Sunday, August 06, 2006

"The Soul of a New Machine"--Part I

Thanks to those of you who have left comments on the blog; keep 'em coming! I'm also anxious to read your personal stories and will start publishing those this week. We have a great one by US Army SPC Angelina Christian who is currently serving in Iraq. I've also been in contact with Kelley Fuller who is leaving Australia soon for a month-long convention tour that includes Vegas, Toronto & Seattle! Become part of the action by sending your story and photo to Amy Ulen as soon as possible.

Blog #8 by Jeff Greenwald
Author of Future Perfect:
How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth

Taken from the chapter
"The Soul of a New Machine"

…I suspect (though I have no way to prove it) that, aside from Noah’s Ark (and possibly the Titanic), the starship Enterprise is the most famous such vehicle ever created. It’s amazing to realize that, during the past four decades, the ship has survived two captains and six reincarnations. She’s been around almost as long as rock n’ roll. Her transporter, early-warning and propulsion lingo are probably more familiar to most Americans than the Bill of Rights, and her mission—To boldly go where no one has gone before—better known than the recipe for Play-Doh.

According to the Star Trek Encyclopedia, the very first Enterprise—NCC-1701, flown by Captain Kirk in the original series—will be commissioned in the year 2245, at Starfleet’s San Francisco Yards. Those future engineers will be assembling an antique; the ship was actually designed in 1964, by Star Trek art director Matt Jefferies (the narrow “Jefferies Tubes” that serve as the starship’s conduits are named in his honor). His concept for the spacecraft was an ingenious one, marrying the classic saucer motif with wingtip “warp nacelles.” (Jefferies’ original sketch put the saucer on top, with the nacelles underneath, like skis, but Roddenberry liked it better upside-down.)

Despite its pedigree, the Enterprise was the first science fiction rocket ship that didn’t look like a flying saucer or mutated cigar. It has no retro-rockets, or landing pads. The reason is obvious: a true starship will be assembled in orbit. It need never touch the ground, or enter a planet’s atmosphere. It is hard to imagine what the stuffy execs at NBC made of this design back in 1964, but, like so many other things about the original series—from Spock’s ears to the black female Lieutenant on the Bridge—they probably thought it wouldn’t fly.

Over the years, innumerable improvements have been lavished on the Federation’s flagship. The Enterprise NCC-1701-D, of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, was designed by Andrew Probert in 1986 (unlike its predecessors, 1701-D will be commissioned in 2363 at the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards, orbiting Mars). Volumes have been written about the starship’s architecture and systems. Even those with absolutely no interest in science fiction will admit that the fifth Enterprise drips with elegance: a quality defined by biologist Edward O. Wilson as, “the right mix of simplicity and latent power.”
* * *

If a single factor makes Star Trek believable, it’s the confidence with which all this 24th century technology is portrayed. From the jargon rattled off in Engineering to the animated displays flashing on Voyager’s Main Bridge, the show has a look, an atmosphere, within which the most far-fetched scientific miracles seem plausible.

Two men, primarily, are responsible for this. Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda, the show’s longtime illustrators and technical advisors, are the wizards behind Star Trek’s curtain. Together, they have created a nearly seamless illusion of life aboard a stadium-sized starship.

Entering Star Trek’s art department at Paramount Pictures, I find the two techs on their feet, watching TV. The program, of course, is Star Trek-—and their rapt expressions indicate that they’re utterly entranced by their own illusions.

Sternbach and Okuda…have remarkably similar backgrounds. Both identify themselves as children of the post-Sputnik generation: an era when, as Okuda puts it, “the nation still realized that science, education and technology were priorities.” Both grew up devouring sci-fi, building Estes rockets and chanting the satirical ballads of songwriter/mathematician Tom Lehrer.

Career-wise, they took different tacks. While Sternbach moved into magazine and book illustration, Okuda focused on commercial graphics and community theater—learning skills that would serve him well in the world of television production. “You’ve got to come up with creative solutions,” he explains, “and there’s no money.”

Sternbach was drafted onto the Star Trek team in 1977, designing spaceships and props for the first feature film. He left Paramount, but was called back in 1987 for The Next Generation. Okuda—who’d contributed to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home-—returned to invent TNG’s graphics. “The similarities between us were very scary,” Sternbach recalls. “We’ve been fortunate to converge on this show, and achieve a high-tech critical mass.”

“Fortunate” doesn’t come close. Playing with the props and models on Okuda’s shelves, leafing though Sternbach’s sketches of the latest Romulan weapons, I’m floored by the sheer fun these guys are having. They’re the luckiest nerds in the world.

Read the rest of Greenwald's interview with Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda in tomorrow's blog. Visit his site at to learn more about Greenwald and his works.


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