They’ve been in our midst for quite some time now, and though we may have been fooled by their frequently humanoid appearance, aliens have been beaming into our homes for decades. It’s no coincidence that they have often been disguised as humans, or even invisible altogether – as Matthew Sweet points out in the BFI Sci-Fi Compendium: “Over the decades, British television has fallen in and out of love with the genre, but passionate moods have rarely yielded generous budgets.”
Nigel Kneale, one of British television’s most creative minds, devised a way around this problem by writing about a menace which spends most of its time lurking in the shadows in The Quatermass Experiment (1953), and by Quatermass II (1955) his alien invaders are taking over human bodies.
But budgets haven’t always impeded the appearance of the otherworldly. Doctor Who creator Sydney Newman had a famous aversion to the programme containing ‘bug eyed monsters’ but his reservations quickly gave way to the rise of the Daleks, Ice Warriors and Sontarans. Puppetry and animation have easily made the leap to other worlds, and shown alien life to be quite amiable – and even capable of presenting early morning television in the form of Gilbert the Alien (Get Fresh) and Zig and Zag (The Big Breakfast).
Animated adventurers like Bleep of Bleep and Booster (Blue Peter, 1963-1977) gave a friendly face to alien visitors, while Superted (1983-85) would never have been super without the help of his alien friend, Spotty Man.
Visitors from other planets have generally been more approachable in children’s TV series. Sometimes they even become part of the family as in ITV’s Mike and Angelo (1989-2000). It seems that as we grow up, the aliens we watch become more menacing and partial to invasions and government conspiracies, as in The Day of the Triffids (1981) and The Uninvited (1997).
Occasionally cool aliens like Simon King (Jon Finch) in Counterstrike are on our side against threats, but sometimes the threats are so terrifying that it is almost impossible to defeat them – the 456 of Torchwood: Children of Earth (2009) provide an unforgettable example. Thank goodness they’re only on television.
Here are 10 of the most memorable TV aliens to invade our living rooms.
Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)
Any list of TV aliens could be easily filled with the Doctor’s foes, but it would be cheating to leave out British television’s longest serving alien, the Time Lord himself. In all his incarnations he’s been perplexed and frustrated by the foibles of the human race, but luckily he retains enough affection for us to step in when danger strikes. An exile from Gallifrey with the ability to regenerate into some of Britain’s best-loved actors, the Doctor circumnavigates time and space but keeps returning to pick up new companions and save the world from other, more malevolent extraterrestrials.
DoDo the Kid from Outer Space (1965)
You haven’t heard of Dodo? The “science fiction pixie from a strange atomic race”? The theme music also gives handy tips to help pick him out in a crowd – the “propellers on his heels and antennas on his ears,” for example. Over almost 80 short episodes, Dodo and his companion Compy the Computer Bird joined the circus, bought a space pig, went to the opera, visited Japan, and many other adventures.
Usually accompanying them, or at least tagging along, was Professor Fingers. He was kind of a friend, but also one of the most narcissistic, jealous, unpleasant people you might ever meet in a children’s cartoon.
Written by an American, Lady Robinson, with financial backing by Robert Maxwell of all people, the series was produced in full colour by the British cartoon company Halas & Batchelor. The obscure corners of the internet where snippets of the series now abide, are filled with the vague – usually fond, but often perplexed – memories of those who woke up very early to watch their Saturday morning cartoons in late-1960s America. A limited British audience had to wait until 1972 for bits of the series to slip out and kindle a small cult following. Nipziffic!
Monty Python’s Flying Circus: You’re No Fun Any More (1969)
A lengthy early sketch from the Pythons parodied a typically British brand of low-budget television sci-fi. Aliens from planet Skyron in the Galaxy of Andromeda are turning people into Scotsmen, but why? It turns out that the blancmanges (rather than the standard amorphous “jellies”) have a fiendish plan to win Wimbledon!
Wobbly flying saucers, wooden acting and an unconvincing alien blob wielding a tennis racket complete the spoof. Of course, as the cliché goes, nothing dates like sci-fi and the notion that the Scots are the worst nation in the world at tennis joins a long list of sci-fi concepts undermined by subsequent events.
The Clangers (1969-74)
Cute, pink, knitted space creatures, who talk in whistles and eat green soup, the Clangers quickly became favourites on children’s TV at the end of the 60s and early 70s. Much of their charm derives from their homemade appearance and the stop-motion animation, but as with all creations from Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate’s Smallfilms, each episode was a perfectly crafted tale of life on their little hollow planet.
They were given the ultimate seal of approval when the Master was seen watching them in the Doctor Who story The Sea Devils (1972). The characters will be returning in 2015 for a new generation of preschool viewers, with Firmin and Daniel (son of Oliver) Postgate behind the latest adventures.
The aliens in UFO have no name and their exact origin is unknown. What is known is their physiology; in the first episode an alien is captured and an examination reveals that they are humanoid with green-tinged skin – a result of breathing a green oxygenated liquid inside their space-suits – and protective shells over their eyes.
Discovering the captive has had a human organ donation, the reason they come to Earth becomes apparent: to survive. A rare ‘enemy mine’ scenario occurs in an episode called ‘Survival’ when Paul Foster finds himself face-to-face with an alien when both are stranded on the moon’s surface; finding an unspoken way to work together, a bond develops between them. Ironically, this is something Foster is unable to communicate to his human rescuers.
The Boy from Space (1971/1980)
“Out there in space, shall we find friends?”
The memorable theme song is rather hopeful and, as it turns out, yes, there is friendly alien life in the form of Peep-peep, the titular boy from space. Unfortunately, hot on his trail is the exceedingly creepy Thin Man, also from space but in no way friendly. The Boy from Space was originally broadcast in 1971 as part of the BBC’s Look and Read series. Siblings Dan and Helen discover they can understand their new friend through his mirror writing, which is not only a handy reading tool for viewers, but also a suitably ‘alien’ way to communicate. The series was repeated in a re-edited version in 1980 and has grown in cult status ever since.
- Buy The Boy from Space on BFI DVD
- The Boy from Space will also be part of a special event at BFI Southbank on 6 December
Blake’s 7 (1978-81)
Cally is a telepath from the planet Auron, though exiled from her home planet for joining the freedom fighters on Saurian Major against the Federation. In her first encounter with Blake, Cally communicates with him telepathically, but Blake realises she cannot read his mind. Cally helps Blake, Avon and Villa in an attack on a Federation complex. Recognising her as an asset, Blake invites Cally to join the crew of the Liberator.
Though her telepathic ability is valuable, it also makes her susceptible when meeting with her own kind – Auron outcasts telepathically control her to sabotage the Liberator, luring the ship into a living web and more peril, with a plea to return home from her twin when Auron is under threat from a deadly pathogen.
If an alien came to Earth and saw us washing a potato, peeling it, boiling it for 20 minutes, mashing it all up and serving on a plate, knowing you could just open a packet, pour boiling water and serve – they’d think we were mad! Indeed even Cadbury’s thought the ad-men were mad when this concept was put to them.
Hailed as the ad-genius John Webster’s ‘eureka moment’, the Smash Martian’s laughed their way into our hearts and ran on our TV screens, mocking our primitive ways, for over 10 years. The ads’ director, Bob Brooks, was renowned for his fiery temper and could often be found on set screaming at the Martian puppets as if they were real. In response, the puppeteers mimicked him, creating a torrent of hysterical laughter from all the Martian puppets and, all of a sudden, one of the greatest British adverts was born.
The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
The inventor of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, Zaphod Beeblebrox is one of the many creations of the much-missed Douglas Adams. This two-headed, three-armed alien, from the fifth planet of Betelgeuse, is possibly the coolest character in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, with an ego big enough to fill both his heads. If there’s a party somewhere in the galaxy, he would assume he was the centre of attraction.
Unfortunately, the BBC budget didn’t stretch to a realistic, properly working second head, but as played by Mark Wing-Davey, he was still one hoopy frood who really knew where his towel was.
My Parents Are Aliens (1999-2006)
Many children will have suspected that those clueless and embarrassing adults pretending to be their parents couldn’t possibly be related to them – so weird they might as well be aliens. Well, welcome to siblings Mel, Josh and Lucy’s world. Their foster parents, Brian and Sophie Johnson, the bumbling ‘humans’ with the childlike exuberance, are in fact aliens from the planet Valux, stuck on earth after a crash landing.
They are desperate to blend in, and although capable of morphing into other living organisms (very handy when a new actor takes over the lead), they are constantly flummoxed by earthly customs and rely on the children for advice, and to keep them in check.