Roswell Bridges the Galaxies Between Us
By Paul MacDonald
Special to SPACE.com
posted: 04:46 pm ET
25 July 2000
On the WB’s Roswell, which chronicles the adolescence of three aliens living in New Mexico, normal anxieties about fitting in are blown up to galactic proportions. Despite its otherworldly concerns, the show’s first season also sneaks in a subtle message about what it means to be human.
Max, Isabel and Michael — all stranded by a UFO which crashed outside of Roswell in 1947 – have to confront the pressures of growing up as well as mysterious shapeshifters, guidance counselors on loan from the FBI and parents who don’t understand who or even what they are
Their dislocation is made worse by being at a naturally insecure age. Roswell’s aliens have more than zits to worry about. They might wake up one morning with tentacles.
My so-called extraterrestrial
Television drama sometimes tries to be too realistic, presenting only the everyday events that most teens experience. Shows like the short-lived Freaks and Geeks fail because they regurgitate verbatim the trivialities that we don’t need to watch on TV.
In contrast, fans and critics met Roswell’s far-out premise with immediate enthusiasm. Fans sent thousands of bottles of Tabasco sauce – which the aliens put in everything from pizza to ice cream – to the WB to ensure the show’s renewal.
Many of those bottles were sent by teenage girls, who traditionally do not care for science fiction. Roswell caught their attention because no matter what otherworldly metaphors are employed by the show, its core of emotional reality is easy to relate to.
After all, what parent hasn’t wondered whether their offspring is from another planet? What adolescent hasn’t felt that they live on a hostile, alien world?
This Earth thing called romance
Much of the first season focused on the mercurial relationships between the visitors and the three humans — Liz, Maria and Alex. They have a lot in common – Isabel once told Alex that to understand her anxieties he should simply multiply his own by a hundred.
Some of the relationship issues are completely mundane. Michael and Maria have a conversation in the Eraser Room – it’s the one about how they just make out and never talk – that duplicates almost word-for-word a conversation between Angela and Jordan in My So-Called Life, the teen drama which Roswell creator Jason Katims wrote for back in the mid-1990s.
On the other hand, most of the dating problems get an interspecies twist.
Liz has to worry about being used for sex, not for the usual reasons but because she’s having visions of the original UFO crash when she makes out with Max. Is she being used . . . for breeding stock?
Max’s alien mother appears as a hologram in the season finale to tell Max that he’s already betrothed to another alien.
As for Liz’s parents, they’re already bothered that their little girl is growing up. If they ever find out about Max’s origins, it’s safe to say that the old “you’re from two different worlds” speech will take on a new meaning.
On the morality of Roswell
On the surface, Roswell is a fairly simple allegory of adolescence, but there’s a profound take on humanity of all ages hidden underneath.
After being captured and interrogated by government alien hunters, Max asks one of his tormentors “who’s inhuman now?” Roswell is not the first series to question what makes one human, but it is one of the first to give a satisfying answer.
The first season presented FBI moles, shoot-outs, car crashes, harrowing escapes, near misses, a brutal torture scene and murder. What initiated it all was a simple act of compassion.
In On the Basis of Morality, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer asked why the suffering of another human being could move a bystander to endanger his own life. Believing reason unable to answer this, Schopenhauer explained it as a transcending of empirical perception.
When such an act of altruism happens, Schopenhauer wrote, the barrier between “I” and “Not-I” temporarily dissolves so that one suffers with the other individual, “in spite of the fact that [their] skin does not enfold [his] nerves.”
Early in the series, Katherine Topolsky, the FBI agent posing as a guidance counselor, shows Max a picture of children playing. He identifies himself as the child who is hiding behind a tree in the picture.
Max may be secretive, but in the pilot he sheds his concern for his secret as quickly and efficiently as one might shrug off a t-shirt. When Liz is shot, the barrier between two different people – two different life forms, two different planets – is shattered.
On Roswell, compassion seems to be the key to humanity. Both Max and Liz repeatedly cite the day he saved her as the day each of them truly came to life.
The psychic connection Max and Liz make in the pilot reverberates throughout the entire season. Max proclaims to Liz that “knowing you has made me human,” and who are we to disagree?