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Excessive Steam Syndrome

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The Chosen One bringing balance to the fog.

"The factory is a stock 'bad guy’s lair', complete with machinery full of lights that blink on and off randomly, as well as lots of foggy corridors and steam jets. Where would evil masterminds be without steam jets?"

When a place has more steam present than there should be, you've got Excessive Steam Syndrome. Two extremely common versions are steam expulsion during an escape sequence after a self-destruct mechanism is triggered and the other is where space faring vessels demonstrate a tendency to belch steam.

In the case of steam produced during a Self-Destruct sequence, after the Self-Destruct Mechanism is active, the Hero will need to escape as quickly as possible while The Supervillain Lair is collapsing around him and he will be hampered by all the steam that seems to be venting into the main escape corridor. Somehow he manages to dash his way out of the crumbling hive of villainy and burst out of the clouds of steam.

It's all very dramatic, but to be completely honest, no one would hire an architect that made vents dump steam into the main exit, especially when people are trying to escape. It just goes against any semblance of sanity or decent design.

The second common example is in speculative fiction spacecraft, where the spacecraft leak steam apparently as part of regular functionality. These vessels have a tendency to vent dense streams of steam-like gas at every occasion, both outside and in.

When an engineer is confined in the bowels of a ship, he's almost guaranteed to run into a cloud of the stuff. Maybe it's hot, like a steam pipe opening up, maybe it's cold, like a liquid oxygen pipe opening to atmosphere. It's usually dangerous, and always cool-looking on film.

Because Space Is an Ocean, this may have started as an homage to classic cinema depicting naval life. On a submarine or steamship, streams of thick steam were ubiquitous. It's an easy and cheap way to make an area look industrial, damaged, dangerous, gritty, or any combination thereof. It's also useful if there are any lurking threats needing a good lurk.

On the outside of the ship, ventings usually accompany an atmospheric landing, power-up, lift-off, or other such event. This comes from footage of real spacecraft, which often sever lines and conduits with explosive charges during launch.

See also Self-Destruct Mechanism. Compare to Impressive Pyrotechnics and Made of Explodium. Has nothing to do with fanservice anime that overdo Censor Steam nor addiction to buying far too many games at 20% off on Steam.


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    Anime and Manga 

  • A Certain Scientific Railgun: Frenda uses this to her advantage in the fight against Mikoto; she claims the steam in the area is a flammable gas, forcing Mikoto to hold back her overpowered electromaster abilities. When Frenda accidentally sets off an ignition strip and it doesn't blow them all sky-high, Mikoto realizes she's been tricked, and the fight immediately ends. The anime, likely realizing that steam isn't actually so visually obvious, change it to Frenda using an opaque, but inert, gas.
  • While not a spaceship, Raising Heart from Lyrical Nanoha usually discharges some kind of gas after any particularly impressive attack.
    • Considering the sheer amounts of energy being thrown around, it's probably coolant, or at least ambient gas that gets superheated by accident. It's apparently a design feature, since the vents have caps that pop off to let it happen.
    • Not just RH; Bardiche and really, most other Intelligent Devices, Storage Devices and Armed Devices do this. Especially with a cartridge system. This kind of supports the theory that Magi-Link Cartridges generate a lot of waste heat, if not for the AI system decompiling the Magic As Programs attacks in split-seconds and then cooling down in-between. In other words, AI split-second overclocking in weapon forms.
      • It even gets supported by the side materials: Nanoha mentions her new Raising Heart Exelion jury-rigged with a cartridge system is a total maintenance nightmare.
  • Brought to the logical extreme by Leiji Matsumoto in Galaxy Express 999: the titular Cool Train is a spaceship that looks like a train pulled by a C62 steam locomotive, smoke included. Justified out of universe by Author Appeal and in-universe by Rule of Cool (Maetel quickly points out it was built with that look because people preferred it to more modern-looking space trains).
  • Steamboy. This trope is present throughout pretty much the whole movie, especially so in the second half with the Steam Castle. Of course, when you're talking about a colossal structure that runs entirely on steam power, large quantities of the stuff are to be expected, right?

    Comic Books 
  • Present and lampshaded when dealing with Martin and Louis's quantum decomputer in Atomic Robo, which Robo concludes is evil even before it's turned on and summons an Eldritch Abomination. Among his many aesthetic complaints is, "This thing's venting steam! Why's it doing that?"

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Alien films and their spin-offs feature tons of steam blasts from leaky pipes, perfect for cheap scares when fighting xenomorph infestations.
    • Subverted a bit in Alien when a steam burst that is annoying Ripley is actually shown to be under the control of another crew member.
      • Though she doesn't realize it until after she leaves. "Son of a bitch." *STEAM!*
    • Justified after Ripley sets the Self-Destruct Mechanism, which involves turning off the cooling units of the ship's reactor. The ship's systems are automatically venting in an effort to cool itself.
      • The same can also be said of, though not on a spaceship, the converter on LBV-426 towards the end of Aliens when she goes to look for Newt. Notice those pipes she passes that are glowing a dull red, yeah, that's the coolant pipes trying to compensate a reactor that's about to pop. The light you see on the bottom floors is the residual radiation of the core...neat sound effect too!
      • Partly justified, since there are surely better places for the coolant system to try and dump excess heat than into crew spaces. (It's interesting that in 2001: A Space Odyssey the Discovery was originally going to have radiator fins jutting out from the engine block; they were dropped from the design to avoid audience members asking why the ship needed wings).
    • Like the Alien example above, excessive steam is a recurring motif in Ridley Scott's work, particularly Blade Runner with large amounts of steam drifting through the building when Deckard tries to escape Roy.
  • In Die Hard, excessive steam shows in the boiler room under the roof, added for suspense.
  • Star Wars:
    • The Empire Strikes Back:
      • Darth Vader walks dramatically through steam exhausts that for some reason are set around the ship's main entrance. It is also justified during the fight between him and Luke takes place in the Carbon Freezing Chamber, since the steam comes from the core to which Vader attempts to drag Luke in order to turn him into carbonite.
      • The Millennium Falcon also vents steam/coolant/whatever after setting down on the Cloud City landing platform on Bespin. Nobody tries to walk through it.
    • Made even weirder, though more badass, in the novelizations, which claim that the steam is burning hot and that normal people won't exit until it's evaporated. This is actually lampshaded as a security feature to prevent assaults or sabotage when docking.
  • In Star Trek (2009), when Enterprise is getting sucked into a black hole near the end and they're running the warp engines at maximum power, Scotty is running around in Engineering trying to hold the ship together. A pipe cracks overhead and steam comes venting out.
  • In The Fifth Element, the airlock of the Mondoshawans' ship hisses steam and drips condensation when it first opens up at the Egyptian temple.
  • Used for a Bond One-Liner in Commando when John Matrix impales Bennett with a pipe that somehow keeps emitting steam long after Matrix has pulled it off the wall and thrown it through Bennett's chest. Apparently Matrix threw it with such force it went through Bennett's body and into the boiler behind him.
    Matrix: Let off some steam, Bennett.

  • In The Amtrak Wars books the Wagon Trains do vent steam; it's used as a close-range defense system, and capable of blasting the flesh right off your bones.
  • The Soviet officers in the novel The Hunt for Red October mention a cook who tried cleaning his pots and pans with steam from the primary coolant loop (read: radioactive steam) for the ship's reactor and ended up killing himself and irradiating the entire engine compartment. "At least he cleaned his pans though. They should be safe to use after several hundred years."
    • Not so much a joke as it might seem. The same story, minus irradiating the engine compartment, is related in Crash Dive, edited by Larry Bond. In the vignette, Accident on K-219, a crewman of the K-219 recalls this story involving an unsuspecting cook aboard the Soviet icebreaker Lenin who did, in fact, use steam from the reactor coolant system to clean his pans. The vignette was composed with the input of former Soviet captain Igor Kurdin, so it may well have happened.note 
    • Any reactor design that allows for a cook to have access to the primary cooling loop to clean his pans was a Bad One.
  • Chasm City features a space station that is cooled by pumping ice through pipes, turning to steam in the process before being ejected into space; this is justified, as the station's heat radiators were broken off by space debris.
  • Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven's alien invasion story Footfall includes a spaceship with an Orion-class nuclear engine that is indeed cooled by and powered by steam.
  • The setting of Larry Niven's The Smoke Ring includes rockets that travel inside the Smoke Ring, on jets of live steam. It is unpleasant if they malfunction. The novel has such a malfunction in an early scene. One victim has the misfortune to not be killed immediately when engulfed by live steam from the exploding ship. There is a brief mention of one of the already-known characters trying to catch the victim as she goes by, grabbing her ankle...and the flesh coming off in the would-be rescuer's hand.
  • In the Star Wars Legends, leaky starfreighters can release korfaise gas, which looks like steam, into the engine room. This is a bad thing, because korfaise is toxic.

    Live Action TV 
  • Star Trek, all incarnations, most notably in Voyager's landing sequence. It's also seen on The Bridge along with Explosive Instrumentation.
    • Klingon ships seem especially prone to this as well.
    • Also seen for your requisite shuttle crash, perhaps because steam is safer than smoke for actors in confined spaces.
    Computer: Warning. Hydrazine gas levels at one hundred twelve parts per million. Begin evacuation procedures.
  • Thunderbirds made extensive use of steam, smoke, and zero-thrust rocket motors to depict takeoffs and landings in miniature. Rockets in flight were filmed inverted, so the smoke would rise away from the rocket instead of climbing after it.
  • In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode The Phantom Planet, Tom Servo explains this: "Look, there's the problem, their dryer's leaking."
  • And in the Lost Continent episode, Crow calls "Hey, save the fog, we can use it in a Ridley Scott film!"
  • Several ships in Farscape had this, especially when they were malfunctioning. One particularly bad-ass sequence that was used in the opening had John and D'Argo walking in slow-motion through a steaming corridor. Near the end of Season 3, an imploding space-ship has steam going off all over, leading to some prime horror, as one strikes an old childhood friend of Aeryn's, who is just about to shoot her, and burns the flesh off her face.
  • In Stargate Universe, for some as of yet unexplained reason, there are steam CO2 vents on the floor of the gate room of the Destiny. They fire every time the wormhole closes.
  • The original Battlestar Galactica pilot does this. Starbuck and Cassiopeia are seen kissing in the hangar bay, while Starbuck's other love interest catches them by surveillance camera. Cue the push of a "Steam Vent" button.
    • The pilot of the re-imagined version had Ragnar Station. Justified, as Leoben had just ripped a steam pipe. The rest of the station wasn't really steamy at all.
  • Babylon 5 had steam vents occasionally, notably in "Grey 17 Is Missing", where Garibaldi used a broken steam pipe to build an improvised gun.
  • In the Doctor Who Confidential episode for "The Impossible Planet" it's commented by the producer that practically every shot has steam rising from somewhere.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000 has Stanley Steamer Spaceships and Stanley Steamer tanks. Sometimes justified in the latter case; the primary STC tank of the Imperium is of extremely basic design, so much so that the things can be adapted to run on actual steam engines. This is quite a popular option on less developed worlds; after all, a steam engine can be made to run on just about anything you can reliably light on fire.
  • Justified for Space 1889 where ships use solar boilers to power their "aether propellers" between planets. The boilers, which consist of a large parabolic mirror and a boiler on a turntable vent their safety valves directly into the engine room on a space ship, in order to preserve as much water as possible from being lost.

    Video Games 
  • The mining barges from EVE Online discharge smoke and flames from ports on their flanks. Averted, since it is most likely the barge ejecting the excess material from extracting the ore.
    • Do remember that these exhaust pipes are always venting, even when docked in a station.
  • In the Fallout 3 add-on Mothership Zeta, the featured ship has an area called 'steamworks' which is mostly filled with steam releasing pipes (there's also several "cryo chamber" areas with leaking coolant and evaporation).
  • The USG Ishimura in Dead Space and the Sprawl Dead Space 2 both have this in places. Particularly as the Ishimura is a mining ship, the industrial sectors of it are noisy and clanky, with steam and other evidence of heavy processing machinery going on. Both games of course have a rush of visually obstructing gasses when in a room undergoing a change in air pressure, such as an airlock or a window being blown out.
  • Brave Fencer Musashi has lots of pipes seemingly designed to pump hot steam into areas where you need to be.
  • The second Fear Effect game (which is actually a prequel to the first) have the player, as Rain, crossing a corridor in the aqueduct full of pipes discharging steam at regular intervals, at which point they must time their run to avoid getting boiled alive.
  • Metroid:
    • Super Metroid:
      • In the intro level, Samus needs to escape a space station, while avoiding gushes of steam coming out from practically everywhere. If you get hit by the steam, you lose precious time to escape.
      • Happens again during the escape from planet Zebes, only the steam's escaping from the ground itself.
    • And in the Metroid Prime Trilogy, it seems every other hallway is spewing steam all the time, made more evident by the fact that we see the condensation on Samus' visor.
  • Remnants of Skystone:
    • The game has steam vents as obstacles, despite their supposedly having been untended for nearly two hundred years, often acting just to make you schlep all the way around to try a particularly tricky threading-the-needle series of spikes and nasties.
    • The Aeronaut class has a jetpack, which blasts one skyward on a pillar of steam. Their "blasters" also work by weaponizing this.
  • The prisons of Skeleton Krew would constantly spew bursts of steams from their vents, which will cause damage to the players' health when they're attempting to cross an area.
  • Present in BioShock to show damage and decay in many of the stages, especially present in Hephaestus.
  • The "Flush Coolant" command in most MechWarrior video games resulted in a greenish cloud forming under your 'Mech, which isn't steam so much as the 'Mech literally ejecting coolant to bleed away heat.. Sadly not present in Mechwarrior Online.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Truth in Television: Inverted during the righting of the Cougar Ace, the salvage team had to climb down part of the rear deck — which was being periodically blasted by plumes of -110 degree carbon dioxide.
  • During the Apollo 13 disaster, the crew could see vapors venting from their damaged spacecraft. Of course, the Apollo spacecraft wasn't supposed to do this once it was out of the atmosphere; Jim Lovell has said that the last thing any Commander ever wants to see is his ship "bleeding".
    • Before launch, however, all Saturn V rockets had plumes of condensed water vapour streaming off them, because the liquid hydrogen (LH2, the fuel for stages 2 and 3) and liquid oxygen (used as oxidiser for all three stages) were so cold. The steaming can be seen in several shots in this video.
  • As mentioned above, getting hit with a jet of steam in Real Life usually invokes a particularly hideous and gruesome version of the Chunky Salsa Rule: it literally cooks you alive like a giant, ambulatory shrimp.
    • Very high pressure steam leaks are dangerous in another way - one procedure for finding them involves waving a broom handle around until it's neatly cut by the invisible knife.
      • This is specifically for super-critical water, aka 'live steam'. This is water pressurised and heated to a temperature above the critical point, where the difference between liquid and gas disappears. It's invisible because it's physically impossible for the water droplets that make normal steam visible to form at such temperatures. This also makes it phenomenally dangerous, since it can cook the flesh right off your bones if it hits you. Potentially before you drop to the floor, since (did we mention?) super-critical means "under very high pressure" as well.
  • Water makes an excellent heatsink, as it can absorb remarkable amount of energy in the ice to water and water to steam phase changes. This property makes it exceedingly valuable in a realistic space warship which would cook itself to death otherwise (as space is not cold in real life). Open cycle cooling where coolant is vented into space is useful in some circumstances, but leaking 600 degree steam into engineering or living spaces would only happen in the result of catastrophic damage.
    • Or, potentially, to deal with either mutinying crew or intruders.
    • One proposal is to use what's called a 'flash cube reactor', in which the fuel is uranium hexaflouride contained in a quartz tube, with a movable beryllium neutron mirror outside it that can be moved to surround however much of the reactor vessel is desired, with power increasing as more is covered. The heat produced would be used to boil water, which would then provide steam for a steam rocket, which could easily provide 0.25g of thrust for up to an hour at a time, which is a huge thrust for very long time for a ship in open spacenote . This is proposed for the battle drive for a space warship, which needs lots of thrust for the short periods of battle (which would tend to end as soon as someone got a telling blow in, since space is a tremendously unforgiving environment).
  • Some engineers theorize that a solar powered steam-propellant spaceship could be used for economical Mars travel, which just goes to show we could easily go full circle and start traversing the solar system in steam ships....
    • There also exist multiple concepts for nuclear-powered ships that essentially run on continuous steam explosions or equivalent effects with other molecules. For instance, with a suitable reaction surface, you can produce a similar effect with carbon dioxide to make an engine. What's the use of that? It gives you an exploration ship with a an effectively unlimited cruising range on Mars. When you get done with that, refit it to use water and head for the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
  • Almost all cryogenic systems are deliberately designed to fall into this trope if something goes wrong. Liquid nitrogen or helium systems need pressure relief vales so that if cooling fails or too much heat gets dumped into it, it can boil off safely rather than building up pressure and exploding. As the slight problem the LHC had when it first started running shows, even this isn't always enough.
    • A complicating factor in these designs is a phenomenon known as 'quenching'. If you localize the field of a superconducting magnet too much (by, say, dropping a significant mass of magnetic material like a steel hammer onto the casing) it can cause the superconductor coil carrying the current generating the field to abruptly lose superconductivity, resulting in the energy in the current all being rapidly liberated as heat in the coil. The effects of this are pretty dramatic, even if the emergency pressure release works perfectly.
  • Sort of Truth in Television. Most of the clouds you see at a rocket launch pad are steam. Super hot exhaust gas would destroy the concrete "flame pits"? Easy solution, spray massive amounts of water at them so all that energy goes into turning it into steam.
    • Space Shuttle launches produced far more steam than other rockets because of the sound suppression water system used to muffle the engines. NASA had to come up with this because the Shuttle's payload bay was so close to the launch pad. Acoustic waves reflecting off the pad could have damaged sensitive cargo. Their solution was dumping 300,000 gallons of water on the pad just before ignition; a lot of this was converted to steam during a launch.
    • Some of NASA's rockets (e.g. the second and the third stages of the Saturn V, the rocket engines on the Space Shuttle proper) have been fueled its rockets with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen which burn to make water, which means the white clouds in the exhaust are steam. In other words, they're are steam powered.

Alternative Title(s): Stanley Steamer Spaceship