Jockeying for space
And now Billy Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Bobby Gentry's 1967 ballad Ode To Billie Joe derives its ambience both from its tantalising incompleteness, and from the uneasy indifferent stasis that the narrative wanders into at the end. The elements of a mystery are set up, with inferences and implications, but nothing is ever resolved. Any shocking revelation there might have been, any broader meaning a young man's death might have had, is simply allowed to dissipate like flower petals in muddy water. A sultry, implacable indifference reigns over all, and we are left with the impression that only the narrator's private memory retains any value.
'Memory' was the original title for the first half of the story that would become Alien. (Its second working title, Star Beast, was discarded when the word 'alien' leaped out of the page during one of Ronald Shussett's late-night writing sessions, and solved a multitude of problems in a single masterstroke. 'Alien. It's a noun and an adjective.')
Dan O'Bannon's 'Memory' only covered the first half of a movie. The second half, in which the Alien causes bloody havoc on board the Nostromo, was based on another earlier idea about gremlins getting on to a World War II bomber. I don't know it for certain, but it seems to me the chestburster sequence is the exact point of division, splitting the film neatly in two.
The first half, the Memory half, is - to quote Alan Dean Foster's novelisation - 'redolent with alien ghosts and memories'. Reading through an early draft of the Alien script, I'm struck by how much of the text didn't make it into the movie but did make it into the novel, almost verbatim in some cases. And yet, for some reason, the Space Jockey sequence is completely missing from the book.
The 'memory' part of Alien is, like many a good ghost story, cryptic. It presents both the characters and the audience with riddles that are only ever partially deciphered. The 'distress signal' that is partially decrypted, revealing it to be a possible warning; the origin and purpose of the derelict vessel; the unexplained fusion of biological and mechanical forms; and of course the greatest enigma, the identity of the grotesque, curiously pathetic, long dead being that the exploring trio discover in its chair.
As with Billy Jo MacAllister, the only certain fact about the Space Jockey is that it is dead. It is so nakedly, explicitly dead that its deadness seems exaggerated, as if the basic notion of 'skeletal remains' had been overblown into a sort of carnival of ossification, more dead than any previously living thing could ever be. It is hapless, and though grotesque, it is not sinister; in the early draft of Alien, the yet-to-be-Gigerized creature's skull is taken back to the ship and even brought on to the shuttlecraft, where it watches over the final survivor 'like some dead, melancholy pixie'.
The Book of Alien (not a holy text, despite how it sounds, though many of us revere it) comments on the benevolence of the Space Jockey: 'Sitting in repose in its doomed derelict ship, the jockey appears to somehow have been a benign creature. People involved in the film tend to agree on this. But they can't explain why.' This sense of benignity, of possible kinship even, is present in the early Alien draft, in which the character who would later become Ripley says of the dead creature 'I wish it was him we'd met in the first place - things might have turned out different.'
The composite figure of the Space Jockey provides us with too many disparate points of information to triangulate into an easily resolved answer. Confronted with this, our instinct to imagine the possible confluence of events that led to this macabre relic goes strangely awry, like the effect of plunging one hand into a basin of hot water and the other into cold. We can see that, as Dallas exclaims, it looks like it's grown out of the chair, but we cannot visualise how that could have happened. The chair itself is part of some kind of colossal device, presumably important to the ship, but we can't reconcile its form with any guessable function. We can see the Jockey's empty-eyed hose-nosed face with stark clarity, but can't easily imagine the living creature. The Jockey is like an Escher picture in that respect, presenting an architecturally impossible image that cannot exist except as artwork, except as a finished, static thing.
I can't help thinking that the elephant-like Space Jockey taps into childhood sentiments. Elephants never forget; elephants are wise, ancestral, tragic; elephants are primal. And, of course, elephants are giants.
The crew of the Nostromo don't say it, but we think it: the dead alien on board the derelict is huge, and more humanoid than not. This resonates on a mythic level; the whole 'there were giants in the earth in those days' bit. Humanity is saturated with legends of ancient gigantic beings who towered above us and whose fragmented wisdom lives on only in the ill-understood relics they left behind. Seen in that light, the Space Jockey is the same breed of entity as the Titans, the Nephilim, the Fomorians, the builders of the Giants' Causeway.
Giant alien bones in a derelict ship, evidence of ancient civilizations not our own. Before they appeared in Alien, they appeared in the 1965 film Planet of the Vampires. The parallels have been denied, but they're hauntingly apparent. See the following clip, from 6.55 onwards:
The screenwriters of Alien claimed they had never seen Planet of the Vampires. Call me naive, but I tend to believe them. There's some organic sarcophagus deep in our brains where the Space Jockey and his ilk eternal lie - and I don't mean that in some fatuously literal Von Daniken sense, just that when humans make myths, they unconsciously veer in prescribed directions. Giant, monstrous; almost-human bones; fragmentary messages from the past; ruins, relics, images too saturated with meaning for us to understand them. We know these things.
The enigma of Billy Joe MacAllister's suicide eventually, perhaps inevitably, resulted in a movie. It explained every detail, exhaustively but not, one might say, canonically. Bobby Gentry didn't ever say 'Yup, well done, you solved it'. It was an answer given because there was money in giving an answer, and because doing so scratched the maddening itch of the unresolved.
Ridley Scott's Prometheus is now showing at a cinema near me. I am given to understand it offers answers, of a sort, to the enigma of the Space Jockey. I'm going to see it, of course; but I can't help thinking that any definitive answer as to his origins would rather diminish that gnomic icon of long-decayed intelligence. It is the sinister implication of the alien remains that we take away from the scene, and implications do not gain power by being reduced to explanations.
The xenomorph is Alien; the Space Jockey, I like to think, is Memory.
And for me, no prequel or spinoff or supplementary feature could ever tackle the strangest riddle of the Jockey: its seeming serenity. It seems to me not only benign, in the utterly inhuman way that the eye of a blue whale is benign, but indifferent to its fate. There is no sign of a struggle. Its arms lie neatly by its side. Its trunk lies down the dead centre of its chest.
And I think there is a very slight suggestion of amusement in its hollow eyes. Like the dead child in 'The Inquest', by William Henry Davies, the victim seems to smile at our unease and bafflement:
For as I looked at that one eye,
It seemed to laugh, and say with glee:
'What caused my death you'll never know -
Perhaps my mother murdered me.'