Monday 16 May 2016

Star Trek at 50: The USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-B)

The Excelsior (variant)-class USS Enterprise (registry number NCC-1701-B), built by the United Federation of Planets circa 2290-93. The ship was commissioned and launched in late 2293 under the command of Captain John Harrison. The Enterprise-B was lost in 2329, having served for thirty-six years, making it the second-longest-serving Enterprise after the Constitution-class version.

Class History

In the late 2260s and early 2270s Starfleet made the decision to radically overhaul its fleet of starships and outfit them with the latest technology. This led to the creation of more compact and efficient ships like the Miranda class and the refitting of the venerable Constitution class (in service since the early 2240s). The decision was also made to develop a new and very formidable heavy cruiser, a new flagship class for the fleet. This ship would be outfitted with weapons and defences that would dwarf older ships and would also be outfitted for long-term, deep-space exploration and scientific research.

There would also be another requirement for this ship: it would be the fastest ship in the fleet and the fastest in Federation history. Breakthroughs in warp science had led to the creation of the transwarp theory, which could propel a ship from a standing start to speeds surpassing Warp 9.9 in seconds and then sustain that speed safely and indefinitely. This would allow Federation starships to travel between systems in hours rather than days, between sectors in days rather than weeks and traverse known space in a couple of months rather than in two years or more. It would confer on the Federation a massive strategic advantage over potential enemies, and rapidly increase the speed of its  exploration of the galaxy.

So was born the "Great Experiment", the transwarp drive, and the need to design and build a new spaceframe capable of handling it. It was decided to draw on the highly successful primary/secondary hull arrangement of the Constitution class but in a vessel that was almost twice the size. By the late 2270s this design had been finalised and construction of the pathfinder/prototype ship of the class began in great secrecy. That ship was designated USS Excelsior, construction number NX-2000.

The Excelsior was completed in 2285 and transferred to Earth's new Spacedock facility to begin field tests on its transwarp drive under the auspices of Captain Styles. Captain of Engineering Montgomery Scott, respected for his two decades of service on the USS Enterprise, was transferred to Excelsior to help with the trials. However, Admiral James T. Kirk stole the Enterprise to undertake an unauthorised mission. Scott joined him, sabotaging the Excelsior's transwarp control computer so it could not pursue. This resulted in an unplanned system cascade failure that immobilised the entire ship. The Excelsior had to be towed back into Spacedock for repairs (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock).

"The Great Experiment", USS Excelsior (NCC-2000). Designed in the 2270s, built circa 2280-84 and completed in 2285. The ship was finally commissioned in the late 2280s and undertook its first long-term mission under Captain Hikaru Sulu in 2290-93.

No sooner was the ship operational again then the "whalesong" crisis of 2286 took place and the Excelsior was shut down and neutralised by an alien probe entering Earth orbit, along with the entire Spacedock and the USS Yorktown (soon to be renamed the Enterprise-A). Based on the subsequent disastrous performance of the Yorktown, it could be that the Excelsior was likewise adversely affected by the alien probe's passing and took some time to return to operational status (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).

The Excelsior finally began its much-delayed transwarp test missions circa 2287, but by 2289 these trials had concluded unsuccessfully: the transwarp drive was a failure, unable to sustain the transwarp field for very long and unable to deliver the promised speeds. However, although the transwarp drive itself was proclaimed a failure, the ship's spaceframe design was considered excellent and performed even better than had been expected in non-transwarp-related areas. In 2289-90 Starfleet finally formally commissioned the starship, redesignating it NCC-2000 and refitted it with a standard warp drive system. Captain Hikaru Sulu, formerly of the Enterprise, was placed in command of the Excelsior for its first three-year mission cataloguing gaseous anomalies in star systems in the more distant regions of the Beta Quadrant. The Excelsior was returning to Federation territory via the Neutral Zone when the Klingon moon Praxis exploded. A subspace shockwave damaged the Excelsior, which alerted the Federation to the situation. Sulu continued to monitor subsequent events, such as the trial of Captain Kirk for the murder of Chancellor Gorkon, and brought the Excelsior to Khitomer to support the Enterprise. The two starships bracketed and destroyed the Klingon Bird of Prey commanded by the treacherous General Chang, helping to end the crisis (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).

Starfleet also began building a series of new ships using the same spaceframe and design, now confirmed as the Excelsior-class. This class of starship would soon become the mainstay of Starfleet, with at least dozens and possibly hundreds of starships of this design being built over the next century. The Excelsior-class was still serving with honour and distinction during the Dominion War (2373-75) and ships of this class helped welcome the USS Voyager home after its seven-year exodus to the Delta Quadrant (2378). The Excelsior-class even outlasted the class that had been intended to replace it, the Ambassador, and construction of the ships only began to fall off with the introduction of the more versatile Galaxy class in the 2360s.

With the Excelsior-class entering full production circa 2290, the decision was also made to revamp and revise the design with a variant class which was even more powerful. The decision what to name the first ship of this variant was made when Starfleet - controversially - decided to retire the Constitution-class in 2293.

The USS Enterprise encounters the Nexus energy ribbon on its maiden voyage in 2293.

Operational History

Starfleet had planned to build a series of Excelsior-class starships since designing the ship in the late 2270s. However, it only enacted this plan once the spaceframe for the ship had been tested in the field. Construction of the first batch of ships began circa 2289/90, with at least one of these ships being of the new variant type. The variant type was equipped with additional impulse drives to deliver greater performances at sublight and had its hull design expanded to accommodate greater cargo and living space.

When it was announced that the Constitution-class USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-A) was being retired after seven years in service, it was decided that the first ship of the variant class would be named the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-B. The Enterprise-B was formally commissioned and launched in late 2293, just a few months after the Enterprise-A was retired following the Battle of Khitomer. Captain John Harriman was placed in command for its maiden voyage. However, Starfleet decided to invite Captain James T. Kirk and two of his former crewmen, Captain Scott and Commander Chekov, on the mission. During this mission the Enterprise-B received a distress call from an El-Aurian ship trapped in an energy ribbon known as the Nexus. The Enterprise-B successfully executed a rescue mission, but suffered severe damage to the secondary hull in the process. During this mission it appeared that Captain James T. Kirk had been killed. However, classified documents later confirmed that Kirk had been drawn into the Nexus (which acted as the gateway to a parallel universe) itself. He escaped in 2371 and was finally killed battling an El-Aurian terrorist named Soran (Star Trek: Generations).

Despite this inauspicious start, the Enterprise-B went on to serve with great distinction and honour. The ship became one of the more decorated to bear the name Enterprise before its destruction in 2329, after thirty-six years in service. It only narrowly missed out on the record set by the Constitution-class Enterprise (NCC-1701), which served for forty years (2245-85).

Ship Overview

The Enterprise-B was a variant Excelsior-class starship, predominantly based on the pathfinder/prototype design of the USS Excelsior but differing in several key respects. The Enterprise-B was one of the first Federation starships designed with a separable saucer section which was designed to operate autonomously and then rejoin the rest of the ship later on. This required the addition of two impulse drives to the saucer to allow it to function by itself. The engineering hull was also modified to allow for more cargo and living space. This proved helpful as the Enterprise-B's very first mission was an evacuation one, and this space allowed more people to be placed on board.

This variant of the standard Excelsior design later fell out of favour, with only a few other starships (such as the USS Lakota) using the same design. The relative infrequency with which the variants needed to engage in saucer separations and the much greater cost/benefit ratio of the standard class saw the Federation switch back to using the original Excelsior design from the early 2300s onwards.

*The Enterprise-B was 511.25 metres (1,677 feet) long, 195.64 metres (642 feet) wide and 86.76 meters (285 feet) tall. The ship had about 30 decks. It had a crew of approximately 750 and employed 10 dual emitter phaser banks and 6 photon torpedo tubes, some of them aft-facing. This contrasted dramatically with the Constitution-class's more modest 6 dual emitter phasers and 2 forward-facing photon torpedo tubes. The Enterprise-B could sustain Warp 9 for considerably longer than its predecessor, with a cruising speed of Warp 7 (compared to Warp 5 for the previous ship).

* The sizing of the Excelsior class has been problematic ever since the original ship was designed in 1983, as the ILM effects crew did not actually decide on a scale for the ship. Aside from the general idea that it was a bigger ship than the Enterprise, no final size determination was made. This was complicated by the lack of details on the model to compare to set details (i.e. the Excelsior bridge was a simple dome with no roof window or other element to compare to the size of the actual bidge set) and the fact that the ship model was deliberately built to be smaller and easier to shoot than the massive and ungainly Enterprise studio model. The matter was address by scaling shots in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country showing the two ships next to each other, with the Excelsior dwarfing the Enterprise.

The matter was supposed to be settled by the publication of The Deep Space Nine Technical Manual, which gave the figures above for the size of the Excelsior-class, apparently drawing on the CGI models built for Deep Space Nine's last two seasons. Although "official", these figures are not necessarily canon and contrasting figures of c. 450 metres (for length) and only 500 crewmembers are given in other sources.

The USS Excelsior confronting a Klingon K'Tinga-class battlecruiser in 2293.

Behind the Scenes
The decision to build a new, "super" Federation starship was made by producer Harve Bennett during the writing of Star Trek III: The Seach for Spock. The script called for the Excelsior, a ship larger and more powerful than the Enterprise, but coming from the same design family: a B-29 bomber compared to the original ship's B-17. David Carson and Nilo Rodis-Jamaro of Industrial Light and Magic were predominantly responsible for early designs of the ship, with Bill George finalising the design.

The idea was that the new ship would make the Enterprise feel antiquated, until Scotty turns the tables and sabotages the ship. However, many Star Trek fans liked the Excelsior - it was actually only the third Federation starship class to ever appear on screen after the Constitution and Miranda (a fourth, the Oberth, appeared only minutes later in Star Trek III) - and it went on to make brief appearances in Star Trek IV and V. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country the ship played a larger role as Sulu was promoted to Captain and placed in command of the ship. It also played a key role in Flashback, a third season episode of Star Trek: Voyager which was written to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the franchise in 1996.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation began production in 1986 it was decided that the show would be set on an Enterprise a century removed from the NCC-1701-A introduced in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. This eventually became the Galaxy-class NCC-1701-D. However, to show a sense of design continuity it was decided to have a wall display showing the intervening ships to bear the name. With the USS Excelsior proving to be a fan-favourite design, it was an easy decision to make the Enterprise-B a ship of that class. In addition to this, the writers decided to use the Excelsior model to represent other Federation starships in ST:TNG, including the USS Hood, USS Repulse and USS  Farragut. The idea was that the Excelsior-class was an experimental, cutting-edge design in the late 23rd Century but by the mid-24th had become a standard, even slightly outdated starship model.

It was originally assumed that the Enterprise-B and C would never appear on screen, but this changed in the third season ST:TNG episode Yesterday's Enterprise, which depicted the Enterprise-C. When Ronald D. Moore was given the task of co-writing the movie Star Trek: Generations, which would see the original series crew handing over to The Next Generation team, he decided to depict the events in the past on the Enterprise-B. The Enterprise-B was a redress of the Excelsior model, adjusted with new impulse engines on the saucer and extensions to the secondary hull. These extensions were to both sell the ship as a variant design and also so one of them could be blown off in the Nexus without damaging the original model underneath. Unfortunately, after filming it was discovered that the adhesive used to fix the new parts in place could not be easily removed, so the extensions were left in place. This is why the USS Lakota in Deep Space Nine's fourth season is also a variant Excelsior-class of the same type as the Enterprise-B. This was the last time that the model was used, so when it was eventually auctioned off the model was still labelled as the Lakota.

For the Voyager episode Flashback in 1996, a new Excelsior model was needed. This model was built at half the size of the original, and was used in several scenes. Although smaller than the original, the model was deemed good enough to appear several times on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as well. However, by the time that show entered its final two seasons it had transitioned to CGI. The smaller Excelsior model was used as the study and guide for these CGI versions, explaining why the Enterprise-B variant was no longer seen in the other series.

No formally canonical explanation has ever been given for the final fate of the Enterprise-B. However, several short stories and a couple of reference guides state that the ship was lost in 2329 after the crew contracted an unknown infection. The ship was presumably scuttled to prevent this infection from passing onto others. The Ambassador-class Enterprise-C was commissioned in 2332 to replace it. Although these dates have not been confirmed by any TV series or movie, every book, reference guide and new ship model released in the last few years has used these dates, making them the most consistent to be used.

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