The design of the drydock that first appeared in Star Trek: The Motion Picture originated in the aborted Star Trek television series Phase II. When the script of the original pilot, “In Thy Image,” called for a drydock, Mike Minor came up with a design that closely resembled the final product. A model was created at Magicam in September 1977.
When Phase II turned into The Motion Picture, and due to the increased resolution demands of movie photography, Magicam’s model had to be discarded. Andrew Probert, who joined Star Trek as a concept designer for the first feature, was tasked with redesigning the facility.
Coming full circle
Probert told Starlog magazine (March 1980) that his first concept was “to have the drydock fit the shape of the Enterprise as snugly as possible. This would allow the drydock to unfold and open — dramatically — to allow the ship to exit,” he said.
Richard Taylor — Probert’s boss until he was replaced by Douglas Trumbull — agreed, telling T.C. Tobias in 2001 that a rectilinear design made no sense to him.
I wanted to make it hexagonal or circular and give it a center of gravity that worked well, it could orbit the Earth and we could have the whole thing rolling together. It would have been much more spectacular…
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and Director Robert Wise felt the proposed configuration would resemble the shape of V’Ger too much. “They wanted a design that would not precisely fit the shape of the Enterprise,” according to Probert.
Given the variety in shapes and sizes among Starfleet vessels, “I thought it would be a good idea to have an all-purpose drydock that would change shape to conform to these other ships as well,” he said. “In one design, I utilized hinged modular sections.”
This was further simplified and eventually, “the design came back full circle and we ended up with a box shape again” — similar to Minor’s idea.
Probert suggested adding a system of moveable cranes on fixed tracks to the drydock, which could encompass work on the Enterprise from any angle.
“In zero-g, cranes as we know them on Earth, are not necessary,” he told Starlog. “Mine were designed as repositionable work and material platforms.” But Trumbull felt the cranes would be too small to be seen on screen.
Magicum also built the model for the redesigned drydock. At least one other, partial model was built for use in closeups of one side of the facility. This model was larger and more detailed than the main miniature.
Trumbull told a documentary for the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 that Wise essentially delegated the task of filming the drydock sequence to him.
I wanted it to be this beautiful, epic, spectacular sequence that had no dialogue, no story, no plot. Everything stops — and let the audience just love the Enterprise.
The team had to build special lenses and special camera gear to get the camera close enough to the Enterprise model. They added a little astronaut and several shuttles to the scene to establish scale.
The drydock reappeared in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Due to that movie’s limited budget, footage had to be recycled from The Motion Picture.
It also appeared in Star Trek Generations, when Industrial Light and Magic heavily modified it for the scene in which the Enterprise-B leaves drydock.
Sources for this story include: David Houston, “Andy Probert Talks about the Lost Designs of Star Trek The Motion Picture,” Starlog 32 (March 1980) 26-33, 63, and TIFF Originals, “DOUGLAS TRUMBULL – Lighting the Enterprise | Star Trek,” YouTube, October 27, 2016