The script for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s third season episode “The Search” called for a new class of warship, which it described as “a little clunky.” The vessel “was built primarily for battle,” it said, “not exploration or science.”
The reason for introducing the ship was that Executive Producer Ira Steven Behr and the show’s writers felt that mere runabouts couldn’t be expected to defend the space station against the Dominion, who had shown themselves capable of destroying a Galaxy-class starship in the Season 2 finale, “The Jem’Hadar.”
“We had all these plans for this Dominion,” said Behr in an interview that was included in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Season 3 DVD, “and what were we going to go after them with? Shuttlecrafts?” He added, “You know, it just seemed ridiculous. So we needed a ship.”
Beefed up runabout
Yet it was the runabout which concept artist Jim Martin initially “beefed up”.
“I started with the cockpit windows,” he recalled in an interview with Star Trek: The Magazine (August 1999), “and worked my way out, adding things on top of the runabout, making it look like they were adding systems and weapons to an existing ship.”
The producers didn’t like it. “After the idea for the runabout was shot down, it was replaced with the writers’ idea that it was going to be a full-fledged fighting starship called the USS Valiant.” But Herman Zimmerman, Star Trek‘s veteran production designer, cautioned Martin it should still look like something that hadn’t been seen on the show before.
The writers requested a small starship which was designed by the Federation to battle the Borg. I drew some familiar looking Starfleet designs, but also included a drawing of a small, compact ship that I had done for an entirely different episode of DS9. This is the direction that they chose, I think it was because it was so unique.
The design was inspired by a Maquis fighter Martin had previously designed for Deep Space Nine and it bears resemblance to a small Cardassian vessel, later known as the Hideki class, that Rick Sternbach designed for the Season 2 episode “Profit and Loss.”
Zimmerman’s request for something unique was certainly met: The Defiant was the first Starfleet vessel without external warp nacelles.
Martin didn’t quite recognize the impact it would have:
When you’re in the art department and you’re doing the job from episode to episode, you don’t really think, “Boy, this is really going to revolutionize Federation design.” You’re getting a design out of the way. It’s only after the fact that you think, “Wow, that was a different idea.” I’m glad we took the chance to take a little bit of a departure.
The name Valiant was dropped in favor of Defiant out of fear that it might conflict with Star Trek: Voyager and its titular starship.
The design was refined further when Tony Meininger was tasked with building the model. It was felt the design didn’t quite look fast enough so Meininger, a car enthusiast, drew from Ferrari posters to “streamline” the vessel, making it look sleeker and more compact.
The Defiant was “digitalized” for Star Trek: First Contact by Vision Art and rendered by Industrial Light and Magic. For Deep Space Nine, a digital model was created by Digital Muse.
“Adrift but salvageable”
The ship was nearly destroyed in First Contact. Indeed, early drafts of the script suggested it was meant to be destroyed.
In a DVD commentary for the film, Producer Ronald D. Moore explained that Behr had seen the script and objected to the needless destruction of the ship in a story that didn’t even involve Deep Space Nine characters besides Worf. The Defiant was allowed to survive the battle — “adrift but salvageable” — and hardly a mention of its participation in the battle with the Borg Cube was made in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
The Defiant was ultimately destroyed in the Season 7 episode “The Changing Face of Evil,” but a replacement showed up just five episodes later.
Sources for this story include: “Designing the U.S.S. Defiant,” Star Trek: The Magazine 1, #4 (August 1999)