Industrial Light and Magic’s David Carson and Nilo Rodis designed the Earth Spacedock for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Carson told Star Trek: The Magazine (December 2002) years later that he was thinking of ways to make the space station interesting and thought, “What if it is so big that the Enterprise actually goes into it?”
I did a drawing of a space station that was big enough. It was a bit clunky, but Nilo took that and in his typical fashion turned it into a really wonderful design. So we presented this idea.
“We pitched a whole bunch of design ideas to Harve [Bennett] and Leonard [Nimoy],” Rodis recalled. “I wanted to make sure it had nothing whatsoever to do with Star Wars.”
The original plan was to rotate the facility as it proceeded on its orbit, which meant that starships maneuvering into the station would have to synchronize their motion with the dock. This was later dropped.
The scale of the spacedock presented a challenge. It had to look massive on the inside without making the Enterprise look small.
Seeing the ship dock through a large group of windows partly solved that issue. The presence of people in the foreground provided a reference point for scale.
“Because there was no architectural detail on the inside, I needed an element that defined how big this space was,” explained Rodis.
The only way I could really give you the sense of distance was by establishing some kind of perspective. We could do that vertically, but we also needed to do it between them with beams or columns of light.
The inclusion of lights also added a sense of grandeur. “Without that element,” Rodis said, “it just wasn’t magic.”
Building the model — twice
A full scale studio model was built at ILM. To represent the interior of the Spacedock, a large thirty-foot miniature was constructed. “That was an elaborate electronic feat with all the neon and the working doors,” Ken Ralston remembered.
There was kind of an interesting weird soft light in there, and I was so specific about the colour I wanted to achieve inside that space dock. I went round and round on it for a long time and then fought with the lab to print it correctly.
The miniature was destroyed after Star Trek III, which meant a new one had to be built for the next movie.
Modelmaker Jeff Mann later told The Making of the Trek Films (1991) that rebuilding the model was a “major undertaking”.
We had wanted to use stock footage of the interior of the space dock from Star Trek III. We hoped that we could take some of the old effects elements from that scene and composite them with some new movement, but nothing worked quite right, so we had to refurbish and rebuild it.
No fresh scenes were show for Star Trek V, but Art Director William George wanted something original for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He told Cinefex in 1992 that he looked at the model from all angles and ended up lying down on the ground to look up before he realized that was the perfect shot. “It hadn’t been seen before, plus it was the natural angle of approach if you were coming up from Earth.”
Sources for this story include: Kevin H. Martin, “Letting Slip the Dogs of Wars,” Cinefex 49 (February 1992) 38-60; The Making of the Trek Films (1991); and Star Trek: The Magazine 3, #8 (December 2002)