The tendency for alien civilizations (and sometimes futuristic human civilizations) to be portrayed as having no native analog of contemporary popular culture, even when it would make sense for an advanced planetary or interplanetary civilization to have some kind of mass media. Sometimes this can be due to The Law of Conservation of Detail, but frequently these cultures are exquisitely detailed: the creator of The 'Verse has written a rich, deep, complex culture with its own religions and traditions...but what do people do for fun?
In practice, this means that while Klingons have their own culture complete with Proud Warrior Race Space-Jesus and Vulcans have their Proud Scholar Race Space-Socrates, there's no alien equivalent of The Three Stooges or Dragon Ball Z. These rich, detailed cultures, spread over dozens of planets and actively exploring the galaxy, seemingly have no literature that isn't ancient and part of their mythology. They have no television, films, magazines, novels, pop music, animation, social media, or video games; only epics, myths, legends, sacred scrolls, and ancient tomes. Frequently, the entirety of an alien culture is equated with its religious mythology and traditions, completely excluding the existence of a secular mass media (there being only one religion on the planet is a problem in and of itself). This leads alien characters to interpret human popular culture along religious lines, for example when G'Kar in Babylon 5 asks if Daffy Duck is one of Garibaldi's household gods.
If an alien culture is explicitly detailed as being rooted in its theology, extremely isolated, and/or controlled by an authoritarian government (and these are almost always examples of planetary monocultures, sometimes in cultural stasis), this may be justified. Indeed, this can be seen in Real Life in totalitarian states like North Korea and Khmer Rouge-era Cambodia, where the media is dedicated almost entirely to promoting national mythology and propaganda.
Perhaps the biggest reason this trope exists is simple practicality. For a writer to explore alien pop culture, they would have to invent brand new genres of entertainment which could be unlike anything on Earth. Even the fiction mainstays—drama, romance, comedy, adventure, and horror/suspense—would still rely on social cues and cultural references that would be, well, alien to a viewer from Earth. Even on Earth, what one country considers entertaining might be seen as boring, confusing, trashy, or just plain stupid to another. Comedy in particular is extremely difficult to translate across cultural lines. Creating all this from scratch would be a daunting task for even the most seasoned showrunners. For this reason, it's much easier to vaguely state that yes, these aliens have their own Jay-Z and Beyoncé, then move on without lingering on the subject.
When this trope is in effect, an alien Cultural Rebel may find that when Klingon scientists get no respect, Earth becomes the general direction of interstellar brain-drain.
NOTE that this trope, common to Space Opera films and television, is usually remedied in Expanded Universe material like novels and comics which attempt to show more realistically diverse alien cultures. Also note that while this trope also covers futuristic human societies, it should not overlap with Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions, which is a separate trope. Please limit examples to aversions, subversions, and instances in which the trope is sufficiently played around with to warrant mention. Finally, note that instances in which aliens assimilate popular culture from Earth are not true aversions, but this trope being in effect is what makes Earth pop culture so irresistible to E.T. in those cases.
Aversions, Subversions, and Not-So-Straight Examples:
- Robotech/Super Dimension Fortress Macross has an interesting example. There's an aversion with the future human society, since they still have pop stars and things like that (they're only 20 Minutes into the Future). But the invading Zentraedi don't have anything like that; they are an entirely militaristic society. In fact, this becomes a plot point later on. The Zentraedi, having never been exposed to singing or anything like it, are rendered stupefied by a recording of a singing pop star. The humans actually seize on this and use it as a tactic in battle, making the pop star both a weapon and a morale booster. In fact, pop culture's key role in causing Zentraedi to defect en masse to humanity is what ultimately saves the day.
- A plot point in Haiyore! Nyarko-san, where pop culture is explicitly humanity's hat. In one episode Nyarko explains that aliens do have their own entertainment media, but they vastly prefer Earth's because of the quality and variety.
- Played with with the Jovian Lizards from Martian Successor Nadesico, who are in reality humans who separated from Earth generations ago, and base their entire culture around an old mecha anime that multiple members of the Nadesico are fans of.
- Nexus, by Mike Baron and Steve Rude, is an enormous aversion. We see alien rock bands, alien hilariators (the futuristic term for comedians), etc. Of course, there's a high degree of cultural integration among the various sapient species of the Nexus 'verse, especially on the moon of Ylum, populated as it is by refugees from all over the galaxy, where much of the story is set, so alien pop culture and human pop culture are frequently not really separate; Mezzrow's band, for example, has a human member and is extremely popular on earth.
- In the A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far Far Away... setting of Saga, a bad romance novel with a hidden political message and a virtual reality soap opera are major plot points. Childrens' picture books and parodies of British Newspapers have been seen.
- Averted in With Strings Attached almost as soon as the Fans appear in chapter 3. One of Varx's stated goals for using the ex-Beatles in their Alien Psychology class's Different Worlds experiment is that he hopes they'll play music that he can record and sell to other students. Later, Jeft the gamer joins the little group, and he makes it clear that live-action gaming is a big deal among some aliens. Also, various throwaway lines talk of things like mass media, restaurants, and sodas.
- An “informed aversion” in The Keys Stand Alone: The Soft World. After Ringo gives Theecat a very truncated history of The Beatles, he expects the little alien to not understand him, but it turns out that Theecat is well aware of mass media and popular culture.
- Galaxy Quest is a deconstruction.
- The Thermians don't just lack the concept of fiction; it becomes the Plot Device, as they mistake human TV series for documentaries.
- Sarris's people, on the other hand, apparently do have TV shows. The moment he witnesses the opening titles of the Thermian's "Historical Documents" he realizes immediately that he's dealing with actors and not real space explorers.
- The Glatun and the Rangora, two alien species from John Ringo's Troy Rising series, have rich pop-cultures that include popular music, trash literature, movies and so on (the Glatun even have the same sort of advertising spam we get on their computer networks). The Horvath, on the other hand, are portrayed as being unimaginative to the point that their lack of a popular culture is justified: they're simply not creative enough to have developed one.
- The Star Trek Novel Verse tends to avert this, for all that the TV series tended to play it straight. For example, the novel A Singular Destiny features a character owning a large collection of novels and comics (or equivalent) from Klingon popular culture — most of these had been introduced in earlier novels, only to be collected together here for Continuity Porn. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Relaunch, a popular joke is mentioned several times, and a minor subplot involves the crew of Defiant all reading their way through a melodramatic Klingon novel. The same series introduced a Bajoran children's educational series, The Adventures of Lin Marna. Meanwhile, in Star Trek: Klingon Empire mention is frequently made of the Narm Charm found in the politically-charged animated series Battlecruiser Vengeance. In one novel, Ezri Dax is distracted by her memories of a Trill nursery rhyme. The Gorn talk about the thermal sculptures they use as one form of popular art, and the Tzenkethi hum popular songs and ditties.
- Despite taking place either on Earth or in a space military setting, the main Animorphs series manages to avert the trope, at least for the Andalites. In internal monologues Ax mentions musical forms from his homeworld (and that he hates Earth's), and that people who can morph in creative ways (making themselves into Winged Humanoids when morphing birds and so on) are bona fide performance artists.
- The Yeerks however, are a straight example. When Edriss fist arrives on Earth and scans the planet, she is mystified by the enormous amount of non-military communication humans transmit, and initially takes it to mean that we are some kind of juggernaut.
- In the backstory the Ellimist's race had a love of strategy video games... and were promptly annihilated by another alien race that saw a transmitted tournament, didn't grasp the concept, and thought they were mass-murdering lunatics who must be stopped.
- Star Wars Expanded Universe: The Essential Guide to Alien Species details Rodian theatre, which started as little more than staged fights to redirect the Rodians' Proud Warrior Race Guy tendencies away from hunting each other into extinction, but eventually evolved actual story.
- The novel Shadow Games is about Dash Rendar acting as bodyguard to a galactic pop star.
- In The True Meaning of Smekday, the Boov aliens that invade Earth are said to have Fun T Shirts, comic books, and nursery rhymes.
- The Tendu in The Color of Distance have qabirri, a kind of storytelling dance art form. They're encouraged to interpret and portray specific qabirri in different ways, incorporating new imagery sometimes. It's noted that the culture is stagnating though - new qabirri are rarely composed and those are more rarely performed, because they're not the classics.
- In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, most alien cultures are parodies of Earth's culture, so alien rock bands, idiotic advertisements, and goofy sports abound.
- Constellation Games is all about the video games that a hundred-million-year-old society, or group of societies, have created throughout their many different species' histories.
- In the Venus And Mars self-help books, Mars is like this, because the men that live there frown on showing emotion and are too busy doing work and building things. Venus, however, does have both pop culture and high culture, as the women that live there are emotional beings that have decided that everything doesn't have to be utilitarian. (In fact, Venus is something of a Pleasure Planet in these books.)
- The colonies of Man in Battlestar Galactica (2003) have pop music and indications of different subcultures. They also have sports, card games, nude magazines and novels that have nothing to do with the Sacred Scrolls.
- Subverted even further in the prequel series Caprica, where various colonial subcultures (V-World, the Ha'la'tha, the Monotheists) were shown in great detail. 58 years before before the Fall, Caprican society was like our world now but on hyperdrive. Holobands were a good example of a realistic treatment of a fictional commercial application of virtual reality, though not without their critics.
- Babylon 5
- The Minbari in nearly count as a straight example, but that's because outside of the Religious Caste, we know nothing about Minbari culture. However, most of the Minbari we got to know were either Religious or Warrior Caste, so the largely unseen Worker Caste may have their own separate cultural roots. Also, Minbari humor (not specifically Religious caste humor) is said to be based around failure to attain spiritual enlightenment (and puns). It's worth pointing out that because of the long-standing tension between the Warrior and Religious Castes, the Warrior Caste probably doesn't take things like myth and prophecy too seriously, and several episodes indicate they have a more secular outlook, though still obviously influenced by the few shared Minbari values (collectivism, sacrifice, honor) that cut across caste lines.
- The alien parents in "Believers" appear to come from a planet like this. Somewhat justified as it's specifically mentioned their planet is backward and isolated and their contact with aliens is limited. They're not even members of the League of Non-Aligned Worlds. They also appear to be a fundamentalist theocracy of some kind, which probably doesn't help.
- The Centauri and Narns both have musical theater. Whether they developed independently or one influenced the other is never elaborated upon, however. The bits of each we hear are completely different; the Centauri version sounds like show-tunes, but the Narn Opera we hear sounds like mechanical shrieking.
- Some Narn, like Na'toth, are atheists.
- Star Trek:
- Star Trek: The Next Generation:
Troi: One of the things we do is monitor broadcast signals. We listen to your journalism, your music, your humor...try to understand you better as a people.Alien scientist: [faintly embarrassed] I hate to think how you would judge us, based on our popular music and entertainment.
- When a human boy raised by Talarians is on the Enterprise, Picard walks into his room to find him listening to what sounds like a death metal band doing the sound effects for an iron foundry, played at eardrum-piercing levels. It is, apparently, the latest thing among Talarian teenagers.
- The infamous Klingon operas, which come up frequently since TNG. Some are suspiciously similar to conventional, Human operas, others are... special.
- Specifically averted in the episode "First Contact", when the Enterprise (as the title implies) visits some aliens as part of a First Contact scenario. Less interesting than most aversions, since we never get to see any examples.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
- The Ferengi are the mercantile traders of the galaxy, so naturally they come stocked with holonovels like Vulcan Love Slave and other gems of the 24th-Century entertainment complex. Their children also collect action figures presumably based on a popular culture franchise, Marauder Mo (TM).
- Cardassian "enigma tales" (detective stories) get mentioned a couple of times. One episode also features Bashir and Garak having a debate about the virtues of the Cardassian "repetitive epic", a type of story in which the essential plot is repeated several times over in order to drive home a point. In this case, service to the state above the self, which becomes something of a theme with both characters as the show goes on.
- Bashir and Garak also discuss Cardassian mystery novels. Bashir finds them unsatisfying because everyone is guilty; Garak says that the point is to figure out who is guilty of what. This accords with the Cardassian legal system, where the accused is immediately found guilty and sentenced, after which the trial determines how they committed the crime.
- Cardassians apparently also have a rather thriving art and architecture community. When Jake is used by a... Muse Vampire?... he's awestruck that she knew a prominent Cardassian architect. During the Dominion's occupation of the station Gul Ducat's daughter wins an award from a Cardassian art foundation - Cardassian art is very traditional Japanese in style.
- In one episode, mention is made of a Breen lullaby. With nonsensical but catchy lyrics, apparently.
- In addition to the operas mentioned before, Klingons in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine just love to sing. Every episode set on a Klingon ship features at least one song with the whole crew joining in, and when Miles and Julian were briefly stationed on a Klingon ship during a Time Skip it apparently started getting on their nerves. Worf even picks up the new Mad Libs Catch Phrase "many songs will be sung about x".
- One episode of Star Trek: Voyager featured a Klingon romance novel called Women Warriors at the River of Blood. In another we heard Klingon heavy metal.
- Another episode features a children's edutainment franchise built around a character called Flotter T. Water, with Naomi Wildmon having a holodeck story in the setting. Janeway mentions that she also loved the character as a child, establishing it as a long-running series.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- In Interstellar Wars it is specifically stated that there is an aristocratic Vilani culture and a commoner Vilani culture.
- Aslan have a fancy for decorated weapons and elaborate epics. They also have insult contests, bragging contests, and tall-tale contests. Recreational dueling (which often requires a ritual insult that the recipient pretends to be offended at) can be either an Aslan high culture or a pop culture depending on how the GM presents it. However their Proud Warrior Race ethos makes them one of the straighter examples.
- Of the Major Races Humans, Aslan, Vargr and possibly K'kree are really the only ones to which this trope could apply. Hivers and Droyne are Starfish Aliens so it is hard to say what would be high culture and what would be pop culture among them. Among the Hivers the "topical clubs" might count as pop culture.
- Warhammer 40,000
- There are relatively few many mentions of what the Imperium of Man considers culture, and the few instances of it are things like only Gregorian Chant being the only thing broadcast between work announcements to the only channel on a space station. Though, there are several references to opera and plays, still very little in the way of pop culture.
- However, Ciaphas Cain seems to be more familiar with Imperial pop culture than a run of the mill Inquisitor or Space Marine, and his series makes the majority of the references to Imperial pop culture. These include the popular if historically inaccurate holo series Attack Run, a holo series very loosely about Cain himself called Cain's Heroes,the children's song The Tracks on the Land Raider Crush the Heretics, and Pyrus the Flame from an edutainment book on promethium.
- For those more familiar with 40K than they are with Ciaphas, this might seem a bit weird, but 40k is a universe done in Broad Strokes to leave a lot of room for storytelling, so a comedy series like Cain's in the grim, dark far future may seem like Mood Whiplash, but the universe was designed to leave room for it. Not to mention that it does indeed make Cain's books funnier.
- Never any mention of alien pop culture, but that's because no Imperial citizen cares what the filthy xenos do with their free time, and the ones that do are filthy heretics that need to be burned with extreme prejudice.
- The Eldar Harlequins do plays on the fall of the Eldar Empire. Really, really intense plays.
- Gav Thorpe's Eldar trilogy, in addition to the aforementioned Harlequin performances, show that the civilian populace of the Eldar spend most of their time making and enjoying art, whether it be painting, sculpture, or drama. This is to keep them busy with worthwhile pursuits and prevent them from descending into hedonism again.
- Their counterparts, the Dark Eldar, are the complete opposite. They like to think that they have only high culture, but their culture revolves around their need to inflict pain, and they get off on doing it. They set their arias to the screams of the tortured, works of art is largely painfully rearranging the bodies of their slaves, and they do love their gladiatorial arenas. Also the basic form of entertainment and having a meal is by torturing whatever poor soul they have on hand and "drinking" up the pain and despair, and torture made to be as painful and drawn out as possible is probably considered a skill. They do this because they have to rejuvenate themselves on pain and suffering with psychic vampirism, as they don't have the Craftworld Eldar's discipline and monk-like asceticism to keep free of Slaanesh constantly sipping from their souls.
- Orks, on the other hand, being primitively-thinking brutes, tend to have brutal and violent pop culture with nothing in the way of high culture. There's been passing references to Ork settlements having some forms of entertainment enjoyed by all the Boyz, a gladiator pit as a ready means of settling disputes as well as providing entertainment, the occasional impromptu demolition derby, squig eating contests, fungus beer, a number of other things. Several other Ork pastimes are practiced widely, but with differing levels of popularity, depending on the Ork clan involved: looting, arson, death races, building bigger and weirder and more cobbled-together weapons and war machines. Orks also have Rock and Roll, and used to have models representing Goff Rokkers (now long out of print). And most of all, Orks love fighting and going to war. Depending on the work, Orks are Played for Laughs with heavy elements of slapstick and Comedic Sociopathy, or are Played for Drama and you see them as violent and unempathic creatures bearing down on innocent bystanders as well as enemy soldiers for no other reason than that they enjoy killing.
- Part of the background of the Teenagers from Outer Space role-playing game is that Earth has the best pop culture in the galaxy. There may be some pop culture put out by alien races, but it's our Hat and the reason all the aliens have come to Earth.
- While BattleTech strictly speaking has no aliens as such, the Clans as the next best thing that does exist seem to play this trope pretty straight. This is another way in which they contrast with the Successor States, where contemporary pop bands and imported soap operas can be found even in such restrictive regimes like the Draconis Combine or Capellan Confederation, and the possibility of the Clans' lower castes becoming 'infected' with Inner Sphere cultural mores if allowed similar access has been brought up on both sides of the fence (with the Clan leadership naturally viewing it as a threat and at least one shrewd Kurita business magnate considering it a possible opportunity). The Clans do have some pop culture (there's a children's cartoon that's been confirmed as canon that's produced by the Clans), but they're a caste-based society with everything geared toward supporting the warrior. As such, production of any sort of entertainment is a very low priority for the laborer caste (which is the lowest of the castes).
- Averted with Transhuman Space. Every third sidebar covers pop culture elements from 2100.
- Mass Effect has some popular alien films, but most of them are relatively recent. Examples include Fleet and Flotilla and Blasto: The Jellyfish Stings (although that sounds more like a human production than a hanar one). Several alien video games are mentioned as well, such as Galaxy of Fantasy, which was based on turian mythology.
- Other forms of art come up in passing, including a recurring feature on Cerberus Daily News recounting the latest box-office hits and bombs. Apparently salarian horror is cerebral and fourth-wall-breaking, asari make lots of romance flicks, and nobody likes krogan war epics (except krogan, who see them as comedies). Also, it turns out that the Blasto movies are a multispecies production, run by a salarian. Presumably they're in it for the money, since there's no artistic integrity to be found.
- The game even mentions the side effects of this. One planet you can scan in the first game is mentioned as looking grim and desolate enough to serve as a filming location for Starless, a gothic horror film which became a classic of the genre. As the planet's atmosphere is near-vacuum, the sets are perfectly preserved and a popular tourist destination.
- There is mention in Mass Effect: Andromeda of a salarian soap opera that ran for seventy seasons. Salarians only live for forty years if they're lucky.
- The X-Universe averts it, although you'll miss it if you're not paying attention to flavor text on some of the Fetch Quests. Various junk carried by NPCs also points to a stealthy aversion.
- Civilization 5: Brave New World does this to cultural victories. You can create works of art, but they tend to be the widely accepted works of literary canon, classical music and art. While the dialogue for cultural dominance of another civilization does mention pop culture, not a scrap of it can be found. Strangely, there is also no abstract art. Make of that what you will.
- Star Control mentions a few alien past-times, such as the Zoq-Fot-Pik's sport "Frungy". The Arilou are also depicted as doing something akin to fishing when in local time-space, saying that they hunt for *Ngnnn*, and when they catch them, they immediately let them go again.
- Homestuck is also an aversion. Alternian pop culture is highly advanced — they have video games and TV and tabletop RPG lore and bad books about vampires. In fact, the troll movie industry has been running for so long that they've run out of titles, and instead describe films with a list of the tropes that appear in them. This is appropriate because the characters are all Geeks into varying fandoms. Karkat is even into an Alternian Expy of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Played for Laughs, mostly. It should be noted that in-universe Alternian pop culture has actually inspired human pop culture - because trolls created the human universe.
- Schlock Mercenary: Averted. Not only do Terran species have many contemporary forms of entertainment that are mentioned (in particular, they seem to be on a musical adaptation kick), but other species have their entertainment mentioned on a regular basis. A Unioc Police Procedural called Murderfinder and Meat-Puppet is referenced several times when a Unioc cop has to coach a Unioc mercenary investigating a crime scene, whenever a particular bad bit of science is brought up it's pointed out that it's the sort of thing that shows up in kid's entertainment to teach kids how it's wrong, and after the first instance of Time Travel the narrator points out that the plot is identical to a recent and terrible failed tv series.
- The What A Cartoon! short Captain Buzz Cheepley features a space captain coming across a planet whose civilization revolves entirely around television and beer. They essentially have nothing but entertainment and leisure (not even buildings, apparently).
Capt. Buzz: "Beer, television, beer, television, beer, television, be— I gotta get out of this planet!"