Evolution of an Icon

What defines Star Trek?

What is it to you that is the essence of ST,…that kernel of creation that brings you back to watch re-runs,..to wait years for movies and breathlessly for another incarnation on your widescreen HD Televiewer? I think for most of us it’s the vision of hope that we, as a species will overcome our petty bickering and move forward and venture out amongst the stars to fulfil our destiny. Yep,…that’s pretty cool.

But for some of us (cough!..err.. like me), it’s also seeing the vision of actually how we’ll do that, the hardware that makes it possible. For me, the Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Picard, etc relationship thing is great and I love my characters…..but Star Trek is the Starship Enterprise.

You look at that iconic design now, 50 years later and give a half shrug and say “Yea, it’s a simple design” but it’s the evolution of that design that we’ll explore now and we’ll limit it to the television version.

Originally our beloved vessel was going to be the U.S.S. Yorktown with a crew of 203 and commanded by Captain Robert April. Obviously, it evolved from there.

Matt Jefferies, although not the original art director for the series, found himself in that position after a series of serendipitous events. He had, like Roddenberry been a B-17 bomber pilot in WW2 and so had a background in aeronautics and had earned a good reputation for movies such as “Bombers B-52.” In 1964, as an employee of Desilu, the studio that was going to make the pilot of this new science fiction show, he was given the job of designing the now renamed Enterprise.

He recalled at the time “Gene didn’t want to see any rockets, no fire streams or anything like that. So I bought all the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon stuff I could and put that up on the wall and said “That we will not do” and all sorts of stuff from leading aircraft companies as well as NASA and said “We won’t do this either’ so now I could begin to define a design envelope”

Apparently, the design went through multiple versions until arriving at a four-piece configuration that seemed to satisfy all “ the suits” including Roddenberry.

(Paramount/Desilu/Pocket Books)

Suddenly the saucer appeared and everybody thought that looked futuristic enough without evoking “flying saucers”

(Paramount/Desilu/Pocket Books)

Until finally it all came together:

(Paramount/Desilu/Pocket Books)

(Interestingly though, the old design was revisited in “All Good Things” with the USS Pasteur.)

Having designed the ship externally, the focus changed to the bridge, already designed to be circular by Jefferies’ predecessor, Pato Guzman. Jefferies than applied his practical engineering skills to make all the operations stations to be within immediate view of the commander or a partial swivel of the command chair away.

These fundamental principles would continue to be applied to vessel design in the Star Trek universe ( and others) for the next 50 years. As we know the Original Series had its three-season run and subsequent rebirth in syndication but failed to kick on except for the ambitious “Animated Series” that faithfully depicted the TOS Enterprise in those hand-drawn and painted frames.

But the 70’s was an interesting time for Roddenberry and Star Trek. In a nutshell, a modest movie on a TV budget was going to happen, then Paramount thought of starting their own TV network and the movie was changed to a TV series called Star Trek: Phase 2 that would anchor said network (20 years before they actually did with Voyager) and then after crunching some numbers while that was in pre-production, proved the network would die a horrible death and with the runaway success of Star Wars and Close Encounters, realised they were sitting on a gold mine and greenlit a major theatrical movie. All of which makes for fascinating stories in themselves, but we’re looking at TV starship design..

Matt Jefferies, then working on Little House on the Prairie was initially asked to take a look at his design and update it. Mike Minor, who had provided many of the paintings seen in TOS was also involved. The prior movie preproduction concept and designs also included stuff by Ralph McQuarrie, who had designed the Imperial Star Destroyer in Star Wars.

(Paramount/Desilu/Pocket Books)

Hmmm….haven’t I seen this in a more recent starship?

This approach was eventually abandoned however and Jefferies modifications to his design included the new flatter engine nacelles and the now prominent photon torpedo launchers.

(Paramount/Desilu/Pocket Books)

With the cancellation of Phase 2 and its metamorphosis into a theatrical release, the movie director, Robert Wise scrapped the TV model to commence anew a much more detailed movie version but incorporating Jefferies’ updates. It appeared that Star Trek had now escaped the small screen to become a movie franchise.

However, money grows many fingers and the latter half of the 1980s saw the movies doing regular business with the old cast and ship, so if it worked once on the small screen, why not again? The insertion of an ‘A’ after the now famous registry number 1701 in the films showed a progression to be made so October 10, 1986, saw Star Trek: The Next Generation born, seventeen years after the cancellation of its predecessor. Not brave enough to change everything, this new ship would bear the name of its illustrious ancestor and registry number with a D and of course retain the basic elements of that now classic design.

Andrew Probert drew on those elements to create a picture for himself that he hung in his office at Paramount after he got the job of Art Director on ST: TNG. The story is that David Gerrold (author of The Trouble with Tribbles) walked in one day, saw it and asked if Roddenberry had seen it. The answer was no and the drawing was taken to the Great Bird, who approved it on the spot!

Early Enterprise-refit concept art by Andrew Probert

Some refinement was undertaken

With one of the final requirements being the shortening of the nacelles (lower right)

Early Enterprise-D concept art by Andrew Probert

Thus were we to see the final TV iteration of Matt Jefferies creation except for Enterprise‘C’ in the ST: TNG episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” which showed a nice combination of the main elements of the earlier and then-current design.

(CBS) The Enterprise – C – Ambassador Class


The NX-01 Enterprise was the first major departure from Jeffries original concept and one can wonder what Roddenberry would think of its style.

(CBS) NX 01 Enterprise – NX Class

But that’s a story for another day.

»Images: pictures and artwork Copyright “The Art of Star Trek” published by Pocket Books 1995 (Simon & Shuster) ISBN 0-671-89804-3 ,