What should a sci-fi spaceship REALLY look like?
Saucers, flying caravans and floating oil rigs...
People making sci-fi movies have it easy.
If you’re designing alien technology, not even the most determined pedant could claim with any authority to know how a real Imperial TIE fighter might look.
The TIE fighter (as imagined by George Lucas).
If you’re making a film about war, or journalism, or (especially) computer hackers there’s always some wiseacre at the back of the cinema ready to tell you why your guns, newsroom or (especially) Ruby script looks wrong.
But still the Hollywood spacecraft designers stick to certain rules when assembling their plastic or pixel models of otherworldly craft.
Is that because they’re all taking the same scientific advice? Or because they’re all copying each other’s homework?
Syd Mead is a hugely influential "visual futurist" who has designed starships and other future-tech wonders for films such as Star Trek, Aliens, Blade Runner and Tron.
I asked Syd about designing movie spacecraft, and whether there were any established rules to follow:
“Anything ‘alien’ suggests something that, well, is alien to our humanistic experience, perceptions, etc. Therefore, to propose that alien can be defined other than a generalization of 'weird' is sort of pointless. Now, let's move your question into the realm of popular entertainment. Any commercial enterprise, to be successful, needs to resonate with an averaged-out recognition. Let's assume that the average level of perception in the commercial audience is about that of a 10- or 11-year-old.
"If you put together a really weird alien thing, nobody would know what it was, it wouldn't complement the story/movie/TV production and the 'alien' whatever would simply become a distracting element. So, alien stuff is configured to look strangely 'familiar' though with a twist. That is successful alien design for movie/TV/book content use.”
We had to wait until the 1950s before alien invasion movies came into style. The first movie spacecraft were launched from Earth and looked more than a bit like bullets. It seemed reasonable to Georges Méliès in 1902 that we could fire men to the Moon inside a huge artillery shell*.
The amazingly realistic Flash Gordon rocketship.
Even some 30 years after Méliès the creators of the long-running and influential Flash Gordon movie serial showed the peroxide adventurer travelling to Mongo in a streamlined rocketship that looked for all the world like a Fifties caravan. Or, to the makers of pioneering porn parody Flesh Gordon, something else entirely.
Lawrence M Krauss is Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at the Arizona State University, but he’s probably best known as the author of The Physics Of Star Trek. He’s pretty sceptical about the need for streamlining: “The silliest thing about alien spacecraft, which are designed only to travel in space, is that they are made to look aerodynamic, which is of course unnecessary, since there is no air…remember the Apollo LEM? That is how aerodynamic a spacecraft needs to be...”
The Borg's Cube (Star Trek): as aerodynamic as it needs to be...
Ironically it’s perhaps the most streamlined ship of all that has dominated our idea of how an interplanetary runabout might look.
It was in the early 1950s that the Flying Saucer really gripped the filmmakers imagination. Sure flying disks had been popping up in Chinese and Indian legend for several centuries but it was the alleged sighting by Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947, that changed our idea of alien spacecraft forever.
Next page: Eyes like saucers..
I always thought that there was a galactic 'Up' because whenever the Enterprise encounters another ship, they're always aligned along the Z axis.
All this reminds me...
...of a fantastic joke from Futurama, when the ship is being dragged underwater by a giant fish and starts to creak under the pressure.
Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Good Lord! That's over 5000 atmospheres of pressure!
Fry: How many atmospheres can the ship withstand?
Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Well, it's a spaceship, so I'd say anywhere between zero and one.
That's why the impulse engines are based in the "neck" of the craft at the rear of the dish - least the model of the Enterprise-B that I had made as a child did.
Also whilst it'd be possible to put the artificial gravity plates in all manner of configuration (possibly, they may conflict with each other) just think what a pain in the arse it would be to navigate the ship, one minute you'd be on the floor than walking up a wall to across the ceiling - it would disorientate the common passenger which lets not forget is a position space travel is in by the time Star Trek is set.
Also the article mocks some space craft for there aerodynamic designs - such as a bird of prey, but a bird of prey is capable of atmospheric landing to which point aircraft aerodynamics come into play - just look at our own (now consigned to the dustbin of time) spacecraft - the shuttle.
All this just goes to show - you will still get people bickering about your starcraft design as much as your hacking depiction as, even though we've no authority, it's never held us back before :D