Lazy Luddite Log

18.8.11

Cups And Saucers

A while ago I expressed a desire to discuss starship design in Star Trek specifically. And recently some of my spare time has been filled with looking at many fictitious spacecraft designs. This Fantastic Plastic hobbyist site presents images of many models from decades past and pings many a memory for me. What I am finding most interesting is how the designs are very much the product of the times in which they were conceived, however futuristic their designers wished to make them seem.

Saucers Are So Mid Twentieth Century!

So to start with – the USS Enterprise from Star Trek (1966-1969). Its components are a fascinating product of its times and the intentions of its creators. There is a hint of science fiction rigor in the model in that the warp nacelles are well removed from any crew quarters – separating the obscene energy levels of space-faring engines from habitat modules is a standard consideration in spacecraft configuration. However it is the rest of the Enterprise that is interesting.

The engineering section (secondary hull) is vaguely shaped like a modern naval vessel and that is fitting given that Star Trek writer Gene Roddenberry drew on his naval background in conceiving of Starfleet. But then we move onto the saucer section (primary hull) which is – well – a saucer! The flying saucer was the most popular form for fictional space ships in the 1950s and into the 60s. It was a dominant meme but also one that is now very dated.

Since the 70s saucer-shaped star ships only exist if they are cleverly embellished so that one overlooks the basic form (Cylon Raider from Battlestar Galactica in 1978) or film-makers wish to blatantly pay homage to 50s era alien invasion movies (consider Independence Day in 1996). Hold on – there is one more case in which saucers survived the 60s – in the Federation starships of the many incarnations of Star Trek into the present. They have a sense of nostalgia for the heritage of the show and so every version of the Enterprise has had the same basic form including the ubiquitous saucer section. Somehow they make it work even if it is an amazing anachronism.

Future As Present… Future As Past...

Looking over the many models pictured on that Fantastic Plastic site shows that in many cases a fictional spacecraft will betray its vintage in terms of aesthetic. Rocket ships of the 30s have an Art Deco simplicity. The diversity of forms and colours expanded in the 60s and I wonder if this had anything to do with Psychedelia. By the 90s geometric angles had been supplanted by mock-organic curves and I suspect many everyday products from cars to vacuum cleaners have followed a similar progression.

Accidentally showing your age as a design is one thing but deliberately emulating a past era is another and that is the thing I find most intriguing in fictional spacecraft design. Anyone given the task of designing vehicles for movie adaptations of Jules Verne or H G Wells novels cannot help but employ a Victorian Era look (even if the writers themselves imagined more functional designs). They do it because it fits the vibe of the setting and coz it looks cool.

In Dune (1984) there is a Baroque look in prominence and they do this to suggest an opulent and over-developed future civilization. I think the same look exists in The Chronicles Of Riddick (2004) and making your future setting Baroque looks cool.

There was a hint of World War II utility in the feel of original Star War trilogy (1977-1983) designs and so it was hardly surprising that they then gave everything in the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005) an inter-war era elegance. And once more a lot of it is done to look cool. New and striking forms draw our attention but likewise something familiar helps give us a context within which to fit a thing that is otherwise beyond our everyday experience.

And did I say it looks cool? Whether angular or curved… whether contemporary or retro… whether functional or fanciful… one thing that spaceships need to do is look cool both then and now.

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