Most science fiction authors do not have the credentials to actually design a spaceship. Even authors of hard scifi have to handwave a few things that our current technology has no answer for. Instead of striving pointlessly for exact realism, we usually design our ships based on what role they play in the story. The danger is getting carried away, creating a design that does what the plot requires but sacrifices all reason in the process. Avoid sabotaging your ships with egregious problems like these.
1. Exceptionally Vulnerable Weapon Systems: Star Trek
For a show about peaceful explorers, Star Trek has a lot of space battles. That’s fine, because even the benevolent Federation’s vessels are armed to the teeth. They’ve got phasers and photon torpedoes aplenty, until suddenly they get hit in something called the “weapons array,” and then they’re out for the count.
The term “weapons array” first started popping up in The Next Generation as a catchall term for the ship’s weapons. The name was misleading because it implied that the weapons were all in one place when they were actually spread out, but no harm done. Not until Voyager, anyway.
In Voyager, a ship could be hit in the weapons array. When this happens, every weapon goes offline. How does that work? If you look at the diagram above, Voyager has four phasers just on the top of the ship.* It has even more underneath, plus four photon-torpedo launchers. What could an enemy possibly hit that would take all of them out simultaneously?
The most generous interpretation would be that the bad guys are knocking out power to the weapons and not the weapons themselves. But in episodes where this happens, Voyager rarely loses power. Instead, it’s like the hostile aliens have reached out and flipped a switch. Do all the weapons run through the same junction box?
Of course, the real reason this happens is that the writers got lazy. They wanted space battles to end at a certain point in the episode, so they invented an easy way for Voyager to be taken out of the fight. Nevermind that it makes the Voyager seem like it was designed by someone who’d only heard of spaceships by rough description.
2. Fighters That Do Nothing: Battlestar Galactica
The 2004 Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series features some of the most practical spacecraft on television. Galactica has a secure CIC instead of a bridge sitting at the surface of the ship for all to see, and its weapons can’t be easily disabled by hitting one fuse box. So what could the show have done to end up on this list?
The problem is with Galactica’s iconic Vipers. Put simply, they do nothing and are a waste of space. Despite how awesome it is to watch them locked in combat with Cylon Raiders, Galactica’s Vipers have never done serious damage to a Cylon Basestar. They can’t, because the Basestars’ armor is too thick. At the same time, after the first or second episode, the Cylon Raiders stopped carrying the missiles that made them a potential threat to Galactica. Every time humans and Cylons clash, the engagement is decided by the capital ships. Galactica is even really good at shooting down Raiders, and often it has to delay firing off its flak rounds because there are friendly Vipers in the way. Just imagine how powerful Galactica would be if there were guns where the Viper pods are.
Vipers are quite good at protecting unarmored civilian ships, which Raiders can damage, but that can’t be what they were designed for. Galactica is a ship of the line if ever there was one, meant to stand in pitched battle with the enemy. At most, it might have a few fast interceptors for utility, nothing like the massive squadrons we see in the show.
This problem arises from a misunderstanding of the dynamics BSG is based on: naval engagements of the WWII Pacific Theater. Those fleet actions included both small airplanes and massive capital ships, a style BSG dearly wishes to emulate. What BSG misses is the reason those planes were there: to sink enemy ships. Torpedo bombers could destroy or seriously damage a ship, and so air superiority fighters were necessary, both to destroy enemy bombers and to protect friendly ones. BSG is missing the bombers.
At first, it was possible Galactica just didn’t have any bombers, but then Pegasus showed up with its modern complement of fighters and still not a bomber to be seen. They could have even strapped some missiles to a Viper, as it was common in WWII for the same plane to fill both bomber and fighter roles.
3. Hyperdrives on Short Range Fighters: Star Wars
This is just not a good post for fighter craft. When designing a ship, especially a spaceship, mass is the main limiting factor. Every feature and system you add increases the ship’s mass, decreasing its acceleration and maneuverability.
Any feature you add to a fighter should make it better at fighting. Yet for some reason, the Rebels in Star Wars strap hyperdrives to their single pilot ships. The Imperials, on the other hand, do not. That means, kilogram for kilogram, Imperial fighters are getting more bang for their space buck than the Rebels. I don’t know how much a hyperdrive weighs, but it can’t be light.
What reason would the Rebels have for equipping their fighters with a hyperdrive? Escape wouldn’t be practical unless they were making a really short jump. Pilots can only stay in a stationary sitting position for so long, and that’s assuming the flight suit takes care of their bathroom needs.* For the same reason, single-pilot starfighters wouldn’t work for long patrols, even with a hyperdrive.
In both situations, it would be better to use a cheap freighter to ferry the fighters through hyperspace. According to soft-canon sources, all you need is a few hooks on the freighters’ exterior to secure the fighters, no docking bay required. That way, when the Rebel starfighters face their Imperial counterparts, they won’t be at an inherent disadvantage.
4. Prisons Without Doors: Star Trek
In the enlightened Federation, prisons cells look quite different than they do today. Sure, prisoners are still housed in small rooms with few amenities, but this time they are kept in by a high-tech force field rather than anything so outdated as a door.
This has two immediate effects. One, it means the prisoner has no privacy from the guard outside the forcefield because it’s transparent. Unless there’s a separate room for the toilet that they never show us, that’s gonna get awkward fast. Two, it means that any time the ship’s power goes out, the force field drops and the prisoners may frolic as they choose.
If you’ve ever watched Star Trek, you know the power fails a lot. Why the brig* doesn’t have a redundant power system, I have no idea. But whenever you see an episode of Star Trek focusing on a dangerous prisoner in the brig, you can be sure that at some point the warp core will hiccup and down the force field will go.
Oh, and in case that isn’t enough, force fields are also very vulnerable to tampering. More than one episode has shown us that touching a live wire to a force field will short the whole thing out. These live wires are a lot easier to find inside a holding cell than you might imagine.
No one in their right mind would design a jail this way. The only reason Star Trek does it, as far as I can tell, is to facilitate dramatic, face-to-face confrontations between the protagonists and their prisoners. Star Trek Into Darkness actually had a better solution for that: just make the cell doors clear. It’s the future, and they can do amazing things with transparent aluminum.
5. Inadequately Shielded Weak Points: Star Wars
We all know the story of the Death Star, that mighty battle station brought low by a single, unforeseen weakness. Destroyed by a single-pilot starfighter, there are few stories that better embody the underdog victory. Lucky for the Rebels, no one spotted the exhaust port in question in time to do anything about it.
Except someone must have spotted the flaw because the shaft is ray shielded. Ray shields, for anyone not up on their Star Wars terminology, protect against laser-type weaponry, which is why Luke had to use a proton torpedo. Ray shielding isn’t universal on the Death Star because the X-Wings’ lasers destroy tower and surface guns without any problem.
So, why ray shield a small exhaust port? Most likely, an engineer spotted the flaw, realized the danger it posed, and then phoned in a solution. “Ah, just put a ray shield over it. No way anyone can get a proton torpedo in there, even with a targeting computer.” I would really hate to be that engineer after the events of A New Hope.
What’s more, during the battle, one of Tarkin’s aides even mentions that the Rebels’ attack has a chance to succeed. Tarkin doesn’t want to evacuate, fine, that makes sense. But was there really nothing else for them to launch in defense of the most expensive weapon ever created? The Death Star is the size of a small moon, so it must have a few more TIEs beyond the few dozen that we saw launched in the film.
A clever reader will note that all of these franchises are very popular despite flaws in ship design.* Regardless, they were good or lucky enough to overcome their flaws and achieve popularity. Is that something you want to gamble on with your own stories? It’s better to address any flaws ahead of time, so your story is the best it can possibly be. Otherwise, you know nerds are gonna pick it apart. That’s what we do.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.