In 1964, everything that would become Star Trek rested in the handful of typewritten pages that had convinced Desilu Studios to enter into a three-year television deal with Gene Roddenberry. Those pages described the mission of the USS Yorktown, a spaceship with a crew of 200 commanded by Robert T. April. Landing parties would be beamed down to planets by an energy matter scrambler, stay in contact with the Yorktown on their telecommunicators and protect themselves with laser beam weapons.
The terminology was still to be refined, but the cornerstone of a billion-dollar entertainment franchise was solidly in place. When NBC committed to ordering a pilot episode in June 1964, it was time to start building the franchise’s foundation. As Star Trek producer Gene Coon put it, “Gene created a totally new universe.” Television being a visual medium, the question was: what should this new universe look like?
The USS Enterprise was launched in 2245 and made its television debut 279 years earlier on September 8, 1966. More than any other artifact created for the series, the Enterprise represented Star Trek. It was as much a character as Mr Spock. And like its human (or organic) counterparts, it has changed shape but never its name; changed configuration, but never its mission. From its inception to its demise, Matt Jefferies’ starship has been beloved by millions of fans.
As art director, Walter Matthew “Matt” Jefferies was assigned to design the Starship Enterprise. “In my approach to Star Trek, I wanted to be as practical as possible,” he told Star Trek: The Magazine in an interview that was published in 2000. “I could tell Gene was serious enough, but I really didn’t know where to start. I knew the Enterprise was going to be on the cutting edge of the future, but essentially he gave me the job of finding a shape and I didn’t know what the shape looked like.”
Although Roddenberry knew a lot about his ship, he had never visualized it. His only guidelines were a list of what he did not want to see — no rockets, no jets, no firestreams. The starship was not to look like a vintage science-fiction rocketship, but neither could it resemble anything that would too quickly date the design.
Gene described the 100-150 man crew, outer space, fantastic, unheard of speed and that we didn’t have to worry about gravity. He had emphasized that there were to be no fins, no wings, no smoke trails, no flames, no rocket.
Somewhere between the cartoons of the past and the reality of the present, Matt Jefferies had to get at a design of the future.
In the 1960s, the benchmark for dramatic science fiction was Lost in Space and the popular image of futuristic space travel was the flying saucer. Jefferies’ early sketches reflect this. But Roddenberry wanted something that could host a larger crew, a ship that could travel at incredible speeds, so he told Jefferies to go back to the drawing board.
His next proposal was the now familiar “ringship”, which appeared on display in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (See The Ringship Enterprise Mystery Solved.) Roddenberry rejected this too.
The theory that space could be warped was first proposed by Albert Einstein in 1905 and first demonstrated, according to Star Trek, by Zefram Cochrane in 2063, proving that objects could travel faster than the speed of light.
Warp drive is a delicately balanced, intricate web of chemistry, physics, mathematics and mystery. “I was concerned about the design of ship that Gene told me would have warp drive,” Jefferies remembered.
I thought, ‘What the hell is warp drive?’ But I gathered that this ship had to have powerful engines — extremely powerful. To me, that meant that they had to be designed away from the body. Boy, I tried a lot of ideas. I wanted to stay away from the flying saucer shape. The ball or sphere, as you’ll see in some of the sketches, was my idea, but I ended up with the saucer after all. Gene would come in to look over what I was doing and say, ‘I don’t like this,’ or, ‘This looks good.’ If Gene liked it, he’d ask the boss [Herbert Solow] and if the boss liked it, then I’d work on that idea for a while.
For the hull, I didn’t really want a saucer because of the term flying saucer and the best pressure vessel of course is a ball, so I started playing with that. But the bulk got in the way and the ball just didn’t work. I flattened it out and I guess we wound up with a saucer! I did it in color on a black matt board, and by the time I finished I thought we really had something.
It worked. “It looked better than the other sketches and Gene said, ‘That one looks good!’ They — and Bobby Justman too when he came aboard later — were a dream to work with.”
Although they now had a shape, it was not the end of Jefferies’ efforts. He theorized that since space was such a dangerous place, starship engineers would not put any important machinery on the outside of the vessel. This meant that, logically, the hull should be smooth.
Not everyone agreed and Jefferies had to fight his corner. “I constantly had to fight anyone who wanted to put surface details on the thing,” he says.
Another advantage of the smooth design was that it would reflect light, and at this point it was not a foregone conclusion that the ship would be white.
I thought the atmosphere or lack of it out there in space might produce different colors, and this gave us a chance to be able to play light and to throw color on it.
Jefferies was also responsible for the Enterprise‘s famous registry number.
I wanted a very simple number that could be spotted quickly. You’d have to eliminate 3, 6, 8 and 9, so I just went for 1701, which incidentally and coincidentally, happens to be very close to the license number on my airplane — NC-17740. But I have never really stepped out and squashed the rumor that the number on the Enterprise came off my airplane.
After the number had been decided, Jefferies would explain that the Enterprise was Starfleet’s seventeenth starship design and that it was the first in its series, hence the number “1701.”