Reaching Light Speed in Science Fiction

Graham Host
TV Star Trek
TV Star Trek Star Wars Doctor Who

Physics teaches us that the closer one gets to light speed, the more energy is needed to increase velocity until infinite power is needed to break the barrier. Science fiction teaches us that this is just a drawback of our time, and it’s not just possible but amazingly common in the future.



In normal space, we get from A to C by going through space B. With wormholes, we go from A to C without the hassle of B. If speed truly does equal distance over time, then wormholes allow us to skip past normal space and gain incredible relative velocities. In the Stargate franchise, humans discover a series of interconnected wormholes that allow travel to distant planets within the space of a few moments.


star wars hyperspace falcon

In Star Wars, the ships generally go *phwip* and zoom most of the way across the galaxy. Nothing usually goes wrong – if we excuse Alderaan and Starkiller Base. But the transports don’t actually break light speed. They enter hyperspace, an alternate dimension that exists relative to our own but in a smaller area. The danger of hyperspace comes in the form of “mass shadows” cast from high mass objects in real space such as planets and stars. It is considered impossible to depart or arrive from a planet at hyperspeed, but Han Solo has done both.

Space-Time Vortex

Time Vortex Doctor Who TARDIS

The pinnacle of British television is the legendary sci-fi show Doctor Who. Starring an alien known as the Doctor from an ancient race known as Time Lords, we watch his adventures through time and space with his almost exclusively human companions. Despite zipping around the universe with ease, the Doctor rarely travels by conventional means. Instead of crashing through the light barrier, Time Lords have access to a vortex of energy that reflects the entirety of time and space through the universe. On the rare occasions that he moves the TARDIS through normal space, the TARDIS supposedly utilizes up to 11 dimensions.

Warp Speeds

Star Trek Enterprise in space

Surprisingly, Star Trek is one of the few franchises around to actually surpass light. By mixing matter and antimatter in a controlled reaction, warp drives can generate enough power to reach light speed. As even the smallest fragment of matter would destroy the ships on contact, deflector shields are projected out ahead to protect them. Without both of these pieces of equipment operating, ships cannot achieve warp speed.


Futurama Planet Express in space

Maybe one of the more controversial ideas out there, but the Planet Express doesn’t actually move through space. During Cubert Farnsworth’s debut appearance, the young clone is knocked unconscious. While out for the count, he somehow figures out how the ship works. Using the dark matter engines, it doesn’t move through the universe. Rather, the universe is moved around the ship. Yes, that is impossible – but it works.

Want to explore more of the science of science fiction? Check out our list of movies that use science to save the world.

Graham Host is a member of the Fan Contributor program. In his spare time, he enjoys the works of Terry Pratchett, DC Comics and a wide assortment of video games. Under no circumstances should he be fed after midnight.
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