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A nifty trick to get some of the traditional Science Fiction capabilities in a show that's set in the present. Rather than growing your own Phlebotinum, just have a passing Sufficiently Advanced Alien dump some on you.
The biggest advantage of using imported phlebotinum is that it allows you to do a Science Fiction story with characters who are more like contemporary humans — we don't need an enclave of scientists who are way smarter than anyone ought to be, and we don't need to set the show in The Future. John Q. Ordinary guy just gets some uber-technology dropped in his lap.
You can also fuse your Imported Alien Phlebotinum with the home-grown variety to produce hybrid devices which do wacky things. The process of contriving such devices leads to a good MacGyvering-style plot.
Additionally, we get a reasonable explanation for No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup and Disposable Superhero Maker if the Imported Alien Phlebotinum is something that can't be reproduced with Earth technology.
Sometimes the aliens do this on purpose, to lend us humans a helping hand. Sometimes, it's an accident. In the latter case, they might show up later and want it back. Violently.
If the technology is not fully understood, and has side effects that didn't show up in testing, then it's an example of the Black Box.
On the other hand, if we manage to reverse-engineer it to the point of making it part of everyday technology, then ET Gave Us Wi Fi is in effect.
See also Lost Technology, which is inherited from advanced beings of the same planet, but a different time.
See Spice of Life when it is an edible resource with some use in space.
Anime & Manga
- The aliens wanting their phlebotinum (the SDF-1) back was the driving force for Robotech.
- Well, sorta. That was indeed the driving force behind the Zentraedi in Super Dimension Fortress Macross, the show from which part 1 of Robotech was made - not so true of the other two stories, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada. All three are now available in non-Macekred versions.
- That wasn't even the driving force behind Macross. The Zentradi were in hot pursuit of an enemy ship, and had planned to simply destroy it until they found out that the locals had salvaged it with their own brand of Phlebotinum: the knowledge necessary to repair broken stuff.
- The Core Robots and related technologies from Parallel Trouble Adventure Dual.
- Super Robot Wars: Original Generation has a variation on this: The alien faction known as Inspectors gave humanity the Black Hole Engine to see if they were advanced enough to figure it out. If they could, it signaled that they likely had a good enough tech-base to justify invading and stealing it to hybridize with their own.
- Raising Heart in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. Given to Nanoha by a
FerretHuman Alien during an emergency, after which she decided to help him collect the Mineral Macguffins his cargo ship dropped when it was destroyed on its way back from an archaeological expedition.
- Some of the weirder technology in Darker Than Black (like memory erasure) is Handwaved as having come from the Gate.
- The Lance of Longinus. OHKOs Angels and is a big part of Instrumentality, or your money back!
- With the exception of the magic-based Golden Age version, the Green Lantern Rings are explicitly Imported Alien Phlebotinum, having been given to the various worthies by the nigh-omnipotent Guardians of Oa.
- Marvel's X-Men got a lot of Imported Alien Phlebotinum from the Shi'ar thanks to Professor Xavier being Lilandra's consort.
- The 1990s comics sequel to Lost in Space used this as a Retcon to explain how Earth could have interstellar technology in 1997. The Jupiter 2 had been reverse engineered from a crashed alien ship from Alpha Centauri. The "foreign agents" who employed Dr. Smith were revealed to be Alpha Centaurians working to prevent humanity from reaching their world.
- Iron Man's Arch Enemy the Mandarin has ten rings of power. These rings were found on a crashed spaceship of Makluan origin.
- DC's latest Blue Beetle is made of this...
- Scarlet Traces, a trilogy beginning with The War of the Worlds and expanding into an Alternate History in which Britain is an alien-fuelled superpower, is chock full of reverse-engineered alien technology.
Films — Live Action
- District 9 uses a variation of this trope. The alien "prawns" have super weapons that evil Mega Corp MNU would love to figure out, but the weapons only work with alien DNA. When an accident causes Wikus, the film's protagonist, to begin transforming into a prawn, he becomes able to use the weapons — which results in both MNU and Nigerian gangsters chasing Wikus so they can figure out how to access his power themselves.
- This was the whole premise of the movie Explorers.
- Parodied in Men in Black.
- The Meteor Man: The title character survives a direct hit from a meteor, and gains superpowers.
- In the Into the Looking Glass series by John Ringo, Earth is attacked by an Organic Technology using Hive Mind through a series of "portals" opened up by a lab mishap. Humans also encounter a friendly alien species, the Adar, who give them a literal Black Box created by a (different) species of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens. After a brief period in which the device appears to have no function save as a "reusable nuclear hand grenade," they conclude that they were using it wrong and find a way to use it as a Faster-Than-Light Travel drive. This allows them to build a starship that can travel faster than light, but doesn't give them any other typical science fiction technology (although they manage to invent some of the nearer, harder-science applications themselves). Much of the drama of the second and third novels comes from the crew of the ship finding themselves in Star Trek situations without the advantage of things like phasers, tricorders, and transporters.
- Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's novel Roadside Picnic features "stalkers" who search an area called the Zone for alien artifacts left behind on Earth. Arguably a deconstruction of the trope — the items found in the Zone are powerful, but so alien that most are completely incomprehensible to humans, and many pose equally incomprehensible, and potentially lethal, dangers... And it's entirely possible that they are all simply alien garbage, left behind by visitors who treated Earth as an insignificant roadside stop on their journey.
- The Frederik Pohl novel Gateway relates the misadventures of a "prospector" seeking fame and fortune by traveling aboard abandoned but still-functional alien spacecraft, discovered by humans on Gateway, an ancient, hollowed-out asteroid inside Venus' orbit. The problem: no one knows how the spaceships work, only that they travel faster-than-light to preset destinations on missions of unpredictable durations. Also, ships don't always make it back, and that's still no guarantee that the crew will even be alive if they do.
- The Escafil device from Animorphs.
- Or any other technology more remarkable than you might find in a high school.
- Also broccoli.
- For most readers confused about the above: in the Animorphs universe earth had actually been colonized tens of thousands of years ago by a pacifist race who brought with them the main staple crop of their society, yes broccoli. The reason there's no evidence of them is that the meteor that hit earth was aimed at earth by a race that hated the pacifistic one, they got a bull-eye strike right on the colony.
- But... but... broccoli is just a cultivar of the same species as cabbage and kale and rapini...
- Half of the technology of Known Space. We got FTL from Outsiders, and everything else from starfish.
- Ender's Game has at least instantaneous communication from the Buggers, possibly more.
- Cleaning Up, a short story by Iain M. Banks (published in State of the Art), is a humorous subversion of the trope. At the height of the Cold War, bits of Imported Alien Phlebotinum start materializing all around the world, seemingly at random. The U.S. Military scrambles to understand and find some use for the devices before the Soviets do, but before too long it turns out the whole thing was caused by a hilariously malfunctioning alien garbage disposal system. Features an Anti Gravity Hover Tank built out of the equivalent of a stained water-bed from an alien No-Tell Motel.
- "Against a Dark Background", a non-Culture Sci Fi novel by Iain M. Banks uses this trope as its main narrative driver. The heroine, Sharrow, is forced onto a quest to recover the last known 'Lazy Gun', one a group of bizarre artifacts from an apparently alien technology which were found floating amongst the space wreckage of a destroyed planet in the home system a very long time ago. Lazy Guns are described as having a number of physical anomalies, such as weighing twice as much upside down as right-side-up, plus a freakish sense of humour. They have both caused wars and been used as weapons in war, as well as worshipped as gods and as relics of gods. It is not quite clear whether they are really Imported Alien Phlebotinum, originating outside the home solar system, or simply Lost Technology of the Ancients. The search means that the Lazy Gun functions in the narrative as the McGuffin.
- In the Troy Rising series alien computer chips act as this at the beginning. Earth's computer industry is devastated due to a shortage of rare materials and the alien tech is so sophisticated that a single circuit board can replace a supercomputer. Later on the protagonist starts importing alien A Is and gravity manipulation technology to run his industrial empire. He is able to produce more on his own after a while but is still unable to make any from scratch. An existing AI is needed to make more A Is and any gravity manipulation technology manufacture requires existing gravity manipulation tools.
- Partly played straight in Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series, where the Race is more advanced than humanity during World War Two (and, in some cases, is more advanced than us 21st century humans). A small chunk of the series is spent on several characters attempting to reverse-engineer parts of the Race technology and incorporate it into its human counterparts. They, more or less, succeed with taking apart and figuring out how to improve human (mostly British) jet engines, and the Germans manage to get their hands on an intact alien tank (traded for a bag of ginger). Later on, the a mutiny takes place on a lizard base in Siberia, and the mutineers surrender to the Soviets, believing they'll be treated well (not a very good assumption), providing them an entire military base to study. The British, notably, fail to figure out how the Race radar works, given that it uses integrated circuits instead of vacuum tubes (or valves, if you're British). At that point, it's very much a Black Box, which the Brits, nevertheless, attempt to integrate into their new jet fighters in order to try to match the enemy in performance. By the Colonization series, the war is over, and the humans and the lizards have to live side-by-side (more or less), resulting in much more technology being traded and studied. In Homeward Bound, the first human starship, the Admiral Peary, is based on the Race design.
Live Action TV
- The Stargates from Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. In those same shows, staff weapons, naquadah generators, zats, and the hybrid technology used by the SGC's intergalactic space ships. I mean, seriously, what could be cooler than the notion that by the year 2007, the US Air Force could build no less than five intergalactic space ships? (Ignoring the fact that two of said ships were destroyed.) Hell, they gave one to Russia and another to China for Pete's sake.
- There was one nifty aversion as well, though. The Zero Point Modules (Ancient power sources) are usually treated as MacGuffins that are the only way of powering Ancient or other advanced technology. However in one Alternate Universe episode, Carter adapted a device to cloak and phase the entire planet, and lacking any ZPM or other phlebotinum power source, they ran it off the ordinary power grid of the entire United States. It worked.
- The show is notable in that the alien technology is often adapted slowly, with Continuity Nods over several seasons showing its development. For example, Stargate Command's IAP-based Space Fighter took almost six seasons to develop fully. It was based on two damaged Goa'uld fighters that were stolen at the end of Season 1. We got to see them being worked on in a secret facility in Season 2, a failed early prototype was the focus of an episode in Season 4, and the first successful prototype was used in Season 6, followed by the final production model a season later.
- One amusing aversion- they never got around to trying to replicate staff weapons. In Stargate Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better, so why waste the resources? (Zatts would have been useful, but they were kind of busy.)
- And then Earth inherits a payload of Alien Phlebotinum when The Asgard give them their entire technological database before blowing up their own planet.
- The sphere from Seven Days is hybrid technology. Its fuel source is pure Imported Alien Phlebotinum.
- In War of the Worlds, the Blackwood Project occasionally steals some alien toy and contrives it into a one-off device.
- Ralph's superhero suit in The Greatest American Hero is a prime example.
- While Kryptonite doesn't count in Smallville, Clark's space ship does, as do the various Kryptonian artifacts featured over the course of the series.
- In one episode of The Twilight Zone, an alien comes to Earth and gives scientists plans for a free-energy device. Unfortunately, its construction requires an element not found locally. Fortunately, when they go to hunt him down, they find that he's accidentally left behind his comb, which is made of the stuff.
- Earth: Final Conflict had a seemingly benevolent alien race as its main plot point. Their technology was equitably given to all of mankind, as they saw fit. Notably, portal stations in almost all major cities allowed global travel in seconds.
- Torchwood is built around the premise of a quasi-governmental agency not just fighting aliens, but metaphorically or literally scavenging the bodies for exploitable technology.
- The holographic doctor on Star Trek: Voyager gains mobility by the acquisition of a mobile emitter from the future (granted, it's the federation future, but is there anything more alien than the future?)
- Sarah Jane Smith has scads of this in The Sarah Jane Adventures. Central to the series, she has the Magical Computer (actually a silicon-based alien in a computer shell) Mr. Smith and her sonic lipstick, not to mention many different gadgets which just make one-off appearances.
- Quite a few Doctor Who plots have been sparked by something like this- a society or groups abuses or gets abused by alien technology they don't understand. For example, in "The Curse of the Black Spot", a pirate ship is plagued by a siren who takes any person who is ill or injured. The siren is actually a holographic computer program who functions as a doctor for a crashed alien ship.
- Morphing technology in Power Rangers initially came from Eltarians, Karovians, and innumerable other unnamed alien species, but we figured out how to make our own without any help within a decade or so.
- The entire subject of the 1960s British sci-fi series A for Andromeda. A signal from the Andromeda galaxy tells Great Britain how to build a powerful computer which then plans to take over the world by making humanity dependent on it. It designs a missile to shoot down an orbital bomb, as well as synthetic life in the form of a beautiful woman, who then proceeds to develop emotions and eventually turns against her creator. In The Andromeda Breakthrough the computer's role is more ambiguous; it is meant to be a tool so that humans can avert their own destruction, though it isn't above manipulating events and killing a lot of people in the process.
- Most research options in X-COM: UFO Defense are opened up by acquiring artifacts from or interrogating aliens. If you want to build some of these artifacts yourself, you need to consume the phlebotinum.
- To be specific, Elerium 115 is the fuel of the alien spaceships, it is used in pretty much ALL high-tech manufacture you can carry out at your base, and there is no way to acquire it except as salvage from downed enemy vessels.
- Also, the UFO Afterblank series and UFO Alien Invasion have this. In UFOAI, the scientist says that he doesn't even try to understand how aliens got their plasma tech working, since according to them it should be impossible.
- The widely panned game Predator: Concrete Jungle is set Twenty Minutes Into the Future on an Earth technologically advanced by the study of accidentally-leftover Predator equipment.
- Mass Effect: The Mass relays, the Citadel itself and the Keepers having been created by the Protheans pose as a type of Imported Alien Phlebotinum, since it was left there for the previous races so that they could better understand element zero. In truth, all were created by the Reapers in order to harvest the galactic civilization of organics for their own silly machine ideals by predetermining the path of evolution and exploration.
- The molten-metal-shooting Thanix gun from ME 2 also counts. It's based on reverse-engineering Sovereign's weapons.
- The TCS Midway, from Wing Commander Prophecy, gets this later in the game, in the form of a plasma cannon that can obliterate entire fleets in one shot.
- In science-fiction 4X strategy games, it's pretty much standard to get a bonus to your research if you find Precursor artifacts. It shows up in Galactic Civilizations, Sins of a Solar Empire, Master of Orion and probably many others.
- Galciv also allows you to literally import alien phlebotinum by trading techs with other races. Hey, Arceans, this is the Terrans. You guys have a pretty tasty military; I'm glad we're allies - my military angles are a bit low since I pumped all my research into diplomacy and trade enhancements. Say, I've noticed that you guys have lasers and the Drengin have gone pretty heavily into armour to screw over my mass drivers when the inevitable war breaks out; I don't suppose you'd be willing to swap your high-grade energy weapon tech for this massive fistful of money, this trade enhancer and my now-obsolete singularity drivers? You would? Pleasure doing business with you. (And then there's espionage, in which you can steal the alien phlebotinum; if you've been focusing on techs other than weapon upgrades, it's possible your spies will hand you the blueprints to a missile weapon that's significantly more advanced than your lasers, leading to an unpleasant surprise when you kill them with their own guns.)
- Prey takes it to the next level. Aboard this massive bio-mechanical alien spaceship, you eventually find a gun that the aliens themselves cannot identify. Imported Alien Alien Phlebotinium!
- Assuming you speak of the acid sprayer, it's built by La Résistance.
- Let's not forget the Command and Conquer series, in which the majority of the Earth is being consumed by Tiberium, alien phlebotinum crystals that appeared in Rome and began growing outwards, rendering much of the world uninhabitable. If you get close to the crystals without protection, they start growing around you, on you, and in you, and you quickly hemorrhage to death. Ironically, the Tiberium is also an incredibly efficient energy source. The aliens (known as the Scrin) that might have been responsible recently showed up and are annoyed that the human race hasn't died out yet- apparently, the Scrin wait for all life on a planet to die off before they come to harvest the "ichor" (their term for Tiberium). After a series of defeats at the hands of both Nod and the GDI, their leader has ordered a full invasion fleet to exterminate mankind.
- In Transcendence, much human technology is based on this, and there are plenty of devices that are completely alien in origin — these include the Stargates; the Gems of Despair, Sacrifice, and Contrition; and the Transpace Jumpdrive.
- The "Medi-porter" used in City of Heroes to justify the use of Death Is Cheap is based off of recovered Rikti technology. In the parallel world of Praetoria, where the Rikti did not invade, there is no explanation given as to why the medi-porter still exists.
- In Praetoria the Medi-Port was created by Praetor Keyes (Anti-Matter). This is public knowledge and given in the Preatorian Tutorial. Later you also discover that he in fact stole and reverse engineered the technology from the Rikti.
- In Metroid: Other M the plasma gun Anthony Higgs wield is a reverse-engineered version of the Chozo plasma beam that Samus has in her Arm Cannon. It does the exact same damage too but it takes a longer time to charge up a plasma beam and fire it than the one Samus has inside her Arm Cannon.
- In Super Robot Wars Original Generation, it is established that the technology to make Humongous Mecha feasible was aquired from a trio of meteors that fell to Earth some time ago. These meteors ALSO contained further Phlebotinum, called Extra-Over Technology that allowed the creation of tremendous power sources that would be impossible without the Unobtanium.
- In Free Space, the only reason the Terrans and Vasudans survived their first encounter with the Shivans was because they stole a bunch of Shivan tech and adapted it to their fighters. In the sequel, they've even managed to copy the Shivan capital ship beams and outfit their own destroyers and cruisers with them. Despite this, the Shivans consistently remain far more advanced technologically.
- The titular perfume in Erikas New Perfume.
- The interstellar transmitter which once sat in Bob's front yard in The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob. It eventually got blown up by Space Pirates.
- In El Goonish Shive, the Transformation Ray Gun was brought to a young Tedd by aliens who needed someone to upgrade its programming so they could use it to blend in better on Earth. He ended up using it recreationally to engage in temporary Gender Bending of himself and his friends. Through a chain of events, it ended up contributing to the creation of a bisexual female duplicate of Tedd's best friend and caused her to be endowed with the ability to emulate one of the its female transformation settings by shooting a beam from her hand.
- Drive: The titular Ring Drive is this to the protagonists, but the Sufficiently Advanced Aliens who invented it are still around, and apparently want it back.
- Forms almost the whole basis of Ben 10 and Ben 10 Alien Force. The Omnitrix from Ben 10 fell to earth when Vilgax blew up the spaceship it was on in an attempt to seize it for himself. Given who wound up with it, it's a miracle the planet survived.
- Subverted in most versions of Transformers, as the main characters are the aliens whose technology their human allies (or enemies, depending on the faction) retrofit into their own designs.
- Oddly, despite them being a show about alien robots, Beast Wars plays this straight with Megatron using technology stolen and retrofitted by the even more alien Vok.
- There have been some cases, such as in Transformers Animated, where humans have reverse-engineered some Transformers parts (thus explaining today's rapid technology growth).
- All the elements of this trope are used in Megas XLR.
- In Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, two aliens share their hyperdrive with Earth in exchange for our help in defeating the evil Crown Empire.
- Isn't this the entire plot of Monsters vs. Aliens?
- the original K-9 created by a human scientist, but his successive models after the original was left behind on Gallifrey with Leela in Doctor Who, including The Sarah Jane Adventures'' Mark IV, were presumably built by the Doctor