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Old March 9 2013, 12:52 AM   #1
Robert Comsol
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TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

Many thanks to Trek BBS veteran Jonas Grumbly who pointed out that (next to “Starship Class”) the only TOS starship distinction reference ever made in TOS dialogue was “Class J starship” in “The Menagerie” (Part I):

McCoy: What's [Pike’s] problem, Commodore?
Mendez: Inspection tour of a cadet vessel. Old Class J starship. One of the baffle plates ruptured.

I have a hard time seriously imagining Starfleet putting its cadets on floating coffins (especially considering ST II) and since Doctor McCoy may not be familiar with all the starships’ names Commodore Mendez gave McCoy a classification he assumed would help the good doctor visualize on what kind of starship the accident occurred. No class associated with a name (of the first ship) but one simple letter, reminiscent of the planet classification (e.g. “Class M”).

I feel this puts the entire subject and previous debates, here and here, into a new perspective that’s worthwhile to explore.

I also believe the “Constitution Class vs. Enterprise Class” business is not compatible with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek vision for a couple of reasons:

As hardcore fans know (to borrow that phrase from Greg Schnitzer) the original name proposal for our favorite starship was Yorktown.
Now, the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 (hmm…notice the little resemblance to 1701) was a decisive victory of the American Continental Army (and its French allies) over the British Army (and its German allies). During the Battle of Midway the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) was mortally wounded by the Japanese and during the rescue operation of the crew more lives were lost as the aiding destroyer was attacked by a Japanese submarine. Not exactly a happy name for a starship in a future where mankind has been united.

Gene Roddenberry felt Enterprise to be a better choice for his starship (USS Enterprise (CV-6) had survived the Battle of Midway and the Enterprise-Class aircraft carrier (CVN-65) happened to be the most sophisticated carrier of the 1960’s, so obviously Enterprise had a modern and more innocuous ring to it).

Add to this, Gene Roddenberry insisted that the acronym U.S.S. stood for “United Space Ship” and not United States Ship. Despite the obvious allusions to the American interpretation of this acronym, Roddenberry wanted to portray a multi-ethnic vision of the future and have a television series that could equally be enjoyed in Africa, Japan and the Soviet Union.

Touching delicate social issues in the US of the 1960’s the series did “boldly go where no man had gone before” (with the previous exception of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” I’d like to add just as Whoopi Goldberg did once – before Shatner cut her off) but I can imagine that Roddenberry must have felt between a rock and a hard place trying to give his “United Space Ship” idea some credibility by picking some names that were not Anglo-Saxon (I’d say most of the name choices were concessions amidst dwindling ratings of the series at a time of national enthusiasm that came along with the space race).

For “the names of the 12 ships of the Enterprise Starship Class” foresighted Bob Justman suggested (insisted?) “a Russian carrier and certainly a Japanese carrier. In addition, I think a name ought to be made up that would be of Vulcan origin.” Apparently and thanks to Bob Justman we got the “Russian” USS Potemkin and the “Japanese” USS Kongo.
(although the latter one never made it into an episode).

But it would take another ten years, before Andrew Probert would finally give us a Federation vessel with a “real” Vulcan name (i.e. Surak warp shuttle in TMP). Admittedly, only a shuttlecraft but one may wonder how long it would have otherwise taken to finally get a vessel with such a name, had it not been for Andrew Probert’s input and his understanding of what Star Trek was about (or used to be).

These Starfleet starships belong to the United Federation of Planets, which, at the TOS era, consisted at least of 13 member planets (judging by the red star-spangled UFP banner), thus each of the 12 starships (like the Enterprise) should theoretically carry an indigenous name of one of those members.

But this is not the case and it rather seems that Starfleet is run exclusively by the United Earth Space Probe Agency.

SATIRE ON - One could argue that while Star Trek shows a utopian future for man, it may be rather dystopian for the other 12 members (i.e. conditions of the mirror universe illustrated in “In A Mirror, Darkly” could be the actual reality of “our” Star Trek universe):
  • Spock’s presence on the Enterprise may be entirely owed to his human mother (“half-breed”, “freak”)
  • 400 Vulcans were cooped up aboard the Intrepid (possibly as guinea pigs to test Vulcan radiation tolerance on this J-class starship and its ruptured baffle plates) and their actual “astonishment” was that they didn’t expect to die that fast (to name a starship with a Vulcan name is out of the question, a shuttle is the best they’ll ever get)
  • Federation “ambassadors” need to be under guard and surveillance by a human starship captain and crew at all times (“Journey to Babel”, let them make their proposals but the human Starfleet bureaucrats have the last word anyway)
  • Since insane starship commanders are the absolute exception from the rule, their depiction has to be balanced by the presence of at least 3 crazy humanoids, preferably an Orion girl, an Andorian and a Tellarite
  • The animated series is no excuse (children like talking pets)
  • On one rare occasion the propaganda specialists of the Terran Empire failed to cover up their true nature: “You’d make a very convincing Nazi, captain” (“Patterns of Force”). Not convinced?
  • The Making of Star Trek claims that the Klingons regard “cruelty as something admirable; honor is a despicable trait.” (Apparently the TOS Terran Empire had come to a fall by the time of the 24th Century and for each starship a non-human “watchdog” supervises the behavior of these humans. Looks like Mr. Worf’s instinctive and first subconscious reaction after ship wide induced memory loss in “Conundrum” was correct…) SATIRE OFF!
While this was just a drastic over-exaggeration I believe it essentially shows that TOS (and the subsequent movies) portrayed a future in which full and half-blooded members of the Homo sapiens club played exclusively protagonist roles and I’d dare to bet that Gene Roddenberry and Bob Justman were somehow aware of that (indeed TAS was the first original Star Trek assigning active roles to crew members that were not just human or half-human…!).

Giving the Starfleet starships Earth names was apparently unavoidable to make the series palatable to human audiences and especially the inhabitants of North America.
But going further and also assign Earth name classes to these vessels (with no actual need) could have been so incompatible with the original Star Trek vision that Roddenberry and Justman simply decided to ignore these – including Gene L. Coon’s “Constitution Class” proposal – and stuck to “Starship Class”.

After all and without doubt there’s a translation for “starship” in each of the UFP members’ indigenous languages!

For the same reason an alphabetic classification (Class J starship) looks rather like a UFP concept and seems to make sense: An Class A starship will be eventually outdated by a new design and become a Class C starship.

This nomenclature efficiently allows identification of capabilities and deficiencies of older starship designs still in active service as new designs are introduced into Starfleet.

For apparently the same non-human-supremacy reason planets are catalogued by alphabetic numbers: “Class M” depicts a planet capable of supporting life not only for humans but Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarites and others as well.

If the classification were “Earth-class” it would definitely alienate other humanoids. I assume the same applies for “Constitution Class” and “Enterprise Class” which are therefore not applicable – from an in-universe, strictly TOS and possible creators' point of view.

I now respectfully surrender my sword to Admiral Grumbly.

Bob
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