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File:StarTrekIIBattle 6679.jpg
Space battles are always a lot more exciting on TV than they are in real life...
Col. John Sheppard, Stargate Atlantis

This is the Super-Trope for many tropes and clichés concerning ship-to-ship combat... the literal kind. IN SPAAAAACE!!!

Space Fighters have Old School Dogfighting. Capital ships get this trope instead, and you can think of it as "Very Old School Sea Fighting." Founded on the idea that Space Is an Ocean, it harks back to the age of Wooden Ships and Iron Men, when large warships, making up in fire-power what they lacked in manoeuvrability, pounded each other with cannon fire until one finally took enough damage to be forced to withdraw (or until a lucky shot hit a powder magazine). The honour and military tradition of those long-gone days will often be evoked as well.

It may be The Climax of a tense standoff, the conclusion of a Stern Chase, or the outcome of a cunning surprise attack. Two Cool Starships from opposing Space Navies will park within arm's reach of each other, and proceed to fire broadsides of Beam Spam and Macross Missiles at each other's Weak Spots. The Close In Weaksauce System -- if it exists -- will valiantly try to intercept enemy attacks, and fail. Deflector Shields will flash and crackle as they slowly drop percentage point by percentage point. The Engineer will rush to prevent Phlebotinum Overloads while avoiding the inevitable torrents of burning steam, providing essential Techno Babble all the way. On The Bridge, Bunnies will shout out damage reports while Explosive Instrumentation claims the life of many a Redshirt Ensign. Everyone flails about as each enemy hit brings on a Star Trek Shake. The Captain will sit stoically at the centre of it all, providing important tactical guidance, such as "Reverse the Polarity!" or "Give me more power!"

In a really dramatic battle, he or she may turn to daring and original plans -- attempts at Stealth in Space (to turn the battle into a submarine analogy), aversions of Two-Dimensional Thinking, uncharacteristically creative applications of usually-Misapplied Phlebotinum, etc. Unfortunately, such daring plans will usually Only Work Once.[2]

Once damage has had some time to accumulate, and the daring plan has had a chance to either work impressively or fail spectacularly, one of the ships will usually find it prudent to invoke the Thirty-Sixth Stratagem and attempt a Hyperspeed Escape. An honourable opponent will let them go; a lowly Space Pirate may get out the boarding hooks instead, and prepare a Boarding Party. If the quarry manages to slip away, there may be a Stern Chase.

If neither side is willing to retreat, sooner or later one of the Cool Ships is likely to suffer a Critical Existence Failure. The crew will scramble for Escape Pods at the last possible second (this step can be skipped if there is nobody important on board), and the subsequent Explosions in Space (with optional Planar Shockwave) will fittingly wrap up the action.

Note that such a confrontation need not be an epic Final Battle. Starship Scuffles are routine in Space Opera, and may be used to establish the setting, throw a minor obstacle in the protagonists' path, introduce a villain, or even just provide a lead-in to other, more important parts of the plot. Of course, epic battles in sci-fi settings often will make use of this trope.

When this trope is averted, it will generally be done in one of two ways: Either large ships will engage in Old School Dogfighting, displaying manoeuvrability usually reserved for Space Fighters, or combat between spacecraft will actually be shown as a completely new kind of warfare, with weapons and tactics shaped by the realities of the outer space environment rather than by the Rule of Cool or naval parallels.

To see the different kinds of ship likely to be involved, inspect the Standard Sci-Fi Fleet. If the ships are Battlestars, this trope may occur side-by-side with Old School Dogfighting. This trope is not to be confused with Space Battles, though there is certainly overlap.

Examples of Standard Starship Scuffle include:


Anime & Manga

  • Haruhi Suzumiya: There is a space battle scene fitting this trope.
  • Captain Harlock: Bonus points for the hero's ship looking like a mash-up of a submarine, battlecruiser and galleon.
  • Space Battleship Yamato featured this trope aplenty, especially in the big battle at the edge of the solar system in the very first episode, which was very obviously inspired by World War II naval engagements. Of course, it's hard to imagine making the Space Is an Ocean trope any more explicit than this show did...


Film

  • The various Star Trek films, nach. Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country, First Contact, Insurrection... Star Trek is essentially the Trope Codifier, after all.
    • In the 2009 Star Trek film, we see some beautiful examples, though aversions of Point Defenceless and a general reduction in the amount of Techno Babble from previous Trek incarnations make it a less straight example than most.
  • Star Wars gives far more focus to Old School Dogfighting between small fighters than to this trope. Usually when capital ships engage each other it is a brief fight. One side will be attempting a Hyperspeed Escape from the very start, or the fight will be a Curb Stomp Battle with one side at a huge disadvantage, and in either case there will be little time for a Standard Starship Scuffle. For example, we see many of the elements of this trope brought out in The Phantom Menace when the protagonists' Shiny Looking Spaceship is breaking through the Trade Federation's blockade, but from the start the focus is not on the fight, but on trying to escape it.
    • Star Wars plays this trope straight in the opening battle of Revenge of the Sith. Among other things it lets us take a look at the starships' broadside cannons. The only thing they lack is that they're not muzzle-loaded.
    • The Battle of Endor from Return of the Jedi starts out more as a Battle of Midway-style melee, with snub fighters attacking the enemy capital ships, but once the Death Star cranks up its superlaser the Rebel cruisers have no choice but to go in and engage the Imperial Star Destroyers toe-to-toe so that at least the Death Star can't get a clear shot at them. The novelization sort of lampshades it; there's a line to the effect that the opposing capital ships are now exchanging broadsides at point-blank range like the oceangoing vessels of another time and place.


Literature

  • The Honor Harrington novels play with this. Although ships do tend to throw everything they've got at each other, they tend to do it from as far away as possible. Prior to the pod revolution, however, missiles were viewed as being more for softening up targets, and the only way to be sure to kill a dreadnaught or superdreadnaught was to close to energy weapon range.[3]
    • David Weber was also one of the people behind the space strategy board game Starfire, and the space battles in Honor Harrington, especially early on, are influenced by the game mechanics.
  • E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series had multiple examples, everything from one-on-one battles to huge space fleets fighting each other.
  • Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy had space battles between the Foundation and various opponents.
  • Dread Empires Fall both plays this straight with the "Established Doctrine" espoused by the Government committee charged with running the war, and uses the Admiral Nelson angle of innovative tactics from the protagonists.
  • Vernor Vinge's A Fire upon the Deep has a somewhat unique kind of starship combat. All ships use a kind of "stutter drive" for Faster-Than-Light Travel, with ships making many short faster-than-light jumps every second. Maneuvering in combat means trying to synchronize your jumps with those of your target, or throwing off the synchronization of your pursuers, while releasing torpedo-like drones that try to get close to the enemy and blow them out of the sky. This somewhat unique form of combat still leaves room for many of the elements of this trope. Because a ship is only in a given location for a fraction of a second before jumping light-years away, getting close to your target becomes important so that your attacks can reach them on time. Shipboard instrumentation simulates things like bright flashes of light from explosions to make the battle more intuitive. And even the Star Trek Shake and Subsystem Damage make occasional appearances. Perhaps the closest parallel is Hot Sub-On-Sub Action.
  • Pandoras Star and Judas Unchained both subvert this trope; space battles happen with nuclear missiles or relativistic projectiles, from many miles away. The crews of the human ships are immersed in the control system, controlling everything through their brains. Maneuvering, if it happens, happens in hyperspace. It still manages to be incredibly dramatic.


Live Action TV

  • Star Trek is the Trope Codifier; this sort of space combat shows up with frequency in all its incarnations. In the later series, the trope is sometimes averted by having giant capital ships engage in Old School Dogfighting, but it's still played straight very, very often.
  • In Andromeda, another Gene Roddenberry series, capital ships occasionally got close enough to one another to fire Anti-Proton guns at each other. But most of the time they lobbed relativistic missiles at blips on the tac screen several light-minutes away. And due to gravity manipulation most ships could maneuver like fighters anyway.
  • Stargate SG-1 and its sequels started to feature space battles that fit this trope perfectly once the Tau'ri developed their own spacecraft using Imported Alien Phlebotinum. Boarding Parties often played an especially large role, however, and early on the still-experimental human ships were more prone to Phlebotinum Breakdown.
  • Babylon 5 would partake in this or Old School Dogfighting (the latter typically for the fighters, but occassionally for the faster or more advanced capital ships as well). If one side got the jump on the other before they could react (typically by ambushing them as they exited a Jump Gate, or jumping on them from a jump point of their own making once the target had been lured into a predefined killzone in a inversion of the Hyperspeed Escape) then the fight would be spectacularly brief. If both ships had fair warning that a fight was about to ensue, then it would be relatively lengthy, with the ships launching fighters and long-range attacks, using electronic countermeasures or interceptor weapons systems to avoid incoming fire while trying to get close enough to allow their own weapons systems to overcome the enemy's defenses. On at least one occassion, a duel between two enemy warships resulted in both ships being destroyed.
    • The first battle of the Earth-Minbari War (after the failed first contact) was near the Vega colony. The Minbari fleet closed to weapons range and waited for the slow Earth ships to take the first shot. The whole battle lasted about 12 seconds with most Earth ships destroyed in the first Minbari volley. Only one ship (a prototype Omega) managed to get close enough to ram a Sharlin war cruiser. Nearly all battles against the Minbari were usually pretty short and one-sided. Oh, and to add more similarities with the Age of Sail, humans had to "eyeball" their weapons at the Minbari (i.e. visual targetting only), as the Minbari stealth systems prevented normal weapons lock.


Tabletop Games

  • BattleTech's space combat spinoff, BattleSpace / AeroTech has this as one of its core mechanics. WarShips brawl with each other at ridiculously close ranges. The battles are very brutal and reminiscent of sea battles from the age of sail. However, it has advanced rules for Newtonian flight physics instead of the Old School Dogfighting style physics, and three dimensional movement is important. Likewise, the fiction usually averts this, with direct combat between capital ships typically fought entirely by instruments and mathematics.
  • The Warhammer 40000 spin-off game Battlefleet Gothic is a tabletop game built on this trope. To its credit, while combat mostly occurs by ships firing broadsides at each other, they at least do it over realistic distances, several million kilometres apart. The models representing the ships are completely out of scale with the rest of the game, as otherwise you'd either be playing with microscopic models, or would need a decently sized city to play in.
    • Additionally, 3D combat is handwaved as "just another range modifier", and since most of these battles take place over such insane ranges, the planar weapon distribution could even be structural, only requiring maneuvering rockets to aim in the z-axis (from the frame of reference of our 2D game surface).
  • Task Force Games: Star Fleet Battles and Starfire.
    • The latter influenced the portrayal of space battles in the Honor Harrington books, as one of the creators of the game was also the novels' author, though how the two universes actually use this trope differs.
  • Attack Vector: Tactical is a good example of an aversion. Battles between "10,000 ton cruisers plying the pitiless depths of space" is the whole point of the game, but special care is taken to realistically simulate physics. As the name implies, the key is all in "vectors and timing". Even 2D Space is averted!
  • Ground Zero Games's Full Thrust pretty much plays this trope straight. Optional rules provide varying degrees of aversion.


Video Games

  • Starcraft features this trope both in-game, and in an animation that plays on one of the menu buttons.
  • Gratuitous Space Battles was explicitly designed to provide a pure fix of Standard Starship Scuffle visuals. The player designs a fleet of fighters, frigates and gargantuan battleships then pits them against another fleet in a firestorm of technicolour glory. If you want to see Deflector Shields shimmering under the onslaught of Beam Spam while Tractor Beams struggle to pin elusive microfighters, this is the game for you.
  • Mass Effect averts this -- at least according to the Codex.
    • The space battle at the end of the first game looks a little more like a dogfight. The space battles in Mass Effect 2 are all between the same two ships, and manage to give the impression of an aircraft attacking an oceangoing ship.
    • The battle in the first game is a ludicrously short-ranged one for the setting; the Citadel flagship is actually unable to bring it's main weapon to bear fast enough before being overwhelmed by smaller enemies much lighter human Cruisers take out in a single shot.
    • The battles in Mass Effect 3 tend to be one-sided on the part of the Reapers. However, we do get to see geth and quarian fleets slug it out without much maneuvering involved. Interestingly, despite the Codex claiming that the quarian heavy capital ships were upgraded with the Thanix cannons, we never actually see them in action. They keep using their standard Magnetic Weapons.
  • Infinite Space has this to a hilt, especially in cutscenes.
  • The X-Universe games often feature slug fests between capital ships at fairly short ranges, even though the weapons will reach out 8km, they're too slow to kill the enemy before they close to sneezing distance. Battles between the player capital ship and AI capital ships usually end with the playerplowing his ship into the AI ship. AI vs AI capital ship battles sometimes result in them both smashing into each other (if the player is speeding up time) due to the poor maneuverability of capital ships and the slow reaction time of sped-up AI.
  • Star Trek Legacy, Star Trek Bridge Commander and the Star Trek Starfleet Command games all feature this heavily, as their respective settings lack Space Fighters. Most Trek games are like that.
  • Nexus the Jupiter Incident is a game designed around this concept. While there are fighters in the game, they're pretty much useless until the enemy's flak lasers are disabled. All fights are big slugfests, especially the climactic fight in the penultimate mission, where the player's fleet must fight against the constantly incoming enemy fleets. Lasers are specifically used to knock out enemy systems but don't do much physical damage. The other weapons are meant to damage the hull (mass drivers) and shields (energy shells).
    • Also of note is that Fixed Forward Facing Weapons are the exception, not the rule. Most guns are turreted and located all over the hull, so you will often see ships rotating to bring additional weapons to bear while the ones currently facing the enemy are recharging.
    • The Final Battle in the game, while smaller in scale than the Decisive Battle in the penultimate mission, is definitely not much easier. Essentially, you have to slug it out with one of the most powerful ships in the game without your fleet. You also have to do it inside a Negative Space Wedgie that could suck your ship in if you're not careful. If you focus on disabling the enemy engines, though, then the fight becomes easier, as the enemy will then fall into the anomaly.


Web Comics

  • Starslip has a few instances of this trope, usually with humorous lampshading of the various associated clichés.
  • One of the fillers for SSDD explains why real life space battles wouldn't look like the movies.

Notes

  1. A scene from Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan, as digitally rendered by Jim Varner.
  2. There's another possible parallel to the Age Of Sail here. Long ago, British admiral Horatio Nelson shocked the world and revolutionized warfare by discarding traditions and turning to risky new tactics that won him many battles. His tactics didn't Only Work Once, of course, but this was before the days of radio (/SubspaceAnsible/what have you), so his tactics -- and the need to develop countermeasures for them -- likely didn't have the chance to spread as quickly. (Also, after Trafalgar, there wasn't anyone with the resources or impetus to develop countermeasures, because no one had a strong enough fleet to challenge the Royal Navy.)
  3. Even that, however, was still not "knife fight" range as often depicted elsewhere, however, with energy weapon engagements being at least several light-seconds apart.
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