troperville

tools

toys


main index

Narrative

Genre

Media

Topical Tropes

Other Categories

TV Tropes Org
random
Standard Starship Scuffle
Yarr! Firin' a broadside of Frickin' Laser Beams, cap'n!note 

Space battles are always a lot more exciting on TV than they are in real life.
Col. John Sheppard, Stargate Atlantis

This is the Supertrope for many tropes and clichés concerning ship-to-ship combat... the literal kind. IN SPAAAAACE!!!

Space Fighters have the Old-School Dogfight; capital ships get this trope instead, and you can think of it as a "Very Old School Sea Fight." Founded on the idea that Space Is an Ocean, it harks back to the age of Wooden Ships and Iron Men, when large warships, making up in fire-power what they lacked in manoeuvrability, pounded each other with cannon fire until one finally took enough damage to be forced to withdraw (or until a lucky shot hit a powder magazine). The honour and military tradition of those long-gone days will often be evoked as well.

It may be The Climax of a tense standoff, the conclusion of a Stern Chase, or the outcome of a cunning surprise attack. Two Cool Starships from opposing Space Navies will park within arm's reach of each other, and proceed to fire broadsides of Beam Spam and Macross Missiles at each other's Weak Spots. The Close In Weaksauce System — if it exists — will valiantly try to intercept enemy attacks, and fail. Deflector Shields will flash and crackle as they slowly drop percentage point by percentage point. The Engineer will rush to prevent Phlebotinum Overloads while avoiding the inevitable torrents of burning steam, providing essential Techno Babble all the way. On The Bridge, Bunnies will shout out damage reports while Explosive Instrumentation claims the life of many a Redshirt Ensign. Everyone flails about as each enemy hit brings on a Star Trek Shake. The Captain will sit stoically at the centre of it all, providing important tactical guidance, such as "Reverse the Polarity!" or "Give me more power!"

In a really dramatic battle, he or she may turn to daring and original plans — attempts at Stealth in Space (to turn the battle into a submarine analogy), aversions of Two-Dimensional Thinking, uncharacteristically creative applications of usually-Misapplied Phlebotinum, etc. Unfortunately, such daring plans will usually Only Work Once.note 

Once damage has had some time to accumulate, and the daring plan has had a chance to either work impressively or fail spectacularly, one of the ships will usually find it prudent to invoke the Thirty-Sixth Stratagem and attempt a Hyperspeed Escape. An honourable opponent will let them go; a lowly Space Pirate may get out the boarding hooks instead, and prepare a Boarding Party. If the quarry manages to slip away, there may be a Stern Chase.

If neither side is willing to retreat, sooner or later one of the Cool Ships is likely to suffer a Critical Existence Failure. The crew will scramble for Escape Pods at the last possible second (this step can be skipped if there is nobody important on board), and the subsequent Explosions in Space (with optional Planar Shockwave) will fittingly wrap up the action.

Note that such a confrontation need not be an epic Final Battle. Starship Scuffles are routine in Space Opera, and may be used to establish the setting, throw a minor obstacle in the protagonists' path, introduce a villain, or even just provide a lead-in to other, more important parts of the plot. Of course, epic battles in sci-fi settings often will make use of this trope.

When this trope is averted, it will generally be done in one of two ways: Either large ships will engage in Old School Dogfighting, displaying maneuverability usually reserved for Space Fighters, or combat between spacecraft will actually be shown as a completely new kind of warfare, with weapons and tactics shaped by the realities of the outer space environment rather than by the Rule of Cool or naval parallels.

To see the different kinds of ship likely to be involved, inspect the Standard Sci-Fi Fleet. If the ships are Battlestars, this trope may occur side-by-side with Old School Dogfighting. This trope is not to be confused with Space Battles, though there is certainly overlap.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Captain Harlock: Bonus points for the hero's ship looking like a mash-up of a submarine, battlecruiser and galleon.
  • Haruhi Suzumiya: There is a space battle scene fitting this trope.
  • Space Battleship Yamato featured this trope aplenty, especially in the big battle at the edge of the solar system in the very first episode, which was very obviously inspired by World War II naval engagements. It's hard to imagine making the Space Is an Ocean trope any more explicit than this show did...
    • And yet the remake succeeded by giving the Yamato's shock cannons the ability to fire both as energy weapons and as standard guns, with Operation M2 having the Yamato land into Pluto's seas before shelling the enemy base.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny the Archangel and the Minerva, engage each other at close range, and firing their weapons when both ships are about to intersect each other.

    Film 
  • The various Star Trek films, nach. Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country, First Contact, Insurrection... Star Trek is essentially the Trope Codifier, after all.
    • In the 2009 Star Trek film, we see some beautiful examples, though aversions of Point Defenceless and a general reduction in the amount of Techno Babble from previous Trek incarnations make it a less straight example than most.
  • Star Wars:
    • The franchise as a whole gives far more focus to the Old School Dogfights between small fighters than to this trope. Usually when capital ships engage each other it is a brief fight. One side will be attempting a Hyperspeed Escape from the very start, or the fight will be a Curb-Stomp Battle with one side at a huge disadvantage, and in either case there will be little time for a Standard Starship Scuffle. For example, we see many of the elements of this trope brought out in The Phantom Menace when the protagonists' Shiny Looking Spaceship is breaking through the Trade Federation's blockade, but from the start the focus is not on the fight, but on trying to escape it.
    • Star Wars plays this trope straight in the opening battle of Revenge of the Sith. Among other things it lets us take a look at the starships' broadside cannons. The only thing they lack is that they're not muzzle-loaded.
    • The Battle of Endor from Return of the Jedi starts out more as a Battle of Midway-style melee, with snub fighters attacking the enemy capital ships, but once the Death Star cranks up its superlaser the Rebel cruisers have no choice but to go in and engage the Imperial Star Destroyers toe-to-toe so that at least the Death Star can't get a clear shot at them. The novelization sort of lampshades it; there's a line to the effect that the opposing capital ships are now exchanging broadsides at point-blank range like the oceangoing vessels of another time and place.
  • In Serenity, the Final Battle plays out more like a cavalry charge than a naval battle. This may not be a representative example, however; one side consists entirely of Reavers, who are Axe Crazy Chaotic Evil lunatics straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre IN SPACE! and probably not all that smart.

    Literature 
  • Way, way, way averted in the Alliance/Union novels. Combat takes place at such distances - and sufficient fractions of c - that space combat is described as being displayed as an intersecting mesh of tri-D cones predicting where the ships you can see might actually be now, and more importantly might actually be by the time your missiles and inert mass ammunition gets to them.
    • It's explicitly stated in Hellburner that most of the skill of fractional c firefights is being able to predict what your opponent is likely to do - partly on interpreting the data in light of tactical objectives, partly based on knowing them by name and reputation.
    • Even the titular Hellburners (properly called Riderships) avert the carrier equivalent in space as well - they are more like warships in their own right, with a command crew of 4, 30+ operational crew and capable of carrying a contingent of Space Marines. The only things they lack are the Carriers years-long supply stores and Jump Drives.
    • The combat is also fairly well justified. Jump Drives only work if ships are far enough away from stars & planets not to be affected by gravity. Stations tend to orbit planets. Attacking and defending star systems becomes about crossing those distances and threatening to cut your enemy off from his line of retreat through a jump range.
  • The Honor Harrington novels play with this. Although ships do tend to throw everything they've got at each other, they tend to do it from as far away as possible. Prior to the pod revolution, however, missiles were viewed as being more for softening up targets, and the only way to be sure to kill a dreadnaught or superdreadnaught was to close to energy weapon range.note 
    • David Weber was also one of the people behind the space strategy board game Starfire, and the space battles in Honor Harrington, especially early on, are influenced by the game mechanics.
  • E. E. “Doc” Smith's Lensman series had multiple examples, everything from one-on-one battles to huge space fleets fighting each other.
    • It can also get into entirely weird aversions, depending on the technology-of-the-moment (Lensman Arms Race being in full effect, of course). For example, in one battle the good guy ships are divided into defenders with powerful shields and tractor beams, and gunships with big guns and not much else. Their strategy is to form a giant open-ended cylinder, with the defenders on the outside, and then grab bad guys with tractor beams and force them into the end of the cylinder. The gunships on the inner wall of the cylinder can then pound each ship as it comes into the cylinder with grossly overwhelming firepower.
  • Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy had space battles between the Foundation and various opponents.
  • Dread Empire's Fall both plays this straight with the "Established Doctrine" espoused by the Government committee charged with running the war, and uses the Admiral Nelson angle of innovative tactics from the protagonists.
  • Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep has a unique kind of starship combat. All ships use a kind of "stutter drive" for Faster-Than-Light Travel, with ships making many short faster-than-light jumps every second. Maneuvering in combat means trying to synchronize your jumps with those of your target, or throwing off the synchronization of your pursuers, while releasing torpedo-like drones that try to get close to the enemy and blow them out of the sky. This unique form of combat still leaves room for many of the elements of this trope. Because a ship is only in a given location for a fraction of a second before jumping light-years away, getting close to your target becomes important so that your attacks can reach them on time. Shipboard instrumentation simulates things like bright flashes of light from explosions to make the battle more intuitive. The Star Trek Shake and Subsystem Damage make occasional appearances. Perhaps the closest parallel is Hot Sub-on-Sub Action.
  • Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained both subvert this trope; space battles happen with nuclear missiles or relativistic projectiles, from many miles away. The crews of the human ships are immersed in the control system, controlling everything through their brains. Maneuvering, if it happens, happens in hyperspace. It still manages to be incredibly dramatic.
  • Lampshaded and averted by Harry Harrison in the final book of the To the Stars trilogy. The admiral in charge of the rebel colonists shows the protagonist an old space movie before pointing out how real space battles aren't anything like this — spaceships don't fight at close range and energy weapons don't work in the vast distances of space. Although missiles are being used by both sides, the rebels use linear accelerators firing unguided cannon balls to gain the decisive edge, then finish them off with a Flechette Storm of rocket-propelled bullets — all this happens before anyone is close enough to see their opponent.
  • Played dead straight in The Lost Fleet... until Captain Geary shows up. Both sides in the war have suffered so much attrition and casualties due to this style of combat that one person who actually knows how to properly fight in space is basically unbeatable.
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe gives a lot more attention to capital ship battles than the movies generally did. Among other things The Essential Guide to Warfare has an image of two super star destroyers, the New Republic SSD Lusankya and the Imperial Remnant SSD Reaper, trading broadsides at extreme close range. See here.

    Live Action TV 
  • Star Trek:
    • The series in general is the Trope Codifier; this sort of space combat shows up with frequency in all its incarnations. In the later series, the trope is sometimes averted by having giant capital ships engage in an Old-School Dogfight, but it's still played straight very, very often.
    • In the episode "Conundrum", the Enterprise-D hints at an aversion of the franchise's usual Point Defenseless battles, while simultaneously demonstrating why there aren't many fighters to be found in Star Trek when Enterprise destroys a half-dozen in under two seconds in a casual, almost offhanded salvo of phaser fire. That episode might not be the best example, since the fighters they destroy are stated to be technologically inferior to the Federation, but the Borg also swat Federation fighters aside just as easily as they approach Earth, and it's shown that, generally speaking, the relatively-tiny Marquis ships are helpless against Federation and Cardassian capital ships and only good for raiding transports.
    • DS9: "Sacrifice of Angels" shows a Galaxy-class starship passing the bow of a Cardassian Galor-class, firing to the side as she bears. This is a seagoing battleship-era maneuver called "crossing the T".
  • In Andromeda, another Gene Roddenberry series, capital ships occasionally got close enough to one another to fire Anti-Proton guns at each other. But most of the time they lobbed relativistic missiles at blips on the tac screen several light-minutes away. And due to gravity manipulation most ships could maneuver like fighters anyway.
  • Stargate SG-1 and its sequels started to feature space battles that fit this trope perfectly once the Tau'ri developed their own spacecraft using Imported Alien Phlebotinum. Boarding Parties often played an especially large role, however, and early on the still-experimental human ships were more prone to Phlebotinum Breakdown.
    • One episode of Stargate Atlantis involved Teyla pretending to be a Wraith Hive queen. She ends up starting a fight with another Hive ship, which involves both ships floating alongside one another (mind you, each ship is several miles long) firing powerful energy bolts at each other, while hundreds of their Dart fighters go at each other. In the end, Teyla's Hive only survives because the rest of the team sabotage the other Hive. Teyla then turns to the Hive's Number Two and berates him for questioning her tactics. Said tactics were, apparently, straight out of 18th century (minus Darts) without even any maneuvering or volleys.
  • Babylon 5:
    • The series would partake in this or Old School Dogfighting (the latter typically for the fighters, but occassionally for the faster or more advanced capital ships as well). If one side got the jump on the other before they could react (typically by ambushing them as they exited a Jump Gate, or jumping on them from a jump point of their own making once the target had been lured into a predefined killzone in a inversion of the Hyperspeed Escape) then the fight would be spectacularly brief. If both ships had fair warning that a fight was about to ensue, then it would be relatively lengthy, with the ships launching fighters and long-range attacks, using electronic countermeasures or interceptor weapons systems to avoid incoming fire while trying to get close enough to allow their own weapons systems to overcome the enemy's defenses. On at least one occassion, a duel between two enemy warships resulted in both ships being destroyed.
    • The first battle of the Earth-Minbari War (after the failed first contact) was near the Vega colony. The Minbari fleet closed to weapons range and waited for the slow Earth ships to take the first shot. The whole battle lasted about 12 seconds with most Earth ships destroyed in the first Minbari volley. Only one ship (a prototype Omega) managed to get close enough to ram a Sharlin war cruiser. Nearly all battles against the Minbari were usually pretty short and one-sided. Oh, and to add more similarities with the Age of Sail, humans had to "eyeball" their weapons at the Minbari (i.e. visual targetting only), as the Minbari stealth systems prevented normal weapons lock.
  • Firefly is an interesting aversion. The protagonists' Cool Starship is an unarmed transport, not at all designed for battle; when they meet a dangerous foe in space, all they can do is try to outrun it, trick it, or bribe it. In one episode, however, a kind of space battle proves inevitable, as the heroes have to disable a hostile space station. The closest they can come to a standard space battle: One of the characters puts on a space-suit, grabs a rifle, and basically leans out the airlock to take pot-shots at the enemy. (And the rifle has to be partially covered by its own space suit, because it was not meant to work in a vacuum...) Rather than using naval metaphors, Firefly was a Space Western; thus space combat ended up resembling not seagoing ships pounding each other with cannon, but cowboys shooting at each other while riding on horseback or in wagons. The main similarities to this trope were the very short range of the engagement, and the involvement of Phlebotinum Breakdown.

    Tabletop Games 
  • BattleTech's space combat spinoff, BattleSpace / AeroTech has this as one of its core mechanics. WarShips brawl with each other at ridiculously close ranges. The battles are very brutal and reminiscent of sea battles from the age of sail. However, it has advanced rules for Newtonian flight physics instead of the Old-School Dogfight style physics, and three dimensional movement is important. Likewise, the fiction usually averts this, with direct combat between capital ships typically fought entirely by instruments and mathematics.
  • The Warhammer 40,000 spin-off game Battlefleet Gothic is a tabletop game built on this trope. To its credit, while combat mostly occurs by ships firing broadsides at each other, they at least do it over realistic distances, several million kilometres apart. The models representing the ships are completely out of scale with the rest of the game, as otherwise you'd either be playing with microscopic models, or would need a decently sized city to play in.
    • Additionally, 3D combat is handwaved as "just another range modifier", and since most of these battles take place over such insane ranges, the planar weapon distribution could even be structural, only requiring maneuvering rockets to aim in the z-axis (from the frame of reference of our 2D game surface).
  • Task Force Games: Star Fleet Battles and Starfire.
    • The latter influenced the portrayal of space battles in the Honor Harrington books, as one of the creators of the game was also the novels' author, though how the two universes actually use this trope differs.
  • Attack Vector: Tactical is a good example of an aversion. Battles between "10,000 ton cruisers plying the pitiless depths of space" is the whole point of the game, but special care is taken to realistically simulate physics. As the name implies, the key is all in "vectors and timing". Even 2D Space is averted!
  • Ground Zero Games's Full Thrust plays this trope straight. Optional rules provide varying degrees of aversion.

    Video Games 
  • Starcraft features this trope both in-game, and in an animation that plays on one of the menu buttons.
  • Gratuitous Space Battles was explicitly designed to provide a pure fix of Standard Starship Scuffle visuals. The player designs a fleet of fighters, frigates and gargantuan battleships then pits them against another fleet in a firestorm of technicolour glory. If you want to see Deflector Shields shimmering under the onslaught of Beam Spam while Tractor Beams struggle to pin elusive microfighters, this is the game for you.
  • Mass Effect averts this — at least according to the Codex.
    • The space battle at the end of the first game looks a little more like a dogfight. The space battles in Mass Effect 2 are all between the same two ships, and manage to give the impression of an aircraft attacking an oceangoing ship.
    • The battle in the first game is a ludicrously short-ranged one for the setting; the Citadel flagship is actually unable to bring its main weapon to bear fast enough before being overwhelmed by smaller enemies much lighter human Cruisers take out in a single shot.
    • The battles in Mass Effect 3 tend to be one-sided on the part of the Reapers. However, we do get to see geth and quarian fleets slug it out without much maneuvering involved. Interestingly, despite the Codex claiming that the quarian heavy capital ships were upgraded with the Thanix cannons, we never actually see them in action. They keep using their standard Magnetic Weapons.
      • The Codex claims that all starship weapons have been upgraded to Thanix cannons. However, even during the final battle involving every remaining fleet vs. the Reapers, all ships advance in a wall and wait for Sheppard's order to fire, at which point we see standard shots (i.e. no Reaper-like beam "lances"). Only then do we see some maneuvering, such as dreadnoughts getting within spitting distance of Reapers, despite the fact that they're supposed to be the space equivalent of artillery. Also, all that talk in the second game about firing only when a hit is certain flies right out the window, as we see tons of shots miss... and head straight for Earth.
  • Infinite Space has this to a hilt, especially in cutscenes.
  • The X-Universe games often feature slug fests between capital ships at fairly short ranges, even though the weapons will reach out 8km, they're too slow to kill the enemy before they close to sneezing distance. Battles between the player capital ship and AI capital ships usually end with the player plowing his ship into the AI ship. AI vs AI capital ship battles sometimes result in them both smashing into each other (if the player is speeding up time) due to the poor maneuverability of capital ships and the slow reaction time of sped-up AI.
  • Star Trek: Legacy, Star Trek: Bridge Commander and the Star Trek: Starfleet Command games all feature this heavily, as their respective settings mostly lack Space Fighters. Most Trek games are like that.
    • The second Starfleet Command game is the only one of the series to feature fighters. They aren't a tremendous help but can tip the scales in a close battle, especially for the Lyran's who get the best ones.
    • Bridge Commander does allow you to take direct control over the ship and treat it like a fighter, especially if you're piloting a Bird-of-Prey (they only have forward-firing weapons).
  • Nexus: The Jupiter Incident is a game designed around this concept. While there are fighters in the game, they're useless until the enemy's flak lasers are disabled. All fights are big slugfests, especially the climactic fight in the penultimate mission, where the player's fleet must fight against the constantly incoming enemy fleets. Lasers are specifically used to knock out enemy systems but don't do much physical damage. The other weapons are meant to damage the hull (mass drivers) and shields (energy shells).
    • Fixed Forward Facing Weapons are the exception, not the rule. Most guns are turreted and located all over the hull, so you will often see ships rotating to bring additional weapons to bear while the ones currently facing the enemy are recharging.
    • The Final Battle in the game, while smaller in scale than the Decisive Battle in the penultimate mission, is definitely not much easier. Essentially, you have to slug it out with one of the most powerful ships in the game without your fleet. You also have to do it inside a Negative Space Wedgie that could suck your ship in if you're not careful. If you focus on disabling the enemy engines, though, then the fight becomes easier, as the enemy will then fall into the anomaly.
  • Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator often plays out like this, complete with bow-to-bow gun runs, preceded by long-distance missile firing as they close distance to beam weapon range. Skilled crews often use tactics based more on maneuvering around the enemy to strike weakspots than simply closing range and engaging in a slugfest, but novice crews often resort to simplistic scuffle tactics.
  • Although most of the combat in the Wing Commander series is Old School Dogfighting, there are a few exceptions:
    • In one mission in Wing Commander III, you're escorting a pair of human destroyers that will engage Kilrathi destroyers in the area if given the opportunity.
    • One cutscene in the successful mission tree of Secret Ops shows an engagement between a Plunkett heavy cruiser and a Hydra cruiser. The losing mission branch version of the scene shows the Plunkett being swarmed by Nephilim fighters, however.
  • Sword of the Stars battles play out this way at the dreadnought and leviathan level. Smaller spacecraft try to maneuver, but don't have the agility needed for an Old-School Dogfight.
    • Computer-controlled Liir will try to swarm your ships and will try to surround-and-pound each of your ships, even if they are using dreadnoughts. If you were counting on a battle line, good luck.
    • Early battles involving only destroyers do tend to look like your typical scuffle with ships passing one another while trading shots, especially since destroyers are unlikely to have missiles and tend to only have small turrets.
  • In Homeworld series you command these as a part of gameplay, as this is a space RTS, and your task is not only to ensure that there are enough resources and ships to throw into combat, but to manage the combat itself. Which is harder than it seems because the games completely avoid 2-D Space.
    • Battles between capital ships often fit this trope closely, as large ships can't manoeuvre very well, and have fairly short-ranged weapons. They will often slowly drift past each other, or park within arm's reach of each other, and trade beam and cannon-fire until one of the ships bursts into flames and explodes... You can even order the ships into formations, one of which takes the traditional sea-bound Line of Battle and transforms it into a 3D Wall-of-Battle for much the same effect!
  • True to form, in Star Trek Online duels between starships armed with beam arrays tend to work out this way. The weapons have a 255-degree firing arc so being side-on to your target means you can hit with all your energy weapons at once. The Assault Cruiser Refit, or Regent-class, even comes with a wide-angle quantum torpedo launcher (180 degrees instead of the usual 90) to facilitate this. Among ships armed with dual cannons (most escorts) or dual beams, it works out more like an Old-School Dogfight, albeit one where the combatants also have tailguns (turrets on the rear mounts).
  • Fights between anything larger than fighters in Haegemonia looks like a typical slugfest between ships floating in space and firing at one another without any regard for tactics. While the game gives you the option of targeting engines or weapons instead of just the hull, it doesn't have much of an effect on the battle.

    Web Comics 
  • Starslip has a few instances of this trope, usually with humorous lampshading of the various associated clichés.
  • One of the fillers for S.S.D.D explains why real life space battles wouldn't look like the movies.
  • Averted in Outsider. When the Loroi and Umiak engage in space combat, their fleets are face to face with each other at considerable long distances. The Umiak attack via Zerg Rush, and missile spam, while Loroi fight with carefully coordinated attacks with Beam Spam.

Old-School DogfightSpacecraftSpace Fighter
Standard Sci-Fi FleetTropes in SpaceStandard Time Units
Standard SnippetAdded Alliterative AppealStandard Superhero Setting
Spinning PiledriverCombat TropesStraight for the Commander
Standard Sci-Fi SettingSpeculative Fiction TropesStandard Time Units

random
TV Tropes by TV Tropes Foundation, LLC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available from thestaff@tvtropes.org.
Privacy Policy
74054
6