Monday, January 02, 2023

First Contact: An Alien Encounter, on PBS

Are we suitably prepared for a potential encounter with an alien intelligence. Sure, there are plenty of governmental and UN protocols. That was true for global pandemics too, but when one actually happened, a lot of that went out the window. Also, do we really feel comfortable with the prospect of the United Nations managing first contact? After all, the current UN Council on Human Rights includes China, Cuba, Sudan, and Kazakhstan. (Russia was a member too, until April of last year.) Scientists might handle the science the way this hypothesizing hybrid-documentary suggests, but the political leaders are another question. At least, screenwriter-director Nic Stacey encourages us to think about the issues and process in First Contact: An Alien Encounter, which premieres Wednesday on PBS.

It all (hypothetically) starts with a transmission that does not act like any other signal our interstellar telescopes have picked up before. However, there is still some precedent for it, like the 1977 “Wow! Signal” detected at Ohio State University. Earth had never picked up any similar since then—until (hypothetically) now.

Over the course of 12 days, Stacey’s fictional scientists determine the object’s trajectory and identify potential star systems that could be the source, based the elements they detect. Meanwhile, real scientists, like George Mason University Prof. (and
Baking Impossible judge) Hakeem Oluseyi explain the underpinning science and technology that drives their investigation.

In many ways,
First Contact is very similar in tone to Michael Madsen’s docu-essay The Visit, but it actually creates a case study to show how this could all play out. It is worth noting, nobody explicitly refers to Chinese sf writer’s Liu Cixin’s “dark forest” concept that argues any first contact must be assumed hostile, because the potential downside is so profound.

Unfortunately, the pacing of
First Contact is also comparable to Madsen’s unapologetically cerebral Visit. However, Stacey is much more concerned with the impact first contact would also have on the public consciousness, showing how each new revelation is reported in the media—and reacted to by social media.

Maybe Liu is right, but as many commentators in
First Contact point out, we have already broadcast all kinds of messages out into the universe, so it is too late to go dark now. On the plus side, maybe aliens recorded the now-lost BBC production of Caves of Steel starring Peter Cushing, so we can eventually ask them for a copy.

Regardless, Stacey’s docu-hybrid
is a smart production, but its hypothetical case study could have used a little bit more flesh on its speculative bones. Recommended for viewers who fondly remember Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, First Contact: An Alien Encounter airs Wednesday night (1/4) on most PBS stations.