If I said that the sight of the Starship Enterprise calms me down you’d think I was bonkers, right?
Not any USS Enterprise, you understand. Certainly not the version from the recent JJ Abrams movies with its squashed toothpaste-tube proportions1. Not the eccentric Next Generation version, though I am fond of it. Not even the original 1960s design classic. The one that I love is the refit design from the first six Star Trek movies, from The Motion Picture through to The Undiscovered Country. The very sight of it is food for my soul: its grace, its curves, its balance. Its rightness.
There are very few designs that can do this to me, and they all share deep roots in my childhood and adolescence. Another is Doctor Who’s Tardis (about which I’ll eulogise another time). Maybe the Dalek too. Iconography embedded in my psyche at a tender age from endless VHS videotape viewings, cinema magazines, spin-off novels. I look at these things and sometimes I can’t even tell any more if they have an intrinsic merit or if it’s just my childhood speaking to me across the decades.
Since I’m Really Old, I first encountered this spaceship (AKA nicely-lit fibreglass model) at the cinema in 1979 when I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture on its original release. If ever a film fetishised a piece of hardware it’s that one, all lingering pans over structural curves, somewhere between asexual porn and a 2 hour car commercial. But this was also the dawn of movie merchandising as we now (shudder to) experience it, and so I probably didn’t first encounter the design at the cinema at all. Instead I probably inhaled it through magazines like Starlog, and trading cards, and promotions on the back of weetabix packets, and white chocolate bars with weird multi-coloured bits in them. Given that my main memory of the film is coming home afterwards and drawing Klingon spaceships going ‘pew pew’ I think that the content of the film (such as it was) was always secondary to the spaceships in my ten year old brain. And in that supporting merchandise the spaceship has a mythic beauty that even the film’s Male Gaze For Spaceships doesn’t quite capture.
Take this old, scanned promotional photo for example, which not only emphasises the ship’s graceful proportions but a pearlescent, self-illuminated, polychromatic quality that the film only glimpses (and later movies largely dispensed with):
Blinded as I am by the hardwiring of my brain, I do think that as a spacecraft design it has few equals. The original sixties version is all rectangles and cylinders. In fact it’s easy to forget just how odd that design is, like a Forbidden Planet flying saucer mated with something much more functional and Naval in character. Even so it has a certain sense of balance and proportion, particularly when shot from a nice angle. The movie version keeps only the basic morphology of saucer, secondary hull and engine nacelles joined by struts, but it pushes and pulls each of those elements into something rounded, tapered and elegant. From the swell of the secondary hull to the angles and fins and neon stripes of the engines, it creates the sense of a unified whole rather than parts bolted inelegantly together. In many ways it looks completely different from the original, and yet you could never mistake it for anything else.
Ageing Spaceship baffles engineers with this one weird trick
In the subsequent movies the design remains the same (it is after all the same model even when technically a different ship) but the iridescent paint job that would catch the light in interesting ways is replaced with a matt chalky white finish, and it’s lit more brightly with less reliance on the ship’s own running lights. The quality of the effects and cinematography varies hugely too. But it’s hard to completely screw up a design this beautiful. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan2, a film I’ve probably seen even more often than the original Star Wars, it’s treated like a classic tall ship in a Hornblower movie: trading ponderous broadsides with its sister ship in a Naval game of cat and mouse. Its a big, majestic vessel not nippy a little X-wing fighter or a barrel-rolling Millennium Falcon, and that’s reflected in its shape and size. Slow to turn, crewed to the nines, wind in its sails.
When I catch one of the original Trek films on repeat, or actually moreso when I stumble across images of it on the web, it’s like looking at a great landscape painting or a classic Lake District view, perfect in every proportion. It fills me with inner peace.
Bonkers, I know.
1 If you didn’t even know there was a difference this is maybe not the post for you…
2 Out on Blu-ray in its Director’s Edition soon. And its Director (and script doctor) Nicholas Meyer is working on the new Star Trek TV Show. What goes around comes around.