The Romulan mining vessel Narada undulates as it prepares to claim another defenseless planet. Spaceship design has come a long way since the 1960s. Here's a gallery of five different eras in starships, battlecruisers and planet-destroyers, with 150+ images.
1950s and 1960s:
Space vessel design in the actual Space Age tends to involve either sleek rockets or funny flying saucers — until Star Trek comes along, with the U.S.S. Enterprise's weird mix of saucer and rocket-like nacelles, bonded to a tuber shaped main section. Not to mention the fierceness of the Romulan warbird and the gun-like Klingon warships. Model design is already starting to change drastically:
1968 to 1977:
And then with 2001: A Space Odyssey, you start seeing more rugged, lived-in-looking ships, with weirder shapes, like the probe's long neck and rounded front. And ships start having more bumpy weird bits. This trend only continues with Space: 1999's squat Eagles, which look like they could survive anything (even blowing up multiple times) but aren't as elegant as an old-school rocket.
1977 to 1986:
And then Star Wars comes along, with its awesome space dogfights, and suddenly, hugeness and imposing scope are a must. It's no accident that later iterations of the U.S.S. Enterprise are way huger than the 1960s original. The crazy shapes of the T.I.E. fighters and other craft inspire some other weird models in things like The Black Hole. And the X-Wing fighters inspire everything from Buck Rogers' fighter ship to the Last Star Fighter's vessel.
1987 to 1997:
Star Trek: The Next Generation saw in a whole new era of space opera, but the main thing that changed in the late 1980s was the rise of CG effects, allowing spaceships to look much more diverse and weirder than models ever could. From the Borg cube to the many bizarre shapes of vessels in Babylon 5, starships no longer had to look like a few pieces stuck together.
1998 to present:
I can't think of one defining franchise of the past decade that has shaped how we view space opera the same way these earlier franchises did. Star Trek has kept innovating, but so have BSG, Farscape, Stargate and a number of others. CG has gotten a lot smoother and ships can move in much more natural, organic ways — just look at the Narada, to bring us back to our first example. At the same time, as nostalgia has reigned the genre, we've come full circle and resurrected a lot of classic designs, with a few tweaks.
Additional reporting by Alexis Brown.