One common misconception among fans is that the creatures in the first and second movies are from different classes of the Alien social hierarchy, ‘drones’ and ‘warriors’ respectively. This in fact has no bearing in the sequel nor in its script or design intentions. Instead, it is largely a legacy of the expanded universe that arose from the comic books and games as well as fan speculation.
James Cameron explained in an 1987 issue of Starlog magazine that the expression ‘warrior’ was simply “my term for the single adult seen in Alien.” He goes on to explain that his creatures possess “the same physical powers and capabilities” as Kane’s Son. This statement came in response to the claim that the Aliens at Hadley’s Hope were weaker than their forebearer, and Cameron’s retort is to say that they are in fact the same and any behavioural differences were due to the creatures merely being trapped in different circumstances.
As for why his Aliens looked different from Giger’s he detailed in The Winston Effect how the major alteration, the heads, came to be. “We planned to [have a domed head] with ours,” he said, “and to that end Stan Winston had Tom Woodruff sculpt up a ribbed, bone-like understructure that would fit underneath and be slightly visible through the cowl. When it was finished, they gave it a real nice paint job, and then I took a look at it and I said, ‘Hey, this looks much more interesting the way it is.’”
The difference then was purely aesthetic, and was not even planned in advance. John Rosengrant explained to JamesCameronOnline that “the Warriors were basically similar to the Alien from the first movie,” with the only real difference being not in capabilities or function, but merely in physical appearance: heads, hands, and other minute differences.
As for the in-universe explanation for the differences in design The Winston Effect quotes Cameron saying, “We ditched the cowl and decided that this was just another generation of Aliens – slightly mutated.” Years earlier he had told Starlog magazine that “Yes, the design of the ‘warrior’ adult was altered slightly,” again conflating the two different Alien strains with one another (ie. Kane’s Son is of the same caste as the colony Aliens). Cameron added that one reader’s theory for the ridged and domed heads (“that the individual in Alien never reached maturity”) is essentially “as good as mine.”
Dan O’Bannon himself referred to his Alien as being “a juvenile”, so the ‘aging theory’ does not disrupt any cohesion between the two films in any major way. Anyone watching the first film can conclude that the Alien is relatively young compared to the sequel’s creatures, considering it only lives for several days at most compared to the weeks allotted to the colony Aliens.
Cameron wasn’t relegating Giger’s Alien to a lower position in the social hierarchy, but elevating them to be the prime hunters and lifeblood of the species, even capable, if necessary, of transforming into Alien Queens should a Matriarch not be present or even destroyed.
But why bother with the ‘warrior’ tag anyway if his Aliens were of the same variety as the original? The answer is that a drone class was originally intended to appear in the sequel. In the 1983 story treatment Ripley is imprisoned in the hive and observes this new breed slinking around the chamber:
INT. EGG CHAMBER
Ripley awakens, struggles to move.
A drone is excreting cocoon material over her, anchoring her body to the wall of death.
The drone is a small albino version of the Alien creature.
Where the warrior has a set of striking teeth within its head, the drone has an excreting probe, like an organic stucco-gun.
The air is thick with steam.
Figures move back and forth, carrying eggs one way, returning empty.
The taller silhouettes of warriors can be seen, moving with nightmarish grace.
The purpose of the drones is to construct the hive and attend to the cocoons and eggs. In the first draft of the full screenplay dated May 1985, Bishop muses on how the Alien society functions, and speculates that a Queen-like figure is the centre of the hive, “fed and tended by drone workers, defended by the warriors.” The drones are again described as “tiny scuttling albino versions of the ‘warrior’ Aliens we have already seen.”
Remember that at this point in the film’s development process (1983-85) the ribbed cranium was a serendiptious development that was either a matter of years or months away, and yet Cameron still speaks of the Aliens (which he intended to be domed) as being from a warrior caste. The shape of the heads, then, is not an indication of which social class any particular Alien belongs to. Kane’s Son is retroactively a warrior, not a drone.
Of course, the albinoid drones were not included in the film. When JamesCameronOnline asked John Rosengrant if any sketches or designs had been made for them he replied, “Not really, as far as I remember.”
Cameron himself, to my knowledge, has not discussed the drones or why they were cut. I can only speculate that limitations of time and budget did not allow for them to be designed and built. Perhaps he concluded they would have been redundant considering that it is no great leap to imagine that their functions could be easily fulfilled by the ‘warrior’ class Aliens. Extrapolating from Rosengrant’s brief answer, it seems that the drones were barely discussed, or that nobody felt particularly enthused about them.
Dark Horse Presents: Aliens, published in November 1988, with plot and art by Mark. A. Nelson and text from Mark Verheiden, is the earliest source that I can trace that calls the Aliens ‘drones’.
This comic offers speculation on the Alien homeworld and the various trials and tribulations that an Alien hive must face and pass. One early scene depicts small albinoid creatures who are used as hosts for a young hive. In this panel, the Aliens are referred to as drones.
The comic’s entire story is speculative, being excerpts from “the confidential paper, ‘Theory of Alien Propagation’ by Dr. Waidslaw Orona, civilian advisor to the Colonial Marine Corps.”
While Dark Horse Presents may have started the trend of designating the domed Aliens as drones and the ridge heads as warriors, later comics and games picked up on and expounded the habit, muddying the waters further and causing many fans to blame Aliens itself for a distinction it never made.
Amendments made 10/11/2014. Thanks and thumbs up to David James Ellison and robbritton.