Analysis

Five More Illogical Design Choices in Spaceships

The Outlaw Star, a ship with close combat arms.

Believe it or not, the axe is not what's wrong with this design.

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

An Omega Class Destroyer from 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

Neelix and a goldshirt. Don’t you trust Neelix with all your passwords?

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

A-Wings attacking the Super Star Destroyer's shield generator.

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

Outlaw Star aiming its gun at the camera.

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

Tom Paris in a shuttle, about to hit warp ten. Prepare for Ludicrous Speed!

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.

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.

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Comments

  1. Chris Sham

    1. Misleading title. The spinning IS necessary, this was established in the show long before any problematic ships were seen, and it is the early problem ships that are the problem. Correcting them later (by adding spinning sections) was a good thing, a fix, not a compounding mistake. The bridge gravity problem on Earth ships is partly covered by the demonstration of seatbelts, but mainly it’s a suspension of disbelief issue. We know how it should go, we know why it was impossible for them to show that, so the audience is simply required to pretend they’re looking at a bustling street in medieval Verona, not the creaky wooden stage of a school play. Some details are not worth splitting hairs over.

    (Compare with the budget required for Apollo 13 to show 3 people in cramped quarters in realistic zero G, filmed around the same time.)

    2. Chakotay.

    5. “Because warp ten would have to be multiplied from warp nine, and no matter how big the multiplier, that would still get you a real number, not infinity.”

    A simple multiplication would only give a real number, true, but there are other, more interesting functions that do produce a finite warp 9 and an infinite warp 10. It’s not a mathematical impossibility, and you don’t have to research that hard to find people who’ve invented feasible warp factor calculations for the fun of it.

    As for whether it’s a useful measurement system for the crew: Sure, why not? We use log scale units for all sorts of real-world measurements. We also understand that jargon is simplified for the sake of the audience, so perhaps they don’t usually give their warp speed to 10 decimal places. But then neither do most people when discussing real measurements, in many contexts. When I’m driving along, I don’t check to see if I’m doing exactly, precisely 60.00km/h, I’ll round off 58km/h or 59 or even 55.5. Those are all close enough. And of course that margin makes less difference than the differences on a log scale would, but when you combine /some/ realistic in-character rounding-off with /some/ out-of-character audience simplification, a lot of granularity will become obscured, even if the writers did originally have it in mind.

    At the same time, who cares? If the writers never thought about the exact relative velocities of each ship, does it spoil the story for anyone? All they’re really trying to convey is “faster ship, slower ship”, and warp factor has always been (ever since TOS days) just a gimmick for conveying that non-granular story element. Some details are not worth splitting hairs over.

    Contrast both your complaints 1 and 5 against complaint 3. 3, I agree, really is horribly illogical and there is no good retcon to it. And it’s such a badly illogical problem that it spoils the suspension of disbelief for that scene. They may as well have waved a magic jedi wand and said “and now the Imperial fleet goes kaboom.” It wasn’t a technical limitation they couldn’t possibly have avoided, like the B5 gravity thing. It wasn’t an irrelevant minor background detail, mangled by generations of different writers and effects teams, like warp speed. It was just an isolated case of bad writing in Episode VI, a completely avoidable error, for no good reason.

  2. Paul

    The defences of the Death Star II were half assed because it was hastily built to cash in on the success of the original.

    Like the Star Wars prequals

  3. Elda King

    As for an exponential speed system, it would make perfect sense.

    Decibels are a logarithmic unit (in layman’s terms: they convert exponential increases to linear increases, so a multiplication by a factor of 10 becomes an increase by 10 units) and they are extremely useful both for the electromagnetic spectrum and for sound. Musical “octaves” are also a logarithmic unit. In chemistry, pH is also logarithmic. Human ear sensitivity to frequencies is logarithmic.

    In general, logarithmic scale is useful when you want to represent a huge range – if you want to represent everything from 10Hz to 10MHz, a linear scale will make it hard to discern anything in the lower end. Obviously, when you have exponential increases it is also useful to make it linear. If warp speed had an exponential variation with respect to, say, energy use then it would make perfect sense.

    So yes, Star Trek is inconsistent with their display of relative speeds and their statement that those relative speeds have an exponential factor. But had they been consistent, it would make sense… though probably it wouldn’t be a great narrative choice.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    The shielding issue is Star Wars is quite reasonable, for exactly the same reason that the Borg are as effective as they are in Star Trek. Star Trek shields have a set frequency at which their shields are worthless, as was directly mentioned in Star Trek Generations, in which this was used against the Enterprise. The do this as a means to shoot through their own shields, by matching their shields and weapons to the same frequency. An enemy who exploits this would also be dropping their own shields in the process.

    Star Wars vessels likely have two layers of shields. The outer layer is much stronger and intended to keep out opposing turbolaser fire, but is permeable to incoming starfighters. Like the Star Trek example, they do this as a means to be able to shoot through their own shields, in exactly the same fashion as destroyer droids in the prequels.

    A clue as to the technical reason why this occurs is provided by The Phantom Meance and Gungan shields. In that battle, we see that battle droids can physically push through the shield based on ground contact while their hovertanks are left outside of the battle until the shield is brought down. Which is also a reason why the Empire relies on walkers(though why this and not treaded or wheeled vehicles is a mystery). Objects touching the ground can, in effect, fool the system into thinking of them as part of the ground, which a shield cannot affect without overloading itself. It doesn’t even burn grass.

    This is also consistent with the Rebel attack against the Death Star. As they travel through the outer shields’ magnetic field, they mention putting their deflectors on double front. This indicates that their shields allow them to pass through in a similar fashion, by fooling the shield into considering the fighter a part of the shield itself. The smaller inner shields would be much less vulnerable to this, especially if they are hull hugging. It also requires that the attacking vessel slow down to some degree, as indicated by the fact that the Rebel fighters accelerated to attack speed after going through the shield.

    The inner layer is only over vital systems like the bridge or the first Death Star’s exhaust port, as the rest of the ship is armored. Inner shields are much easier to bring down, but also much harder to get to. This is the only reasonable explanation for the fact that fighters are effective at all, with weapons likely an order of magnitude weaker than the vessels they attack.

    Remember that to get to that point you have to survive not only the defending ship’s fighters, but also its own defensive weapons. As we saw plenty of times at Endor, Rebel fighters died in droves when they tried to get in close. The only fighter to successfully make an attack run against Executor’s bridge was flying in a high speed, out of control spin, making it a somewhat difficult target. Any survivable attack would have likely died.

    As occurred in the early phase of the battle, you also have to gain fighter superiority as well by preventing the enemy from getting the drop on you. It is only because Rebel fighters utterly dominate against their Imperial coutnerparts that they are as effective as they are.

    The second Death Star’s shields were impermeable to any physical object, regardless of source, because it was defending a vulnerable station that was still under construction, likely requiring a power level that was less sustainable in combat while also powering other systems. Notice that the Rebel shuttle needed clearance to land on Endor. So that shield also protected itself.

    And the Naboo Queen’s transport was damaged because the shields were brought down by weapons fire rather than because anything fired through them. R2 and the other droids rerouted power to repair them, and were being fired upon because the TF was out to disable rather than to destroy the vessel.

    Also as a slight nitpick, the article is also incorrect in that it was light blasters. They were actually the same sort of missiles used by the Millenium Falcon against the second Death Star’s reactor. They both glow as if they were blaster bolts, but travel much slower. They are also orange rather than red.

  5. Jeff Johnson

    Alright, so here is my thoughts.

    1) I totally agree with Chris on this. The spinning wasn’t the problem.

    2 and 5) You are looking for logical stuff in Star Trek. I gave that up years ago. We are talking the same show that once stated in a captains log that they were going to a destination in the 5th quarter of the galaxy. ( A destination they seemed to forget about after that, as we never see them arrive and it is never mentioned again.) And that is before we get into any technical stuff that changed whenever a new writer saw fit.

    3) The A-wings could have attacked the bridge directly. A nice thought. That would imply that the pilots were thinking about that. If there is no guarantee that hitting the bridge would actually take out the ship, it might make more sense to focus on things like shields, guns and engines. It also means that the pilots would be able to locate the bridge easily. We don’t really know if the ships sensors can pick it out like they can energy signatures. If the sensors could not pick out the bridge and lock on to it, then the pilots would have to pull out their copy of Mr Vader’s Guide to the Super Star Destroyer. And no one has time for that in the middle of a battle.

    On a side note, I always felt it was implied that the shields were being projected around the 2nd Death Star from Endor because the 2nd Death Star was under construction. As such it’s own shields were not completely operational yet. Of course, it’s shields could have been operational, but it makes sense to keep the ground based shields in place if you want to deceive the rebel fleet.

    4) It has been a long time since I last watched OutLaw Star. But as I recall Gene Starwind was something of a gunslinger. As such he felt most comfortable fighting with a gun in his hand. Effectively, the ships hands were his hands, so it made sense to me that he would want to have a gun in one of them. I can not remember anything about the show’s avoidance of ranged ship based weapons, so I will have to leave that point as otherwise valid.

    • Cay Reet

      On 3) … Star destroyers are standardized, obviously. Therefore, it must have been possible for the rebellion (which includes many former soldiers from the Empire) to get a good idea of where which important part of the ship would be situated. Admittedly, a super star destroyer is much rarer, but to me it looked very much like a larger version of the original design, which means aiming for the same area where you would find the bridge on a normal one would have been a sound idea and should have been proposed by the commanders, if not by the actual pilots. It should have been part of their mission briefing.

  6. Jesse

    Based solely on the movies, shields in Star Wars clearly don’t function like Star Trek shields, which block everything until they are gone (unless you are watching Nemesis and the writers forget). Star Wars shields seem to be more like damage reduction from D&D or have a percentage chance of stopping damage. Something like that. Even with the two sets of shields as described by Adam Reynolds, I can’t imagine the shields working in any other way. Otherwise we are left wondering why shield generators are sitting out in the open without really strong secondary shields powered by redundant power sources.

    That being said, the shield protecting the Death Star 2, does seem similar to Star Trek shields, as it is implied that the rebel fighters would have squashed against it and they make no attempts to slowly enter through the magnetic field. So, why can a planetary shield projector create a shield that a we never see a ship capable of producing? From a forest moon, no less, not an industrial powerhouse of a planet? I…have no idea.

    I strongly suspect Star Wars technology is based mainly on plot convenience. And this is coming from a life long Star Wars fan. The movies are concerned with the characters (ignoring the prequels), not the specific rules of every piece of technology.

  7. Samus

    Fun fact: the Babylon 5’s Omega Destroyers were based off the Alexei Leonov , the ship from 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the sequel to 2001.

    If memory serves, the first human warship we see is the Hyperion-class, the grey and blue flying brick. I don’t remember seeing its interior in the show, but I know in the In “The Beginning” movie, they had no artificial gravity and everyone was heavily seat-belted in.
    The explore class gate-building ship from the first season also had a spinning section, be it very small.

    I belive in one of the commentary tracks, one of the producers commented on the ships, saying that the spinning portion is supposed to be the crew quarters, with the bridge fairly close to the axis, while the foreword bow is supposed to be devoted almost entirely to the ships weapons and fighter bay. Human warships, it seems, are essentially huge guns and engines with their crew clinging to the sides

  8. Shadow

    5). pH scale is also logarithmic, yet that’s not really a problem. Most of the time anyone paying attention to pH just cares whether it’s higher or lower than another number and if something is out of an acceptable value range.

    3). As for the shields in SW it seems more likely the “shield generators” were more likely sensor domes and what you’ve got is some “cool dialog” thrown in and people assume causation. They blew these up, shields go down, thus they’re the shield generators. It seems more likely they were vulnerable because the shield generators were destroyed offscreen, or because they’re sensors and need to actually sense stuff you don’t want to heavily shield them and block out whatever it is you’re trying to use the sensors for. Either would work as earlier blueprints of the original Star Destroyer label them sensors and given the large clear view the globes have around the ship that’s consistent. It would certainly make them a high priority target since you could blind the ship to all sorts of things.

    We don’t really know how the shields work but it’s likely to be “this sounds cool” and bad juxtaposition and video game makers going “Sure, let’s go with that” without giving it a second thought. Either way it it creates an inconsistency compared to what’s shown so there’s little reason NOT to assume blowing up the round things makes the shields fall down and go boom. Another inconsistency would be why there’s no secondary bridge to take over navigation and keep it from spiraling into the station. Hell even the engine room should have some basic navigational controls. But that’s a different issue.

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