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Spaceship Design 101: How the Minds Behind ‘Star Trek’, ‘Lost in Space’, and ‘Black Mirror’ Reach The Stars

The distinct shape languages of these four space ships offered tension or nostalgia in pushing sci-fi in new directions.

Star Trek Discovery 114

“Star Trek Discovery”


It wasn’t easy coming up with fresh space ships for the rebooted “Star Trek Discovery” and “Lost in Space,” or the “Star Trek” riffs on “USS Callister” (“Black Mirror”) and Seth MacFarlane’s “The Orville.” After all, there’s cultural significance and legacy and immense pressure in creating what amounts to homes and playgrounds and battle arenas, with distinct shape languages that help define the looks of their shows.

Of course, “Star Trek” offers its own set of challenges and, with “Discovery,” it required a special Federation ship that was only a decade removed from the original Enterprise. For “Lost in Space,” they had a lot more artistic license in designing a futuristic Jupiter 2. However, for the USS Callister, the “Black Mirror” team had to steer clear of any direct references to “Star Trek” while still evoking its ’60s vibe. MacFarlane’s team, meanwhile, was tasked with coming up with a unique ship that was a wink and nod to the Enterprise of “The Next Generation.”

Going Dark and Mysterious with the Discovery

“Star Trek Discovery” co-creator Bryan Fuller (a writer on “Voyager” and “Deep Space Nine”) wanted a larger more angular ship that embodied the darker, more conspiratorial narrative of the reboot, which revolves around the Klingon war.

Star Trek Discovery CBS

“Star Trek Discovery”

CBS Television Studios

They were initially inspired by an unused Ralph McQuarrie design for the Enterprise from the un-produced feature, “Star Trek: Planet of the Titans,” His designs were based on concepts created by James Bond designer Ken Adam to contain a sports car-like vessel with a flattened secondary hull. What they ended up with was a thinner delta shape with the engineering section below, overseen by production designers Mark Worthingon and Todd Cherniawsky.

“And for the break, we have two discs, an outer ring and the inner, saucer section,” said Worthington. “It felt fresh and it became the visual expression of the new [spore] drive system. That saucer pivots whenever the drive system is engaged.” The interior was tangled and concentric, with the Bridge emphasizing the domed structure, containing a larger windshield viewing area.

The Recreational Jupiter 2

For re-imagining a version of the Robinson family in 2048, they went with a utilitarian, recreational vehicle, to help set them up on another planet as a home away from home.  Ross Demptser, the production designer, referenced the latest NASA tech and avoided any gaming influences.


“Lost in Space”

Courtesy of Netflix

“The heavy steel look of the front window came from the underwater rig from ‘The Abyss,'” said Demptser. “It was a disc-like structure that in side profile looked slimmer on the front end. It was a realistic, believable ship not pushed too far, a shuttle shape with expansion units when they get on the planet.”

The interior was literally like a mobile home with a central hub for eating and interacting and a circular hallway suitable for walking and talking and options for camera blocking. Ironically, though, Demptser stumbled on a ribbed paneling texture that he liked, which he later realized was similar to the same design on the original series.

The Sting Ray Callister

For “Black Mirror’s” fourth season opener, in which Jesse Plemons’ maniacal programmer traps his boss and coworkers in a “Star Trek”-like space adventure within his multi-player game, director Toby Haynes wanted a sting ray shape for the ship. That would solve the problem of not imitating the Enterprise, but the designers also didn’t want to look too much like the ’60s British “Stingray” series from “Thunderbirds” creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.

“We tried to tie that silhouette to something more grounded in a ‘Star Trek’ world,” said production designer Phil Sims. “We subtly brought scale to it through where we put the windows and how we broke up the surface with paneling and gravel detail.”

Black Mirror

“Black Mirror: USS Callister”

Jonathan Prime / Netflix

The interior of the Callister was tricky as well. They couldn’t start off too slick to sell the nostalgia, but they ended up creating an homage to how “Star Trek” has evolved from Gene Roddenberry to J.J. Abrams. It contained familiar tropes but with their own twist. For instance, the Bridge had a cool obsession with CRT screens, and Sims obsessed over the captain’s chair, which he Frankensteined together by combining one chair with the base of another with additional elements. This cost more than the recovery room.

“But with subtle tweaks and cutaways, [we] discovered how bold we could be with colors and worked out lots of lighting opportunities with the sets,” added Sims. This came in handy for the wild escape finale in homage to Abrams’ lens flare aesthetic. “We turned it into this slick J.J. continuous imagery with high-tech controls at their disposal,” he said.

The Sexy Orville Rings

MacFarlane’s sci-fi comedy-drama tried to instill a sense of hope and optimism for his washed up protagonist, who’s put in charge of a mid-level exploratory ship. “Seth said that he wanted an aspirational show with bright colors, unlike so much of what’s out there today, a future where problems were solved and people are fairly well-adjusted,” said production designer Stephen Lineweaver.

THE ORVILLE: The Orville Ship. The new space adventure series from the creator of "Family Guy." The first part of the special two-part series premiere of THE ORVILLE will air Sunday, Sept. 10 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT), immediately following the NFL ON FOX Doubleheader. ©2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Michael Becker/FOX

“The Orville”

This sense of uplift informed the ship’s design as well. MacFarlane wanted something beautiful and they came up with a curvaceous series of rings for the exterior. The team worked with more than two dozen different designers (including sci-fi specialists Ryan Church and “Star Trek” vet Andrew Kroeger). The expansive, two-story set took up an entire stage and you could move freely from room to room into a single take.

“The two-story platform led to the idea of putting the Bridge on the second story,” added  Lineweaver. “It was a large observation deck that’s open to the sky. We put a large oval skylight and a gigantic view screen. To me, the Bridge was all about taking a trip into space and being immersed in it. “

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