The trope of aliens visiting Earth has been a science fiction staple since long before the Lumière Brothers first recorded and (re)played a train coming into a station. Aliens coming in peace and trying to hide in plain sight in contemporary (ish) society is slightly newer and can be used to great comedic effect. It is this trope of somewhat hapless aliens trying and failing to fit in that is the basis for the transnationally omnipresent sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun (NBC, 1996-2001). For those unfamiliar with the series, 3rd Rock follows the adventures of alien High Commander Dick Solomon (John Lithgow), Security Officer Sally (Kristen Johnston), Information Officer Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and their transmitter Harry (French Stewart). The aliens are on a benevolent participant-observation mission to Earth to study humanity and, in order to accomplish that, Dick chooses a job teaching physics at the fictitious Pendelton State University in central Ohio. The series critiques sociocultural norms from a socially progressive perspective, promoting equality, inclusion and deriding prejudice of all kinds. But one of the more subtle examples of that, on two levels, is in episode 2.3, ‘Hotel Dick,’ upon which this blog will focus.
This episode has two intersecting plotlines, both of which culminate at a science fiction convention. The first of these plotlines relates to representation of aliens. ‘They portrayed aliens as vicious monsters!’ a distraught Sally cries, having just seen a film about alien invaders. ‘Dick, they have to make the aliens scary. That’s entertainment!’ Tommy argues, after the family do acknowledge some ‘cool’ aspects of the film. ‘It’s how these people think of us,’ Dick says, as people in the queue yell at him to stop spoiling them about the end of the film. ‘They didn’t care whether the aliens are good or bad,’ Sally continues, ‘they just wanted them dead!’ Though the film-goers are actually angry over the spoilers (not knowing that the Solomons are aliens), the family believe that they need to hide, perhaps in a bunker. Harry refuses, saying that they should ‘hold an alien pride parade!’ explicitly tying alienness to LGBTQIA and other marginalised identities, something that was a common theme throughout the six series. Harry later suggests going to a sci-fi convention in Cleveland to correct the misconceptions about aliens (‘or we could just blow the whole damned place up’); the Solomons, along with Dick’s girlfriend Dr Mary Albright (Jane Curtain), who Dick wants to tell he is an alien, agree to go.
It is at this point that the second complementary plotline emerges, though both are focused upon representation. As this episode features a sci-fi convention, one might expect the stereotypical representation seen in The Simpsons (Fox 1989-present) as expressed through ‘Comic Book Guy’, a fat, slovenly man who lives with his parents and is lampooned for taking cult media very seriously, or the infamous 1983 sketch from Saturday Night Live (NBC 1975-present) in which William Shatner shouts at a convention audience to ‘get a life!’. Mary, as an anthropologist, does believe that ‘these people fulfil their lives through fantasy’, but she interprets this as something academically fascinating and enjoyable rather than seeing fans as pathologised. Fans are not shamed or derided and Mary later engages in play with Dick by pretending to be an alien as part of a sexual fantasy. What the series does instead, however, is position Harry as the only ‘obsessed fan’ who is perceived as being unable to separate fantasy from reality (Hills, 2007). This is accomplished by him taking over the stage from Takei and trying to advocate against negative stereotypes of aliens. ‘Screw sci-fi!’ Harry says, arguing instead for science facts (including aliens). The 3rd Rock audience, however, recognise that Harry is expressing the diegetic reality and is engaging in advocacy for an analogised-marginalised group. In addition to following the depathologisation turn in fan studies (Hills, 2002), it can also evoke Jenkins’s (1992) description of a connection between political resistance and fans’ engaging in transformative works. Zubernis and Larsen (2012) have noted that activism can often be a byproduct rather than a goal for fans, and Hinck has since looked explicitly at what she terms ‘fan-based citizenship’ or ‘public engagement that emerges from a commitment to a fan-object’ (Hinck 2019:6). Thus, the scholarly literature has brought some nuance to Jenkins’s assertation somewhat; nevertheless, we can still see aspects of this more positive perspective on fans in this episode from 1997.
This brings the episode back to representation and advocacy. In addition to the connection being made between aliens and LGBTQIA people in the scene discussed earlier, in a subsequent scene Harry restates to Tommy and Sally that the reason he wants to go to the sci-fi convention is ‘to protest how the rest of the world is treating our kind.’ ‘So, you want to be some sort of alien Martin Luther King?’ Tommy asks. ‘Exactly. Because I too have a dream [about being naked on a Ferris wheel].’ The series avoids offence by the comparison of a white actor playing an alien to King through this subversion about Harry’s dream, but still reiterates that negative representation of a minority and/or marginalised group can be harmful. It reinforces this argument, however, through casting. As Gray (2010) notes, casting can be a form of intertextual reference. In this instance, the special guest of both the sci-fi convention and of the episode is George Takei. While he is best-known as Sulu in Classic Star Trek (CBS, 1966-1969), Takei is also a vocal advocate against discrimination against Asian-Americans (and LGBTQIA people, though Takei was not out at the time of this episode’s production). In particular, he speaks publicly about his experience of having been imprisoned in an internment camp at the order of the American government during World War Two. One of the explicit fears the Solomons have over being revealed as aliens is, as Sally puts it, ‘… the next thing you know, the Air Force has sealed off the neighbourhood.’ While there is a concern expressed by the Solomons in this episode and elsewhere in the series about people in general and their response to aliens, there is also an explicit fear of the US government and its likely response to alien life, namely imprisonment and death.
Like all the best science fiction does, 3rd Rock looks at humanity from an outsider’s perspective and shows us our foibles, flaws and achievements. It does this in order to help us understand ourselves and our fellow humans and to try and better the world around us. If there is anyone else out there, hopefully, those real aliens are like the ones from 3rd Rock, and come in peaceful exploration to learn about us and (eventually) allow us to learn about them. I expect that idea would have many fans.
Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She will be joining the American University of Phnom Penh in August 2023 as an Assistant Professor of English/Humanities. She has previously worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan and Armenia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 She says this upon seeing people dressed up as the Coneheads, a role Curtain herself had in Saturday Night Live. This can be read as the series establishing and acknowledging its position within sf/fantasy’s history (cf Geraghty 2009) as well as an intertextual reference (Gray 2010).
Beattie M (2023) A Well-Rounded Dick?: Academia in 3rd Rock from the Sun. In Harmes M and Scully R (eds). Academia and Higher Education in Popular Culture. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 53-67.
Geraghty L (2009) “Welcome to the world of tomorrow!”: Animating Science Fictions of the Past and Present in Futurama. In L Geraghty (ed). Channeling the Future: Essays on Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Plymouth: Scarecrow, pp. 149-166.
Gray J (2010) Show sold separately: Promos, spoilers, and other media paratexts. NY: NYU Press.
Hills M (2002) Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.
Hills, M (2007) Michael Jackson fans on trial? “Documenting” emotivism and fandom in Wacko About Jacko, Social Semiotics, 17:4, pp. 459–77. https://doi.org/10.1080/10350330701637056
Hinck A (2019) Politics for the Love of Fandom: Fan-Based Citizenship in a Digital World. Baton Rouge: LSU Press.
Jenkins H (1992) Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, New York: Routledge.
Zubernis L and Larsen K (2012) Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships, Newcastle: CSP.