August 16, 2016
I know you were all waiting for this post. There’s just not enough distractions in the world to take away from this gnawing question you have about starship hulls and how they should look.
The 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the new Star Trek movie, the return of the original Enterprise’s model at the Smithsonian, the announcement of a new Star Trek TV show, and the resurgence of Star Wars has brought starship hulls front and center to my brain.
All of the Starfleet, Imperial, Rebel, Firefly, and Babylon 5 ship hulls have one in common. They are composed of gray metal plates. Starship hulls across many science fiction properties have become very similar. Almost indistinguishable.
Odd, because real-life spaceship hulls tend to be mostly white, with a little black, or orange because white paint adds extra weight. (Our old space shuttle resembled a space panda and its successor even has orange in it.) Even our airplanes have continuous metal skins that are sleeker than the nu-Trek Enterprise. And they are painted multiple colors, too!
So, gray metal plates riveted or otherwise fit together. In the 2009 Star Trek movie, the CGI hull of the USS Enterprise was actually purposefully made to look slightly uneven to resemble separate hull plates.
Why do our visionary creators think these futuristic FTL starships will be wrapped up in square/rectangular metal sheets? Because, I submit, of the origins of the starship Enterprise. Gene Roddenberry based the ship on the USS Enterprise and other World War II aircraft carriers (such as the Yorktown). He was a WWII vet (Army Air Force). Those famous, iconic, beloved ships had thick slabs of gray, metal armor. Starship = aircraft carrier, in case you didn’t catch on.
Star Wars has the same design element. Star Destroyers are covered in gray metal. The Millennium Falcon and the X-wings had some racing stripes or splotches of color here and there, but otherwise, guess what? Gray metal plates. Beat-up ships have rusted, damaged plates and new ships have gleaming, shiny gray metal plates. (Some of this may have to do with kit-bashing to make spaceship models and then coating them in gray paint.)
I think that the gray metal plate approach to starship hulls doesn’t make sense any more. Starships won’t be assembled from stitching together squares like some kind of metallic quilt. (If iconic starships were designed in H.G. Wells’ time, they would probably have brick hulls and wouldn’t that look weird.) Here’s what I think would be less archaic starship hulls for future science fiction properties:
- Colored patterns (imagine if Vera Bradley designed starship hulls)
- Different substances like rock, fiber, fungus, cement, ceramic, plastic, bark, wire mesh, or even diamond
- Illumination, not just running lights, but hull panels or sections that glow.
- Formed or poured hull segments (with 3D printing, composite materials, materials science this is not far-fetched)
To get your head churning, think of a starship hull that is made of:
- Irregular 3D printed sections rather than square plates
- Pastel stone, like a Gothic, Caribbean cathedral flying among the stars
- Small iridescent hexagons on a black composite hull
- A giant video display
- Patterns of translucent gems
- Simple non-gray colors: gold, copper, brass, green, red, blue