Design Point: an article by: GF Willmetts.

July 3, 2022 | By | Reply More

The eye sees what it wants to see as long as it makes sense.

Looking at the construction of a standard cardboard box, the weakest point is the base. Unless its securely sealed, any real weight inside will fall out the base. It won’t last. The design is based on how to flatten a box then its real purpose to keep things in.

I should point out that there are boxes with solid bases but finding them is harder than the standard box. Probably the only reason they’ve continued to be used is based on temporary use and cheap price. Mind you, I’ve had boxes where even the sides can’t support the weight inside and even the inset ‘handle’ grips fall apart. Maybe there should be a weight clause before filling but who’s going to do that with a set of scales to work it all out.

There’s a useful lesson in this, especially in Science Fiction, where design has often been looking futuristic rather than practical needs of use. One only has to look at early rockets like the one in ‘When Worlds Collide’ (1951) where it was a nondescript silver rocket with wings, launched from a track, landing horizontally on an alien planet. Of course, there were few SF films back then. Compare to the earlier ‘Destination: Moon’ (1950) with essentially the same design.

A bit of a surprise when the real life Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions had multi-stages to get the necessary velocity to break free of Earth’s gravity and a lot more maths calculated. Of course, to some extent, the early SF spacecraft had to look attractive and, even better, easy to construct in multiple sizes when needed. One only has to look at the C-57D from ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956), based on a flying saucer and made to look futuristic.

Quite how any spacecraft spinning around has the propulsion to go forward has never really been explained and one has to surmise an advanced form of science being applied.

Of course, from 1966-69, ‘Star Trek’s USS Enterprise further broke the mould, being a spaceship that would never land and resorted to a transporter to get crew members down to the planet than rely on a shuttlecraft to save money until season 2, although it was used eventually for a couple episodes. The Enterprise itself became more elaborate with later versions, although pretty much kept the same iconic shape than upset the fans.

Let’s not forget the ultimate design of the USS Discovery from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968), even if the film version neglected the dragonwings to dispense heat, with the belief that it would look too outlandish. The emphasis there was maintaining some sort of gravity in the centrifuge as well as in ‘2010: The Year We Made Contact’ (1984) with the Russian spacecraft Leonov having an entire segment of the spacecraft rotating than an internal arrangement looking more militaristic than the Discovery.

Interestingly, despite the 16 years difference between the films, there was a consistency and contrast between the designs showing different countries priorities in their design but still with a preference for maintaining some sort of gravity for its crews, although no one thought to ask whether the Leonov crew also hibernated to save air and food.

The changes obviously came with ‘Star Wars’ (1977) but having a giant white starship with no detail would have been rather bland. Of course, the Millennium Falcon had that old second-hand look and, other than a disc-shape, was hardly a conventional spacecraft with its chief cockpit in, for want of a better word, a module.

Even so, you do have to wonder why it would need a window to look out of when most space flight doesn’t need it. Would you really want to look when it goes into hyperdrive with all those lights passing by in a strobe fashion? Hardly good for the eyes. Then again, the X-wing fighters made a step back to match WWII fighters than being in space. Having seen the film when it first came out, I think it was the scale of the models on the screen and nothing like it at the cinema before that built up its fan base rather than being consistently practical.

It’s a toss up whether the mothership from ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ (1978) or the Nostromo from ‘Alien’ (1979) for looking like an unconventional spacecraft. Considering neither relied on cockpit windows in flight was more in line with what was needed. The details from model kits made the Nostromo have a realistic look comparable to the best NASA spacecraft, who could only go as far as the Moon but made the right connection to the viewer.

Certainly, the Sulaco from ‘Aliens’ (1986), being a military spacecraft was a contrast to the Nostromo tug, even with a 57 years time differential and purpose. Of course, going across the whole franchise of ‘Alien’ films, the key point that marks them together is the improvement in hibernation and not getting sick when waking up. The rest is history, so to speak and in a lot of books already, so let’s jump to the chase.

When it comes to film, the shift from what is imagined as a standard rocket shape with wings to something that relied on power to drive it regardless of shape was more a development of the prototype and a desire of every model designer since to make something they could call their own. The need to differentiate between air and space important and changes for landing an awareness of what the real-life designers had to contend with.

Today’s SF fans are also more sophisticated and the designers are more aware of that. The size of an interstellar spacecraft to carry sufficient supplies and such makes it less practical to land on a planet when it would be more economic to keep in space and land in smaller vessels designed for atmosphere. We all saw the problems in the revived third ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ (2013) film with the Enterprise underwater. It might be water tight but I doubt if its shape is suitable for underwater pressure, let alone diving under the waves.

Expectations for technology is more than it is for humans disguised as aliens. Things were like that right up until ‘Babylon 5’ when everything went digital. The ‘Star Trek’ people who-hahhed over it never being believable but quickly followed when the viewing figures came in and looked ‘realistic’. Of course, since then, computer graphic resolutions have increased and software speed and even low level shows have taken advantage of it.

The changes in spaceships, no longer dependent on rod supports made things easier to show spacecraft from all angles. Real models are still made from time to time or we wouldn’t have model kits of them but it has allowed designs free from such restraint and more exotic. Bigger, larger and move faster. CGI welcomed futuristic spacecraft although none have been a mile long as in some SF novels as even widescreen would have problems showing them.

In many respect, the comparisons between our development in technology and the advances in visual SF do have some parallels. The early SF rockets were based on rocket designers like Willy Ley, ahead of what really happened. I can’t remember him doing a staged-rocket to beat gravity and get into space, although I think you would have to have a look at his 1952 ‘Rockets, Missiles And Space Travel’ to see for yourself or certainly its cover.

I’m pulling the book to have a proper look at it. Why take the empty fuel tanks into space, although the consideration was enough fuel to do a return trip. In many respects, the examples cited still have a common problem inside and parallel the International Space Station in a limited colour choices and no green. Both real and fictional have a long way to go in making for a pleasant environment for its crews. No doubt one will follow the other when that happens.

Certainly the Martian manned voyages will have to have some drastic changes to create sustainable food supplies en route and will affect future SF films. Hydroponics will be the way to go simply because it would be more expensive to cart soil into orbit. We certainly aren’t advanced enough to come up with a means to hibernate people but certainly need to do a lot more to alleviate boredom and reduced social contact. As with the Apollo missions that allowed computer technology to rapidly develop, I suspect SF will learn more lessons from the 18 month to Mars trip to use in films and TV, even if some of has been covered already.

Whether there are any reciprocal lessons is hard to say. Certainly what they learn about Mars will have some bearing although I doubt if it will date any films depicting space travel in recent years. You would certainly need a different type of mindset and not necessarily military to make use of all that time in space. Would you really want bland personalities or geeks that would see it as a challenge to keep busy? That would certainly revolutionise SF films in the future.

Building up colonies on alien planets, with and without natural atmosphere, is definitely SF territory. If anything, lessons can be learnt from SF. Whether its to have an easy lifestyle to build up a junior population and you can’t do that with static relationships. Explaining that morality to the press would be interesting. It certainly won’t look like any community on Earth outside of possibly the Mormons without the religion.

I doubt if we can transpose present day societies into off-world colonies which should widen perimeters for SF stories to explore, even if to show it wouldn’t work. Well, not until there is a viable community and a sustained environment of food and water. Equally, there will be a population whose never had any experience of Earth-type societies, other than what they’ve read, who might want to avoid our problems with a need to conserve population from over-growing with abortion mandatory when needed. SF would have a field day exploring such ethics compared to our Earth versions.

Going back to technology, that’s not to say people can’t be fooled. Put a lot of technical kit over something then it can look functional. You only have to look close-up at the Nostromo decks and its all made of 1970s aircraft parts but it looks the part so its acceptable. The same applies to spaceship exteriors. If it fits the part, for most people it becomes acceptable. I’m sure you’ve all seen SF films with poor spacecraft. For me, I think it was ‘Starcrash’ (1978), where the modellers took to heart to put model parts on the spacecraft chassis except they forgot to take it off the skeleton so it looks like part of a model kit parts.

Looking that up, they also noted the small in-jokes on CE3K’s mothership but put the bigger Eagle from ‘Space: 1999’ (1975-1977) on the hull. They might have thought it would work on a cheap budget and save time but…This doesn’t demean all B-level movies because often with a low budget they can be extremely creative but they do have to understand what they are doing and sharp-eyed viewers.

Starcrash meets Eagle.

If you see something used for a different purpose then there is an acceptance for it. You only have to look at the lemon squeezer in Thunderbird One’s launch bay to think it is an air purifier. You can probably accept the Junglecat despite the thin legs supporting such a weight.

Our ability to accept things until someone breaks the imagination bubble does illustrate how much we accept in the content of SF films, only daunted when we have much more up-to-date scientific knowledge to draw comparison to. Then again, modern SF film designers come from the same background so mostly keep ahead.

Lemon squeezer or high speed air vent?

When a lot of SF films were made, as with other films, it wasn’t expected that they would be watched for decades after and really analysed or people like me asking questions like the above. An age of a film these days can be determined by the type of mobile phone that is used. That’s less likely to be a problem for a futuristic SF unless they resort to earlier phones. Then again, who would have thought videophones would be the norm one day?

One can only hope our designs of extra-terrestrials can keep ahead when we have our first official encounters and first contact and see just how right or wrong we were.

© GF Willmetts 2022

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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