ILM's Steve Gawley works on the Reliant modelILM's Steve Gawley works on the Reliant model

Designing the Reliant

Reliant preliminary sketch
Reliant preliminary sketch as approved by Joe Jennings

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan would give Trekkers the first canon Starfleet ship beside the original Enterprise. But that wasn’t the original plan.

In early versions of the scrip, the Reliant was a sister ship to the Enterprise. Production Designer Joseph Jennings worried that if the ships were identical, it would have made it hard for viewers to distinguish between them during the battle scene in the Mutara Nebula. “In the dogfight you had to instantly recognize which ship you were looking at, so they had to look different,” he told Star Trek: The Magazine 3, 5 (September 2002). “At the same time, you had to make them look like they came from the same culture and had the same technology.”

Jennings worked with Lee Cole and Mike Minor to design the new ship. “It was the first time a new starship had been designed since the Klingon battle cruiser,” he remembered.

She was supposed to be a coastal and geodetic survey ship, like a buoy tender. She would be armed, perhaps, but only lightly. She wasn’t a lion ship like the Enterprise. Also, remember the Enterprise was always supposed to be an exploratory vessel where the armament was secondary. That was even more true for the Reliant. She was supposed to just stick around in the known universe and take care of things that everybody already knew about.

The three ultimately came up with a compressed version of the Enterprise. “We had long postulated that the circular saucer said, ‘This is Starfleet navy,’ and it used engines that looked pretty much like those on the Enterprise.” They eliminated the engineering hull and attached the nacelles to an extended saucer section instead.

Except the nacelles looked over the saucer in their design. Lee Cole remembered how they ended up underneath it. Harve Bennett, the film’s producer, was working abroad before they began filming Star Trek II. “We were mailing everything over to him and getting him to approve it and mail it back to us,” she told Star Trek: The Magazine, “so we did our first sketch of the ship and mailed them off to him.” Bennett was supposed to sign for approval at the bottom of the sheet. “When he got it in the mail he took it out of the package upside down, I guess, and wrote out on the bottom, ‘Yes, this looks very good, proceed.’ So when we got it back we realized he’d approved it upside down.”

ILM's Steve Gawley works on the Reliant modelILM's Steve Gawley works on the Reliant model
ILM’s Steve Gawley works on the Reliant modelILM’s Steve Gawley works on the Reliant model

Rather than bother Bennett again, the three decided to make it work that way and it did. Jennings and Lee added what Minor dubbed a “roll bar” to support the dropped nacelles. Phaser banks were put in this supporting structure.

The studio model was built at Industrial Light & Magic. Visual Effects Supervisor Kenneth Ralston told Cinefantastique 44, 12 (1982), “The ship takes the best of the Enterprise, rearranges it, and adds a few goodies of its own.” In a separate interview with American Cinematographer (October 1982), he recalled that the model was “perfectly constructed for shooting. It’s light,” he said, “highly detailed, non-reflective and could be easily mounted from all sides for any possible setup.”

The Reliant model under construction
The Reliant model under construction

The high quality and large scale of the model allowed it to be reused many times in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. It was not until its appearance in the second television series that the Reliant‘s class name was confirmed on screen. It also showed several Miranda class starships without the “roll bar” when the effects crew was unable to make its internal lighting work on time.

A more extensive modification was prepared for the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect.” The model was redressed to represent the USS Bozeman of the Soyuz starship class. The modifications were designed by Greg Jein and Mike Okuda but not permanently affixed to the model, allowing to reappear as the USS Saratoga in Deep Space Nine‘s pilot, “Emissary.”

Miranda class ships that appeared in later Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager episodes were CGI models, also designed as ILM.

15 thoughts on “Designing the Reliant

  1. OK….
    First of all, you don’t launch phasers; they’re pure energy. I believe the terminology used is “banks”. (You know, if they actually existed.)
    Secondly, the Reliant was hardly only the second Starfleet vessel to be seen on screen. Numerous vessels were seen on the Original Series, the Animated Series and in the Motion Picture.

  2. Phil, the original series and TMP only showed a few tiny Starfleet ships. Some small support vessels and shuttles. Unless I’m forgetting something? So maybe I should have written “major” ship there, but the Reliant was the first proper starship to be designed since the original Enterprise. Again, unless I forgot one here, in which case – do let me know, please.

    I’m not including TAS here, which was only recently “canonized”, as you may know.

  3. The Reliant was a much more powerful ship than the Enterprise or a Klingon Battle Cruiser. In addition to standard weapons, it had an enormous weapons pod with two large PHASER CANNONS which could fire fore and aft and two large torpedo launchers which could also fire fore and aft. It had two shuttlebays instead of one. The ship was more compact and more maneuverable. They inadvertently designed a much superior ship to the Enterprise without meaning to.

  4. I have to say someone missed his technical manuals. In the mid 1970’s a friend of my dad’s gave me two of the coolest things ever. One was a 12-sheet set of Enterprise blueprints. I wish I still had ‘em. The other was a starfleet technical manual. I’m sure you can find a copy out there. The basic design of the Reliant was actually already seen in the “tug” that was shown in one of the sections of that book. I wish I could find a picture but essentially the moment that ship appeared in 1981-2 (?I was 12 I think) I knew where the design had come from because I’d been looking at it eagerly and even imagined taking apart one of the model kits to create it, for several years. It’s cool but they had to have taken a look at those manuals — I believe Matt Jeffries wrote them back in the early 1970’s.

  5. “In mid 2267 the Lexington led a fleet to Organia that included the USS Enterprise, USS Constitution, eight other unnamed Constitution-class starships, two Miranda-class ships, a few Icarus-class starships and various cargo and support vessels. (TOS episode: “Errand of Mercy”; \”

    also

    http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/startrek/images/4/45/USS_Intrepid_1631.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20061003012324

    The Intrepid (exterior), Constitution (interior only), and Enterprise (exterior) all appeared on screen in the ToS, “Court Martial.”

  6. There were plenty of other Constitution-class starships featured in the Original Series in addition to the Enterprise.

  7. Constitution class starships were the only large Starfleet vessels to be featured in the original series. Because of budget constraints, they were limited to using stock footage of the Enterprise for other ships, selecting only footage that did not show the hull registry numbers clearly.
    The only other Starfleet vessel shown in TOS was the Shuttlecraft. Again, stock footage of the Galileo was used. The full size Galileo prop/stage was finally renamed “Galileo II” in the 3rd season episode ‘The Way to Eden”. Even in that episode the Aurora that Dr Sevrin and his colleagues stole was the Tholian Web Spinner redressed with warp nacelles.
    there were no other starships aside from the Enterprise in ‘Court Martial’. The remastered TOS episodes gave the production team more liberty to show other vessels as CGI, all of which had their design origins in media other than TOS. I’m talking specifically about TAS, the Starfleet Reference Manual, and other (semi-canon) printed material.
    Nick is quite correct that the Reliant was the first non Constitution class starship to be designed and make it to the screen after the Enterprise Refit (TMP). It was followed by the Excelsior and the Grissom in Star Trek III. The Enterprise ‘Ring Ship’ appears as an illustration only in the Recreation deck of TMP Enterprise. The only model of that ship to appear on screen is the small desk model briefly shown in Star Trek: Into Darkness. A point worth noting is that recent discussions about the feasibility of FTL travel have posited a design not unlike the ring ship that would ‘stretch’ space in front of the ship and ‘squash’ it behind, creating a wave of accelerated space/time for the ship to travel in. Life imitating art, don’t you think?

    1. The USS Defiant appeared in the TOS episode ‘The Tholian Web’. Stock footage of the Enterprise model was used, overlayed with a green glowing effect.
      When the episode was remastered, the SFX team had the opportunity to add some close up shots displaying the hull registry (NCC-1764).

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