Sunday, August 12, 2012

My Favorite Starships

Lists abound in the internet ether. So, why not make one of my own? Here's a subject near and dear to my heart - my favorite fictional (and maybe a few not-so-fictional) starships. There's no particular order here.

Cygnus – Parked at the brink of the event horizon of the titular Black Hole of Disney’s first PG movie, the Cygnus hangs like a celestial Gothic cathedral on the edge of Hell’s gate. It’s a combination of delicate detail and imposing size, golden light caged by dark metal. 

C-57-DForbidden Planet, the 1956 science fiction classic, turns the ‘50s obsession with UFOs on its head, casting a flying saucer in the role of an Earth-based ship manned by humans. The C-57-D is a United Planets cruiser patrolling the spaceways. Its crew would be echoed a decade later in Star Trek, and the C-57-D itself would be echoed in the design of the Enterprise. One of the things that really endears this ship to me is that United Planets cruisers don’t even rate individual names, and are identified only by a number/letter combination.

USS Saratoga – The SCVN 2812, a Kennedy-class nuclear space carrier in the US Space Navy, is the base ship for the plucky Marine pilots of the short-lived Space: Above and Beyond. Basically a flying brick, the Sara was a big brute of a ship, equipped with an air/space wing of fighters and powerful weapons of its own. In effect, it was an Imperial Star Destroyer done right. When Commodore Ross growled “take that thing out of my sky,” there was no doubt the Saratoga could do so.

Carl Sagan’s Dandelion Seed Ship – This ethereal, delicate vessel floated across time and space, opening up the vast cosmos to me at an impressionable age. Sagan working the jewel-like controls in a vaguely church-like bridge had the potential to look silly, but it ended up looking timeless and inspiring.

USS Enterprise – Spare and utilitarian, the most iconic of science fiction ships explored the galaxy on the original Star Trek. There is an implied pragmatism to it, with engines held away from the ship on spars, yet there is a simple, timeless beauty. It would be redone as a more sleek, streamlined vessel in the movies, but I have always preferred the original, which looks like it could be built by NASA in a few decades.

ProtectorGalaxyQuest may have been a parody and satire of Star Trek, but unlike most such lampoons, they didn’t skimp on FX or designs. The Protector is a beautiful ship, graceful and clean-lined, obviously inspired by the Star Trek movies’ sleek Enterprise. Yet, it has a memorable look of its own. Give her a competent crew and send her on a mission, Hollywood!

Warlock – Menacing and jagged, this ship design came late in the Babylon 5 story, appearing briefly in a movie and in the B5 sequel TV series Crusade. That’s too bad, because it’s a badass spaceship. 

HyperionBabylon 5 came up with a lot of nifty spaceships, and the Hyperion heavy cruiser is another one of my favorites. Its resemblance to a submarine is no coincidence, but the role it plays is more battlecruiser than sub. Though it had been decisively outclassed by its Minbari opponents, it was the backbone of the human fleet up until the time of Babylon 5. It’s a tough-looking, handsome ship.

Narn G’Quan-class Heavy Cruiser, Babylon 5 – The Narn are a massive, reptilian race of aliens with a strong fighting spirit and sense of pride. Their ships reflect a stately bearing with a touch of the brutish about them. The most powerful of them, the G’Quan class, is a big, imposing wedge with a crazy black/red/green paint scheme. These ships seem about as maneuverable as a barge. Moving in a slow and stately fashion may suit a passenger ship, but this is a warship. It helps that it seems to be tough and able to shrug off damage, but it also seems to be technologically inferior to many of its opponents. Regardless, they have an attractive configuration and coloration, and a sense of power about them.

Centauri Vorchan-class Cruiser, Babylon 5 – The Centauri are aliens with an old, decadent empire, and their ships are oddly graceful, as if they were designed as much for style as for function. Plus, most of them are purple, which is an unusual color for spaceships. They look like what they are – the product of a culture long used to traveling in space.

Mule, from Spacecraft 2000-2100AD, part of the Terran Trade Authority (TTA) universe (original painting by Colin Hay, titled Space Tug) – The Mule is a class of space tugs, and looks the part. Simple and ugly, they have a rugged appearance. I dig when artists deal with non-fighting vessels, and the Mule seems like something that might be seen stolidly shoving and pulling other vessels around in some space harbor of the future. This is without a doubt my favorite TTA ship. It isn’t slick and glamorous; it looks like a working ship. I love that about it.

General Products Hull, Larry Niven's Known Space stories – Basically a huge, hollow, transparent needle, these spacecraft hulls are nigh-indestructible. Produced and sold by the Pierson’s Puppeteers, an alien race with a culture based on mercantilism, the General Products Hulls are found all over Larry Niven’s Known Space setting.

Leif Ericson – a classic spacecraft model from the late 1960s, the Leif Ericson remains a popular subject for model-makers. It just looks like a classic starship, though it’s an original design, not based on a movie or book. In fact, the Ericson would prove so popular that it inspired the MacArthur, the main starship in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell’s classic space opera The Mote in God’s Eye. A variant of it was produced as a glow-in-the-dark model, renamed the Interplanetary UFO Mystery Ship. Regardless of the name or its glow-in-the-dark qualities, the ship has a timelessly retro look that fires the imagination. 

USS Merrimack – The Mack is the heart of R.M. Meluch’s action-packed and often audaciously crazy Tour of the Merrimack series of books. Although there doesn’t seem to be a definitive picture of the ship, it’s described as a big wedge-shape, in my mind’s eye something like a sleeker, more shark-like take on the Imperial Star Destroyer of Star Wars. The books are a rollicking good time, and the Merrimack is commanded by Commodore John Farragut, a space opera hero in the classic mode, surrounded by a whole cast of vividly-rendered characters. Make no mistake; the Mack herself is a character, just as the Enterprise was in Star Trek. Tough, fast, and equipped with space fighters and broadside weapons, the Merrimack is a solid presence in a four-color universe.

Imperial Star Destroyer – Synonymous with Imperial power, the Imperial Star Destroyer looms large over the Star Wars franchise. The memorable image of a Star Destroyer hulking above the audience at the beginning of Star Wars (back before it had “A New Hope” added to it) was an ominous, breathtaking way to firmly establish the power and oppression of the Empire. Yet…they’re paper tigers. Not once do they demonstrate a real knock-out punch when engaged in anything like a fair fight, and they continually have freighters and fighters running rings around them. Their designers seem to have forgotten to provide a really big, decisive weapon. If they did, it was never trotted out in the movies. In a way, they’re symbolic of the Empire itself – huge and menacing, but ultimately ineffectual. Still, for sheer iconic imagery, their big, simple wedge shapes are an indelible part of the Star Wars saga.

Rebel Transport – strangely shaped, like ragged-edged clamshells, the Rebel Transport has a workmanlike appearance nonetheless. However, they have an odd beauty to them, a worn-out, lived-in beauty that is both akin to but unlike that of the Millennium Falcon. One can imagine intrepid crews having their own adventures as they slip through Imperial blockades and smuggle goods to Rebel bases.

Apollo 27, model kit – A fun, retro design, harkening back to an age when spacecraft were sleek and stylish…at least, in our imaginations.  Sure, it’s impractical, but we can only hope real spaceships end up looking this cool. This is a throwback to when models could be whimsical and not have to be based on a well-established franchise.

Discovery – Spare but elegant, the Discovery is a hub of mystery in both the movie 2001 and its long-afterward sequel, 2010. Yet, it still has a realistic, practical look. Its brightly-lit, white interior somehow adds to the sterile, implacable horror of a computer gone mad. 

Klingon D-7 – The sleek angularity of the quintessential Klingon ship from the original Star Trek TV series evokes a feeling of alien menace. It’s oddly graceful, yet an unmistakable threat.

Romulan Bird of Prey – A really ungainly design, this ship always struck me as being technologically behind the times in comparison to the Enterprise, retrofitted with a powerful weapon to close the gap between the Romulan Empire and the Federation. The comparison between it and a submarine, at least in purpose if not intent, is obvious, and brings with it the claustrophobic “feel” of a submarine movie.

Ragnarok Orbital Interceptor – Many, many Moons ago, I owned and assembled this model kit. Bearing a resemblance to real-world X-craft and the SR-71, I was fascinated by this model. The parasite fighter nestled in the tail of the plane added to the fun. OK, so technically not a spaceship, I always pretended it was.

Eagle – The iconic utility space vessel of the TV show Space: 1999. Show creator Gerry Anderson is famous for his puppet-based movies and TV shows, primarily Thunderbirds. Savagely – and hilariously – lampooned in Team America, Anderson’s style is unique. His various vehicle designs are attractive and somehow realistic. When he decided to do a science fiction TV show, he went with human actors instead of puppets, but retained his trademark model work for Moon Base Alpha and its fleet of utility spaceships. The Eagle looks like a real spacecraft design. The only beauty to it is its pragmatic look; you can just tell it’s a working vehicle.

Y-Wing Fighter – Sure, the X-Wing is the sexy beast for the Rebel Alliance, but the Y-Wing has the appearance of a workhorse. Tired, maybe, but tough, with no frills and exposed wiring and tubing. This is my favorite Star Wars ship. 

Shapieron – This ship is from James Hogan’s Giants series of books. Flung 25 million years into the future – our present – by moving at relativistic speeds (more or less, as I understood it) the Shapieron belongs to the Ganymeans, an alien race of giants whose very physiology discourages violence. The Shapieron is a well-worn ship, and my understanding of its appearance is that it’s in the classic delta-V mode, though more organic – but maybe my mind’s-eye has the description wrong. But what’s important is that the Shapieron is a sturdy, dependable ship, home to its crew for its impossibly long voyage. It also houses one of the great artificial intelligences in science fiction, ZORAC. The picture is the cover of the third book in the series; it may depict the Shapieron, given that it’s roughly the same shape as described in the books. Not much like I envision, but still nifty, and by the late, great Darrell K. Sweet.

Rama, from Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – An enormous flying tube, from parts unknown, hurtles into the Solar System. Humans send a ship to rendezvous with it, and find it to be filled with the makings for a colony or planetary ecosystem construction. I’ve only read the first book of what became a series, but I enjoy the sheer mystery of Rama, as it brakes and then proceeds to slingshot off the Sun’s gravity to fly out of our space. Rama is an enigma, underscoring the immensity of space and its endless possibilities.

Valley Forge - the 1971 film Silent Running, starring the often-askew Bruce Dern, presented some unique and interesting ships, further examples of fictional ships that look like they could be on NASA’s drawing boards. The Valley Forge consists of a tug or transport vessel with domes attached. These domes contain the last of Earth’s wilderness flora and fauna. The ship has a stark, practical look, another working vessel, but with a few bits of beauty attached. The model would later be reused for the original Battlestar Galactica.

Satellite of Love – The setting for Mystery Science Theater 3000, the SoL (get it?) was both home and prison to Joel, then Mike, and their robot buddies Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot. Shaped like a…bone, the SoL seemed ruled by cartoon physics and logic. 

The Great Unmanned Space Vessel, from the book Galactic Aliens – Weird and organic-looking, this thing is stupendously large – 16,000 km in length! Its passengers long-since killed off, this pushing-10,000-mile-long ship is now maintained by robots. The trouble is, the aliens that built it were extremely xenophobic, and the ship’s programming now directs it to destroy all life it encounters, helped along by its impenetrable force field and overwhelming weaponry. Silly fun from a goofy book. 

Saucers from Earth vs the Flying Saucers – Ray Harryhausen brings to life some of the most spectacular flying saucers to grace the screen. They have a distinct whine as they fly, that rises to an eerie howl when moving quickly. Toss in a force field of some kind, death rays, and wavery-voiced aliens in cool armored suits, and these are the saucers that leap to mind when ‘50s scifi is the subject.

Buck Rogers Starfighters – The TV show was campy and silly, but the Earth-based starfighters were still all kinds of cool. Barbed and graceful, they looked like they belonged in another show.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Mothership – I saw Close Encounters at the theater when it was released, and the appearance of the Mothership was truly awe-inspiring. A great flying city of the night, lit up like a Christmas tree, carefully and effortlessly flipping over as it prepares to land is one of the most memorable scenes ever in cinematic science fiction. 

Space Battleship Yamato – The ship around which the Japanese animated TV series Star Blazers was based, the mighty Yamato was the refurbished World War II-era Japanese superbattleship of the same name. Bristling with weapons and possessed of a wing of space fighters, the ship was built around its ridiculously powerful wave motion gun, which could destroy planets. When the wave motion gun was fired up, everything else paled in comparison. A wide variety of similar-looking ships would eventually crowd the Star Blazers universe (check out the wonderful Andromeda, for example), but the Yamato was the first and most-beloved.

Battlestar Galactica – This is an iconic ship in science fiction whether it’s the stalwart original or the sleeker, segmented-looking revamp. The original has a stately look, dignified and utilitarian, while the updated version reminds me of a grim, close-up fighter with a surprising jab. The concept of a carrier in space which is also heavily armed and armored has always appealed to me. 

Interstellar craft from Cosmos, the book – Carl Sagan included some schematics for possible interstellar spacecraft in the book, Cosmos. Their inclusion added to the wonder I felt from reading this book and watching its subsequent TV companion. Though ungainly-looking, they lent an air of excitement to the notion of travel between the stars, because these ships looked real

X-Wing Fighter, Star Wars – I almost left it off the list. It’s almost too iconic, too ingrained into my psyche as a science fiction fan. It almost goes without saying this ship is among my favorites. Sure, the Y-Wing became my favorite, but the X-Wing long held the top spot. To me, this ship is indelibly etched on my mind, the first image that leaps to my mind when I think of Star Wars. It just looks like what it is – a space superiority fighter.

TIE Fighter, Star Wars – And what is the X-Wing without its eternal nemesis, the Imperial TIE Fighter? It lacks grace and beauty, and seems as durable as a soap bubble, but it’s the ubiquity of the ship that makes it a perfect foe for the Rebel Alliance. Plus, its distinctive screaming roar – regardless of the fact that there is no sound in space – is among the most recognizable sounds from film.


  1. As comprehensive and detailed a list on this topic as any on the internet and then some. Nice job with the pics and specs and reverie - very entertaining!

  2. p.s. I really hated the Romulan re-design for Next Generation.

    What is it about the Romulans that they just can never get right? I didn't mind the actual Romulan characters in TNG, but they didn't do too much with them. Which I prefer vastly over what they did to/with them in Nemesis.

    I guess Season 5 of Enterprise was supposed to be Romulan-tastic.

    Anyway, I wasn't wild about the original design, either. I love how they just had them in Birds of Prey for 'The Enterprise Incident.' "Intelligence reports Romulans are using Klingon design now..." How convenient!

    1. The Romulans (and I'll talk about the characters in this instance) in the original Trek were interesting - war-weary soldiers toiling under a rigid, out-of-touch system. In NextGen, they almost became something like mustache-twirling villains by way of the Illuminati.

      But let's talk about those ships. I always thought it odd that the Romulans would borrow ship design from the Klingons. Doesn't that seem ass-backwards? How did the Klingons get to be technologically superior to the Romulans, first cousins to the intellectual aesthetes of the universe, the Vulcans? (As an aside, how did the Klingons manage to almost out-tech, or at least achieve parity with, the Vulcans, for that matter?) I get that it was a production decision intended to save money, but it set up a strange set of bedfellows.

      The Romulan redesigns in NextGen actually appealed to me, though they always seemed more like fat ducks than birds of prey. That is, they appealed to me in a cruiseliner kind of way, not with a warship vibe. I thought one of Babylon 5's aliens, the Brakiri, had a cool ship design that would have better suited the Romulans.

  3. Nice! ...wait, what? You left out Millenium Falcon, for crying out loud!

    1. Love the Falcon, but it just doesn't quite make the list for me. These are the ones that immediately leaped to mind when I decided to do this post, and the Falcon didn't cross my mind until long after I posted. I had to take that as a sign that it wasn't among my very favorites.

  4. No Minbari cruiser (giant angel-fish of doom)? No White Star? No V'Ger (okay, this one is a stretch, but the whole cloud around V'Ger was pretty stunning. I used to watch that movie with the sound turned off.) But most of your picks are outstanding. I hadn't thought about the Cygnus in a long time; it was amazing to see when it first loomed up out of the dark.

    Also, though, you missed Starship SG-1 which, while not brilliant, featured some very cool ship designs -- the giant flying pyramids, the much larger pyramid-ish ship that belonged to Anubis, the death gliders...

    And what about the Borg Cube? No love for the Borg Cube?

    I'd take Darth Vader's Super Star Destroyer over the regular ones, too.

    1. oh, one more: the new BSG Cylon Raiders, which really are super-elegant. (I'd bump out the Buck Rogers fighters in a heartbeat over these.)

    2. Those are all cool choices, they just didn't make my list.

      I watched Stargate, and I'm familiar with those ships, too. They're cool, but didn't quite fire my imagination.

      Super Star Destroyers are no slouches, but the original, standard-issue ISD has a certain look to it that I've always favored.

      I have to admit that Borg Cubes are among my least favorite starship designs. I can find no love in my heart for them.

      B5 ships are generally interesting designs. I like the Brakiri cruisers or even the Drazi Sunhawks more than the Minbari ships or even the Whitestars, truth to tell. That doesn't mean I don't like the Minbari ships.

      I also have to admit to preferring the original series Cylon raiders to the new BSG versions. They reminded me a bit too much of miniature versions of Andromeda Ascendant.

  5. SERENITY!!!! 100% go anywhere workhorse. Moves beautifully and can land on a planet, go FTL and saunter along like she isn't there. Love her.