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Sometimes an Alien is Just an Alien

By JediCole

"I love you so much I hate you!"
The ever-expanding Star Trek universe is replete with alien species that hail from a vast array of worlds. In its long history the franchise has spawned species both memorable and ridiculous. For every Vulcan, Andorian, or Kardassian there is a Triskelion, an Excalbian, or the gilded precursors to Life in Hell’s Ackbar and Jeff from Journey to Babel. That was something of an inevitability given the volume of writers, designers, and other creative persons who have had a hand in directing the course of Gene Rodenberry’s creation. While even the most scorn-worthy alien creations of the classic series are forgivable in the context of the period in which they were made, there is one species from Star Trek The Motion Picture that even Mr. Spock’s logic cannot justify – the Zanarite.

With a history of low-budget aliens like the Tellarites and Gamma Triangulians, the producers of The Motion Picture undoubtedly felt the challenge to people the background of the cinematic Star Trek universe with as many unique species as possible. There were the mauve reptilian Rigelians, the Megarite with faces resembling the underside of an abalone, and the melted ice cream-faced Arcturians sprinkled about Starfleet and Federation related scenes. And then there was a particular stand out in the crowd. An alien that rose above all others in its uncanny ability to draw the eye away from everything else. One could not help but focus on these unique aliens in every shot to the exclusion of all others. But what made them so noticeable? Their costumes? Their unusual breathing apparatus? Or was it…something more intimately physical about them.

There is something about the…um…cranial portion of this species that gives one pause. Their face masks only serve to frame the structure of their noggins and bring it into stark focus. And as this particular shape etches itself on the mind’s eye, one is left asking – I daresay begging – for answers. Why? Why would anyone think, for a moment, that this was an appropriate design? How did this most…uh…peculiar form get…fleshed out for the silver screen and never so much as raised an eyebrow? And how, to drop the seeming decorum and dodging of the issue at hand, did an extraterrestrial species with a head shaped like a penis get featured in a G-Rated movie?! There, I said it! The Zanarite has a decidedly phallic pate!

Amazing though it is that such rude alien is so blatantly left hanging out there for all to see, standing proud and tall, pumped up with pride in being a part of the Federation, this fact pales in comparison to the practical offshoot of this character's presence beyond the backgrounds of a feature film.  The more one scrutinizes the unusual structure of this alien creature's  noodle, the more one begins to wonder why no one in the 70's was all that bothered by its uncanny resemblance to a rather intimate structure of human anatomy.  Perhaps the concept of "hiding in plain sight" is at work here.  Then again it was just a background character, set dressing if you will.  Who would actually ever see enough of it to notice?  It wasn't like you were ever going to see this movie again outside of the movie theatre except perhaps once a year or so on broadcast television.  It wasn't like people were going to be able to take in Star Trek The Motion Picture at their whim, any hour of day or night in the comfort of their own home!  Or indeed examine the specifics of the character's physical appearance in tremendous detail.  Or would they?  Certainly the former scenario could not be predicted, but this particular movie arrived on the scene in the midst of a burgeoning phenomenon - movie merchandise licensing on an unprecedented scale!  Star Wars had opened the floodgates and other toy companies wanted, to reference classic Star Trek, a piece of the action! 

Mego, a Star Trek license holder from the days of the television series, recognized that part of the strength of Kenner's Star Wars line was the addition of background players to punch up the play value of the core characters.  So it is little wonder that they felt that it was necessary to include as many of the background aliens as possible in their toy line.  After all, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and even Ilia needed some interesting characters to interact with.  Kids weren't about to recreate V'ger using their bedsheets!  So the various alien species featured in the backgrounds of the film became fodder for 3.75" plastic immortality!  While some, like the dinosaur-like Rigellian, the overdressed Betelgeusian, and the familiar by name if not entirely by look Klingon are thoughtful choices, the Zanarite seems an odd pick.  Did no one at Mego take a good look at that blatant head (being quite the operative word in this case) and not at least raise an eyebrow in Mr. Spock fashion?  There were a small number of other aliens in the background that would have been no less exciting to kids and a lot less potentially offensive to parents.  But the Zanarite became an action figure none the less, albeit one of the most difficult to find.  But even if you were not (questionably) fortunate enough to discover one hanging on the pegs at Circus World or in the toy department of JC Penney, a production still from the movie gave you a close-up view of this particular alien on the back of all of the cards.

How could it get any worse?!
While the mind boggles that such a terrible thing was allowed to transpire in a toy line, there was an even more terrible incarnation of the Zanarite that emerged in the 70's.  As previously indicated, licensing of hit or potentially hit movies was fast becoming a major part of the retail manufacturing and production landscape.  But not only toys and collectibles manufacturers were jumping on the feature film bandwagon.  Publishers saw a vast gold mine within the Star Trek universe and were quick to capitalize on the reemerging franchise.  Many a tome could be found shortly after the film's release including such interactive publications as a sticker book that reproduced actual graphics that appeared on screen.  Yet  again the Zanarite reared its ugly head, this time within the pages of a costume book based on the big screen Star Trek designs.  Pocket Books' Wallaby Books division published the Star Trek The Motion Picture Make-Your-Own Costume book in the late 70's as part of a variety of titles offered at the time.  While the concept was a solid one, the choice of which alien species who's costume design could be replicated using the patterns contained within to feature on the cover was not terribly well thought out.  And so it came to pass that some hapless child was forced to don the vibrant costume and, more humiliating, the questionable visage of a Zanarite on the book's front cover!  One look illustrates that it is possible to simultaneously hide and reveal one's shame!

Call it pattern recognition or Freudian psychology manifest, you can't help but wonder if the Zanarite was a travesty or a stroke of genius.  Regardless, this is an alien that has gone too long overlooked despite a lengthy history in the annals of science fiction lore.  While relegated to background entities on the big screen, the cocksure Zanarites managed to rise above the crowd and secure a place deep in the hearts of many a Star Trek fan through their various collectibles incarnations.  I ask you, who wouldn't want to get their hands on a Zanarite?
Just look away, son!


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