Sunday, 22 March 2015

Gratuitous Lists: Best Space Battles

There are two key ingredients to the perfect space opera. The first is successfully evoking a  sensawunda: the scale of the cosmos, the ingenuity of the technological developments required to space interstellar distances and the majesty of the universe. The second is to have really, really big spaceships which, at a dramatically appropriate moment, explode.

Here is a list of what I think are the best space battles of SFF TV and film are over the years, listed in no particular order but with my favourite one at the end.

Babylon 5: The Battle of Gorash VII
Season 2, Episode 20: The Long, Twilight Struggle
Airdate: 1 August 1995

Babylon 5 was the first SF show to feature 100% CGI spaceship shots and space battles. Scepticism from more established shows (who preferred to use models, although they were more complicated, limited and expensive) was replaced by them rushing to embrace computer models after Babylon 5 pioneered the concept.

The first two seasons had many, many great space battles but the most emotionally draining one came at the climax of the Narn-Centauri War. The Centauri Republic learned that the Narn Regime was going to attack their supply depot on Gorash VII and cut their supply lines leading into Narn space, forcing a temporary stalemate. The Centauri chose to instead launch a full-scale assault on the Narn homeworld using mass drivers to propel asteroids into the planet's surface and lay it waste. The defence of Gorash VII was handled by the Centauri's redoubtable allies instead, the powerful Shadows. What made this battle more interesting was a greater use of tactics: the Narn use long-range energy mines to try to disrupt the Shadow attack and later concentrate their fire on one of the Shadow ships to cripple it (the first hint in the series that the Shadows aren't completely invulnerable). In addition to Foundation Imaging's brilliant visuals, Christopher Franke (ex-Tangerine Dream) also delivered a killer score fit for the occasion.

Babylon 5: The Battle of Babylon 5
Season 3, Episode 10: Severed Dreams
Airdate: 1 April 1996

Babylon 5 was also the first show to feature a pre-planned (if not in quite as much detail as claimed at the time) five-year story arc which had several major paradigm shifts for the concept and format built into it. The biggest of these came at almost exactly halfway through the show. Having spent a season and a half covertly investigating the murder of the Earth Alliance President, the crew of the Babylon 5 station inadvertently force his tyrannical successor to declare martial law across the Alliance. In the resulting chaos, the colonies on Mars and Proxima III break away and are subjected to retaliatory bombings and air strikes. As full-scale civil war erupts, two rebel Omega-class destroyers take refuge at Babylon 5 and are cornered by pursuing forces. The crew of B5 are finally forced to make a stand.

This was a hugely important moment for the show and it delivered in spades. Unfortunately, the above video is the only decent one I can find online and omits the ending of the battle, when newly-arrived reinforcements almost force the station to surrender but Minbari cruisers led by Ambassador Delenn force them to retreat or be destroyed (and risk plunging Earth into an interplanetary war with a race who wiped the floor with them last time).

Later seasons would also feature large-scale space battles, but they lost a little something when Foundation Imaging was controversially fired from the show at the end of the third season. Netter Digital, who replaced them, showed considerably less care and attention to details (such as the proper Newtonian movement of the ships in 3D space). As computing power increased Netter also adopted a bit of a George Lucas approach to everything, chucking in tons of ships and beams in lieu of keeping things clear and well-directed. But for the first three seasons, the space battles were very cool indeed.

Firefly: Reavers vs. the Alliance
Release date: 22 August 2005

Firefly wasn't really a show about space battles, mainly because the series is set in the aftermath of a civil war and failed rebellion and was more about surviving when your cause is taken from you. However, Joss Whedon wisely decided to cut loose in the big-budget movie spin-off. The battle is well-directed and excellently scored, but works because the tiny Serenity (which probably couldn't survive more than a couple of direct hits from any of the Reavers or Alliance's weapons) is just try to get through the blockade to reach the broadcasting centre. This makes the battle more of a chaotic backdrop to the real tension of the scene and this works pretty well. The above video omits the horrifying climax to the battle, the scene which is definitive proof that Joss Whedon is evil.

Mass Effect: The Battle of Earth
Mass Effect 3
Release date: 6 March 2012

Most video games featuring space battles have you actually taking part in them, which is a different type of list altogether. The Mass Effect trilogy is different in that the spaceships are merely a way of getting around from place to place, with the in-game battles being set on planetary surfaces or on space stations. For the conclusion of the trilogy, however, BioWare went all-out to produce a CGI firestorm for the moment when the alliances Commander Shepherd (i.e. you) had spent three games and 60-odd hours assembling finally engages the Reapers over the surface of occupied Earth. It's nicely done, especially considering that the course of the battle varies depending on your in-game actions. Spend a lot of time carefully honing your forces and getting every upgrade possible and your fleet does a lot better. Skimp out on upgrades and maybe fail to get every faction on board, and your fleet suffers much heavier losses with different CGI shots to show this.

Great stuff. Just a shame that the actual ending to the story was less impressive and less well-thought-out. [/understatement]

Battlestar Galactica: The Battle of the Resurrection Ship
Season 2, Episode 12: Resurrection Ship, Part 2
Airdate: 13 January 2006

Battlestar Galactica used many of the tricks, skills and even same artists who worked on the CGI for Babylon 5, Star Trek and Firefly, so by the time they started work on that show they were already old hands. The result was a show that used its CG brazenly and with confidence from day one, with (more or less) Newtonian physics and the use of "more realistic" bullets and missiles rather than lasers. They also inherited Firefly's "documentary in space" feel, with crash-zooms and occasionally going out of focus.

There were some great dogfights in the first two seasons, but the quality of the battles took an upswing in this episode, when the battlestars Galactica and Pegasus team up to take down the mysterious Cylon "resurrection ship". The battle, one of the first to truly look glorious in high definition, is a backdrop to the drama as Lee Adama faces a moment of nihilistic contemplation and Admiral Cain and Commander Adama have to consider whether to proceed with their plans to kill one another or not. It's an interesting, non-triumphant way of approaching the battle with its cold cut from the preceding scene to the battle already being underway and the camera cutting away from the moment where the battlestars destroy a Cylon basestar outright (the first time they do so in a fair fight in the series).

Battlestar Galactica: The Battle of New Caprica
Season 3, Episode 4: Exodus, Part 2
Airdate: 20 October 2006

For the conclusion of its four-part "New Caprica" arc, BSG faced a problem. It had created the ultimate hostage scenario, with over 40,000 civilians trapped under Cylon occupation on the colony of New Caprica. The Galactica and Pegasus have escaped with skeleton crews and only a few of their fighter squadrons (most of the pilots still being on the ground). Our protagonists have to orchestrate a rebellion against the Cylon ground forces and engage and draw off at least two basestars in orbit whilst 40,000 civilians escape. A tall order and Admiral Adama has to come up with a badass, unexpected way of doing so. Cue the most memorable moment in the series (in any series): "All hands, brace for turbulence."

Star Trek: The Battle of the Mutara Nebula
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Release date: 4 June 1982

A strong contender for the #1 spot. Admiral Kirk on the Enterprise and Khan Noonian Singh on the captured Reliant face off for the last time. Several things make this battle work so well. There's a lumbering sense of scale with these huge ships taking time to make turns, pass, reverse course and so on. They also need to strategically manoeuvre and place themselves to get the best firing angles (Kirk gains the upper hand after Khan, more used to fighting land battles on Earth, fails to properly appreciate the 3D nature of space). It feels more strategic. Other SF shows (including later Star Trek ones) tend to make the ships feel more like nimble fighters, which isn't always appropriate. More key is the fact that the two ships are actually pretty evenly matched. In fact, the larger Enterprise is probably slightly more powerful. It requires Khan to get the drop on Kirk and put him on the back foot. This is the key point the later attempts to match this battle (most notably in Nemesis and Into Darkness) ignore, as they prefer to have the Enterprise crew go up against someone in some gonzoid massive ship of mega-death, which is simply excruciatingly dull.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Defending the Enterprise-C
Season 3, Episode 15: Yesterday's Enterprise
Airdate: 19 February 1990

Given its 178-episode, seven-season run it's surprising that Star Trek: The Next Generation didn't have more space battles. There were a few battles in the Klingon Civil War and the Enterprise would occasionally have to fire on alien ships which were either ridiculously inferior or, more frequently, would have no impact, but not much more than that. The highlights were the battles against the Borg, although they tended to end with the Borg victorious which wasn't so much fun. More annoying was that the most famous battle in Star Trek's history, the Battle of Wolf 359, where forty Federation starships took on a Borg cube and were obliterated, took place off-screen. A small slice of the battle is seen in the Deep Space Nine pilot episode, Emissary, but a larger and more elaborate depiction of the battle was cut for time.

That leaves TNG's sole contribution to memorable space battles being one that happened in a parallel timeline. In this timeline, created when the Enterprise-C was flung twenty-two years forwards in time, the Federation is slowly being crushed by the Klingon Empire. Realising that the Enterprise-C can restore history to its proper place if it returns to the past, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D have to buy time for their escape...easier said than done when three Klingon K'Vort-class battlecruisers are bearing down on them. The stage is set for a pretty impressive (for 1990) space battle, and one that gleefully takes advantage of its alternate universe setting to kill off regular characters. Sadly, the scene where Wesley Cruser is decapitated by debris (no, really) was cut at the scripting stage.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Defence of DS9
Season 4, Episode 1: The Way of the Warrior
Airdate: 2 October 1995

Deep Space Nine was The Next Generation's grittier and more conflict-driven spin-off, where negotiations were less assured of success and desperate phaser exchanges more commonplace. There was less potential for space battles at first, with the DS9 station being too large and powerful for single ships to attack and the crew's runabout shuttles being too small and weedy to take on larger ships, but in the second and third seasons the threat of the Dominion emerges and the station prepares for war. Ironically, it isn't the Dominion who are the first force to stage a full-scale attack on the station (that will come almost two seasons later) but the Federation's own erstwhile allies, the Klingons. Manipulated by the Dominion into attacking the Cardassians and then enraged when Sisko's crew rescues the Cardassian government and proves they aren't Dominion shapeshifters, the Klingons stage a massive assault on DS9 that doesn't entirely go to plan.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Operation Return
Season 6, Episode 6: The Sacrifice of Angels
Airdate: 3 November 1997

By its sixth season DS9 was struggling to produce the effects needed to match the script needs. With full-scale war raging between the Federation/Klingon alliance and the Dominion, more episodes required effects shots featuring entire fleets of ships. Motion control was poor at producing such shots in a timely fashion (earlier episodes used toys and even drawings in the far background of such shots), so the producers finally threw their hands up and embraced CGI, even calling on the ex-Babylon 5 CGI team at Foundation Imaging to assist. Sacrifice of Angels, which depicts the Federation attempting to retake Deep Space Nine from the Dominion (who had captured it at the end of the fifth season), features the biggest space battle in Star Trek's entire history: 600 Starfleet vessels, later joined by (at least) 200 Klingon warships, mount a frontal assault on 1,200 Dominion and Cardassian ships.

Its not just the sheer size or impressive (for the time) CGI which sells the battle, it's the use of tactics. If earlier Trek battles drew on naval inspiration, this one is based on Napoleonic field engagements, with fighters used as skirmishers to break up enemy formations and allow cavalry (the heavier starships) to slip in and destroy the enemy. There's also the use of the unwieldy size of the enemy fleet, and the Federation bringing more of its heavier guns to bear against the enemy's weak spots, allowing them to gain overwhelming local superiority and threaten to trigger a rout of the entire line. It doesn't work entirely as well in three-dimensional space, but it's another battle where some thought has gone into how it works.

Star Wars: The Battle of Yavin
Episode IV: A New Hope
Release date: 25 May 1977

There's not much to say about this one, is there? In 1977 audiences were blown away by this lengthy battle sequence, inspired by WWII movies like The Battle of Britain and The Dambusters, where the X-wing and Y-wing fighters mount a desperate attack on the Death Star. It still looks good now, although the fighters are a little stiff compared to how they move around in later films and TV. But given this was all pre-CGI, it's very impressive with a great use of tension and music.

Of course, George Lucas tinkered with the battle in the 1997 special edition of the film by introducing new CGI shots. These shots stick out like a sore thumb and the ships now move around too chaotically. It also feels fairly arbitrary on when a new shot is shoved in or an old one is left out. A better argument could be made for completely redoing the whole sequence in CGI or simply leaving it alone rather than this weird, distracting hybrid version which doesn't really satisfy anyone.

And my pick for the top spot:

Star Wars: The Battle of Endor
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Release date: 25 May 1983

The best space battle evaaah? Quite possibly. This battle shows how much Lucasfilm learned in six years since Episode IV, with some hugely impressive shots, a lot more movement in the ships and a great variety in design. The battle features designs from the two previous films (X-wings, TIE fighters, Star Destroyers) and also new ships, such as the ever-popular A-wings, TIE interceptors and Mon Calamari Star Cruisers. The designers took a leaf out of real history here, where large-scale battles feature many different designs at work (fifteen different fighter and bomber classes took part in the Battle of Midway, for example). A shame they couldn't find a satisfying way of filming the B-wings though, who disappear after the opening shots.

There's also some good tactics here. Once the Death Star becomes operational the Rebels charge the Imperial fleet, where the Death Star can't fire without hitting their own ships. Whilst expecting to get chewed up, the Rebels actually do a great job here of blowing up Star Destroyers and taking down the Imperial flagship fairly comfortably (a lucky A-wing kamikaze notwithstanding).

The battle is also completely filmed with motion-controlled models with no CGI whatsoever, which is jaw-dropping. And it's also insanely quotable thanks to the presence of Admiral Ackbar, the most grizzled alien fish-man space admiral in history.


Anonymous said...

It would be so nice if Disney released the original cut of the first trilogy (ep. IV, V, VI) on bluray. Before Lucas ruined them by adding all of the CGI and changing multiple scenes. Han and Greedo, and the ending of episode VI with the horrible music and inserting Hayden Christensen to name two.

Adam Whitehead said...

It's been heavily rumoured that Fox and Disney are trying to make this happen in time for Ep VII in December. I guess we'll have to see.

Matt said...

Great post. I've been reading the blog for years and just wanted to comment to say how much I enjoy it. Thanks for the great work!

Stonewielder said...

And yes, Joss Whedon is evil for what he did to Wash!

Stephen said...

This is a list of audiovisual works, not prose; but my nominee for the greatest space battle ever is the one in Cixin Liu's The Dark Forest.