Puberty can just about the most difficult time in a young person's life, but imagine going through it hundreds of light-years away from home. That's the situation faced by countless aliens, from a young Superman to the title character in this week's I Am Number Four, and take it from us - nine times out of ten, it isn't pretty.
So, on our tour of alien teens, we really should begin by talking about...
Of all the late 90s/early 00s shows to mix teenage angst with the paranormal...well, Roswell was certainly one of them. The show followed three aliens - or, more accurately, human-alien hybrids - who had been recovered in pod form from the infamous UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico back in 1947. An air force pilot saved them and hid them away until they hatched in the late 1980s. A decade later, they are high schoolers in Roswell, trying to hide their identity and romance some humans.
The series often played up the fugitive status of the aliens Max, Michael, and Isabel (played by a pre-stardom, pre-backlash Katherine Heigl), as they found themselves running away from the US government, from various villainous aliens, and even from their destinies as rulers of the planet Antar. Like any worthwhile alien teenagers, the Roswell kids all have special powers, in particular Max's ability to heal even the most fatal of wounds.
While all the cool kids were off watching the hunky adolescent adventures on Roswell, a slightly younger crowd (including yours truly) was busying itself with Nickelodeon's own aliens among us show. A young energy being alien from the planet Xela gets stranded on Earth because he was having a little too much fun during their time on the surface (you can tell because he sorta says "Woohoo!" in the opening credits), and so he moves in with a nice suburban family, taking the guise of a pre-teen. The show straddled a line between characterizing Allen as "extraordinary" - such as his ability to read books just by touching them or bringing a mannequin to life to pose as his father - and "really freaking weird" - including sleeping a cocoon and loving canned cheese more than any human possibly could. All the while, he tried to learn more about humanity and evade a frightening but generally incompetent paramilitary organization tasked with hunting him down.
In the late 1990s, the Disney Channel operated under one simple, ironclad rule: if there was a ham-fisted way to equate the changes of puberty with the supernatural, then they would spin it into a 90-minute TV movie. (This reached its spectacular apex with the one about mermaids.) But Stepsister from the Planet Weird is a masterpiece of clunky metaphors and bad special effects in its own right, as you can see in this glorious clip. The movie concerns a father and daughter pair of gaseous blob aliens - named Cosmo and Ariel Cola, because why the hell not!? - go on the run from their evil emperor by passing as humans on Earth. Then Cosmo falls in love with a single mom, the various kids plot some wacky hijinks to stop the wedding, and some super-intelligent gaseous blobs show up to extract vengeance. In fairness, the original book by Francess Lantz is meant to be quite a bit better, but I prefer to focus on the goofiness.
Fine, the kids in the original movie can in no way be considered teenagers. But the weirdly resilient Witch Mountain series remains one of the most famous live-action Disney movies of all time - against some pretty thin competition, but whatever - and the 2009 update attracted no less a talent than Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, generally considered the greatest thespian of his generation. (In all seriousness, he's pretty great.) Both Escape and Race follow young aliens stranded on Earth with only their paranormal abilities and an RV-driving widower/beefy ex-con to protect them from the amoral humans who want to learn the secrets of their powers. In the scene above, original kids Tia and Tony explain to an epically coiffed Eddie Albert that they really did come from a faraway solar system.
Much as the Doctor likes to claim he was just a kid when he ran away from his home planet Gallifrey, I can't in good conscience call a middle-aged William Hartnell a teenager - although if the Doctor's apparent age keeps trending downwards, maybe we can reopen the discussion for the thirteenth or fourteenth Doctor. That said, the Doctor's first companion, his granddaughter Susan, certainly qualifies as a runaway alien teenager hiding on Earth...for about the first ten minutes or so of Doctor Who's very first episode. But her attempts to blend in at the local school fail miserably, her snooping teachers Ian and Barbara manage to track down where she lives, they barge their way into the strange blue box...and the rest, as they say is history, as Doctor Who morphs into something far greater.
Doctor Who's more kid-friendly spin-off has a couple potential examples of this. The more obvious case is Sarah Jane's adopted son Luke, a super-genius who was born fully-grown (well, mid-adolescence, which admittedly isn't the same thing) in the opening story "Invasion of the Bane." Technically, he's not an alien at all, but a "human archetype" engineered from thousands of human DNA samples as part of the Bane's attempt to understand humans better...or something. (Honestly, what the Bane intended to do with young Luke wasn't super clear.) So yes, he fits a lot of the common aspects of this trope - he's often completely clueless about human nature, he acts in a distinctly unearthly manner, and he has a bunch of special powers. Still, much as aliens may have created him, he is 100% human, despite the Bane's continued efforts to convince him his destiny is as a galactic conqueror, as you can see above.
Interestingly enough, the past series presented the opposite end of that spectrum in the episode "The End of the Planet." Luke's friends Rani and Clyde discover they're the only humans left on the planet, except for one scared little boy who isn't quite what he seems - or, indeed, quite what he thinks he is. As it turns out, young Gavin is actually the heir to an alien throne, as his father had actually been an extraterrestrial prince who had fallen in love with the boy's human mother. That said, he apparently comes from an alien race that is more or less indistinguishable from humans, without any cool powers to speak of, and his human upbringing means he's far more "normal" than the completely human Luke.
This 1950s b-movie revolves around an invasion by a bunch of suspiciously middle-aged alien teenagers. It also has quite possibly the greatest 50s b-movie trailer in the history of schlocky, over-the-top 50s b-movie trailer. Women randomly fall out of speeding cars, dogs and humans alike are turned into skeletons by the evil alien's ray gun, and of course a couple ineffectual law enforcement types are on hand to say the whole thing is beyond their understanding. The movie follows a young(ish) alien who goes on the run from his fellow crewmembers when he has ethical objections to their plans to set up some farms on Earth - it's a very specific ethical objection, I guess. Anyway, the movie now lives on as a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, which is really about the best any movie like this could hope for.
Now, if we're being super technical and pedantic here - and we're talking about comics, so that's pretty much required - technically the title Runaways doesn't refer to anyone running away from their home planet. Instead, the much-loved Marvel comic series is all about the six unsuspecting children of a cabal of supervillains, and how they go on the run to escape their parents' evil and try to prove that they can be their own people. Still, one of the six main runaways, Karolina Dean, is the daughter of would-be alien invaders (and, long story short, she's not that welcome on her home planet of Majesdane). And anyway, her lover, a good-hearted Skrull shapeshifter named Xavin, is most definitely now on the run from his/her own people.
As with Runaways, it's pretty hard to ignore Superman on a list of alien teenagers hiding on Earth - particularly when that was pretty much the entire original premise of the long-running Smallville - but the Last Son of Krypton is a bit of an odd fit. After all, occasional brushes with General Zod or the Eradicator aside, Superman isn't really on the run from his own people, and the bulk of his adventures concern his time as an adult superhero. Still, between the often delightfully insane Superboy comic strip from the 50s and 60s and the not quite as delightfully insane Smallville, a lot of attention has been paid to how Clark Kent first discovered he was really Kal El. But for one of the most concise encapsulations of how a teenaged Clark Kent dealt with his powers before making the decision to become Superman, you can't do much better than this almost ridiculously 1950s-feeling sequence from Superman: The Movie, cheesy effects and all.
And, last but not least, we have this week's I Am Number Four, the latest movie to ask what happens when an alien fugitive lives among us. (Since Michael Bay is executive producing, my guess about what happens is that shit gets blowed up real good.) Will Number Four discover his powers in time to save the day from his merciless pursuers? (Yes.) Will he find a kindred spirit in an attractive outcast? (Yup.) Will there be a ray gun that turns people into skeletons? (We can only hope.) But he's just the latest in a long, long line of aliens who spent their adolescence trapped in the worst place imaginable: an Earth high school. Feel free to add your favorite alien runaways in the comments.
Additional reporting by Katharine Trendacosta.