Friday, 7 July 2017
Guns in space
I watched Star Trek Beyond last Christmas. It would have been two hours of my life that I’d never get back, but luckily I gave up after twenty-five minutes when it became clear the entire movie was one long videogame cut-scene. All I can say in its defence is that it made Into Darkness seem, in retrospect, not quite so bloody awful.
There was one interesting moment. The Enterprise was attacked by a swarm of little ships. There are spoilers ahoy, by the way, though nothing as dire as actually having to watch the movie itself.
Still here? Okay, those little ships take the Enterprise apart – quickly and completely cut it to ribbons. The shields do nothing to stop them and the phasers seem unable to fire rapid bursts, so that’s that. It would have been more effective if the film makers had done something to set it up. As it was, the scene comes across as the plot development that must happen so that the already-stated theme of the movie (“the major asset of the ship is its crew”) can be slotted into place Ikea-style.
Still, it’s something I’ve wondered about before. Tasked with building a fleet for space combat, would you really build huge battleships? Wouldn’t lots of smaller fighters be more effective?
I’m thinking of Lanchester’s Laws, which establish that when using ranged weapons, the attack strength of a force is proportional to the square of the number of units. Consider two starships against one. Each starship can take two photon torpedo strikes. After one exchange of fire, the solitary vessel is destroyed and the two opponents have lost a quarter of their combined strength.
But it might not be that simple. Maybe the effectiveness of shields goes up non-linearly with the energy put into them. Maybe you can’t build a warp drive or an antimatter containment field smaller than a certain size. We know that the Enterprise’s phasers can cut through a planet’s crust – at least, I think I remember seeing that in one episode. It’s hard to imagine a few hundred TIE fighters pulling that off.
Apparently at the end of the movie the Enterprise gets rebuilt. But why? Having seen that one big vessel is no match for a swarm of smaller ships, does it make sense to revert to the old pattern? That’s reinforcing failure. On the other hand, the scriptwriters will have a hand-wavy plan for getting around it so that sequels can timidly go where Star Wars has gone so many times before.