In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a brief crowd shot includes a Betelgeusian ambassador — an extra in blue prosthetics and a stunning robe. Designer Robert Fletcher wrote in the film’s production book that the embroidered silk came from a studio warehouse; it turns out the fabric had been Cecile B. DeMille’s and was worth ten grand, giving Star Trek the accidental distinction of the most expensively-costumed extra ever.
Somehow, that grandiose silliness seems fitting. The simple narrative of Star Trek has been a bastion of socially-earnest science fiction for fifty years, but the franchise’s aesthetics, as exuberant and iconic as they are, are quite complicated. The look of Star Trek has always been as powerful as the story: influencing itself, providing a distinctive look for other sci-fi to push against, and providing enough material for the occasional pitch-perfect satire. The Star Trek aesthetic isn’t just a visual canon – it’s a living thing.
When the original Enterprise took to the skies in 1966, creator Gene Roddenberry wanted to separate Starfleet from the prevailing image of American military might — just as well, since the budget demanded simplicity. No jackets, sharp lines, epaulets, or medal rackscks here – this Starfleet was a postcolonial alliance of do-gooders, and a little velour sweatshirt was enough to signal the future was more relaxed than the present. (“Little” being a key word; the costumes shrank when washed, and by the end of the first season viewers were expressing concern about Uhura’s hemlines.)
The primary colors of the bridge and crew were at odds with the B-movie trend of explorers in monochrome: This Island Earth, Fantastic Voyage, Robinson Crusoe on Mars appeared muted. The Enterprise design was a visual leapfrog: you knew at a glance the dark early days of spacefaring were over, and Star Trek was skipping to the fun stuff. But as always, budget was a major engine behind the aesthetics. The show had to be bright enough to warrant the cost of color film. It was a Technicolor future that reflected an increasingly vivid present – there’s a reason several of Kirk and Spock’s love interests looked trendy to the show’s original audience, sporting beehives, psychedelic prints, and sumptuous layers of eyeshadow.
The permeable membrane between in-universe needs and mirroring its audience is one of the reasons Star Trek has managed half a century in the cultural conversation. Even the much-maligned neutrals of The Motion Picture – a clear take on 2001 – has a metatextual explanationlanation. Fletcher ditched the TV-show synthetics for natural fibers (which registered better on film) and despite Roddenberry’s insistence that disposable clothes were the wave of the future, the costumes held up well enough to be dyed and reworked into the naval-influenced uniforms that would appear in the next three films.
That drop of military flair would end up being one of the most significant changes to the aesthetics of the Trek universe. It seeped immediately into the world of The Next Generation, which premiered not long after The Voyage Home hit theaters. A show as much about bureaucracy as its predecessor had been about exploration, The Next Generation developed military iconography even as the narrative explored the ins and outs of the diplomacy machine. Patrick Stewart’s absentminded tug on his uniform jacket ended up with a military backstory – it was termed “the Picard maneuver” in reference to a long-ago victory in battle, and soon became fan shorthand. Especially in comparison to the primary colors of the original 1701, the Next Generation uniforms were restrained, color blocked, and carefully stratified – you always knew when an admiral was on deck. It’s no coincidence that one of the series’ major antagonists, the Romulans, were equally military, with tunics so boxy they read on the screen like armor.
“Boxy” was not a problem the 1701-D shared; the ship was almost entirely rounded edges (except the holodeck, but that’s where the murderous AIs were always coming from, which suggests an endorsement of the soft edge as the tidiest shape of the future). While the Enterprise of 1966 had been powered by bright colors, sharp edges, and magic, the Enterprise of 1987 had embraced the inevitable computer age. Though the inner workings were still behind bulkheads, interactive workspaces were everywhere, surrounded by soothing blandness. The post-industrial placidity of the 1701-D heralded the oncoming greige of a thousand office parks.
That computer-age sensibility was easy to mock; however, for a series meant to take technology for granted, Next Generation was the Trek that engaged most directly with the increasingly connected world wide web. The most prescient Next Generation aesthetic, therefore, was the Borg: a species that forcibly assimilated captives with cyborg implants and hive-mind determination, stored them in wireless charging pods, and maintained constant, galaxy-wide communication. To Next Generation’s audience, it was the most unsettling specter imaginable.
Some burgeoning stylistic tensions of the wider Trek universe also played out in Next Generation as the franchise began to stretch. Costumes and customs for alien races could lean into racial stereotypes. That trend began in the Original Series and the franchise has never quite been able to shake it; every iteration has a few eyebrow-raising “alien cultures”. In most other respects, Next Generation was determined to be more mature than its predecessor. However, demands for TV-friendly sex appeal led to the first Unofficial Star Trek Catsuit for Counselor Deanna Troi. Long after the rest of the 1701-D crew had moved to the two-piece wool gabardine that would become the measure for future variations, Troi was low-cut and vacuum-sealed. The plausible-deniability sexpot (tightly dressed but mostly covered) became formulaic: Deep Space Nine’s Kira Nerys, Voyager’s Seven of Nine, and Enterprise’s T’Pol would end up similarly dressed, regardless of internal logic.
It was just one of several ways the world of Trek quietly smoothed out its franchising. Eventually, individual uniform iterations became less the mark of an era and more a product of the brand. The Starfleet silhouette calcified even as cosmetic changes became a game of colorblock Tangrams. And though the civilian clothes of The Next Generation— a sea of jewel-toned Spandex and topographic woolens — don’t bear much talking about (unless you’re letting Fashion it So do the talking), two aspects are worth noting. The first is how sincerely Next Generation interpreted the retrofuturist silhouettes of Blade Runner – either with frequent visits to the holodeck or the Deco and World War II lines seen on hundreds of the galaxy’s civilians. The second is the remarkably fixed precedent these costumes set for Deep Space Nine and Voyager. (Things were even worse, somehow, if you looked sideways – Babylon 5 colorblocked with even more abandon.)
The worst of those unholy fabrics of the future would end up falling to Deep Space Nine’s Jake Sisko. (Blame Lwaxana Troi, whose stamped-foil wardrobe must have left sufficient remnants to torture him with.) But otherwise, perhaps no Trek series has made such great use of uniforms. The immediacy of Deep Space Nine’s morally-gray interspecies conflicts was a departure for the show – a crew fixed in place as war washed over them – and, crucially, it meant that the Starfleet uniform was no longer the show’s defining silhouette. Kira Nerys wore a Bajoran uniform, and the Cardassians wore their armor (even more sculpted than the Romulans). In the appropriately dim corridors of power, these clashing symbols of authority were a reminder that for any given citizen of a landscape as wide as Star Trek’s, a Starfleet uniform would likely be an exception, not the rule – and that a Starfleet uniform wasn’t always a symbol of safety.
Darker than what came before? Certainly, and that, too, became a trend. Even Voyager, which took a few too many stylistic cues from *Next Generation and could never quite reconcile the needs of a survival narrative with the moral compass Picard and crew established, reflected the changing demands of television drama. It had higher initial stakes, more serial arcs, and a little edge that it nearly cut itself on, as ratings sank and the show realized it had little to lose. (The Enterprise of The Next Generation had a one-cell brig; Voyager carried enough supplies for a pop-up prison.) But still, the patina of the 1701-D remained; languid corners, roomy quarters, and Starfleet uniforms so obligatory that even Maquis rebels grew to love them.
By the time Voyager ended, the seams of the Trek universe were starting to show. Enterprise, which came out hot on Voyager’s heels, had taken the mood of the room, and the prequel series spread a suitable layer of grime over the screen. The original 1701 quarters were tight; the NX-01 crew quarters evoked the cramped efficiency of ships’ bunks. Uniforms (with the exception of T’Pol’s, a Vulcan velvet catsuit) were practical flight suits, with color-blocking reduced to minor distinctions on the shoulders.
It’s telling that even in a media landscape that favors increasingly gritty takes on classics, any trace of Enterprise was ignored when J.J. Abrams developed his big-screen reboot. Instead, the movie winked at aesthetics from all other corners of the Trek universe: the color-saturated Starfleet getups that by then were themselves retrofuturist, those Next Generation computer interfaces, and Deep Space Nine’s reminders of a world outside the uniform.
Though the Trek universe’s timeline demands a certain level of turnover in design, and physical needs of the actors demand others (the first-season Next Generation uniforms are among the most vocally hated garments in TV history), ultimately, the aesthetics of any given Trek exist in parallel. They must ground us in a particular moment in an increasingly crowded media universe; they must also seem fresh enough to hook the audience all over again. When you’re a multi-million dollar merchandising empire, that’s no small thing. The tiny tweaks to the show’s uniforms visually promised that the stories would also be just a little different this time around. The sheer ridiculousness of the show’s civilian costumes acknowledge a long legacy of casual sci-fi camp.
And fifty years in, Trek is still going strong. Among cosplayers, Trek is a failsafe for first-timers, but has enough canon that it rewards painstaking attention to detail – someone recently cosplayed with a color-error uniform from the Star Trek animated series]. And thanks to the recent remastering of the Original Series, an ongoing debate – whether the command uniforms are gold or green – has fresh ammunition. (I have no opinion.)
Amid all this, that well-dressed Betelgeusian ambassador is just a footnote; he existed only long enough to make a distinctive action figure which faded into collector obscurity. The community that’s invested in the aesthetic created the demand for the making-of book with costume details; makeup tests are indexed on internet databases for the curious. The fact that he’s been included so carefully in a fifty-year tradition that we know exactly which DeMille fabric made it into deep space is the epitome of Star Trek style; a little wild, deeply earnest, steeped in nostalgia, and after all this time, still ready to surprise.
Photos via CBS and Paramount Pictures