The New Enterprise Design

Outward Appearance - Interior Sets - The Enterprise Size Controversy - Commentary


Outward Appearance

November 2008. The day I have been dreading for months has come. Paramount has just revealed the first full image of the new USS Enterprise NCC-1701 to appear in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek (2009)". Based on what little we could see in the first trailer of January 2008, I was prepared for a substantial redesign and for a much more stylish look. And so it happened.


The saucer underside and edge of the new design by Ryan Church are still similar as on the iconic starship I have come to love, albeit it is the wider saucer of the TMP version and not the one of the TOS ship as it existed in the Prime Universe at the time of "Star Trek (2009)". The rest is different than on any previously seen Enterprise, it only has roughly the same proportions as the original. The engineering hull has been significantly moved forward, there are odd curvatures in the neck, the engineering hull and the nacelle pylons, and the nacelles themselves look a bit like those of the Enterprise-E, with an alien-looking curved backlit cowling.

The new design is unsatisfactory.First off, irrespective of all continuity concerns, I simply don't think it is a great design. I concede that it is overall not quite the butt-ugly "Edselprise" that I saw in it at a first glance and that made me cry in terror (because it was shown from an unfavorable angle). Still, the classic shapes of the saucer and the deflector don't mix with the stylish add-ons and the intricate curvatures.This way it appears like a kitbash, like an odd blend of the TMP Enterprise with an alien CGI ship of the week. The overall proportions are not sufficiently balanced, and the whole ship seems to lean forward too much. I imagine that the engineering hull including the nacelle struts should be moved back relative to the saucer, neck and nacelles to get its look "right". The engineering hull initially appeared to be too small relative to the saucer, but in hindsight I have to admit that the perspective of the photo was deceptive. Yet, the massive neck looks odd relative to the rather small engineering hull. And regarding the aforementioned unfavorable angle, previous major starship designs, and especially the ones by Matt Jefferies and Andrew Probert looked great from any angle.

Overall, the design does not have the clarity that can be found on Jefferies' original Enterprise, on Probert's TMP Enterprise and Enterprise-D or, to somewhat lesser extent, on Eaves' Enterprise-E. It simply takes features that were deemed inevitable, such as the saucer and the protruding deflector dish (albeit the latter was heavily modified), and supplements them with stylish curvatures and decent hull greebles as they are commonplace in modern sci-fi films. The Enterprises of the past were design classics in much the same fashion as a '57 Corvette or even an iPod. The new one reminds me of the design experiments of car manufacturers such as BMW or Renault in the 2000s, who added aggressively shaped headlights or "illogical" curved sharp edges to otherwise conventional looking cars.


The curved backlit cowling on the warp nacelles (the light obviously being warp plasma) that I already dislike for its mere look does not make much sense, as in this region of the nacelle we would expect the warp coils. And since these are always straight for all we know, having a warped plasma outlet is a useless fad. The movable segments of at the aft end of the nacelles, as well as on the deflector dish, belong into the same category. It may not be a big deal considering that the warp nacelles of Voyager are even tilting in their entirety. Still, for 40 years Starfleet ships could go without moving parts and I think there is no reason to break with this tradition just for an additional cool visual effect.

Furthermore, while all other parts of the ship are more solid than on either the TOS and the TMP Enterprise, the nacelle struts are relatively thin compared to ships of other classes - especially considering that the new Enterprise is being built on the ground. Also, the pylons run into the engineering hull in the region of the shuttlebay. The pylon structure and the power transfer conduit have to continue somehow inside the ship. Although the cross-section of the new shuttlebay is relatively about the same as on the original and on the refitted Constitution (at Church's original design size of 366m), it may be further obstructed by the warp pylons. In the movie itself we get a glimpse of the open shuttlebay, where two rows of the large new shuttles are stacked on either side of the shuttlebay. A ship of 366m length would not be big enough for that. Anyway, on screen there is no sign of the power transfer conduits inside the shuttlebay, so it may work out after all, unless the CGI ship "cheats" in a way that the pylons simply do not continue inside the ship.


Sure, the new look of the Enterprise (and of pretty much everything else) is the result of Nero's manipulations of history. We've certainly had countless time travels in 40 years of Star Trek. Usually any damage to history was repaired in the end (such as the Borg attack on Cochrane's camp in "Star Trek: First Contact"), or it turned out insignificant enough to remain only a side note (such as Sisko's role as "Gabriel Bell" in DS9: "Past Tense"). This is very different in "Star Trek (2009)", because the alternate timeline created in the movie will persist. The new Enterprise is not reverted to the TOS version in the end, and pretty much everything that we know from the classic Star Trek will never happen in the Abramsverse (at least, it won't happen if the new timeline wants to be taken seriously).

If we leave aside the idea of an altered timeline for a moment, the new Enterprise discards the visual continuity that has been a part of the Trek lore for 40 years for all the reasons that I anticipated some time ago.I was prepared to see a restyled Enterprise that would look clearly more modern than the TOS ship. I was hoping for it to retain certain retro elements to set it apart from the 24th century design style and, perhaps even more importantly, from its own refit in TMP. But the underlying style of the new ship is the TMP saucer with indifferent alien-looking add-ons. The only retro element is the deflector dish. It could be any vessel in any later era, even an Enterprise-F or -G. While it undeniably still looks like a Starfleet ship, it does not really fit into Starfleet's design lineage.

Since it is a different timeline, the TOS Enterprise the way we used to know it has ceased to exist. For what it's worth, the new Enterprise could work half-way plausibly as a direct predecessor to the TMP Enterprise. While the proportions of the saucer are not exactly the same as on the TMP ship and the curvature of the saucer edge is different (more rounded), the window arrangement in the edge and the three horizontal stripes appear to be the same. It is also interesting to note that the saucer underside that used to be concave on the original and the TMP refit (missing the inner parts of the lowermost full deck) is now flush. Overall, the saucer could be easily the same as that of the TMP Enterprise (although it was designed by Ryan Church to be somewhat larger), while the rest of the ship must have been scrapped in the course of the hypothetical refit.

Side note it has been a recurring nuisance for almost two years that the re-imagined Enterprise by Gabe Koerner was mistaken for the one to appear in the movie. Most fans presumed that the actual movie ship would be closer to the original. But now we are left with an even more radical redesign in several respects. Koerner kept the TOS saucer essentially as it was, and while his secondary hull is unnecessarily segmented and greebled, the elements roughly retain their basic dimensions, unlike on the new movie Enterprise.


Interior Sets

Rather than the ship's exterior that didn't unpleasantly surprise me too much, its bridge set is an uninspiring design. It is easily the most sophisticated and flashy looking bridge in the history of Star Trek. The set design is a conglomerate of all kinds of styles previously seen in the franchise, and not at all in the sense of a homage. It is playful with its huge TCARS-like (29th century) display that is being animated all the time (it must drive the crew crazy), with its complex and fragmented controls and with spotlights in every corner. The spotlights most likely blind the crew in the same fashion as they create lens flares. The bridge has large glass panes of the same kind that were deemed good enough only for the parallel universe versions of the Enterprise-D bridge. One (behind the desk) even has a totally pointless "printed circuit" decoration on it, of the kind that Mike Okuda routinely created for alien ships of the week. There is absolutely nothing on the bridge that is particularly reminiscent of the TOS era even if we don't expect total purism. Not the captain's chair, which looks like on the Defiant, not the railing, which is "fragile" like on the more recent bridge designs, not the ceiling (that we admittedly never saw on TOS), which looks like designed by Apple. The color scheme is an uninteresting post-TNG "cool white/blue". I have seen many quickly redressed bridges of the week in the various Star Trek series that were better designed.

Even if we put up with the idea of anachronisms in the 23rd century in "Star Trek (2009)", the sophistication level on the new bridge just doesn't feel right. As much as I have always criticized Enterprise for having too advanced technology, at least it was reasonable as an intermediate step between the 21st and the 24th century. Kirk's new bridge, in contrast, looks like an overblown fanboy design set in the 25th century or beyond.

The one set that is even worse than the bridge is the engine room, which was created in the Budweiser Brewery in Van Nuys, California. The set was supposed to have a very industrial look, which may let it appear like a good idea to use a real production plant, rather than a less spacious sound stage. However, the brewery was hardly modified at all and looks just like what it is in the movie. It has big silver tanks and water pipes all over the place, as if processing water was its main purpose, rather than producing power for the ship. Also, while I concede that the traditionally crammed sets of previous Star Trek productions don't give us the sense of how big a starship really is, the engineering set of the new Enterprise takes it to the other extreme. It neither has a recognizable deck structure nor anything like bulkheads, as they are present on every ship or starship in existence. Its size is beyond reason (even if we believe in the official size of the ship), with huge empty spaces that every starship designer would want to fill with something useful or at least make accessible as additional cargo holds.

The second film, "Star Trek Into Darkness", includes the brewery set as well. While it doesn't show quite as many pointless water tanks and pipes this time, it reaffirms that the interior of the Enterprise is a huge factory, and does not feel like the engineering decks of any other Star Trek ship (or of real ships). STID shows us the warp core for the first time, which plays a big role towards the end of the movie. In real life, it's the National Ignition Facility, a huge laser chamber at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. It is pleasant to see that there is more to the engineering section than water pipes, and the industrial look of the warp core complies with the rest of the production design. Still, this new warp core has nothing in common with those established in all Prime Universe generations from Star Trek Enterprise to TNG.


The Enterprise Size Controversy

The supersized Enterprise

Like millions of other fans, I have seen "Star Trek (2009)". And like pretty much everyone else who cares about starship design I was totally convinced that the new ship has to be about the same size as the original Enterprise or the Enterprise refit from the Prime Universe: around 300 meters long. This is what the design clearly looks like, and there was hardly any real evidence in the movie to the contrary - except the oversized engineering location (that almost everyone seems to hate anyway) and the scene when the shuttles with the cadets arrive at the ship. Here we can see how a dozen shuttles are stacked in two rows on each side of the obviously huge shuttlebay.

As usual, I decided to ignore the blatant mis-scaling in case of the shuttle shelves. It would not be the first time that the VFX team disregarded the design sizes as given by the designers, just for an additional dramatic impact. We all remember the Merchantman that appeared to be only shuttle-sized compared to a Klingon BoP in "Star Trek: The Search for Spock", and still no one claims that the ship is really that small. Or the Defiant in "First Contact", which was just some 50m long compared to the Enterprise-E. Or the big shuttles inside Voyager's shuttlebay, which could never pass the shuttlebay door. Or, in the most recent case, the Denobulan medical ship in ENT: "Cold Station 12" that must be some 20m long and almost as high, but fits into the shuttlebay of a Klingon Bird-of-Prey! All this we had to ignore because it was physically impossible. And so was the notion that some 24 big shuttles could be stowed aboard the new Enterprise.

But the more or less official Enterprise Tour comes up with an overall length of as much as 2500ft (762m) for the new Enterprise. The Society of Digital Artists says that the length is 2357ft (718m). And Gizmodo Blog claims that the ship is 2379.75 feet (725.35 meters) long. And because it's apparently so much fun, the blog demonstrates how well the extremely oversized ship performs compared to other sci-fi franchises, at least size-wise. Finally, we have an extra feature on the Blu-ray disc that confirms the length of the new ship to be 2379.75 feet. Embarrassingly, on the comparison diagram with the TOS Enterprise that is supposed to make the huge size retroactively plausible the scale is totally off. The new Enterprise would be just 490m long if we chose to trust the depiction, rather than the figures!

Unlike these various statements insinuate, the ship has not been designed by Ryan Church to be that huge in the first place. In an interview for the Cinefex magazine #118, ILM Art Director Alex Jaeger says: "The reconfigured ship was a larger vessel than previous manifestations -- approximately 1,200-feet-long compared to the 947-foot ship of the original series. Once we got the ship built and started putting it in environments it felt too small. The shuttle bay gave us a clear relative scale -- shuttles initially appeared much bigger than we had imagined -- so we bumped up the Enterprise scale, which gave her a grander feel and allowed us to include more detail."So the ship was designed at 1200ft (366m) by Ryan Church, and was later scaled up by a factor of 2!

My above size comparison with correct relative scales speaks for itself. Everyone has to agree with me that, if we base our estimation just on the picture with the relative sizes and not on the visual effects from the movie, the true length of the new ship has to be much closer to 302m (my original assumption) than to 725m, and that Church's size of 366m works well. The 725m version is undeniably totally out of proportion.

Evidence of a huge Enterprise

In all fairness, we have got the following evidence of a huge ship.

Yet, there are no known cues in the model itself that would point to a ship much longer than 366m, which is no surprise because obviously the finished model has been scaled up. It is only possible that the skin of the CGI model and hence the level of detail of the hull plates with their "Aztec pattern" was scaled down relative to the TMP Enterprise refit to that end. 

Evidence of a smaller Enterprise

So what can we make of the supersized Enterprise? We may decide to simply believe what the more or less official sources keep telling us. Or we can base our size estimation on visual evidence. If we take into account all visual evidence, including the design features of the ship irrespective of how big they are supposed to appear in the film (which is subject to vary), we may arrive at a different conclusion than if we just take into account the opened shuttlebay and the brewery set. It is a mistake in engineering to increase the dimensions until everything fits, thereby approaching or even exceeding a previously established size limit. I think it is just as wrong to nail down a huge size for the new Enterprise to make everything fit, instead of seeking a solution that may work with overall less suspension of disbelief.

There are many reasons why I have settled on the original design length of 366m as the true size of the ship.

Other issues

I have come to terms with the new Enterprise. I have accepted it as an alternate-universe version. But that was under the precondition that the ship was 366m long. Aside from not making sense in-universe, there also a couple of real-world reasons why I hate the idea of the supersized Enterprise:



In a comment at Entertainment Weekly, J.J. Abrams implicitly claims that the ship is still the same as a concession to the fans: "If you’re going to do Star Trek there are many things you cannot change. The Enterprise is a visual touchstone for so many people. So if you’re going to do the Enterprise, it better look like the Enterprise, because otherwise, what are you doing?" He seems to mean what he says without sarcasm, but exhibits a lackadaisical attitude about what he or his people are doing with the franchise. I am afraid that certain people, even some avid fans, rather trust such appeasing statements than their own eyes. The new ship is very different than the TOS Enterprise, and even casual fans notice that. And if we believe the official sources, it is even supposed to be a lot bigger than it should.

Regarding the size issue, I will keep the length of the new Enterprise at 366m. I am not ready to accept the more than 700m length that ignorant people in charge of the visual effects, possibly with problems to understand that there is no size competition among sci-fi franchises, may have deemed a cool idea. In spite of everything, I have a desire to maintain the continuity of the old and the new Star Trek. And this is why I keep defending the new Enterprise design at its reasonable original size. I believe it is the lesser evil to ignore the few scenes where the new ship appears to be monster-sized, rather than abandon everything I have ever read and written about starship design.

As circumstantial it may appear to people who don't care for starship designs (or other technology), the size of the new Enterprise may mark the difference between a parallel universe within the existing canon on one side, and a complete reboot, a new science fiction universe in which different rules apply than in Star Trek so far. The USS Kelvin is another trouble spot in the field of starships. Because the Kelvin, which predates the creation of the parallel universe, starts the trend of ships being much larger than any 23rd century vessel we know so far, including the Excelsior. It has a crew of 800, twice as many as on the original Enterprise 30 years later in the Prime Universe. Yet, it is supposed to be just a survey vessel. The fanboyish Vengeance with its supposed length of one mile and its silly back story is a still worse problem. Along with a certain "homage" in STID it is a reason not to take this universe seriously any longer, at least not as a canonical parallel universe.

Because of my respect for The Original Series and the fact that it has the much older rights I have chosen to give the reboot a lower weight than the classic production design from TOS to ENT. In my view the Abramsverse is something like a second-rate reality, especially since the shamelessly plagiarized events of "Star Trek Into Darkness". In my Starship Database there is only a place for one "true" Enterprise NCC-1701, and it will remain Matt Jefferies' design. Yet, it is not my intention to ruin everyone else's excitement about the new universe. Every generation has its Enterprise, and for the latest generation the decision has been made that this time the new movie replaces the existing Star Trek much in the sense of a total reboot instead of carefully expanding it. I don't want to tilt against windmills, but I keep a critical distance instead of being a part of the hype.

The discussion about the new Enterprise reminds me of the "Akiraprise" controversy a couple of years ago. The Abramsverse with its lead ship, however, has damaged Star Trek's continuity more substantially than Enterprise ever could. The "Akiraprise" NX-01 could fit into the design lineage just because the series was set more than 100 years prior to TOS - and visually it is not as big a deal as I initially thought. In "In a Mirror, Darkly" the Mirror NX-01 and the TOS Defiant even appeared side by side.

Speaking of the "Akiraprise", many fans criticized me for finding any fault with the ship, or with the underlying idea of Enterprise. I was aware that my unpopular stance on the Abramsverse would evoke that kind of protest yet again, and perhaps some hate mails. However, I was not prepared for the slur campaigns against me on several message boards, especially for my heresy of not blindly accepting that the Enterprise is 725m long. I can't avoid the impression that respect and decency are getting lost not only in the new Star Trek but also in the new Star Trek fandom.


See Also

Starship Gallery - Abramsverse Vessels - Federation and Alien

Abramsverse Inconsistencies - continuity issues and nitpicking in the reboot movies

Abramsverse FAQ



Thanks to Nick Corcoran for the Jaeger quote, to Geert for reminding me that lifting a 700m vessel would be a huge problem, to Dave Metlesits for the hint about the huge saucer, to bX for permission to use his size comparisons, to Brian Gordon for pointing me to the Blu-ray size comparison, to Belz... for the great find of the screen cap with Pike's shuttle and to Andrew Probert for valuable discussion. More screen caps from TrekCore and Ariane's Star Trek Gallery.


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