In Dan O’Bannon’s original screenplay the alien planet was dotted with two objects of note: the SOS-emitting derelict vessel, and an alien pyramid. Inside the derelict the exploring crewmen find the ossified remains of the Space Jockey, and in the pyramid they stumble upon the Alien spore. “The pyramid and derelict -two different elements- were still the subject of a see-saw debate when I came on the project,” Ridley Scott is quoted as saying in The Book of Alien. “I would love to have shot [the pyramid], but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it would have been wonderful in a three-hour version. What finally cracked it was the budget. We just had to get rid of it.” In the film, these two different structures are merged into one, becoming a “surrealist mystery”, in the words of O’Bannon.
In the original script the Jockey was merely a planetary explorer, and his ship a research vessel of sorts, and not a carrier of biological warfare as suggested in the movie. The Jockey and the Alien were two completely unrelated alien species, with the former simply serving to forewarn the audience, and the Snark crewmen, that something deadly was lying in wait—a warning that the human explorers ignore to their peril. O’Bannon’s original conception of the Alien race was not that of a deadly bioweapon. Instead they were an ancient, cultured, yet annihilated race. “The planetoid was now dead,” O’Bannon explained, “and this civilisation had been gone for millions of years.” This “unique race” sported a strange, apparently religion-based reproductive system that necessitated three sexual partners—two consensual, one sacrificial. The reproductive process was undertaken within pyramid structures.
The first hint of the pyramid in O’Bannon’s screenplay comes from within the derelict craft. “In the movie,” O’Bannon explained to Fantastic Films in 1979, “the men discover a wrecked construction of non-human manufacture and inside of it they find eggs of the monster.” He then detailed the scenario in the original script: “The men find a crashed derelict spacecraft and they enter it; they discover that the alien crew [the Space Jockeys] 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.”
“In Dan’s original conception the Alien race had three entirely different stages of its life-cycle,” Ron Cobb explained when talking of the purpose of the pyramid. The Alien eggs are tended to “by the third stage adults and housed in a lower chamber of the breeding temple. When ready to hatch, the egg is placed in the middle of a sacrificial stone and a lower animal, the equivalent of an alien cow, is then led on to the stone. Sensing the warmth, the facehugger springs out, attaches itself to the animal and deposits a foetus into the stomach.” At some point in the planetoid’s history, a “cataclysm causes the extermination of the adults … 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 …”
During the pre-production phase, Ridley and the crew considered swapping the conical pyramid for a biomechanic, honeycombed egg silo. This was because, according to Giger, a pyramid structure was too familiar a shape for an alien world. “In the original story the eggs were in a pyramid silo,” said Giger, “like an Egyptian one, with hieroglyphics on the walls. I worked up the hieroglyphics which tell the story of the Alien. But it was too close, we found, to our own Egyptian culture and we thought it should be almost completely unearthly, so we designed another silo.”
Ultimately, the silo was also axed due to time and budget constraints, and the egg chamber was finally merged with the derelict craft. “The budget wasn’t big enough to include this [silo] structure,” Giger continues, “so we decided it would be a good idea to have these eggs inside the derelict, like termites inside the walls of a house.”
Most of these ideas “went, by the way, when the pyramid and derelict sequences were combined,” according to Scott, (though the general idea of descending into an egg-filled hold remained.) “We were looking at a $12 or $13 million film,” Scott explained further, “[and] we just had to pare it down to $8 million.” He also added that he “would rather have spent the extra money and made the film for a two and a half hour release, not the the present hour-57 minutes,” (in a later interview, Scott seemed to have made peace with the change: “I’m glad we simplified it,” he said.)
O’Bannon was not entirely pleased with the merger of the pyramid and silo. “They squeezed them together into one sort of uneasy entity,” he told Fantastic Films. “In my script, [the Space Jockeys were] a space-going race that landed on the planet and had been wiped out by whatever was there, and now the Earth-men come and they endanger themselves in the same way. In the new version it’s just sort of a surrealist mystery.”
Though O’Bannon’s idea of a bygone, ancient Alien race was nixed by this merger, it did lend the Space Jockey a more sinister undertone. No longer an innocent victim of its own curiosity, the Jockey was depicted as a creature that had seemingly fallen foul of its own dangerous cargo. The Jockeys would no longer be merely a “space-going race,” but were hinted to be interstellar warmongers, with the Alien their apparent weapon of choice.
At one point in the film’s development, just prior to Ridley Scott’s recruitment as director, producers Walter Hill and David Giler presented a version of Alien without the pyramid or the alien derelict. “We believed,” Hill told Film International in 2004, “that if you got rid of a lot of the junk -they had pyramids and hieroglyphics in the planetoid, a lot of von Däniken crap- that what you would have left would be a very good, very primal space story.”
However, Hill and Giler did not merely remove the pyramids and hieroglyphics, but they replaced them as well. For this brief iteration of the script, the Alien spore was housed in a man-made construct known only as the ‘Cylinder’, and the derelict craft was a downed human ship, a “warmed over L-52,” according to Dallas. Inside the ship lies its human pilot, referred to by Dallas as “one dead space jockey,” (a slang term which stuck around to be bestowed upon the mysterious creature.)
Ash cuts in on the conversation, and tells them via radio that he can see something of an “irregular shape”. The three leave the derelict and venture out again into the storm, eventually stumbling across the mysterious object: a “red cylinder on the horizon. One hundred meters high.”
After the script had been (pretty much) locked down and the concepts agreed upon, and with the egg silo finally merged with the alien ship, it was time to settle on a design for the vessel. For this task, Alien conceptual artists Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud initially took turns at the design.
Foss and Moebius’ derelict designs were considered seriously enough by Scott to make appearances in several pre-production storyboards and ‘Ridleygrams’, but the director felt unsatisfied with how the designs were fitting in with the “hard-nosed” vision he had for the film. “They were wrong, somehow,” he said of the other derelict designs, “too fantastic. And because Alien was quickly becoming more and more real rather than fantastic I figured finally that we were going to have enough extraordinary things in it [already], so it was better finally not to make the airship or the Earth people too extraordinary.”
Scott eventually turned to Giger, fresh from designing the Alien, for other interpretations of the Jockey ship.
“What we were looking for here was a totally alien-looking spacecraft,” Scott told Cinefex in 1979. “I didn’t think it would something with a lot of lights on it and stuff like that. I figured it would be like nothing anyone ever imagines; either that, or extraordinarily familiar and slightly archaic looking.”
“Once the Alien was under control,” said Giger, “Ridley asked me if I could design a spaceship not made by human beings. Well how do you do that? I thought maybe it might look organic -something that could grow even, like a plant- but I didn’t know exactly what it should look like. Then early one morning I couldn’t sleep, I got up and started painting and the derelict ship was born in a few hours. It ended up like an aerodynamic bone with little technical stuff all over it, but it wasn’t anything I had planned – it just sort of ran out of my mind and my airbrush.”
Like the other artists, Giger brought his own style to the concepts, and his proved to be the most provocative. His Jockey ship rests atop a landscape of twisted metal and bone. “I wanted it to look planted,” Giger told Famous Monsters, “perhaps in the process of maturing, a mixture of organic and mechanical stuff.”
“Giger’s first drawing was just a knockout,” said Scott. “I took one look at it and said, ‘That’s it.’ Other people couldn’t quite see it though, so I had to keep digging my heels and saying, ‘You wont get a better derelict – don’t screw about with it.’ You know, Giger is a special case, and when something’s that good, you have to recognise it and leave it alone.’
However, despite Ridley loving the design, some members of the production crew took issue with the derelict’s odd shape. First to object was the film’s writer. “O’Bannon,” Giger wrote in his diary, “who has just flown in from the USA, doesn’t think it’s technical enough. A battle of pros and cons begins. I keep my silence; I know that Scott will win the argument.” Of course, as it turns out, he did.
Another dissenting voice was Brian Johnson, who was tasked to build the thing. “It’s a wonderful design,” Johnson said, “but as it turned out, we couldn’t build it. It was like an Escher optical illusion. As a two-dimensional painting it look very logical, but there was no actual way you could build it in three dimensions … We took Giger’s sketch and sculpted a small replica without any detail, just the basic shape, for a test. It’s a common problem. A director will come to you with a drawing: ‘Hey I’ve got this great sketch!’ But it’s a two-dimensional drawing, and when you put it into three dimensions it never looks the same.”
These logistical problems seemed quite severe, and Giger was called into a meeting. He noted in his diary: “They ask me to the office, where [Ridley] Scott, [Michael] Seymour [the production designer] and [Gordon] Carroll are waiting for me. Carroll says I will design another derelict … As it is now, it is too reminiscent of a bone and might make people think it was an organic part of the landscape. There will also be technical difficulties in building it. I am astounded to hear this from Carroll, of all people, who had been enthusiastic about my derelict when he first saw it … I try to convince Carroll that the dimensions and the aerodynamic shape are enough in themselves to distinguish the derelict from the landscape, and moreover the technical details ought not to be too obvious in case they spoil the biomechanical character of a space-ship built by non-humans. I simply can’t see how I can improve on it; I regard it as one of my best pictures.”
“Carroll proves unyielding,” he continues, “and finally practically orders me to conjure up something else out of the ground. They seem to think I can just shake good ideas out of my sleeve – the bitter fate of a creative artist. Scott keeps quiet during the discussion, and in silent opposition demonstrates a quite ordinary, banal crashed aircraft, its tail fins pointing skyward. I understand and, promising to try something different, go back to my work. This is an occasion when time will work for me.”
Giger’s saviour in this instance was sculptor Peter Voysey, who was able to translate his biomechanic fantasy into reality. Of Voysey, Giger was grateful enough to tell Cinefantastique: “I’d say he was the best of all the model makers on the film.”
“Time was very short,” Giger said of the creation process, “too short to make everything good. Peter Voysey built the derelict and we worked very closely together. He was one who could understand my visual language. I am happy with the derelict … it was filmed very dark. It’s more imposing to backlight the object, it seems more sinister.”
Unfortunately, as Brian Johnson explains, “[Voysey’s] no longer with us. He stepped off a curb in France and got hit by a car, he looked the wrong way. The car was coming from the other way.” Johnson, like Giger praised Voysey’s skills: “He was an absolutely fantastic sculptor.”
As already established, to be more economic (in terms of time and money) the egg silo was merged with the derelict. Literally. The Jockey pilot room set was redressed and was shot as the egg chamber. For the hold, O’Bannon raised an objection. “[O’Bannon] once said,” Giger explained, “that the hatchery could not contain more than six eggs. And I had to convince him that a hatchery with six eggs was preposterous.” Over-ruled, the production built literally hundreds of hollow eggs for the silo set. Kane’s venture into the silo would be shot in September 1978, and the close-ups of the egg and the erupting facehugger were shot later, at Bray studios, along with the shots of the Nostromo.
“This would be argued as the hold of the ship,” Ridley says of the chamber on Alien‘s 1999 DVD commentary. “I managed to get the use of a laser beam, which I could spread in a thin blue sheet … I always thought of the laser beam as the placenta wall for the eggs.”
Ridley explains further in the 2003 commentary track that, “The man running the laser beams in this particular moment was Anton Furst, who later became an art director and actually did films such as Batman. Anton was great to work with, with his very small team, and I was absolutely, literally blown away by the effect of these beams, ‘cause we hadn’t seen it before, really. I thought this would be very useful to me to create this ‘skin’, like a protection [over the eggs]. As John [Hurt] says, ‘a layer of mist.’ And then he slips, goes through, unharmed. But maybe [the laser] is like the membrane protecting the eggs, so let’s say he’s broken the membrane. Maybe he’s triggered something, maybe he hasn’t – but if they’re [the eggs] now sitting there, pre-warned and programmed, like organisms, to react if touched … And of course, he will touch it.”
“I had a company called Holoco,” Furst explained in 1989, “and we did a holography show at the Royal Academy [in London] called Light Fantastic, which was a success that none of us expected. As a result of which, The Who, who backed the show, bought a quarter of Shepperton Studios and set up a company with the money. Just at that time, there was this plethora of FX films, and we had all this laser equipment, so we were doing laser effects, and we then brought in model units, and we worked for four years. At one point, we were working on Outland, Flash Gordon, Alien and Moonraker all at the same time. We had crews all over. I was running a whole operation. I wasn’t near a drawing board; I was just trying to keep the crews working.” Furst, tragically, took his own life in 1991.
The purpose of the derelict craft is left a mystery in the film. “I was amazed that no one asked me about this mysterious element of the film,” Scott said to French magazine L’Ecran Fantastique in 2012, “but if you would have asked me in 1978, I would have gladly explained that, in my mind, all this alien ship could be was a battleship.” Aliens writer/director James Cameron explained that the derelict’s purpose and story was something best left to the original director.
“Presumably,” Cameron wrote in Starlog magazine, “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 … 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.”
“I always wondered when they did [Alien] 2, 3 and 4 why they hadn’t touched upon that [derelict],” Scott mused with Empire magazine. “One [sequel] was set on a prison, wasn’t it? Jim’s was more military, going back to what happened to the people, whatever happened to the space station and the pioneers that were all on it. That was all logical at the time, and yet they missed one of the biggest questions of all, which is: who’s the big guy? Who’s flying the ship, basically? And where are they going? And with what? Why that cargo?”
Though we never saw its interior, the original derelict made one last appearance in the series in the Special Edition of Aliens, where the Jorden family find the ship; torn from its perch by seismic activity and cleaved in two. For its scenes here, plates of the original ship were filmed in the US. The actual model had fallen into disrepair during its years in storage, and its battered appearance was unaltered for the film.