Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Wonders That Work

There was a lot of luck involved over the years, or maybe it was “flow” or some other description of good things that happen, including coincidences, when there is creative intensity and a common dedication to an inspiring idea.

Sometimes it paid off in the inventions that necessity was the mother of, like the magical transporter, invented because it would be too expensive to land the visual and special effects Enterprise every week. So that one act of creativity (adapting an idea from earlier sci-fi) generated many others, starting with the magical lighting effects and the transporter sound, part machine-whine, part angelic music. It turned out to be the perfect combination of a plausible technology and a wondrous way to travel, akin to how we travel in dreams. Eventually the idea of patterned matter-energy transfer inspired many stories and became key to the whole Star Trek future.

Technology as magic is part of the enduring wonder of the saga, reinforced by the weekly incantation of names for these marvels that don’t exist but that you can see and hear anyway: phaser, transporter, warp, subspace, starship, as well as the non-tech but specific terms like Vulcan, Prime Directive, Federation. They are all partly tech talk and partly conjure-words. Abracadabra—energize! They are part of a self-consistent system of magic.

It was that combination that GR and associates were looking for in the look of things, especially the Enterprise. As early as 1964, Roddenberry was going through an extensive collection of pulp science fiction and fantasy magazines assembled by his friend and fellow TV writer and producer, Sam Peeples. While they chatted about the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and the physics of space travel, Roddenberry set aside copies of Science Fiction Plus and Thrilling Wonder Stories so he could photograph their covers. Some went back to his childhood in 1931. (Bill Theis obviously got some of his ideas for draping female guest stars from these pulp covers, though his problem was less believability as wearability, an engineering problem that was likely the envy of the set.)

Eventually Roddenberry and Desilu executive Herb Solow would meet with assistant art director Matt Jeffries, who suddenly found himself no longer drafting operating tables for the medical drama Ben Casey, but was being called upon to design a 23rd century starship.
GR wanted flash but he also wanted believability. In the kind of coincidence that would recur often in Trek’s history, Matt Jeffries happened to collect material on space exploration as a hobby. He had photos and drawings from NASA and the major aircraft manufacturers. He used these as a baseline, and tried to imagine ten generations beyond them, while heading for the kind of look Roddenberry’s pulp magazine covers suggested. This starship was going to be a wonder that works.

Jeffries and his crew came up with more than 50 designs. Roddenberry would like something in one and something else in another. That would be the basis for the next set of designs. Finally Jeffries came up with the first crude model. Roddenberry turned it upside down and pronounced it the Enterprise.

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