Sunday, November 11, 2012
Ask JKM a Question #51: Star Trek Production Design?
A reader and regular commenter, SGB, writes:
“What is your opinion of the Star Trek production design updates that happened when Paramount/Gene Roddenberry changed both the interior sets designs and exterior design of the U.S.S. Enterprise N.C.C.-1701 from the 1966-1969 original series to the William Shatner/Kirk era 1979-1991 movies beginning with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)?
The updates in the designs were completely respectful of the original designs, just revised due to reflect the realistic passage of time and the refits of technology that would occur in the fictional Star Trek universe.
I always felt this new Enterprise in these films actually was "believable" and looked fully functional, even beautiful from a naval architect point of view. I will never forget sitting in the movie theater as a boy on December 7th 1979 watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture and being in awe of the majestic beauty of the newly refit U.S.S. Enterprise N.C.C.-1701, simply awesome memories. These production design changes from the original series to these films were an excellent example of how to do it right.
As you have stated, production design is so important to science-fiction. I think that Paramount/J.J. Abrams learned and did it right too with their U.S.S. Enterprise N.C.C.-1701 in the Star Trek 2009 and 2013 films.”
SGB, that’s a wonderful question...and some wonderful memories too.
Sometimes I have termed the Star Trek movies 1979 – 1991 “my Star Trek” because of where they happened to fall in my life. The original Star Trek was cancelled before I was born, and The Next Generation came around when I was a senior in high school. So it is the movies that I closely associate with growing up, though of course I watched the original series in reruns as well.
It may be part and parcel of these feelings about “my” Star Trek era, but I have always felt very positively about the upgraded Enterprise interiors and exteriors, as well as the new Starfleet uniforms. To my eyes, they looked simultaneously more futuristic and more realistic than their predecessors…and more in the vein of Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977).
My favorite version of the Enterprise is indeed the one featured in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I know some viewers tend to complain about the length of the dry dock scene with Scotty and Kirk surveying the great ship, but I have always felt that this particular moment -- better than any featured in the preceding TV series -- sells beautifully the size and grandeur of the starship.
This is important stuff, because the scenes involving V’ger -- which reveal the Enterprise dwarfed by comparison -- thus sell the enormity of the film’s menace. In other words, the Enterprise is huge…and V’ger is absolutely ENORMOUS. Encoded in this comparison is the sense of alien life being truly alien; of being outside the realm of human scale. I admire the film’s success transmitting this notion… especially when so few science fiction films even try.
The subdued lighting inside the new Enterprise also helps to sell the overall reality of the starship. Much of the time, Wise’s camera takes up a “crewman’s eye” position on the bridge that makes us feel like we’re right there, conversing with the officers and watching events unfold. The number of insert shots of view-screens and read-outs further enhances the sense of us being right there on the Enterprise, receiving and interpreting information.
I like this approach very much, and the bridge set in the film is so great because all those displays and graphics actually look real, and the controls seem functional. That’s not an observation you can make regarding the TV series bridge and the painted on, rarely-changing screens.
I guess I’m in the minority on this, but I also like how sleek, form-fitting, unisex, and deliberately un-military the uniforms of Star Trek: The Motion Picture appear. They are simple, elegant and much less garish than their predecessors (again reflecting a shift towards Space: 1999 and minimalist 1970s aesthetics…). For me, the TMP uniforms signal visually the “equal” nature of all demographics (male and female, alien and human) in Starfleet. No more mini-skirts.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is much-criticized, but I agree with your assessment. I feel that the costumes, miniatures, and sets all successfully broadcast the impression of a real starship and starship crew living in a future age. At times, accordingly, the film boasts an almost documentary-like quality. What The Motion Picture forsakes in fistfights, phaser battles and conventional thrills, I feel it gains in verisimilitude.
In terms of the new Star Trek movie, I give lots of credit to J.J. Abrams and his team for really “owning” the original TV uniforms and making them look good on the big screen. I just have to think there was probably a tremendous creative push to replace the original uniforms with a sleeker, less garish color scheme, but god bless Abrams, he didn’t succumb to that pull.
The new bridge looks futuristic, but in broad strokes the lay-out is the same, with the familiar captain’s chair, front console, and turbo-lift. And I absolutely love that the original “chirping” sound-effects from the series were retained. In some sense, that affectionate and faithful touch “sells” the new bridge design for me.
I don’t know that I possess the deep well of affection for the new Enterprise exterior and interior designs that I do those of the Motion Picture Era, but I nevertheless count them a success. The ship felt like Star Trek to me, only Star Trek re-interpreted for the 21st century.
Again, I’m sure there was a considerable pull to go “gritty and dark” and make the Enterprise more submarine-like and less clean and bright, for instance.
I’m glad the filmmakers didn’t succumb to that urge.
Great question, my friend.
Don’t forget: ask me a question at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com