The Alien Sidekick Matrix
The best pop culture friends you can From TV to movies to video games, alien sidekicks are some of The sidekick is a well-established literary convention dating back to ancient times. This type of character not only assists the hero in achieving their objective, but also complements the hero, and through action and dialogue reveal the hero’s true nature to the audience. For every Robin Hood, there’s a Little John. For every Don Quixote, a Sancho Panza. For every Jesus Christ, a Simon Peter.
The appeal of the alien sidekick, though, is different. Heroes and sidekicks often differ in form and attitude, which generates the sort of screwball opposites-attract dynamic—common to all great romantic comedies and buddy cop movies. But when the sidekick is literally of a different species, it serves as a reminder to the audience that the story is in the strange, unknown hinterlands of science fiction.
Consider the greatest of alien sidekicks, Chewbacca. Chewie is the impulsive Han Solo’s more emotionally grounded companion. He watches Han’s back, copilots the Millennium Falcon, and performs numerous tasks essential to the plot—like ferrying Rey around the galaxy and assisting in Han’s rescue from Jabba the Hutt. But most of all, the 7-foot bear-man-mechanical-engineer hybrid who speaks in grunts and growls renders the “galaxy far, far away” title card unnecessary. There’s wonder in a character so foreign to terrestrial audiences, and that’s why Chewbacca has become one of Star Wars’ most enduring characters. So to celebrate this genre of character, I’ve placed 20 alien sidekicks within one of The Ringer’s traditional matrices, sorted left-to-right by how closely they resemble a human (are they just an actor with makeup? Or are they a robot, or a pile of rocks, or a sapient planetwide network of fungus, worms, and insects?), and top-to-bottom by how integral they are to the story.
You’ll see that fictional universes that tell dozens or hundreds of discrete stories—The Muppets, Animorphs, Star Trek—tend to have better-developed sidekicks. Gonzo’s extraterrestrial origins, for instance, were established in Muppets From Space, in which the hook-nosed blue guy with a poultry fetish finally became the lead character after 20 years of supporting roles. (Muppets From Space also established that the WCW-nWo pro wrestling storyline took place in the same cinematic universe as Dawson’s Creek.)
Not that there’s anything wrong with a sidekick who’s just in it for laughs. As much as The Rise of Skywalker is an abomination to God and man, for the rest of my life I’m going to copy Babu Frik’s raised arms and “Hey, Heyyyy!” as a celebration. There’s room for sidekicks of all stripes. But “alien” is the key here. You’ll notice that the bottom-left corner of the matrix is mostly empty; if there’s a mostly-human-looking alien who’s only around to make jokes, what’s the point? You might as well just hire Josh Gad and have him wear a funny hat or something. If you think that quadrant should be completely empty, you’d have a point, too. Quellek only looks human, but is in fact a giant cephalopod, while Stith—a kangaroo-like creature with an affinity for massive guns—reads as more human than she is because she walks on two legs and sounds like Janeane Garofalo.
Robots, like aliens, can enter into dialogue with humans in a science fiction context. And a substantial percentage of sci-fi canon deals with questions of what constitutes a sapient machine, and when a collection of sapient machines constitutes a distinct civilization. For the purposes of the matrix, I used three criteria to determine whether a robot was an alien sidekick. First, the robot must be extraterrestrial in origin; spacefaring robots and androids of human manufacture (Bender from Futurama, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) don’t qualify. Nor do alien robots created for the express purpose of servitude, even if they do have free will (the droids of the Star Wars universe, Gir from Invader Zim, and so on). In order to qualify as a true alien being, the robot must come from a distinct synthetic culture that’s evolved beyond the purview—and ideally, the memory—of its creators.