Wednesday, August 27, 2008
The Evolution of Starship Class Designs in Star Trek
If you stare long enough at images of all Star Trek ships (excluding those from the Star Trek: Enterprise era), and then do a completely ridiculous amount of research and interpolation and outright guessing, I think it's possible to discern three major periods of Starfleet ship design, each period with a visibly different design ethic. Not surprisingly, these three periods correspond pretty well with TOS, TNG, and DS9/VOY.
According to my spreadsheet, Generation 1, from about 2240 (TOS) to about 2293 (ST:VI), started with the iconic Constitution class and ran through approximately 2288 with the Sydney class. These ships distinctively featured a saucer, an optional secondary hull, and slender, proportional-length warp nacelles.
(It might even be possible to see a generation 1.5, starting from about 2268 with the Miranda and original Constitution refit look first seen in ST:TMP that featured the angular warp nacelles. But the basic saucer/secondary hull/nacelles-on-pylons look remained pretty consistent, so I wouldn't call these second-generation designs.)
Generation 2 began in about 2320 with the Ambassador class and the New Orleans (ca. 2346) and Galaxy (ca. 2353) classes that soon followed it. The Nebula and Niagara classes, along with the strikingly different Akira class with its downswept pylons (perhaps a technology transfer from a Klingon Bird-of-Prey?), concluded this evolutionary line in the early 2360s. G2 "ended" shortly thereafter with the first great burst of experimentation from 2364 to 2366 that produced the almost-elegant Freedom class and the baroque Challenger, Cheyenne and Springfield classes.
Despite some variation among them, these ships together form a stylistic bridge between the fairly simple and clunky looks of the G1 ships and the highly refined and angular looks of the third-generation ships. The separate sections of the G2 ships were beginning to be more integrated, in some cases appearing to be fused together, foreshadowing the highly integrated designs of G3. Also, most of these ship classes sported the fat, stubby warp nacelles seen on the Galaxy class which, while more slender in G3 designs, remained (with the exception of the Sovereign) equally shortened in G3. However, G2 designs still retain the original G1 themes of a generally rounded saucer section and warp nacelles on pylons, and thus don't quite fit into either the piecemeal G1 or highly-integrated G3 design aesthetics.
Generation 3, from 2370 to 2374, was the second great burst of experimentation with forms by Starfleet naval architects. Although these ship classes shared some features, it's possible to see that they branch off into two divergent design paths. The first definining element of G3 ships was complete integration among the hull elements, finally ending Starfleet's long love affair with the saucer separation feature. The first line of G3 experimentation was driven by this new design aesthetic, and may be seen to flow from the highly integrated Akira design into the Defiant class, which took this concept to its logical conclusion by becoming an all-in-one design. The later Steamrunner and (somewhat less clearly) Norway classes appear to be additional variations on this theme, retaining the tight (or, in the case of the Norway, very-short-pylon) coupling of nacelles to the main hull but cutting out hull areas between the nacelles, perhaps to reduce mass in an effort to improve maneuverability.
The other design element generally common to G3 ships is the replacement of the rounded saucer section with an angular saucer or even an acutely triangular wedge. The Intrepid, Nova, Sovereign, and Prometheus followed this second design path (with the Saber as an intermediate experiment), generally retaining the warp-nacelles-on-pylons theme but shifting to a "saucer" that was not only integral but angled and stretched along the long axis (as opposed to saucers stretched along the transverse axis as was characteristic of G2 designs). These ship classes thus enjoyed a remarkably sleek and rakish appearance. In fact, these are, IMO, the most attractive of all the designs that Starfleet has ever produced. (Note: The Elkins and Yeager types [and note that these are "types," not classes] with their obvious Intrepid-based primary hulls also appear in this generation, but it's probably just as well to accept the invented story in the DS9TM which implies that these ships were pieced together by non-Starfleet shipyards to respond to the Borg/Klingon/Cardassian/Dominion threats. And we will not speak of the evil that is the "Curry-type" abomination.)
There are probably other ways of imagining the design evolution of ships in the Star Trek universe that are equally or more valid than this one. (Especially considering that we're all trying to impose some kind of rationality on a 40-year sequence of stuff made up for TV shows and movies!) But I think there's some value in this three-generation model -- it's reasonably defensible based on ship appearance and rough chronology, and even if not perfect, it's at least a marginally plausible framework for thinking about the evolution of Starfleet design philosophy.
Which is fun. :)