I love space. I am absolutely obsessed with outer space, exoplanets, and various other things that I don’t fully understand because I don’t science for a living or even go to school to learn how to science. But as someone who reads every science journal I can get my hands on about space and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, I think I’ve reached the point where I have at least a rudimentary understanding of things like gravity. Since I find science super fun, I’ve always been interested in exploring it through a fictional medium where I can vicariously travel to different planets and meet alien life. Stargate, Star Wars, Star Ocean, the new Star Trek movies—why do so many titles have Star in them?—and even Dark Matter and Jupiter Ascending are all right up my alley.
But one of the things that has always annoyed me about these stories is the lack of variety on the planets they go to visit. This is significantly less true for Star Wars and Star Trek, which feature a wide array of alien life and habitats, but in the end, the only way I can conclude that physics works the way it does in too many of these stories is because of magical plot convenience.
The world of fiction is filled with habitable planets suited nearly perfectly for human life. On occasion, though, our human protagonists end up on worlds that are inhospitable to them. Avatar gives us Pandora, which has an atmosphere that’s deadly to humans. Jupiter Ascending partly takes place on Jupiter, and on occasion, the characters from Stargate and Star Trek have to put on space suits to walk around. For the most part, though, in order to tell a cohesive story and not get sidetracked by explaining science things every two minutes, most stories give us exoplanets that function very similarly to Earth—blue skies, Earth-like gravity, breathable oxygen, green plants, etc.
I imagine that the main reason for this is budgets. Not all television shows can afford to show off bioluminescent trees and floating mountains. Star Wars’s animated series gets a lot of leeway here—due to the style of animated shows, the creators can make anything they want happen. This is also, incidentally, something Star Ocean is capable of doing as well—but whereas Star Wars takes advantage of its worldbuilding to give us whole planets made of cities or whales that can fly through space if they eat gasoline, Star Ocean’s planet designs are often very conservative, and they don’t look much different from what we’re used to.
A show like Stargate, on the other hand, doesn’t get that same leeway—it’s a live-action show, and when the characters need to be on a new planet every episode, I imagine that paying to render or create a new set for each week is not cost friendly. We do get some explanation for why this is. We learn that humans were kidnapped from Earth to be slaves, so the planets their oppressors put them on also had to be similar to Earth in order for them to survive. And in Star Trek, the characters talk about only visiting M-class planets, which are planets similar to Earth.
But while many stories give us in-world explanations for why all the planets are Earth-like, there are a lot of rudimentary science things that are overlooked, such as gravity. I first really noticed this during Star Wars Rebels’s episode “The Honorable Ones”. Zeb and Kallus end up stranded on an ice moon orbiting the planet Geonosis. Trapped in a ravine, the two have to climb up to the moon’s surface in order to send out a distress signal. The moon just so happens to have breathable air, but inconveniently, it also has the same level of gravity as literally every other planet in their galaxy. Otherwise, they could have just jumped out of the ravine they’re trapped in. The same is also true for Pandora from Avatar, which is also a moon. I suppose we could argue, though, that it’s a moon similar in size to Earth, and there’s nothing in the movie to refute that, but that same explanation just doesn’t hold up for Star Wars. In Rogue One, we see a trading outpost built in the middle of an asteroid belt—that’s not to even mention that how Star Wars thinks asteroid belts work is not actually how they work, let alone that there’s also no oxygen—nearly every planet can support human life, and time doesn’t warp when the characters fly through space. I often write this off when watching Star Wars, however, for two main reasons. The first is that I don’t know enough about space and science to accurately state everything that’s wrong, even though I know a lot of things are very wrong. The second is because of the Force. Since the Force is a living entity throughout their entire galaxy, it’s easy to just blame space magic and then sit back and enjoy the story.
One of the reasons why I like Star Wars so much is because of its more fantastical elements. Sure, physics doesn’t work the same way in the Star Wars universe as it does in our own, but it doesn’t need to. The Force exists in all living things, regardless of whether or not people are “Force-sensitive” like the Jedi are. The Force protects Chirrut so he can send the Rebel fleet a signal during Rogue One, Han Solo has near perfect aim, Padmé Amidala is able to navigate her way through a factory belt that would have killed any real-world person, and nearly every character and animal can perform acrobatic feats with impossible ease. Rogue One lets us know that the Force is not just for the Jedi and Sith, but that normal people can rely on it too. The galaxy’s stars are also powered by kyber crystals—rock formations that the Force can be channeled through in order to create lightsabers. And even the character Sabine, despite not being Force-sensitive, is able to form a bond with the crystal powering the dark saber.
When we add in the Force, the physics-breaking rules of the Star Wars universe can make sense—the Force is their main source of life, and it exists everywhere. I’m quite certain that the inconsistencies between our own reality and Star Wars’s were probably made in error, but the newer installments own those inconsistencies and justify them within the narrative. Even stories like Star Ocean and Final Fantasy, which occasionally delves into space travel, can break the rules of physics for the sake of magic. But Star Wars, Star Ocean, and Final Fantasy can get away with this because they are fantasy. Stargate, on the other hand, tries to be based much more in reality, which is why these problems are more noticeable. I’ve written before that the science in Stargate is practically magic compared to our understanding of science today, but it’s a bit jarring when a story that spends countless episodes telling me how an event horizon and black holes work and characters visiting countless worlds that look exactly like Earth spontaneously decides to throw a fire-breathing dragon into the narrative—which it did.
One of the problems with Stargate is that while outer space doesn’t have to be magical, it still needs to be different. Avatar is also much more reality-based—but unlike Stargate, it owns its set. Everything on the planet Pandora could easily have a workable scientific explanation, and the creators went out of their way to make it as genetically possible as they could, even though they certainly didn’t think they needed to explain half the stuff that was happening on the screen or why it was important to the story in the first place. Avatar has a lot of problems, but Pandora itself is not one of them. Pandora manages to be fantastical, not because of fantasy, but because it’s both alien and awe-inspiring.
Alien planets don’t need to be magical like they are in Star Wars, but they still need to be alien. One of the ways to do that is to remember the rules of science. Pandora’s a moon orbiting a gas giant, Tatooine has two suns, and you can’t breathe the air on Jupiter. I love Stargate a lot, but when a story revolves around visiting exoplanets, don’t just give me a carbon-copy of Earth. Go ahead and add some magic into the narrative if you want—space is endless, I’m sure anything is possible—but if you don’t want to go that route, then at the very least, add some science in too.
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I think Interstellar, despite its various other problems, is the only sci-fi film that I’ve seen thus far which takes differences in gravity and its effects on time seriously…and to pretty interesting effect, I thought!
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