Defending Discovery‘s Design Differences: Starships
“Shall we continue? There is a great responsibility at hand.” – Spock, “If Memory Serves”
So much of Star Trek through the decades has been from the perspective of the Federation Starfleet, and the Starfleet ships have therefore been integral to the series. Full disclosure: I love Starfleet ships. I’m not alone in holding that opinion. If I was, there wouldn’t be a tremendously popular and wonderful YouTube channel called TrekYards (which goes into the minutiae of Star Trek‘s ships). Nor would there be models of the ships, and the fan club Starfleet International wouldn’t be organized into chapters mostly named after Starfleet ships.
Since Star Trek: Discovery has shown us a period between “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, let’s consider how the Starfleet ships in the series fit into that time gap. First, it’s important to catalog the vessels.
Identifying the Starfleet Ships
“Quite the feat of engineering: simple, elegant, yet incredibly powerful.” – Mirror Georgiou, “Perpetual Infinity”
The first two Discovery seasons feature the interiors of eight Starfleet ships: the USS Shenzhou; the Discovery and the USS Glenn (both of which are Crossfield-class starships); the USS Gagarin; a couple of Section 31 vessels; the USS Enterprise; and the USS Hiawatha. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be disregarding the Section 31 ships, as there have been no precedents of Section 31 craft in earlier-produced Star Trek apart from the USS Vengeance in the film Star Trek Into Darkness, and that was in an entirely different timeline! I’ll also be using the term “TOS” to refer to what the original Star Trek series became after “The Cage”.
The USS Glenn was even more advanced than the USS Discovery but was destroyed, with all hands, in “Context Is for Kings” (the Discovery was also destroyed, in “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”, repeatedly in multiple repetitions of the timeline… until it wasn’t!). Meanwhile, the Gagarin appears only briefly, at the start of “Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum”, and its bridge is the only part of its interior shown – a reuse of the Discovery bridge set. Likewise, not much is seen of the Hiawatha‘s interior. Since the vessel is depicted in a crash-landed condition, it’s unclear how it would look in normal operating circumstances.
In Star Trek: Short Treks, the Discovery appears in the first season episodes “Runaway” and “Calypso” and the Discovery-era Enterprise is presented in the second season installments “Q&A”, “The Trouble with Edward” and “Ask Not”. Additionally, another Discovery-era style of ship – the USS De Milo – appears in “The Escape Artist”. However, only its transporter room and corridors are shown, and these again were reuses of sets for the Discovery. More areas are shown aboard the USS Cabot, yet another Discovery-era starship, which appears in “The Trouble with Edward”, once again featuring more redresses of USS Discovery sets.
Accounting for Particular Ships
“Change is the essential process of all existence.” – Spock, TOS: “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”
Introduced in the second season of Discovery, the USS Enterprise was deliberately made to look different from its appearance in TOS. This was done even though the makers of Discovery had legal permission to use the Enterprise‘s original look. The changes were made to better match Discovery‘s aesthetic and to make use of advancements in CGI.
Originally, there was some behind-the-scenes consideration to making the Enterprise look entirely different from its TOS appearance. The idea was to modify the iconic starship to be more consistent with the other Starfleet ships in Discovery, but this idea was quickly scrapped. Instead, it was decided that the ship would indeed be Kirk’s Enterprise but earlier in its history, intended to undergo multiple refits between its appearance in Discovery and when it appears in TOS. The refits would replace such components as the warp nacelles and the impulse engines. (Star Trek: Discovery – Designing Starships, pp. 191, 192) So, it’s not that the show pretends that the ship never looked as it does in TOS – both its exterior and “The Cage” iteration of its bridge appear in a recap at the start of the Discovery Season 2 episode “If Memory Serves”.
The first two seasons of Discovery are essentially bookended by secrecy about the USS Discovery and its design. In “Context Is for Kings”, Burnham is initially kept in the dark about the vessel’s “black alert” and its spore drive (the latter of which is also alluded to as being a classified project in the episode “Choose Your Pain”). The second season ends with the spore drive and the very existence of Discovery as well as its journey to the 32nd century all becoming part of a massive cover-up suggested by Spock and implemented by Starfleet. This accounts for the absence of the spore drive, the Discovery itself and any potential associated technological advancements in earlier-produced depictions of later events in the timeline. However, those who learned of the Discovery included the Klingons and the Kelpiens, with no explanation as to how either of them kept the vessel’s secrets (although I’d hazard a guess that it may have involved Section 31).
Comparing the Vessels
“Do not covet thy neighbor’s starship, commander.” – Captain Pike, “Brother”
The bronze finish of the USS Shenzhou‘s exterior helps make the ship look considerably old. And perhaps one reason the Discovery seems even more technologically advanced than Kirk’s Enterprise is that it technically is! Discovery is referred to as looking brand new in “Context Is for Kings”, the first episode it appears in, set in 2256, but the Enterprise was commissioned more than a decade beforehand, in 2245. Then again, this doesn’t necessarily say anything about the order in which their two respective classes of ship were commissioned, designed and built.
Even the characters compare the two ships. When the Enterprise and Discovery encounter each other in “Brother”, Lieutenant Detmer, at Discovery‘s helm, marvels about the Enterprise, “Damn, she’s a beauty!” And Commander Nhan, after beaming aboard from the Enterprise, remarks about the Discovery, “I see where the Federation puts its pennies.“
In general, there is less diversity of colour in the bridges in Discovery (and in “The Cage”, for that matter!) than in TOS, although this increases as the first two seasons of Discovery develop, especially with the addition of the Enterprise bridge in the second-season-ending two-parter “Such Sweet Sorrow”. The largely metallic-looking sets of the Shenzhou, Discovery and Gagarin bridges sync well with the aesthetics of the Enterprise NX-01 bridge from Star Trek: Enterprise, whereas the brighter and more colorful Enterprise bridge set in Discovery foreshadows its look in TOS just as well, featuring many similar aspects. Not that its look is enough to impress Mirror Georgiou; as she remarks upon seeing the bridge’s handrail in the episode “Such Sweet Sorrow”, “Orange? Really?! Ugh!“
I’d argue that the Shenzhou‘s gigantic transporter pads, reminiscent of the transporter in Star Trek: Enterprise (and reused as phase discriminators in “The Red Angel” and “Perpetual Infinity”), help make that ship look older than the TOS Enterprise, where the transporter pads are much smaller. And Georgiou’s command chair aboard the Shenzhou looks less comfortable than Kirk’s from the TOS Enterprise.
Spock’s quarters aboard the Enterprise, as portrayed in “Brother”, look significantly different from how they look in TOS, such as in “Amok Time”. The Discovery version is much larger. However, this makes sense given the chronological context, since Captain Pike’s quarters in “The Cage” are likewise much larger and more spacious than Captain Kirk’s in TOS.
The Discovery-era Enterprise also has a tri-screen monitor in the episode “Such Sweet Sorrow”. This feature doesn’t appear in “The Cage” nor in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. However, there may be several reasons for this. The TOS episode “The Naked Time” establishes that there are at least two briefing rooms aboard the Enterprise and it’s never clarified which of the two is used in “Such Sweet Sorrow”. It may be the same as the one used in the majority of TOS whereas the other briefing room might appear only in “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. The same ratIonale could also be applied to the ship’s transporter room, which looks significantly different in the Short Treks installments “Q&A” and “Ask Not” compared to “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, and as with the briefing room, we do know there are multiple transporter rooms aboard the Enterprise.
The existence of gaping turboshaft areas aboard both the Discovery – seen in “Brother”, “Light and Shadows” and “Such Sweet Sorrow, Part II” – and the Discovery-era Enterprise, shown in the Short Treks installment “Q&A”, are some of the most difficult-to-explain design choices in modern Trek. Since they incorporate so much apparently unused space, they make very little sense, not only from a continuity standpoint but also from a practical perspective. The fact Discovery includes such humongous open spaces could essentially be explained away by the cover-up and the ship’s transfer to the 32nd century, but this still leaves the presence of the similar area aboard the Enterprise unexplained. That said, the behind-the-scenes intended refits of the Enterprise may account for why we don’t see a similar area in TOS, likewise with the same ship’s gigantic bridge, extremely spacious briefing room, and massive engineering room. Miniaturization obviously takes place in reality, so the theory that these changes may have been updates done while refitting the vessel is realistic and, at least in my opinion, doesn’t stretch credibility.
Discovery includes some of the earliest chronological portrayals of Starfleet tractor beams in all of Star Trek, for example in “Battle of the Binary Stars” and “Context Is for Kings”, and these look exactly how I think they should. Although the warp speed visual effect in Star Trek: Discovery is considerably different from that of any previously produced Trek series, the visual effect of nearing the aperture of a wormhole in “Such Sweet Sorrow, Part II” basically matches the visual effect of travelling through a similar wormhole in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Likewise, evacuation corridors in the episode “Such Sweet Sorrow” are remarkably similar to umbilicals that connect a starship to drydock in the likes of Star Trek: Enterprise and The Motion Picture. Also, when Earth Spacedock is shown in the Discovery episode “Will You Take My Hand?”, it looks virtually identical to how it appears in the Star Trek movies, apart from the fact that it’s shown to be under construction.
Final (Frontier) Thoughts
“To paraphrase an Earth physicist, ‘The universe is under no obligation to make sense to me.’” – Spock, “Such Sweet Sorrow, Part II”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief analysis of the Starfleet ships in the first two seasons of Discovery. Next time, I’ll examine the realm of the illusory and how Discovery has depicted holographic communication.
Webmaster of WarpFactorTrek, Dan is an avid Star Trek fan who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. Also known as “The Scotch Trekker”, Dan has loved Star Trek ever since discovering it in his childhood. He worked as an administrator, for six years, on the encyclopedic Star Trek website Memory Alpha, which involved studying the making of the various series and films. He has been mentioned in the official Star Trek Magazine, has qualified from a Star Trek course run at Glasgow Clyde College, and ran The Scotch Trekker YouTube channel, which regularly featured live interviews with the cast and crew of Star Trek.