Star Trek: How an Abandoned Enterprise Design Gave Shape to Discovery

Star Trek: Discovery features a starship with a distinct look compared to the vessels that have led Star Trek series in the past. While those ship designs are characterized by rounded edges, the USS Discovery has a harder, more angular frame. It turns out Discovery’s unique look was inspired by an unused design for Star Trek’s most famous ship, the Enterprise.

By the 1970s, Star Trek had found a new, larger audience in syndication than it ever had before its 1969 cancellation. Gene Roddenberry and Paramount were trying to bring Star Trek back, beginning work on several projects that went unproduced before Star Trek: The Motion Picture released in 1979.

One of those unrealized projects was a film that would have been called Star Trek: Planet of the Titans, first proposed in 1976 and abandoned in 1977. Designer Ralph McQuarrie, known for his genre-defining design work on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, worked on the unmade film. During that time, he created a new design for the USS Enterprise, seen below.

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ComicBook.com spoke to Star Trek: Discovery Season One production designer Mark Worthington over the phone. He recounted how that unused design became a starting point for the design of the USS Discovery for him and series co-creator Bryan Fuller. But the design first came from the mind of another important designer.

“The genesis of that design came from Ken Adam, who had been engaged to do some concept work and initial work on a Star Trek movie,” Worthington says. “There is a drawing, one of Adam's classic marker drawings, of the Enterprise. It's not quite what McQuarrie does. McQuarrie does some very specific changes, but the spirit of it is there. McQuarrie was working with Ken Adam, at the time. The genesis that comes out of that sort of that mid-'70s sensibility. Ken Adam is one of the greatest production designers who's ever worked. He did all the early Bond films; Goldfinger, Thunderball, Dr. No, all that stuff. He set the template for the look of those films, which is amazing. He did Dr. Strangelove. He did Barry Lyndon’s Madness of King George; multiple Academy Award winner. He was really a great hero of mine. McQuarrie, of course, is one of the greatest production illustrators of all time.”

Worthington goes on to say that it was a shared love of Adam and McQuarrie’s work that led him and Fuller to revisit the unused Enterprise design. “Bryan was aware of both of those people,” he says. “We're geeks, so at the beginning of the process, we're like, ‘Oh, the thing that Ken Adam, we have to look at that. Yeah, McQuarrie did his own iteration. Oh, yeah, that's amazing.’ You get into these conversations because everybody knows all that as a kind of design mythology. Rather than lean away from it, it's good design and it was never seen on screen. We liked the design. We thought it was appropriate. It’s backdating in a certain way, although it doesn't quite work, does it, with the timeline? But it was an older design that had ever been seen, so we thought it would be really fun to lean into that as an inspiration. It's much more angular, much more '70s. It's more like McLaren designs of the '70s, that kind of stuff, rather than the more rounded designs that you get in Next Generation and subsequent ship designs. We thought it'd be an interesting break and something fun to do differently.”

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The Discovery's final design bears several differences from McQuarrie's Enterprise, including the ringed saucer section. Yet, the inspiration is clear in the ship's flat hull and angular silhouette.

What do you think of the USS Discovery and how its look compares to other Star Trek starships? Let us know in the comments. Star Trek: Discovery’s first two seasons are now streaming on CBS All Access. Its third season is filming now in Toronto.