In June 1982, moviegoers were charmed and terrified, respectively, by two of the most celebrated alien movies ever: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Forty years later, we’re celebrating their legacies. Welcome to Alien Day.
The sidekick is a well-established literary convention dating back to ancient times. This type of character not only assists the hero in achieving their objective, but also complements the hero, and through action and dialogue reveal the hero’s true nature to the audience. For every Robin Hood, there’s a Little John. For every Don Quixote, a Sancho Panza. For every Jesus Christ, a Simon Peter.
The appeal of the alien sidekick, though, is different. Heroes and sidekicks often differ in form and attitude, which generates the sort of screwball opposites-attract dynamic—common to all great romantic comedies and buddy cop movies. But when the sidekick is literally of a different species, it serves as a reminder to the audience that the story is in the strange, unknown hinterlands of science fiction.
Consider the greatest of alien sidekicks, Chewbacca. Chewie is the impulsive Han Solo’s more emotionally grounded companion. He watches Han’s back, copilots the Millennium Falcon, and performs numerous tasks essential to the plot—like ferrying Rey around the galaxy and assisting in Han’s rescue from Jabba the Hutt. But most of all, the 7-foot bear-man-mechanical-engineer hybrid who speaks in grunts and growls renders the “galaxy far, far away” title card unnecessary. There’s wonder in a character so foreign to terrestrial audiences, and that’s why Chewbacca has become one of Star Wars’ most enduring characters.
So to celebrate this genre of character, I’ve placed 20 alien sidekicks within one of The Ringer’s traditional matrices, sorted left-to-right by how closely they resemble a human (are they just an actor with makeup? Or are they a robot, or a pile of rocks, or a sapient planetwide network of fungus, worms, and insects?), and top-to-bottom by how integral they are to the story.
You’ll see that fictional universes that tell dozens or hundreds of discrete stories—The Muppets, Animorphs, Star Trek—tend to have better-developed sidekicks. Gonzo’s extraterrestrial origins, for instance, were established in Muppets From Space, in which the hook-nosed blue guy with a poultry fetish finally became the lead character after 20 years of supporting roles. (Muppets From Space also established that the WCW-nWo pro wrestling storyline took place in the same cinematic universe as Dawson’s Creek.)
Not that there’s anything wrong with a sidekick who’s just in it for laughs. As much as The Rise of Skywalker is an abomination to God and man, for the rest of my life I’m going to copy Babu Frik’s raised arms and “Hey, Heyyyy!” as a celebration. There’s room for sidekicks of all stripes.
But “alien” is the key here. You’ll notice that the bottom-left corner of the matrix is mostly empty; if there’s a mostly-human-looking alien who’s only around to make jokes, what’s the point? You might as well just hire Josh Gad and have him wear a funny hat or something. If you think that quadrant should be completely empty, you’d have a point, too. Quellek only looks human, but is in fact a giant cephalopod, while Stith—a kangaroo-like creature with an affinity for massive guns—reads as more human than she is because she walks on two legs and sounds like Janeane Garofalo.
Still, this matrix is not complete or definitive, nor was it meant to be. It leaves many questions unanswered, so here is my humble attempt to respond to a few of them.
What place do terrestrial chimeras have among alien sidekicks?
Now, not all spacefaring sci-fi creatures are, in fact, aliens. And here, the ontological boundaries get a little fuzzy. What do we do with chimeras of terrestrial creatures? What of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Rocket, a sapient raccoon who was created far from Earth?
Or Channing Tatum’s Caine in Jupiter Ascending, that brilliantly ludicrous Wachowski melodrama where Eddie Redmayne did Richard Harris-in-Gladiator-by-way-of-Alfred Molina-in-Boogie Nights? Caine is a man-dog hybrid who’s the protector and love interest of Mila Kunis’s titular Jupiter, so he’s not an alien sidekick. Nor is sci-fi’s other great spacefaring man-dog hybrid, Barf of Spaceballs. (What a wonderful diversity of man-dog hybrids we have, running the gamut from hotties with rocket-powered roller skates to one who’s literally named Barf.) While these characters fill the same niche as the alien sidekick, their terrestrial origins exclude them from the alien umbrella.
What role do robot alien sidekicks play?
Robots, like aliens, can enter into dialogue with humans in a science fiction context. And a substantial percentage of sci-fi canon deals with questions of what constitutes a sapient machine, and when a collection of sapient machines constitutes a distinct civilization.
For the purposes of the matrix, I used three criteria to determine whether a robot was an alien sidekick. First, the robot must be extraterrestrial in origin; spacefaring robots and androids of human manufacture (Bender from Futurama, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) don’t qualify. Nor do alien robots created for the express purpose of servitude, even if they do have free will (the droids of the Star Wars universe, Gir from Invader Zim, and so on). In order to qualify as a true alien being, the robot must come from a distinct synthetic culture that’s evolved beyond the purview—and ideally, the memory—of its creators.
That includes the Autobots and Decepticons of Transformers, as well as—one could argue—the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica.
Can aliens have human sidekicks?
I’ll answer this question with a question: Are you ready to weep openly at the end of E.T. again?
To quote one famed alien sidekick, the hero-sidekick dynamic features infinite diversity in infinite combinations. In addition to humans with alien sidekicks, and humans with spacefaring robot sidekicks, we have aliens with human sidekicks (Mike Smith and Jill Boardman, Stranger in a Strange Land), robot aliens with human sidekicks (the Iron Giant and Hogarth Hughes), robot aliens with alien sidekicks (Sovereign and Saren, Mass Effect), and aliens with robot sidekicks (Klaatu and Gort, The Day the Earth Stood Still). Hell, Galaxy Quest features a human pretending to be an alien (Alan Rickman’s Sir Alexander Dane) with a sidekick (Quellek) who’s an alien pretending to be a human. Anything is possible in space.
Which alien sidekick is most quotable?
A good sidekick ought to be quippy, so who gets the best lines and catchphrases?
6. Ax, Animorphs. When he’s in his natural form, Ax communicates telepathically. But he’s capable of taking human shape, and in this condition, the physical sensation of making the “Z” sound amuses him to no end. “Cinnamon Bunzzzzzzz” is a particularly memorable quote.
5. Korg, Thor: Ragnarok. The lines are funny, but the accent—which Taika Waititi says was inspired by the incongruously huge and softspoken bouncers at New Zealand nightclubs—is most memorable.
4. Babu Frik, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. “Hey, heyyyy!”
3. Dr. John Zoidberg, Futurama. At last, you’re becoming a crafty consumer.
2. Groot, Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s only got one line, but it’s a doozy.
1. Spock, Star Trek. Spock isn’t quippy, per se, but basically every word that came out of his mouth went right into the cultural lexicon. “Live long and prosper” has more legs than any sci-fi quote this side of “May the Force be with you.”
Which alien sidekick would be the best wingman at a bar?
The best literal wingman would be Grig, the pilot of the titular ship in The Last Starfighter. But a sidekick is not just a coworker or an ally, but also a friend. So which would make the best company on a night out?
One alien sidekick with great potential is Ford Prefect. At the start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ford discovers the world is ending, finds Arthur Dent, takes him to a pub, and orders six pints of beer. That’s not only true friendship, but good bar etiquette. The other contender is Dax, who has used seven lifetimes’ worth of experience to hone top-notch scientific and military insight, and also become the best hang in Starfleet. She’s Captain Sisko’s most trusted confidante, but she also knows how to have a good time; the week of her wedding, she threw a huge kegger the night before an important function with her future mother-in-law. And even though the characters of Star Trek have access to an instant antidote for drunkenness, she still managed to show up to said meeting hungover.
Gonzo is a bit more high-risk in that he’s funny and outgoing, but also might cause a scene by trying to use the pool table as a pommel horse. And it’s important to remember that Chewbacca’s first appearance in Star Wars is at the Mos Eisley cantina.
Which alien sidekick would you most want by your side in a bar fight?
Again, Chewbacca, who’s chill enough to keep his cool at the most “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” but can also pull an assailant’s arms off with little effort. He’d be a good choice if a fight was possible but not unavoidable. Ditto Korg, who’s tough (made of rocks) but also friendly (you don’t need to be scared of him unless you’re made of scissors). Urdnot Wrex can headbutt through a brick wall. Ax has a scythe for a tail, which would make for easy, if bloody, egress from a sticky situation.
The real wild card here is someone like Bumblebee or the Mind Worms from Alpha Centauri. Could you get an anthropomorphic Chevy Camaro into a bar? How about a psionic hive mind linking all native life on an alien planet? If you could, nobody would mess with you.
Why do those bastards at BioWare refuse to let me romance Urdnot Wrex?
The Mass Effect video game series was groundbreaking in many respects, but one of its greatest strengths was its cast of supporting characters. After three games and dozens of hours of gameplay, the crew of the Normandy started to feel real—and their fates carried real emotional heft. In fact, the game allows you to woo your crewmates, unlocking new scenes and dialogue options between Commander Shepard and his or her love interest.
In the first game, three of Shepard’s six teammates are available to be romanced. Two others become options in Mass Effect 2. But the odd man out is Urdnot Wrex, the krogan soldier of fortune. At no point in the trilogy can you romance Wrex, and frankly, that’s fucked up.
The three original options are Shepard’s two human shipmates: Kaidan Alenko (who’s your subordinate, and kind of boring) and Ashley Williams (who’s also your subordinate, and kind of racist), as well as the Asari (read: tentacled and blue) researcher Liara T’Soni, whose ingenue act probably played better in 2007 than it does in 2022. In later games, the birdlike renegade ex-cop Garrus Vakarian becomes an option, as does Tali, an engineering savant whose race is confined to environment suits. A handful of characters introduced in the sequels also throw themselves at Shep at some point or other.
But never Wrex. Presumably the game’s writers and developers assumed human gamers would not want to start a relationship with a 1,000-year-old frog-man who weighs 800 pounds and stores water and energy in his hump like a camel. How closed-minded. Wrex is by far the funniest member of Shepard’s crew, and the only one who talks to him like an equal—a foundation of mutual respect that is the hallmark of any healthy adult relationship.
In the sequels, the putative reason Wrex is not available to romance—apart from the cowardice of the game’s creators—is that he’s off rebuilding his home planet. By Mass Effect 2, Wrex leads his own clan; by Mass Effect 3, he’s unified the warring factions of his homeworld. He’s got prospects. He’s got a future. He’s [Holly Hunter in O Brother, Where Art Thou? voice] bona fide. Hell, he’s more than bona fide—he’s Simón Bolívar with webbed feet and a shotgun.
Which is not to say he doesn’t have his soft side. In Mass Effect 2, Shepard visits the krogan homeworld toting Grunt, a newborn cloned krogan who’s looking for a family. And Wrex, after some ritual combat, invites Grunt to join his clan, making him and Shepard de facto co-parents. Wrex is also probably the most emotionally healthy person Shepard encounters in his voyages: While about 80 percent of the crew nurses some sort of open emotional wound about their parents and/or children over the course of three games, Wrex killed his father many years ago. No dad, no demons. [Ed. note: Would this not give him more baggage???] Nope. Wrex processed his childhood trauma before Shepard was even born. He’s good to go.
Now, would physical intimacy between a human and an alien the size of a Fiat 500 carry certain risks? Sure. And the difference in physiology between humans and krogans would make it impossible to have children. (Krogans lay eggs.) But there’s more to love than that. When Wrex’s storyline ends in Mass Effect 3, he’s off to reform krogan society and start a family with a female krogan named Bakara. They seem happy. But I suspect Wrex would have been happier with Shepard.