"If human military designers had their way every colour of the spectrum would be removed except for grey, green and black and we would all live in windowless boxes."
Despite living in several unrelated continuities, it seems that human engineers in science fiction have managed to agree on two standards for ship designs.
The first design, the Retro Rocket
(often referred to as a “rocketship” and now a mostly Discredited Trope
due to Zeerust
), is (or was) a cigar-shaped needle with three or so large fins on the base. These are often either brightly coloured or chromed to make Shiny-Looking Spaceships
. This initial design is now usually found in parodies or homages to classic sci-fi. note
The second design, mostly based on newer works and the “realistic” age of spaceflight, follows some simple rules:
- Human spaceships should be grey. While some important parts may be coloured, the majority of the spaceship should be the colour of unpainted metal. Exceptions: ships in anime may be painted blue instead, while ships in American works may be painted olive-drab. More post-modern, Cyber Punk-influenced works can cover them in gratuitous, dazzling and obtrusive advertising and massive corporate logos instead.
- While not required, visibly being constructed from riveted metal plates is encouraged, as are Borg cube-like details called greebles or nurnies.
- Since Our Weapons Will Be Boxy in the Future, larger spaceships must be angular too; the standard human spaceship will be mostly rectangular with engines on one end and weapons on the other.
- Space Fighters and other small craft will be built around a cockpit and wings to look like airplanes, but may have some style.
Note that fictional vessels tend to use enormous amounts of energy yet typically lack thermal radiators
to shed waste heat (no air-cooling in space
). Although that could
explain all the so-called wings...
Space wings are also often used in fiction as places to put extra weapons (like missiles
), and to store things (extra electronic equipment or fuel) inside them, although putting those things on or in the main hull makes more sense for a nonatmospheric Space Fighter
, as spreading out the ship's mass makes little sense for a vessel designed to maneuver in vacuum in three dimensions— better to keep it compact, to conserve angular momentum. You can
increase maneuverability by putting thrusters on the tips of them a la Babylon 5
Starfuries, using the wing as essentially a big lever to rotate the ship faster, but a simple pole (especially a retractable one) would do the same job just as well and with greater shear strength (again, compactness helps here), making it less likely to bend or break off during high-thrust maneuvers whose direction is perpendicular to the broad planar surface of the wing. Internal gyroscopic flywheels could do the same thing and
be less visibly obvious tells to the enemy (no signal lights before a turn) - although, admittedly, retracting poles and internal flywheels add more moving parts that can break. Only Space Fighter
craft designed to go both ways
(atmosphere and deep space) actually need wings— and some real airplanes don't even need them
By comparison, the ships of other races also tend to have one more or less standardized design of their own per race: usually rounded, angular, or spiky, and usually with a single shape forming the whole theme of their fleets.
See also Standard Sci-Fi Fleet
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Anime and Manga
- Super Dimension Fortress Macross/Robotech; Except for the Macross itself (which was, of course, alien in origin), most human vessels are pretty close to this. It should be noted that the Macross was in fact redesigned closer to those lines. Later subverted with the later Macross-class ships which were more angular, and Robotech's SDF-3, which was originally designed/disguised with Zentraedi-like lines, but by the end of the Third Robotech War had the same Mospeada-style design.
- While all the different factions are usually human in Gundam, the ships used by most incarnations of The Federation tend to be more boxy and utilitarian looking, generally designed to resemble naval battleships and come in shades of grey, olive or white, while the the various space colony factions tend to use more exotic, organic looking designs.
- Blue Comet SPT Layzner is notable for the fact that the aliens have ships that look like this (though they may be descended from an ancient human civilization).
- In Legend of Galactic Heroes the starships of the Free Planets Alliance are decidedly utilitarian and bulky in appearance, with their interiors reminiscent of modern-day aircraft carriers and battleships. This of course is in contrast to The Empire's decidedly sleeker, more streamlined vessels.
- Originally, the Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey was going to have large heat radiators to dissipate the heat from the nuclear reactor (and indeed did in the novelization). However, Stanley Kubric decided he didn't want to have to explain why a ship in space had what looked like wings. One of the very few instances in the movie they went with Rule of Cool over scientific accuracy.
- Meanwhile, the Leonov of 2010: The Year We Make Contact implies that Soviet engineers prefer to design blocky and dimly-lit flying bricks, unlike the brightly lit, sleek and shiny Discovery built by the Americans.
- Starship Troopers seems to follow this school of design, with big blocky ships which launch transports by extending them out the sides on davits and releasing them. Interestingly, several models were built in different sizes (smaller, less detailed ones for background shots), including two different designs (a transport and a carrier), in three different tones to show it was a fleet of different ships, rather than a bunch of identical ones. Given that the film focuses almost exclusively on the Roger Young, this would seem to be a case of Doing It for the Art.
- Star Wars has spacecraft starting off as an Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age in the prequel trilogy, then evolving into the gray, straight-lined, utilitarian war machines of the original trilogy. Strangely, almost all the spacecraft in the SW universe, even thousands of years back, resemble in some way the ones from the original trilogy.
- The elegant ships in the prequel trilogy could be explained by the fact that most of them come from a particular culture - Naboo. Indeed, most ships that aren't explicitely from Naboo tend to have the blockier appearance expected of the series.
- In Return of the Jedi, many of the Alliance starcruisers are more aquatic looking, with blisters all over the hull, in contrast to the angular Imperial Star Destroyers.
- The mile-long ISV Venture Star from Avatar is designed to be realistic from a presently envisaged engineering standpoint, as a pure starship, never intended to enter an atmosphere. It's optimized for minimal mass, and thus has a wiry hollow look focused around the pair of giant front-mounted antimatter annihilation engines, with huge radiator panels glowing visibly to dissipate the engines' heat produced, and massive spherical fuel tanks carrying fuel and reaction mass for the relativistic ship. The relatively tiny habitation and cargo modules, pair of Valkyrie shuttles and even tinier artificial-gravity crew compartments are all dragged along behind. The Valkyries themselves are SSTOs, designed for atmospheric flight, and are thus fairly sleek winged designs.
- Deliberately averted, avoided, hell, run away from in Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, where the Astronaut's spaceship —carrying only him and the Tree of Life within it— is a huge transparent bubble that moves easily across space in its long, long journey from Earth to the star Xibalba. Word of God says that they chose this simple, but appealing design because not all spaceships have to look like “trucks in space.”
- The Sulaco in Aliens is extremely boxy looking except for the spiky bits at the front of the vessel. Heck, the Nostromo from Alien was the hard, industrial equivalent of this... By the time we meet it, it's had some cobbled repairs done on it and been through the mill. Still very Wayland Industries Standard Issue, though. Most ships and shuttles from the franchise are, at heart, this.
- The human warships◊ in the film version of Ender’s Game definitely have this look. The Little Doctor, in particular, doesn't look completely finished.
- The ship that gives the film Event Horizon its name is this. It's based on a modular design with clear, designated sections that make it look quite elegant from a distance; it has interchangeable, standardised components that can be easily switched for ones on the smaller and much more cheaply constructed Lewis and Clark; its colour-scheme is all in greys, some whites, a lot of bright lights (when they actually work) and stainless steel... it meets this trope to a tee. Then... you get to the bridge, engine room and engine core and it starts to hit Meat Moss, Bizarrchitecture, Spikes of Villainy, Dark Is Evil and other, definitive Eldritch Starship tropes with a vengeance. Which is quite a feat.
- Lampshaded in Anne McCaffrey's Acorna Series, where the Linyaari are openly baffled as to why human spaceships only come in one color. Slightly subverted in that Linyaari ships are, to human eyes, painted in loud and garish colors.
- In David Weber's Honor Harrington series it's mentioned that all of the major powers use reactive pigments to give their ships a primary color to distinguish them in visual inspections, but it's also noted how easy it is to change the paint-scheme.
- Subverted in David Drake's Reaches trilogy, where the main characters' ships have ceramic hulls to resist the corrosive atmosphere of their native Venus. Every other spacefaring culture uses metal hulls, and it's noted that when the stresses of Transit become too great, a ceramic ship falls apart all at once, with a total loss of life (one ship is seen to have come out of Transit looking like a cloud of gravel), while a metal ship's hull might hold together long enough for some of the crew to be rescued. Also, everybody's hulls tend to be rounded, usually more-or-less cigar-shaped, although they fly or land with the long axis parallel to the ground, unlike “rocketships.”
- In Charles Stross' Singularity Sky, most spacefaring civilizations use functional, cylindrical designs for their ships. The technologically backward New Republic wanted their flagship to look like a proper warship instead, and so gave it a more attractive shape. It promptly gets destroyed by more functional, if less stylish, enemy craft.
- The Ark Royal is noted repeatedly for its blocky, ugly appearance, presumably modern military starships are more streamlined or something. And there's a group dedicated to designing ships based on various sci-fi, most of which are just plain impractical.
Live Action TV
- Battletech has mostly rounded ships, but otherwise adheres.
- One model of Drop Ship in particular, the Leopard, was even called “the Brick” in the canon itself. Its slab-sided appearance, coupled with a small bridge, stubby wings and massive engines on what amounts to a nigh-rectangular chunk of steel means it falls squarely within this trope.
- d20 Future (Science Fiction expansion to d20 Modern) generally presents this as the “default” look for spaceships.
- There is no standard for Traveller; it depends on function and aesthetic taste and there are myriads of possible ship designs(indeed some traveller fans mainly like designing ships). Ships made to actually land on and take off from a planet generally have a "needle/wedge" design which looks something like a space shuttle. However this requires sacrifice in payload and the heaviest ships are generally serviced in orbit.
- The Lightning-class ships a multipurpose merchant/scout/privateer built by the Terrans for viking like voyages into Vilani space is a handsome ship that looks like a long wedge with short stubby wings.
- One cool (but not unlikely in Real Life) gimmick on Traveller ships is a programmable surface that can be used to display a giant "screen-saver". These are available both inside and outside. Want your ship to have a different "paint job"? Just change the (enormous) image file. Another gimmick is the Shipboard Information System, which is sort of the ship's internet. This means that one can picture much of the dialogue of a given Traveller story taking place online from PCs and NPCs all over the ship, each talking into "thin air" in whatever room they happen to be, which can make for an interesting plot device and one not yet familiar to Space Opera .
- Battle Fleet Gothic: A ship of the Imperium may look like this from a distance, but when you get close, you see that they're covered in massive arches and flying buttresses as if someone build a cathedral all over.
- The trope is inverted in that the ships of the Tau fit this trope. The Tau have "only just" started traveling between worlds, compared to other races, so their ships have that same early utilitarian feel that a lot of current space vehicles and those from 20 minutes into the future have.
- And due to unpopularity with the fans, the new Tau fleet follows a more graceful, anime-inspired design.
- The first Tau spaceship was a cruiser actually designed for cutscenes in the game Fire Warrior, and was extrapolated from the design of the Tau's then-only vehicle chassis, the Devilfish/Hammerhead. The 2nd-party modelers of Forge World then made a model of that for BFG, and followed up with full line of Tau ships based on that design. When Games Workshop finally released an official Tau fleet, gamers almost unanimously decided they preferred the Fire Warrior/Forge World fleet by a large margin.
- Space Marine ships, on the other hand, fall somewhere in between. While they have elements of the regular Imperial design, they use more hard angles and less detailing. Also, while colour scheme varies by chapter, many of the promotional shots of the models are indeed rendered in mostly grey.
- The Imperium actually does have an in-universe standardization system (which happens to be the main Lost Technology of the setting). It's not an example of this trope, though (the STC land vehicles would be if they weren't land vehicles).
- Played very straight in Firestorm Armada with the human faction the Terran Alliance, their ships are usually flat, and shaped in squares, and triangles, with most of their color being blue and grey.
- Really played doubly straight, since the other human faction, the Dindrenzi Federation, has ships that look a lot like the UNSC's from Halo.
- The ships in Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator, like those in the Star Trek series the game emulates in many ways, generally avert the boxy shape while playing the riveted look straight.
- Darkstar One
- EVE Online:
- Caldari ships are like this: Gunmetal gray, blinking signal lights and angular shapes. Conversely, the Minmatar designs are even more utilitarian, containing only the bare minimum, welded together in a junkyard shop and come in various shades of rust-brown and red. However, some of the more modern Minmatar ships such as capital ships and the Maelstrom have a more 'finished' look, with complete, symmetrical hulls, although still mostly falling within the category. Some of the Minmatar ships also have large 'sails' that look somewhat like modern satellites' solar panels.
- However, Gallente ships tend to have curvy organic-looking surfaces and Amarr ships are bright golden in colour and possibly most resemble the 'rocket ship' design in a few cases.
- Justified because each race's ships reflect their standardized personality.
Caldari: Corporate, efficient, with emphasis on shields and electronics. Designs keep out the unnecessary.
Amarr: 1st back into space. Large powerful empire. Golden to reflect the wealth and impress the natives.
Gallente: Freedom loving more artistic, this more flowing and free designs in ships.
Minmatar: Freed slaves. So all “older” ship designs should look like junk heaps as that's all they had to work with
Thus cap' ships look more finished because they actually have an empire to support a cap' fleet.
- Pretty much averted in the first Escape Velocity, which (in part due to the simple models) had ships with aerodynamic, rather anime-like shapes. Later games (especially humans and Voinians in Override, Federation and Aurorans in Nova) conformed more and more closely to this.
- Hilariously, Voinian ships conformed closer to this than the human ships — the human ships tended to have more non-grey colours and smoother lines.
- Freespace does this with all Terran ships (and with the Colossus◊, which was a combination Terran and Vasudan ship). For the Vasudan◊ and Shivan◊ ships, tendencies are to have more curved and smooth designs instead of blocky ones—the ships still tend to be paint free, but colored differently to give them a more alien look.
- Halo, the UNSC ships are boxy in shape, in contrast to the curvy purple flowing aesthetics of the Covenant. Acts as a visual reference for both how far advanced the Covenant ships are compared to the clumsy human vessels, as well as their Scary Dogmatic Aliens status verus the practical human military.
- Homeworld with the exception of the (Kushan) Mothership and the Kadeshi vessels.
- Infinite Space: mostly averted, especially in Adis, where the ships are both extremely funky-looking and pink, but it does happen, primarily with Libertasian or Zenitonian designs. The Freedom and Nebula in particular are both grey, flying bricks.
- Mass Effect:
- The Normandy SR-1 and SR-2, the main ships in the series, are non-conventionally shaped, though vaguely reminiscent of rocket ship designs, and always brightly painted white. This is sort of justified, however, by the fact that visual recognition in space is almost impossible, so it doesn't really matter what color the ship is painted. Other ships featured in the series tend to follow the same philosophy, and the Destiny's Ascension is essentially a big flying cross◊ with an oval cut out of the middle.◊
- Other races' ships are shown to have their own standard shapes. Other Asari ships are shown to have the same Cross- or T-shape around an empty oval. The quarians, who claim to salvage any ship they come upon appear to have the exact same design (usually a ring, sphere or circle with extra bits trailing behind like straight lines) in the third game's cutscenes. The geth ships, for some reason, have an insectoid look, despite most geth platforms being humanoid in shape. Turians have ship designs similar to humans, although they prefer more triangular/winged shapes (the shape of the Normandy is actually based on Turian design structures) and grey and orange-red to human white-and-blue.
- Quarian vessels are mentioned as being a designed to resemble a stylised Mass Relay. Which is appropriate, considering that due to having lost their homeworld to the geth, the quarians have come to greatly rely on use of the Mass Relays to ensure their species survival, as their flotilla wanders throughout the galaxy.
- The Reapers themselves are massive ships which are almost uniformly of a cethalpod design, resembling squid or cuttlefish, and thus being very sleek and curved in their design.
- Sins of a Solar Empire: Played straight with the TEC, who modifed their ships from cargo and civilian vessels, but averted with the Advent(who are also humans, just psychic ones with a different culture). Advent ships are sleek, shiny, and definitely non-utilitarian in appearance.
- Terrans of Starcraft operate these kinds of spaceships and put very little effort, if any, into making them look pretty. This is in stark contrast to the whimsical Protoss designs which seem to feature no straight lines or right angles whatsoever, and to the Zerg Organic Technology.
- Sword of the Stars:
- Human ships are oblong and consists of blocks riveted to a central frame and are the most utilitarian-looking of all the species: The only off part is the very noticeable ring structure around the engines (it's their faster-than-light drive). Because of this engine, human ships also have poor turret coverage on the back and tend towards front-heavy ships with forward-and-side firing arcs. While paint schemes for different sides makes some of the colour variable, the default ship colour for humans tends towards the grey with some red and green mixed in (by contrast, Tarka's ships are mostly bright red and deep green, the Hivers use beige, the Liir use turquoise, the Zuul blood red and the Morrigi deep purple).
- Interestingly, the Zuul, while avoiding this trope, also avoid the Shiny-Looking Spaceships look. Their ships consist of haphazardly-welded parts of ships they find in floating battlefield graveyards.
- In the Wing Commander games, the human ships have varied between the utilitarian, blocky gray designs of Wing Commander III and onwards, and more curvy designs of the earlier games. (Wing Commander III and IV used a primitive polygon Game Engine, as opposed to the first two installments' bitmap sprite graphics.) In all the games featuring the Kilrathi, most of the designs have a base tan color with various “warm” colors used for markings, but the manual notes that the color is the color of the metals used for their armor, and their designs almost universally are shaped to suggest bladed weapons or claws.
- The Argon, Terran, and Teladi ships all follow this. The Argon capital ships are flying gray boxes (albeit with very intricate, curved engine sections) with red stripes while their fighters are Star Wars-esque. The Terran capital ships are flying (blindly) white boxes with red stripes and blue windows while their fighters are futuristic Space Shuttles. Teladi capital ships are flying off-gray boxes◊ with protruding fuel tanks, engines, power lines, and greebles likened to "Flying junkyards", while their fighter designs resemble Star Wars mixed with a 1930s movie.
- In particular the Terran 'AGI Task Force', or ATF, seem to have taken this trope to heart with the Tyr Destroyer, and Odin Carrier, both gunmetal grey boxes with engines. Their capital ships also have distinctive command bridges and prow-like nose sections like on a modern battleship. However, the ATF ships are much more ornate than most Standard Human spaceships, as they all feature large, buttress-esque hull pieces and ornate engine sections, making them look vaguely like Gothic cathedrals.
- X-COM Interceptor tends to avert this, with the human ships actually using functional, forward-swept-wing designs, or in the case of the second-tier ship, rounded wings. All ships are also painted, and in the case of the X-1A tier one ship, even whimsical, with shark teeth painted on the nose. However, the carrier MacArthur, which you have to protect during the final 2-part mission partly plays this trope straight.
- Tachyon: The Fringe has this for the Bora, whose warships are hastily-converted cargo haulers and mining ships. Some of the designs aren't so functional, though, like the ''Battleaxe''-class fighters◊, which prominently feature a sharpened blade on the top. Mostly averted with other ships, although freighters still have an elongated, blocky look. GalSpan, notably, has sleek-looking ships with wings (fighters) and the blue-and-white color scheme (one has noticeably more mass on the left side◊, making one wonder why it doesn't constantly drift to the left, since the engines are still centrally-located). Star Patrol flies around in Starfury expies, although their sometimes-shown (but never used) capital ships are more like GalSpan than Bora.
- The Terrans in Galactic Civilizations by default have a ship aesthetic midway between Star Trek and Babylon 5, with mainly rectangular shapes and stuff taken from this trope's catalogue with bluntly triangular wings, chunky radar dishes, large and blocky externals. Unless you reset the colour scheme, Terran vehicles come painted white and blue. When building your own, you can use far weirder-looking alien components to make them less blocky.
- Civilization III, true to its fame of having everything dead realistic, lets you build an UN Unity spaceship that more or less looks like an extremely huge rocket. This has a practical reason though: the Unity requires an aerodynamic shape in order to cut through the Earth's atmosphere.
- Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, the Spiritual Sequel to Civilization, has the Unity, Earth's first and only starship. It has your typical grey color scheme, rotating sections, massive engines in the rear, cooling panels around the engine compartment, and cryo-pods (which are also designed as autonomous landing craft). The ship is clearly not meant to land. It's sole goal is to cross the vast interstellar distance between the Sun and Alpha Centauri. Compare with the much sleeker-looking Progenitor scoutships shown in the Alien Crossfire addon intro.
- Battlestar Galactica Online plays with this. Colonials have some blocky designs like the Jotunn or Gungnir, and the former is even greyish. However, there are also Colonial designs that don't conform; the Rhino is more or less a rotorless helicopter gunship, the Scythe has a giant ventral fin/leg, the Glaive and Halberd have diamond-shaped bodies with the latter being brownish and having fins, even the Gungnir subverts the trope by being magenta. Cylons, on the other hand, tend to use more sleek lines and curves. However, they also have some blocky dull designs like the Wraith and Jormung. It is lampshaded with the Wraith, which is a Mighty Glacier described In-Universe as resembling human design principles.
- Endless Space has the United Empire, harsh corporate empire with mostly blocky ships, though some have very sweet curved bows in the manner of naval ships. The Sheredyn, bodyguards to the Emperor of the UE in the Praetorian tradition, have ships with the same structure but massive bling for massive win. The Pilgrims, who've had lots of interactions with the Sophon, have ships that are a mishmash of blocky and shiny curves aesthetics. The other races have every kind of design imaginable, from mechanical monstrosities to armored bacteria to sculpture to birdlike vessels to robot octopi. It's a pretty exciting galaxy you live in.
- The USS ''Lexington''◊ in Mission Critical plays this fairly straight. It has a boxy, utilitarian feel to it. It's mostly battleship grey in color, except for the habitation sphere which is blue. The reactor/engine section takes up about a quarter of the size with large cooling fins extending in four directions. The only odd thing is a large boom extending far in front of the ship, which is the Lexington's Tal-Seto drive. The crew spaces are oriented with the floor being towards the engines, as the ship is never meant to land on a planet. All combat is done using Attack Drones, and without them ships are virtually Point Defenseless (the short-range lasers have a very low accuracy). It can launch nukes at the enemy, but a single drone tasked with protecting its mothership can easily intercept them before they hit. Other ships of different configurations are shown during battle simulations, but they're all wireframe models, so it's difficult to tell if their designs fit this trope.
- The USS ''Jericho''◊ is a science ship not equipped for combat. She doesn't have any defensive or offensive weapons, which is why the Lexington was sent to escort her to Persephone.
- The UNS ''Dharma''◊ is even darker in shade than the Lexington but has a Star Destroyer feel to it, except for the large turret below and the Tal-Seto boom in front.
- Star Trek Online: The Avenger-class battlecruiser merges this trope with the usual Starfleet "flying spoon" saucer-hull-nacelle arrangement. It's a compact, blocky, beefy riff on a Sovereign-class or similar.
- Averted in Quentyn Quinn, Space Ranger. Despite having forcefields, integrity fields, antigravity, and all the usual phlebotinum props of space opera, Quinn's ship the Thunderbird is deliberately designed to be a sleek, airfoil wing in order to facilitate both atmospheric flight and glider-style emergency landings. Of course Quinn is hinted to be something of a traditionalist in this regard, still insisting on mechanical landing gear on his vessel rather than relying on repulsor beams.
- In Vexxarr hu-mon ships are a lot greyer and blockier than the Bleen ships they reverse-engineered the technology from. lot bigger too.
- Noticeable in Futurama where military spaceships are indeed mostly gray-white, but civilian ones come in all colors, the one used by the main characters being lime green and basically a short, fat version of a Zeerust Retro Rocket (possibly justified in that the rocket shape is seen as a styling ideal but one that has been heavily compromised to maximize cargo space on a delivery vehicle).
- In Exo Squad the ExoFleet plays it straight, most of their ships are grey and boxy, the best example is the Resolute.