The recreation deck grew out of Director Robert Wise’s desire to show the scale of the Enterprise.
“When I came on the show, I saw a number of the old episodes,” he told Cinefantastique in late 1979, just before the movie came out, “and I was struck with the fact that they were always talking about having a crew of 460 or something, but all you ever saw were the main characters and a few extras walking around the back. They didn’t have any scope.”
So I felt it was very important that there be one place in the picture where we would have a big rec room and see a good part of the 400 people in one group, so we illustrate the size of the Enterprise and that it’s manned by all these people.
The question for the design team was where on the ship this new deck should be.
Illustrator Andrew Probert’s first suggestion was putting the recreation deck below the officers’ lounge. He submitted a concept art that showed how Spock’s arrival could be dramatized by observing his shuttle through the enormous windows of this new facility.
Today such a scene would be shot on a blue-screen stage. At the time, Production Designer Harold Michelson’s problem was that he couldn’t possibly get glass in the required size to build the set.
He argued for putting the recreation deck in the back of the saucer section, next to the impulse engines. There were already windows on the model there and Michelson felt he could build the right set for it.
Probert saw a problem, though. He pointed out that the saucer curved downward at the edges and submitted a concept art for a terraced recreation room that would both maintain visual continuity and make the scene more interesting.
Michelson rejected the idea as too complicated. Probert remembers him saying: “No one goes to a movie with a slide rule in his hand.”
Michelson defended his decision in an interview with Starlog magazine in January 1980, arguing that there was a danger in being too logical about designing sets.
“We were bamboozled by technical advisors, people from NASA and other scientists,” he said. They were apt to lose sight of the drama, Michelson felt, in their insistence on accuracy.
And there was always a time element — no way we could do everything anybody might want us to do.
Sources for this story include: David Houston “Production Designer Harold Michelson, Visualizing the New Star Trek,” Starlog 30 (January 1980) 42-46; Preston Neal Jones, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” Cinefantastique 9, #2 (Winter 1979) 40-47; and Andrew Probert, “Recreation Deck,” Probert Designs