(This post contains spoilers for Prometheus.)
When I say I expect science-fiction to be realistic, it’s probably worth defining what I mean. I’m willing to overlook the existence of AI robots and starships in a film set 70 years in the future. I’m willing to overlook inappropriate design decisions in the space ships and user-interfaces. But I expect the characters to behave like people. Characters should be consistent and make sense to a reasonable cinema-goer.
Which is what annoyed me about Prometheus. You’re sending a space-ship two years and unthinkable distances from Earth to contact an alien civilisation. I expect the team chosen to show the basic competency one would expect from people at the top of their field. The film’s plot was entirely dependent on the incompetence of the characters.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at some of the disasterous errors made by the Prometheus crew. Seriously – I wouldn’t cross the road with these people, let alone contact alien races. Look on this as a helpful project review.
Lack of clearly defined goals Setting aside the differing agendas, nobody had a clearly defined aim. While it’s valid for metaphysical concerns to inspire your project, you need to define a goal so that everyone can share it and evaluate decisions against it. It’s also hard to tell whether your mission has succeeded unless you know what you’re trying to do.
No contingency planning Most projects have undecidables, even without encountering alien races. You should probably have some idea what you might do when certain things go wrong (biological contamination being an obvious one). Rather than sleep the two years before arriving on the planet, I’d have had some of the crew watching science fiction movies and working out what they would have done in those scenarios, and then producing appropriate processes.
Process not present or ignored Which is the next thing: clearly defined processes are a life-saver in stressful situations. Checking in code or handing over between teams can be difficult under pressure, so strict processes are used to maintain good standards. And one would expect clear processes about handling potential xeno-biological contamination – not to simply allow the crew to wander off for sexy-time.
No chain of command or teambuilding The team had no clear idea who was in charge. And having such an important team meeting one another for the first time in another solar system is insane. Everyone needs to be comfortable working together before going to meet alien races.
No data collection or analysis The crew woke up shortly before landing on the planet. This is a place that has been waiting millenia – there is no harm orbiting a few times collecting data. Or maybe sending the mapping probes into the caves before a full team follows. Take your time to gather information and think about the next step rather than blundering forward because you’re stressed or excited.
Undefined roles Several of the team didn’t know what they were doing there – why was the geologist in the first team when he didn’t need to be (he also seemed somewhat enthusiastic about rocks – you think he’d have been more excited about the structure of the caves). And those who did have a role were ignored. A security expert is employed for a reason – if he says you’re taking guns then no-one else should overrule him except a clear superior. Domain experts should have authority over their domain.
Quite frankly, the crew of the Prometheus were a shabbily organised embarrassment to the human race. It is a good thing that real life companies run more efficiently than this.