Redresses of the Merchantman
by Jörg Hillebrand and Bernd Schneider
The Merchantman was the small unfortunate civilian vessel than fell victim to the Bird-of-Prey in "Star Trek III". Through the years, the miniature was modified a couple of times for appearances in TNG, DS9 and Voyager. The Merchantman model could be seen in the following episodes, in chronological order:
1. Merchantman ("Star Trek III")
2. Atlec security vessel (TNG: "The Outrageous Okona")
3. Sheliak colony ship (TNG: "The Ensigns of Command")
4. Peliar Zel II Beta Moon ship (TNG: "The Host")
5. Cardassian freighter Bok'Nor (DS9: "The Maquis I")
6. Vidiian ship type 1 (VOY: "Phage")
7. Klingon transport (DS9: "Rules of Engagement")
No stock footage of the Merchantman was used in any episode. The miniature was more or less modified each time for new shots.
The original Merchantman from "Star Trek III" is rather well-documented, including fairly precise renditions in the Star Trek Fact Files, as well as a couple of publicity shots. Yet, there is something odd about the vertical fin protruding from the aft ventral side of the vessel. This fin appears to be much longer on one of the publicity shots than on the actual ship visible on screen, as well as in the Fact Files schematics. The ship doesn't have such a long fin in any of its later appearances either. Obviously the lower part of the fin was cut off prior to the filming, either for technical reasons in the course of the motion control photography, or because it would have looked to much like an airplane on screen. Anyway, the Fact Files depiction is almost correct, only a small section of the forward end of the fin was removed on the actual model which is still present on the schematic.
The scaling dilemma with the Klingon Bird-of-Prey is well-known, and the comparison with the Merchantman does anything but alleviate the problem. The Merchantman should be a ship of at least 100m, seeing that there is a confusing number of tiny details, which would measure only some centimeters if the vessel were shuttle-sized. On the other hand, there are absolutely no details such as windows and hatches which would have to be recognizable if the Merchantman were that small. Finally, the typical bridge dome points to a fairly large ship of more than 100m length. Still, for the sake of the dramatic impact the vessel is shown as being small as a shuttle, at the very most 20m in relation to a 109m BoP. With some fans claiming that this particular BoP should be just 50m long (as seen in "Star Trek IV" on Vulcan), the size issue is ultimately turned into a farce.
No real modifications were made to the model when it was re-used for the Atlec security vessel in TNG: "The Outrageous Okona". Only the color appears to be somewhat different and less brilliant than that of the Merchantman, and still in the remastered version of the episode. This may be a matter of lighting. It is also possible that the painting of the model itself was bleached in the years between the movie and the TNG episode. Aside from the color, the lights on the model are different. The lighting was considerably simplified, especially the yellow lights on the underside of the Merchantman were not reproduced for the Atlec vessel. Instead of that, some new red LEDs were added to the model. Both versions have in common that the four engines are glowing orange.
Like the Straleb vessel too, the Atlec ship was supposed to appear tiny next to the massive Enterprise-D. Both ships look like they are at most around 150m long. It is to some degree a matter of taste whether the Atlec ship is the same class as the old Merchantman (it would be fitting, considering that the Atlec are depicted as a backward society). Anyway, the only visible difference between the two vessels is in their size, and the size remains disputable in the case of the Merchantman, whereas it is plausible in the case of the Atlec vessel.
Extensive modifications were made on the miniature when it was supposed to appear as the Sheliak colony ship in TNG: "The Ensigns of Command". Nothing was removed from the model, but several parts were added. A new bridge module was mounted on the top behind the existing bridge. There are two elongated tubes between two mounts on either side of the bridge. A long rod protrudes from the dorsal side and runs from the bridge to a cylinder on the top of the aft section. Two disk-shaped structures were affixed to the top side of the wings. Finally, there are two new tubes on the ventral side of the model that protrude from the ship's bow. As can be seen on new HD screen caps, these are two complete hulls of a German Type VII U-Boot. The tubes supplement the shorter central tube that can be found on the original Merchantman too. In addition, new lights were added, some of which are obviously meant as windows. Overall, the Fact Files correctly reproduce this version of the miniature.
The color of the Sheliak ship is blue. We are almost certain that it was not actually repainted but that this is just a matter of lighting or color filters. In its next appearance, as the ship from Peliar Zel, the Merchantman miniature will be in the familiar red-brown again. Even the countless tubes and other details especially at the aft end will be mostly gray and partly brown again. We doubt that the effort was made to paint the whole model blue, only to return all parts to their authentic original colors later.
The new windows provide a sense of scale, and it is clear that the Sheliak ship comprises several decks. However, it is not really possible to assess the size of the vessel, as it can't be seen alongside the Enterprise-D. From the dialogue of the episode we can only conclude that it is not only highly advanced but also quite big, possibly carrying equipment and large numbers of settlers and/or colonists to the Tau Cygna system. It is safe to say that the Sheliak ship is absolutely unrelated to any other Merchantman incarnation, and fortunately the modifications give this ship a distinct enough appearance.
Peliar Zel ship
For TNG: "The Host" the Merchantman model was almost entirely returned to its original configuration as seen in "Star Trek III" and TNG: "The Outrageous Okona". All extra parts of the Sheliak ship were ripped off, except for the two disks on the ship's wings. These are still present on the Peliar Zel vessel. The spike in the center of each disk is even illuminated, in contrast to the one on the Sheliak vessel. But all other additional lights were removed. In TNG: "The Host" we can see for the first time how a Merchantman variant fires a weapon, from a sort of barrel in the gap between the upper hull and the cylinder on the ship's bottom. The size of this ship may easily be the same as of the Atlec vessel.
The model eventually got rid of the disks on top of the wings when it appeared as the Cardassian ship Bok'Nor in DS9: "The Maquis, part1". We can briefly but quite clearly see the ship at the beginning of the episode when it explodes because of sabotage. The hull is in the typical Cardassian ochre and brown instead of reddish brown and gray, respectively. We are sure that this time the miniature has really been repainted, as is indicated by the different grid pattern on the hull, most of all on the wings. It was likely deemed worth the effort despite the short duration of the take because the Cardassians had already established design ethics, and with the new color and the Cardassian emblem on the wings the Merchantman perfectly looks like a vessel of this race. Aside from the smooth hull parts, which are now ochre, at least the angular "radiator" behind the bridge has a new color too. It used to be black or dark gray and is now brown.
Vidiian ship type 1
Extensive modifications took place to turn the Merchantman miniature into the Vidiian ship type 1 for VOY: "Phage" (type 1 because two more vessel types of the civilization appeared in later episodes). For the first time parts were removed from the model. Rather large sections were cut away from the aft end of the wings, including the spike that was protruding to the aft. The front tip of the single tube on the ventral side was modified too. It is blunt now and it does not seem to protrude from the hull, so the rounded tip was probably cut off. Some details were added to the new forward end. The most significant change is that a whole new forward superstructure was built, entirely covering the previous bridge module. Most likely nothing had to be removed from the miniature, it looks like it is all hidden underneath the new module. Also, two elongated angular boxes were placed on top of the wings or what was left of them.
The model seems to have kept the Cardassian colors in essence. The Cardassian symbols were most likely removed in the course of the renovation. In addition, two areas on the remaining wings were painted in rust red. There are colored drawings of the Vidiian ship in the Star Trek Fact Files, which are fairly accurate.
Side note It is obvious that this Fact Files depiction was entirely or largely drawn from scratch, not making use of the Merchantman file. This becomes obvious in the different proportions of several major parts of the drawings. It would have gone too far to fix that too, so regrettably it is not possible to smoothly toggle between the Merchantman and the Vidiian side view.
The modifications for the Vidiian ship outlined so far refer to the physical model, which can be seen up close at one point of the "mirror" sequence, when it is hit by Voyager's phaser beam. Actually we think that in all other takes of the Vidiian vessel and in the mirror images we don't see the familiar miniature but that a CG model was constructed for this purpose. This may have been necessary because the mirror effects couldn't have been done with a physical model. Anyway, the differences between the two versions are significant even though we are not supposed to look at the CGI closely. This should sound familiar. The situation was similar with the Dominion warship that appeared in fleet scenes as an initially coarse CGI before a physical model was built for close takes.
Overall, the CGI incorporates all the essential modifications (new bridge section, wing cut-out, blunt ventral tube) but is visibly less detailed. Aside from that general impression, the physical model has a more detailed tip of the tube on the ventral side, which is just smooth on the CGI. Maybe the CGI model was built in advance, and it was decided to add the details because with the tip cut off the miniature didn't look good enough. The physical model has a brown "radiator" behind the bridge, just like it is since the Bok'Nor, whereas it is flat black on the CGI. This seems to be a typical feature of early CGIs. They often turned out much darker and duller than intended, as can be seen in many of the Dominion War battle scenes from the sixth DS9 season, made at about the same time as VOY: "Phage". Also, the indentation in the fin that has always been present on the miniature (at least in all appearances on screen) is not on the CGI. The additional red markings on the wings are missing on the CGI as well.
The Merchantman appears for the last time in DS9: "Rules of Engagement". Here Worf fires at a ship that suddenly decloaks in front of the Defiant during a battle, thereby allegedly killing a large number of innocent Klingon civilians. The whole cause is forged, but the ship is apparently authentic. Still, no effort was made to give the transport a distinctive Klingon appearance, probably because it was meant to appear for just a split second. The Merchantman model was taken exactly in the same configuration as previously in VOY: "Phage", with all the add-ons still in place.
The hull was definitely not repainted green, although this would have been desirable to let the ship look at least a bit Klingon-like. But with all due caution it is possible that the shot was taken with a faint green filter or that a slight digital color correction was applied, letting it appear less brownish. The ship is faint green compared to the beige freighters in the background, but it only becomes visible when the color saturation is increased in an imaging software. Well, it may be an NTSC color anomaly just as well. I have created a green side view for the Starship Database because anything else would look awful there, but we stick to the possibly more authentic ochre picture of the Vidiian version for the purpose of this article.
This table shows all appearances of Merchantman variants along with completely revised side views:
|"Star Trek III"||Red-brown/gray||-||-|
|TNG: "The Outrageous Okona"||Red-brown/gray||Removal of lights from the ventral side||-|
Sheliak colony ship
|TNG: "The Ensigns of Command"||Blue-green||New superstructure, new pods and tubes and some lights added||-|
Peliar Zel ship
|TNG: "The Host"||Red-brown/gray||Removal of almost all Sheliak parts||-|
|DS9: "The Maquis I"||Ochre/brown||Removal of two disks from the wings, new paint||Cardassian hull markings|
Vidiian ship type 1
|VOY: "Phage"||Ochre/brown||New tower structure added, covering the former bridge; large sections cut off the wings; front tip of lower tube modified||Additional red markings on wings|
|Ochre/brown/black||New CGI with simplifications compared to physical model||No red markings|
|DS9: "Rules of Engagement"||Ochre/brown or green?||No changes to physical Vidiian model||-|
Thanks for Zoid for the hint about the U-Boot hulls on the Sheliak ship.