Production designer Tamara Deverell explains how she brought a new look to the beloved ship while also maintaining its iconic design.
In the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “Such Sweet Sorrow,” (read our review here) the show finally revealed the full interior of the new, redesigned — yet old! — USS Enterprise. And it was a sight to behold for Trekkies.
Production designer Tamara Deverell and her team have updated the iconic vessel to fit with the look established by Discovery, and yet they’ve also managed to incorporate many of the hallmarks of the ship that were established over 50 years ago at this point. I spoke with Deverell this week about the daunting undertaking of redesigning the Enterprise. Read on for the highlights from our chat…
Bringing The Original Series Into Our World
Deverell explained that her chief goal when undertaking this design was to try to bring Star Trek: The Original Series into our world rather than trying to do something “completely new.” This included looking at the design plans and layout from TOS, as well as digging into old episodes of the show.
“[I wanted] to really evoke The Original Series as much as I could,” she said. “But still to do it within our Discovery style and with the new building techniques that we have now, which are much more finessed and space agey, I want to say, than they had been.”
Of course, there are always going to be viewers and fans who aren’t happy unless a set like this is a 1:1 replica of the original. Certainly setting Discovery in the era just a few years before The Original Series was set has led to lots of criticism for the show on this front. But Deverell is philosophical about the approach of Disco.
“Well, we do get a lot of comments and a lot of flak from fans,” she said. “It’s like, well, it’s not exactly the original. Well, if we did the original sets, you would be sorely disappointed because the expectations of audiences today are to see something incredible and fastidiously sci-fi and surfaces and details and 3D printing and all that. All the mechanics of the way we build sets now are completely different than what they used, which was hammers and nails and cardboard, and wonderful sets though they were, to get the essence of those and bring them into our world is … I don’t have an issue with it. I think we’d be disappointing people if we didn’t.”
Her thoughts go beyond the mere mechanics of set construction as well.
“My other reaction is, Star Trek is about the human story,” she continued. “It’s about the people and the interactions and the explorations. It’s not about … [getting] bogged down in just the physical reality of it. The things that are important for me are the Star Trek themes and the essence of that. That’s what drives me, is Pike’s character and, even though I’m dealing with sets, I’m still inspired by these characters. Who Spock was and who Spock becomes and the canon of that and how we can evoke that and continue those great Star Trek themes.”
A Whole New Set
Deverell confirmed that the Enterprise bridge set is a completely new build on a new stage, and not a redress or alteration of a previous set like, say, the old Shenzhou bridge which was transformed this season into the Section 31 ship bridge.
“There was some talk of doing it for Season 1 and we did the exterior [then],” she said. “We had started working on it quite a while ago, which was great. We had a lot of time to really think about it. When it came to building, we actually had to do it pretty fast for this finale. It was a fun ride, but at least I’d actually had a good start on the design and the concepts and they were all approved. I had [showrunner] Alex Kurtzman, way back, looked at the model with me and brought some of his thoughts into it long before we ended up really deciding to build it.”
It’s the nature of production that caused the delayed between design and build — “It’s always a bit of a dance and a bit of money game and can we afford this?” laughs the designer. So even while it seemed at times that they might not get to actually build the set because of money, her team kept refining their drawings and designs anyway.
“We felt like we owed it to the world to be on the Enterprise,” she said. “We went down many roads with this. We did discuss building it as a — we would still design it — but it would all be a green screen set. Which it wasn’t. Just the front portion, the physical view screen that we normally build around it — we just did the green screen template for that. The rest of it we built.”
The question is, if the Discovery team went through all the expense and effort to build this set for just two episodes, well… is it possible we’ll see it again? Or was the set struck at the end of production on Season 2?
“I can’t tell you that now,” laughed Deverell. “I’m gonna put it in my backyard…”
Red Railings and More!
There are so many great touches on the Enterprise set which call back to the original design. Some are obvious — like the unmistakable red railings on the bridge — but then there are the blink or you miss it bits, like the tri-screen desktop monitor in the conference room.
“We did the Sulu eye scanner, we did the Spock eye scanner, we did the Uhura station — we copied that layout of her station,” said Deverell. “We did the light thing in the turbolift. The Enterprise had this funny light that goes up the back of it in The Original Series. Of course, ours was a monitor, but we did that. The weird handle things in the turbolift? We did a version of those. We were like, what are these? We spent hours looking [at TOS]. They sort of twisted them and we tried to figure out what they were. We did a version of those, although they didn’t really make sense! They still don’t but they’re cool.”
Alex Kurtzman and the executive producers had input on the design as well, and Kurtzman in particular had a suggestion for a new addition to the bridge.
“Alex, when I was showing him the initial model, he was like, ‘Let’s do a corridor behind the bridge,’” said Deverell. “Which never really existed. We didn’t actually build that whole corridor. We built a part of it, and that’s one major thing that he contributed.”
Deverell also laughed about how “everybody has an opinion” — especially when it came to the actual color of those railings.
“Oh, the railings have to be that reddy orange, and then they put orange in the script and I was like, it’s really a red,” she said. “I was going crazy was that orange red thing! … I’m telling you, if you look at TOS, which I’ve done for hours, sometimes it’s orange, sometimes red. I checked with CBS archives about what the actual Pantone colors are and was matching to that and crazy designer minutiae with the colors that we were picking.”
In fact, Deverell found the choosing of the colors of the Enterprise set to be the toughest part of the redesign.
“The particular reds and the green, the greeny grays, which I was really trying to match what they had in The Original Series,” she said. “That was a big nod for me. I think that was something I really struggled with and … colors come easy for me and I usually don’t struggle. And I struggled with the colors of the Enterprise bridge to just get that right essence and that right reddy orange and that right grey tone. The lighting — not that it was a struggle, but [we] really worked hard to get some of the gobo lighting effect that they had in The Original Series. There’s these grids that form these shadows, so we were playing a lot with that. It wasn’t a lighting that everybody necessarily liked and I really pushed hard, ‘Let’s put a bit of that in.’”
One area where the design clearly had to diverge from the original was the necessity of shooting Discovery in widescreen, whereas TOS was shot in the old-school, square 4:3 aspect ratio.
“We’re designing to that ratio essentially,” she said. “It does affect it. It stretches things out. Our tendency is to bring down ceilings, so that we can see them more. Fortunately for us, like on the Enterprise bridge, the ceiling was actually adjustable and we were able to tweak it with a chain motor system. So, oh, let’s bring it down a little bit more in this shot so we can see here a bit more. Which of course in TOS, I don’t even know if they had a ceiling. There’s part invention of what it would be. When Jonathan Frakes first came on in Season 1 and we were touring the sets with him — I love this line — he looked up [on the Disco bridge] and he said, ‘Oh my God, there’s a roof!’ Hilarious. It’s such a Jonathan Frakes thing to say. For him, his history when he was acting in the [TNG] series, they didn’t do ceilings in all the sets and of course ours are all 360 degrees for viewscreen.”
The team also looked at other starship bridges, including those from the movies, which of course also were shot in widescreen.
“Especially with Alex Kurtzman and his involvement with the movies,” she said. “We looked at a lot of what they had and how … It was a lot to do with more lighting I looked at a lot with our cinematographers and shape and pushing the sci-fi elements, the glossy floors and things like that. We were definitely drawing from all those different Star Trek eras and films and TV shows. It’s funny the things you end up looking at, because you can just go down the rabbit hole of Star Trek when you’re doing research and end up in the strangest places!”
And then there are the chairs on the bridge, which are the same base from TOS, with the Disco team making the black covers for them.
“I think we did a little change in the back, but we really tried to replicate,” said Deverell. “That was a big nod for us, those chairs. The same thing with the captain’s chair … We were really looking at that. I think we matched the wood, cause there was wood on Kirk’s chair, Pike’s and Kirk’s chair. But especially Kirk’s chair I was looking at. … We sharpened some of the angles, we did a little bit more wood, but the basic shape and essence of it is the same. The black leather, all of that.”
In the end, Deverell says a project like this becomes something more than just production design on a TV show.
“It’s fun doing that kind of thing,” she said. “We have a lot of fun trying to replicate things. They’re historic. It’s weird because we’re doing a sci-fi thing that takes place in the future, but we’re doing a period piece as well.”
Talk to Executive Editor Scott Collura on Twitter at @ScottCollura, or listen to his Star Trek podcast, Transporter Room 3. Or do both!