Space-faring ships that turn out to be alive are nothing new in science fiction. There’s more entries every year, but the leviathans often have similarities to previous versions. Many of them are whale-like, with interior corridors that look like the belly of the beast. Some even sing like whales. But while there’s plenty of overdone tropes in science fiction, what exactly constitutes life and sentience is one that is still interesting. As humanity’s understanding of non-human sentient life deepens over time, we continue to explore this concept in our entertainment as well. Here’s some of our favorite living “ships” from TV and film.
Jean Jacket (Nope)
Nope is the latest sci-fi movie to introduce a living ship. The flying saucer turns out to be an animal rather than a typical UFO. Technically it does carry passengers, for a little while at least. Then it eats them. If only we humans weren’t so delicious and nutritious. The real animals that inspired Jean Jacket’s design—urchins, cuttlefish, squid, and other ocean life— are not really a threat to us. But when a large alien shows those same unfamiliar behaviors, it’s a lot more scary.
Jordan Peele consulted scientists to make his predator more realistic and comment on the dangers of trying to control nature. That’s a tale many of the sentient ship stories that came before tell, and will likely remain a sci-fi theme for years to come since humanity hasn’t yet taken it to heart.
TARDIS (Doctor Who)
The TARDIS is clearly a sentient ship and seems to actually be alive. At one point, it transforms into a woman and we get to hear its “voice” and get a peek into its “soul.” But is it alive or is that just Gallifreyan AI? The TARDIS certainly seems to have a life and mind of its own, making decisions and showing some level of warmth and love towards The Doctor. And, a TARDIS is not built by beings, but rather grown, which indicates that it is itself a living being that operates as a ship.
This is surely a debatable one among some fans; however, there is an episode of Doctor Who where there is a more clear-cut living ship. In “The Beast Below,” the monsters of the week aren’t Daleks or Weeping Angels—they’re humans. Survivors from Earth have captured the last star whale and they torture it into obediently carrying their “civilization” on its back. Anyone who protests after learning of the animal’s captivity is summarily fed to the whale. Amy Pond saves the creature, who just wanted to help instead of harm others.
Moya and Talyn (Farscape)
Farscape’s ship Moya is biological, a species called leviathans. Just like our heroes are escaped prisoners, Moya is an escaped prison ship. The Peacekeepers used a collar to control her and inhibit her abilities. She is bonded with Pilot, an enormous Henson puppet that is the crew’s connection to their ship. Both suffer when they’re apart. In certain storylines, the rest of Moya‘s flawed crew tests this interconnectedness and grapples with their treatment of both the ship and Pilot.
Throughout the series, Moya sometimes goes off on her own missions. She even gives birth to a baby ship, Talyn, who is actually a hybrid. Part Peacekeeper ship, he is covered in weapons and harder to communicate with. Farscape offers plenty of takes on life and love and is often unexpected and weird. Perhaps our crew of misfits grappling with the morality of living on a sentient ship is actually the most normal thing they ever do.
Vorlons and Shadows (Babylon 5)
Now that the show has finally been upgraded to HD, it’s time for a full rewatch. Both the Vorlon and Shadow ships are biological and at least semi-sentient. They act instinctively and can heal from attacks and even adapt their defenses. Though it’s highly guarded technology, Sheridan and his crew learn a little bit about them during the Shadow War. But they don’t really ponder the ethics of destroying these ships. Instead, the unfamiliar technology of living ships is merely fascinating.
The Vorlons and Shadows are ancient enemies, but there are many similarities in their fleet of biological ships. Between conflicts, the ships disperse and hibernate, standing ready for the next sign of trouble. They need to bond with a pilot so even though there’s a billion Vorlon ships, the relatively small number of Vorlons themselves mean much of the fleet is out of service. The ships communicate telepathically, another recurring theme in sci-fi. They even sing.
Gomtuu (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
Multiple species that use biological ships exist in the Star Trek galaxy. The episode “Tin Man” in The Next Generation‘s third season revolves around making first contact with a new life form. The Enterprise finds the being hanging out near a supernova in Romulan-occupied space. The infallible bridge crew respects its right to exist but is also wary of its powerful abilities. Luckily, they have a powerful Betazoid named Tam aboard who is able to communicate with it telepathically.
Tam learns its name is Gomtuu and it hasn’t seen another of its kind in thousands of years. The species evolved to live symbiotically with passengers and Gomtuu is lonely now that its crew is dead. Tam is also isolated (and kind of a jerk) because he is bombarded with everyone’s telepathic thoughts. You can see where this is going, right? Tam beams aboard to help save Gomtuu from both the supernova and the Romulans. They end up bonding and finding the companionship they both need.
Species 8472’s bio-ships (Star Trek: Voyager)
Later in Trek history, Voyager introduces the much more ominous Species 8472. So named by the Borg, both the aliens and their ships are organic life. They are impervious to both Borg and Federation technology, leading to the unlikely temporary alliance that introduces Seven of Nine to Voyager‘s crew. The bioships have plenty of traits we’ve seen before and will see again. They regenerate when damaged and can communicate telepathically with Kes.
Species 8472 lives in another realm called fluidic space, which we’ll have to ask the Star Trek science advisor about, because we have no idea what that means. Though allegiances flip-flop multiple times during the two-part “Scorpion” storyline, Voyager ultimately defeats 8472 in the Delta Quadrant. And because it’s Star Trek, Leonardo da Vinci (played by John Rhys-Davies) is somehow involved in the conflict.
Biblical stories about Leviathans and other sea monsters have made way for science fiction fantasies about sentient ships. The morality lessons we tell about the ethical treatment of animals, even if they do pose a threat to us, are important. They can also be entertaining, too! We hope to see many more living ships in science fiction yet to come.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.