This equates to a modern person being able to look at a car and land within a decade or so, even before today's wacky desperate-to-be-different designs. Show me a car with round replaceable headlights and shiny silver trim around the windshield and I'm in the mid-20th Century. Add on curved window glass producing a barrel shape for the car rather than a slab-sided look and I'm in the 1960s or 70s. Swap to a rectangular headlight and I'm probably in the 1980s. Ditch the replaceable headlights for funky plastic ones and we're into the 1990s, and then you start curving those, et cetera.
Original Universe starships work the same way. Give me a wide oval saucer section and we're sometime after 2340 or so, since the ones before that were circular (even the NX). Give me a circular saucer and black-grilled nacelle without visible glowing Bussard collector and we're looking at a late 23rd Century style of design, in the 2270-2290 range. Give me a simple-looking design with round nacelles and we're talking mid-23rd at the latest. And it goes on from there.
Indeed, the main difference between starships and cars, insofar as stylistic continuity, is that registries suggest some members of a class of ship get constructed long after the initial design and build of the class, e.g. the late-model Mirandas with 3xxxx registries, late-model Excelsiors with 4xxxx registries, and so on.
|1955 vs 2005|
The new build F-15EX fighters may have minor exterior differences from the earlier F-15s, but they're not readily apparent to the untrained eye but for an extra set of weapon attachment hardpoints further out on the wings. And yet, despite looking the same, we're also talking about leaps in technology, such as from hydraulic and cable-actuated controls to fiber optics-based fly-by-wire.
(Using 2285 for the Excelsior, that would be like building a new ExcelsiorEX in 2331. Why do so? Well, the new F-15s, despite differences, are riding on a proven airframe, and are still cheaper than the process of designing and testing and altering the major maintenance planning and ground support gear for a new aircraft. Indeed, there's also a parallel insofar as both the F-15 and Excelsior are proven Cold War designs, and in the F-15s case suddenly new ones are needed because we've been dawdling in the post-Cold War peace, and new threats are emerging. Translated to Trek, perhaps the fleet languished from 2293ish until 2311 or so, had a burst of building, then it stopped but some frames were done, then languished again for a time until something else happened and the frames were put to use, et cetera, and it was quicker and easier to make Excelsiors than anything else (or at least easy to make some extra Excelsiors) when all that occurred.)
One would think, then, that the Excelsior Class USS Hood, NCC-42296, is quite a bit different from the Excelsior Class USS Repulse, NCC-2544, under this way of thinking. Maybe it is, though the exterior details look virtually unchanged. Of course, given one of my pet thoughts, one is left to wonder why the nacelles didn't change.
As the opening image of New Orleans-style nacelles on a B-type Excelsior makes plain, this is a thing I've tended to imagine for many years. And, as you can see . . .
After all, given that one of the most notable events in the Star Trek canon is the Enterprise 'refit' between TOS and TMP, a refit which completely changed the look of the ship, the lack of appearance changes for apparent new-build ships is very odd indeed. On the other hand, given that the Enterprise was fairly quickly put out to pasture as a training ship, only a bit more than a decade after the extensive rebuilding, it may be that there was something ultimately unsatisfactory about the effort to rebuild a ship this way.
For all this stylistic continuity, however, we do run up against some ships that strain it, toward the end.
"The late 24th Century saw some significant starship design departures from what we'd observed from Starfleet prior. To be sure, there were always some rather unique approaches to starship design that would pop up from time to time, and in some cases the classes of ship that resulted worked well and were built and operated for a long while. The classic example is the Oberth Class, an early Starfleet heavy tug that so often appeared as a science ship with an underslung add-on sensor package that later versions of the vessel often included it as a default secondary hull."
- From: "300 Years of Starfleet: A Fake History I Made Up Just Now", by Unnecessary Madeupalienname, 2461.
One thing we learned from all the time spent in the Star Trek Original Universe from 2364 to 2375 (plus glimpses through 2379) is that the Galaxy Class starship was not a revolutionary design, in-universe, but instead a deeply conservative one. While she was undoubtedly the queen of the stars, all the derivative models presented as being ships older than the Galaxy . . . classes like Nebula, New Orleans, Springfield, Cheyenne, Challenger, et cetera, ad nauseum (sometimes literally) . . . make it clear that the shapes and even many of the design details existed for many years prior to the Galaxy's introduction.
However, it seems she was just about the last of her kind. The last ship that seems to carry any significantly similar parts is the Danube Class runabout with her boxy space-truck version of the Galaxy's nacelles. The only other vessels we've seen with registries in the 7xxxx range are the Defiants, the Intrepids, the Novas, and the Sovereigns, with maybe a Prometheus in there, too. Of those, the Intrepid is the closest in style, but even then only on account of general surface details. The Sovereign, with its mottled hull, wildly different deflector, lengthy nacelles, and overall harsh and angular look (including a hideously terraced underside), looks nothing like the Galaxy breed or even any of her stablemates but for a passing resemblance to the Nova. The Defiant's equally odd, but with reason insofar as her unique design intent. The Nova, which is rather oddly first of these, by registry, is the love child of all of them.
In other words, starship design experienced some sudden and as yet unexplained changes in the late 2350s or early 2360s, just as the Galaxy Class was appearing. Suddenly gone would be the smooth nacelles, except for in the Danube and, arguably, the Intrepid, with the preference leaning toward triangular tapering nacelles. Suddenly gone would be the wide elliptical saucer in favor of narrow ellipses or somewhat dart-shaped versions. Suddenly gone would be secondary hulls with a taper to delicate edges for sensor palettes, and in their place would be somewhat tubular hulls, either wider than tall or taller than wide. Suddenly gone would be graceful combinations of saucer and secondary hull across a tall neck (where applicable), and in its place would be sharp and disjointed kludgings that look like hasty neck deletions from one side and graceful masterwork from the other (here referencing the sharp joint of the area around the deflector on Voyager and the Nova versus more graceful dorsals, and the just-plain awful area around the shuttlebay on the Sovereign versus her graceful ventral, neither of which compare favorably to the Nebula's comparative artfulness).
Even internally, we saw some departures from prior vessels. In the case of the Sovereign and Intrepid, gone are the round-backed consoles that had been seen on Federation ships for a century. For the Sovereign and Defiant, gone are the standardized Starfleet internal corridors. Indeed, there's basically nothing consistent between the Intrepid and Sovereign bridges at all. Even the Sovereign's bridge chairs look more like Klingon chairs.
Out of universe, of course, the reasons are simple. Producers wanted the ships for specific shows to be readily distinguishable, since they think people are on the verge of confusing the Enterprise with a Star Destroyer even on their best days. Beyond that bit of projectionism, there's also their desire for fresh and new stuff even just a year or two after something else, leading to them wanting to avoid too much Intrepid in their Sovereign, continuity be damned.
(They found just the right person for that job in the designer John Eaves, whose designs largely have continuity only with each other in the form of repeating designs elements even across species. (Not to give him grief -- how many ships have you designed and how different were they? -- but once your brain locks on to certain features of the Insurrection Scout, like the forked nose or that funny curve surrounding the upper round docking port in the middle, you'll start to realize they appear in almost every single design. There's even a whole ship that's just that funny curve on top of itself over and over and which doesn't fit the rest of the Earth fleet at all. Then there's the nacelle style with outer curve he cannot escape for alien designs, the love of funny little slanted breadboxes sticking out (either in symmetric form like on the back of either version of this thing, or 'aero' form, where they're wider at the rear, the latter being best exemplified by the Scimitar's weird upper rear boxes), and the general slashing angularness that shows up randomly on everything just to break up the monotony.)
In universe, these sudden changes and going off in different directions seems like chaos. This level of scattery-ness is the sort of thing one finds at the start of an industry, when all the kinks haven't been worked out, rather than a mature field, unless something drastic has changed. Once a bit of chaos is introduced, a variety of discarded ideas can come out to play. But what, really, could the chaos be, and why would so many ship systems and design cues get changed? Certainly the encounters with the Romulans and the Borg could be used as an excuse, to an extent, as could the issue leading to the Warp Five Speed Limit, but that potential panic, even if it came out amongst the shipwrights, would hardly change the underlying science of warp drive that seemed, at least previously, to favor wide elliptical saucers and relatively smooth hulls . . . not that the show ever directly suggested such.
In my head, there seems to have been some sort of separation in design and construction between two groups, a Utopia Planitia-led group that ended up with the Intrepid, and another group in San Francisco that created the Sovereign. I'd even happily go with the Sovereign being created somewhere else or by an alien species in the Federation, really . . . an Andorian team, or a Federation-Klingon alliance team . . . something, with the Nova being created by a confused guy looking around at all the chaos and trying to bring it all together, then ending up with a mess of a ship that can't even exceed warp eight.
And yet, even as things got weird at the end, Enterprise did fairly well in its own time, and of course any chaos I've called out here is better than the Trek that followed. The Star Trek: Discovery fleet features a mix of saucer shapes (including the wide elliptical T'Plana-Hath and possibly Europa, or the elongated Clarke and Zimmerman), a hopeless mish-mash of nacelle designs (including the Eaves-shape ones on the Shenzhou), and so on, with even relatively unobtrusive ships like the Kerala type (an upside-down Shenzhou with different nacelles and less obnoxious pylon superstructure) being styled overall much more like the Sovereign than the original Constitution Class she was intended to be a contemporary of.
None of that matters to the Original Universe, of course, but it just goes to show how comparatively well-made the TNG era of production really was.
Those were the good ole days, and boy how we miss them.