Alien: Covenant may not be the best film in the Alien franchise, but its redeeming qualities are in its additions to the Alien lore. The preceding movies have never shied away from incorporating social topics like consent, rape, and women’s reproductive health — in this Alien: Covenant doesn’t differ too much from its predecessors, but it also brings something new to the table: an origin story for the xenomorphs we've all come to know and fear.
This backstory may be sinister, but it brings the franchise full circle in terms of the synthetics and man being our own worst enemy — or maybe, more accurately, a mirror of ourselves. Just as the synthetic Ash’s obsession with getting the alien life form back to Weyland-Yutani killed most of the Nostromo crew in the first Alien film, David’s goal to find his own purpose led him to that same alien in the first place. What’s most frightening about David as a character in Covenant is how he chooses to engineer his creations, but his methods are far more human than we would probably like to admit.
At the end of the previous film, Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw had gone in search of humanity's creators with David in tow, eventually landing on the planet Origae-6. It’s revealed in Alien: Covenant that David had released a transmutation virus into the atmosphere. When the crew of the Covenant find themselves on the same planet after following the coordinates of a message (presumably sent by David), they soon discover the planet is overrun by David’s experimentations. It's not until the surviving landing party arrives at David’s hideaway that we learn just how the synthetic went about creating the neomorphs they encountered and what actually happened to Shaw on their mission.
Covenant’s lead protagonist, Daniels, finds artwork drawn by David chronicling his experiments and correctly deduces that Shaw did not die in the crash, as David had initially claimed. Instead, David used Shaw’s body to further his research. This lead to the creation of the large eggs called ovomorphs in the Alien universe, which house the parasitic facehuggers that attach themselves to other life forms and use them as hosts for xenomorph embryos. David’s methods may have been unethical, but it's worth noting that in the context of modern-day medicine he didn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before — including experimenting on women’s bodies without their consent.
Throughout medical history, it’s a well-documented fact that a number of research projects were conducted on women unethically, without consent. One of the most famous is the story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancer cells were the source of the HeLa cell line — a cell line that is used in high frequency in medical research to this day. Unfortunately, this discovery is tainted because of the unethical methods by which the cell was obtained. After a biopsy of Lacks’ cervical tumor performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1951, while she received treatment for cancer, her cells were cultured by George Otto Gey, who created the HeLa cell line. No consent was obtained to culture her cells, and neither she nor her family were compensated for their extraction or use. While the HeLa cells have been leaps and bounds more beneficial than the creation of fictional xenomorphs, there's a clear parallel in the lack of consent on both accounts.
Consentless experimentation on women’s bodies is eerily in line with David’s beliefs. He believed his purpose was in creating a life form that was superior and would usurp the human race, his creator. Looking back at history, birth control activist Margaret Sanger’s ideology doesn’t fall too far from David’s. Sanger was one of the most influential figures in the reproductive rights movement, and while she believed women would never be free until they had the ability to control their own bodies, that only extended to predominantly white women. She supported eugenics, a theory that undesirable populations could be reduced or even eliminated by controlling their ability to procreate.
For Sanger, the undesirables were people who lived in extreme poverty and those with mental illnesses and physical disabilities. Eliminating extreme poverty drove Sanger to invest in modern forms of birth control. She linked up with controversial biologist Gregory Pincus, who was working with Clarence Gamble, himself also a dedicated eugenicist. They traveled to Puerto Rico to conduct their clinical trials of the first birth control pill called Enovid. The women there were told the pill prevented pregnancy, but they were not informed they were participating in an experiment, which is illegal. Therefore they had no idea they were taking part in a clinical trial for the drug and were given an extremely strong formulation of the medicine. These women also weren’t given any safety information about the product, and those who came forward with serious side effects from the medicine were dismissed. Three women are documented to have died while taking Enovid, but no autopsy was performed to determine whether their deaths were linked to the pill. Similar to David’s use of Shaw's body to further his research with the desire to create something that would be better than humans, Sanger's support of eugenics led her to invest in the unethical experimentations of birth control on women of color.
Perhaps the impact of what David did to Shaw and her body would have had more significance had Shaw been a woman of color. The scene would have had cultural and historical relevance given the real-life history between women of color and medical research, as well as the lack of consent often happening when these trials were carried out. Was there mistreatment of white women in some medical research experiments? Definitely, but the impact of the mistreatment of Black women and other women of color is still felt today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Multiple medical factors played a role in these deaths, one of them being medical professionals not listening to their Black patients, disregarding them as their community was historically disregarded in medical research. Well-known Black women have shared their stories in how the lack of empathy from their medical providers directly or indirectly resulted in some kind of complication during and after their pregnancy, among them Serena Williams and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. These incidents are not limited to just poor Black women and other women of color.
There is a very real disparity between medical professionals and members of marginalized communities that did not just appear overnight. There is a line that can be drawn between the historical mistreatment of Black women and other women of color and the mistreatment they still face today. The lack of access to preventative care in lower-income areas is another example of how a medical community that once didn't hesitate to use the bodies of Black women and other women of color continues to fail them. As recently as 2013, in the National Healthcare Disparities Report, 35 percent of Latinos and low-income individuals reported they had difficulties getting the care they need. These communities were used for medical breakthroughs and then discarded.
The situation between David and Elizabeth Shaw, though fictional, holds notes of truth to our historical understanding of this phenomenon, given that it boils down to her being subjected to his experiments, presumably against her will. While the real-life cases against Black women and other women of color aren’t as extreme as a synthetic robot experimenting with the body of a human woman on an alien planet, the lack of empathy and care toward a human life still stands.
David is a reflection of the inhumane ways humans have treated one another throughout history, even recent history. What David did to Shaw is nothing new when it comes to experimentation and use of women’s bodies to further an objective, be it creating a new life form or medical breakthroughs. David was created in man’s image and subsequently was plagued by some of the same destructive tendencies, and Alien: Covenant is another reminder that there is always some form of truth infused in works of fiction.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.