Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Season 1, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
The Star Trek franchise has an aesthetic all its own, and a big part of that is the way starships are designed. Many Trekkies have said over the years that a ship is like an extra member of the cast; a vital part of any Star Trek series or film. While there have been some visual misses, of course, for the most part Star Trek’s ships have been fantastic to look at.
Aesthetics are always going to be a matter of personal taste, and there are many factors at play in considering what makes for a “good-looking” starship. Because the ships and most of their technologies are wholly fictional, designers and artists have a fair amount of leeway when it comes to designing a new starship. Technobabble can always be employed to explain away inconsistencies – like how the USS Defiant’s warp nacelles work, for example.
Over more than half a century, Star Trek has featured many different designs of starship. Many of these, even the newest ones, take inspiration from the original USS Enterprise, which was designed by Matt Jeffries (with some input from others, including Gene Roddenberry) for The Cage in 1964. The basic saucer section, drive section, plus two nacelles on pylons style has been present in most Federation ships – and, in some form, all of the “hero” ships – ever since.
On this list I’m going to pull out ten of my favourite designs of both Federation and non-Federation starships. The list is by no means exhaustive, and it may be a topic I revisit in future as I can already think of several more I could have easily included! As indicated, this whole thing is entirely subjective. So without further ado, let’s jump into the list – which is in no particular order.
Number 1: The Klingon Bird-of-Prey
The Bird-of-Prey is absolutely iconic as a Klingon vessel, at least on par with the D-7 battlecruiser from The Original Series. The vessel debuted in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, before going on to appear in four more films, all of the 24th Century shows, and even recently in Lower Decks. Few non-Starfleet ships are as iconic or recognisable, and even many non-fans would easily identify the design.
In cinema, the Bird-of-Prey has had starring roles in five films, making it one of the most well-known enemy or villainous ships. Iconic adversaries like General Chang and Dr Soran used Klingon Birds-of-Prey in their nefarious schemes. But as Klingon-Federation relations improved in The Next Generation, we began to see the iconic vessel as an ally; a workhorse of the Klingon fleet. By the time of the Dominion War in Deep Space Nine we were rooting for the Klingon-Federation alliance, and some of the ships most often seen on the front lines were these wonderful Klingon ships.
Based loosely on the earlier Romulan Bird-of-Prey, the winged design captures the warrior philosophy of the Klingons perfectly. The small ship is incredibly powerful, armed to the teeth with disruptor cannons and photon torpedoes. The way the wings change position for combat or while at warp is clever, too, and the green colour scheme makes the craft stand out when compared to Federation ships.
Number 2: The Excelsior Class
Another starship that would be a workhorse for decades, the Excelsior is a really neat, futuristic design. It manages to look smarter and newer than the Constitution class that it would eventually replace, yet at the same time is clearly manufactured by the same organisation. It retains the saucer, drive section, and nacelles on pylons of older Federation ships, but switches up the design too. The ship is flatter, with a shorter “neck,” and has nacelle pylons that are shorter and have a ninety-degree bend instead of coming out of the drive section on a diagonal.
The Excelsior class also debuted in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – the film succeeded at introducing us to two of the most iconic designs in the franchise! Though we’ve never seen a show or film set entirely aboard an Excelsior class starship, Excelsiors have been featured in five films and all three of the 24th Century shows.
By the 24th Century the Excelsior class was still in use, and while it had taken a back seat to the likes of the Galaxy class and other newer ships, many Excelsior class vessels were still in service in a variety of roles. Some would even see action in the Dominion War, meaning that the Excelsior class was still being deployed almost a century after its inception. That must be one solid ship!
Number 3: The Runabout
I adore the Runabouts that debuted in Deep Space Nine. They remind me of camper vans (or RVs) in terms of size and design, incorporating most of the mod-cons a 24th Century Starfleet officer might expect – just in a much more compact vessel. If I could pick any starship for myself (and the cats) to have for cruising around the galaxy, I’d definitely pick a Runabout.
When Deep Space Nine was being developed, there was a sense that setting a series on a static space station might be too far removed from Star Trek’s past, and thus there was a need to give Commander Sisko and the crew something to keep them mobile. From an in-universe perspective, too, the station needed to have some way for the crew to leave in an emergency – or just to make routine visits to nearby planets. Hence the Runabout was born – larger than a shuttlecraft but smaller than any starship we’d seen before.
These cute mini-starships each have their own name and registration, but from what’s shown on screen they seem to be assigned to bases and starships as auxiliary craft rather than being fully-independent vessels in their own right. Despite that, Runabouts are depicted as highly capable, versatile vessels. Early exploration missions into the Gamma Quadrant often utilised Runabouts based at DS9, and the ships were more than capable of surveying planets and charting star systems.
Number 4: The Constitution Class (original configuration)
The original Constitution class has to make any Trekkie’s list of great starship designs, right? Though it may feel dated in some respects, this is the source from which basically all of the other designs on this list were created. Federation starships are pretty much all designed with the Constitution in mind – the saucer, drive section, and nacelles design is emblematic of Starfleet, and thus of Star Trek. Even non-Federation ships are designed to stand in opposition to the Constitution (and the ships derived from it) so it’s undeniably the most significant and important starship design in the franchise.
The original design was simple, mid-60s futurism at its finest. The saucer is a design that had been synonymous with spaceships for decades thanks to myths of UFOs and flying saucers, so the decision to incorporate that kind of design was genius. The ship’s engines with their glowing tips became inseparable from warp speed and faster-than-light travel. And of course the deflector dish was reminiscent of satellite dishes – a new technology at the time.
Most importantly, this is where Star Trek began. The Constitution class USS Enterprise kicked off the franchise and became one of the most iconic sights in all of science fiction. Even today it’s instantly recognisable, even to folks who don’t watch Star Trek or know anything about the franchise.
Number 5: The Constitution Class (refit configuration)
As much as I love the original Constitution class, I think I like the refit even more. The refit Constitution class is the subject of one of my favourite sequences in all of Star Trek – where Admiral Kirk and Scotty approach the newly-refitted Enterprise when it’s still in drydock in The Motion Picture. That sequence is so beautiful (and with an amazing musical score to boot), showing off the starship in all its glory.
If the original configuration of the Constitution class had design features emblematic of its 1960s space race origins, the refit is much more “up-to-date,” replacing the satellite dish-style deflector with a glowing light, toning down the grey colour, and generally adding more lights and more features that make it an icon of the ’80s. In fact, I’d argue that many ’80s and ’80s-inspired sci-fi ships can trace some part of their design back to the refit Constitution class.
At the same time, though, the refit doesn’t completely abandon what made the original starship so iconic. The saucer section, drive section, nacelles, and pylons are all still present. The domed bridge is still there at the top of the ship, and even though a lot as been changed, it’s still clear that this is supposed to be an updated design, not a wholly new one.
Number 6: The Galor Class Warship
The Cardassians – and their Galor class warships – debuted in The Wounded, a fourth-season episode of The Next Generation which, in many ways, began to lay the groundwork for Deep Space Nine. And it was in the latter show that the Galor class would be seen most often; a vehicle for the villainous Cardassians.
Its design is, in some respects, a blend of Starfleet and non-Federation ships. The semi-circular “mini saucer” that juts out at the front, as well as the deflector array it sits atop, kind of resemble Starfleet designs, but the wings and elongated “tail” – as well as the yellow colour scheme – make it clear that this is definitely not a Federation starship!
The Galor class would be seen as the mainstay of the Cardassian fleet, serving in combat roles before and during the Dominion War. Some engagements during the Dominion War would see dozens – perhaps hundreds – of Galor class vessels deployed alongside their Dominion and Breen allies, and they could look incredibly intimidating en masse. Seeing Galor class ships open fire on the Breen and Dominion indicated that the Cardassians had switched sides during the war’s closing hours, and that sequence is absolutely outstanding; one of the best space battles in the entire franchise.
Number 7: The USS Pasteur
Unlike the ships mentioned above, the USS Pasteur was only seen in one episode – All Good Things, the season finale of The Next Generation. Despite its limited screen time, however, I like the design. Its spherical “saucer” section is distinctive, and gives it a look all its own. The spherical design was based on an unused concept Matt Jeffries had for the original USS Enterprise during early development on The Original Series, which is a cool little fact!
As I’ve said before, I really like the concept of a hospital ship in Star Trek. I’d be quite happy to see a “Star Trek-meets-ER” series one day, and such a series would surely make use of a ship like the USS Pasteur. Modern navies have hospital ships, so it stands to reason that Starfleet would too, and the USS Pasteur was our first up-close look at such a support vessel.
A Pasteur-type ship was seen in Season 1 of Lower Decks (albeit in a flashback) so the design isn’t dead. Perhaps one day we’ll see more of these ships and get to know a little more about them. Regardless, I love the design.
Number 8: The Borg Cube
Few adversaries in Star Trek are as genuinely frightening as the Borg – for reasons that I discussed in my essay on the faction. An intimidating villain needs an intimidating starship, and the Borg cube delivers. There’s something frighteningly mechanical about a plain cube. There are no engines, no obvious bridge or command centre… everything about the vessel from all sides looks the same.
The Borg’s hive mind sees them operate as one entity, and their ships are part of that. The “philosophy” of the Borg – for want of a better term – is perfectly expressed in the design of their most commonly-seen starship. Every part of the ship is the same, just as every Borg drone is the same.
When we first see a Borg cube in Q Who, the sheer scale of the ship is impressive, too. The Borg vessel dwarfs the Enterprise-D, and then its powerful weapons and tractor beam overcome the Galaxy class ship’s defences with ease. Even though we’ve seen Borg cubes defeated in subsequent stories, remembering that a single vessel was able to destroy 39 Federation ships and almost succeed at assimilating Earth reminds us that these ships are incredibly powerful. Even by the time of First Contact, defeating a single Borg cube was a tall order for Starfleet.
Number 9: La Sirena
Captained by Chris Rios and chartered by Admiral Picard, La Sirena made its debut in Star Trek: Picard Season 1. Everything I said about the Runabout feeling like a fun-sized ship could also apply to La Sirena, but the visual style makes it distinctive. La Sirena is basically a Runabout mixed with a hot rod!
The red and white colour scheme suits the ship perfectly, and there are even echoes of Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon in La Sirena’s design and concept. It’s the perfect vessel for Picard; small enough to be run by a skeleton crew (plus holograms!) but large enough not to feel cramped. It’s definitely not Starfleet, but there are Federation design elements present throughout.
Star Trek hasn’t really had many opportunities to showcase civilian starships, so La Sirena represents a look at a completely different side of the Star Trek galaxy, one we haven’t seen before. Though the franchise keeps these things deliberately vague, there must be a great deal of interstellar traffic, including transporting passengers and cargo. People like Captain Rios – and also others like Kassidy Yates – show us a glimpse of that world.
Number 10: The Sovereign Class
Perhaps it’s because Nemesis was the furthest forward the Star Trek timeline had got for almost twenty years, but to me the Soverign class has always seemed like one of Star Trek’s most modern and futuristic starships. The design represents a complete overhaul from the previous Galaxy class, flattening the “neck” of the ship again so the elongated saucer is almost contiguous with the drive section.
It’s a shame that the Sovereign class Enterprise-E only had the opportunity to make three appearances, as I would have dearly liked to see more of it in action. In some ways it has more of a militarised feel than the Galaxy, especially in terms of its interior, and perhaps we can say that’s a response to Starfleet taking on board threats from the Borg and Dominion during the design process.
The most iconic Sovereign class moment for me is the Enterprise-E’s arrival at the Battle of Sector 001. Swooping in to take on the Borg cube when the Starfleet armada was falling apart – accompanied by another beautiful piece of music – is one of the best moments in First Contact!
So that’s it! Ten great Star Trek starship designs.
There were many other ships I could’ve picked for this list, so stay tuned for “part two” in future! The Star Trek franchise has some great starships, and by keeping a relatively consistent aesthetic – generally speaking – has carved out a niche within sci-fi. Star Trek’s starships are almost always distinctive, and seldom feel like they could easily be part of some other film or franchise.
Everybody has their own favourites, though! There are some starships that we see often, either because they’re a “hero” ship or because they’re a frequently-used secondary design, and some of these have become iconic and emblematic of the whole Star Trek franchise. Other ships only make a handful of appearances, yet still manage to leave a lasting impression.
The Star Trek franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.