To recreate the magic of the original series, Gene Roddenberry had gathered together those who had made that magic in the first place. And they did it again. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture premiered on December 7, 1979, Roddenberry’s creation finally transcended the medium of its creation, ceasing to be a mere television series, at last becoming a true phenomenon.
The first redesign of the Enterprise had been prepared for Star Trek: Phase II by Matthew Jefferies, who had not been keen to make drastic changes to the ship. “As far as I was concerned, about the only thing we could update was the engines, so I changed the design of the pods and the struts. I still wanted an absolutely plain exterior. Anything that man makes is going to break down; why put him outside in the worst possible environment when you can put him on the inside?”
The level of detail that can appear on a movie model is far greater than that which can appear on a model for television. Thus, the Enterprise model built for the unproduced second television series was set aside and a new model was constructed. The movie Enterprise still followed the basic updating intially developed by Jefferies and Joe Jennings for Phase II, but new and more detailed modifications were added by a variety of designers from Abel & Associates and Magicam.
Richard Taylor, art director for The Motion Picture, explained: “My approach was to give it a stylization that was almost art deco. Things became more elongated and more eleant than the TV series version.”
Taylor brought in designer Andrew Probert to design all humanoid spacecraft for the film so there would be a perceived visual continuity between all the hardware. His designs started with the space office complex but when it came to the redesigning of the Enterprise, Taylor requested that Probert delegated the task of designing the warp engines to him, because he had certain ideas which he wanted to put forth about bringing an art deco look to the new Enterprise.
Things became more elongated and more eleant than the TV series version. I tried to give it a very art deco feel; for example, I added the parallel lines along the edge of the saucer. I spent weeks drawing and redrawing the nacelles. The front end of them is almost a 1940 Ford grille.
As Taylor felt that they should stay with the proportions inherited from Jefferies’ upgraded Enterprise for Star Trek: Phase II, Probert lengthened the ship with merely a few feet and enlarged the saucer, eventually adding an updated superstructure to the top and bottom of it. Additionally, he came up with the new photon torpedo launcher, redesigned the whole nevigational deflector dish area, updated the impulse engine, and added phaser banks around the ship.
Where the original series’ Enterprise launched torpedoes from some mysterious port location near the centre of the saucer’s underside, a single round torpedo tube was conceptualized for the Phase II model into the base of the ship’s connecting dorsal. That evolved into a pair of tubes, painted by Mike Minor for Paramount’s announcement posters for the new production, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Andrew Probert originally conceived the torpedo launchers with doors in front of them, which would open when needed. Probert was however asked to provide concepts of the tubes when exposed, and to add more visual detailing at the same time. Said, Probert, “I wasn’t totally in favor of the idea because this blatant display of weapons suggested a more agressive posture to the design.”
Large decals were made and applied, and may be seen in various early production stills, but when the ship was given its final paint job, they were removed and Trumbull decided to leave them off.
Although Taylor and Probert kept the exterior of the ship very smooth, they were careful to give it an interesting texture and added many windows to the classic design. Taylor said they even gave the ship a few inhabitants. “We used small transparent images of the sets inside the windows so that when the camera got close to the model it appeared that you could see something in the windows. By the way, in some of those windows you can see photos of Mickey Mouse, Andy Probert, and others as a kind of in-joke.”
An avowed Star Trek fans, Probert remembered that in “The Apple” Kirk had told Scotty that, if necessary, he should separate the saucer section. So at Probert’s suggestion the model of the new Enterprise was designed to separate, even if this was never seen on screen. Probert says he even went to the trouble of giving the Enterprise landing gear. “Popular opinion indicated that [on the original ship] the two triangular points on the underside of the saucer were actually two landing legs, and the third one would be a telescoping leg in the doral-support cavity, so the saucer would have tricycle landing gear for a planet landing. For The Motion Picture‘s Enterprise, I designed four landing pads on the underside of the saucer.”
Taylor planned one final major departure for the Enterprise but this was abandoned before the film was released. His idea was that the warp engines would generate a very obvious energy field, so he designed the nacelles to have light panels built into them. “I wanted to have an effect that radiates from the glowing panels on the nacelles; something you could see. We would have had that streak when the ship was in motion.” The model of the new Enterprise was built at Magicam, and after Robert Abel & Associates left the film it was filmed by Doug Trumbull’s VFX team. It was then used in the next five movies before being brought out retirement so Foundation Imaging could study it and build their own CG version for The Director’s Edition.
From “Redesigning the USS Enterprise NCC-1701,” Star Trek: The Magazine 2, 8 (December 2001)