They are two stories that happen to occur in the vacuum of space, and that’s pretty much all they have in common. The two great “space” franchises, Star Trek and Star Wars, are often compared, contrasted, and sometimes pitted against each other. While they seem so different on the exterior, the two pop culture juggernauts are nearly cousins behind the scenes.
One of the clearest examples of this relationship is through special effects and design. For years, all of the significant ship effects in the Star Trek films were done by Industrial Light and Magic, which was founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas. Meanwhile, Gary Kurtz, the Empire Strikes Back producer, noted that Lucas was inspired by Star Trek and “travel to distant galaxies” where one would encounter “other species.”
Thanks to an interesting twist of fate, the designer of most of the great ships in the Star Wars Universe tried his hand at designing in Star Trek. His name was Ralph McQuarrie, and his paintings and design were the basis for much of the way Star Wars looks.
Even though much of those original designs were updated and altered for the films’ final look, he gave the designers and artists a place to start. In fact, his paintings are still influencing the series, as the Disney XD animated show Star Wars: Rebels created characters based on what McQuarrie thought Chewbacca and others should look like.
Working to Revive Star Trek
After Star Trek: The Original Series was canceled by NBC in 1969, there was talk of a revival in some format for years afterward. Trek creator Gene Roddenberry worked through several concepts, including Star Trek films that would air on television in “movie of the week” formats or theater and a possible return to series TV as Star Trek: Phase II.
One of the most promising examples of Star Trek’s return was a film concept called “Planet of the Titans.” In this treatment, which was written by Chris Bryant and Alan Scott, Kirk and the others were summoned to investigate the mysterious Titans, an ancient and technologically advanced race.
On their way, the Enterprise is sucked into a black hole and shot back in time to prehistoric Earth, at which time the crew of the Enterprise were looked at as god-like… Titans. There were many rewrites (which you can read about here). Still, some of those sound a whole lot like the beginning of Star Trek Into Darkness, where the alien inhabitants of Nibiru witness the Enterprise rise from an ocean and jump away.
For the Titans project, producers brought in McQuarrie to design some of the ships and scenes for the new film to take place in. This was after Star Wars was an intergalactic hit, which McQuarrie played such an essential part in. While the Titans film eventually dissolved, the efforts helped create The Motion Picture, which was released in 1979 and marked the return of Trek to popular culture.
One of the designs that McQuarrie worked on was an angular take on the Enterprise. This was unlike anything seen before and certainly a departure from the shapes created by Matt Jefferies for The Original Series. The Enteprise’s hull was triangular, much like the Imperial Star Destroyer, which McQuarrie created for George Lucas. And his ship was gold, not white, gray, or a light blue, as prior Federation ships seemed to be.
As it's #StarWarsDay, I'm highlighting that time when Ralph McQuarrie designed the Enterprise! Drafted in shortly after the 1977 movie to work on the pre-TMP 'Planet of the Titans', this was the result, which also famously played into the design of the USS Discovery. #StarTrek pic.twitter.com/H8H8hFJ7on
— Art of Star Trek (@ArtofTrek) May 4, 2020
Gone were the smooth shapes Trek fans were used to. Since Planet of the Titans was abandoned, fans never got a chance to see the Enterprise look so different, as McQuarrie left the project to work on Star Wars II, which we know as Empire Strikes Back.
The design of the Motion Picture Enterprise was designed by Richard Taylor and Andrew Probert, who would also create the Enterprise-D many years later.
Discovering the Forgotten Designs
Fast forward to 2016, when television executive Bryan Fuller was charged with bringing Star Trek back to television, or at least streaming TV. Since his project, which would become Star Trek: Discovery, was supposed to be just before the time of The Original Series, Fuller and his team dipped into the Trek design vault for inspiration.
What fans saw for the first time since those original drawings was a ship with a gold-colored exterior, a triangular hull, and a chunky design that was unlike any other ship in Starfleet. At Fuller’s direction, designer John Eaves brought McQuarrie’s design to life.
At first, many were skeptical of this new “golden” ship, and Fuller fielded many questions. When pressed, he did admit that the Discovery’s design was based on what McQuarrie created so many years before.
“We can’t legally comment on it until [our legal team] figures out some things,” Fuller told Gizmodo when the design was released to audiences.
Now that Discovery is in production for its fourth season, have fans seen enough of the McQuarrie-designed ship to forget about the iconic Jefferies’ original Enterprise or even Probert’s sleek and modern Enterprise-D? Who can say?
But we can point to one exciting scene from the Discovery episode “Will You Take My Hand?” where these two great ships — McQuarrie’s Discovery and Matt Jefferies’ Enterprise — faced each other for the very first time.
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