Last time, we looked at some of the illogical designs of various ships in our favorite science fiction franchises. This week, we’re doing it again! Science fiction churns out illogical designs faster than a Rube Goldberg factory, so we have plenty to choose from. Keep in mind these floundering examples, lest you alienate your own audience with a spaceship that makes no sense.
1. Unnecessary Spinning: Babylon Five
In the show Babylon 5 (B5), humans are one of the less technologically advanced species, at least compared to galactic heavyweights like the Mimbari and the Centari. Human technology lags behind in one very important area: no artificial gravity. While older species can somehow generate a gravitational effect by flipping switches, humans can only do it by spinning their ships.
That’s a neat idea, and it explains why Babylon 5, the space station, is always shown spinning. The station’s interior shots don’t look exactly as they should for a spinning craft, but that’s a forgivable necessity of budget.
Then the show introduces its first human warship, and it doesn’t spin at all. Even so, the interior is shown to have plenty of gravity. It turns out that filming zero g scenes is expensive. Oh well, another cool idea lost to budget limitations. Except the characters keep insisting that human ships have to spin in order to produce gravity.
Eventually, B5 introduces the Omega Class Destroyer (seen above), which does feature a spinning section just behind the bow. But the audience has already learned that Earth ships have artificial gravity, despite what the characters say. So the Omega was a ship that spun without any reason. What’s more, an Omega’s bridge seems to be in the ship’s bow, well outside the spinning section,* and yet the bridge is always shown with gravity. Is the Omega sporting a shapeship equivalent of spinning rims?
2. Insecure Access Codes: Star Trek
In the optimistic Star Trek future, humanity has moved past using birthdays as passwords. Instead, Starfleet uses strings of numbers, letters,* and entire words to secure their ship’s systems. In order to maintain security, the procedure is to immediately change any captured officer’s codes, so they can’t be used against the ship. We see this in the episode Gambit when a captured Riker lets the Enterprise know he’s up to something by inputting his already deactivated access codes.
Changing compromised codes is always a sensible procedure, but it must have been discontinued at some point, because Voyager is all too happy to let codes that are still working fall into enemy hands. In the episode Maneuvers, Chakotey is captured by the Kazon, who proceed to torture him for his access codes. Chakotey would only withhold the codes if Voyager hadn’t already changed them; otherwise he could have saved himself a lot of pain. Relying on Chakotey’s iron will to protect the codes seems like a bad idea, especially considering how many mind-reading aliens could have gotten the information without any cooperation on his part.
Voyager’s security issues don’t end with captured officers. In Star Trek, most access codes are entered verbally, because who has the time for keyboards? Given how easy it is to overhear someone else’s code, viewers naturally assume that a specific voice print is necessary to use them. In fact this is true on Deep Space Nine, where Cardassian agents have to mount a major operation to replicate enough of Chief O’Brien’s voice to access one cargo bay, and even then the forgery isn’t perfect.
But in the Voyager episode Investigations, Neelix uses a code he overheard in engineering to access someone else’s log entries.* The episode keeps going like it’s no big deal, but that has horrifying implications. All a spy needs to access any ship’s system is wait around in engineering to eavesdrop on the right officer. Heck, if they were on the bridge to hear Janeway’s frequently used self-destruct code, they could destroy the ship.
3. Unshielded Shield Generators: Star Wars
In Return of the Jedi, at the battle of Endor, an A-Wing crashes into the Super Star Destroyer Executor’s bridge, sending the powerful warship to its doom. Right before the crash, Executor’s bridge loses its deflector shield. Makes sense, how else would a fighter get through?
So what was it that destroyed the bridge’s shield generator? A turbolaser barrage from Rebel fleet? A concentrated volley of torpedoes? Nope, it was only a pair of A-Wings and their light blasters (as seen above). Hang on, how does that work? Does the shield generator not shield itself? Executor has a generator on either side of the bridge, and it’s not like they’d have to extend very far to cover themselves as well. If the generator does shield itself, and Executor’s shields were so weak that A-Wing blasters could penetrate them, why even bother to take out the generator?
Another possibility presents itself. Maybe small fighters like the A-Wing can fly inside a large ship’s shield perimeter. That would also explain why the X-Wings in A New Hope didn’t have to worry about the Death Star’s shields. Except that doesn’t work either, because then the A-Wings could have just attacked the bridge directly and not bothered with the shield generators.*
Combined with how the second Death Star needed shields projected around it from Endor,* we’re left with the implication that shield generators cannot project shields around themselves. If that was the case, they’d be pretty worthless, as getting through any shield would be as easy as attacking the unprotected generator.
Something similar happened in the Phantom Menace, when the Naboo transport’s shield generator was destroyed while its shields were still at maximum. If the enemy’s blasters were strong enough to tear right through the shield with a single shot, why even bother to repair the generator?
4. Handheld Ship Guns: Outlaw Star
If you haven’t seen it, Outlaw Star is an anime where everyone yells about the Galactic Leyline.* When they’re not yelling, the characters fly a spaceship that fights other spaceships in hand-to-hand combat. That’s literally hand-to-hand, as the ships fight each other with enormous grappler arms.
Contrary to what you might expect, I’m not here to criticize the grappler arms. One of Outlaw Star’s conceits is that spaceship fisticuffs are a practical means of combat, and I’m willing to accept that conceit. No, the design flaw here is with the ships’ weapons.
The characters are very clear: traditional ship weapons are for noobs. No one who is serious about fighting shows up with missile launchers and railguns, because that will only get you sliced to pieces by a space sword. In fact, it’s shown several times that missiles are only good for creating a distraction while the ship runs away.
Silly as this is, it’s at least consistent. Or it is, until the main character’s ship brings a pistol to bear. That’s right, one of the grappler ship’s weapons is a giant handgun. Why? What’s the point of putting a useless ranged weapon on their ship? The gun never does any damage in battle, which isn’t surprising considering the show’s attitude towards ranged weapons.
What’s more, the gun gains no extra functionality by being attached to a grappler arm. A simple turret would have given it the same field of fire and made the gun easier to aim, as it wouldn’t be out on the end of a long and unstable arm. We humans hold weapons in our hands because bolting them onto our bodies is inefficient, but spaceships don’t have that problem. If the gun was mounted on the hull, it at least wouldn’t be hindering the ship’s ability to punch other ships in the face.
5. Exponential Warp Factor: Star Trek
In Star Trek, speed isn’t measured in miles per hour or even lightyears per hour. Instead, ships use the vaunted warp factor system, which is usually rated from one to nine. It’s rather brilliant, actually, because it means writers don’t have to give any hard numbers that might trap them later. How fast is warp six? Faster than warp five and slower than warp seven.
It worked fine until someone got the bright idea that warp factors were exponential. They never say exactly what the exponent is, but at minimum, each warp factor is twice as fast as its predecessor. This is supposed to justify why warp ten is “infinite velocity,” even though that doesn’t make any sense.*
Warp ten aside, exponential factors don’t match what we see in the show. Under this system, a ship going warp seven should easily catch up with a ship going warp six. Chases in Star Trek almost always show one ship slowly catching up with another. They try to explain this contradiction in the Enterprise episode Fortunate Son, and instead they highlight just how nonsensical it is that the Enterprise can’t immediately catch up to an exponentially slower freighter.
Beyond the inconsistencies, who would design a speed-measuring system like that? Imagine if your car’s speedometer only had entries for 10mph, 20mph, 40mph, 80mph, and so on. That would be pretty useless, wouldn’t it? Warp factors are how the crew refer to their ship’s speed; there has to be some granularity to it, or the pilot will be very confused. We also know this isn’t just some quirk of how the engines work, forcing them to accelerate by huge leaps, because they can move at fractions of a warp factor.
Authors design illogical ships for a number of reasons. It’s not clear why the Star Trek writers decided to make warp factors exponential. Perhaps they thought it sounded more futuristic. B5’s issue came from a cool idea that couldn’t be realized within the show’s budget, and Outlaw Star was just a case of going for style over substance. No matter the cause, the result was a vessel that didn’t work with the story. Pay careful attention when designing spaceships for your own work, or the same thing may happen to you.
(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)