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A Top 10 Listing Feature
From Here To Beyond Infinity:
Ten Best Spacecraft & Starships
by Christopher Geary


UP THE LANDING RAMP - intro
This top 10 listing is comprised entirely of subjective choices. A lot depends on when I first saw these interplanetary vehicles or cosmic voyagers at the cinema or on television. Also, it matters what models and toys I had while growing up. I chose to exclude things like the iconic TARDIS (from Doctor Who) simply because that 'police phone box' does not resemble any type of spaceship. Clearly, though, Gerry Anderson's futuristic telly paraphernalia (often realised, creatively, by Derek Meddings' excellent models), had a lasting impact on my taste in sci-fi hardware. I also decided not to include any flying saucers (even the "United Planets Cruiser C57-D" - from Forbidden Planet, 1956), because that UFO shape is common and rather bland. Selected for their fictional variety and originality, this article's items are basically a nostalgic medley of extraordinary images. Since I could not place these favourites on a preferred scale of one to ten, I have listed them in chronological order.

flying saucer in Forbidden Planet

Fireball XL5 (1962-3)
"I wish I was a spaceman..." sings Don Spencer for this TV show's theme song (composed by Barry Gray). It's pure adventuresome wistfulness, from the b&w Cold War era when America and Soviet Russia were in direct competition to launch manned rockets into Earth orbit, with the eventuality of an expedition to the Moon so eagerly anticipated by followers of the space race. Co-piloted by Robert the robot, and captained by Steve Zodiac, the XL5 rocket ship is launched from a ramp, not unlike the gigantic space ark in When Worlds Collide (1951). While parked in orbit around other worlds, the winged nose-cone section of Fireball could detach to become a landing shuttle. Because this was a puppet show aimed at young children, the content of plots (set one hundred years in the future) was all cheesy pulp SF at best, and XL5 whizzed around the universe without any due respect for Einsteinian physics. In 2009, the hi-def colourised episode A Day In The Life Of A Space General was released on blu-ray, upgrading this show for new 21st century viewing. As that lazy alien, Zoonie the Lazoon, might say: "Welcome home."

Fireball XL5 rocket ship launch

Discovery One (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)
Stanley Kubrick's film is the 20th century's greatest work of Art. Its widescreen epic grandeur and close attention to technological details invests the Jupiter mission with a solid realism that (as one critic noted) makes the interplanetary scenes appear to have been shot on location. Stunning interior designs (including a centrifuge deck), for the nuclear-powered USS Discovery One, with systems controlled by the artificial intelligence HAL-9000, ensure that a two-man crew (Bowman and Poole) are able to run the ship at its almost leisurely pace, while mission specialists are in hibernation. That onboard computer eventually throws a wobbly fit, and HAL graduates from lies to homicide; so one of the astronauts is killed, while the survivor journeys to a surreal room, and evolves into a 'star-child' ... or so it appears in this complex allegory. Discovery is then abandoned in a decaying orbit around Jupiter, where it is reactivated (narratively, a decade later - but 16 years in our time), for Peter Hyams' undervalued sequel 2010 (1984). Sadly, though, Discovery is lost when it's used as 'booster rocket' to allow 2010's Russian expedition to return home ahead of schedule in their own ship, the 'Leonov'. Perhaps in honour of this, the third NASA space shuttle, first launched in 1984, was also named Discovery. I never found a good scale model of the film's Discovery (far too long and spindly?), but I did have a kit of the classic Pan-Am 'Orion' shuttle.

Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Moonbase Interceptor (UFO, 1970-1)
From a hideaway hanger beneath the Moon's surface, three space bombers pop out of lunar craters, like some of kind of mechanical trapdoor spiders. They are the first line of space defence against alien invasion. Each of these atomic-powered manned spacecraft is armed with a single nuclear warhead, programmed to launch on a collision course with any UFO threats approaching Earth. The heroes from 'SHADO' had plenty of military hardware, including a 'SkyDiver' submarine with the jet aircraft 'Sky One' (which actually launched from underwater), but the trio of lunar interceptors had a unique design and, for the 1970s, at least, they did seem to be a realistic portrayal of militarised space age technology. A die-cast model of this was merchandised but the manufacturer, Dinky toys, mistakenly sprayed it a hideous green, instead of white.

Moonbase Interceptor in UFO

Valley Forge (Silent Running, 1972)
Douglas Trumbull (who created special effects for several classic SF movies, including 2001, and CE3K), made his directorial debut with futuristic ecological fable Silent Running. The story concerns reclusive botanist Lowell (Bruce Dern), who preserves miniature forests under geodesic domes on a freighter orbiting Saturn. Some interiors for the spacecraft were shot on an old US aircraft carrier, the 'Valley Forge' (decommissioned in California), adding a degree of realism to this undeniably spectacular genre adventure - which probably influenced Ridley Scott's truckers-in-space aesthetic for Alien (1979). Trumbull's conservationist drama reaches its crisis point when the loner astronaut defies corporate orders - from the ruined Earth, to jettison the greenhouse domes. Lowell hi-jacks the Valley Forge, abandons the fleet (three freighters are depicted on screen, but others are mentioned), and goes soaring into deep space, passing through Saturn's rings along the way. It ends in tragedy, of course, but a single dome - with a maintenance droid reprogrammed for gardening - survives to drift out of the Solar system. Brief scenes of that 'agro ship' in the original Battlestar Galactica TV series was footage recycled from Silent Running, and recent British flick Sunshine has a geodesic dome on its spacecraft 'Icarus Two', so the influence of Trumbull's unique vision lives on.

Valley Forge in Silent Running

Eagle transporter (Space 1999, 1975-7)
Famously named after the 1969 lunar module of Apollo 11, which landed Armstrong on the Moon, this was brilliantly designed by Brian Johnson. It's not aerodynamic, but Eagle recalls the prime mover of Thunderbird 2, with its detachable cargo or crew pod, housed between the engines and a cockpit nose. Eagle is certainly a space machine that appears more practical as an interplanetary shuttle than any familiar sci-fi rocket from a pulp-era generation of generic ships (which Ray Bradbury termed 'silver needles'), so often depicted with fins, like the sleek spacecraft in Destination Moon (1950) - based upon Heinlein's juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo. In the post-Apollo years, the general public were quite used to seeing spacecraft on TV that looked a bit ugly and bug-like, so Space 1999's utility vehicle fitted right into the new era of Skylab and the symbolic Apollo-Soyuz linkup. Despite the show's blatant disregard for scientific accuracy, there's no denying the inspired creativity that went into making the Eagle transporter one of the most instantly recognisable spacecraft from genre TV. There was a model kit of the Eagle that I enjoyed building, almost half a lifetime ago. I kept it on the shelf next to an Airfix kit of the lunar module, displaying both fact and fiction spacecraft with the same name.

Eagle transporter in Space 1999

X-Wing fighter (Star Wars, 1977)
Since the 'Millennium Falcon' looks rather boringly like a flying saucer, I chose this for its visual appeal as space plane/ fighter craft - although, like most other spaceships in George Lucas' sci-fi universe, the X-Wing is determinedly retro, embracing aspects of aircraft from WWII dogfights but with the genre appeal of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon styling. With its wingspan locked open in attack position, the X-Wing was actually the very first image from Star Wars that I can recall seeing during early publicity for the classic movie. Used in the finale's bombing strike against that supposedly invincible space fortress the Death Star, the X-Wing's space combat scenes attempted to recapture the spirit of war movies like Battle Of Britain, and The Dam Busters, cleverly futuristic with pilot Luke Skywalker aided by 'co-pilot' droid R2-D2. And yes, I had a model kit of the X-Wing, of course, and was inordinately pleased that I'd managed to build it well enough so that the wings opened up and closed again, without breaking it.

X-Wing fighter in Star Wars

The Mothership (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, 1977)
I wanted to include at least one proper extraterrestrial ship in this listing, and I considered the uncanny derelict of Alien (1979), or the memorable spinning-top design for invaders' craft in UFO, but - as I'd already chosen the Moonbase Interceptor - I did not want to cite Anderson's finest live-action show, twice. Obviously, this movie's mountain-sized city of lights, a fabulous epiphany of the Mothership's appearance, is unforgettable, and CE3K is Steven Spielberg's greatest picture, to date. Despite its second-chance misfire in a 'special edition' re-release (1980), which foolishly had included new visual effects showing us inside the Mothership, the original's reputation as mythic SF was salvaged and fully restored by the 1998 collector's edition, presented as essential buy on blu-ray for the film's 30th anniversary. Nowadays, of course, alien motherships are ten a penny in sci-fi, and every invasion flick or space opera TV show has one. The huge model was for CE3K was constructed by Greg Jein (previously, builder of the starship for John Carpenter's Dark Star, 1974). It's rather a surprise to note that, despite all of the hi-tech advances in CGI, this Mothership remains imaginatively superior to any spectacular flying machine produced for genre cinema recently, including Skyline, District 9, and TV remakes of V and BSG.

Mothership in Close Encounters

Liberator (Blake's 7, 1978-81)
After his prison breakout, the falsely convicted rebel Blake takes control of a mysterious starship and leads a small gang of heroes against Federation tyranny. Soon dubbed the Liberator, this alien vessel is (much like the Discovery was in 2001) controlled by its built-in artificial intelligence; which is named Zen. Blake's motley crew use the ship's advanced tech (which includes teleportation), for galactic adventures, until the Liberator is hi-jacked and then destroyed in third season episode Terminal. The survivors of that gloomy cliff-hanger ending promptly acquire handy replacement starship Scorpio, for voyages continued in a final season, but it is the strange looking Liberator for which this cult British TV series is best known. This show's focus on weird sci-fi was later reflected in the rather bizarre space opera Lexx (1997-2002), with a living spaceship and wholly mismatched crew. I once made a scratch-built model of the Liberator, using just oddments of plastic with a green light-bulb as the backend.

Liberator in Blake's 7

USS Enterprise (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979)
Of the several versions, I much prefer the magnificent refit design which first appears in this film directed by Robert Wise. Captain Kirk enjoys a tour of the outer hull while the great ship is enclosed in a space-dock framework, and his Starfleet shuttle pod orbits the Enterprise offering views from various angles. It's a romantically self-indulgent sequence, with almost fetishistic futurism in its love of gigantic machinery produced by a superb technocracy. A first-person-cinema viewpoint dominates much of this filmic narrative (just as in Kubrick's classic 2001), increasing the visual impact of its space adventures (best appreciated in the director's cut of this Star Trek feature). When the Enterprise is confronted by apparent threats from a monstrously oversized star cruiser - later identified as "V'ger" - the incredible scale of the space-going behemoth, that swallows up our heroes' starship, is revealed by their comparative sizes. For the grand finale, Kirk ends his elite crew's first reunion/ mission with their impromptu 'spacewalk' across the Enterprise's saucer section, to confront a powerful yet still mysterious force. I once had a model kit of the original TV series' Enterprise ship, but not one of the design upgrade seen in this movie version.

USS Enterprise in Star Trek movie

USS Cygnus (The Black Hole, 1979)
This Disney space opera, directed by Gary Nelson, has aged quite badly. Its simplistic fairytale plot, irritating robots, and blatantly stereotyped characters undermine what meagre fun this film once offered to undiscerning viewers. Yet, whenever visual effects take over, it still works efficiently in spectacular sci-fi mode, all thanks to the magnificent and impressively creepy starship, USS Cygnus (designed by Peter Ellenshaw), first lost, and then doomed... That scene where all the lights are switched on remains a startling intro for this - seemingly abandoned - 'ghost' ship. Coincidentally, the Canadian progressive rock band Rush included a song Cygnus X-1 on their 1977 album A Farewell To Kings. Like this film, the song was about a genre journey through a black hole but, with quixotic irony, Rush named their starship 'Rocinante'.

USS Cygnus in The Black Hole

OUT OF THE AIRLOCK - extro
Since the above, many other notable spaceships range from Syd Mead's fine design of the Russian 'Leonov', for Peter Hyams' 2010 (1984), to slick CGI for the 'Antares' in TV series Defying Gravity (2009). But the obviously NASA-inspired industrial style of such manmade vessels pales in comparison to those grotesque spidery 'Shadow' ships in Babylon 5 (1994-8), or the dramatic simplicity of an immense Borg cube - first seen in series Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Q Who (1989). Perversely, it's clear that what makes a good science fiction spaceship is aesthetics or weirdness, not whether it looks especially convincing.

Shadow ship in Babylon 5




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