The Enterprise is not a Constitution-class ship

I grew up knowing that Kirk’s Enterprise was a Constitution-class ship. The designation was never stated on screen, but I was one of the chosen few with access to a trove of Star Trek facts: the Star Fleet Technical Manual.

Created by Franz Joseph and published in 1975, this book filled out imaginary worlds for me with details we never saw on screen. I knew the names of the buttons on the Vulcan lyrette, I knew Scotty had an office in Engineering, I knew McCoy’s pointy red scanner thingy was an anabolic protoplaser, I knew that the staterooms had jacuzzis, I knew that the bridge was offset 36 degrees counterclockwise from “front,” and I knew the Enterprise was a Constitution-class ship.

I knew all these things because the Technical Manual said so. 

Later, I learned Joseph had based his work on a thorough study of Star Trek but that he also made up a lot of stuff. Indeed, “Constitution-class” is never said on-screen during the original series and we never see a USS Constitution or hear it referenced.

Instead, the Enterprise is actually a Starship-class ship. It said so right on the dedication plaque, just to the right of the turbolift as you exit the bridge. The plaque read:

U.S.S. ENTERPRISE

STARSHIP CLASS

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF.

It is just barely legible on screen, even on Blu-ray, but in this screen cap from Elaan of Troyius it is clear by the number and shape of the letters that it does not say Constitution Class. I also zoomed in on an image from The Naked Time, but it doesn’t really help. The resolution is just not there. (All episode images are from TrekCore.)

So, where did Franz Joseph get Constitution class? From a solid source: the script for Space Seed. Khan asks to study “the technical manuals on your vessel” and the script specifies one page has the words “Constitution class.” While this is an interesting production tidbit, “Constitution” is neither stated nor visible on screen.

But that script was enough for TOS uber-fan and professional Star Trek prop and model maker Greg Jein. His seminal 1975 article The Case of Jonathan Doe Starship, published in the zine T-Negative, reproduces the graphic that was meant for the episode. (Click through to his article to see this image.) But here’s the thing: the image Khan was meant to view is not a schematic of the ship but rather a component of the primary phasers. It is as logical to conclude that this is a Constitution-class component, not a part from a Constitution-class ship. (The graphic would be used later in The Trouble with Tribbles, but it is far too small to see any details.) 

A scene from the Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles. Kirk, standing, is speaking with a seated Scotty. On the screen in front of Scotty is an engineering schematic.
The Trouble with Tribbles

Star Trek production luminary Michael Okuda is on the Starship side. When Eaglemoss decided to reproduce the dedication plaque in 2016, it turned to Okuda to confirm the appearance and content of the original. I, of course, had to buy one. It’s a nice piece but Eaglemoss decided to make it smaller than the original, probably to keep the cost reasonable. I wish it had not done that or had also produced a full-sized version.

The Eaglemoss dedication plaque replica. It reads: USS Enterprise, Starship Class, San Francisco, Calif.

With apologies to the young fan I was, I have to go with the actual dedication plaque on the wall of the bridge. The Enterprise NCC-1701 was a Starship-class ship.


What did Gene Roddenberry and Matt Jefferies have to say about this? Read my followup article.


Postscript: The TNG retcon 

“But,” say Next Gen fans, “Picard said it was a Constitution class.” He did — twice. Reading out loud from the database in The Naked Now, he says: “The Constitution-class Enterprise, Captain James T. Kirk commanding.” 

Later, Picard confirms the class in a touching scene in Relics as he looks around the holodeck scene Scotty created, and the engineer himself uses “starship” to define a type, not a class.

Picard: Constitution class.

Scott: Aye. You’re familiar with them?

Picard: There’s one in the Fleet museum but then, of course, this is your Enterprise?

Scott: I actually served on two. This was the first. She was also the first ship I ever served on as Chief Engineer. You know, I served aboard eleven ships. Freighters, cruisers, starships, but this is the only one I think of, the only one I miss.

So, absolutely, TNG retconned the class. I don’t care. Dedication plaque beats TNG dialogue.


Update: Star Trek production veteran Michael Okuda explained to me why the TNG staff opted for Kirk’s ship being a Constitution class. The decision makes sense, as most fans think it is Constitution so reaction to the “error” of calling it Starship class would have been intense.

We went with “Constitution” on TNG because it satisfied fan expectations, and because it implied that there were many different types of starships, which in turn implied that Starfleet was a bigger, more interesting, more capable organization.

Postscript the second: JJ got this right at least

I really dislike the design decisions in JJ Abrams’ reboot. The Apple-store bridge, using a brewery for Engineering and, worst of all, mucking up Matt Jefferies’ sleek and beautiful ship design with bulbous nacelles. But one thing Abrams got right: that ship is Starship class. 

The dedication plaque from the JJ Abrams reboot of Star Trek. It specifies that even his Enterprise is a Starship-class ship.
Image from Memory Alpha

Please also read the follow-up article I wrote, with additional primary sources.


15 responses to “The Enterprise is not a Constitution-class ship”

  1. What a terrific post. I too always believed it was a Constitution Class ship – because my copy of the Star Fleet Technical Manual told me so.

    Those JJ Abrams movies: Lots of fun, but very little to do with Star Trek. And how anybody could see anything on that bridge with all the lens flares…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And the ship plan with damage marked on it from Star Trek VI very clearly says Constitution Class. Much clearer than the dedication plaque. So it is confirmed on screen that it is Constitution Class… Even after the refit. Also, we know from Court Martial that there is a ship with the 1700 registry. These things pretty well destroy your argument.

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    • I look quite well for a man who’s been utterly destroyed. (See what I did there? Probably not.)

      I am not sure what you mean by ship plan, but in my piece I discussed retconning. It happens in TNG too. Did you see that?

      As for Court Martial, yes, there is a chart in Commodore Stone’s office and yes it lists an NCC-1700 but it does not include ship names. So, how exactly does the presence of an NCC-1700 indicate what class those ships are? Maybe you can clear that up for me.

      I appreciate you reading my site. Please comment any time. And take a look at the part two article I just posted, which has both Gene Roddenberry and Matt Jefferies state the Enterprise is Starship class.

      I stand un-destroyed, I believe.

      Like

  3. The plaque on the bridge is in fact unfinished. “Starship Class” is the default entry on the form where someone was supposed to type “Constitution Class”. It went to the foundry and was cast before anyone noticed. It was due to be replaced at the end of the 5 year mission.

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  4. I feel both may be correct. The original class name for that series was Starship class
    But as the ships served one by the name of Constitution may have distinguished itself and the official designation changed to honor that vessel. That happens sometimes in navel vessels. Or the class of vessels can be renamed when one falls out of favor. Quite common in Soviet era Russia.

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  5. I think the term “Starship Class” is a designation of what kind of ship it is, in the same way that a modern navy ship can be a battleship class, or a destroyer class, or a carrier class. It doesn’t mean that the specific class of ship was officially designated the Starship class, since many vessels of other classes are also called starships.

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    • Hi Paul. Thanks for reading and commenting. When you say it doesn’t mean the class was “officially designated” I am not sure what you mean, as the dedication plaque read “Starship class” and in my follow-up article (https://collectingtrek.ca/2020/08/14/starship-class-part-two/) I noted that Matt Jefferies wrote “Starship class” on his diagram and Gene Roddenberry’s show bible stated: official designation “starship class.”

      People like Constitution class and that is fine with me, but the guy who created the show and the guy who designed the ship disagree.

      However, you are correct that later ships are also called starships, so I certainly think it’s true that the creators could have come up with a better designation. Constitution is arguably a better class name, but it is not the one we got in TOS.

      Like

  6. While it’s certainly reasonable to refer to the “Constitution Class” designation as a retcon, the fact that it IS mentioned onscreen both in the TOS movies and the sequel series definitely makes it canon, regardless of what Jeffries, Roddenberry et al originally had in mind. (Canon issues not being of particular concern to me, but still.) Respectfully, this doesn’t seem to be all that complicated.

    (And man, that J.J. dedication plaque is as butt-ugly as just about everything else in that movie.)

    Like

    • The fact that is was retconned is not complicated; you are correct. I wrote in the piece: “So, absolutely, TNG retconned the class.” My point is that, at the time of the original series, the Enterprise was Starship class. Also, I do have a problem with retconning, which is nothing more than rewriting history, but people can make up their own minds on that.
      And yes, I so dislike what Abrams did to the look and design of the Enterprise. I like nothing about the design decisions.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Like

  7. I never understood the “Apple store” complaints. First, I’ve been in at least half a dozen Apple stores, and none looked like the Enterprise bridge from ST 2009. Second, the bridge looks very much like an updated version of the designs for the Phase II bridge, just with better tech because it was made 30+ years after the Phase II designs were developed.

    Like

    • Thanks for reading.
      That’s interesting, as I think it looks very much like an Apple store. At least, an Apple store crossed with a starship bridge. I really dislike the design, but your opinion is as valid as mine.

      Like

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