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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.

35 comments:

  1. I assume that the little ships don't have warp drives? They are built for a single purpose rather than the Enterprise which is also built for exploration and research. However, that means that instead of raising shields, there should be a fleet of X-wings, I mean, combat shuttlecraft on the Enterprise that can be launched at a moment's notice. I lost interest in Star Trek after the first reboot movie and when I found out that Benedict Cumberbatch was actually Khan. I think Star Trek has lost its way in terms of its message and is ending up being more generic to broaden its appeal.

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    1. I couldn't agree more, Stuart. All the signs are that the upcoming TV show will continue that trend -- though I'll be happy to be proved wrong.

      I wonder why they don't use replicator tech to repair damage to the ship mid-combat. It's the ultimate in 3D printing, but they only use it to make cups of tea.

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    2. I feel a moral responsibility to reply to a Star Trek-themed post. May I bullet point?

      - Yes, Star Trek Beyond is pretty awful. Not the worst Trek film, mind – I still say that's Star Trek V. But yeah, it's not Simon Pegg's best work. And his wife must be thrilled that he wrote in a romantic arc for his own character.

      - We can't really fall back on the excuse that smaller craft can't have warp drives. The 'Runabout' shuttles that we see in DS9 / TNG are fast; so's the Delta Flyer in Voyager. Okay, they take place about 80 years after Kirk's era, but there aren't any fighters then, either.

      - I'd say that back in the 60s, during production of TOS, we could ascribe the lack of fighters to budget – it was cheaper just to make a model of one big ship. By the time we get to Voyager, that's surely no longer the case – Voyager used a lot of the same special effects CGI people as Babylon 5, and that had fighters all over the place. Guess they were just sticking with the tone that had already been established.

      - The old Star Fleet Battles strategy game had a lot of non-canonical elements, including fighters. They were excellent. So was the game as a whole.

      - In Deep Space 9, the Jem'Hadar ships are called fighters, and they're smaller than Federation ships... but they're still really capital ships. Big enough for a crew of a couple of dozen, plus toilet facilities.

      - If you're going to replicate spare parts, why bother with a 'real' ship at all? Just build an engine with holo-emitters all around it, and holo-generate your ship. When a bit gets broken, just generate a new bit.

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    3. I like Star Trek V. It was true to the characters. It's the one with the bloody whales that pisses me off.

      As for holo-ships... You mean like the fake guns lining the walls in Beau Geste? The thing is, I think the rest of the ship has to be physically real to hold the crew. Why bother with crew when the AIs could do it all? Ah, now there's a question.

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  2. It is an established fact that the shields on Federation ships are - not to put too fine a point on it - utterly useless. The sole point of having them is to fail, it seems. But if they were any good, there would be no short- or mid-term jeopardy and not much plot (or not much more plot than the little there is!) Still quite like the reboots, though, if they can just cut the video-game stuff back a bit.

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    1. The first reboot was full of promise. But straightaway they resorted to the usual knowing callbacks, bringing Khan in, the meaningless death scene, and all that is just fan-pleasing. I want to see ST have the courage of its convictions. Not going to happen, I suspect.

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    2. See, the Khan thing could have worked, but they sort of missed their cue. The point behind "The Wrath of Khan" was how the wary friendship between Khan and Kirk shifted into mutual rage and a lust for vengeance.

      This almost gets into fanfic, but my take would have had Kirk and Khan going from rage and vengeance into a slow alliance and ending with a wary friendship, perhaps with Khan taking the big ship with his crew to find a new home out in space.

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    3. That sounds a lot more interesting to me, and more in keeping with the original vision of the Great Bird of the Galaxy too!

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    4. My take is that Pike in Darkness was a casualty of war - war effectively started by Starfleet against Khan and his crew. When Khan attacked, he attacked military targets, albeit using asymmetrical tactics that remind one of terrorism.

      Given that, the overall flow of the story should have had Kirk seeking revenge against Khan, catching him, learning the real story and recognizing that despite Khan's action, the person most responsible for Pike's death was the militaristic faction led by Marcus. So Khan and Kirk form their alliance that slowly shifts to grudging respect and a kind of friendship/forgiveness - much like what happens when former adversaries come together after a war.

      I don't know, that story concept seemed to fit the story elements they'd set up in the movie better than what they did, which was to shoehorn the story from Wrath of Khan into a story space where it didn't comfortably fit.

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  3. Btw I mentioned it on Facebook and somebody said, "The shields went down because the attackers hacked the Enterprise's shield prefix codes. They explained that in the movie."

    I didn't watch far enough to confirm if that was indeed the excuse - er, explanation - given. But if it was then I'm going to have to blow another raspberry at the writers just for that egregious ass-pull.

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    1. I watched the whole thing and never caught that. My take was that the drone ships were built really tough because their main attack method was slamming into other ships. Figure shields are great for repelling energy-based attacks like phasers, disrupters and even torpedoes as well as tiny physical objects like pebbles, small asteroids. For bigger physical stuff there's tractor beams, phasers and get getting the hell out of the way.

      I just assumed that the enemy knew what he was facing, understood modern design principles and purpose-built an attack type that would exploit the vulnerabilities of those designs. I think I'll stick with this since it makes way more sense than "shield prefix codes."

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    2. I think that's a more interesting take on it, yes. An enemy devised a strategy that Starfleet never envisaged, and in doing so revealed the critical vulnerability of big starships. Unfortunately that explanation would require them to completely redesign the entire fleet, so instead we have to put up with some hand waving and next time everything will be back to normal.

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    3. I don't know that they'd need to redesign their fleet, though they might want to install some extra point-defense systems for use against fight craft.

      Leaving aside the fact that the swarm from Beyond was defeated by a Beastie Boys song, the swarm seemed to have some pretty definite inherent difficulties. First is range. How much fuel/air/food/water could those things carry? Enough for a day? Maybe two days? That makes them pretty unsuitable for long range exploration. Even with the Klingons and Romulans, they control large swaths of space. So if they switched to the swarm model, they'd also need to set up a huge network of resupply stations to see to the swarm's needs.

      And what if you need to attack a planet? The main attack form of the swarm is ramming. That works great against a relatively delicate vehicle like a starship, not so well against an actual planet (which usually has experience multiple asteroid/meteor strikes and is none the worse for wear).

      That said, the swarm idea is great for local defense, but it can't really project power. For that you need full-sized star ships.

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  4. Little ships are pretty great for combat - assuming they can get through shields. They kind of suck for exploration with the lack of room for food, water, oxygen and science equipment (try going from London to New York on a Jet-ski and tell me how much better small ships are than big ships).

    For my part I liked Star Trek Beyond better than the first two reboot movies. It was nice to get the crew off the U.S.S. Lensflare, separated out a bit and onto an alien planet. I will say that by cutting out early, you missed Sofia Boutella as Jaylah, who is easily the best new character to hit the series.

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    1. When I say "small" ships, they could be a quarter the size of the Enterprise, which is still pretty big. Of course, if that would necessarily mean having a quarter the firepower and a quarter the shield strength, there'd be no advantage. Maybe the best answer is not to have shield prefix codes :-)

      I think I'm done with the reboots. Good luck to Simon Pegg, but his Star Trek is not my Star Trek.

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    2. I kind of wish you'd watch the whole of Star Trek: Beyond just to help me confirm something. It really felt that in that movie they were setting up Jaylah as a replacement for Chekov. While still being her own character, Jaylah has an oddball technical prowess and youth like he does. Except that Anton Yelchin only died a month before ST:B came out. So, why would they set up a replacement for a character whose actor hadn't died yet.

      Honestly, it would work. Jaylah's a really good character and it'd be nice to add a little extra estrogen to the Big Seven. It was just a really kind of odd thing in the movie.

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    3. Maybe she was intended as love interest for Chekov? For me the central dynamic isn't seven, it's the three: Kirk, Spock and McCoy. That probably explains why I like the oft-vilified Star Trek V.

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    4. Possibly. What's interesting is that there's really no hint of that in the movie. Jaylah's main connection with the crew comes through Scotty and even then he's more mentor/fatherish figure with her. I kind of liked that Jaylah wasn't particularly sexualized in the movie. She was striking, even pretty in an alien way, but she never came off as a potential sex object like Rachel Nichols as the Orion from the first movie or Alice Eve from the second.

      As for the Star Trek, with the old series, I follow the conventional wisdom of the even ones (Wrath, Voyage, Undiscovered, First Contact and Nemesis (featuring an early Tom Hardy as Shinzon)) being the best with the others falling down somewhat. Especially Generations (Really? killing Captain Kirk by dropping a bridge on him?! Eff You!). I admit that I've never seen Final Frontier. I suppose I need to check it out and form my own opinion.

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    5. That was one of the worst story decisions of the ST movie series. Kirk should have died as a result of a clear choice to sacrifice himself for the greater good, not simply as a result of bad luck when facing yet another high risk scenario. That's like saying, "Too bad, he finally fumbled his luck roll," when it should have been an inevitable and fateful moment. And having something as bathetic as a bridge falling on him - I'm sure that was because some idiot studio exec thought it would be funny to say, "Bridge on the Captain." Ugh.

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  5. The fact that this situation ended up naming a trope
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/DroppedABridgeOnHim/LiveActionFilms
    and not in a good way, tells you everything you need to know.

    It was the Star Trek version of "jumping the shark" for Happy Days.

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    1. I went over to TV Tropes for a quick look, and one link led to another... and another... It's the browsing equivalent of steering too close to a black hole.

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    2. Watch out, Dave. TVTropes is like Heroin.

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    3. It's too late for me, Stuart. Save yourself!

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  6. ",,,and that will lead to another trope and That will lead to Another trope..."

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  7. This reminds me of Doug Lenat, who programmed an AI back in the 1980s to play Traveller as a tabletop game for battling fleets of warships. Accepted strategy at the time was to field large, mobile, and well-armed warships, but Lenat's AI concluded instead that it would be better to field hundreds of smaller, less mobile, and less aggressive craft. This approach ended up easily winning the tournament. Even after a rule-change prevented Lenat's AI repeating this strategy the following year, it still won (and so was banned from future competitions). I can only assume that Lenat's AI algorithms didn't make survive into the 23rd century.

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    1. Too many game designers complain about people playing their game wrong. But once you hand people the rules, the only wrong ways to play are the ways that lose.

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    2. I've never really given too many hoots about winning or losing, so long as I enjoy the journey of a game to its end, so I'd propose that the only wrong ways to play are the ways in which you don't have fun, but that leads into the debate about the responsibility of a player to ensure the other players are also having fun. And once everyone is under pressure to ensure everyone else is also having fun, is it even fun any more?

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    3. Roleplaying is a whole other thing, of course, and arguably not a game at all. A life simulator might be a better description. But even there, you can't expect players to ignore obvious exploits of the system simply because you didn't design the rules to be played that way. I saw one set of RPG rules that kept emphasizing how players were supposed to play it, even though the rules patently did not set up a world in which that would be the likely behaviour. That's the job of a designer. If I want a world in which characters are afraid of magic, I have to build in a reason.

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  8. The prefix code thin only worked in WoK because Khan opened a communications channel for them and let them do an upload to his computer system. Doh! So much for the superior intellect. It was just a flimsy excuse in Beyond.

    I think they were betting that most of the audience would be too busy watching the cool CGI and chomping popcorn to care about the story making any sense. But that's the Reboots for you. I actually still rate the first one though despite the transporting into warp thing being stupid and unnecessary.

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    1. I liked the first one, too, Simon. It had its flaws but showed promise -- promise that was immediately squandered. I can't help wondering what the rejected script for Beyond was like. "Too Star Trekky" was one studio exec's comment, allegedly, with Mr Pegg's intention being to make it less SF and more of an action movie. But noise and CGI and dumb jokes are not enough.

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  9. The post and comments have been interesting to read but it does beg the question, with the exception of a few episodes and films, has Star Trek ever been particularly good or (perhaps more fairly) consistently so?

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    1. I used to figure on Next Gen having one or at most two really good episodes per season. It may not seem a great hit rate, but one entire season cost a fraction of the budget of Beyond, and I think TNG rarely had utterly stupid plotting, nor was it continually played as broad comedy the way the movies have gone.

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    2. Those are fair points... And a higher budget (unfortunately) often doesn't get spent on the important things!

      The one thing I've always loved about Star Trek is its message of optimism. Its refreshing that humanity has established pretty much a utopian society where people contribute to it in positive ways and money no longer has control over society at large. Compared to a lot of other (still great) SF, this came across as deeply original to me when I first heard it mentioned.

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    3. And this message of optimism is still fresh even today. Perhaps, especially so, considering everything that's happening in the real world.

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    4. I think Roddenberry's vision is realistic - at least, if humanity has a future, it must be that optimistic future. I feel sorry for those people who think life is a zero-sum game and say that people are fundamentally selfish, because I think they're just describing themselves. Humans when they work together than achieve wonders. To get there we're going to have to shrug off a lot of superstition and tribalism, though. I'm confident that we'll do it, or our successors will.

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