Often considered the first science fiction film, Le Voyage dans la Lune created by Georges Melies in 1902 showed us the first fictional vehicle to leave the protection of our planet. Ever since then, ever more fantastical creations have been dreamt up and then realised onto the silver screen. People get emotional about artwork, architecture or other similar creations. Me? I get emotional about fictional vessels.
Growing up, my friends had posters of sports cars or sporting heroes, I had an increasingly tattered poster of the Millennium Falcon that I think I got in the aftermath of seeing ANH in early 1978. Fast forward to Christmas 1987 and I get my copy of Mr Scotts guide to the Enterprise which was like lifting the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, couple this with Frank Joseph’s Starfleet Technical Manual and I’m hooked. Fictional documentation like this has continued to interest me since then and whilst Star Trek arguably has the most, a lot of other franchises have produced their own ‘technical’ manuals of this kind.
As a background to this post, some years ago a friend of mine ran a homage to Top Gear’s Cool Wall but using space ships instead of cars and asking for audience interaction (I was one of the hosts at one point and tried to channel my inner ‘Clarkson’). But people like lists and this is something I’ve banged on about for some time so here it is. Unlike that coolwall where a starship had to be able to travel faster than light to qualify, I have removed that stipulation. I have also tried to limit the list (I tried to have different classifications but that started to get too complicated).
These are in no particular order but these are my favourite fictional spaceships…
USS Enterprise (Star Trek The Motion Picture)
The Enterprise first flew in 1964 with the original pilot of Star Trek with the original being designed my series art director Matt Jefferies, based on magazine covers and other inspiration that creator Gene Roddenberry had taken a liking to. There had been plans for a new TV series in the late 70’s and Ralph McQuarrie had drawn up a new Enterprise with the secondary hull changing from a cylinder to a delta wing (a design that would be taken up three decades later in Star Trek Discovery. Ultimately when the proposed TV series became a movie, that design was scrapped in favour of retaining something the viewers were more familiar with. Art director Richard Taylor (not the Weta one!) would bring in illustrator Andrew Probert to work on what would become the final design.
A key moment of the film sees Kirk having to beam to a space station to be taken across by Scotty in an inspection pod to the Enterprise in its drydock. This is a relatively long sequence (set to Jerry Goldsmith’s fabulous music) and was mean’t to reintroduce the titular ship to a new audience.
It’s a ship that looks great from any angle, it takes what had become an already iconic design and enhances it. From those swept back pylons holding the warp engine nacelles to the enclosed main deflector dish to the changed colour palette that replaced the grey of the TV series to a pearlescent white and so many other changes. Sometimes a redesign can improve the original and this most definitely does. There have been various iterations of the Starship Enterprise but none has ever been as glorious as this one.
Honourable Mention: Ok, I do have a soft spot for the Sovereign class Enterprise-E that had its debut in Star Trek First Contact. I was never a fan of the Galaxy class Enterprise-D, as I always though everything looked out of proportion, the balance was off, etc. The Sovereign class was (for me) a definite return to form, it was flatter and more streamlined than the D, but it doesn’t quite have the magic that the A does and it doesn’t look as good front on.
Liberator (Blake’s 7)
Coming off the back of Survivors, writer Terry Nation was given a brief to create a new TV science-fiction TV series, using films such as The Dirty Dozen as a basis it would deal with a futuristic band of outlaws fighting the oppressive government of the time. To accomplish this, they would encounter and then command an advanced alien starship. Reading the minds of the crew, the starship AI would then christen the ship ‘Liberator’.
Typically in this time, the external design would have been handled by BBC visual effects and the interiors handled by the art department, in a departure from this, series producer David Maloney engaged Roger Murray-Leach (of the Art department) to design both to ensure a consistent vision for the futuristic vessel. As the story goes, Murray-Leach designed the ship to fly one way and then immediately flipped it around, this would prove contentious with Visual Effects as the model (built by Martin Bower) would go on to be difficult to film (but they achieved some glorious shots that I think stand up today (check out from 04:45)).
If this was a top 5 of sci-fi command centres then the one that Murray-Leach designed would also feature, the Liberator Flight Deck is a fantastic looking set that draws the eye and never looks dull and is a distinct standout amongst contemporaries that had probably had a much larger budget.
Honourable mention: In the series, the Liberator is destroyed at the end of Series 3, Series 4 was unexpectedly announced over those end credits and so a new vessel was needed. The Scorpio was an old freighter that conveniently had some of the same technology. Young me wasn’t a huge fan but older me can appreciate and enjoy the Nostromo vibe the designers were going for, on both the interior and exterior. Incidentally, the Scorpio model was build by the late Ron Thornton who would go on to work on the pioneering CGI effects of Babylon 5 in the early 1990’s.
Eagle Transporter (Space: 1999)
The Eagle Transporter was the primary means of transportation from Moonbase Alpha. It was designed by Brian Johnson who would draw inspiration from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (that he also worked on). The central pod could be swapped out (shades of ‘Thunderbird 2’?) and often was. Other pods included a winch, laboratory and rescue.
Had Gerry Anderson’s UFO had a second season then it would have featured an expanded moon base equipped with new vehicles to fight the alien invaders. That was not to be due to a downturn in ratings towards the end of the run but the production was advanced when a potential second series was retooled into Space: 1999.
For me, the Eagle achieves the dual distinction of both looking cool and also looking functional and believable, it looks like something NASA might have dreamed up. It would also look perfectly in place in the fore mentioned 2001 movie. Brian Johnson would go on to work on both Alien and The Empire Strikes Back winning Academy Awards for both.
Honourable Mention: The Runabout class shuttle from Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Later drawings of the Runabout included the potential to swap out the middle cargo pod like the Eagle but I don’t believe this was ever utilised in the show. Also the Delta Flyer from Star Trek: Voyager which was another ‘shuttle on steroids’.
Gunstar (The Last Starfighter)
The early 1980’s were a period of great innovation in terms of CGI (Computer Graphics Imagery). We’d seen graphics on a console in Alien in 1979 and then Star Trek II in 1982. Tron (also released in 1982) had used a combination of CGI and traditional animation but in 1984, The Last Starfighter was the first film to have all of its visual effects produced in CGI.
Designed by Ron Cobb, the Gunstar was not the titular ship of the title (that referred to the lead character) but rather an advanced prototype Starfighter. It featured Grig the pilot in the rear and Alex Rogan in the front gunners seat. Cobb designed the Gunstar from a practical viewpoint but the final CGI model was limited in terms of how much accuracy could be conveyed. One thing are the RCS (Reaction Control System) thrusters that can be seen on the above picture (the nozzles on the four engine housings), this was a ship designed to be flown and operate in zero-g. People often cite the Starfury from Babylon 5 as the first ship to be designed with this in mind but that really isn’t true (although when I first saw the Starfury I was reminded of the Gunstar (even more so when they introduced the Thunderbolt)).
I’ve been a fan of Ron Cobb’s design work for a long time, to my mind he’s right up there with the late great Syd Mead. Like everything on this list, it looks great from every angle, (even the relatively low resolution version that was seen in the movie).
Honourable Mention: The X-Wing, or the Incom T-65 Space Superiority Fighter, this came so close to making the list. On first sight, it looks relatively normal, you’ve got the fuselage and the wings. Then, Red Leader says “Lock S-Foils in attack position” and with that the wings split apart and you know why this is called an X-Wing.
Millennium Falcon (Star Wars)
‘The fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy’.. When The Force Awakens premiered in December 2015, I will admit, when the camera move finally settled on the above starship and we had those familiar chords in the soundtrack it may have suddenly got a little dusty in my cinema seat.
Born out of a sketch by Ralph McQuarrie, the first iteration looked a lot like another ship on this list, the Eagle Transporter but with the Falcon cockpit on the front. This design would eventualy be retooled into what became the Tantive IV. Legend has it that the familiar design took inspiration from a hamburger with the cockpit looking like a pickle sticking out the side. The interiors were designed by Set Designer Roger Christian mainly by recycled aircraft parts that he had bought in for inspiration (and they would be used in other productions, assuming we all spotted the rear cockpit seats from the Falcon in Starbug in Red Dwarf?
Like some of the other ships on this list, the characters have an emotional attachment to this ship and that not more evident from The Force Awakens and we as viewers also form some of the same attachments.
Honourable Mention: I will admit it was a tough call picking between the Falcon or Malcolm Reynolds Serenity from the Firefly TV series. Both ships serve virtually the same function and both captains seem to have the same relationship. However, you never forget your first love..