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


  1. Anonymous6:27 PM

    John I would like to thank you very much for answering this question with your insightful thoughts regarding Star Trek:The Motion Picture production design changes. We do seem to see things alike because we both were boys in the '70s and the William Shatner/Kirk era was our Star Trek. I really think that you are correct regarding Space:1999 having had an impact either directly or indirectly on these changes to the Star Trek production designs. I have always been impressed by both Star Trek:The Motion Picture(1979)[including the Shatner/Kirk era 1979-1991 films] and Space:1999(1975-77) science-fiction production designs. John, like you, I was surprisingly happy to see that J.J. Abrams made the original 1966-69 series Starfleet uniforms actually work on the big screen. Thanks again.


  2. Interesting question. I'm always reluctant to diss the new in favour of the old, wary that age and retrospect can be distortive, but I do think there these days there are some what I'd call classic design elements missing in the new enterprise and design inconsistencies I'd expect in Red Dwarf not Star Trek.

    On the exterior, balance seems to be lacking in the new form that the Movie version did so well; it took a fairly basic but reasonably balanced tv design and streamlined it, add some organic curvature to the hull and streamlining the nacelles into something less bulky. Smart. Some nice touches to the neck and widening to the nacelle struts, none of which felt out of balance with the silhouette. And I agree John, the crew-eye approach to its unveiling was smart in selling the new size and movie cut to the form and of course within the story as we end up going 50,000 times bigger later on with V'ger.

    The new Enterprise seems to lack a lot of balance, something I notice a lot in art these days - where popular design is driven by comic excess than learned balance. Notice this a lot in typography (compare the design elements to Tom Baker's Doctor Who logo to Ecclestons). I like the new Enterprise in a fair few shots, especially the "bridge" between exterior and interior in the bridge set.

    Interior wise, no arguments I think the scheme to the motion picture was far too desaturated to be exciting, but it did feel real - and it mirrored the curves and organic subtlety to the exterior again. The new interior I don't mind generally, BUT the clashing feel between engines and saucer interior just is too jarring. One feels futuristic, one feels like a real life location jazzed up for a film. That's the Red Dwarf vibe. It doesn't balance. But on the upside, use of uniforms, good - bold, authentic and fun! That's something the new film has in spades.

  3. I admit I have to disagree with a lot of points made here. The original Trek's design work was full of hits, especially for a television series budget (although a high one in television terms). What that did was to act as a wonderful template to allow for future extrapolations and 'improvements'... meaning a motion picture budget.

    Also, I doubt that Space: 1999 had much influence on anything, simply because, outside of the Eagle design, and maybe (maybe) the stun-gun, it did not have much that ultimately fell into the 'classic image' department. I like the look of Space, although more then (when I was 14) than I do now. It had its own take; that of a moonbase, and not a spaceship. My big problem with the show's "Main Mission" set -- if it is really a big deal -- is that it was so static-looking. The structure was nice, but it looks as though the production ran out of money -- there are next to no electronics. The center floor had those flimsy-looking school desks; if you look closely, there is actually nothing for the actors to do at those desks. And the 'computer wall' was poorly rendered.

    By the way, before some people get excited, it must be noted that several people involved with Space were critical of the interior sets (mainly "Main Mission"), including Messers Byrne, Freiberger, and Johnson.

    As terrific a designer as Keith Wilson was for planet exteriors -- look at "Guardian of Piri"! -- he was not so good at 'technical' stuff.

    As a viewer, I could never tell where I was on the moonbase. The lego-like construction method, a budget-saving move, used the same bits and pieces no matter what the 'room' was.

    There was nothing in Space that came anywhere near the U.S.S. Enterprise bridge of the original. Star Trek (I'm speaking mainly of "The Cage" bridge, before it was dumbed-down for regular series production, due to Union restrictions... which I won't get into here.) The bridge set is classic, the springboard for all Trek, and, in my opinion, still the best of all the bridge sets; or 'nerve centre' sets, for that matter. Only Space: 1999 fans think that their show influenced the movie Treks. This was partly started, I think, by Scott Michael Bosco's error-ridden commentary on the Space: 1999 DVD set.

    The muted colour schemes of "The Cage" where the big influence on Star Trek: The Motion Picture... set and costume.

    I should say that I have worked as a designer, including 'spacey' stuff. Also, I have long been a studious researcher of film & television production design. This does not make my opinions more valid, but it does remind me what franchise's designs made me dream and gave me great influence.

    By the way, I do not like the J.J. Abrams Star Trek Enterprise for some reason. I've seen the flick just once. Again, the Enterprise from the original series is still my favourite.

    I should say that I do like Space: 1999; mainly because it's NOT Star Trek. It looks and acts differently. It was its own show. Wonderful. Do not let my nuts-and-bolts opinions above give you the wrong idea...

  4. I thought you'd like to know the first Star Trek TMP Era Fan Series is now in the works! My name is Robert England ( I am the creator of the animated fan TOS era episode, 'Star Trek: Beyond Antares'.
    I am working with the Star Trek: AXANAR crew to create the first and only Photorealistic CGI Animated Star Trek Fan Series set in the TMP Era! In 3D and Virtual Reality, with all the voices of the Original Actors In NEW Stories. We hope to set the project we are calling "1701VR" to warp speed ASAP. I am writing to ask if you will use your writer's skills to help us get the word out that we need, help creating the WORLD of STAR TREK TMP! (3D Modelling for Sets and Characters too). we are hoping the fans, will share what TMP Era 3D Models they have created and/or collected, they would all be very helpful as reference if nothing else and even as production models in some cases. We especially need a TMP Bridge (ideally pre and Post the change in Spock's station position, textured, lit etc. So we can start to make early tests., ) but anything you can help us find from Phasers to TMP era Klingon Cruisers would be GREATLY APPRECIATED, you can email me at:

    Robert (at) Starfleet dotcom :)

    I will make a point of returning the favor by sending a PERKS CARE PACKAGE back to anyone who give usefull models. We will have many exciting things such as our own VR Viewer App that sits you in Star Trek themed VR Theaters, T-Shirts, Patches and Stickers with the 1701VR logos, 3D Blurays etc. and much more. Not too mention exiting the theater when 'something happens' onboard. and you JOIN THE STORY! In more ways than one if you decide to help us out with finding 3D Model sets etc!

    You can read more about it at:

    PLEASE make a point of getting involved, you have already done SO much Great Work in the world of TREK Fandom, and as a TMP Era Fan like me, I would love to have your involvement in this exciting adventure! Even if we don't use all models in the final production, they would help enormously as we develop pre-visualization work and decide how we are going to best design our production models. Of course if any are usable we will save the time and give appropriate credit where due in the actual episodes!

    Thank you for your time, KA'PLA!

    Robert 'Woody' England -
    Creator: Star Trek 'Beyond Antares',