What's Wrong (and Right) With Star Trek: Discovery's Ship Design

Witness the test flight of #StarTrekDiscovery, coming to #CBSAllAccess & CBS in January 2017

— Star Trek Discovery (@startrekcbs) July 23, 2016

San Diego Comic-Con 2016 brought exciting news from the world of Star Trek. At the 50th anniversary panel, producer Bryan Fuller unveiled the latest in a long line of Star Trek episodic series, Star Trek: Discovery. Along with a new series name, fans also caught their first glimpse of the latest starship, the U.S.S. Discovery NCC-1031.

As the Discovery crept out of its asteroid-based space dock, fans were treated to (or horrified by) a golden-hulled craft with sideways-swept nacelles glowing bright red at their tips and blue across their flanks. From stern to aft, the new vessel appears sleeker than traditional Starfleet ships, keeping the rounded bridge but eschewing the rounded engineering section and upturned nacelles for a Star Trek insignia-inspired delta shape. As the new ship leaves its nest for (presumably) the uncharted realms of space and the new logo takes over, some fans swear they heard that cryptic cloaking-device whir in the background.

Watching a brand new starship emerge from dry dock usually sends chills down Trekkies' spines. However, as with prior introductions, the Discovery's reveal met with a mixed bag of reactions, some good, some quizzical, and others downright displeased. After 50 years of Trek, are we simply too hypercritical about our ships, or was there a good reason for the unorthodox new ship’s lukewarm reception?

What's Wrong (and Right) About the USS Discovery
Image courtesy of Star

Throughout its 50-year history, Star Trek became synonymous with a particular starship design. The original Enterprise obviously became the cue for Trek’s conceptual shipwrights going forward. Most regularly-featured vessels embodied the archetypal saucer-shaped foresection which tapered into a cylindrical or curved aft engineering section. Following standard design, each aft section held the customary twin warp nacelles in place on two massive struts. When it came to creating new ships of the line like the Enterprise-D for Star Trek: The Next Generation, the experimental NX-01 from Enterprise, and the streamlined Voyager, most spacecraft aped the classic look. Even the fairly divergent Defiant from Deep Space Nine maintained a strongly Star Trek-y design.

Over the years, given the diversity of fleet operations, the ship gurus began to differentiate their models somewhat, including atypical designs. Nonetheless, most of them still met with the rounded and tapered characteristics of the series and classic films. Clearly the starship element was extremely important when J.J. Abrams rebooted the series in 2009 as well. When re-imagining the Trek universe, Abrams and crew understood that tampering with the time-honored look of the Enterprise too much would hurt their cause. In essence, they updated the NCC-1701 with a high-tech feel around its classic frame.

A veteran of the franchise, Bryan Fuller worked on both of the later Trek entries DS9 and Voyager. As the first new series in 10 years, Fuller faces a unique challenge. He has to craft a show that (ironically) shapes the futuristic series into a 21st century format and captures the exploratory/intellectual feel many devotees felt was missing from the rebooted films. He also has to build a Star Trek fans and new viewers alike will willingly pay CBS All Access their hard-earned dosh to watch.

Star Trek: Discovery Title Explained by Bryan Fuller

The Discovery’s look seems like an attempt to mesh those classic worlds together. Although boxy in its raw form, it appears to walk the line between the Ken Adams/Ralph McQuarrie-inspired aesthetic from the 70s and a sleek, action-packed starship. But did it capture the Starfleet aesthetic? Yes and no.

Despite Bryan Fuller’s best efforts, and those of his design team, the U.S.S. Discovery did not meet with universal raves. Initial criticism picked at everything from its less-organically pleasing shape to the cartoony CGI to its registry numbers to its nacelle (check out this enthusiastic fan’s breakdown). Which elements don’t work thus far?

First and foremost, the Discovery isn’t as curvy as prior Trek ships. Inspired by aeronautic design and, surprisingly, electric stoves (according to ship designer Matt Jeffries), the original Enterprise had a softer, more organic feel to it. From its rounded engineering section and saucer-shaped bridge to its ruddy Bussard collectors and upended pontoon nacelles, the Enterprise is the ship that launched the Starfleet look. The new Federation vessel’s creators did keep the rounded saucer section (that’s a given), but that’s where several of the classic elements taper off.

Admittedly, there was a knee-jerk WTF moment to the reveal. Once the initial shock wore off, though, many of those unfriendly to the new ship found the updated look awkward for a number of reasons. For instance, although the classic Enterprise featured a narrow wedge attaching the drive section to the saucer section, some fans have pinpointed the thin dorsal ridge connecting the bridge to the engineering section as problematic. With Discovery’s wider drive section, they feel its sweeping delta shape (while a respectful nod to 50 years of Trek) makes it more fragile and less maneuverable, especially when under fire.

What's Wrong (and Right) with the USS Discovery
Ken Adams/Ralph McQuarrie concept art from Star Trek: Planet of the Titans

Speaking of its fore-to-aft construction, the classic rounded bridge connected to triangular drive has caused some fan-based critics to call the Discovery a stylized “pizza cutter.” Although Discovery's look may be a nod to Ken Adams and Ralph McQuarrie’s concept work for Star Trek: Planet of the Titans film, some fans aren’t fond of the triangle-Enterprise concept either, feeling the design should have been left in the 70s, along with the unproduced feature.

Still other fans found the ship’s somewhat unusual construction too similar to those of other alien vessels (both in positive and negative ways). Despite the probable ties to the scrapped film conceptualizations, certain devotees thought the ship appeared to be cobbled together from elements of Klingon, Vulcan, and/or Romulan designs. In particular, a great deal of speculative energy has been expended over the possibility of a joint Federation-Klingon design, especially after near-revelations about Star Trek: Discovery’s slot before The Original Series (TOS) during the war between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. Admittedly, there are some superficial similarities to the classic D7 and Vor’cha battle cruisers. Given the similarities to the Adams-McQuarrie model, though, a hybrid ship seems unlikely.

Still, this criticism (and hope) wasn’t as extreme as some hardcore fan reactions. A fringe group felt the new vessel tracked a little too close to another wedge-shaped '70s ship from a certain franchise which-will-remain-unnamed here, the Star Destroyer. Seeing as McQuarrie was sketching out George Lucas' space adventure around the same time, Trekkie fears that the Discovery would take a page from their reinvigorated sci-fi nemesis aren’t entirely unfounded. After all, J.J. Abrams did have a hand in re-popularizing both properties.

Star Wars: Nebulon B Frigate Battles Star Destroyer

Aside from a handful of technical variations from classical Trek ship design, though, the most vocal critiques have centered on the ship’s overall appearance. Without an official declaration about the temporal location of Star Trek: Discovery, the cut of its jib brings up a relevant point: If the Discovery launched before or even after TOS, what happened to the ship? Was it the sole member of its class? Was it destroyed? Constitution and Constellation-class vessels were in use for decades, if not centuries after their original construction. Why isn't there a Starfleet record of the U.S.S. Discovery (although there are mentions of a Discovery in canon)?

Some fans feel the Discovery bears the elements of a warship, a vessel built for far more menacing tasks than exploration. In the history of Trek spacecrafts, none bore gold plating either. The first NX-01 from Enterprise did have a silvery gleam to it, but Starfleet’s preferred palette generally ranges from white to off-white to cream to and gunmetal gray. Unless the Discovery is some sort of experimental ship unmentioned in Federation annals or an undercover Section 31 job, it breaks with established Trek-dition in at least one of several ways.

During an era where anything new is heavily scrutinized, picked apart online, or shot down instantaneously in the comment sections and message boards of fansites and Reddit, designers must appreciate fans who are vocal about what they enjoy about their hard work. Of course, creating something new related Star Trek is always risky business. As the new ship was revealed, some older Trekkies put the extreme critiquing into perspective.

Star Trek: Discovery Title Explained by Bryan Fuller

After the first images of the Enterprise-D surfaced in the mid-80s, many devotees hated the now-classic variation from TNG. Later fans weren’t sold on stationary Trek (DS9) and found the idea of adjustable nacelles (looking at you, Voyager) ludicrous. Many still do. At the same time, perhaps moving forward with a new show (which may be another prequel) requires traveling back through time, design-wise as well.

Admittedly, the squared-off design isn’t de rigueur for the Star Trek world, but the Discovery does maintain some classic design elements. Its saucer section hearkens back to the older Oberth-class (which date to the late 23rd century), especially with a concave ring around the bridge. The triple-wide Bussard collectors on the main nacelles may look unorthodox, but they’re also oddly reminiscent of the air-scoop on a souped-up muscle car (for better or worse). Combined with the swept-back appearance of the ship, they give the Discovery a lean, mean look, perhaps indicative of a high-warp, long-distance ship.

In spite of its boxier elements, which could be due to the rapidly assembled CGI, Discovery does have a generally sleeker look than many of its fleet-mates. It’s profile is low compared to many other starships, with an engineering section that rests between the warp nacelles. It also has some beefy looking impulse engines and a massive cargo bay that could host a heck of a lot of shuttlecraft and scientific probes, depending upon its scale. These aspects may also point towards a long-range vessel meant for extended space exploration.

While the fresh ship is probably an homage to the recently departed McQuarrie, the design elements do inspire some comparisons to Klingon design. Were the show based during the Klingon conflict, or after the Khitomer Accords, it could indicate either an infiltration ship (once again, Section 31 has been teased if not admitted to) or a joint task force. This scenario is unlikely, though, given a ship named Discovery. Setting the show during this intriguing period would be one way to soothe fans who were hoping for a show based in future-Trek rather than past-Trek.

Can Star Trek: Discovery Save the Star Trek Franchise

If anything stuck out from the Trek teaser, aside from the tempered excitement, it’s the quality of workmanship. While the music and the buildup is fairly intense for a show about discovery, the clip's animation left much to be desired. Some fans referred to the sequence as appropriate for Star Wars: Rebels, which would be fine if the new show was animated. Unfortunately, it's not.

Before Trekkie doomsayers get too overworked, though, the introductory tease was a rush job, slapped together from concept art before the dawn of Comic-Con. The mapping may have looked amateurish, even compared to the once state-of-the-art CG on shows like Deep Space Nine or Voyager. The Discovery's first flight, however, was put together as a means of whetting fans' appetites. Star Trek: Discovery Producer Heather Kadin went on record after Comic-Con, noting the teaser trailer’s lack of prep time:

"I was surprised Bryan didn't say [it wasn't finished footage], actually. I mean, we had three weeks to throw that together,” adding, “The concepts of the ship are totally what we're going for, and they'll be honed up until, I think, the day we deliver.”

With the information gleaned from fans since San Diego, the show’s producers now have a better picture of what and what not to do with the new vessel. It remains to be seen how much the design team will modify the ship’s look based on fan input. Fuller is a producer with a strong vision, and his production staff has a high Trek pedigree. In all likelihood, the ship was either designed specifically for an as-yet unrevealed purpose, or will be tweaked in the coming months.

Love it or hate it, the ship’s design is a work in progress. The U.S.S. Discovery may have been designed to pick up on what fans are interested in so that Fuller and his ‘shipwrights’ can construct a vessel which meets and exceeds expectations. Whether the producers exact minor tweaks, major alterations, or leave the design alone – aside from enhancing the CGI – the Discovery will be part of an ambitious new phase for Star Trek.

In the long run, is the new ship’s look as important as the content of Star Trek: Discovery? Once again, yes and no. If the latest iteration returns as much as possible to its roots, a slick vessel would only be part of the equation. Equally important is developing a well-rounded cast with great chemistry. The crew of the Discovery could, in theory, transverse space in a garbage scow as long as their adventures were intriguing and their characters were believable.

Nevertheless, a ship which fails to captivate (some) fans could be detrimental to attracting a core audience of hardcore Trekkies. New viewers who are aware of Star Trek’s heritage, on the other hand, might not be as concerned with the ship’s appearance as much as the power of the stories and the characterization. Depending upon how well Fuller and Co. blend their modern and classic franchise elements, Discovery could appeal to a broader fan base without losing Star Trek's progressive, thought-provoking edge. If the show and the ship (for the most part) meets and exceeds fan and new viewers’ expectations, Star Trek: Discovery will live long and prosper on CBS All Access and beyond.

Next: Star Trek: Discovery Reportedly Set Before Original Series

Star Trek: Discovery will debut on CBS All Access and Netflix in January 2017.

Knowhere Origin Celestials Eternals
Eternals Could Reveal the Origin Story of Knowhere

More in Featured