff bearing feelers', many legs (though sometimes rising-up on the hindmost pair) and great wings with which they can glide through space. Their atoms differ, their electrons vibrating at different rates.

Large Brains

The Zygons from the Doctor Who adventure, "Terror of the Zygons" (aka "Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster"). This highly technological race were scattered across the galaxy in their spaceships when their home-world (and presumably nearby stellar systems) was devastated in a stellar explosion. One such ship crash-landed on Earth, several centuries prior to the 20th in which the Zygons finally make their move after lengthy repairs and slowly rebuilding their power.

Zygons excel in cybernetic technology; their spaceship and all their technological devices are at least part organic and grown to specifications. Their home-world was a very damp planet, covered in lakes, and in these lakes they reared plesiosaur-like creatures, called skarasen, upon whose milk they feed. They brought an embryonic skarasen with them to Earth and converted into a powerful cyborg to whom, the Zygons boast, a nuclear missile would be a 'mere pin-prick'. This cyborg is to be their main weapon with which to subdue and conquer the Earth, turning it into a new home for the nomadic Zygons. Zygons are recognisably individuals, with names like Broton and Marda. This elludes to a sexual mode of reproduction, though no sexual dimorphism has been observed (they may even be hermaphroditic or maybe they rely on in vitro fertilisation). Broton, the spaceship captain, is particularly arrogant and over-confident in Zygon technology and delights in impressing and terrifying the primitive Earthlings by technological demonstrations. (It is not known to what extent these attributes are typical of the Zygon psyche). In this respect the Zygons are much like H. G. Wells' Martians, or indeed the early human European colonialists in viewing less technological species as fundamentally less important animals, whom they have the right to subjugate and abuse for their own purposes. (Though the Martians and Zygons can at least use their desperate struggles for survival as some crude excuse).

Biologically the Zygons have the ability to generate electrical charge that they use to shock or sting by the tough of their hands. The strength of this sting can be regulated, but at maximum can kill a human being. On Earth, such abilities are unique to certain aquatic fish, like the electric eel. Of course electricity propagates more easily in water, but the main reason seems to be that it evolved from an electrical sense used by many fish to navigate murky waters. This may elude to aquatic or amphibian origins of Zygons, or perhaps their humid planet has a murky atmosphere. Zygons are coated in sucker-like protruberances, the function of which has never been stated. However, one possible function is generation of the electric charge, perhaps they act as electrical cells or capacitors connected in series, much like the modified muscle cells in the stinging organs of electric fish. Perhaps they have the unusual ability to generate static electric charge. presumably these protuberances also have a cosmetic function. Other possible functions include gas exchange (either absorbing some gas for respiration or photosynthesis, or excreting some gas or pheromone), excretion and sensation (perhaps functioning like the electric sensors of fish, but adapted for use on land, or perhaps for sensing vibrations). They probably also serve a protective function, and seem to be positioned above key skeletal elements, of which they may be outgrowths. Zygons are quite strong and although lacking some degree of agility they can run quite fast. Their strange whispering voices sound especially alien, though some have speculated that they have difficulty breathing the relatively dry air on Earth. They live for several centuries.

Zygons have the technological ability to assume different shapes by molecular rearrangement. They can, for example, assume the identity of a human individual, using the living original to generate the template whenever needed (they evidently do not have sufficient computer capacity to store multiple replicas indefinitely, which require vast amounts of data). Their ability to sting, however, is only possessed when in their original form - suggesting that it is indeed an innate biological ability.

One of the most notable features of Zygons, however, is that they have vast cranial capacities, and presumably very large brains. Indeed, their head is so large that it has fused to the trunk and Zygons have very little, if any, ability to turn the head. Nevertheless the advantages of such a large brain are obvious (though large brains generate heat and require lots of energy - perhaps the sucker-like protuberances are part of a cooling system?). The original intention behind the Zygons was to create a race that represented embryonic humans, with their relatively large heads. Humans evolved from more apelike ancestors in large part by a process of neotenisation - the retention of juvenile features in the adult state: the large human head lacking thick muscles attached to large bony protuberances and with infantile features, the lack of body hair, the upright posture and even the presence of the foreskin and hymen, are all infantile and even embryonic features in apes (though the upright posture may have been inherited directly from the common ancestors of both apes and humans who were possibly bipedal). Taking this process further one might end-up with something resembling the 'space goblins' or the aliens that typify UFO legends, with their large heads and large eyes.

The Zygons are especially successful, as sci-fi aliens, because they are human enough for the audience to relate to, but different enough to look convincingly alien. Perhaps similar in this regard are the Draconians, a favourite of the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, for the same basic reason - they can be related to and interacted with due to their recognisable moods and emotions and facial expressions (but these reptilioid race still looks convincingly alien). That said, writers should not assume that all aliens need recognisable and expressionful faces in order to be successful - the Daleks are indeed very popular! Perhaps a variety of aliens is the key.

Xanthoria lichen

Above: the lichen Xanthoria parietina, growing on a sea wall. Note the cup-like spore-producing apothecia. Was
this the inspiration for the orange-green skin texture of the Zygons? Zygon technology was also part organic, like
their spaceship with its root-like nodular control panels and the Sarasen they converted into a powerful cyborg to
conquer the earth (also known as 'The Loch Ness Monster'!). This conjures up an image of eerily strange
fungoid fetal aliens (perhaps asexual?) with mastery of ontogenetic engineering, shaping what they need by
directing the growth of organic matter.

Alien Scholar - rendered in Pov-Ray

Alien Scholar

The alien above is my Pov-Ray version of an alien depicted in a children's book (The World (Mysteries) of the
Unknown) I saw many years ago (was one of my favourite books). It's design is actually quite practical for a
creature designed for a low-gravity world.

Martian fighting machine in crouched position rendered in Pov-Ray

Above: A Martian fighting-machine in crouching position. The Martians could only slowly drag their large bodies around with their tentacles in earth's strong gravitational field (they weighed three times their Martian weight on Earth) and relied upon machines that substituted for bodies. Note the weapons carried by three of the tentacles: the gas cylinder and the heat-ray generator (possibly a laser: the invisible beam is focused by a parabolic reflector). Note also the electromagnetic joints: plasma discharge can be seen as powerful magnetic forces shorten or extend the legs (as noted by H.G. Wells). The Martian itself, larger than a bear and consisting almost entirely of brain can be seen in the 'hood' or cockpit, which is mounted in a rotating turret. Among their methods of communication is sound, which are emitted through the hexagonal arrangement of pipes at the front of the machine. The Martians landed in huge bullet-like capsules fired from Mars by a type of giant cannon - an elegant way to launch in the low-gravity of Mars. As far as is known, ten such cylinders were launched, one every 24 hours. The pit formed upon impact of the cylinder was typically deepened and reinforced by excavating robots (small machines reported to be 'unmanned'), for security purposes, especially after some of the early cylinders to arrive came under attack. The cylinders open by the top rotating and unscrewing, like a lid, before falling off. At this point the Martians are at their most vulnerable and it is not clear how many were killed when attempting to emerge, though they were by no means defenceless at this point. The fighting-machines were carried in kit form, allowing them to be rapidly assembled after planet-fall. The first cylinder defended itself by utilising the heat ray of a partially assembled fighting machine (the 'quick-firing gun' mentioned in a report). Handling machines were used to unpack the later arriving cylinders.

The Martians also built several dextrous five-legged 'crab-like' handling machines with multiple manipulators (telescopic tentacles). Some were used to unpack cylinders and assemble the machinery they contained. Some were used to operate machinery, such as aluminium smelts as the Martians began to manufacture materials from Earth's own natural resources. Others had a huge basket upon their back and were used for chasing and catching people whose blood were injected directly into the veins of the Martians for nourishment.

The Martians have no bones and their only limbs are tentacles like an enlarged pair of hands emerging from the face. Their digestive systems are also much simplified, capable of ingesting only fluids. It is possible that they once had more complete bodies, but evolved into tentacled brains optimised for operating machinery. They brought some food with them, consisting of more primitive humanoid creatures with  'flimsy' siliceous bones, though these bones would have surely broken on Earth, but they seem to have been dead on arrival, serving as food in-flight. Each was a biped about six feet tall, with round upright heads and large eyes. It is thought that the Martians farm these creatures as they intended to farm Earthlings which they probably considered to be as anatomically primitive as their food on Mars. Martians are capable of reproducing by budding, which is probably asexual. Sexual reproduction is unknown in this species. It would appear that they do not require sleep, or very little of it. Wells attributes this to their lack of heavy musculature to rest and recuperate, however, it is now thought that the main function of sleep is to allow a busy brain time for maintenance, especially the visual processing centres which are working at capacity when animals are awake and active. Perhaps the enormous brain of the Martians can carry out such processes more effortlessly and without saturating its circuits, such that maintenance of parts of the brain can occur during wakefulness.

So why were the Martians interested in Earth? Mars underwent an accelerated evolution and being a small world has now cooled and lost most of its surface water. It is a dying world. Wells' account is ingenious for its thoroughness and realistic detail.

The War of the Worlds began with the firing of the first cylinder in the summer of 1894. The ten cylinders the Martians fired at the Earth all landed around London. Their aim was to establish a 'beach-head' by capturing Britain. This makes sense for several reasons, Britain is a sizeable but defendable island and as one of the superpowers of its day it would be worth taking early in a test of strength. Maybe they intended to fire more cylinders but were unable to, or perhaps this was the most their dying world could muster in terms of resources. Once their base was established they began to develop flying machines, though were having difficulty adjusting their designs to Earth's dense atmosphere. Their aim was clearly to move abroad once their beach-head was secured, but they never got the chance to do so and only Britain was properly under Martian rule.

The Martians did not have everything their own way, however. We learn that a gun battery destroyed one fighting machine at the village of Shepperton. A direct hit exploded the hood and the Martian inside it, sending the machine tumbling to its destruction. The heat rays destroyed a number of gun batteries, and a fighting machine routed a key battery at Ripley, which was, unfortunately manned by unseasoned troops. A gun battery at St George's Hill faired better, they smashed the leg of a tripod, casing it to fall. The Martian inside had to vacate to effect repairs, whilst his comrades dealt with the battery. The second cylinder landed at Addlestone Golf Links and immediately came under heavy shelling. The first fighting machine, assembled by the first cylinder which fell at Horsell Common, Woking, moved to assist the second cylinder, at first moving stealthily by keeping low to the ground. The second assembled fighting machine followed. The second cylinder evidently escaped destruction, though was perhaps damaged. The Martians then moved their equipment from the second and third cylinders (the third landed at Pyrford) to their encampment at the first cylinder. They were clearly cautious, having learned of the power of terrestrial artillery. The Earthlings had, by this time, moved in so many heavy guns (some by boat along canals and rivers) that the defensive triangle of these three cylinders and the 12 mile crescent of fighting machines stationed between them, were completely surrounded. Any fighting machine leaving these defences would have surely been rapidly destroyed.

This stalemate was short-lived, however, for the Martians developed a special weapon: the black smoke. This was a dense and powerful poison that hung in low-lying clouds and which the Martians knew they could neutralise and disperse with jets of steam. The armies of earth in that day were unaccustomed to this kind of chemical warfare and unprotected. The Martians fired this smoke from canisters launched from cylinders they carried. They fired them into every conceivable position where gun batteries might be hidden or deployed. This broke the stalemate and threw the armed forces of Britain into disarray. Having lost the battle on land, attention turned to the sea.

The Thunderchild Incident

From Task Force Command to Martian Council of Elders
Priority Communication

We can confirm that two of our comrades were killed when their fighting-machines were destroyed by what can only be described as one of the Earthling's own fighting-machines, which was promptly destroyed once its threat became established. Let us allay your alarm, for the weakness of Earthling technology has been exploited and many more of their fighting-machines have been destroyed without further casualty.

Our intelligence gathering focused on scrutinising the Earthlings' lives on land. What we had overlooked was the consequence that two-thirds of the Third Planet's surface are covered in water. Although the Earthlings lack any technology that poses a significant threat on land (our use of Agent X countered the huge numbers of primitive kinetic-energy weapons they amassed around our cylinders with surprising speed) they do possess surprisingly powerful fighting-machines adapted for water. Thus it appears that on water they are more technological than we had supposed. With Mars being a dry planet this is a forgivable oversight. However, we can assure the Council of Elders that this primitive Earthling-technology poses no further threat as we shall explain.

The very large metal Earthling fighting-machines that can move swiftly over water are nevertheless armed with primitive kinetic-energy weapons of limited range and accuracy. The fighting-machine in question approached close to our operations simply because it appeared to be like so many of their water-faring machines: a simple vessel for transport. It made no attempt to threaten us until it was very close. Then, without warning it accelerated and swung-about and moved straight towards one of our fighting-machines which was largely submerged in deep water and so unable to manoeuvre out of the way in time. Whilst retreating back to shallower water the Martian released Agent X, the canister of which simply glanced off the target into the water. This was an error which shall not be repeated: chemical weapons are not to be used against this type of threat. The Earthling machine then collided with and destroyed our comrade.

The Earthling machine was not unharmed, it was badly damaged by the impact and venting fire and smoke, but was still able to operate and turned towards a second target, opening fire as it did so. Had it opened fire at long range, with its inaccurate projectile weapons, then we would have destroyed it instantly with the heat-ray. Immediately, at least two other Martians brought their heat-rays to bear upon the Earthling machine. Initial strikes punched holes straight through their primitive armour, though without effect. Soon, however, a critical strike caused the Earthling machine to explode. It is thought that a heat-ray ignited their own munitions, which use simple exothermic chemical reactions to propel projectiles. However, due to its momentum, the Earthling machine struck and destroyed another of our comrades. The Earthling fighting-machine was destroyed. Our remaining fighting-machines retreated to the coast as more of these Earthling machines closed to engage us. This time however, aware of the potential threat, we simply deployed heat-rays at long range and the Earthling machines were destroyed with relative ease. (Three of our fighting-machines sustained minor damage in this latter engagement).

Thus we can assure the Elder Council that this new threat has been neutralised. We may encounter more of these primitive machines when we colonise the rest of the Third Planet. Our recommendation is to deploy heat-rays at long range. We are still experimenting with flight, which has proved difficult in such a dense atmosphere. However, we can assure the Elders that we will soon have developed fighting-machines capable of flight and that these will be able to gain mastery of the vast waters of the Third Planet in safety. This incident has been a minor inconvenience and our plans are proceeding unchecked.

It does, however, raise the question of how such primitive creatures with such small brains have manufactured devices that posed a transient risk to our comrades. It would appear that they have better communication systems than we had supposed and that they have a high degree of division of labour. Each of their small brains thus functions like a cell in a larger brain. We do of course have division of labour, but this appears to a higher degree in Earthlings, so that each has a simpler task to perform. Collectively they were able to produce these primitive fighting-machines. However, they remain primitive by our standards. Their communication systems have now been disrupted and they currently present no further organised resistance.

End of Communication

Heat Ray

A Martian deploys its heat ray!

The Martians were clearly taken by surprise in their first encounter with an ironclad of the Channel Fleet. As heroic as the Thunderchild's valiant defense may have been, it stole the element of surprise away from the remaining fleet which draws in to do battle with the Martians shortly after the sinking of the Thunderchild. Wells, brother saw no detail of this encounter, but we can be certain that the Martians would have kept their distance, perhaps deploying their heat-rays at long range from the relative safety of land. Warships in those days lacked accurate fire control and its likely that the rest of the fleet had at most a modest impact, perhaps managing to hit one or two tripods before the heat-rays finished them.

Now London, the great 'Mother of Cities' was well and truly conquered, along with the bulk of Britain's military, but fighting did not stop even when Britain was under Martian dominance. The fighting moved north and west towards the Midlands. We receive occasional reports of distant gunfire and an attempt to trap a Martian tripod by luring it into a mill which was detonated around it, but to no avail. The fighting clearly became more sporadic, more desperate and more guerrilla in nature, but perhaps a few points were scored for humanity.

In the end, the Martians were (apparently) slain 'after all man's devices had failed' by the humblest things upon the Earth: bacteria! It would appear that their no bacteria on Mars, for the dead Martians contained only terrestrial bacteria. Perhaps the Martians had eliminated bacteria and disease on their own planet long ago. It seems the Martians made a fatal oversight. Astronomical evidence suggests that they have since turned their attention to Venus. Any Venusians would be gravely disadvantaged in their defense by Martians wizened by their earlier defeat on Earth.

Pov-Ray model of Martian Fighting Machine

Above: a Mk 2 Fighting Machine, complete with a shielded hood for its Martian pilot (a lucky shot from a cannon might shatter the hood or damage a leg actuator, otherwise the machine has no real weakness), independently movable and retractile tentacles and electromagnetic muscles enable this machine to easily exceed speeds of 60 mph. Click images for full size.

Pov-Ray model of Eagle

My artistic rendition of an Eagle lander from Space 1999 - made in Pov-Ray using geometric primitives (no mesh).

Pov-Ray model of Eagle

Once we have a model in Pov-Ray with the geometry we want, then it's a relatively simple matter to recolour and retexture the model, or move it about. In the case of our Dalek we can move the appendages, retract or extend the sucker-arm, rotate the head, move the whole Dalek, generate emission from its energy dissipators (the two protuberances where we might expect its ear's to be, which emit excess energy in the form of light whenever the Dalek speaks) or fire its energy beam weapon!

Dalek firing, Pov-Ray model

Dalek animation

Dalek animation 2

Article updated:

21 Nov 2015
6 Feb 2018
11 May 2018
21 Sep 2018
20 Dec 2019