Legendary sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov picked apart 'ALF' in 1987
"One is lost in admiration at this leap of fantasy."
Image: TV Guide (Aug. 15-21 1987)
Thirty years ago, Isaac Asimov was nearly half a century into his career as a successful science-fiction writer, with four Hugo Awards under his belt. He'd written dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories, and even received awards like Humanist of the Year. He'd invented words like "robotics" and "psychohistory," and he gave lectures as a biochemistry professor at Boston University. His expertise was legit and respected.
Then in 1987, Asimov decided to direct his laser beam of science insight at one target near to our hearts: ALF.
We'd read about Asimov's 1987 essay for TV Guide, "ALF, You've Got Some Explaining to Do," but we couldn't find it anywhere on the internet. So, we did the old-fashioned thing. We tracked down a physical copy of the TV Guide issue. Now we share with you some of our favorite critical points Asimov made while assessing the sitcom alien.
We've pulled out excerpts from the essay, which in turns is funny, occasionally insightful, consistently emphatic (every word in italics you'll see below indicates Asimov's emphasis) and even ends on a surprising note, as Asimov finds that ALF has perhaps considered something that, for once, the scientist had not.
It's fun to imagine the unlikely pair as colleagues. Perhaps ALF should've been the university fellow. Just keep scrolling to see what we mean, then you can be the one to decide, who got it right: ALF or Asimov?
1. No one would've survived ALF's crash landing.
Asimov says: "He crash-lands his spaceship right through the roof of the family's garage. Now I, with my limited imagination, would have ended the sitcom at once. I would have reasoned thus: When an automobile goes over a lousy 100-foot cliff, its occupants are killed; therefore when a spaceship comes screaming down through 100 miles [emphasis Asimov's] of atmosphere, its occupants would be killed, too. That's that."
2. ALF only almost looks like an alien.
Asimov says: "That other famous TV alien, Mork, from the distant planet Ork, appeared to be a member of Homo sapiens, our very own species. The physical distinctions between Mork and us were small. This is unlikely in the extreme, and the creator of ALF didn't make that mistake. ALF looks like an alien life form."
He continues, "Well, almost like an alien life form. He looks a lot like Miss Piggy with orange hair. He has close-set eyes and a raucous voice like Buelah Witch on the old Kukla, Fran and Ollie show. He also has three fingers and a thumb on each hand, like Mickey Mouse. His most marked characteristic is his nose, which looks like a cross between a pig's snout and an accordion."
3. ALF's real name is not very realistic.
Asimov says: "And what is ALF's real name? Is it Xgilzquep? Is it RX-22? Is it even Mork? No, indeed, his name is Gordon. One is lost in admiration at this leap of fantasy."
4. ALF belongs to science.
Asimov says: "Let's imagine that I have found myself in possession of an Alien Life Form. What would I do? Well, I would take the creature to the nearest university. Astronomers would willingly die for a chance to question him, especially when he spoke such excellent English. Biologists would want to study him, as would biochemists."
5. Was ALF really comfortable on Earth?
Asimov says: "Was Earth's temperature range wrong for him? Did our environment suit him completely? Could he really digest our food without discomfort?"
(Fans of the show know that last one was never a problem.)
6. ALF knows everything about us — except for our money system.
Asimov says: "The family is stuck with ALF, who is entirely self-centered and has peculiar gaps in his knowledge. For instance, he knows all about the Renaissance and is an expert on rock music, but he doesn't know that on Earth gold and silver are valuable."
7. Instead, ALF values foam?!
Asimov says: "And yet — let's be honest. ALF is funny, and smart, too. When he expresses amazement that human beings consider gold and silver to be valuable, he offers a Melmackian notion of a valuable substance. 'Foam,' he says. 'Foam!' And when he says that in his husky, self-assured voice, I'm glad he spoke English. I'd miss the point of the joke if he spoke in straight Melmacese."
8. Asimov considers the argument for foam as currency.
Asimov says: "Then I think some more and — son of a gun — he's right."
"... foam appears on waves because the water forms bubbles of air. That helps keep the ocean full of dissolved oxygen and makes it easier for sea life to flourish. Without sea life, we wouldn't exist either, since we evolved from sea life. We can do without gold easily, on the other hand."
9. Asimov almost finds the sitcom family even more fantastic than ALF!
Asimov says: "Husband — wears glasses and looks like a complete nerd. Probably 40 but looks 50. ... He is clearly low man on the totem pole as far as iunfluence on his family is concerned. How incredibly unusual this is for a television sitcom!"
"Wife — doesn't wear glasses and is quite good-looking. Probably 40 but looks 32. ... Although the house is in shambles, it is back in bandbox condition by the beginning of the next program and she never looks either harried or worn-out. How different from all other sitcom wives!"
"Daughter — very pretty. She's 16 years old but looks 22. ... Guess what? She's interested in boys, and in nothing else."
"Son — an obvious urchin. He's 7 years old, but not your ordinary 7-year-old. He's a master at flip one-liners, unlike every other urchin in television."
10. TV Guide let ALF respond to Asimov.
The alien got a change to respond to the nitpicky author. Here are some highlights.
TV Guide: "Is our temperature range right for you?"
ALF: "What choice do I have?"
TV Guide: "Does our environment suit you completely?"
ALF: "On Melmac, the sky was gren and the grass blue, so I feel like I'm living upside down."
TV Guide: "Is there anything about our planet that bothers you?"
ALF: "Robin Leach."