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Question of the Day: What Are The Coolest SF Space Battles You’ve Seen?

Over at Gizmodo, Joseph Shoer, Ph.D candidate in aerospace engineering (fun fact: I had two separate college roommates who were both in A.E., at the same time!, until they weren’t) wrote this incredibly interesting and lengthy article on the physics of space battles, focusing on what a real battle might look like, what weapons, both offensive and defensive, might be deployed and what types of ships might be used. There’s not much on tactics, but you wouldn’t expect and aerospace engineer to be too up on that sort of thing; however, given the awesomeness of the rest of the article I’ll let that slide.

This article got me to thinking about how space battles are portrayed in science fiction on TV and film. Most of what we see is the Star Trek style battle with what would be capital ships apparently within visual range slugging it out toe-to-toe, waiting for someone’s shields to die first. There is also an amazing amount of huge spaceships zooming around and banking (in space? WTF? Banking against what?) all over the place. Unrealistic and, really, unimaginatively shot.

I then tried to think of cool space battles I had seen and I couldn’t really think of many. What I did come up with was a list of shows/films that did something a bit different:

Babylon 5 – One of my favorite SF shows of all time (#1) really changed the way space battles were shown on TV. First, the Starfurys actually used all three dimensions intelligently to maneuver around in and the big capital ships didn’t have shields and used centrifugal force to generate gravity (but turned off in battle) and things looked really different from the Trek styles. Lots of fighters zipping around and harassing the bigger ships. Toss in the Vorlons and Shadows with their ‘rip your @$$ in two’ beam weapons and things could get really interesting. The visual style was there, even if I wanted more! bigger! battles. Here’s a taste:

Battlestar Galactica – The one the the BG creators did right for the whole series was the space battles. I always looked forward to seeing them and I really like the shaky-cam/documentary style of camera and CGI used, it lends an air of chaos and unpredictability to what was really just a giant cluster frak. The Vipers also owe a debt of design to the Starfurys as they, too, had maneuvering thrusters to help them spin and move in 3D. Almost any scene where the Cylons and Humans threw everything they had out there was terrific, though the episode where Starbuck hunts the Cylon ace had some nice one on one stuff as well. Most of the videos on YouTube about the battles on BG have embedding disabled, but I found this tribute to the Pegasus which has some fighting in it so you can get a taste. These battles were always the highlight of any episode for me. Check out the final flight of the Pegasus, amazing. Kudos to the SFX crew.

Revenge of the Sith – This one gets a spot on sheer size and scope and, in fact, may be the best thing about Episode III. The opening scene where the two fighters swoop over and dive past the big ship and we see an all out slug fest in action below is awe inspiring. Those kids at ILM sure know their SFX. This whole section, with the big ships throwing as much crap as they can at each other with the fighters buzzing around certainly fits what I would expect a space battle to be. I want more of this. If you think I like my battles big, loud and obnoxiously explode-y, you’re right! Otherwise, what’s the point? Check out this cool video of the opening sequence below. It’s just the visuals set to the isolate soundtrack, no audio SFX, but it’s still cool:

Return of the Jedi – Good grief, how could I forget this one? Sure, Star Wars did it first, but the original movie needed a lot of help from Lucas’ fiddling to make it really epic and even then, it’s not as great as the battle over Endor. From “It’s a trap!” to the final explosion, this scene is awesome, and John Williams’ score counterpoints the action perfectly. This almost, almost!, makes up for the Ewoks.

But that’s really all I could think of off the top of my head, though I do see that someone in the comments over there did mention the ginormous (as in 110 or episodes) anime series Legend of the Galactic Heroes as having some epic space battles. I have these available to me to watch so it looks like I have something to look forward to. It also occurs to me that these battles in space are perfect for the big screen, or as big as you can get. I now have the urge to buy a big screen TV and a Blu-ray player so I can watch this stuff in all its high def, explosive, shooty bits glory.

But that brings us to you. What are the space battles you’ve seen on TV or in film? And note to SF Signal’s Tim: The battle over Zion’s docks in the last Matrix movies is not a cool space battle since, technically, they aren’t in space.

I’m really curious to see what you all have to say so let us know!

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

22 Comments on Question of the Day: What Are The Coolest SF Space Battles You’ve Seen?

  1. Damn. You’ve kind of picked all of the good ones already 🙁

    To add to the list though:

    If you want to talk Trek, then you have to mention Wrath of Khan for the Enterprise vs. Reliant (especially the finale in the nebula), First Contact for the opening engagement with the Borg cube, and take you pick from the last four seasons of Deep Space 9. particular mention for the Klingon attack on the station, the fleet engagement at the start of season 6 to retake DS9, and really any space battle from season 7…..

    Space: Above & Beyond (remember that anyone?) for some thrilling dogfights. The hammerhead fighters had nicely distinctive look. Special mention for the final engagment with ‘Chiggy Von Richtohofen’ in The Angriest Angel.

    And if you want some animated examples: Robotech, the first Daedelus Manouver engagement in Saturn’s rings and the climactic battle with the Zentradi as the Earth (literally) burns. Also, missile-spam 🙂 And Cowboy Bebop, with the climactic engagement of Gateway Shuffle. Not just a dogfight, but a dogfight in hyperspace!


  2. I’ll second the Klingon attack on DS9.  It even up-staged the final confrontation with the Dominion.

  3. True, but it did lack that fist-pump moment when the Cardassian fleet saved the Defiants arse 🙂

  4. I second Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for the battle sequences between the Enterprise and the Reliant. I loved it when Kirk ordered Sulu to take the ship DOWN (minus zenith) – very reminiscent of the submarine battles in the WW2 flicks.

    And in one of the Star Trek: The Next Generation — hmmm, another senior moment, I can’t remember if it was an episode or one of the flicks — when Ryker is in command of the Enterprise, and they came swooping in to save the day, and they just DIVE up from the bottom of the screen and fly through a formation of ships — it was awesome. It was either the series finale, All Good Things, or the flick Star Trek: Insurrection.

    The battle sequence at the end of the Firefly movie, Serenity, when Serenity comes flying out of the nebula, with all the Reaver ships in pursuit, towards the Alliance fleet. I loved Wash’s comments as he is flying the Serenity through the battling ship about being a leaf in the wind…

    Wing Commander too had some pretty good spaceship battles, with the fighter ships zipping in and out.

    Oh, of course, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis had some fairly decent spaceship battles too, even with the few ships that they had available. Very memorable is Carter’s last stand aboard the Phoenix in SGA’s ‘The Last Man’ in season four, as she battles against three Wraith hive ships. And in SG1. in the episode ‘Ethon,’ when Col. Pendergast aboard the Prometheus, fights to save his ship and his people against planetary attack, and loses the ship, but manages to save most of his crew. And the sight of Baal’s massive Goa’uld fleet of ships orbiting Earth in Star Trek: Continuum was awesome.


  5. How could I forget Wrath of Khan? I blame being very tired, yeah, that’s it. What that one lacks in full on slugging it out, it makes up for in the cat-and-mouse tactical battle of wits between Kirk and Khan. Very nice.

    As for SG-1, I never really got into those battles, there was…something, missing for me. I can’t really say what, although the battle over Antarctica was pretty cool. And I think you meant Stargate: Continuum there Morjana, Star Trek: Continuum would be an interesting cross over though!

  6. Good call with the Battlestar Galactica battles. I have to say that there’s a bunch throughout the show that are just beautiful to watch, particularly when they pan out really far away. Babylon 5 has some fantastic stuff – it’s a real shame that the CGI is so dated now. 


    Serenity took some similar cues with the style, shakey camera and quick action, and the battle at the end with the Reavers vs. Alliance ships is just amazing to watch. 


    As far as pure technical brilliance, The space battle at the end of A New Hope is a masterpiece. 

  7. I haev to agree with Babylon 5 and the starfury’s being a top pick.  I’ll also have to second “The Wrath of Khan.”  The whole “cat and mouse” game in the nebula makes it one of the more memorable Trek movies for me.

    I’m going to throw in “The Last Starfighter” in to the mix.  They also got it right with the thrusters on Alex’s ship and I loved his rotating seat in the cockpit.  The last battle is great, and how can you not include something with a Death Blossom?

  8. I loved the space battle in the BSG movie Razor.  The retelling of the initial Cylon attack was awesome.

    Also, it may not be so amazing to look at but the opening of the original Star Wars was awesome.  Maybe it was just the age I was when I saw it but it still gets me even today.  Not much of a battle with two ships but I prefer it to the later Lucas battles in the new trilogy that have so much going on it’s hard to keep track.

  9. What do you think about the battle in 007’s Moonraker?

    I know this isn’t the most appreciated, but I love the movie (It was my fist James Bond movie) and I love the final space battle too. I think the SFX are good and the battle is well developed.

  10. If it counts, I have to go with the attack on the Death Star at the end of Star Wars as the greatest space battle of all time. It remains tense, engaging, and pretty much perfectly edited.

    Second, I’d have to go the climatic BSG battle in Part 2 of Resurrection Ship. The amazing thing is that the space battle itself isn’t even the main focus of those scenes. (The BSG runner-up would be the Galactica jumping into atmosphere, decending like a burning angel as it launched vipers before jumping out again, a scene both totally awesome and totally unbelievable (the wind sheer on exit would have ripped the vipers apart).

  11. This is not a ‘space battle’ per se… but the most amazing scene EVER was in the BSG liberation of occupied New Caprica.  It wasn’t clear what was going on initially, but Adama used the FTL drive to appear over the city, the Galactica went into free fall burning in the atmosphere, launched it’s fighters and then used the FTL to jump away before the ship could collide with the surface.

    My jaw dropped during that sequence – it was stunning and completely original.  To terminate a jump over the surface, then jump away… amazingly brilliant means of avoiding advance detection and using the fighters as surprise ground support.  WOW. No one had ever made anything like that scene up till then.  It floored me, still does. 


  12. The best space battles I’ve ever seen have been in anime. Recently Macross Frontier, Vandread, Gundam SEED, Heroic Agenot to mention classics like Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Space Battleship Yamato (aka Star Blazers) and Crest of the Stars.

  13. Remember in Babylon 5 when the Captain is outside in a spacesuit during a firefight and all you can hear is his breathing?   Very cool !

  14. I’ll second that BSG New Caprica episode where the Galactica jumps into the atmosphere – dramatic, superbly orchestrated and a real jaw dropper. The whole series had some amazing battles. One of my favourites remains the moment in the pilot telemovie where the Galatica is used to shield the escaping colony ships as they jump away, and then takes a direct hit from a nuke – the shot of the ship rolling as the missile detonates and the flash – that’s some great movie making. One of the things I could never undertsand was why these TV shows persisted in using WW2 style fighter battles when the big ships had particle weapons, nukes etc and could have obliterated the opposition from a couple of light years away – rather like the way modern sea battles are remote engagements using guided weapons. Having read ‘Forever War’ in the ’70s it seemed like the movies were way behind when it came to making exciting, contemporary battles – all the stuff in Star Wars were based on WW2 movies – the attack on the Death Star in Ep 4 was based shot-for-shot on a sequence from the Korean war flick “Bridges at Toko Ri”. BSG went some way to updating the space battle as it seemed that the fighters could take out inbound missiles – so at least they had a purpose beyond dramatic license. For all its silliness, there’s a great ST TOS episode [forget the title] where the Enterprise has a battle with an unseen Romulan ship. Again the ep was a lift from a WW2 sub vs sub hunter battle, but the cloaked Romulan ship – just a distant blip on the view screen – was a menacing presence and the tenison they built it what was essentially a “bottle” ep was fantastic. On the other hand, great crashing ships up close a la “Master and Commander” are great for dramatic purposes. I forget which of the Star Wars prequels has the battle followed by the ship crashing on to the surface sequnce , but I love it anyway, with the big Chris Foss style hulk screaming out of the clouds, bits falling off it before pancakeing belly flop on to a runway. Brilliant. [Maybe a question for another day – best star ship crashes!]


    The BSG fight at New Caprica was amazing and, sadly, the very last time I enjoyed BSG. It was all downhill from there.

  16. I second the Enterprise vs. Reliant battle from Wrath of Khan.

  17. Matte Lozenge // January 23, 2010 at 11:07 am //

    What was the first movie space battle? Could it be this Buck Rogers in the 25th Century short from 1933?

    Skip to 4:30 for the Battle of Flying Toys.

  18. The best I’d have to go with Stargate Atlantis Season 1 Finale.

  19. “banking (in space? WTF? Banking against what?)”

    A friend of mine brought up this point before, and I answered based on my experience flying jets.

    Rolling the spacecraft into an attitude that resembles a bank is easy.  The question is why do that.  The answer is because the pilot cannot otherwise tolerate the G-forces.  The human body tolerates high Gees well in two directions — front-to-back and head-to-toe.  High Gees in other directions can cause problems ranging from severe discomfort to death.

    So it is not a question of banking against what; it is a question of roll-attitude for what.  That the proper roll-attitude to protect the pilot resembles a bank is a coincidence.  That and the fact that the cinematographers used the dogfight scenes from _The Battle of Britain_ as their models.

  20. Antares has a point. However, I would still argue in favor of the Viper or Star Fury movement. You would just increase the thrust from the directional thrusters and use this to switch the G-forces back in forth along the human body’s x & y axis while manouvering.

    Plus, fighter pilots would prefer to have their weapons pointed at the enemy 100% of the time.

    Thus, you still get something closer to a Star Fury than a P-51 Mustang.

  21. Of course, human piloted space fighters are a fairly foolish idea, as unmanned missiles would easily annihilate any flight of fighters. The missiles manevourability would be orders of magnitude higher than missiles restricted to an atmosphere, while the fighters would be restricted by their human occupants.

    Plus, we have the tech to build these missiles right now. Imagine how good they will be when we can trully build real space fighters.

  22. Paul Camp // January 31, 2010 at 3:56 am //

    Star Wars?


    Fucking Star Wars?


    This is the apotheosis of films that violate basic principles of physics in space battles.


    Star Wars battles are based on World War II dog fights, which took place in an atmosphere, and Star Wars’ spaceship maneuvers are physically impossible without an atmosphere.


    Jesus Christ! Stop embarassing yourself.



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