Friday, 14 June 2013

The Finest of the Fleet: The Makings of a Great Starship

Should we rate Starfleets ships by the amount of firepower they pack and how big the explosions they cause are? In my opinion; No. There are better ways to measure a great craft and thanks to reading a recent piece on What Culture, I think I'll take up the challenge and have a look...

The article in question, while massively overusing the word "badass" did make me think of a couple of things as I clicked through the pages. While I have mixed feelings about the choices on the list, it got me thinking about what makes a great starship? Is actually being "badass" such a great thing when referring to Star Trek which, fundamentally, is supposed to be about exploration, seeking out new life and boldly splitting infinitives for five years (or three if you get axed)?

What makes a starship something that you look forward to seeing on the screen in an episode or a movie? Is it firepower that makes them memorable or is it something they did or were involved with that makes them simply awesome.  I've run down some examples to help me along the way to see if we can access the greatest starships in the history of the Federation (that we know of).

Straight away lets get back to our roots as there can be only one "great" design if we're honest with ourselves. That honour has to go to the original Matt Jeffries designed Constitution Class vessel that took the crew through 79 episodes of The Original Series. It's the design that influenced everything after it. The basic principles would be revamped in the movie era Enterprise as well as the later Excelsior, Ambassador and Sovereign Classes, to some degree the Galaxy Class and even in the style that formed the basis of the USS Vengeance in Star Trek Into Darkness. Of course JJ Abrams would have the original updated as the central vessel for the 2009 reboot just for good measure proving just how important that style was to the franchise.

It's a brilliant concept that also brought about the transporter to avoid landing her among other things. It was the backbone of Starfleet throughout The Original Series (namely because it cost less to reuse the model or buy kits from AMT) and survived a few fairly lethal encounters. Whatever generation of Star Trek we're watching there's always something in the styling of a Starfleet vessel that brings you back to the beginning. Impressively the upgrade that the class received in the movies made it even better many would argue, confronting even more serious threats from the Reliant and Khan and later a cloaked Klingon Bird of Prey. Inside the style of the bridge reflected the slightly militaristic direction of The Original Series and the films where reds and whites were replaced with metallics and greys - with the exception of Star Trek V which looked as though the Enterprise had jumped about 75 years of decorating evolution. A true classic and an icon of science fiction. There's one in the fleet museum y'know (Relics) so it must be important!

While it is physically similar, the Excelsior Class we first saw ready for field tests in The Search for Spock is truly one of the landmarks of the whole of the franchise. While the Constitution Class bowed out in The Undiscovered Country "The Great Experiment" would become the 24th Century workhorse as the Constitution Class had in the 23rd. It would show up in numerous episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine as well as three movie appearances. The last of these, with some additional bodywork, would be as the Enterprise-B. Altered so as not to damage the fabric of the original Excelsior model, this silhouette would  only appear again in the Deep Space Nine episode Paradise Lost as the USS Lakota

Minus the controversial transwarp drive it turned out to be a pretty decent starship and hinted at the shapes of things to come with its larger, more streamlined hull and advances in technology. In her day the Excelsior Class was the sign of the future and the first in the chain to link the designs of The Next Generation to The Original Series.

Staying with a theme, the Enterprise-D chalks up on my list not because of its design but because of its purpose. The shape of the ship harks back to the classic saucer, secondary hull and nacelles that both the Excelsior and Constitution classes displayed but they were flying in more hostile times when the threat from the Klingon Empire and other species was a lot more severe. Times changed and the Galaxy Class reflected this. The smoothed styling belayed a certain calmness in the fleet but inside was the clear distinction that made this a seminal Starfleet craft. Reflecting the more explorative and apparently less dangerous nature of The Next Generation, families were now onboard and the ship was designed around more luxurious desires and requirements. Effectively a spacebourne city where its crew wanted for nothing it mirrored the time in which it was designed in the real world - the 1980's and the affluence of the period. Fitting that it's replacement would be a much more compact battleship as the 1990's evolved and in the Star Trek universe the threats that appeared to have faded away returned and new ones arrived. 

The Galaxy Class was limited in numbers. According to early reports and the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual there were only six constructed but over the years we would see more than that number in the battle scenes of Deep Space Nine alone. To date we've seen Enterprise, Yamato, Odyssey, Venture, Challenger (Timeless) and there must be a Galaxy somewhere. According to Memory-Alpha there are 10 Galaxy Class ships in the battle to retake Deep Space Nine featured in Sacrifice of Angels which suggests the initial six were supplemented at some point with another batch of at least seven. Looking back, the class was far from perfect, suffering shield failures, dodgy holodecks, warp core breaches and three of the class ended up destroyed in the space of seven years - and if it was such a safe universe with a ship for exploration filled with husbands, wives and children for the long journey ahead why would you need to make it separate in two and have a Battle Bridge? Would you want your kids on here given the safety record?! 

Anyway, it seems that the realisation that families in space was not a good idea with the Galaxy Class vessels used to act as lead ships for battle groups in the Dominion War. This belays that they could easily be switched to different roles however their styling continued to announce that this was not their best suitability. A factor that the Sovereign Class clearly mirrored in its more military, minimalist, family-free concept. The reason for omitting that class? It's an evolution of form and also the Sovereign Class never really had anything unique about it in the big scheme of things - and can you recall ever seeing a second ship of this class on the screen?

The Constitution Class is a great because of its classic and influential design, Galaxy Class opened up the path to long exploratory missions but if we were to look back at the blog which inspired this piece, I would have to agree that the USS Defiant is definitely a "badass" - and I promise that's the last time I'll use that word here. Simply an awesome ship that went against every single concept of design and form that the Enterprise of the original show had laid down and started from scratch. It was compact, heavily armoured, fast, overgunned and overpowered and built for war. Cleverly a line of dialogue in The Search, Part I covered that minor issue, noting that the Defiant had been built to counter the Borg threat and had been mothballed once it had passed. It's firepower was soon on show and totally different to anything before. 

The phasers punched holes in the opposition from the first time she decloaked in anger and the Defiant also received quantum torpedoes to deal with whatever came in its way. There would be at least two other escort-class vessels seen in Deep Space Nine - the Valiant and the Sao Paulo which would be renamed as the Defiant when the original was destroyed by the Breen. It came close to an equally strong pummelling at the only encounter it ever had with the enemy it was designed to beat - the Borg. For me this is one of the ultimate starship classes. Unique, unusual and one of the selling points that made the third Star Trek series a cut above.

If we're sticking with unique, the USS Prometheus was certainly that. Featuring in just one episode of Voyager and also glimpsed in the final shot of the final episode of the final season of the same show, I would add it to the list of great starships because, like the Defiant, it pushed the boundaries. The quad-engines were nothing new because we'd seen them before on the Stargazer in The Battle during The Next Generation's first season and neither was the more elongated shape. Aside from the fact it managed to get stolen by the Romulans it's the only Starfleet ship that can split into three distinct vessels during Multi-Vector Assault Mode. The Enterprise-D could separate into a battle section and a saucer section lifeboat but these three ships were all controlled from the bridge of the primary hull. The bridge was somewhat spartan in comparison to other Starfleet vessels but additional sets were never the most detailed or "crewed" during the TV shows. The fact Message in a Bottle was one of the finest Voyager episodes certainly helped ensure that this would be a highly memorable ship that remains utterly unique across over 700 episodes. 

Talking of Voyager I begrudgingly have to add it to this list of the best starships in Star Trek's history. Why? It adapted. Over the seven seasons the Intrepid Class ship was stranded in the Delta Quadrant it underwent some serious modifications, gained a super-shuttle and got blown to smithereens more than once. Let's not forget that Voyager was a test bed for a lot of new technology including bio-neural gel packs, variable geometry (folding) warp engines which, apparently, meant that it could get away with going above that clumsy, plot-killing Warp Five Speed Limit and received the odd Borg upgrade along the way. Not only did the ship end up with Borg alcoves in a cargo bay but also used the technology to develop an astrometrics lab. The ultimate upgrade however had to be the ablative armour and transphasic torpedoes she received in Endgame. 

Small she may have been but Voyager did well to survive seven years in the wilderness and encountered situations that even a Galaxy or Sovereign Class ship might have cowered at. Add to that time travelling  the odd fleet of Borg cubes, being stolen or boarded and even facing off against another similar Starfleet vessel, the Equinox. Voyager actually hints at the future designs of Starfleet vessels (which the Equinox and Enterprise-E also indicate) - more compact, efficient, saucer and secondary hull directly connected without the "neck" section. Certainly more sleek than its predecessors but still able to pack a punch the Intrepid Class . Also it had the neat trick of being able to land which almost trumps the ability to separate into lots of bits. For adaptability there can be no question that this class and one lone ship in particular easily win. They probably also win the award for losing the most shuttlecraft ever.

So there we have a fairer selection perhaps - a legendary design, the workhorse of the fleet, the explorer, the warship the one-of-a-kind and the Boy Scout starship. Each includes features which mark it out against the rest and also are present in many respects in later vessels - especially in the form of the Constitution Class. These vessels in my opinion are the best examples of Starfleet design and operation across the whole franchise. I had considered adding the Steamrunner Class in here just because from a design point of view it's a complete break from anything else. No other ship even comes close to its design but aside from that and appearing in a few battles in the background it's not made its mark. Surprised I didn't include the NX-01? While it was "the first" it's design in the Real World was due to the nature of the original Enterprise of Kirk's era and therefore I skipped it. Sorry if you were looking for it!

I would have liked to include the Dauntless due to its quantum slipstream drive and just cool design but that wasn't really a Starfleet vessel (grrr) although it pretended to be. The Vengeance was a beast in every sense of the word and considering how much it was lauded it lasted barely an hour of screen time before taking a plunge to Earth. That's not good in terms of future development!

Again though you can see the design links which would "suggest" the Starfleet heritage of the Dauntless in her lines and even while stupidly big, angular and overgunned, the Vengeance is merely an adaptation of the alternative universe rethink of the original Constitution Class design. In comparison to the ships on the blog that inspired me, I think this is a better reflection of abilities, function and style rather than focusing solely on how much firepower a ship has which was not the point of Star Trek. Hopefully I have provided a good range of the "greats" and why they stand out above the rest.

So is there a class or ship I've missed that had a big impact on the Star Trek universe and deserves a place here? Is there one I've missed or is this a fair reflection on the various incarnations of the franchise?

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