The Drone Distinction

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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:


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.


Filed under Alien, Aliens

17 responses to “The Drone Distinction

  1. I always figured in the Dark Horse comics those creatures the aliens brought in were other indigenous lifeforms on the planet, not alternate versions of the aliens, the line; The Drones provide host bodies…’ literally mean they went out and found life forms to serve as host for the new queens.

    • robbritton

      I would agree with this, I think Verheiden is calling the adult xenomorph a Drone in this panel. The (his term) Drones having gone out and rounded up some creatures for the eggs.

      • Hm, yes I think you you are both right. Rather than being an example of an interesting drone, it’s probably the first case of the Aliens being called drones, which is an altogether sadder thing 😦

        I amended the article and gave you both a nod.

  2. Avery

    I actually always figure that the dome over the skull head was an evolutionary and adaptability thing. Meaning, in correlation with the environments in which the different types of xenos were shown, that the dome grows on the xenomorph in colder environments, as to trap more heat in the creature, or in space–while the dome recedes, exposing the skull, in hotter environments. I never liked the idea of a separate type of egg or facehugger to produce queens either, I always preferred the idea that, in the cases where there were no queens, no eggs, and only underlings or drones and warriors, that the strongest or most dominant amongst these would advance in genetic rank to the queen.

  3. Gaius

    Another bit of errata to add to the discussion…

    According to the Bug Hunt segment of Superior Firepower, the Aliens documentary included with the Aliens Quadrilogy, the suits were “simplified to give them maximum mobility.” Cameron wanted to emphasize the movement of the creatures, hordes of them, so some of the costumes were as simple as black spandex bodysuits with golden biomechanical patches to catch highlights that would allow the creatures (often played by dancers) to bounce off walls and climb down from the ceiling.

    In the documentary, Alec Gillis indicated that the dome had to go because it wasn’t durable enough:

    We built them in such a way that they would be more durable, they could go on and off quickly and that they wouldn’t have pieces that might be more susceptible to breaking. For instance, the dome on the alien. Jim just wanted to remove it, thought it would be a hassle, was afraid of it cracking or having to be replaced.

    According to Shane Mahan in the same segment, Cameron looked at the painstakingly recreated dome on the head of an alien and said, “Take that off.”

    So, whilst I wholly accept the idea that the warriors / drones in Aliens were simply more mature iterations of Kane’s Son (a molt or two older, perhaps), I think this might have been an instance in which reality writes the plot — the dome or cowl was too fragile for the kind of acrobatics Cameron envisioned.

    • the creatures (often played by dancers)

      Not just dancers; stuntman Eddie Powell, who played the Alien as it snatched Brett and Dallas, also returned to play one of the Aliens again 🙂

  4. I remember wondering why the domes were missing when first watch Alien. I don’t like the Xeno’s without domes and I liked them in AVP2 even less.

  5. BillTell

    one of those is better then the other…

  6. JF

    BTW ‘Theory of Alien Propagation’ was first published in Dark Horse Presents #24 in 1988. Dark Horse Presents: Aliens was a compilation of reprints of the Aliens stories (including #24) from the b&w DHP series, colorized and published in 1992.

    • JF

      And the art was by Mark A. Nelson, not Verheiden.

      • And the art was by Mark A. Nelson, not Verheiden.

        That’s what the article states: “with plot and art by Mark. A. Nelson and text from Mark Verheiden.” This is pretty much verbatim from the original comic itself:

        Dark Horse Presents...

        Theory of Alien Propagation’ was first published in Dark Horse Presents #24 in 1988. Dark Horse Presents: Aliens was a compilation of reprints […] published in 1992.

        The story was not called “The Theory of Alien Propagation” in the original print (as you can see in the image above) though the story referred to the report in the first panel. It’s titled “Aliens” in both the contents page and in the opening panel.

        The 1992 colour reprint (“Platinum Edition”) referred to the story by the “Theory” title and was the first to call it so:


      • JF

        yes i know all this, but the point I was making is that DHP: ALIENS was not published in Nov.1988. That was the original DHP #24 published that date. DHP: ALIENS was published in 1992 and reprinted the story from DHP #24 (and yes it did give it a title and colored it but it was still a reprint).

        • I understand the confusion now. You’d rather I typed Dark Horse Presents #24 rather than Dark Horse Presents: Aliens. I tend to refer to the reprint as the Platinum Edition as per the title, so I didn’t consider anyone else’s potential puzzlement when writing. Sorry for that.

  7. Malerz

    …and? I’m a little confused here, you seem to be taking something of an accusatory stance towards people who think “warriors” and “drones” are actually different castes. But, uh… I mean, that person does not exist. The article comes off like you’re trying to prove your point to a straw man, a figment. The distinction between warrior and drone always has been just that, a different presentation of the same adult alien. In-universe the explanation is just that the ridged-headed warriors have molted a grown some, not that they are inherently different in abilities or role in a hive. I have yet to come across a video game or comic or any other sort of alien story that legitimately sets out to establish drones and warriors as equally distant to each other as they are to a queen or praetorian.

    Maybe I’m reading too much into it, and this is more intended for more casual readers, but other than the mention of the ALIEN II drones I don’t really know why this was written.

    I mean, this stuff is not a scoop, here. You’re really burying the lead here by not just making the whole piece about the ALIEN II script. Now that’s worth a closer inspection.

    • you seem to be taking something of an accusatory stance

      I’m sorry you feel that way, but I don’t see anything particularly angry or irate about the tone. Your introductory “…and?” is certainly snarkier than anything in this article.

      people who think “warriors” and “drones” are actually different castes. But, uh… I mean, that person does not exist.

      There certainly seems to be enough confusion or querying here, and here, and here, and here and here to justify the article. And the Alien wiki too, designates them as different castes entirely, here and here.

      The distinction between warrior and drone always has been just that, a different presentation of the same adult alien

      My point exactly, but not everyone knows or understands this.

      this is more intended for more casual readers … I don’t really know why this was written.

      You answered your own question, and really, you shouldn’t really worry about why I do things.

      this stuff is not a scoop, here.

      It is seriously not intended to be.

      You’re really burying the lead here by not just making the whole piece about the ALIEN II script.

      Another article, another time. It’s actually in the works.

  8. The scoop value of this is irrelevant. It is just that people have used the terms and may not be aware what the original origin of those terms were and what they may originally have meant to be.

    Irregardless I still feel that it is noteworthy and that a lot of people may not have known about it now will.

  9. There are problems with the idea that the dome is lost during molts.

    1. The Marines find a woman still cocooned, and the chestburster emerges soon after. This means she was a recent capture. “Newt’s Tale” supports the idea that there were other colonists in dwindling numbers until just before the Marines arrived. This means there would be aliens young enough to have the dome, yet we see none.

    2. The Fiorina alien was alive for a longer amount of time than the Nostromo alien, so this make the previous point even more important.

    3. The Fiorina and Nostromo aliens have 6 seperate fingers on each hand, while the Hadley’s Hope aliens had 3 (or 5 with two pairs fused).

    4. The aliens reach full size very quickly, and appear to be fully functional with the dome in place, so I see no real reason for the dome to be lost later. It appears to be durable enough to dent a steel door during the prison chase, so the idea that the ridge headed aliens have tougher heads isn’t accurate.

    5. If we take the AVP films as evidence (ugh) then the theory goes out the window. A: There were most aliens than hosts in the Antartic pyramid, so some of them had to have been left over from a previous infestation – probably the even that happened 100 years prior. B: The Colorado aliens never appear to have the dome in the first place.

    Because of these points, I don’t believe the dome is shed. I’m not convinced that they are separate castes either. I think it’s a simple environmental cause. The Nostromo, Fiorina, Auriga, and Antarctica appear to be rather cold. The Hadley’s Hope aliens had a nest under the primary heat exchangers, and the Marines also comment on the heat. The sewers of Gunnison may be rather warm as well.


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