Despite its appearance in Star Trek Generations, the Excelsior-class Enterprise-B is one of the more esoteric starship designs, but it's one that keeps reappearing in the franchise.
If you ask a Star Trek fan when the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-B (Enterprise-B) made its debut appearance, you are likely to be told that it was in the 1994 film Star Trek Generations – the movie that brought Captain Picard and Kirk join together in a time-traveling adventure to save the galaxy. But particularly savvyTrek fans may tell you that it was seen seven years earlier in 1987.
Technically, both are correct. The first time we saw the actual starship Enterprise-B was in the opening act of Generations. But the ship was also seen in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation as a relief model on the wall of the observation lounge of the Enterprise-D. It was this model that would set the design of the Enterprise-B, locking it into Star Trek lore and ensuring that when the actual ship appeared, it would match the wall. Well, mostly.
One of the requisites for the observation lounge set in The Next Generation was to have a wall that told the history of the name Enterprise, as had previously been done on the recreation deck of the refit Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The wall as designed by senior illustrator Andrew Probert featured six models of vessels that had borne the name Enterprise: The CVN-65 US aircraft carrier, the original TV series Constitution-class ship, the refit, and the Galaxy-class Enterprise-D were aboard alongside two ships that had previously not been seen in Star Trek but were there to fill in gaps: Enterprises B and C.
Probert decided that the Enterprise-B would be an Excelsior-class ship, which made sense given that it was lauded in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock as the next generation of ship. Meanwhile, the Enterprise-C was based on a concept painting that Probert had created. However, the Ambassador-class starship seen in the TNG episode “Yesterday's Enterprise” would differ significantly from this design.
In Star Trek Generations, the newly-launched Enterprise-B is sent to investigate a distress call that results in the Enterprise being caught in a massive ribbon of energy that lashes out against the ship with its tendrils. Although retired from Starfleet, James T. Kirk was there in an honorary role for the launch, but volunteers to reconfigure the deflector dish to save the ship from destruction. However, the section is hit and Kirk is blown out into space.
When it came time to prepare the Enterprise-B for her actual big screen appearance in Generations, the original Excelsior-class design was ten years old and had been featured in a number of episodes of The Next Generation. It also had a significant role in the previous motion picture, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Being somewhat sewn into the ship class, and given how the cost of a brand new ship design and studio model was beyond the movie’s budget, it was decided that an updated Excelsior-class refit would be used. This meant that they could modify the existing model.
Redesigning the Enterprise-B
In the book Designing Starships: The Enterprises and Beyond, artist Mike Okuda said:
“We had said for years that the Excelsior sculpture in The Next Generation Observation Lounge represented the Enterprise-B, and I felt that fans would have felt let down if we had failed to follow through with that idea. That's why I enlisted the talented [illustrator] John Eaves, who fortunately jumped right on board to help out. Our producers saw the value in this approach, both from a fan-expectation viewpoint, as well as the sheer financial practicality. If we can't do these things on budget, eventually the studio (and its investors) will figure out they can't make a profit and they'll stop investing in new productions. They already take a huge financial risk on every new production, and the only reason they're willing and able to do so is if there's a reasonable chance they'll make a profit.”
Eaves began looking at the design by obtaining an existing picture of the Excelsior-class from Star Trek III.
“I took a photo that showed the Excelsior in spacedock, did a rendering, and started adding bits to the ship.” Eaves said. “Mike then pointed out that we needed to design an area that protruded from the ship, so that the energy ribbon could whip out a section, while leaving most of the ship intact.”
Where PBY Had Gone Before
Explaining his unusual design influences, Eaves wrote, “To seek out inspiration, the PBY Catalina came to mind. Its built-in boat-like belly detail made for the perfect reference to translate into the starship's new hull lines.”
The Consolidated PBY Catalina was an American amphibious aircraft with a nose spread out like pontoons. While originally designed as a patrol bomber (hence the PB in its name), it became famous as a search and rescue craft, saving naval officers after ship disasters such as the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.
This section of the Enterprise's secondary hull was also built as a huge model by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) for the pivotal scene where Kirk is lost.
“This model was built for an extreme close-up of the ship's hull,” said Okuda, “revealing the dramatic extent of the damage, telling the audience that Kirk had no chance of survival.”
Other changes included fins, along with Bussard collectors on the nacelles, and a secondary set of impulse engines. Eaves remembers what it was like when he first saw his design appear in Generations, saying “The end result looked beautiful on film. The folks up at ILM again made movie magic.”
After Generations, the Enterprise-B only appeared once more in the Star Trek franchise. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Paradise Lost,” the Excelsior refit was redesignated as the USS Lakota as it went up against the small might of the Defiant.