The Pilot

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Suddenly, Melkonis lets out a grunt of shock. Their lights have illuminated something unspeakably grotesque: A huge alien skeleton, seated in the control chair. They approach the skeleton, their lights trained on it. It is a grotesque thing, bearing no resemblance to the human form.
Melkonis: “Holy Christ…”

And so we meet the mysterious, gargantuan extraterrestrial pilot of the derelict spacecraft, as dictated in Dan O’Bannon’s original Alien script. Having landed on a barren planetoid to investigate an apparent SOS signal, the crew of the commercial vehicle Snark find an alien ship amid the stormy dunes. “It is dead and abandoned,” reads the synopsis for O’Bannon’s script. Deep inside the crewmen discover the derelict’s dead tenant. The creature, long deceased, has mummified over perhaps decades or even centuries. “That thing’s been dead for years,” remarks Broussard, the character later known as Kane. “Maybe hundreds of years.” The pilot’s last act was to etch the shape of a pyramid onto his console before death took him. When the planetoid’s storms abate, the crewmen spot the pyramid on the horizon. Overcome by curiosity, they decide to investigate…

Though the pilot’s function in the film doesn’t quite change from the first script to the finished film (first warning flag of imminent danger) the creature’s in-universe biography was altered radically. Originally, the creature was to be a mere explorer that had stumbled upon the planetoid, and consequently the pyramid and its deadly spore. “In my script,” said O’Bannon, “[the pilot] was a space-going race that landed on the planet and had been wiped out by whatever was there. And now the Earthmen come and they endanger themselves in the same way.” The pilot therefore served as a warning to the audience that something about the pyramid and its contents were deadly. The race of indigenous aliens required host bodies to birth their young, and the reproductive process was undertaken in temples. Alien concept artist, and friend to O’Bannon, Ron Cobb explains:

“At some point a cataclysm causes the extermination of the adults in this unique race, leaving no one to tend and nurture the young. But in a dark lower chamber of the breeding temple a large number of eggs lie dormant, waiting to sense something warm. Years later, the Space Jockey’s race comes to this planetoid. The Jockeys are on a mission of exploration and archaeology and they are fascinated by this marvellous temple and unknown culture. One of them finds the egg chamber and gets face-hugged. He’s rescued, but no one knows what’s happened. They take him back to their ship and continue their exploration of the planet’s surface. When the chest-burster erupts from the Jockey it goes on a killing rampage until it is shot and killed. The Alien dies, but immediately decomposes and its acid eats through the hull of the Jockey ship, leaving them stranded on the planet. The Jockeys radio out a message that there is a dangerous parasite on the planet, that nothing can be done to save them in time, and that no one should attempt a rescue. Then the Jockeys slowly starve to death.”
~ Ron Cobb, Alien portfolio.

In the version of Alien that ended up on screen, the creature has become a victim of its own cargo – eggs that house parasitic alien spore. This alteration was born from a need to economise. First, the designers considered scrapping the pyramid in favour of a biomechanic egg silo, as the pyramid was, according to HR Giger, “too close, we found, to our own Egyptian culture and we thought it should be completely unearthly.” Eventually, it became clear that the film’s running time wouldn’t allow for repeat jaunts between the derelict craft, back to the crewmen’s ship, and then over to a pyramid. Additionally, the film’s budget did not allow for the creation of these separate elements, and the two -pyramid/silo and derelict- were fused into one location.

“It would have been wonderful in a three hour version,” said Ridley Scott. “Sometimes financial practicalities force you to do a certain amount of editorial work, and I’m glad we simplified it.” O’Bannon was less pleased: “In the original script the men find a crashed derelict spacecraft and they enter it; they discover that the alien crew are all dead. They return to their own ship to contemplate what may have killed the alien crew and then they discover a pyramid on the planet which appears to be indigenous and primitive. They enter the pyramid and there they find the eggs. They [Ridley and co] combined these two elements, they squeezed them together into one sort of uneasy entity … In the new version it’s just some sort of a surrealist mystery.”

When David Giler and Walter Hill began to rewrite O’Bannon’s script, the alien pilot was removed – along with every other extraterrestrial element. In their initial versions of the film, the titular Alien was a product of The Company’s bioweapons division, with the spore housed in an off-world facility known as The Cylinder. The extraterrestrial pilot was rewritten as a downed human pilot that the Nostromo crew find dead within his vehicle, a ship recognised by Dallas as a “L-52.”

“Suddenly, Lambert lets out a grunt of shock. Her light has illuminated a skeletal shape. Seated twenty feet beyond them in the control chair. A human being, terribly disfigured.”
~ Walter Hill & David Giler Alien draft, undated.

Director Ridley Scott claims to not know the origins of the term “Space Jockey” in relation to the gargantuan carcass found within the derelict. “Who is the big guy in the chair, who was fondly after Alien called the Space Jockey?” Scott said at a Prometheus press event in April 2012. “I don’t know how the hell he got that name.” The term has its earliest origins in this iteration of Giler and Hill’s rewrites, where Dallas refers to the dead human as:

Dallas: “One dead space jockey, no sign of the other crew members, the old L-52’s generally went up with a compliment of seven…”

The term is a spin on desk jockey, which is defined as “an office worker who sits at a desk, often as contrasted with someone who does more important or active work.” Since the filmmakers were trying to evoke the feeling that space travel was unglamourous, maybe even boring, the name makes sense in terms of human space pilots, and isn’t hard to fit the alien jockey either. The name also has a precedent in a 1947 Robert Heinlein story, titled, of course, Space Jockey, which is about “a rocket pilot who pilots a commercial passenger spacecraft”. The Shepperton crew, who were given copies of the Alien scripts to read prior to production, seem to have been responsible for making the name stick after its excision from one of the drafts.

When O’Bannon and executive producer/co-writer Ron Shusett heard of Giler and Hill’s rewrite, they appealed to Ridley Scott with copies of their original script. “We were disturbed by the content of the rewrite,” said O’Bannon. Upon seeing the original script, Scott said, “Oh yes, we have to go back to the first way, definitely.” The alien elements were restored – and yet the Space Jockey character was cut altogether, as the producers had decided to eliminate its scenes due to budget. Eventually, Ridley got his way, and the Jockey set was built, also doubling as the egg silo by the removal of the Jockey chair.

The design of the actual Space Jockey and his craft saw all of the film’s conceptual artists taking a turn at conceptualising it. Chris Foss, Ron Cobb, and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud all submitted sketches and paintings, but the father of the Jockey was none of them, with HR Giger eventually coming up with the winning design.

Chris Foss’ sketch of the Jockey’s head. In O’Bannon’s script, the crewmen return to their ship with the decapitated skull. They note, with some disappointment, that mankind’s first encounter with extraterrestrial life has begun with disappointment. It may very well end with death.

“For the inside [of the derelict], Ron Cobb did the skeleton –what they later called the Space Jockey- and it was just perfect! Very small jawbone – no teeth to speak of. Of course, I expected it to look horrible when you first see it in the film; but if you looked at it a bit closer you’d discover that it didn’t have the large teeth or mandibles or any of the other things that are characteristic of a carnivore – and then maybe you’d begin to imagine it as some totally nonviolent herbivorous creature sailing around in space.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Cinefex, 1979.

Space Jockey design attributed to Moebius, printed in American Cinematographer and Mediascene magazines.

Space Jockey design attributed to Moebius, printed in American Cinematographer and Mediascene magazines.

None of these concepts were taken too seriously by Ridley Scott, who commissioned HR Giger to design the Space Jockey, using one of Giger’s Necronomicon paintings as a launching pad for the final creature.

“From the script I knew he was huge and had a hole in his chest, but that was all. Ridley suggested another one of my Necronom creatures as a guide. They don’t look much alike now, but it was a starting point; and the Space Jockey kind of grew up from there in bits and pieces. The creature we finally ended up building is biomechanical to the extent that he has physically grown into, or maybe even out of, his seat – he’s integrated totally into the function he performs.”
~ HR Giger, Cinefex, 1979.

“As for the chair in which he sits, I thought it had to be mechanical but not with normal arms and legs that could be moved with the feet or the hands. I liked very much the stone tablet in 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it seemed to have some interior-like computer. So I thought that the outside could be very normal-looking and the whole machinery could go inside.”
~ HR Giger, 1999.

“I wanted a fossil, almost,” said Scott regarding the Space Jockey’s integration with his technology, “one which you’d have a hard time deciding where he leaves off and the chair, on which he died, begins.” In the film, this fossil idea is voiced by Dallas, though the Jockey itself is ossified, not fossilised.

“When you see the so-called Space Jockey they [Fox] said, ‘That set costs half a million dollars and it’s only used one time – it’s economically unfeasible! It’s too damn expensive for that one scene!’
One day by accident I went on an errand to do something on the back of the lot [at Shepperton Studios], and the set was being built – the one they said they wouldn’t let us have. I thought it was miscommunication between the art department and the studio heads. I didn’t tell anybody until about a week before shooting.
I said, ‘Ridley, they built the Space Jockey set.’
He said, ‘Yeah, I know.’
I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’
He said, ‘Because if we told you that, you would never stop asking for anything!’
But you needed that one scene – I call it the Cecil B. DeMille shot – to make it the big movie it was, not a little Roger Corman movie.”
~ Ron Shusett.

The Jockey itself is regarded as a marvel of the movie; a nigh unparalleled sight in the series. Giger himself was humble when describing it, saying: “I modeled it myself, in clay. It was then cast in polyester. I worked particularly on the head, and I painted it. To make the pieces of skin, I put on some latex and then scrubbed it off. Then painted some more. If we had more days, we could have made it better — but I think for the film it’s okay.”

The sad fate of the Jockey prop, as reported in Starlog, 1979.

The sad fate of the Jockey prop, as reported in Starlog, 1979.

The Jockey did not return in any of the sequels (thought the derelict appeared in the Special Edition of Aliens), a fact that Scott lamented: “They missed it!” James Cameron explained that the Space Jockey’s story was something only thinly sketched in Alien, and best left to the original director: “Presumably,” he said, “the derelict pilot (space jockey, big dental patient, etc.) became infected en route to somewhere and set down on the barren planetoid to isolate the dangerous creatures, setting up the warning beacon as his last act. What happened to the creature that emerged from him? Ask Ridley.”

Cameron also mused on the nature of the Jockey: “I could provide plausible answers for [the Space Jockey], but they’re no more valid than anyone else’s. Clearly, the dental patient was a sole crew member on a one-man ship. Perhaps his homeworld did know of his demise, but felt it was pointless to rescue a doomed person. Perhaps he was a volunteer or a draftee on the hazardous mission of bio-isolating these organisms. Perhaps he was a military pilot, delivering the alien eggs as a bio-weapon in some ancient interstellar war humans know nothing of, and got infected inadvertently.” This latter view is an idea that Ridley himself has encouraged throughout the decades, and explored further in Prometheus.

“I always wanted to go back and make an Alien 5 or 6,” Ridley said in the 1999 Alien DVD commentary, “where we find out where they came from and go there and answer the question, who are they? Mars is too close, so they can’t be gods of war, but the theory in my head was, this was an aircraft carrier, a battlewagon of a civilisation, and the eggs were a cargo which were essentially weapons. So right, like a large form of bacteriological/biomechanoid warfare.”

“This Space Jockey I’ve always thought was the driver of the craft,” Scott explained further. “[He is] a perfect example of Giger’s mind, which is ‘where does biology end and technology begin?’ because [Giger] seems to have grafted the creature into what was essentially a pilot’s seat. But clearly from here, this is where the [warning] transmission would emanate from, probably in an automatic transmission… maybe one of the eggs had been disturbed and a creature had got out, had attacked the rest of the crew, don’t ask me where they got to, but he’s pretty gruesome…”

A shaft of light filters through the ship’s oculus, illuminating the long-dead pilot within.
Image copyright, HR Giger.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Pilot

  1. Spaceflightengineer

    I was fortunate enough to view the actual space jockey placed at the entrance way (far off Hollywood Blvd) at the Egyptian Theater, the first week of it’s play after premiere. And apparently it was not too soon since some bozo put a cigarette into it, destroying it in a blaze. The thing was massive, beautiful. Inside the lobby of the theater were pre-production set models. Across town at the Museum of Science and Industry old space building were all sorts of real set segments including the full horseshoe-shaped ship model, the large model landing gear, the Mother computer room and the corridor where one had to obtain the key to Mother. That day of seeing the film and all the additional items was magical, shared with my best friend from High School days, himself an accomplished artist.
    And now Prometheus has expanded on that with a flourish!

  2. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.

    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways,
    just wanted to say fantastic blog!

  3. dustDevil

    Hi all,
    While reading through this wonderful blog I remembered a couple questions I’ve been asking myself regarding the presentation of the Big Guy since I first saw the original film.
    As you may recall, after Dallas, Lambert and Kane find and examine the Jockey’s remains (find the hole in his chest and silence the beacon) they move off to explore the ship further. The camera, however, stays in close-up on its face for quite some time, the ambient lights from the crew’s helmets growing dimmer and dimmer in the background until we are left with only the silhouette of this humongous (and until now) unknown lifeform. This image holds for several beats.
    Why? Foreshadowing of the fate about to befall the current crew? Sci-fi Chekov’s Gun? Why hold so long on the face of the Jockey for that long? His chest wound is glossed over comparatively speaking, and he’s never seen or mentioned again.

    And please don’t bring up Prometheus, as I highly doubt that ANYONE could have foreseen over three decades into the future what this movie would become or the direction(s) it would take. 🙂

    Second, and this may tie into the first, but at the point in time that the movie takes place, how much does humanity know about alien life? No one in the film sees finding TWO separate, obviously sentient non-human lifeforms. The Company is obviously on the lookout for them (otherwise they wouldn’t need Order 937), but nobody on board acts like this is a life changing event.
    Just food for thought I guess, but I’m not even sure I expressed myself as well as I’d have liked to, so for that I apologize. Enough of my rambling in any event.
    Thanks in advance for your patience, and have a great one!
    Cheers”
    -T

    • taffysaur

      Let me explain regarding your first question:–
      *ahem* As per Prometheus, the Space Jockey is actually one of an ancient starfaring race known as–
      Just kidding. ;0)
      As to your second point though, doesn’t Ash justify keeping the facehugger on board by reminding everyone what a significant find this creature is? That one moment of consideration and acknowledgement is enough for me. The rest of the movie I imagine they don’t think about it from that perspective, for the same reason the finished movie doesn’t contain nor need any scenes of the characters speculating on the beast’s origin; because they don’t care. They don’t have the luxury of caring. They are fully occupied trying not to die today.

  4. Pingback: Crew Logs: Dan O’Bannon | Strange Shapes

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