The central character in any good Star Trek is the starship, and the USS Enterprise is the most beautiful one in science fiction. The design is unique and immediately recognizable. Anyone can draw the Enterprise with just five straight lines and a circle. Matt Jefferies, the original ship designer, got a chance to upgrade his greatest creation, but it was lost when Star Trek: Phase II became The Motion Picture. Andrew Probert’s Enterprise Refit design is considered a franchise-best, perhaps because he ultimately didn’t veer too far from the original.
Matt Jefferies was going to be the art director for Star Trek: Phase II just as he was for The Original Series. While the Enterprise might be his most famous design, he was responsible for everything from the design of the bridge to the planet-of-the-week. He led a team of artists, like the renowned Wah Ming Chang, who designed iconic props like the tricorder and the communicator. For the Phase II Enterprise, Jefferies’s right hand on the team, Joe Jennings, drew up the designs for the show’s retrofitted ship. The design reflected more complexity than the original Enterprise, made a decade earlier and on a tighter budget. Director Robert Wise replaced Jefferies and his team when he came on as director. Andrew Probert and Richard Taylor were holdovers from the first visual effects team. Whether out of respect for a good design or just because they were short on time, the two kept the USS Enterprise very close to the original design, only adding stylistic flair and changing some colors.
The Star Trek: Phase II Enterprise Didn’t Change the Original Design That Much
After failing to find a Star Trek movie script, Paramount greenlit Phase II to be the anchor for its planned “fourth network.” Just like with Star Trek: Enterprise, the network’s failure killed the series, not the other way around. Matt Jefferies was a known quantity for series creator Gene Roddenberry, and he liked working with the same people. Still, Jefferies had no great love for Star Trek, telling Star Trek Magazine in 2000 that he didn’t really enjoy science fiction.
After he left, whether it was respect for a great design or simply a way to save time, Richard Taylor told Andrew Probert to stick close to the Phase II designs. Taylor redesigned the nacelles with a more “art deco” feel, and Probert redesigned the deflector dish as a recessed light because “it looked cool,” according to an interview with Trekyards. Other changes made had to do with scale. The saucer section was thinner in the Phase II version, while the shuttle bay at the rear of the vessel was shorter. There were always torpedo tubes added to the ship’s neck, too. However, the design wasn’t finalized. Some drawings feature a single tube, two rounded ones or a more rectangular design.
Legendary Star Trek writer Ronald D. Moore called the retrofit Enterprise in The Motion Picture “the best of all the designs…sleek and beautiful,” according to The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. Even Jack Crusher in Star Trek: Picard echoed the sentiment, highlighting the “clean retro lines.” Yet, much of that design came from the Star Trek: Phase II retrofit. Jefferies’s and Jennings’s nacelles are more truncated. Taylor flattened the additional sci-fi trappings added to the nacelles, making the ship look sleeker than the chunkier version for TV. The addition of torpedo tubes was added to the neck of the ship. Probert reshaped them to make them better fit Taylor’s nacelle style.
The Star Trek Phase II Enterprise Filming Model Was Too Small for the Movie
The redesign may never have happened at all if it weren’t for the filming model. Paramount decided to green light The Motion Picture just days before Star Trek: Phase II began principal photography on the pilot. The ship scenes would’ve been filmed last, but the needs of television were less intensive than a feature film. “The [Phase II] Enterprise was not…built with the look or the technology it needed,” Taylor said in The Fifty-Year Mission. The Phase II model was under four feet long. The filming model used in The Motion Picture was eight feet long, over twice the size. Since they had to build a new model from scratch, Taylor and Probert could’ve done anything they wanted. In fact, The Next Generation’s USS Enterprise-D was a design Probert did for his own amusement, imagining a truly futuristic upgrade for the ship.
So, while time and cost might have been a concern, good design is simply good design. Jefferies’ original Enterprise design is inspired, and changing it too drastically for the film would’ve hurt it. Just as people wanted to see Kirk, Spock, Uhura and the others again, the Enterprise was a character fans loved. The ship was more than that to fans because it was also a “home” for both the crew and the viewers. If the filming model for the Phase II Enterprise had been complete, Wise may have used it. While it means missing out on the Taylor and Probert upgrade, fans would still love it. There are model kits and collectible miniatures of the Phase II Enterprise despite it never once appearing on any screen. Star Trek really is like no other franchise.
The Phase II Enterprise was not a drastic departure from the original, making The Motion Picture retrofit more distinct by comparison. Yet, in designing that first ship, Matt Jefferies struck something more valuable than gold, oil or Dilithium. No Star Trek ship design, even drastic departures like the USS Voyager or USS Discovery, veer too far from Jefferies’ original framework. While fans rightly praise Probert and Taylor for their contribution to the design evolution, it was Jefferies and Joe Jennings who gave them their roadmap.
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