Windows In SF

No, not the Microsoft version, and you’d like to hope that the systems on board the Enterprise and the like are not based on an underpinning that’s liable to blue-screen on you halfway through a transporter cycle, or need to download an important security update before you can fire those photon torpedoes.

I'm not sure that's the best way to clean windows...

Windows in SF tend towards the panoramic. They are great floor to window room-width panes, around which your crew can gather to goggle in wonder at each new wonder they encounter on their impossible mission to the gates of forever. More recent iterations of The Big Window have embedded graphics. Just in case you weren’t sure about the exact designation of the Klingon Warbirds moving into battle configuration in front of you, handy pop-up windows, scrolling text boxes and spinning wire-frame models tell you more than you needed to know.

In reality, of course, the sort of panoramic window that you’d see on the bridge of the Enterprise or the command deck of an Imperial Destroyer could never happen. That much glass, under atmospheric pressure on the inside and the constant risk of micrometeorite impact from the outside, would be far too dangerous to install. On the International Space Station and the Shuttle, windows are tiny, quadruple-glazed portholes of thick crystal. You want a peek outside? That’s what video cameras are for.

The guy in red doesn't realise he's up for window-cleaning duty yet...

Which is why most “windows” in SF are actually really big projectors. They have zoom functions. They can hook into communication circuits, so that looming close-up of the approaching enemy warlord demanding your immediate surrender and the handover of fifty of your most fragrant ensigns can be really threatening. You can even show that things have gone really badly wrong by having the screen just show that fuzzy analogue static that is somehow still a signifier of lost signal even after ten years of fizz-free digital telly.

I’m a fan of The Big Window in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which started this whole SF decor riff in the first place. That window is a way for the crew to have a look at the approaching sun in all it’s fearful magnificence, and it’s tunable to filter out all but 3% of the light. This, for once, does just seem to be a portal, albeit one with some really smart sunblock. But it fulfills all of the rules I outlined earlier – it’s a Really Big Window, probably twenty feet square, and at one point the whole crew do gather around it to gawp in wonderment at Mercury passing across the surface of the sun. It’s a lovely moment, and sums up for me the important thing about SF set design. It should always be there to help the story along. Let’s face it, that bit of the film wouldn’t have had the emotional impact if the crew of the Icarus II had been crowded around a foot-square porthole.

We're gonna need a bigger tube of Factor 50.

One word you should never hear in an SF movie? “Budge up a bit, let me have a look.”


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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