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