Pod Bay One

The starship Enterprise

Let’s take a closer look at Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, arguably one of the most iconic spaceship designs in popular culture.

Written by Josho Brouwers on 20 December 2018

When we decided to talk about our single favourite science-fiction thing as the topic for the very first episode of our podcast, I was briefly tempted to pick just the starship Enterprise known from Star Trek, but didn’t because I think ideas are more important than things.

I have a particular fondness for the version originally designed for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, not in the least because, when I was younger, I had the original movies on VHS and could watch those whenever I wished: the same wasn’t true for the TV series. But the basic design of the two versions of the ship is, of course, essentially the same.

The original Enterprise

After more than five decades of Star Trek, it’s perhaps difficult to realize just how revolutionary the design of the original ship was. Just compare the vessel to space ships depicted on the covers of science-fiction novels of the 1950s and earlier, or what was shown in movies. For the most part, earlier vessels looked like either flying saucers or rocket ships.

In The Making of Star Trek (1968) by Stephen E. Whitfield, Gene Roddenberry explained to production designer Matt Jefferies what he wanted from the ship that would form the centre of the new show’s setting (p. 69):

We’re a hundred and fifty or maybe two hundred years from now. Out in deep space, on the equivalent of a cruiser-size spaceship. We don’t know what the motive power is, but I don’t want to see any trails of fire. No streaks of smoke, no jet intakes, rocket exhaust, or anything like that. We’re not going to Mars, or any of that sort of limited thing. It will be like a deep-space exploration vessel, operating throughout our galaxy. We’ll be going to stars and planets that nobody has named yet. (…) I don’t care how you do it, but make it look like it’s got power.

Matt Jefferies and his crew got to work, pinning stuff to walls as examples of what they wouldn’t do, and then drawing sketches of stuff that looked believable. Roddenberry would wander in from time to time, point out what he liked, and then Jefferies got back to business. They eventually settled on a ship design with a cigar-shaped hull, to which were affixed two nacelles on struts underneath, and a spherical control section. The sphere was replaced by a saucer. The resulting design was then flipped upside down to arrive at more or less the look of the original USS Enterprise.

As Matt Jefferies worked on desiging the Enterprise, this model ended up being close to the final design. It was flipped upside down and the nacelles were attached to the cigar-shaped secondary hull via struts.

Something that Jefferies and the other production staff for Star Trek wanted to avoid was to add any unnecessary detail to the ship, like fins attached to the nacelles, which would make it look more like something out of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. Jefferies also believed that the hull of the ship should be smooth, with no exposed circuitry or mechanisms, and thought that vital parts of the ship’s inner workings ought to be accessible from inside the ship.

In many ways, the “saucer section” of the Enterprise is one element that harkens back to older-style science-fiction. Flying saucers were a staple in many iconic sci-fi movies of the 1950s, most notably The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956). The latter movie in particular seems to have been a heavy influence on Star Trek, though one that has seldom been acknowledged. Note, however, that the “laser pistols” used in Star Trek’s original pilot episode, “The Cage”, are actually the same props as used for the hand weapons in Forbidden Planet.

A render of a computer model of the original starship Enterprise, designed by Matt Jefferies. The original series was remastered a few years ago, during which all visual effects were replaced. Space scenes had to be done over completely, which necessitated the creation of a high-resolution computer model of the ship.

Many of the technical details regarding the ship were deliberately left sketchy. Jefferies had calculated the ship was 947 feet (ca. 288 metres) long, and the crew complement was eventually said to be 430 (though througout early episodes of the show, this number is often quite a bit lower, down to around 200). For faster-than-light travel, the ship relied on a “warp drive”, and it’s never made especially clear exactly what was warped or how it worked, except that you could travel at different “speeds” depending on the “warp factor”.

A refit for the silver screen

After Star Trek got cancelled in 1969, re-runs of the show exploded in popularity in the 1970s, eventually leading to the production of an animated series, before pre-production started on a full-blown new TV show, dubbed Star Trek: Phase Two. With the success of Star Wars (1977), plans for the show were scrapped and a decision was made to do a movie instead.

Already for Phase Two, it had been decided to update Matt Jefferies’s original design. For The Motion Picture (1979), Andrew Probert was asked to redesign the vessel more drastically to ensure it would look good in cinemas, and the changes were explained in the movie as the result of a rather extensive refit program following the Enterprise’s return to Earth after its legendary five-year mission. Andy Probert has his own website, which features sketches of work he’s done for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (as well as for The Next Generation).

Taking inspiration from the Phase Two vessel, Probert took the basic elements of Jefferies’s design and updated them. The secondary hull was made more rounded, its belly flowing more naturally to the curve underneath the shuttle bay; the sensor/deflector dish in front was better integrated into the hull. The dish was copper in colour when powered down, a reference to the original vessel’s dish, and would light up bright blue when travelling at warp. When the special effects were handled by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) from the second movie onwards, this colour difference was dropped, however.

A cutaway poster of the USS Enterprise-A. The refit Enterprise was blown up in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, but the crew was given another ship of the same class in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. For the Enterprise-A, ILM repainted the ship yet again (because of the battle damage added during the making of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), adding a number of new details. They didn’t change the overal design, however, and this cutaway also shows the landing pads that Probert had originally added to the refit.

The saucer hull had more details added that were largely hidden on TV screens, like the deflector grid. The saucer was also meant to be able to separate in case of a disaster, and Probert added details to the top of the neck to support this idea. He added outlines on the bottom section of the saucer hull for landing pads that would extend down when the saucer landed on the surface of a planet. Some cross-section drawings of the refit Enterprise depict these landing pads.

The nacelles received a more radical redesign, becoming more flattened. Jefferies had always intended these to be modular anyway. There’s even a line in the episode “The Savage Curtain” that suggests that in an emergency, the nacelles could be jettisoned from the rest of the ship. The straight struts of the original design were also replaced by more aesthetically pleasing struts that were swept back, and made the ship look like it was going somewhere even when it wasn’t.

In The Motion Picture, the model had been given a very intricate paint job, which gave it a pearlescent finish. When ILM took over visual effects duties, they repainted the model in a more simple way, making it appear more flat. Fortunately, the Director’s Cut edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture has restored the footage and even corrected some mistakes left in the original cut (mainly associated with blue screen effects), so that the paint job of the original model can still be admired.

Legacy

The original Enterprise design was inspired and has exacted a lasting influence on science fiction. In the original show, all Federation starships used the same model, with different names and registries (like the Constellation in the episode “The Doomsday Machine”, or the starships featured in “The Ultimate Computer”). The Enterprise was even referred to as belonging to the “starship class” (later retconned to Constitution class), as if there was only one type of vessel that deserved that designation.

For The Motion Picture, the design of the Enterprise was updated, and we were also shown different kinds of Starfleet vessels. These included the Reliant in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the Grissom in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Both of these were intended to be smaller, less capable vessels than the Enterprise. Perhaps their operational range was more limited than the Enterprise, which was specifically designed for long-term exploration of deep space.

A shot of the USS Excelsior from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The ship was designed by Bill George of ILM. Originally, ILM had hoped that Kirk and company would get this ship for the new movie following the destruction of the refit Enterprise, as the model made for The Motion Picture was large and cumbersome. However, since the Excelsior functioned as an inept villain ship, enthusiasm for this idea was low, and so Kirk was simply given a duplicate of his original ship, the Enterprise NCC-1701-A, at the end of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

But The Search for Spock also introduces us to the would-be successor of the Enterprise and other vessels of her class: the USS Excelsior. With a similar mission profile to the Enterprise, the Excelsior has the exact same hull configuration as its predecessor: a saucer attached via a neck section to a secondary hull, from which sprout two struts supporting warp engine nacelles. This basic configuration would be repeated again and again for a variety of Starfleet vessels moving forward, not in the least the USS Enterprise-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation (also designed by Andrew Probert).

For the Starfleet ship designs in the 1990s, the neck section was often removed and the primary hull and secondary hull were more fully integrated, as demonstrated by the design for the USS Voyager in the TV show Star Trek: Voyager and the Enterprise-E in the movie Star Trek: First Contact. Nevertheless, Matt Jefferies’s original design continues to live on in these newer ships.