The Enterprise isn’t just quintessential to the long history of Star Trek, it’s also one of the most iconic starships of all time. It was the star of the classic series, but later and earlier versions of it also sat at the heart of The Next Generation and Enterprise, and beyond that in film. Now that we know the ship is coming to Discovery’s second season, it’s time to look back and rank the best of them.
It’s too early to judge Discovery’s take on the ship—it was only glimpsed in dark lighting at the very end of the first season’s finale—but we can still look to the many models of the U.S.S. Enterprise and judge them all.
This far-flung Enterprise of a future 26th century where the evil Sphere-Builders invade the Federation was barely seen during Star Trek: Enterprise’s Temporal Cold War storyline, and for good reason: It’s an ugly, ugly ship. Our best look at it actually came in a render for an official calendar, which really shows off how spindly and flat-looking the J is. It’s like someone had a perfectly good render of a future-y take on the Enterprise and just squished it down a bit too much. There’s a difference between sleek and “looking like a space pancake with nacelles”—nacelles are the structures that house the warp engines on a ship, by the way, non-Trek fans—and the J is definitely the latter.
The Trek reboot’s take on the Enterprise is, similar to the rest of the movie, an Apple-ified take on ‘60s retro-futurism. It’s blindingly shiny and has curves like a classic roadster, but as an Enterprise, it’s just a little too curvy for its own good. This is especially let down by the struts attached to the nacelles, which position the two engines far too close together, making the whole ship look off and any angle other than from the side.
The design, seen in the Star Trek: Generations movie, was ostensibly right in the middle of the evolution between the Enterprise of the original series and the Enterprise-D of TNG. It’s also kind of a mess—the tiny nacelle struts, the weird body around the deflector dish, and unlike the J it just looks too chunky. But the B’s biggest problem is that it’s a rehash of a design we’d already seen at that point: The U.S.S. Excelsior captained by Sulu in The Search for Spock and onwards to The Undiscovered Country. Sure, the Excelsior-class was meant to be one of Starfleet’s finest models at the time, but the Enterprise is an iconic ship and deserves to at least be a little unique.
We don’t get to see much of it in Star Trek Beyond, but the replacement for the Kelvin universe’s Enterprise is a marked improvement on the first, if only because it corrects the mistakes of the first design by having wider-positioned, straighter nacelles (which themselves are a little more like the classic Enterprise’s). It adds a lot of thickness in the back of the ship to do so, though, but it’s a welcome change... if only we’d actually, you know, get to see it in action in a movie anytime soon.
Okay, so it’s not a traditional version of the Enterprise. But the NX, used by the crew featured in Enterprise the TV series, at least manages to feel familiar to the silhouette of the ship we all know and love, and like one of the earliest prototypes of it, which it literally is meant to be. Not having the bottom section below the saucer gives it a svelte profile many other Enterprise iterations have tried their hand at, but it serves to give the NX it’s own look of its own while still crucially maintaining the elements you know are meant to be picked up by the time of the original Star Trek.
We barely got to see this 30-years-in-an-alternate future version of the Enterprise-D as The Next Generation series finale, “All Good Things.” And yes, while it was cool to see a cloaking-equipped, beefier warship version of TNG’s iconic flagship... we have to talk about that third nacelle. It’s just too much. The D is not the prettiest looking ship in the Alpha Quadrant at the best of times (more on that in a bit), but giving it more proverbial junk in the space-trunk both ruins the Enterprise’s shape and just makes it look silly.
The Next Generation’s normal Enterprise-D, used for the remaining 99.9999 percent of the series, is a weird-looking starship. In some ways, that’s understandable. It’s noticeably bulky—unlike its predecessors, it’s a ship designed to hold both its crew and their extended families, so it needs a good deal bigger than the classic Enterprise. Plus, it’s got all sorts of cool advanced tech, like swanky holodecks and the very silly but also totally rad saucer separation/battle bridge set-up. But from a looks standpoint, it’s hardly the most graceful-looking thing around. Borrowing the angular struts of the Enterprise-B is a nice carryover, but positioning them so low (and giving the Galaxy-Class such a ginormous saucer too) makes the whole thing look so gangly and awkward. A less than stellar ship for a totally stellar show.
The Enterprise of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is only in one episode of TNG, but it’s an important part of the lineage of Star Trek’s most iconic vessel. In the Trek timeline, it was destroyed defending a Klingon outpost at Narendra-III before the Enterprise-D was built, but thanks to a time-space rift it popped up briefly and encountered a version of its successor thanks to some time-altering shenanigans. The crew of the C must have been pleased to realize their ship looked better because it actually looks a little more like a mash-up between the D and the ships that came before it, canceling out some of the clunkiness of TNG’s design while making a ship that feels like a natural evolution on what came before it. It’s almost a shame this wasn’t the Enterprise of the show and the D was the one-off design.
If the Kelvin Enterprise was a Apple-esque take on the original series’ Enterprise, the E—exclusively seen in the Next Generation movies, most of which aren’t great—is a hot rod take in the classic Star Trek aesthetic. The Sovereign-Class slims out the Enterprise’s form by removing the “neck” piece connecting the deflector dish section to the saucer (itself slimmer, instead of the hilariously wide one on the Enterprise-D) and extending the length of the nacelles, which manages to keep everything still vaguely within the Enterprise shape we all know and love while delivering a sleek sports car feel. More than any other iteration of the Enterprise, this one feels like the slickest, most modern take on the original’s design without actually breaking too much about it to push it into unfamiliarity.
The Enterprise’s first refit—which debuted in The Search for Spock movie, even if technically, it borrowed the design of the upgraded original Enterprise that appeared in The Motion Picture, Wrath of Khan, and Spock—may not have hung around for that long, and even when it did, it was the butt of a few jokes for most of its main appearance in The Final Frontier for the fact that most of its systems were malfunctioning half the time (it was rushed out of drydock). But even then, it’s still a good-looking ship, keeping everything that made its predecessor great (or rather, the predecessor before its tune-up into what would become the A’s design too). Same great ship, just a little different.
The original series’ Enterprise is iconic for a reason. It’s a beautiful design, simple and clean—and sharply angled in all the right places—compared to the busy predecessors and successors that would come in Trek series after the original. It set the legacy of everything that would come after it, not just in terms of future Enterprise refits, but for what a good Federation vessel should evoke to feel like part of the Star Trek universe. Forget the word salad mayhem of the refits that came after it—try as you can to evolve and improve on it, you can’t beat a design that cuts such an iconic appearance the first time round.