Jonathan Lee is a designer whose work has appeared in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, but his latest job is perhaps his most iconic yet – production designer for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
In particular, Lee was responsible for designing much of the interior for the latest iteration of the world’s most famous starship. We had a chat with him to learn the secrets of this version of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 (no blood A, B, C or D!)
Here’s what we learned.
The TOS Enterprise Got a Lot Right First Time
Jonathan and his team were not the first to redesign the Enterprise for the 2020s. A large part of why Strange New Worlds was commissioned was the warm fan reception to a guest appearance by Pike & Co in Star Trek: Discovery season 2, but even that appearance left a lot of room for the new TV series to work in.
“They had to convert the Discovery sets into the Enterprise, although they did build the bridge,” Lee points out. “But we were launching a whole new show, so we went back to basics, with the exception of the bridge, which we did keep a chunk of.”
This means going to the drawing board and working out what rooms of the Enterprise Strange New Worlds would need to show. What would the writers need?
The answers, it turned out, had already been pretty well defined 40 years ago.
“It was very similar to what they did in the 60s,” Lee says. “They needed a transporter room, a sick bay, corridors, an engine room. I began general conversations with the producers about their ambitions for the look of the show and they encouraged me to follow my instincts.”
Lee is a lifelong fan of the original series, and while there was lots of work to do in creating a new look for the ship, he was not above making sure his old favourites made the cut. “It’s looked at now as being vintage and dated, but to me, it was cutting edge, fantastic new stuff coming from America to our TV in Scotland,” Lee recalls. “We were blown away by it, so revisiting it was a bit of a dream.”
Details that Lee carried over to the new design included the amber-orange colour of the sickbay’s bed and blankets, the sloped design of the Jefferies’ Tubes (named for one of Lee’s predecessors, TOS production designer, Matt Jefferies), and even the “navigation globe” on the dashboard of the shuttlecraft.
“I was a big fan of that, and we spent quite a lot of money making a fabulous version of that, that was a lot of fun,” Lee says.
Pike’s Quarters Are Far Bigger Than Kirk’s
Another aspect of the old series Lee drew inspiration from was the way the quarters of the TOS Enterprise were personalised for each crewmember, although Lee built on that in the designs for the show to create even more customised designs for each character.
That was pushed even further when it came to the captain’s quarters. Where Kirk’s quarters were largely a redressed version of any other crewmember’s quarters, Pike has an impressively spacious suite.
“One big new thing was Pike’s quarters was a much bigger space than Kirk’s quarters in TOS,” Lee says. “They wanted to have our captain be much more collegial, bringing the crew into his quarters off duty to understand them. Anson Mount was very keen to have a big kitchen, a ranch style kitchen so he could be standing cooking up steaks or pasta with the crew around the table.”
In the series, Pike’s quarters have become the scene for much of the crew’s socialising and bonding, and Mount’s Pike clear enjoys playing host. But Pike’s quarters are not the only rooms on the ship to see an extension – for practical reasons as much as aesthetic ones.
“We didn’t want the sets to feel small because you would always be taking the walls of the set out to fit the cameras, which slows down production,” Lee tells us. “Which was great for me because I could make the sets quite expansive.”
The Enterprise’s Space Battle in Discovery Had Lasting Consequences
One thing that makes the OG Enterprise different from its successors and predecessor is that in almost every other Star Trek series we meet the hero ship either as, or not long after, it graciously glides out of dry dock for the first time. When Kirk helmed the Enterprise it already had a long history behind it, and even Pike commands a ship that feels like it has as many adventures behind it as ahead.
Lee speaks fondly of “the scorch” – the oldest bit of plating on the Enterprise’s hull which the Ensigns dare each other spacewalk out to.
But even its recent history has had a lasting effect on the ship. “The last time the Enterprise was seen in Discovery, it was being towed away to space dock after the entire front portion of the saucer had been blown off and the ship was unusable,” Lee points out. “It gave me a chance to explore the concept that they had to rebuild the front of the saucer, and bring new technology into that.”
Lee introduced new windows that go right around the front part of the saucer section, with blast shields that will close up in the event of combat. From the inside, this gives the Enterprise an expansive, and dramatic-looking Mess Hall set.
This Enterprise’s Influences Go Back to the Age of Sail
While obviously, the original series’ Enterprise was a huge influence on the Strange New Worlds incarnation, Star Trek’s ships have always drawn from the real world for inspiration. The original 60s sets were evocative of modern battleships. The Next Generation’s Enterprise, meanwhile felt more like a flying conference centre (which was appropriate, given how many peace talks took place there).
For his take on the Enterprise, Lee went much further back. “Funnily enough, I don’t talk about this very much, but one of the things that is a constant inspiration for me is the wooden battleship HMS Victory, the most superb fighting vessel created of its time,” Lee said. “It had an enormous crew and hundreds of guns, and everything in that ship, nothing was wasted, nothing was there that didn’t have a purpose.”
As Lee points out, it is known that one of Gene Roddenberry’s influences for Star Trek was CS Forester’s Hornblower novels, and that is a feeling he definitely brings to his designs.
“Even with Pike’s quarters I remember thinking about Nelson’s quarters on the Victory, which is actually a really interesting part of the ship,” Lee explains. “It’s huge. Nelson had an enormous cabin and three huge rooms, but when it came to battle all the furniture was put in boats behind the ship and they opened it up and brought canons into his quarters. So it was very, very functional space even though it seemed very generous.”
…And Also, Of Course, The Sixties
But despite being set roughly two hundred years into our future, Star Trek’s 23rd century will always be inextricably linked to the 1960s that birthed it.
“I spent a long time looking at architects like Eero Saarinen, Oscar Neymar, Carlo Scarpa, and Pier Luigi Nervi. These guys’ work was all percolating around the world at the time Star Trek was being conceived and I thought it would be great to bring all these influences into the set,” Lee says. “But it wasn’t looking at a particular thing and saying I’ll take that and put it there. It was more like a feeling when you look at this stuff and get a sense of how they use space, how they work through one space and into another.”
This link to the sixties was also present in the set dressing, which was hugely important. “The set decorator, [Justin] Craig and I spent months thinking about set dressing in terms of things we could buy, and if we couldn’t buy it we would build it from scratch,” Lee says.
Where they couldn’t buy the right objects, they would build them from scratch, with Pike’s own bed and sofa being designed and built specifically for the show. But these bespoke pieces were mixed in with a blend of vintage sixties period dressing, replicas, and outsourced furniture makers working with that aesthetic in mind.
Lee Broke with Tradition by Exposing the Ship’s Tech
A ubiquitous element of modern TV and movie spaceship design is the “greeble”, the little features that litter the outside of most spaceship models, real or CGI. The Millennium Falcon is covered in them. So is Red Dwarf. So is pretty much any fictional spaceship you care to name.
It is not a design trend the Enterprise’s original designer, Matt Jefferies, would have approved of. In his design of the Enterprise, he drew the quite sensible conclusion that space is insanely dangerous, and any space engineer in their right mind would want to be able to fix any ship components from the inside, leaving a smooth outer hull. “I constantly had to fight anyone who wanted to put surface details on the thing,” Jefferies reportedly said.
For the most part, Strange New World’s outer hull conforms to this philosophy. However, on the inside of the ship, Lee decided he wanted to see a bit more of the Enterprise’s workings.
“Our corridors look very different from TOS,” he says. “That’s where we began to get our ethos of our new ship. Something I wanted to do from the very beginning was expose the structure of the ship and where possible expose the technology.”
Once again, Lee is drawing from inspirations beyond spaceship, or even ship design. “In the sixties, they had a lot of blank grey walls and it reminded me of houses in the fifties where you’d see Victorian houses with all the Victorian detailing covered up,” Lee tells us. “So what would happen if you took off those grey walls in TOS?”
One of the pieces of tech Lee was proudest to expose was the large “intermix chamber” in engineering. The anti-matter matter reactor was an element often mentioned, but seldom seen in previous Treks.
“I created this big drum shape in the middle of engineering that pulsates with light, almost as if there’s a little piece of the sun in the middle of it behind three feet of transparent aluminium,” Lee says (referencing the transparent metal Scotty “invents” in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).
Engineering is Basically Filmed in a Holodeck
Not all the Star Trek-ish technology on screen in Strange New Worlds is intended for the audience to notice, and the ship’s engine room is the perfect example.
“Our engineering is almost a whole new set. It is so enormous, but it does hark back to TOS where you had a foreground area the crew could interact, with and in the background there was the warp core stretching away,” Lee says. “But we did it on a massive scale that was a very big set for us.”
The way they did this was by using a technology called “Augmented Reality” or “AR”, which allows filmmakers to do big special effects but without relying too much on green or blue screen technology.
“It is exactly the same design process, but instead of a blue screen it’s a big LED screen and it appears around you in the studio for real,” Lee says.
If you’re a Star Trek fan who thinks this sounds weirdly familiar, you’re not the only one. “It’s very futuristic, very holodeck-y,” Lee admits. “But hopefully the audience will not realise when they’re seeing the AR wall. Every time you see engineering, you’re looking at the AR wall.” The AR wall is also used to extend the Enterprise’s cargo bay and mess hall.
The Episode “The Elysian Kingdom” Almost Included Lifesize Illustrations
One of the most fun episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ first season was ‘The Elysian Kingdom’. Like many episodes of the new series, it felt like a throwback – like the sort of plot the TOS or TNG writers might have come up with when they didn’t have much budget for an episode. But the episode itself looks incredibly lavish, with the familiar decks of the Enterprise done up like a fantasy kingdom.
It could have looked very different, however. “We spent a long time trying to decide how to bring a children’s fairy tale book to life,” Lee says. “Our first thought was to actually make everything look like a children’s fairy tale book. Literally, take the illustrations and blow them up. So a tree would look like an illustrated tree but nine feet high, and the set dressing would all look exactly like the illustrations.”
Eventually, however, he chose a different tac. “After a while, it just didn’t work,” he admits. “In the end, we decided to try it more for real, with trees that looked like real trees, the witch’s cauldron would be a real cauldron with smoke coming out of it. It took quite a while to work with the writers and the director ultimately to get that look right, but I was really pleased with the way it ended up.”
Even the Designers Aren’t Sure Which Enterprise Rooms You Might See Next
Now it depends on exactly what kind of fan you are, but if you are very into Star Trek there are reasonable odds that at some point you have pored over an elaborate schematic drawing of at least one of the Enterprises.
But while these are fun, Strange New Worlds avoided pinning itself down in this way.
“The ship has a sort of mythical sense about it which I really liked in TOS,” Lee says. “You kind of didn’t know where things were. You knew where the bridge was, the impulse engines, the nacelles, you had a sense that engineering was down in the lower hull.”
The Enterprise of the original series was a lot like the small town in a Wild West TV show. If the plot required a blacksmith, or a funeral parlour, or a performing magician, the characters could turn a corner and find that there had been one here the whole time! It’s a sense Lee wants to bring back.
“People get very excited about drawings and cross sections, but it takes away from the mythology of the ship,” Lee argues. “[Executive Producer] Akiva Goldsman is always challenging us to think of the Enterprise in unusual ways. He often jokes about really crazy things, such as asking which deck do they keep the whales on? He doesn’t mean that literally, but it’s a way of making sure we don’t just keep our heads in the canon world. We invent new canon.”
On the Enterprise D, Cetacean Ops could be found on decks 13 and 14, and the latest series of Star Trek: Lower Decks actually depicts the deck on screen for the first time, although pointing this out probably misses the point that Lee is trying to make.
And while we’re at it – the earliest deck plans we have for the TOS era Enterprise reveal that the lowest deck of the ship is given over entirely to a massive bowling alley. Will we ever get to visit that?
Lee doesn’t dismiss the suggestion as quickly as you might think. He tells us “We are gradually adding to the recreational side of the ship, more and more, so watch this space!”
All episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds are now available to stream on Paramount Plus UK.