Enduring Ship Designs of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

From the Klingon Bird-of-Prey to the Merchantman freighter, let's talk about the most enduring ship designs of the Star Trek franchise...

Star Trek: Discovery‘s hero-ship — the U.S.S. Discovery — will join a long, enduring tradition of iconic ships within the Star Trek franchise…

The first Star Trek film, 1979’s The Motion Picture, introduced us to the refit Enterprise. Three years later, The Wrath of Khan showed us its cousin, the Miranda-class Reliant. The latter would go on to appear numerous times in The Next Generation and especially Deep Space Nine, often modified but essentially the same. The former was never seen outside the six original cast movies, save for a bit of hull wreckage — a conscious decision by producers to avoid confusing viewers.

The Search for Spock, however, introduced a bunch of new vessels all by itself. No fewer than four ship designs were introduced in the film, and all of them would be used again in later movies and series. Part of that was just economics  — when you already have ship models ready for filming, why not use them? But, also, they were just plain cool.

The spaceships first introduced in Star Trek: The Search for Spockwould go on to appear throughout The Next GenerationDeep Space Nine, and Voyager, playing a major role in defining the Star Trek that we know today…

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Klingon Bird-of-Prey

Within seconds of encountering two other ships in this list, the Bird-of-Prey blew them up. That’s pretty Klingon.

The Bird-of-Prey was originally going to be a Romulan ship, since the the Star Trek III script called for a Romulan antagonist. It even had a cloaking device and a predatory bird painted on its ventral surface, just like the Romulan vessel in “Balance of Terror” from 1966.

At some point, the more popular Klingons were subbed in, but the ship was already designed and already awesome, so it was kept. Since Romulans had used Klingon ships in the 1968 episode “The Enterprise Incident,” a fan theory sprung up positing an on-again, off-again alliance between the two races.

This particular Bird-of-Prey was captained by Kruge, who used it to destroy two other ships before encountering the Enterprise. Fortunately for Kruge, Enterprise was in no condition for a protracted fight. Unfortunately for Kruge, Admiral Kirk still managed to kill most of his crew by faking a surrender, allowing a boarding party, and activating the self-destruct sequence.

Preeeeeeeetty sure that’s a war crime.

Kirk, of course, purloined Kruge’s ship and proceeded to save Earth with it in the following film, The Voyage Home. It survived a trip back in time, a couple nights cloaked in Golden Gate Park, and another trip forward carrying two humpback whales, but sank in San Francisco Bay. Presumably, Starfleet would be eager to recover it for study, but it’s never mentioned.

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Other Birds-of-Prey opposed Kirk again in the next two movies. The rogue Captain Klaa pursued the Enterprise-A all the way to the center of the galaxy in The Final Frontier, but he was subdued by a Klingon diplomat. In The Undiscovered Country, General Chang used a special Bird-of-Prey that could fire while cloaked in a conspiracy to sabotage peace talks between the Empire and the Federation.

It could also blow up without decloaking.

The model was shown about a dozen times in The Next Generation, first as the IKS Pagh in the second season’s “A Matter of Honor.” Two backed up the Enterprise-D in “The Defector,” decloaking to stare down two Romulan warbirds. Two others, acquired by Ferengi pirates, attacked the Enterprise-D in “Rascals.” Most other appearances occurred during stories involving political upheaval in the Klingon empire.

The ship’s apparent size fluctuated between episodes, with references to different classes such as K’Vort, B’Rel, and D12. Sometimes, it was a small scout ship, while sometimes it was a formidable battle cruiser. It was a D12 that was taken out with a single torpedo in Generations, exploding somehow identically to Chang’s vessel.

To be fair, the reused footage was tinted a bit less orange.

Deep Space Nine saw even greater use of the Bird-of-Prey. The fourth season featured a brief Klingon-Federation war, but the two powers were soon joining forces against the Dominion. In both cases, Birds-of-Prey were joined in fleet scenes by Klingon Vor’cha cruisers, Negh’Var capital ships, and even older D7 vessels.

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Not the view you want out the window of your dilapidated Cardassian station.

Humans and Ferengi weren’t the only ones to steal Birds-of-Prey. Also in DS9’s fourth season, Cardassians led by Gul Dukat captured one to use in an insurgent campaign against the Klingons. He continued using it for about a year, until Cardassia joined the Dominion. They really should encrypt the controls on those things.

U.S.S. Excelsior

How can you not love a ship good enough to become an Enterprise?

She was supposed to be the first of the next generation (har har) of starships, equipped with super-fast transwarp drive, but Excelsior barely made it out of the garage in The Search for Spock. Sure, Scotty sabotaged her to keep her from pursuing Kirk and company, um, borrowing the Enterprise, but we never hear about the fleet adopting her signature propulsion technology.

In fact, while Excelsior was briefly seen in both The Voyage Home and The Final Frontier, it was parked in Earth Spacedock. It’s quite possible the ship was up on proverbial blocks for years while it was re-engineered.

Not until Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country did Excelsior come into her own. With minor visible modifications and under the command of Captain Sulu, the vessel offered assistance when the Klingon moon Praxis exploded, but was rebuffed. She later rushed to Khitomer in time to help a battered Enterprise-A destroy the renegade Chang’s ship.

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Even after encountering Praxis’ shockwave, the only reported casualties were Sulu’s tea cup and saucer.

In Generations, a more extensively refit Excelsior-class starship was christened the latest U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701-B. This version came with additional impulse engines and wide “hips” on the lower hull – all the better to be smashed by an energy ribbon without damaging the core shooting model.

Amazingly, not reused footage.

Between those movies — in the real-world timeline, that is — The Next Generation was airing on television. The Excelsior model saw use more than a dozen times during that series, including the pilot, often as an elder statesman starship ferrying diplomats and admirals around. One of a few stock shots was used each time, and the class had a definite presence in TNG’s Starfleet, but never a starring role.

The Enterprise-D alongside the Potemkin. Or maybe the Crazy Horse. Also possibly the Cairo, Gorkon, or Repulse, depending which episode was using this stock footage.

That changed somewhat on Deep Space Nine. The fan wiki Memory Alpha counts 31 episodes in which an Excelsior-class ship appears. Many times it was just in the background, orbiting the station or present for fleet actions. But in the very first episode, a flashback showed it participating in the battle at Wolf 359 against the Borg as the U.S.S. Melbourne.

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Its next prominent role was in the fourth-season episode “Paradise Lost.” The U.S.S. Lakota, a refit model like the Enterprise-B, exchanged fire with the U.S.S. Defiant under false information that the latter was controlled by enemy agents. This incident was the only other time the refit type was seen.

Other Excelsior-class ships served prominently in Dominion War space battles. The Hood, after appearing peacefully in TNG, survived combat through the whole war. The Fredrickson was seen being towed after a battle in “A Time to Stand”; the Valley Forge was heavily damaged in “Tears of the Prophets”; and an unidentified ship of the class was later destroyed in “What You Leave Behind.”


Excelsior herself was featured in a Voyager episode marking Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, “Flashback.” Set during the events of The Undiscovered Country, the episode used footage of the model from that film as well as new CGI shots. More sister ships were seen in later Voyager seasons, most notably as part of a fleet intercepting a Borg sphere near Earth in the finale, “Endgame.”

U.S.S. Grissom (Oberth class)

Before Miranda-class starships became cannon fodder in Deep Space Nine‘s Dominion War, no Starfleet class was so abused as the poor Oberth.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Unlike Excelsior, the bigger and badder sister of Enterprise, Grissom was created as a tiny science ship with an odd configuration. Its diminutive saucer wasn’t even connected to the secondary hull with a traditional neck; instead, it was slotted between thin warp nacelle pylons, prompting questions about just how crew members were supposed to get from the bridge to main engineering.

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Grissom itself, of course, was vaporized by a “lucky shot” from a Klingon torpedo while orbiting the Genesis planet. The model’s first television appearance didn’t go much better. As the U.S.S. Tsiolkovsky in “The Naked Now,” the second episode of The Next Generation, the ship was once again totally destroyed. Its crew had already frozen to death, so the Enterprise had to tow it away from the dying star they’d been studying. Then the Enterprise pushed Tsiolkovsky into a stellar fragment to avoid getting smacked, with predictably explosive results.

Fun fact: “tsiolkovsky” is Russian for “make big boom.”

The ship continued to suffer in later TNG appearances. The science vessel Vico was only seen as a heavily damaged hulk, its crew killed by intense gravitational waves. The U.S.S. Yosemite remained largely intact and its crew rescued, but was never itself recovered from within a plasma stream between two stars. The U.S.S. Pegasus, fitted with an experimental (and illegal) phase cloaking device, ended up fused into the rock of an asteroid.

“Why did we accept this assignment again?”

The Oberth model wasn’t always doomed, though. On several occasions in TNG, it rendezvoused uneventfully with the Enterprise to transfer passengers. It even, somewhat ironically, participated in the rescue of Enterprise crew after the saucer section crashed on Veridian III in Generations. And at least two Oberths were present in the First Contact Borg battle, though they couldn’t possibly have been much help.

Aww, look at ’em. So cute.

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Merchantman freighter

Though not as iconic as the above vessels — and of indeterminate provenance — the Merchantman appeared in all three 24th-century Star Trek series, albeit sometimes with major modifications.

The model’s career is painstakingly detailed on fan site Ex Astris Scientia. After its unceremonious destruction by Kruge’s Bird-of-Prey, the same model was largely unchanged as Atlec and Peliar Zel craft in The Next Generation episodes “The Outrageous Okona” and “The Host,” respectively. Colored blue and with additional nacelles slung underneath it, the Merchantman also graced TNG as a starship of the Sheliak Corporate in “The Ensigns of Command.”

Anybody see those as tusks on the Sheliak ship? Anybody?

The Merchantman’s most sensible reuse was as a Cardassian freighter in Deep Space Nine; its brownish coloring, flared bow, and narrow stern were perfectly suited to a cargo-hauling little sibling to the race’s Galor-class warships. Perhaps it was a Cardassian design all along, sold to minor powers and rogues to finance Cardassia’s expansion efforts.

Either that or UPS.

With more parts stuck on, the Merchantman model ended its career as a Vidiian vessel in Voyager’s “The Phage” and a Klingon transport, only seen partially uncloaked, in DS9‘s “Rules of Engagement.” After that, most space shots were done with CGI instead of physical models.

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Bonus “ship” — Earth Spacedock

Before Yorktown Base in Star Trek Beyond, there was Spacedock. Truly massive, the orbiting station’s top dome alone was large enough to house several starships inside. Star Trek films III, IV, V, and VI all featured at least one scene including Earth Spacedock. Enterprise spends nearly half of The Search for Spock there.

The footage of Enterprise approaching the station in Star Trek III was reused four times in The Next Generation, with the Enterprise-D inserted where Kirk’s ship had been. Picard’s vessel was much larger, though, so the various starbases depicted must have been bigger as well to accommodate the Enterprise-D through its doors.

Reusing models and footage from films allowed later series to save a bit of money, but they also contributed to a feeling of continuity and consistency. Even decades later, these ships help the Star Trek universe feel like home.

Many thanks to fan sites Ex Astris Scientia, Memory Alpha, and TrekCore for their vast troves of Star Trek information and images.