To Boldly Go: Spaceship Stories in Pop Culture
September 26, 2012
In a previous blog post, we examined actor/comedian/author Patton Oswalt’s three personality types based on a teenage nerd’s preferences in pop culture. In his book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt lays out the characteristics of the three personalities: Zombies simplify, spaceships leave, and wastelands destroy. We’ve already visited the wasteland, so let’s board the spaceship this time around. Whereas wasteland personalities want to see their boring world utterly destroyed so that they can build a new world, spaceship personalities want to leave that world behind and find a new life somewhere else.
Let’s take a look at some pop culture that exemplifies the spaceship ethos, which can best be described by the intro to Star Trek: "…to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." Sometimes the new life is benevolent and attractive aliens who just want to help. Other times, it’s Lovecraftian horrors who just want to suck your brains out. And occasionally, you discover something mysterious and awe-inspiring. Here are some iconic spaceship stories from pop culture:
- When Worlds Collide – A pair of runaway planets has entered the solar system and humanity’s only hope is to build an enormous spaceship to escape the doomed Earth and settle one of the rogue planets. I saw this 1951 George Pal film on TV as a kid, and it stands up better than most films of the era. This film has some of the greatest special effects work of its time, especially the launch sequence featuring the world’s greatest ski ramp/rollercoaster.
- Forbidden Planet – In this 1956 film loosely based on Shakespeare’s "The Tempest," the crew of the United Planets Cruiser C-57D is sent to discover the fate of a previous expedition to the planet Altair IV. Watch for the iconic Robby the Robot and a very serious Leslie Nielsen (he is serious, and don’t call him Shirley) in this masterpiece of old school SF film.
- Rendezvous with Rama – A mysterious object, dubbed Rama, enters the solar system from interstellar space. At first, it appears to be an asteroid or comet, but closer inspection reveals that it is an enormous (50 km long) cylindrical starship. The survey vessel Endeavour is sent on an urgent mission to examine the object, which will pass quickly through the solar system on its way to parts unknown. This 1972 Arthur C. Clarke novel is one of the first to depict alien psychology and technology as not only advanced, but fundamentally inscrutable to humans.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey – The crew of the Discovery One (Dr. Frank Poole, Dr. David Bowman, and the computer HAL 9000) are en route to Jupiter after a mysterious lunar monolith (also seen at the dawn of man) beams a signal to the planet. HAL goes homicidally insane, kills Poole, and tries to kill Bowman. Bowman deactivates HAL and then travels through a Pink Floyd laser-light show to a place beyond space and time where he is transformed into the Starchild. Or something. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film is considered to be one of the most accurate depictions of space travel (at least before the Pink Floyd show), and Discovery One is one of the first "realistic" cinematic space ships based upon plausible science. This nuclear powered ship requires no streamlining as it will never enter an atmosphere, and features rotating crew areas to provide simulated gravity.
- Star Trek – The United Federation of Planets Constitution-Class United Space Ship Enterprise NCC-1701 is probably the most iconic SF ship of all time. This low-rated SF television show that lasted only three seasons spawned a worldwide obsession and a franchise that is still going strong today, with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness due out next spring.
- The Forever War – Joe Haldeman’s 1974 novel was one of the first to deal with the problem of time dilation in near-light speed interstellar travel. For the soldiers travelling by starship to fight in distant star systems, missions that take a few years from their viewpoint result in centuries passing on Earth. The disorientation felt by the war's veterans returning to an Earth they barely recognize was based on Haldeman’s experiences as a Vietnam veteran.
- Star Wars – Duh. The Millenium Falcon. X-Wings and TIE fighters. Star Destroyers. Enough said.
- Alien - The crew of the space tug Nostromo receives a mysterious transmission from the planet LV-426. Upon landing, they discover the wreck of an alien starship. Then horrible creatures jump on faces, burst out of chests, and kill the crew members one by one. Ridley Scott’s 1979 film influenced countless later films with its gritty, claustrophobic, industrial starship
- Space Battleship Yamato – This early anime (1974-80) features one of the coolest starships of all time: the WWII battleship Yamato retrofitted for space travel. I loved this show as a kid (called StarBlazers in its American version) and wish it was better known.
- Firefly and Serenity – In one of the greatest injustices in all of television history, Joss Whedon’s 2002 TV series Firefly was cancelled after only one season. Whedon wasn’t done telling the adventures of Captain Mal Reynolds and his quirky crew of outlaws on the Firefly-class ship Serenity, so he wrapped things up with the 2005 film Serenity. You needn’t have seen all of the Firefly episodes to appreciate Serenity, but for goodness sake, watch them anyway, preferably in a one-sitting marathon. Then watch Serenity and wonder WHY IN THE WORLD DID I NOT SEE THIS IN THE THEATER?! I view Firefly/Serenity as the spiritual successor to the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s that good.
- Across the Universe – Beth Revis’ 2011 young adult novel introduces us to the enormous, colony ship Godspeed. Most of the colonists are in cryogenic storage during the 300 year voyage. When 17-year old Amy is awakened prematurely, she finds that things on board Godspeed may not have been going exactly according to plan. The story is continued in the sequel A Million Suns.
- Apollo 13 - I thought I'd finish with this real-life spaceship story where truth is even more amazing than fiction. En route to the Moon, and 200,000 miles from home, Apollo 13 was crippled when one of its oxygen tanks exploded. Ron Howard's 1995 film dramatizing how three astronauts and countless Earth-bound NASA personnel turned a near-fatal disaster into a triumph is one of the greatest stories of heroism ever filmed.
Taking my protein pills and putting my helmet on,
Image credit: "San Diego Comic-Con 2011 - Starship Enterprise light-up scale model (Quantum Mechanix booth)" by Flickr user Pop Culture Geek via Flickr's Creative Commons.