The Alien universe can be a cruel and punishing place. It’s a lesson Ellen Ripley learned with the waking nightmare that was her life after the Nostromo first landed on LV-426. It was a mortal lesson that Corporal Dwayne Hicks and Rebecca “Newt” Jordon didn’t get the chance to learn but experienced none-the-less.
And Doctor Elizabeth Shaw was also subjected to the cold and uncaring cruelty of existing in the Alien universe after she and David arrived at Paradise, the Engineer’s homeworld, following the events on LV-223 during “Prometheus”.
When the marooned synthetic David and surviving crew of the expedition of the USCSS Covenant arrived at the Engineer necropolis, the ageing and malfunctioning synthetic lied to the crew about Elizabeth. Elizabeth Shaw’s fate. David told them that their Engineer Juggernaut crashed when their deadly pathogen cargo accidentally deployed while they were landing. Dr. Shaw was tragically killed in the crash.
Later, as Walter went to confront David about his lies, he came across Elizabeth Shaw’s very cold and very dead corpse in David’s own quarters, not buried in the garden amongst the living as David had earlier told his synthetic brother. Her internal organs had been removed, and a strange biological growth had appeared around her head – a tribute to H.R Giger’s Li artwork, of course.
And when Daniels demanded to know what David had done to Shaw, the synthetic merely answered “exactly what I’m going to do to you.”
Like many elements in the prequel films, “Alien: Covenant” is less than definitive with its answers, and this article isn’t going to offer a definitive answer because there simply is none. That’s not the way that “Alien: Covenant” was edited or presented. Instead, we’re going to explore what happened to Dr. Elizabeth Shaw as presented in other incarnations of the story.
The viral marketing short film “Advent” is a little more explicit. Written by Will Melton – who also wrote the other “Covenant” shorts, as well as many viral pieces for other Ridley Scott projects – and was directed by Ridley’s son, Luke Scott, Advent is presented as broadcasts by David sent back to Weyland-Yutani detailing the events before and after “Alien: Covenant”.
According to “Advent”, David killed Shaw after she refused to help David “build a second Eden,” and used her body in his research to create (or recreate depending on your preferred theories) his incarnation of the Xenomorph.
“I tried so desperately to make her more than human. Evolved. But without her co-operation I had to salvage her parts to begin work on my masterpiece.”
“Advent” is very blatant in regards to how significant Shaw was in David’s creation of his Aliens. Without Elizabeth Shaw, there would have been no Xenomorphs found on Paradise.
“With Shaw I realized there was something extraordinary about the substance’s reaction to the human genome. I was able to unlock new properties and tweak the organism’s aggression and instinct for survival. It took years, but I finally found my wolf.”
The details of Elizabeth Shaw’s demise are left to the viewers imagination. It wasn’t always so ambiguous though. Dr. Elizabeth Shaw’s involvement and fate changed as “Alien: Covenant” developed.
When Alien vs. Predator Galaxy had the chance to correspond with concept artist Carlos Huante, he told us about the earliest incarnation of the film in which Elizabeth Shaw survived to make it into the action of the film.
While David stilled bombed the inhabitants of Paradise with the accelerant as he did in the finished film, Shaw survived and escaped into some caves. She would later be discovered by the crew of the Covenant and help them escape the planet.
Speaking to Christopher Marc and the Hybrid Network in February 2019, Huante further elaborated:
“In the first version of Covenant called Paradise, she was hiding in the catacombs from David under the city and the story was that on her trip to the homeworld she got lonely and she had David hanging outside the ship, she didn’t want anything to do with him. But she still had to talk to him. Eventually, she ends up bringing his body in and reattaching him as they become friends during this trip. He ends up having affection for her in a friendship way.”
So they end up going to the city and that’s when David looks at her and tells that story ‘Do you trust me, do you trust that I love you and everything I’m going to do from this point on is because of you and that’s all to protect you’…she looks at him and says ‘Okay, yes I do’ so then he turns around and kills all the Engineers on the planet. It’s his own twisted way of vengeance for her, he kills the planet. She is like ‘Hey, I wanted to talk to these people’ but too late the whole planet is polluted now and everyone on the planet dies.”
We reached out to Carlos Huante again while writing this article to ask about Shaw’s fate in this incarnation of the story. Carlos’ memory was that Shaw would have died deep within the catacombs while helping the surviving crew of the Covenant escape.
Between 2017 and 2018 Alien vs. Predator Galaxy was able to get our grubby claws on several drafts of “Alien: Covenant” written by John Logan, dated between August 2015 to November 2015. The earliest script we obtained was just the opening scenes of the film, then titled “Paradise” and dated August 8th.
The “Paradise” draft opened with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw alone on the Engineer ship (called a dreadnought in the scripts) en route to the Engineer homeworld. Two months into the journey David had began to act unstable, and fearing for her life she ejected David’s severed head out the airlock where she makes it very clear she has no interest in talking to the damaged synthetic.
Eventually, though, David is able to convince Shaw to talk to him, and she goes even further retrieving his body and reassembling him as seen in the viral short “The Crossing”.
“I thought you could talk to me. For a little while. About anything that pleases you really. I just want to hear a voice as I die. And if you could pretend… to be kind to me.”
As the months pass while the dreadnought continues on course to the Engineer’s homeworld, to Paradise, David and Shaw’s relationship develops into something that seems far more intimate, suggesting perhaps a sexual relationship.
“They grow more and more comfortable … Cooking meals … Exploring the ship … Washing in the Water Room…
Then, one day, they are working side-by-side, chatting easily … Her hand reaches out. Takes his. Holds it for a moment. Tears in her eyes. He looks at her.
Then, they are curled together in one of the Engineer’s huge sleeping pods. Asleep. Lovers perhaps. Intimate certainly.”
The dreadnought eventually arrives at its destination, where they find an advanced and thriving planet. A huge artificial ring encircles the Engineer homeworld, countless ovoid Engineer ships that dwarf David and Shaw’s stolen dreadnought in orbit.
In the observation deck the couple watch the planet below, Shaw with tears in her eyes as she sees what could be compared to as a “glimpse into heaven for her.” Shaw ponders “and if they are no better than we are?” to which David replies “so long as they are no worse.”
David looks to Shaw, to his companion, to his partner, perhaps even his lover, and asks her “is it what you imagined?” Overwhelmed by the sight and with tears in her eyes, Elizabeth Shaw tells him that it’s “so much more.”
The two stand hand-in-hand, emotion thick in the air, as they take in “the amazing spectacle below and around them” and David tells her “it’s good to see you cry.” Shaw is taken aback by the sudden harsh comment and before she has the chance to process or question it, David reaches up and “brutally” snaps her neck.
“Then he turns his attention to the magnificent world at his feet.
He seems to grow larger as he stares down. Like a man finally stepping into his righteous destiny.
And all the clever simulations of humanness fade from his features. He has no need of them now. He can just be himself.”
This prologue survived in some form into the final production, with the footage being in and out of the edit of the film throughout the post-production process. While David’s destruction of the Engineers remained in the film, the footage with Shaw would become the viral short film “The Crossing”.
In “The Crossing”, however, Shaw remains in cryogenic stasis and doesn’t witness the devastation that David wrought on the Engineers. It’s also likely more footage was filmed as behind-the-scenes pictures of Michael Fassbender filming the David’s floating head outside the Juggernaut exist.
The prologue is entirely absent in the next draft, dated August 19th and titled “Paradise Lost”. The crew of the Covenant receive Shaw’s signal, but instead of her rendition of John Denver’s Country Roads, it appears to be a message Shaw recorded on the dreadnought (including dialogue found in the previous prologue) detailing their intent to travel to the Engineer homeworld.
“We don’t … Have any idea if it’s Heaven or Hell, but it’s got to be one or the other… We don’t know what it’s called, the planet. So I’m calling it Paradise. Because I think it’s got to be Heaven … And they have to be Gods–”
The only mention of her fate in this draft of the script is when David tells the Covenant survivors that she died when the dreadnought crashed. Walter doesn’t challenge David about her fate, and while David’s drawings are mentioned there’s nothing specifically describing any imagery of Elizabeth Shaw.
This changes in the last script we have access to, dated November 20th and now titled “Alien: Covenant”. Both Daniels and Walter discover a secret chamber in David’s Gallery, where they find many “unnerving” drawings depicting Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in engulfed by “biomechanical organisms” or “mutating.”
“It’s ELIZABETH SHAW. A life-sized DRAWING.
But not as she was in life entirely. In the picture it is as if she’s being engulfed by a sleek BIOMECHANICAL ORGANISM.
Tentacles surround her. Eat into her flesh. We see feeding tubes. Finger-like claws. Alien eggs. It’s as if she’s in the process of becoming something else.
Strangely erotic. Unnerving.
All around them, different versions of the drawing.
Shaw in various stages of mutation: being taken over by the biomechanical organism. Charting the progress … Some are fanciful extrapolations. Some are ghoulish anatomical cross-sections.”
Walter suggests these images are nothing more than David’s own fantasies – a view that Matt Hatton, one of the illustrators responsible for David’s drawings in “Alien: Covenant”, also considers a possibility – or even David’s own pornography but Daniels disagrees, describing the images as “field notes.”
There does continue to be some leeway in the interpretation of the imagery, though, as David would seem to suggest later in this draft that he exposed Elizabeth Shaw to a facehugger.
As Captain Christopher Oram returned to consciousness following his own infection, the malfunctioning synthetic remarked that “Doctor Shaw didn’t survive this long, poor thing” suggesting that perhaps she died before the chestburster emerged, or that the earlier incarnation of the Alien had an even faster life cycle.
When Daniels would later confront David about Shaw’s fate, David remarked that he “loved her,” enough so that he wanted “to make her immortal. Like me,” and that he “learned so much with Elizabeth. But I’ll do better next time. Now that I have such a fetching subject.”
Novelist and Alien legend Alan Dean Foster suggested a much more drawn out and agonizing fate for Elizabeth Shaw in the novelization of “Alien: Covenant”.
“We had been through a great deal together. As a consequence, I held her in the utmost respect. But eventually that was lost to time and necessity. I kept her alive for quite a while. I like to think that was another testament to my creativity, although she might have disagreed. She was my most beautiful subject. Until now, of course.”
While not specifically what Alan Dean Foster is suggesting here, illustrator Matt Hatton also suggested it as a possibility that David had been able to resurrect Shaw and experiment on her over a long duration of time.
The novel went into no further detail though, leaving it at that. It did include some fantastic descriptive language when talking about David’s drawings of Shaw though.
Back in 2017 Dane Hallet and Matt Hatton – who was also the hands of David in Advent – the artists responsible for all of David’s artwork in “Alien: Covenant” sat down to chat with Alien vs. Predator Galaxy about their experience working on the film and bringing David’s mentality to life on paper.
When asked about the contradictions between the illustrations and Shaw’s corpse as seen in the film, Matt Hatton discussed the appeal of the uncertainty of the truth, something that was amplified by David’s position in the film as an unreliable narrator:
“I really like the idea about you not quite being sure…is it something that has happened over those 10 years? I like where it contradicts itself and which do you believe? Or can you believe any of it? And the irony of if they’re just drawings and they’re actually his creative artistic output…then that’s a very human creative thing but if it’s real… if it’s not real? I really like all of that stuff and I think it works within itself.”
And yeah, I continue that on with the final Shaw drawings where, yes, they do contradict each other and they [the drawings] do look different to the body that we see, and we know David is the unreliable narrator, so you know all of that stuff is already there. […] I like that because again you get back into the ambiguity of it.”
While Shaw’s fate kept changing between drafts of the films, Alien vs. Predator Galaxy asked if Dane and Matt were ever made aware of any definitive behind-the-scenes answer once filming started. Matt Hatton explained that they weren’t before elaborating on his own thoughts and his approach to David’s illustrations.
“They just sort of said that that he’s tortured her and had done things to her. They never laid out a timeline or what exactly it was. I think he mutilated her. I think he did all sorts of things. I think he killed her, but I don’t know if he killed her once or brought her back and killed her many times.
I had the eyes rolled up in the head…you couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead or in between. Again, I like leaving that stuff to the viewer and I think that opens it up rather than shuts it down. There’s a danger that everything can be very literal and reductive and especially when we get into this sort of nightmare territory.
There’s so much in this film that is literal and action and that you want to make it breathe somewhere and it’s so evocative, this stuff, that the Shaw stuff is where it should I reckon and you know whether he did this to her, whether he did that to her or whether it’s actually a drawing of what he would do to her and maybe didn’t…I like leaving it open.”
Hatton would go on to talk further about whether the drawings were reality or fantasy in “Alien: Covenant – Developing the Art of an Android”, a book that came included with “Alien: Covenant: David’s Drawings”, a book that collected the work Dane and Matt created.
“The questions are sort of the point. They not only differ from the physical corpse but contradict each other as well. Why are they different? How did he actually kill her? Is all or none of these? Some have the eyes rolled up into the head. Is she dead? Or barely alive while David eviscerates her, sews her up, lets her heal, and maybe starts again? We’ve seen that an Engineer can be revived. Maybe she has died multiple times and been brought back? And these drawings are the record.
Or maybe, and possibly even more horrifyingly, David actually developed an artistic imagination, and these drawings are creations and plans of his unhinged mind – another reason they contradict the physical body in the lab. And how ironically human is that.”
While discussing David’s emotions and his motivations behind killing Dr. Elizabeth Shaw with Alien vs. Predator Galaxy, Dane Hallet compared David to a serial killer.
“I’ve got quite a few where it’s just pencil iterations of basically disgusting…torture…abuse… I kind of looked at it like it was a serial killer love affair. Like it’s that kind of crossing the line between genuine affection to obsessive connection.”
In the “Alien: Covenant – Developing the Art of an Android”, Hallet further elaborated on his thoughts on the serial killer angle.
“In my mind, I imagined David’s affections for Elizabeth to be quite genuine, only they manifest in the way that a serial killer might “love” a victim. This meant that the illustrative lead-up to the final appearance of her body would consist of potential dark fantasy moments. All the possible ways he might like to investigate her to her atomic core and then celebrate her by doing unnatural things to the body.”
Matt Hatton compared David’s obsession with Shaw to that of the Madonna-whore complex, elaborating that “there’s the religious iconography in that view because he sort of venerates her at the same time as he’s torturing her.”
Discussing the religious influence of David’s renditions – fantasy or reality – of Shaw, Hatton explained in “Developing the Art of An Android” that:
“In his mania he both venerates and debases her, recording her in vaguely iconic and blasphemous religious ways – hence the perversion of the “immaculate heart.” And showing just how far he’s departed from his programming. She’s both the holy mother and an icon of his hate. Showing the end of his journey. The religious imagery is both David’s appropriation and final insult to Shaw’s own beliefs.”
Throughout the interview with Alien vs. Predator Galaxy, Dane and Matt discussed the details behind many of the specific pieces of artwork the amazing illustrators created. Relevant to this topic of what happened to Elizabeth Shaw, Matt Hatton elaborated on the fantastic artwork depicting Shaw with her face enclosed within a strange cone.
“I did a whole bunch of drawings that were like…okay […] where does the facehugger come from and I thought maybe it’s like plants, like exhaling oxygen… that whole rebreathing thing but it wasn’t completely literal like that thing that’s sucking on her head…I get that everybody thinks it’s an ovipositor down her throat but I don’t know that it does.
I think this is like an early…proto sort of thing and me, when designing it, well I don’t want to make it completely clear if it’s plant, animal or mineral or whatever. It’s this early sort of shape and it’s where he’s investigating and fine-tuning and all that sort of thing. So yeah, maybe it is keeping her alive but maybe it’s just the breathing part of it […] It’s not completely literal but it’s just slightly ambiguous and evocative so we’re not quite sure what happened there to Shaw.”
And while we don’t have a definitive answer as to what happened to Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, her fate was no doubt not a pleasant one. I hope you enjoyed this exploration of her alternate fates and the interpretations of the artists who brought David’s twisted synthetic mind to live in “Alien: Covenant”.