What The Best Space Battles Have In Common
Table of Contents
Who doesn’t love a good space battle? You get the epic conflict between good guys and bad guys, capital ships throwing super weapons at each other, while heroic pilots zip around the battlespace in cool fighters, putting it all on the line in a desperate attempt to save the day.
It’s no secret – in fact it should be completely obvious – that the exciting space battles in movies and tv shows while I was growing up meant they became a huge influence in the types of stories and action scenes I write in my series, Tales from the Juggernaut. I say exciting space battles to qualify that a little. Not every space battle is a winner. Some can be dull, and others can be confusing.
But while those movies are a massive influence on the action in my books, the first real space battle doesn’t take place until the events in The Dead Fleet (book three in the series). Our protagonists don’t begin the series ready to go, with cool ships and terrible odds, but by the time everything kicks off in The Dead Fleet, it has been well earned.
That climactic scene in The Dead Fleet was mostly inspired by one of my favourite movie space battles of all time (and that’s not all it inspired), but before clicking that link and find out what I think are the best space battles, let’s take a moment and think about what actually makes a space battle great.
What are the elements of the best space battles?
There’s a few elements that go into making a space battle great. The first should be obvious as an essential rule of storytelling. We need conflict to create drama, and the higher the stakes at play, the greater the conflict. Heroes are ultimately measured by what they overcome, so they need to overcome something significant.
We need characters to care about. The visual effects might be thrilling, but they are only a rollercoaster unless we have a protagonist to root for. Those character have to express themselves in action and dialogue, so they need to be up to standard in order to deliver a great fight. Sound effects and an emotional score all play a part too.
The fight needs to be understandable for the audience. For this, we need clear, identifiable ship design; the battle needs to be well-staged, so we know where everyone is in relation to each other and we can understand the battlefield; and sometimes a sense of scale can help to sell the conflict and add some additional wow factor.
Finally, we need to accept there is a place for the Rule of Cool. Some scenes are sold on the basis of something that feels so awesome that we are able to overcome shortcomings in other areas.
A great space battle needs high stakes
The best space battles are, by definition, a conflict. For good conflict we need a good setup. At a very basic level we, the audience, have to understand what’s at stake. Is this plot stakes, or personal stakes? If our heroes win, what do they gain? If they lose, what is lost?
That doesn’t mean everything has to be epic and galaxy-defining. The nature and production scale of movies means that bigger is often assumed to be better. Sometimes that works, but not always (cough Jupiter Ascending cough). But sometimes, epic and galaxy-defining is just what we need.
The classic example, which I will no doubt refer to time and time again throughout this website, is the Battle of Yavin, from Star Wars: A New Hope. The evil Empire has already been established as seeking total control over the galaxy, and the Death Star is their means to enforce that control. We saw the demonstration of its power when it destroyed Alderaan with a single shot, and we know the scale of it resembles a moon.
We see the rebel briefing, where experienced pilots already believe its a lost cause (I blame lack of Womp Rat target practice), and we know that the defences of the Death Star are so great, that the generals on board don’t even consider the attack a threat.
But finally, the stakes are cemented when the Death Star arrives in the Yavin system. It needs a clear shot to destroy the rebel base on the moon of Yavin IV because the gas giant Yavin Prime is in the way. (A classic example of a tension clock, by the way.) If the base is destroyed, the rebellion is over, and there is no hope for the galaxy.
And that’s just the political stakes! Luke’s personal journey from a farm boy to pilot is riding on this battle, as his his unspoken emotional journey in his opportunity to seek revenge for the deaths of his aunt and uncle, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
It all comes together in a movie scene which literally redefined what cinema could be: the defeat of an evil empire’s super weapon, cathartic revenge, and the completion of a heroic journey, in one eleven-minute sequence for the ages.
Dialogue can set the scene and drive the emotion of a space battle
Space combat (or really any combat) with no dialogue is often a boring scene. We need to feel and hear the drama and tension of the moment through what the characters say and/or yell at each other.
“That’s no moon…“
Obi-Wan Kenobi // Star Wars
In Star Wars, when Obi Wan warns Han ”that’s no moon”, it sets the tone for what is about to happen. Those three words tell us that the situation is not what we thought, and even the cynical Han Solo, who wasn’t about to get caught out by Greedo back in the Mos Eisley Cantina, has misread the signs.
A moon is safe. It’s predictable. A moon is not a threat. Although that object out there is not a moon, it’s still still big enough to be mistaken for one. Now the stakes have increased, and our heroes have been caught by surprise.
We, the audience, know exactly what that moon is. We’ve already seen it described as the “ultimate power in the galaxy”, and we’ve witnessed exactly what that power can do. After all, there’s a reason the entire planet of Alderaan is not where it’s supposed to be.
Those three words are simply an example of dramatic irony for the viewers, but we also know it means something it about to happen. Cue the first real space battle scene in a Star Wars movie, and see what the Millennium Falcon can do against four TIE fighters.
“It’s a trap!“
Admiral Ackbar // Return of the Jedi
“It’s a trap!” is one of the most iconic lines from all the Star Wars movies, and tells of the reversal of fortunes the rebel fleet is about to experience in their attack on the second Death Star (more on this later). If you thought the stakes were high against the first Death Star, well get comfy. This one is so big that the Millennium Falcon can fly inside it (showing that the Empire learned zero lessons after they lost the first one). Not only that, but the Emperor himself is on board.
A victory here will destroy more than another massive space station, it will kill the Emperor himself – the man responsible for creating Darth Vader, and instigating the galactic civil war. It was the Emperor who was responsible for allowing the Rebel Alliance their belief that the second Death Star was a viable target. Palatine set the trap.
Akbar’s exclamation is the turning point in a long build-up where we had been led to believe the Rebels are about to take the upper hand. The trap is sprung in space, simultaneously on the surface of Endor, drawing the ground assault and the space assault into a fight neither of them wanted.
(Also, for what it’s worth, #Istandwithewoks.)
Data // Star Trek: Generations
Data’s fist pump and “Yes!” in Star Trek: Generations is as cathartic for the audience as it is for the bridge crew. (And possibly the best part of that whole space battle. For the first time, what we saw on the small screen in Babylon 5 was more impressive than what we saw on the big screen. AND the movie reused footage from the previous Star Trek movie.
There’s a lot more B5 love to come, so brace for impact….
Of course many of us are there for the shiny hardware. A cool ship design reaches down into the soul and finds root there. It’s like finding the perfect stick on a walk through the forest – it just feels right.
Fighters should feel fast and dangerous. Capital ships should feel cumbersome and powerful. Industrial Light & Magic absolutely nailed the original Star Wars ship designs in 1977. (TheTantive IV Corellian Corvette is still one of my favourite space ships of all time. There’s always room for a few Corvettes in any Star Wars Armada fleet I put together.)
X-Wing fighters look fast with their wedge-shaped noses, and they look dangerous, with their spiky turbo-lasers. X-Wing fighters can also change shape. That makes them great to watch on screen and play with as a toy. Fortunately they look fantastic in both configurations. (I don’t know about you, but anything that can transform is automatically better in my book. X-Wings, Autobots, Unicron, Matt Trakker’s Thunderhawk, even caterpillars: They are all basically the same.)
That sense of design is everywhere in Star Wars. Rebel ships are more colourful, and have more conventional fighter shapes. The designs lead into silhouette theory, that characters should be easily recognised via their silhouette alone. TIE fighters are grey, and round with flat, vertical wings. The Corvette is the only rebel ship larger than a fighter that we see in the movie, but it is white and elongated. The Star Destroyer is a big grey triangle. Everything is quick and easy to identify. When we see the Nebulon-B frigates in later movies, they are built through the vertical axis, unlike the Star Destroyers which are horizontal.
The designs should also give us a sense of scale and threat, and they should hint at what the ship is capable of. The Enterprise D is a vessel of diplomacy and exploration, not war. A Star Destroyer, on the other hand, seems perfectly named.
These design issues are equally important when it comes to staging and filming a great space battle. We have to be able to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys once the lasers start flying and things start blowing up. When something is barely a flash of colour on screen, good ship design helps the viewer understand which ship is on which team, and what they are doing.
One of the great advantages of the move from physical models to computer generated art was the variety of designs that could be made without the limitations of models, or the need for trick photography. The scale of the Babylon 5 station next to a Starfury would have been very difficult to achieve with practical models, and the organic Minbari-inspired designs of the White Star would have been more difficult to construct compared to the simpler mechanical designs of something like a TIE Fighter.
Nowadays, with 3D printing available as a construction tool, we can make more ambitious physical models, but how often are they going to be used now that CG art is so good.
By this I mean the visual scale of the conflict. Bigger can be better, especially on a movie screen when stakes are high. It can sometimes be the case that visual scale becomes a shorthand for emotional stakes, because it is easier to sell an audience on bigger explosions than it is on a better-crafted story, but it’s also true that we the audience do really want to see the scale of the event.
Obviously one of the best examples ever of this is the opening moments of Star Wars when the
I’ll try to avoid talking about Star Wars for every example.
There’s one particularly great shot in the opening minutes of Star Trek (2009) when the USS Kelvin first encounters the Narada emerging from a wormhole. We know the Kelvin already carries a substantial crew, and we’ve already seen the inside of the engine room when this shot takes place, so we have a good idea of the scale of the Federation ship already. That means when the Narada begins to bear down on the Kelvin like one giant clawed fist, it’s an awesome sight.
There is no doubt that the Federation starship is going to be hopelessly outclassed for whatever is about to transpire.
Ok, I lied. There are more great moments in Star Wars, this time from the movie Rogue One.
We were introduced to the Death Star back in 1977, and the firepower and trench run really sold us on the idea that this thing was big. Rogue One was able to sell that sense of scale even better. It does this in two different scenes.
The first is the reveal of the Death Star during the scene we first meet Grand Moff Tarkin. This is a 19-second shot which begins with a TIE Fighter flying across a dark screen. Then a familiar pointy Star Destroyer emerges from shadow. The shadow of what? It’s the shadow of the Death Star’s superlaser dish as it is being installed into the space station. That’s right, our giant Star Destroyer was eclipsed by the weapon of the Death Star. As we take in that sight, we realise the small silver ships on screen are other Star Destroyers.
Remember, this is the ship which dominated the screen back in 1977, and now it is an afterthought next to the Empire’s super weapon.
Check out the clip below, and go and watch this movie right now. It’s one of the best sci fi adventures movies made in my opinion.
The second is the attack by the now-functional Death Star on the planet Jedha. We’ve already seen a whole planet explode, which was canonically the first time that happened. Somehow, this attack seems even more powerful.
The Death Star rises over the planet surface, eclipsing the sun, and fires the super laser. Even though it is operating at a fraction of its full firepower, the blast rips into the planet, sending a wave across the planet surface, wiping out everything in its path. At the same time we see the attack from orbit, as the ring of destruction races across the surface, and we see the explosion fountain up into space, sending debris into orbit to almost touch the Death Star.
It’s one of the most powerful visuals and most incredible shots in all of Star Wars. I’m not even going to link to a video. You deserve to see it in the context of the movie to get the full effect. It’s that good.
Staging is the physical setup of the conflict. Who is where and when? Where are they going? What is the range of their weapons? Can tell who is at risk of being hit?
Battlefield needs terrain to help us understand the geography of the conflict. Even two people fighting on a flat plane have limitations. They can basically only move in two directions. They can jump or duck. Maybe they have guns or swords. They can see each other approaching. We, the audience, can understand where they are in relation to each other, and so we can see what is possible, and what is not.
Space is very empty battlefield. There is no terrain, and no limit on movement in three dimensions. An open space battlefield provides no cover and no frame of reference.
While it’s common in most movies and TV shows, Star Trek is notorious for having any two starships meet on pretty much the same plane and the same orientation. It was so normal to see over the course of its seven year run, that the climactic shot of the Enterprise E in the final episode All Good Things, was fresh and exciting and remarkable partly because it changed the expected plane of battle.
When there is a big difference in scale, the ships themselves can become the reference point. Poe Dameron’s solo run against the Dreadnaught in the opening scene of The Last Jedi (2017) was perfectly coherent because the larger ship became our point of reference. Likewise in Star Wars, when the Falcon is attacked for the first time, it becomes the centrepoint of the battlespace around which we can track the action of all the TIE Fighters.
The visual spectacle is a major part of what makes for a good space battle, but that should not be an excuse to throw everything at the screen. (Jupiter Ascending has a space battle sequence which becomes complete nonsense once things start blowing up. It still annoys me.)
It’s unreasonable to compare movies across decades though. Technological limitations are such a major element of what makes the visuals possible that it’s not always fair to compare something shot in 1980 with something shot in 2020.
The counterpoint to this is that sometimes the older movies were better. The limitations of the time meant more care and thought went into making the shots. Physical models and motion control systems and photographic plates constrain the movie making process. For the last twenty five years it’s been easy to copy and paste a fighter to add more ships to a scene. Compare the original Star Wars attack on the Death Star in 1977 with the special edition in 1997. There are dozens more ships in the scene. (Spoiler: It didn’t help.)
Thanks to increasing budgets and more capable technology, TV space battles have come a long way from the same five shots you saw in every Glen A. Larson sci fi production. They can now rival movie space battles for scale and visual production, but the smaller stakes of TV battles can be just as engaging.
Babylon 5 is often criticised today for the dated quality of its visual effects, but while they don’t hold up as well as comparable shots in contemporary shows like Star Trek Deep Space 9, they were responsible for pushing the envelope in what could be done on a TV budget. The typical cost of an episode of Babylon 5 was around a third of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but for that money, B5 gave us fleets of alien ships, huge space battles and dozens of interesting ship designs, sometimes all on screen at the same time.
That just wasn’t possible with a show like Star Trek which used practical model photography, despite the much higher production values. In the same year that Star Trek: TNG might show a space battle between two static ships with two or three shots, Babylon 5 gave us multiple warships and fighters sweeping around a five mile long space station.
In fact, we should really be looking to Babylon 5 as the turning point in what could be done in the medium of space battles. Although only a TV show, it was the first time in a decade we had seen anything close to the spectacle of the climactic space battle in Return of the Jedi. Babylon 5 was also an early pioneer in digital set extensions, long-form narrative arcs and was the first TV show to feature a fully digital character. Sure, some of it might be dated now, but so is the Space Shuttle.
Not only did Babylon 5 cram more onto the screen than we had ever seen before, it was also more dynamic than anything that had come before it. I referenced Glen A Larson earlier in reference to two TV shows; Battlestar Galactica (1978) and Buck Rogers in the 23rd Century (1980). Both TV shows were trying to capitalise on the success of the original Star Wars, but the budget just wasn’t there to deliver the shot variety the shows desperately needed.
Model photography and motion control was expensive, so space battles and dogfights tended to reuse the same few stock shots used over and over. Even though Buck Rogers was released two years later, with different ship designs, the actual motion of the ships on screen was identical to those used in Galactica.
It was a shame, because it meant there was never anything new to see in the space battles. There were no surprises.
But you can still see some of the DNA of those early shots in later shows. Compare the Galactica’s turbolaser batteries defending against Cylon raiders with the upgraded Babylon 5 defence grid.
You can see where things changed, too. On screen, a Colonial Viper or Thunderfighter could do little more than fly in a straight line and bank. A Starfury was far more manoeuvrable, being able to spin on any axis thanks to a more modern, physics based design which didn’t pretend that a starfighter was simply a fighter jet in space.
Rule of Cool
Finally, there is the coolness factor. You can be as scientifically accurate as you like, and your plot holes might be big enough to fly a Star Destroyer through, but the audience (in this case, me) can forgive the failings of a scene if you deliver something that makes me go ‘wow’. I’m there to be entertained, after all.
The perfect story will deliver a space battle scene where every element – emotional, intellectual, visual, score, dialogue, etc, can come together to make something amazing, but sometimes, as long as the rest of the movie works, just pulling off something cool is enough.
What makes something cool? You know it when you see it. It’s the Millennium Falcon diving into the Death Star. It’s the surprise arrival of the Enterprise to save Spock. It’s the White Star opening a jump point inside a jump gate. It’s the music swelling as Nova Prime forms a defensive line to prevent the Dark Aster from landing.
‘Cool’ is whatever makes your heart sing.
If you want to read my list of the best movie space battles and what I think are the best TV show space battles.