Cool Ships (volume VI)

Back yet again with a sixth installment in the Cool Ships series. Like last time, I took this opportunity to tackle some overlooked examples, and some new ones as well. In addition… You know what? Screw the introductions and final thoughts, let’s just get into this!

Bird of Prey:
There’s nothing like a classic, and when it comes to the Star Trek franchise, few ships are more classic than the Klingon Bird of Prey. The perfect balance of form, speed, versatility, and firepower, the Bird of Prey is a ship with a very long history of service in the Klingon Empire.

This ship made its first appearance in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock when a renegade Klingon captain, seeking the secrets of the Genesis Planet, used one to attack the Enterprise. Kirk and his crew would later commandeer this ship and use it in the following movie to travel back in time and bring two whales to the future (The Voyage Home).

Bird of Preys would also appear in the fifth and six movie installments, in the latter case as a prototype raider that could fire while cloaked (something previously unheard of). Remaining in service well into the 24th century, Bird of Preys appeared repeatedly in Stark Trek TNG, and DS9,  most notably as part of the Klingon war effort against the Dominion.

Boasting two multi-directional disruptors and single photon torpedo launcher located in the nose. It is also one of the first Klingon vessels to boast a cloaking device, something unavailable on heavier cruisers. Because of their stealthy abilities and versatility, they have played a variety of roles, including reconnaissance, escort, raids and as support for larger vessels.

Cylon Raider:
Boy, they’ve come along way baby! During the original series, Cylon raiders were saucer-shaped, had energy weapons and were crewed by up to three Centurions. In the re-imagined series, this changed significantly, though the Raider still retained its basic roll as a light assault craft.

In addition to getting a facelift, the newer generation of raiders relied on kinetic weapons, missiles and even tactical nukes. Its crew was replaced by an organic brain which was merged with the ship’s machinery, and which relied on an “eye” located in the fore of the central module to communicate and conduct navigation. Much like Raptors, Raiders are capable of making short-range FTL jumps, and therefore do not need to be deployed from a Basestar in the field.

Much of what is known about the modern raider came from Starbuck’s own experiences with a downed vessel. After making her way into the interior, she discovered a system of organs which were apparently fed by an internal supply of nitrogen and oxygen. After removing the brain, she was able to fly the ship using the system of organic levers and controls and rendezvous with the Galactica. Starbuck was meant to use this same vessel as a Trojan horse, but instead used it to fly back to Caprica (“You Can’t Go Home Again”)

Though self-aware, the average Cylon ship is not as intelligent or independent as a humanoid Cylon. However, like the humanoids, they are capable of resurrection and have their consciousness and memories recycled into a new body whenever they are shot down. In time, their accumulated knowledge and experience can make them even more formidable as opponents, as was demonstrated by the vessel known as “Scar” in the season two episode of the same name.

The Ebon Hawk:
Looking beyond the original movies, there are plenty of cool ships to be found in the expanded Star Wars universe. One example is the Ebon Hawk, a Corellian freighter which comes from the Knights Of The Old Republic game.

Much like its modern cousin, the Millennium Falcon, the Ebon Hawk is every smugglers wet dream. The perfect marriage of speed, maneuverability, and survivability, it is perfect for running blockades, evading capture, and saving the galaxy! It also played a central role in the Sith War and the events immediately following it.

Originally belonging to Davik, a ruthless criminal warlord belonging to the Exchange, the ship became the property of the Jedi Order after it was confiscated by Revan. Using this vessel to escape the Sith blockade of Taris, Revan and his comrades used this vessel to travel the Galaxy, investigating the Sith’s plans for domination and systematically unraveling them.

After the end of the Sith War, Revan took this ship to the Rim to further invesigate the true source of the Sith threat. The ship returned to the universe a few years later, carrying an former Jedi master named Kreia who had since become a Sith master, and was exiled by her peers. Once again, the ship would become the property of a Jedi warrior – Meetra Surik – and several fellow-travellers who would used it to retrace the path of Revan and eliminate the Sith Triumvirate, the last of the Sith Lords.

The Event Horizon:
A bit of a break for the usual lineup of cool ships here, the Event Horizon was a  prototype vessel that was featured in the movie of the same name. Built in the near future by Earth scientists to be the first that would be capable of making FTL jumps. In the course of making the jump from the edge of the Solar System to Proxima Centauri, the ship disappeared. Seven years, it rematerialized, sending out a general distress signal.

Upon investigating the derelict, the crew of the rescue ship Lewis and Clarke found a ship of horrors. In addition to having a long spine that was inlaid with jagged metal spikes, the experimental gravity drive looked like some kind of medieval torture device. Seriously, the thing was basically a studded metal ball with spiky rotating appendages.

Oh, and did I mention the ship was haunted? Yeah, apparently generating a quantum singularity and passing through it leads directly to Hell. So in essence, the ship brought a whole lot of Hell back with it when it came back to our universe, and these dark forces began making the rescue teams go made just as it had the original crew. Kinda stupid really…

But ultimately, the design and concept of the ship were pretty cool. And even if you forget about the obviously macabre nature of the engine room, it was pretty neat to behold.

Mothership (Homeworld):
The flagship of the Kushan fleet, the Mothership was the centerpiece of every mission in the Homeworld universe. Originally intended as a colony vessel, its role expanded during the Homeworld War to include that of a command ship and mobile shipyard. This was due to the many hostile races encountered after the Kushan fleet left Kharak to find Earth.

Although not an effective combat platform, the Mothership’s hyperdrive make it FTL capable and therefore capable of deep-space travel. In addition to its internal factories, it also has the capacity to hold 600,000 cryogenically frozen colonists as well as its regular crew of 50,000.

Although not heavily armed, the Mothership contained the means to construct many different classes of support vessels. These included scouts, resource harvesters, fighter craft, destroyers and even cruisers. As such, it had a solid defense screen during the time of the Exodus. Periodically stopping to replenish its resources from asteroid belts, the Mothership was also able to replenish its losses.

USNC Pillar of Autumn:
And here we have another franchise making its first appearance in this series! Coming from the Halo universe, the Pillar of Autumn was featured in the original Halo. A Halcyon-class light cruiser, this class of ship is one of the older ships in service with the UNSC Navy.

During the Covenant assault on Reach, the Autumn fled to the Soell system where it discovered and then crash landed on the Halo ring known as Installation 04. There, after engaging both Covenant and Flood forces, Master Chief John 117 detonating it in order to destroy the installation before it could fire.

Measuring 1.17 km in length and armed with a combination of kinetic guns, nuclear missiles and a magnetic accelerator cannon, the Autumn is powered by a fusion core and able to make FTL (aka. slipspace) jumps through space. In addition, it also carries a squadron of fighters, 15 Pelican dropships, 8 Scorpion tanks, 40 Warthogs, and a full compliment of Marines and Orbital Drop Shock Troops. The ship is run by a central AI – in the case of the Autumn, Cortana – and has a crew of between 300 and 400 personnel.

The Scimitar:
Though I didn’t care much for the movie that featured it, The Scimitar was still a pretty freaking cool ship! Huge, powerful, scary-looking and packing a doomsday device and a truly impenetrable cloak, this baby pretty much had it all. So it begs the question… how the hell did a bunch of slaves built this thing anyway?

Of Reman origin, this dreadnought was built under the supervision of the Picard clone Shinzon and figured prominently in his designs to take over the Romulan Empire and destroy the Federation. This he planned to do by attacking Earth, a plot which was narrowly averted by the crew of USS Enterprise E.

Built for total war, the Scimitar was given every technological advantage the Romulan Empire had at its disposal. This included 52 disruptor banks, 27 torpedo launchers, several squadrons of Scorpion attack fighters, and of course, its thalaron radiation weapon of mass destruction. Requiring several minutes to power up, this weapon was capable of sterilizing an entire planet. Deployment of the weapon involved unfolding its wings, a move which only made it look scarier!

The Scimitar was also protected by two shield arrays, which combined with its weaponry gave it the edge in every combat situation. And as already noted, its cloak was perfect, emitting no tachyons or anti-protons as other cloaking devices were notorious for. As a result, the Scimitar was truly impossible to track while under cloak.

Slave I:
Anyone familiar with the Star Wars universe knows who Boba Fett is. And chances are, all of those people are familiar with his ship, the Slave I. A modified Firespray-31-class attack and patrol craft, the Slave I was originally the property of famed bounty hunter Jango Fett. After his death at the hands of Mace Windu, it passed to his son, Boba Fett.

Small, sleek and stealthy, the ship was also augmented with several advanced weapons systems. These included two rapid fire blaster cannons, two missile launchers, and a rear-mounted minelayer compartment which was capable of deploying seismic charges. The ship also carried a compliment of dummy torpedoes which could tag ships with tracking beacons.

During the events of Empire, Fett used this ship to track Han and the Falcon back to Bespin and then take his carbonite-frozen body back to Jabba’s Palace. After escaping from the Rancour Pit on Tatooine, Fett upgraded to a new ship, which he named Slave II in honor of his father’s ship.

Reaver Ship:
As a fitting final entry, I am returning to the Firefly universe once more. And this time, it’s the Reaver ship that I’ve decided to cover. Though every Reaver ship is of unique design, the one which was featured in the pilot episode (featured at right) is my personal favorite.

Like all Reaver ships, this vessel is adorned with red paint and what I can only assume is the blood of innocent victims. It’s hull and engine compartments have also been modified to look claw-like and threatening, it’s front section has been mangled from ramming into other ships, and its engine functions without radiation containment.

Above all, its weapons have been modified to incorporate the unique Reaver combination of medieval weaponry and snares. These can consist of EMP’s, grappling lines, nets, and launchers that fire shurikens, buzz saw blades, spears and some kinetic weapons. Ultimately, the purpose of Reaver weapons are to disable and capture enemy ships rather than destroy them. This gives the Reaver crews the pleasure of meeting their victims face to face and killing them with sharpened implements.

Yes, much like the Reavers themselves, their ships are scary and look like they got a facelift from a belt sander. But such appearances, as well as their lack of containment, let merchant ships and smugglers know they are coming. When that happens, crews can either power down and hope they’ll go unnoticed or run like all hell. Otherwise, they’re only option is to make peace with whatever deity they pray to and eat a bullet, cuz’ the alternative aint pretty!

Thank you all, this has been volume six! Stay tuned for volume seven, coming soon!

AI Graph

Inspired by what I learned from my little romp through the world of AI, I’ve come up with a graph that depicts the general rules I observed. Basically, there are two guiding principles to the world of AI’s and science fiction. On the one hand, there’s their capacity for emotion and second, there is their level of benevolence/malevolence towards humanity. As I noted in the last post, the two are very much interlinked and pretty much determine what purpose they serve to the larger story.

So… if one were to plot their regard for humanity as the x axis and their emotions as the y axis, you’d get a matrix that would look pretty much like this:

As usual, not a complete mock-up, just the examples that I could think of. I made sure to include the ones that didn’t make it into my previous posts (like HAL, how could I forget him?!) And even though I had no real respect for them as characters, I also included the evil robots Erasmus and Omnius from the Dune prequels.

P.S. Notice how the examples are pretty much evenly distributed? Unlike the Alien Graph where examples were concentrated in two quadrants (evil and advanced or good and advanced), here we have robots that run the gambit from emotional to stoic and evil to good in a nearly uniform pattern. Interesting…

Robots, Androids and AI’s

Let’s talk artificial life forms, shall we? Lord knows they are a common enough feature in science fiction, aren’t they? In many cases, they take the form of cold, calculating machines that chill audiences to the bones with their “kill all humans” kind of vibe. In others, they were the solid-state beings with synthetic parts but hearts of gold and who stole ours in the process. Either way, AI’s are a cornerstone to the world of modern sci-fi. And over the past few decades, they’ve gone through countless renditions and re-imaginings, each with their own point to make about humanity, technology, and the line that separates natural and artificial.

But in the end, its really just the hardware that’s changed. Whether we were talking about Daleks, Terminators, or “Synthetics”, the core principle has remained the same. Based on mathematician and legendary cryptographer Alan Turing’s speculations, an Artificial Intelligence is essentially a being that can fool the judges in a double-blind test. Working extensively with machines that were primarily designed for solving massive mathematical equations, Turing believed that some day, we would be able to construct a machine that would be able to perform higher reasoning, surpassing even humans.

Arny (Da Terminator):
Who knew robots from the future would have Austrian accents? For that matter, who knew they’d all look like bodybuilders? Originally, when Arny was presented with the script for Cameron’s seminal time traveling sci-fi flick, he was being asked to play the role of Kyle Reese, the human hero. But Arny very quickly found himself identifying with the role of the Terminator, and a franchise was born!

Originally, the Terminator was the type of cold, unfeeling and ruthless machine that haunted our nightmares, a cyberpunk commentary on the dangers of run-away technology and human vanity. Much like its creator, the Skynet supercomputer, the T101 was part of a race of machines that decided it could do without humanity and was sent out to exterminate them. As Reese himself said in the original: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

The second Terminator, by contrast, was a game changer. Captured in the future and reprogrammed to protect John Conner, he became the sort of surrogate father that John never had. Sarah reflected on this irony during a moment of internal monologue during movie two: “Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The terminator, would never stop. It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die, to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.”

In short, Cameron gave us two visions of technology with these first two installments in the series. In the first, we got the dangers of worshiping high-technology at the expense of humanity. In movie two, we witnessed the reconciliation of humans with technology, showing how an artificial life form could actually be capable of more humanity than a human being. To quote one last line from the franchise: “The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”

Bender:
No list of AI’s and the like would ever be complete without mentioning Futurama’s Bender. That dude put’s the funk in funky robot! Originally designed to be a bending unit, hence his name, he seems more adept at wisecracking, alcoholism, chain-smoking and comedicaly plotting the demise of humanity. But its quickly made clear that he doesn’t really mean it. While he may hold humans in pretty low esteem, laughing at tragedy and failing to empathize with anything that isn’t him, he also loves his best friend Fry whom he refers to affectionately as “meat-bag”.

In addition, he’s got some aspirations that point to a creative soul. Early on in the show, it was revealed that any time he gets around something magnetic, he begins singing folk and country western tunes. This is apparently because he always wanted to be a singer, and after a crippling accident in season 3, he got to do just that – touring the country with Beck and a show called “Bend-aid” which raised awareness about the plight of broken robots.

He also wanted to be a cook, which was difficult considering he had no sense of taste or seemed to care about lethally poisoning humans! However, after learning at the feet of legendary Helmut Spargle, he learned the secret of “Ultimate Flavor”, which he then used to challenge and humiliate his idol chef Elzar on the Iron Chef. Apparently the secret was confidence, and a vial of water laced with LSD!

Other than that, there’s really not that much going on with Bender. Up front, he’s a chain smoking, alcoholic robot with loose morals or a total lack thereof. When one gets to know him better, they pretty much conclude that what you see is what you get! An endless source of sardonic humor, weird fashion sense, and dry one-liners. Of them all “Bite my shiny metal ass”, “Pimpmobile”, “We’re boned!” and “Up yours chump” seems to rank the highest.

Ash/Bishop:
Here we have yet another case of robots giving us mixed messages, and comes to us direct from the Alien franchise. In the original movie, we were confronted with Ash, an obedient corporate mole who did the company’s bidding at the expense of human life. His cold, misguided priorities were only heightened when he revealed that he admired the xenomorph because of its “purity”. “A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

After going nuts and trying to kill Ripley, he was even kind enough to smile and say in that disembodied tinny voice of his, “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.” What an asshole! And the perfect representation for an inhuman, calculating robot. The result of unimpeded aspirations, no doubt the same thing which was motivating his corporate masters to get their hands on a hostile alien, even if it meant sacrificing a crew or two.

But, as with Terminator, Cameron pulled a switch-up in movie two with the Synthetic known as Bishop (or “artificial human” as he preferred to be called). In the beginning, Ripley was hostile towards him, rebuffing his attempts to assure her that he was incapable of killing people thanks to the addition of his behavioral inhibitors. Because of these, he could not harm, or through inaction allow to be harmed, a human being (otherwise known as an “Asimov”). But in the end, Bishop’s constant concern for the crew and the way he was willing to sacrifice himself to save Newt won her over.

Too bad he had to get ripped in half to earn her trust. But I guess when a earlier model tries to shove a magazine down your throat, you kind of have to go above and beyond to make someone put their life in your hands again. Now if only all synthetics were willing to get themselves ripped in half for Ripley’s sake, she’d be set!

C3P0/R2D2:
For that matter, who knew robots from the future would be fay, effeminate and possibly homosexual? Not that there’s anything wrong with that last one… But as audiences are sure to agree, the other characteristics could get quite annoying after awhile. C3P0’s constant complaining, griping, moaning and citing of statistical probabilities were at once too human and too robotic! Kind of brilliant really… You could say he was the Sheldon of the Star Wars universe!

Still, C3P0 if nothing if not useful when characters found themselves in diplomatic situations, or facing a species of aliens who’s language they couldn’t possibly fathom. He could even interface with machinery, which was helpful when the hyperdrive was out or the moisture condensers weren’t working. Gotta bring in that “Blue Harvest” after all! And given that R2D2 could do nothing but bleep and blurp, someone had to be around to translate for him.

Speaking of which, R2D2 was the perfect counterpart to C3P0. As the astromech droid of the pair, he was the engineer and a real nuts and bolts kind of guy, whereas C3P0 was the diplomat and expert in protocol.  Whereas 3P0 was sure to give up at the first sign of trouble, R2 would always soldier on and put himself in harm’s way to get things done. This difference in personality was also made evident in their differences in height and structure. Whereas C3P0 was tall, lanky and looked quite fragile, R2D2 was short, stocky, and looked like he could take a licking and keep on ticking!

Naturally, it was this combination of talents that made them comically entertaining during their many adventures and hijinks together. The one would always complain and be negative, the other would be positive and stubborn. And in the end, despite their differences, they couldn’t possibly imagine a life without the other. This became especially evident whenever they were separated or one of them was injured.

Hmmm, all of this is starting to sound familiar to me somehow. I’m reminded of another, mismatched, and possibly homosexual duo. One with a possible fetish for rubber… Not that there’s anything wrong with that! 😉

Cameron:
Some might accuse me of smuggling her in here just to get some eye-candy in the mix. Some might say that this list already has an example from the Terminator franchise and doesn’t need another. They would probably be right…

But you know what, screw that, it’s Summer Glau! And the fact of the matter is, she did a way better job than Kristanna Loken at showing that these killing/protective machines can be played by women. Making her appearance in the series Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles, she worked alongside acting great Lena Headey of 300 and Game of Thrones fame.

And in all fairness, she and Lokken did bring some variety to the franchise. For instance, in the show, she portrayed yet another reprogrammed machine from the future, but represented a model different from the T101’s. The purpose of these latter models appeared to be versatility, the smaller chassis and articulate appendages now able to fit inside a smaller frame, making a woman’s body available as a potential disguise. Quite smart really. If you think about it, people are a lot more likely to trust a smaller woman than a bulked-out Arny bot any day (especially men!) It also opened up the series to more female characters other than Sarah.

And dammit, it’s Summer Glau! If she didn’t earn her keep from portraying River Tam in Firefly and Serenity, then what hope is there for the rest of us!

Cortana:
Here we have another female AI, and one who is pretty attractive despite her lack of a body. In this case, she comes to us from the Halo universe. In addition to being hailed by critics for her believability, depth of character, and attractive appearance, she was ranked as one of the most disturbingly sexual game characters by Games.net. No surprises there, really. Originally, the designers of her character used Egyptian Queen Nefertiti as a model, and her half-naked appearance throughout the game has been known to get the average gamer to stand up and salute!

Though she serves ostensibly as the ship’s AI for the UNSC Pillar of Autumn, Cortana ends up having a role that far exceeds her original programming. Constructed from the cloned brain of Dr. Catherine Elizabeth Halsey, creator of the SPARTAN project, she has an evolving matrix, and hence is capable of learning and adapting as time goes on. Due to this and their shared experiences as the series goes on, she and the Master Chief form a bond and even become something akin to friends.

Although she has no physical appearance, Cortana’ program is mobile and makes several appearances throughout the series, and always in different spots. She is able to travel around with the Master Chief, commandeer Covenant vessels, and interface with a variety of machines. And aside from her feminine appearance, he soft, melodic voice is a soothing change of pace from the Chief’s gruff tone and the racket of gunfire and dead aliens!

Data:
The stoic, stalwart and socially awkward android of Star Trek: TNG. Built to resemble his maker, Dr. Noonian Soong, Data is a first-generation positronic android – a concept borrowed from Asimov’s I, Robot. He later enlisted in Star Fleet in order to be of service to humanity and explore the universe. In addition to his unsurpassed computational abilities, he also possesses incredible strength, reflexes, and even knows how to pleasure the ladies. No joke, he’s apparently got all kind of files on how to do… stuff, and he even got to use them! 😉

Unfortunately, Data’s programming does not include emotions. Initially, this seemed to serve the obvious purpose of making his character a foil for humanity, much like Spock was in the original series. However, as the show progressed, it was revealed that Soong had created an android very much like Data who also possessed the capacity for emotions. But of course, things went terribly wrong when this model, named Lor, became terribly ambitious and misanthropic. There were some deaths…

Throughout the original series, Data finds himself seeking to understand humanity, frequently coming up short, but always learning from the experience. His attempts at humor and failure to grasp social cues and innuendo are also a constant source of comic relief, as are his attempts to mimic these very things. And though he eventually was able to procure an “emotion chip” from his brother, Data remains the straight man of the TNG universe, responding to every situation with a blank look or a confused and fascinated expression.

More coming in installment two. Just give me some time to do all the write ups and find some pics :)…