Pilot of the Derelict
General Note: this article refers to the original ideas and concepts behind the Pilot of the Derelict seen in Alien (1979); those have since been retroactively altered with the release of Prometheus, and are no longer officially valid, unless the current continuity is altered further. Please note that the Engineers and their suits from Prometheus will not be featured on the site, following the site’s personal criteria.
A stranded starship, on a Planetoid lost in the immensity of Space, conceals its dead Pilot, and something alive and awaiting, inside of it. One of the key elements of Ridley Scott’s Alien, the former creature was conceived as part of an unknown alien race, which either came in contact with the Alien, or even engineered it for mysterious purposes — something ultimately left ambiguous in the film itself. This character was given various nicknames: labeled as simply ‘Pilot’, ‘StarPilot, ‘Starrider’, or, humoristically, ‘Dental Patient’ (by Aliens director James Cameron); the name it is most commonly known as, however, is ‘Space Jockey’ — a designation inspired by Robert Heinlein’s eponymous novel. Hans Ruedi Giger, the designer of the creature, used it to refer to the Nostromo crew, and it was first used for the dead Pilot in one of the script drafts written by David Giler and Walter Hill, who also changed the alien entity into a human skeleton. Its nature in the final film was eventually reverted to that of an incomprehensible “alien lifeform”, closely to how O’Bannon envisioned it in his 1976 draft for Alien — where the introduction to the Pilot plays out very similarly to the final film. “Suddenly, Melkonis lets out a grunt of shock,” the script reads. “Their lights have illuminated something unspeakably grotesque: A HUGE ALIEN SKELETON, SEATED IN THE CONTROL CHAIR. They approach the skeleton, their lights trained on it. IT IS A GROTESQUE THING, BEARING NO RESEMBLANCE TO THE HUMAN FORM. [Sic]”
In said original script, the Pilot was a member of a race who had accidentally found the planetoid and the weird artificial structures built on it — pyramids, housing the eggs of an Alien race. The discovery of the Jockey’s dead remains served as a “prognosis scene,” as director Ridley Scott labeled it, a purpose kept in the final film. Although the titular Monster always retained its nature of a parasitoid, O’Bannon’s initial vision conceived the Aliens as a sentient and civilized race: the pyramids served the ritual purpose of bringing new generations to life. Ron Cobb, one of the concept artists who worked on Alien (both for the human machinery and the Pilot itself) explained: “At some point a cataclysm causes the extermination of the adults in this unique race, leaving no one to tend and nurture the young. But in a dark lower chamber of the breeding temple a large number of eggs lies dormant, waiting to sense something warm. Years later, the Space Jockey’s race comes to this planetoid. The Jockeys are on a mission of exploration and archaeology and they are fascinated by this marvelous temple and unknown culture. One of them finds the egg chamber and gets face-hugged. He’s rescued, but no one knows what’s happened. They take him back to their ship and continue their exploration of the planet’s surface. When the chest-burster erupts from the Jockey it goes on a killing rampage until it is shot and killed. The Alien dies, but immediately decomposes and its acid eats through the hull of the Jockey ship, leaving them stranded on the planet. The Jockeys radio out a message that there is a dangerous parasite on the planet, that nothing can be done to save them in time, and that no one should attempt a rescue. Then the Jockeys slowly starve to death.”
Walter and Hill revised O’Bannon’s script — and, in doing so, they completely removed the alien Pilot and any reference of otherworldly life forms from the film (rendering the title of the film itself, Alien, almost nonsensical). The Space Jockey was replaced with a dead human skeleton, and the Alien altered into an experimental human bioweapon. O’Bannon and co-writer (as well as executive producer) Ron Shusett “were disturbed by the content of the rewrite,” and proposed their initial script again; Scott himself agreed to revert to something closer to the original idea. At this stage, however, the Derelict and its dead Pilot were still not going to be featured in the film; building the set, as well as the Pyramid interior set, would have been too expensive for the film’s relatively small budget. It was then decided to implement the dead creature differently — by placing it outside the Pyramid. In this revised version, the Nostromo crew walks past it without noticing it, as it blends with the surrounding landscape. The crew realizes of its existence only when, returned to their ship, they analyze recordings of their trip and discover that what they thought was a rock was actually a mummified carcass.
This idea was kept for a few months, and even supported with concept drawings; ultimately, however, it was discarded in favor of the final version, for which the filmmakers actually merged the Pyramid and the Derelict into a single place, thus enabling a single set to be built whilst still maintaining the incomprehensible and extraterrestrial elements of the script, as well as speeding the film’s pacing. Ridley Scott commented on this choice, saying that “it [the original concept] would have been wonderful in a three-hour version. Sometimes financial practicalities force you to do a certain amount of editorial work, and I’m glad we simplified it.” O’Bannon was initially displeased with said simplification to his story, which featured a more elaborated background: “in the original script,” he said, “the men find a crashed derelict spacecraft and they enter it; they discover that the alien crew is all dead. They return to their own ship to contemplate what may have killed the alien crew and then they discover a pyramid on the planet which appears to be indigenous and primitive. They enter the pyramid and there they find the eggs. They combined these two elements, they squeezed them together into one sort of uneasy entity… in the new version it’s just some sort of a surrealist mystery.”
The visual design of the Pilot was assigned to the film’s concept artist team since the beginning. Early designs were drawn by Chris Foss, Jean Giraud (more well known as Moebius), and Ron Cobb. The latter’s vision, in particular, was appreciated by O’Bannon, who told Cinefex that “it was just perfect! It had a very large cranium, and four or five eye sockets. Very small jawbone – no teeth to speak of. Of course, I expected it to look horrible when you first see it in the film; but then if you looked at it a bit closer you’d discover that it didn’t have the large teeth or the mandibles or any of the other things that are characteristic of a carnivore — and then maybe you’d begin to imagine it as some totally nonviolent herbivorous creature sailing around in space.” The writer’s enthusiasm was not shared by Scott, who insisted that Giger, who had already designed the Derelict, should also conceive the appearance of the Pilot. Much like in the case of the Alien itself, the inspiration for the design of the Space Jockey first came from Giger’s own Necronomicon. Necronom V, specifically the creature seen in the top left portion, was what Scott pointed at. “They don’t look much alike now,” Giger said to Cinefex, “but it was a starting point; and the Space Jockey kind of grew up from there in bits and pieces.”
In the storyboards for the film (drawn by Scott himself, and as such labeled peculiarly as ‘Ridleygrams’) Scott reproduced rather faithfully the appearance of that being when illustrating the discovery of the Pilot. “As they enter the derelict,” Scott said in an interview to Fantastic Film, “I wanted them to come up over the edge of something and into this vast chamber that’s dominated by a huge chair. In preparing this frame of the storyboard, I went through Giger’s Necronomicon and took this character, whom we call the ‘space jockey’ — because I wanted a fossil, almost, one which you’d have a hard time deciding where he leaves off and the chair, on which he died, begins. So here they are with this dead space jockey frozen in death to the weapon he was firing when he died. And he’s kind of gargoyle-like and spooky.” The Pilot, in fact, is seemingly fused to its chair — a literal representation of Giger’s biomechanical art, and an element contributing to the incomprehensibility of the character. The artist said to Cinefex: “The creature we finally ended up building is biomechanical to the extent that he has physically grown into, or maybe even out of, his seat — he’s integrated totally into the function he performs.” The final design of the Space Jockey appears vaguely humanoid, with distorted proportions, and a peculiar appendage growing from its snout — which literally fuses the head with the ribcage — a detail inspired by the breathing hoses typical of jet Pilot helmets, in-keeping with Giger’s biomechanical aesthetic.
To visualize the design in three dimensions, Giger and Peter Voysey first sculpted a small-size maquette of the Jockey and the surrounding interior. The two also collaborated on sculpting the 3/4 miniature of the creature used in the film. “Peter was really excellent,” Giger said. “We worked together closely all the while I was there, and he was able to understand my language very well and translate my paintings into three dimensions.” Voysey first built a wooden framework, aided by his assistants; it was then covered in plaster, which was sculpted to obtain the basic form of the creature. Ribbed tubing was also implemented into the sculpture. Voysey and his assistants mainly sculpted the body, whereas Giger worked on the head of the creature. The negative cast was made in plaster and filled with polyester to obtain the positive cast. To create the decayed, peeling shreds of skin, Giger applied a thin layer of latex to the surface and “scrubbed it off,” letting it dry to achieve the desired effect. The artist painted the Pilot and applied personal touches to it every day, even shortly before the shooting of the scene. “If we had more days,” he told Starlog, “we could have made it better — but I think for the film it’s okay.” Michael Seymour, production designer, also commented on the process: “Giger’s work was the most difficult to translate into three dimensions, but more for its scale than anything else. His actual drawings were very sculpture-like in a way, and with the enormous gifts of someone like Peter Voysey — who’s an absolute master at modeling things up exactly as they’re drawn — we were able to capture that quality quite well.” As already mentioned, the Space Jockey was actually built as a loosely 3/4 miniature model, at the cost of 200.000 dollars. Children actors were used for the full shots in order to suggest the size of the Pilot — and the illusion was kept with camera tricks when the actual performers were shot right next to the model.
When Dallas is called by Kane — who had just discovered a hole leading to another area of the Derelict — he turns his light away from the carcass of the Pilot, returning it to desolate darkness. The Space Jockey was never seen, nor mentioned again in the Alien sequels that followed the first film, and the whole backstory was not touched upon — save for a brief appearance of the Derelict in the special edition of Aliens. Ridley Scott eventually returned to the franchise 30 years after with Prometheus, radically altering the alien entity into a member of an ancient race of humans — the Engineers.
The actual Space Jockey model was presented at the Premiere of Alien in Los Angeles, housed in the Egyptian theater. To the dismay of the film crew, it was set ablaze by a group of vandals — religious extremists, according to certain sources — and thus irremediably destroyed. A piece of Monster film history lost to the flames.
For more images of the Pilot, visit the Monster Gallery.
For an analysis of the altered ideas presented in Prometheus and their consequence in the continuity of the films, read Monster Legacy’s Essay: From Beyond the Stars: Alien Vs. Prometheus.