Sunday, 30 November 2014

Why does the Enterprise look cool?

The more I think about sculpture, the more upside down I find everything about it. The most creative parts are the least attended and the parts that have to do the most ‘work’, face the most constraints and pack the most information into the same space and also make it useful and explain itself, are ignored.

So. Why does the Enterprise look cool?


If you compare the Enterprise to a person and imagine it standing on-end, the nacelles would be spindly 'legs' the hull a waspish thorax and the dish would be centred about in the middle of the breastbone. A human head would poke out of the top.

The saucer edges would be where spread out arms would be and the reach of those arms is roughly suggested by the edge of the saucer.

So while it is not proportioned like a person, its proportions are related, there is a kind of conservation of proportion. It make sense to compare it to the human body, even though they are not the same they are clearly linked.

It has a ‘head’, body and ‘legs’ and those parts are roughly arranged in thirds, which matches the basic structure of life that we are most familiar with. A long thing, arranged into thirds, with a top, middle and end of roughly equal mass, about three times as long as it is wide.  When we want to make something look alien or ‘wrong’, or imagine something strange we often mess with those parts. The octopus and manta ray, a caterpillar.

The Space it Holds

It encompasses space as well as taking up space. It is not simply ‘there’, embedding itself into the space like a pile or a block, a planet or a knife. It locks into space in a complex way, like a piece of a puzzle.

There are two ‘negative space’ Enterprises that you can imagine in the empty space highlighted by the limbs of the real Enterprise.

The first one is upside down and back to front. You could actually almost built two Enterprises locked together, facing top to tail, each upside down relative to the other, with each having its hull trapped in the other Enterprises space, their saucer opposite the others nacelles and their nacelles opposite the others saucer.

Opposed, locked together so that they could never actually move, facing top to tail and each upside down relative to the other other. How many ships, or even sculptures can you say that about

The second is that space encompassed by the ship itself. Above the hull, between the saucer and the nacelles. A weird little puzzle-box back-garden space. You could almost fit another ship in there, if its neck was long it could face back with its neck between the nacelles and if it had wide bits, they could poke out on either side above the hull. It couldn’t be too ‘high’ or ‘deep’, there isn’t room for it.

In fact the invisible ship you imagine when you try to think of one to fill that negative space is pretty much the shape of a small Klingon Bird of Prey. Which kind of suggests that the Bird Of Prey is going to somehow mate with or fit into the Enterprise, to fill its negative space. Which I suppose, in an odd way, makes the Enterprise female.

Its parts

The neck is swept forward. This gives it ‘intentness’, things move their necks forwards because they want to go forwards. It looks eager. Birds of prey also do this when they are diving or killing. Tigers as they leap.

The nacelles are swept back. These are like strange wings. The swept-backness gives them the impression of speed. Again, things move their limbs back like that almost exclusively when they are diving or moving fast. For people, it would be when they are about to throw. If the Enterprise was a person it would be one with their head straining forwards and limbs or legs set back and bent, like a sprinter about to launch or someone throwing a javelin.

But it has a circular head. The circle is a shape of harmonious order. Safe, watchful, it is literally a smooth platonic curve. It’s probably the least threatening shape we have. Maybe an oval would be even less threatening but we kind of get that with the Enterprise-D.

So it’s a bird of prey but with a peaceful, ordered and calm head. It summons up the intentness and will to action of a bird of prey, but replaces its claws and beak and implication of death with calm. Regularity. There is a contrast there and that make it interesting.

It has an eye of sorts. The original sensor dish doesn’t glow which means it doesn’t really fit the idea of an eye as well as later versions, but in those it is a calm blue. It’s a friendly watchful eye. One of the good bits of the 2nd Abrams movie is when they meet the ‘bad’ federation ship it also has an ‘eye’. When violence threatens, that eye half-closes, which is an excellent piece of storytelling.

The way they all work together

Almost every part of it has both curves and straight lines.  The curves are always regular and geometrical. Nothing organic. The original engines are cylinders, the hull is a cylinder, the dish is a dish. The edges of the hull and nacelles are straight, the dish tents a little up and down but its lines are straight.

All the lines are stable, not bunched like muscles, more like naval architecture, indicating solidity, regularity.

There is a powerful contrast between what the general arrangement says and what the lines say. The form says ‘I am going to go fast, to go forward, I am aware and eager and watchful, I am like a friendly, fast, living thing’. But the lines say ‘I am calm, constructed, I am solid, predictable, I will not break, I am never irregular’.

We see all this at once when we apprehend the shape. The contrast in our heads gives the ship its character.

The engines are clearly making it go. The parts connecting them to the hull, and the hull to the saucer are clearly absorbing the imagined ‘force’ of its movement, but they are very slim and very clean. So we imagine them absorbing a large amount of force without difficulty. This reminds us of kinds of engineering we respect and admire. We know that absorbing force and movement takes mass and when someone builds something that can soak up a lot of force but without much mass we respect it in a certain way.

Like when we see a very modern bridge, very clean and simple and light, but clearly doing what an old stone heavy bridge did, but with only a small amount of the material. It makes us feel better about our culture. It speaks of intelligence and a kind of hidden knowledge and calm capacity, not obvious, but certain. ‘Yes we also can do things’.

The opposite would be the pyramids, or a 40K imperial star ship. They are all about having a lot of mass. They do not say ‘we deal with our inner powers cleverly and subtlety’ but just ‘we have a shitload of inner power’.


  1. I always liked the fact that it clearly has to be a spaceship, that structurally it couldn't last in a gravity well or atmosphere. Then Abrams went and had them built it on the ground.

  2. Complete saucer = full complement, cut down for subordinate classes of ship. Outboard nacelles = faster and more dangerous than hull mounted engines. Flush phasers = acknowledging energy weapons use lenses instead of barrels. Enterprise is the nerd ship, not the cowboy's.