Gene Roddenberry intended the bridge to be at the center of the action in Star Trek. Beyond that, his designers, Matt Jefferies and Pato Guzman, had little to go on.
Jefferies was still working on the look of the Enterprise itself in early 1964. He had honed in on design that separated the warp engines from the main component of the ship: the saucer section. It made sense to place the ship’s command center on top of the saucer. Hence they arrived at a circular layout for the bridge.
“It was pretty well established with the model that the thing was going to be in a full circle,” Jefferies recalled years later. “From there it became a question of how we were going to make it, how it could come apart, where the cameraman could get into it.”
Guzman proposed a domed “Control Room”, which introduced two now-familiar features: a viewscreen in front and commanding officers positioned in the center of the room.
Roddenberry wrote in The Making of Star Trek (1968) that he wanted the captain to be in the center, “so he could swivel around and see every vital station. His people should be in contact with him easily.”
Guzman left the series in October and was succeeded as art director by Franz Bachelin. By that time, Jefferies had become skeptical of the direction in which they were going.
“I had to come up with the construction drawings to actually build these sets,” he told William Shatner for his book Star Trek Memories (1993), “and my problem was in trying to figure out just what the hell Bachelin had done such a pretty painting about.”
I mean in terms of practicality, his paintings just didn’t work; the construction crew would have gone out of their minds trying to build what he’d painted.
A self-styled “nuts-and-bolts man,” Jefferies began thinking from the position of the ordinary bridge worker.
The idea of the whole thing was that if a guy’s supposed to be on his toes and alert for hours he’s going to have to stay sharp, and if you can make him comfortable it will help. So I felt that everything he had to work with should be at hand without him having to reach for it and at a comfortable angle.
That resulted in the design of the consoles around the edge of the bridge.
Building the set
Jefferies disliked placing them at a higher level than the center of the room, where the captain and pilots were seated, but he didn’t have much of a choice: They needed to be able to roll sections in and out.
The set consisted of eight such “wild” sections: one for the turbolift, one for the viewscreen and six work stations. When assembled, the eight components formed an octagon, approximating a circle.
Construction started in November 1964 and took six weeks to complete. The electric wiring alone required hundreds of man-hours. All the instruments could be controlled from a single panel off-stage or individually by the actors. Miles of wiring were needed to connect everything.
At the behest of “The Cage” director Robert Butler, the set was painted in bluish-grey colors. This was changed when “The Cage” was rejected by the studio but Roddenberry was asked to produce a second pilot. Contrasting blacks and reds were added to the railings, turbolift doors and navigation console. That color scheme would stay with Star Trek for all of its three seasons.
Franz Joseph’s Star Fleet Technical Manual (1975), now considered apocryphal, suggests that the bridge was rotated 36° port, which would have the turbolift shaft travel down the centerline of the saucer section. No reason was given as to why the bridge crew would be looking in another direction than the ship was traveling, although with artificial gravity limiting any sense of momentum and electronic displays instead of windows, there is no reason either why the crew should face directly forward.
Sources for this story include: Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry, The Making of Star Trek (1968) and William Shatner, Star Trek Memories (1993)