When I was a boy, all I wanted from life was to live on a space station.
A simple enough request, in my mind. Growing up watching double bills of Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9, it seemed all but certain I’d be working with plasma manifolds and self-sealing stem bolts someday soon. Space stations were the ultimate dream of a boy growing up in drab, slow suburbia. It’s no coincidence I’ve chosen to live in London as an adult, which sometimes seems the closest one can stand next to the edge of the unknown, trying not to be swallowed.
That idea of the frontier is paramount. Space station fiction is naturally related to spaceship fiction, and share many thematic properties, though the two differ in some key ways. Chief among them being that whole ‘station’ thing. A stationary setting allows for a change in tone from the wanderlust of boundless exploration that usually comes as standard with anything that has an engine. Indeed, the whole point of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 was to divorce itself from the ‘Wagon Train in space’ metaphor of its 60s progenitor and instead build itself as ‘The Frontiersman in space’. Another old Western, another view of civilization looking out into the unknown, but from a defensible position of trade and talk instead of blundering around the galaxy where who knows what is out there.
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The joys of space stations in TV and games
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DS9 was a mild joke on release, going boldly nowhere, such as it was. But the storylines that developed soon proved it was an altogether different beast from the previous two Star Treks. Giving the show a stationary setting allowed for plotlines to actually have lines, doing away with syndicated television’s requirement for a plot reset button. Stories were slowly built over not just multiple episodes, but multiple seasons, giving the whole proceeding a sense of weight and importance that Next Generation never managed to capture. A scant Borg episode here and there isn’t anything compared to the gravity of the Dominion War, an event that took four full seasons to conclude satisfactorily.
Then we have Babylon 5, which seemed at times to make delivering on story arcs its main reason of being. Hints and foreshadowing gave the show an untouchable number of payoffs to its various mysteries of religion and war. Revelations came practically with every other episode towards the end of the run, with all manner of predestination paradoxes lining up, all served by the stationary setting (when it wasn’t being whisked through time, that is). This sense of history, of witnessing and living through times of import that come to be crucial to the future, highlights the relevance space station fiction has for our modern lives.
Dr Franklin from Babylon 5
On top of expansive storylines, there’s an episode of Babylon 5 in particular that highlights one of my favourite aspects of space station fiction. S03E18 “Walkabout” is an unassuming episode, unconnected to most aspects of the show other than the continued development of the character of Dr Franklin, who’s taken some leave from the medical ward to clear his mind. He does so by exploring Downbelow, a section of the station that is unused, and is mostly inhabited by the undocumented, criminals, and those in hiding. The doctor’s choice of holiday hobbies notwithstanding, it’s always stood out to me as one of the few times in these sorts of fictions where the enormity of these spaces is given credence. In "Walkabout", the audience has a glimpse into the wider world of these constructs, which are supposed to be these huge, tangled, ineffable spaces. It all feels very similar to surviving the unforgiving urban crawl of modern cities.
On that note, one of my favourite stations in fiction is the Citadel from the Mass Effect videogame series. As it appeared in the first game, to be clear, not the version seen in either of the two sequels, where it was cut down to just a couple of offices and warehouses. That this happened was unsurprising really, considering that ‘Where can I find the...?’ is still one of the most commonly asked questions on fan forums. BioWare made an unapologetically huge space that seemed to stretch on forever when I was first exploring it. I remember finding new sections even 20 hours into the game. It makes for a straightforward criticism of ungainly game design, but in terms of a vast structure housing millions, it would keep its title as ‘Most Aggressively Designed First Level’ for quite some time.
One might imagine what kind of maniac designed the silly thing. Though designing your own space station turns out to be harder than you’d think (though, I mean, obviously it’s very hard). The board games Among the Stars and the aptly-named Space Station both simulate the thriving mess space stations have always been in my imagination. As you build your
Mass Effect's Citadel
station out of shuffled cards, shunting power over here and attaching crew quarters there, an odd sense of personality emerges. A medical facility next to the casino. An alien temple in walking distance of the fast food drive-in. A war monument erected opposite the shopping centre. Sights all too familiar to city living.
The tableaus that players build during these sorts of games may only be temporary, but they bring with them shorthand for all the weight and story all space station fiction has. They wouldn’t work as thematic games if you couldn’t imagine Odo or Garibaldi chasing down some alien smuggler or O’Brien and Rom holding it all together with nothing but determination and grit.
Space stations in fiction are huge, unknowable spaces of staggering scale. They’re the best metaphor we have for the constant mental shock of living in the modern city, and the best of them represent this. Not to mention the diversity seen from countless alien cultures working together, sharing the same view out the window into the beyond. As Matt Jones said, “the city is a battlesuit for surviving the future.” Space stations are scifi’s way of understanding how to use them.
When I was a boy, all I wanted from life was to live on a space station. Looking out my London window, that’s what I see.
Here’s hoping that the future is more like Deep Space 9, and less like Thunderbird 5.
Deep Space Nine