Prequel Problems: Star Trek and the Sixties Aesthetic

By Tom Anderson

Star Trek is one of the most influential media franchises of modern times, itself stemming from one of the most influential television shows, that original and titular Star Trek of the 1960s (today sometimes called The Original Series or TOS in hindsight). Perhaps surprisingly, the franchise did not create any official, canon prequel material until the twenty-first century and Enterprise, which we will come to in a later article—though fan works and non-canon novels had often tried to depict prequel stories or background. Nonetheless, many general issues created in the original, beloved series would (and will) continue to cause problems for later iterations, be they sequels or prequels. In an earlier article I discussed the ‘Romulan Straitjacket’, in which the first on-screen introduction of a major story factor (such as an antagonist power) can limit future stories and especially prequels set before that introduction. In this article I’ll look at the more general problem of dated aesthetics.

The story of the beginnings of Star Trek is reasonably well known in broad strokes, so I’ll briefly pass over these again—with the obvious caveat that I may be perpetuating simplified narratives. Gene Roddenberry made a pilot, “The Cage”, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike of the USS Enterprise, in 1964/5. It was heavily influenced by the 1956 science fiction film The Forbidden Planet, itself a sci-fi reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

This pilot was rejected by the network, NBC, for being ‘too cerebral’ and it is commonly said there were also objections raised to there being a female first officer, women officers in trousers, and Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan character Spock having ‘devil-like’ pointed ears. This narrative is influenced by us only getting Roddenberry’s side of the story for many years, and suffice to say some of the objections to the female first officer ‘Number One’ were more to do with her being played by Roddenberry’s then-mistress, Majel Barrett, rather than her being a woman. (The Roddenberry narrative is critiqued by Herb Solow and Robert (Bob) Justman in Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, a book I would recommend so highly that I accidentally obtained two copies of it some years ago!)

Regardless, the series was reworked into a new incarnation in which William Shatner would play Captain James Kirk, with women in miniskirts and Barrett relegated to playing Nurse Chapel, although Spock was retained and indeed took on a bigger role. A second pilot was made, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, which was picked up and – confusingly – was broadcast as part of the first production season out of order, despite being substantially different to the rest of the series (no Dr McCoy, differences to the ship’s model and the uniforms, etc.) By contrast, “The Cage” was not made available until the 1980s, but footage from it was cleverly reused as flashbacks in the two-part episode “The Menagerie”.

Some of the differences introduced between the pilots and the main production series were not to do with casting. The design of the Enterprise’s bridge seen in “The Cage” was fairly subdued, with black handrails and grey consoles and doors, looking realistically ‘military’. However, NBC was touting its status as the first full-colour TV network in the US, and Bob Justman was keen to demonstrate it. He employed Gerald Perry Finnerman as Director of Photography and told him “When you light the sets, throw wild colours in – magenta, red, green, any colour you can dramatic. In fact, go overboard...nobody can tell you that’s not the way the future will look. How can they? They ain’t been there yet.” (Quoted on page 113 of the aforementioned Inside Star Trek.) Justman’s instructions reflected the fact that early colour televisions were not very good and required overly intense colours to display. Red, in particular, stood out. Firstly, the black and grey handrails, consoles and doors from “The Cage” became bright red from the second pilot onwards. Secondly, both pilots had depicted a division of responsibility in which command officers wore gold, security and engineering officers wore tan and science and medical officers wore blue. However, it was found that on-screen, gold and tan looked almost identical, so security and engineering officers were instead put in red. This unintentionally created the much-parodied trope of the ‘redshirt’, the security officer who beams down with Kirk, Spock and McCoy only to be killed by the threat of this week’s episode and be pronounced dead by McCoy: “He’s dead, Jim.”

WIlliam Shatner as Capt. Kirk in Star Trek. Here without the colours that Bob Justman was so proud of.

It is therefore important to understand that the bright colours of the original Star Trek were made excessively intense on the assumption they would be left toned-down and washed-out by the colour TV of the day. Colour balance was a recurring problem for the creators of Star Trek; endless makeup budget was allotted to making Leonard Nimoy’s skin tone more yellowish and sallow to reflect his Vulcan character’s green blood, only for the post-production people (who didn’t know this was deliberate) to spend hours trying to correct it back again to Nimoy’s original skin tone! As early as “The Cage”, screen tests for a green-skinned Orion character kept failing because the post-production people hadn’t been told she was meant to be green. Nonetheless, the bright colours of TOS made a strong impression. Green and magenta lighting became iconically associated with alien planets, and Matt Jefferies designed oddly-shaped doors (such as trapezoidal ones) which could be reused for the alien planet or ship of the week and looked distinctly different to the Enterprise’s rectangular ones. One colour less seen in TOS is blue (except for uniforms and phaser beams), reflecting the fact that blue LEDs would not be invented for many years, and so consoles and displays became a warm, iconic selection of yellow, amber, green and red. Consoles were depicted with physical ‘jellybean’ controls, abandoning the goose-neck microphones from “The Cage” (which also featured Spock changing the viewscreen settings with a wave of his hand, a strikingly modern touch!)

The Enterprise’s exterior model also had mesmerically rotating nacelle caps on the engine nacelles glowing amber with highlights of other colours—an effect obtained using malfunctioning Christmas lights, which later CGI recreations found difficult to replicate! Otherwise the design of the ship was very white and blank – which contrary to what some have assumed, did not reflect a budgetary limitation, but Matt Jefferies’ philosophy that putting things that could break on the outside of a spaceship was a stupid idea. Why necessitate a spacewalk every time a bit of technology needed repairing?

Star Trek was initially cancelled after its second season, brought back for a (troubled) third one after a fan letter-writing campaign, then finally cancelled again. However, it remained greatly influential (especially after reaching a wider audience through syndicated repeats), to the extent that the first American Space Shuttle test vehicle would be explicitly named in honour of the fictional Enterprise. Roddenberry initially planned to bring it back in the 1970s as “Star Trek: Phase II” but, after the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Paramount decided to rework the pilot into a big-budget movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, instead. The aesthetics had already been changed drastically for the late 1970s even before the TV revival became a film. Gone were the bright colours of 1960s television: instead we were back to the black and grey bridge aesthetic of “The Cage”, almost all colour was lost from the exterior ship design (which, against Jefferies’ philosophy, became more detailed and showing technological details) and uniforms became white or pastel tans and greys. A ‘belt buckle’ life support monitor was added, and the iconic flip-top communicators of the original series were replaced with colour-coded slimline wrist communicators.

The Motion Picture did a good job of looking technologically advanced, but was only a qualified success at the box office, and the understated, pastel aesthetics were generally disliked. A sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, was made and was successful enough to spawn four more films. These kept the exterior ship design (allowing footage to be reused!) but switched to distinctive dark red uniforms with colour-coded undershirts to indicate division. The bridge design was repeatedly (and unrealistically!) changed constantly between films, but generally retained more subdued grey colour schemes, except for consoles getting brighter (and using more blues as these became associated with advanced technology in the real world). During the latter films, a new Star Trek sequel series, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), was announced and debuted in 1987, with a new aesthetic again. It is easy to forget now how controversial it was at the time for a series called ‘Star Trek’ to appear on our screens without featuring the original, iconic crew; here, however, I’m going to focus on the problems caused by the changing aesthetic.

As I mentioned in my earlier article, Star Trek as a franchise is annoyingly prone to arbitrarily overusing ‘100 years later’. TOS was initially vague on when it was set, but eventually defined its era as the 2260s (exactly 300 years after it was broadcast). TNG was set exactly 100 years after that, or about 80 years after the movies. TNG’s Enterprise was the Enterprise-D (the fifth iteration, scaled down from the original drafts envisaging an Enterprise Seven). Interestingly, Roddenberry originally wanted 150 years before changing his mind! His motivation is not made clear in any of the production histories I’ve read, but I would imagine it is tied in with his conviction that there should not be any ‘retreads’ from the original series; he was opposed to the character of Worf originally because he felt featuring Klingons would be such a ‘retread’. (Some of the inconsistencies of the Star Trek franchise, with powerful antagonists from TOS just disappearing for years without explanation, now begin to make more sense...) It should have been obvious from the beginning that this was futile; the TNG pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint”, featured a guest appearance from DeForest Kelley as McCoy giving the crew a send-off, with the 100 year gap meaning he had to be depicted as extremely aged!

New uniforms were designed, utopian jumpsuits that evoked the bright colours of TOS in a more subdued manner (and with command now being red and security/engineering gold). The design and production crew did an excellent job of making the new Enterprise and her interior look futuristic and advanced; its ‘hotel lobby’ aesthetic still looks timelessly futuristic to me now, unlike later Star Trek incarnations. This did fit with the ‘100 years’ thing, implying a long period of peace and the new kind of humanity that Roddenberry wanted to depict – though this became modified later. But problems set in when they needed to depict slightly older ‘guest’ Starfleet ships, or to show events from Captain Picard’s past, two or three decades earlier. With no production money left to create an intermediate aesthetic, they just reused ship, set and uniform designs from the movies, which were meant to be set 80 years earlier. One is left with the ridiculous conclusion that Starfleet technological and uniform aesthetics remained frozen for about fifty years while changing rapidly at other times. (The later movies Star Trek V and Star Trek VI even adopted touchscreens for the original Enterprise before switching back again to buttons to avoid looking too similar to its later incarnation!) Again, would it have really killed them to just say TNG was set fifty years after TOS?

All of this is reasonably obvious and not really what I want to discuss here. Rather, I want to mention a circular fight that has gone on for decades between Star Trek showrunners and fans, starting with early TNG under Roddenberry. Fans love the original series—it’s what got most of them into the show when TNG debuted, and it’s still fondly regarded now. TOS has had much more of an impact on wider pop culture than later Star Trek series (though TNG had more than many would have expected at the time). Yet the aesthetic of TOS (along with other factors like the style of acting) is today often regarded as dated and subject to mockery. Roddeberry in early TNG did not want to acknowledge TOS as happening ‘on-screen’ at all; in the early (terrible) TNG episode “The Naked Now”, a whole-plot reference to the TOS episode “The Naked Time”, the later crew look up their predecessors in a way that implies their voyages were obscure, and their data files depict the movie-aesthetics Enterprise rather than the actual on-screen original. While Roddenberry lived, there are essentially zero on-screen appearances of any of the aesthetic of TOS, even when they did relent and feature TOS characters such as Spock’s father Sarek (and later Spock himself).

With Roddenberry’s death in 1991, the doors were opened and avid TOS fan Ronald D. Moore wrote the TNG story “Relics”, in which Montgomery “Scotty” Scott is found frozen in transporter suspension for decades, then struggles to adapt to a changed world. The story is a love letter to the original series, and most importantly for this discussion, finally featured the original bridge in all its colourful glory, recreated by Scotty on the holodeck. One might imagine that the massive groundswell of fan love for this episode might be the end of that tug-of-war, but one would be wrong.

Two more Star Trek sequel series were made, set in the same era as TNG: Deep Space Nine, set on an abandoned alien station where Starfleet values clash with a new frontier, and Voyager, where a Starfleet ship is flung to a far corner of the galaxy and has to make its way home. Meanwhile, four movies were made with the TNG crew, the first of which featuring a crossover with Captain Kirk. While prequels had been discussed many times before (Star Trek VI was nearly a prequel showing Kirk at the academy), it would not be until 2001 that Star Trek canon prequels (as opposed to flashbacks) were actually made.

There are many criticisms that can be made of Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: Discovery and the films involving a younger TOS crew made by JJ Abrams. I will not be getting into those here (though they may appear in future articles) but I am restraining myself to commenting on the aesthetics. Enterprise, set 110 years before TOS in 2151, was criticised by fans for its ship designs looking more like those of TNG (210 years later) than TOS; its interior set designs and uniform designs received a more mixed reception, being inspired in part by logical developments from present-day NASA designs. For the first three series of Enterprise one was left with the conclusion that we were back where we were with early TNG and a reluctance to acknowledge TOS at all. The showrunners were Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, and Braga had turned down the chance to write TNG’s “Relics” because he said he didn’t know who Scotty was – a bad omen! Enterprise had other problems beyond these, but suffice to say that Star Trek fans never gave it a fair chance because of its implicit attitude towards TOS. The fourth series was different, with the involvement of TOS fan Manny Coto meaning that things changed radically and many references and ties to TOS were introduced. Most dramatic was the two-parter “In a Mirror, Darkly” where the USS Defiant, a Constitution-class ship (like the original Enterprise) that was lost in a rift in the TOS episode “The Tholian Web”, appears in the past of the Mirror Universe in the Enterprise era. The design and production team did an amazing job of replicating the look of the ship’s interior and exterior with no compromise, and making its ‘dated’ sixties aesthetics look advanced and futuristic to the 2150s crew. The scene in which the ship powers up for the first time, and the original series sound effects and lights come on, will send a shiver down the spine of any fan who grew up watching TOS.

So once again, it seems we’ve learned our lesson, but whoops, Enterprise was cancelled anyway. A few years later, JJ Abrams was allowed to make a reboot featuring young Kirk and the other TOS crew at the academy. I’ll discuss this more later, but suffice to say that no attempt was made to evoke the aesthetic of the original series except in uniform design. The ship’s bridge is a (far more instantly dated!) evocation of the 2000s ‘everything’s an iPod’ aesthetic and its exterior design looks like someone trying to backdate from Star Trek: The Motion Picture – an interesting idea, but not what the fans wanted to see. Again, we saw the same damn story repeated again, with two films being made and then a third in which TOS fan Simon Pegg (who plays young Scotty) getting involved and building in more links to the original series.

Meanwhile, a new series called Star Trek: Discovery was made, avoiding the continuity reboot cop-out of the Abrams films, attempting to depict the 2250s (ten years before TOS). And again we’re back to where we started, with flashy holograms and different uniform aesthetics and misplaced (very dark and poorly lit) external ship designs. It’s popular to bash Discovery so I should call attention to some things: the ship’s basic design is a clever reference to one of the rejected Phase II Enterprise designs; the alert logoes are based on those of the TOS movies; the idea that every ship having the same arrowhead symbol is wrong is actually a fan misinterpretation of what TOS originally intended to depict, with different logoes for different divisions of Starfleet, not individual ships. Nonetheless, like some parts of the Abrams reboot it feels more like someone trying to take the TOS movie aesthetics and work backwards, rather than reference the original series, seeing it as too ‘dated’.

One might respect this and agree to disagree if the showrunners actually committed to it. However, the frustrating and tiresome thing is that every time, now for the fourth time in a row, eventually they give up and agree to depict TOS aesthetics as the fans want. At the end of the first series of Discovery, they find the Enterprise – at this point commanded by Captain Pike. They fiddled with the Enterprise’s design a bit in a way fans don’t like, but the old uniforms and the old bridge design with its reds (even though those weren’t there in “The Cage”!) are reimagined in a new way, as a compromise between the original and 21st century values. (I will say the latter are often misplaced and unrealistic – look at a modern warship bridge and it looks a lot more like the TOS Enterprise than the distracting holograms and failure-prone touchscreens we think are futuristic now!) While I don’t care for the new external ship design, I quite like how Discovery and its new Pike spinoff have reimagined the uniforms and bridge design from TOS, a compromise that might, might, be able to please some hardcore fans while still appealing to shallow perceptions of futurism.

So why does nobody ever do that in the first place?! Why do they have to do it wrong every time for a while before someone corrects them?!

One might imagine that reflecting on the human race resorting once again to war and conflict repeatedly over the course of one’s lifetime is the ultimate measure of frustration with human nature – but only if one has not been a Star Trek fan over multiple decades.

Late addendum: Since penning this article the author has caught up on the most recent series of "Discovery" in which the crew are transported into the far future. Unfortunately, because the original aesthetic of the ship was so vaguely futuristic to begin with, the VFX people have struggled to portray the contemporary technology looking even more futuristic than Discovery already does and show the contrast between the eras, whereas if they had started with the updated-sixties aesthetic they tried on Captain Pike's Enterprise, it would have been easy. Thus illustrating this is not only a fanboy complaint but undermines the ability to ground an era and compare it to others!

More Prequel Problems articles on the way!


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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.