John and I have been watching Firefly lately. Don’t ask me why it’s taken us so long to watch a show that has been recommended over and over by friends, family members, colleagues and strangers. Maybe because we couldn’t find it in streaming form, but we’ve finally discovered Hulu Plus, so watch out, old television shows!
Firefly is Joss Whedon’s take on sci-fi. It’s kind of a blend of a western and a space-travel show. In fact, in the “If you like this, you might also like…” recommendations from Hulu, the suggestions include Big Valley, Gunsmoke and Lost in Space. As we’ve been watching the show, several thoughts have occurred to me.
For one thing, Joss Whedon is so incredibly brilliant! He awes me with the way he can take a seemingly über-fantastical genre and group of characters, and then weave the relationships and the story in such a way that you not only care deeply about these people, but feel that you’ve learned something profound about the human condition, too. For years I laughed at my friends who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That is, until I finally decided that I’d give it a try, just out of friendship’s sake. If my memory serves me, John and I gobbled the first season in three days. And come on! Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog? I mean, who but Joss Whedon could create an online sensation to keep himself busy during the writer’s strike?
Another thing that occurs to me is, how come so few futuristic stories involve pets?
Okay, so. Firefly is set at a time after we’ve managed to destroy Earth (like, 2020?). The intro narration explains, “The Earth got used up, so we moved out and terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths, some rich and flush with the new technologies, others not so much.” In the episodes, the only animals we see are horses pulling wagons. So, work animals, yes. Pets, no. This seems to hold for all sci-fi movies and TV shows.
Two acknowledgments right now. I know some of you are already thinking, “Wait, what about Ridley’s cat?” I’ll get to that. Others of you are no doubt thinking, “Wow! I had no idea she was such a complete and total nerd!” Let me just say, I’m no Stephen Colbert, able to quote lengthy passages of Star Wars or delve into the nuances of elfish religion as depicted in The Lord of the Rings. And I’ve never been to a Comicon.
So there’s that.
Back to Ridley’s cat. I will admit that once that cat was introduced, I worried about it through the entire movie. I could care less whether Sigourney Weaver got eaten by the slimy alien. Where the heck was the cat? But think about it. How many other space travel movies and television shows involve animals? If I were zipping all over the universe, I’d want a pet to share it with. And if I were a pioneer terraforming new Earths, I’d most definitely include dogs and cats. After all, we needed dogs so badly on the only Earth we know that we’ve co-evolved with them over the last 40,000 years or so.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: We share 98% of our genetic makeup with chimps and bonobos, which are exceptionally intelligent primates. Like humans, bonobos and chimps have a notion of the unseen forces of nature, for example, the properties of gravity—if you drop something out of a tree, it will fall to the ground. Dogs don’t fully grasp that concept. You know what they do understand, far better than our big-brained, 98%-alike relatives? Us. By the age of six weeks old, dogs show skills at understanding human gestures that no other species has. None. They are especially good at catching on to cooperative gestures, like pointing. Dogs quickly figure out that pointing means “That’s where the treat is hidden” or “Your toy fell on the bookshelf when I threw it, not the floor.” Dogs are so attuned to us (and we to them) that yawns can be as catching between you and your dog as they are between you and your baby or you and your partner.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone reading this post that the pet supplies industry is booming. In 2012, Americans spent over $52 billion on their pets. In 1994, that number was in the high $20 billions. Interestingly enough, the climb in spending has been steady, even during the height of the Great Recession. We love our pets. I think it’s safe to conclude that any human traveling from Earth (whether beautiful blue-green planet or charred cinder) would have a pet—ideally in multiples to ensure their continued existence—along with them.
So in casting through my admittedly limited memory, here’s what I come up with for earthly pets who accompany space travelers. Just to be clear, I’m not counting non-space-travel types of sci-fi (Back to the Future or Austin Powers), pet-like robots (Dr. Who or Star Wars), alien pets (Lost in Space) or co-workers (Star Wars or Cowboy Bebop).
Other than Ridley’s cat in Alien, they’re all in Star Trek. No, not tribbles (see “alien pets,” above). I’m talking about Data’s cat in TNG and Porthos, the Captain’s dog in Enterprise (which I admit, I’ve never seen—I looked that one up). So hats off to the Star Trek franchise!
Consider this a challenge to sci-fi film and television producers everywhere. We come from Earth. We love our pets. We demand to bring them with us on our space explorations!