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What should a sci-fi spaceship REALLY look like?

Saucers, flying caravans and floating oil rigs...

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

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.

tie_fighter

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*.

flash_gordon_rocketship

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...”

borg_cube

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.

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