Monday, October 25, 2010

Top 5 Ramming Scenes of SF

Sometimes, in the midst of a science fiction battle, you've gotta go for broke and call for ramming speed. Some of the best SF battle scenes that spring to mind most quickly for me involve a ship from at least one side, deliberately or accidentally, barreling into one of its enemies.

I'm not talking about some weenie, half-assed slap of a collision like the Enterprise shuffling into the Scimitar at the end of Star Trek - Nemesis.

I'm talking about a hull-wrenching, ship-wrecking, explosion-causing, full-on crash-up between two vessels, causing significant, crippling, if not catastrophic damage, and perhaps even changing the tide of the battle.

Run for the lifepods, chums, we're goin' in!

Top 5 Ramming Scenes of SF:

5) Star Wars - Return of the Jedi - The A-Wing Fighter Ramming the Super Star Destroyer's Bridge
It always seemed to me that this was an accidental ram: the A-Wing had taken a hit and the pilot lost control. But there's no denying that this was a truly devastating impact. How is it that the Rebel capital ships could pound away at this monster's shields and hull for minutes? hours? and not cause significant damage, but one little fighter, the smallest on the line, takes out its bridge and the Empire loses its flagship - and sustains massive damage to the Death Star II. Sure, we can argue until we're as blue in the face as Grand Admiral Thrawn about how absurd it is that the Super Star Destroyer's non-bridge officers weren't able to regain control in time through an auxiliary CIC or the engine room, but the fact remains that this was a David and Goliath scenario with truly awesome results.

4) Star Trek - Deep Space Nine, season 2 finale "The Jem'Hadar" - The Jem'Hadar Fighter Ramming The USS Odyssey
Sometimes, as we learned from the previous example, size doesn't win the battle, especially if your enemy is a Jem'Hadar fighter (let's call a spade a spade, those suckers are big enough to be small capital ships - they're basically corvettes or maybe big enough to be destroyers) with massive firepower and suicidal determination. The Odyssey, a Galaxy-class starship like the Enterprise, tries to come to the rescue of Sisko & co, but ends up getting pummeled by 2 (or was it 3?) Jem'Hadar "fighters". When the rescue is complete, Odyssey attempts to cover the escape of the DS9 Runabouts, but the Galaxy-class ship is destroyed while retreating when it is rammed by one of the Jem'Hadar. Sisko has it mostly right when he explains to the others that the ram was the Jem'Hadar's way of sending a message to the Federation of how determined they were. It was more than that though. It was really a big "fuck you". A message would have involved crippling or destroying Odyssey, but ramming it and destroying one of their own ships in the process was seriously over-the-top on the part of the Jem'Hadar. This was a scene that was also, at least in my mind, a major turning point for the Trek TV shows in terms of portraying the viciousness and brutality that a space battle might entail, and a promise of things to come for DS9 in particular.

3) Battlestar Galactica, season 3 "Exodus Part II" - the Pegasus 2-for-1
When the time comes to rescue the colonists from New Caprica, Galactica initially goes it alone, but the odds are stacked too heavily against the old battlestar, and it looks like Admiral Adama won't make it out. That's when his son Apollo appears in the Pegasus, and the larger, newer battlestar provides cover for Galactica to get away. Pegasus is heavily damaged in the battle, and so before he abandons ship, Lee sets his battlestar on autopilot and sends it hurtling guns-blazing directly at a Cylon basestar. The impact is so colossal that one of Pegasus' flight pods is sheared clean off and tumbles into a second basestar, destroying that vessel as well. An incredible battle to watch, and a nice nod to the episode from the old series where Commander Cain's Pegasus is last seen diving between a pair of enemy basestars in a hail of lasers and missiles.

2) The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, Chapter 17 "The Thunder Child" - Another Great Double Take-out
Of all the slug-fests described in SF books I've read over the years, the one that stays with me the most is a Victorian-era sea battle, the showdown between an early battleship and a trio of Martian war machines in The War of the Worlds. Wells sets the scene of a harbour clogged with ships loaded with refugees trying to escape the terrible Martian tripods. Suddenly, three of the alien machines appear and it looks like they'll be able to make good on the old cliche of having as easy a time as shooting fish in a barrel. But unexpectedly a large British ironclad comes racing into the harbour. In the first exchange, the Thunder Child is raked by a Martian heat ray, but destroys the alien with a volley from its guns. The battleship then charges towards a second Martian, which fires its own heat ray, destroying the ship's upper superstructure. However, the Thunder Child's hull continues to plow forward, ramming the Martian and destroying both. The third war machine slinks off, leaving the refugee ships to escape the harbour in safety. This scene has all the right ingredients: a surprise rescue, the good guys facing incredible odds (both numerically and technologically), a rousing victory when humanity needs it, the innocent escaping, and even though the heroes die, we get the satisfaction of seeing the surviving Martian retreating rather than destroying the ships in the harbour. Of course, it's also the last break humanity will get in the story until the germs take their toll. Wells shows how great a storyteller he is by giving us a victory that, as the rest of the story unfolds, seems smaller and smaller as the Martian occupation gets worse and worse.

1) Babylon 5, season 3 "Severed Dreams" - the Churchill vs the Roanoke
I've spoken at length before about what a powerful piece of TV storytelling (regardless of series or genre) this episode is, and this particular scene is one of the many reasons for it. The battle is raging as B5, the Alexander and the Churchill defend themselves against the Earthforce ships that have been sent to arrest their crews. The Churchill's captain, Hiroshi, knowing her ship is too heavily damaged to continue to fight, orders her ship on a collision course with the Earthforce-loyal Roanoke, broadsiding the other destroyer and causing both ships to explode. (I'm guessing Straczynski thought it would be appropriate to have a Japanese captain make a kamikaze attack in this scene.) It's an incredibly well-done piece of special effects to watch with a powerful musical score digging at the viewer as well. But ultimately, I think what's best about the scene is that it's treated with a lot of realism from the standpoint of the characters. When the destroyers explode, there's no cheering in B5's C'n'C. Some relief, but no celebration - not only do these people appreciate the danger everyone is in, and the terrible loss of life they've just witnessed, but they're also well aware that even though the Roanoke arrived as their enemy, not too long ago they were all part of the same military - all children of Earth. What we're witnessing in this scene isn't so much a great victory as a terrible tragedy. It's just an amazing piece of writing. As good as all of the other nominations are, they don't hold a candle to this part of "Severed Dreams".

What are your favourite ramming scenes from SF?

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