From Andy Warhol to Flower Children, time has progressed and most of the real, tangible, and iconic elements of the 1960s are long gone. However, there were many elements of the 1960s that were purely fictitious in nature, and due to their unreality, they endure as symbols of the era. One such symbol of the 1960s is the fictional starship USS Enterprise as seen in the Star Trek television show. The radical design of the ship and its importance to the program lent an aura of power and nigh-invincibility to the vessel, one that garnered the attention of Americans from “Joe and Jane Average” to actual rocket scientists at NASA. We are now 50 years past America’s introduction to Star Trek and the Enterprise, so the question of the ship’s relevance in popular culture arises. In short, to the general public of today, is the name USS Enterprise still one that invokes an iconic image?
Prior to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), the name USS Enterprise meant just one fictional starship, albeit with two different designs of that single vessel. As such, when the name USS Enterprise was mentioned, either the classic Enterprise from the series came to mind, or the redesign (as seen on film and shown to the right) was imagined. Regardless of which version of the single ship was mentioned, it was still the starship Enterprise, and thus it continued to be seen not as a mere prop, but as a major component of the American zeitgeist.
All of the above changed when Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) shockingly ended the story of the original Enterprise (ship number NCC-1701) even as it begat the alphabet suffixed ships named Enterprise (ship numbers NCC-1701-A, NCC-1701-B, NCC-1701-C, NCC-1701-D, NCC-1701-E, and NCC-1701-J). Of the preceding ships, the makers of Star Trek chose to show the destruction of three ships named Enterprise (NCC-1701, NCC-1701-C, and NCC-1701-D). Additionally, it opened the door for additional ships named Enterprise as seen in fan-films and games (such as NCC-1701-G, NCC-1701-H, NCC-1701-M, NCC-1701-O, and NCC-1701-R).
Additionally, there are now two new ships named Enterprise as seen in the recent Star Trek films (2009-2016) from producer J.J. Abrams. The newer films take place in an alternate reality called the “Kelvin Timeline” (please…don’t ask) and feature another version of the original Enterprise (NCC-1701) that, like the original, is destroyed on-screen unceremoniously only to be replaced in short order by a new Enterprise (NCC-1701-A). Compounding the Enterprise jumble are the fictional Star Trek ships Enterprise (NX-01) and (surprise!) yet another starship Enterprise (XCV-330). Given the above, if this were the game show To Tell the Truth, we’d have to ask if the real starship Enterprise would please stand up.
Although mentioned in film at the time of the movies based on the 1960s television show, the general public was either unaware or unconcerned about the existence of the XCV-330 Enterprise, so the Enterprise remained either the original vessel or its updated version within the public consciousness. However, I believe the public grew to be somewhat aware of some–but likely not all–of the various fictional ships named Enterprise given past “buzz” over television shows Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005), and the recent marketing of the “Kelvin Timeline” films. That is, without going into specifics or even knowing any details whatsoever, I believe the public knows that “the starship Enterprise” could mean at least two different ships, if not more.
We can compare the USS Enterprise to Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon in that the Falcon has gained iconic status, but unlike the original Enterprise (NCC-1701), the only visible change made to the ship was to the shape of its top-mounted scanner. This minor change to the Falcon benefits from time in that decades have literally passed between Episode 6 and the loss of the ship’s round scanner, and Episode 7 where its rectangular scanner appears. Time, plus the general public’s lack of a keen eye, plus the raw fact that the Millennium Falcon was never destroyed on-screen yields a change to the Millennium Falcon that was largely inconsequential and generally unnoticed by the common viewer. Moreover, there is no expectation of “the new” from the Falcon since it was never made to share the on-screen fate of the three different Enterprises that were blown apart. Therefore, thanks to time, longevity, and minimal change to a general design, the Millennium Falcon retained its iconic status via an image that was burned deep into the global consciousness long ago.
The starship Enterprise does not benefit from the passage of time and/or minor design changes. No, the ships named Enterprise appear with so many varying designs that the level of change blows past the word “minutiae” and instead embraces the term “wholesale changes” with a bear hug. So, what is the starship Enterprise? Again, the name no longer references a single ship within Star Trek lore. With the exception of the redesign (or “refit,” as fans refer to the alterations) of the original USS Enterprise from the 1960s television show, each of the preceding Star Trek vessels was a unique ship, not a redesign over an existing vessel already named Enterprise.
All vessels sharing the Enterprise name in Star Trek are symbolic of some nebulous futuristic concepts, much to the continuing delight of rocket scientists in NASA. However, given the name Enterprise references not one, but several different fictional ships in Star Trek, I believe both the ships and their shared name lost any and all vestiges of an iconic nature long ago, and that loss was due purely to now-regrettable decisions made by otherwise well-meaning writers and producers.
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