Netflix is brimming with outlandish out-of-this-world genre fare, but the streaming giant’s latest docuseries, Alien Worlds, puts the science back in science fiction. Imagining what life might be like on distant planets, producer Nigel Paterson’s four-episode endeavor utilizes what we know about biology and civilization on Earth to speculate about extraterrestrial existence—a mix of knowledge and conjecture that’s echoed by its form, which marries nature documentary footage from around the globe with inventive CGI panoramas of bizarre landscapes and creatures. The result is a fantastical—and fascinating—intergalactic version of Planet Earth.
In light of that structure, it’s only natural that Alien Worlds (premiering Dec. 2) boasts its own David Attenborough-like narrator: acclaimed English actress Sophie Okonedo, who imparts surprising and enlightening facts about Earth’s varied ecosystems—and surmises about what that could mean for life elsewhere—with sonorous, import-laden gravity. Okonedo’s commentary not only guides the proceedings but lends them a measure of weight as well, making clear that, though much of what’s depicted about the four non-existent planets envisioned here is, in the strictest sense, make-believe, it’s make-believe rooted in quantifiable reality.
Alien Worlds establishes its premise by first explaining that mankind has already discovered more than 4,000 exoplanets (i.e. those beyond our solar system), and that there may in fact be as many as one million billion trillion exoplanets scattered throughout the universe. Faced with such mind-boggling numbers, it’s hard to imagine that not a single one of them has developed some form of life. The series’ first installment thus conceives of one such possible exoplanet: Atlas, which is double the size of Earth, and consequently blessed with twice as much gravity. As is the program’s wont, Atlas is introduced from afar, with statistical read-outs about its various qualities, be it the length of its days, its diameter, its mass, and its atmospheric density.
As witnessed in grand CG vistas of its environment, Atlas’ enhanced gravity has led to vegetation on its surface as well as a thick buoyant atmosphere (thanks to densely packed air molecules) that allow seeds to fly through the air in clusters, and animals—such as six-winged avian beasts dubbed skygrazers—to perpetually soar. The skygrazers’ biology is explained with a thoroughness that also goes for passages about their feeding, mating, and reproduction processes, all of which are based on things we know about flight, hunting, and procreation from, respectively, paragliders, falcons, and beetles. With their long tails, multiple wings, and long dragon-like bodies, skygrazers resemble something out of Avatar, but the show shrewdly links their characteristics and habits to identifiable traits found on Earth.
The same holds true for Janus, a fictional exoplanet that, because it’s in such close orbit to its star, is actually locked in a fixed gravitational pull—meaning it always displays the same face to its sun, leaving half the planet a bright, scorching-hot desert and the other a dark, frozen wasteland. Such a yin-yang world seems fit for a stand-alone Star Trek adventure. Yet bolstered by discussions with astrophysicists and biologists from around the globe, Alien Worlds makes the implausible sound reasonably plausible. Detailing how Janus’ five-legged pentapods might adapt to their diametrically opposed environments through a discussion of leafcutter ants—which come from the same larva, but develop according to their particular circumstances—it conjures a believable vision of a thriving bifurcated ecosystem.
In all four of its concise episodes, Alien Worlds crafts intriguing ideas about the theoretical mechanisms of alien life, be it with regards to sex, survival, or the myriad connections that bind everything in a symbiotic web—a fact underscored by its portrait of the two-starred, energy-rich Eden, where an ecosystem is founded upon the links between fungi, grazers, and hunters. Though the series has a habit of replaying some of its more elaborate CGI sequences—in this case, a centerpiece slow-motion chase between a four-armed alien monkey and its rabbit-like grazer prey—its rigid focus on the intertwined nature of nature remains diligent, and lends credence to its more eccentric ideas.
Alien Worlds is rife with what-if notions. Ultimately, however, it’s most enlightening about the building blocks of Earthly life. There’s a bait-and-switch effect to Paterson’s series, which arouses interstellar flights of fantasy while educating viewers about the genuinely complex interactions of plants, animals, environments, and humans. From insects’ use of excessively protruding horns to attract mates, to the mayfly nymphs’ brief river-air-river life cycle, to the fungal mycelium—a vast, invisible bio-network that allows fungi to sustain an entire forest—the action’s grander hypotheses are consistently modeled after perceptible and unique phenomena found in our rain forests, deserts, oceans, and backyards.
If Alien Worlds veers a bit off-course, it’s with its final chapter, which leans more heavily into actual sci-fi territory. Envisioning a highly advanced species of body-less neural matter blobs that rely on their sentient robot workers, the show concocts a scenario in which a dying star compels this race of beings to relocate from their beloved Terra to a new, safer home—an undertaking that necessitates terraforming carried out by artificially intelligent machines. While this mission’s particulars are described in the same scientifically meticulous manner as the other scenarios, the futurism-laced suppositions here tend to be slightly more far-fetched, thereby unbalancing the carefully calibrated action.
Even so, the closing Terra episode conveys a sense of awe and wonder that’s directly in tune with its preceding tales. Moreover, in a conversation with astrobiologist Douglas Vakoch, it exudes curiosity and excitement about the vast unknown. Determined to broadcast regular messages into the cosmos in order to potentially make first contact, Vakoch contends that the prime thing limiting our chances for extraterrestrial communion is our anxiety about who, or what, we might find responding to us. Vakoch blames Hollywood movies for instilling in humanity an instinctive fear of aliens as invading, annihilating conquerors, and his desire to quell those concerns—and to promote outer-space exploration as a means of understanding ourselves, and fostering our own evolution—is one that, in the end, is shared by Alien Worlds.