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.

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.

Next page: Eyes like saucers..

Other stories you might like

  • Euro-telcos call on big tech to help pay for their network builds

    Aka 'rebalancing global technology giants and the European digital ecosystem'

    The European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO) has published a letter signed by ten telco CEOs that calls for, among other things, Big Tech to pay for their network builds.

    The letter, signed by the CEOs of the Vodafone Group, BT Group, Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica, Orange Group and five more telco leaders, calls for a "renewed effort to rebalance the relationship between global technology giants and the European digital ecosystem".

    "A large and increasing part of network traffic is generated and monetized by Big Tech platforms, but it requires continuous, intensive network investment and planning by the telecommunications sector," the letter states, adding "This model – which enables EU citizens to enjoy the fruits of the digital transformation – can only be sustainable if such platforms also contribute fairly to network costs."

    Continue reading
  • AI-enhanced frog stem cells start to replicate in entirely new ways

    Xenobots scoop up loose cells to make more of themselves. We welcome our new overlords

    In January of 2020, scientists from the University of Vermont announced they had built the first living robots; this week they have published reports that those robots, made from frog cells and called Xenobots, can reproduce and have found a new way to do so.

    The millimetre-sized xenobots are essentially a computer-designed collection of around 3,000 cells. They were created by taking stem cells from frog embryos, scraping them, leaving them to incubate, then cutting them open and sculpting them into specific shapes. After all that action, the cells began to work on their own – auto-repairing when sliced and moving about inside petri dishes.

    With a little design tweak, the creatures could do even more. "With the right design, they will spontaneously self-replicate," said University of Vermont researcher Joshua Bongard, Ph.D. in a canned statement.

    Continue reading
  • Panasonic admits intruders were inside its servers for months

    Spotted the crack after it ended – still not sure what was lost

    Japanese industrial giant Panasonic has admitted it's been popped, and badly.

    A November 26 statement [PDF] from the company admits that its network "was illegally accessed by a third party on November 11, 2021". That date has since been revised – the company now says it became aware of the intrusion on the 11th, but that unknown entities had access to its systems from late June to early November.

    "After detecting the unauthorized access, the company immediately reported the incident to the relevant authorities and implemented security countermeasures, including steps to prevent external access to the network," the statement adds.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021