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Go Back   The Trek BBS > Star Trek TV Series > Star Trek - Original Series

Star Trek - Original Series The one that started it all...

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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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Old March 9 2013, 01:56 AM   #2
blssdwlf
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

Don't forget that we do see what a "Class J" classification looks like. See Mudd's ship cargo ship from "Mudd's Women".

An "old Class J Cadet Vessel Starship" = "small Class J cargo ship".
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Old March 9 2013, 03:20 AM   #3
Warped9
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

We also here reference to a Class F shuttlecraft. That suggests to me that the alphabetical classification refers to a type of vessel.

A Class J starship could also be an Independence-class starship. The former refers to its type and the latter to its configuration.

In that vein the Enterprise could be a Class A starship as well as a Constitution-class Heavy Cruiser. These things needn't be mutually exclusive.

We know what a Class F shuttlecraft looks like. We've no idea what a Class E or A or L looks like. Are they more advanced or less? Does their intended primary function dictate their classification?
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Old March 9 2013, 03:25 AM   #4
SchwEnt
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

But do we really know what "Class" means in these cases?

Not nomenclature (Constitution or Starship) but letter designations (Class J and so on)?

It could refer to tonnage size or interstellar capability or something else. Class J starship and a Class J cargo ship may mean they have similar tonnage. Or similar warp capability.
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Old March 9 2013, 04:28 AM   #5
blssdwlf
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

And from "Breads and Circuses":

SPOCK: SS Beagle. Small class four stardrive vessel. Crew of forty seven, commanded by. Jim, I believe you knew him. Captain R M Merik.
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Old March 9 2013, 12:00 PM   #6
Timo
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

There's also the Class 6 supply ship Lantree. Adding this to FJ's ideas on the hero ship and certain others being Class 1 sounds logical enough: the lower the number, the more important frontline role the ship type plays - or, more broadly, the more qualified it is to play an important frontline role. Perhaps something like Class 4 or Class 6 gets pressed to military service in times of great need, even if it normally is a civilian or retired category?

We know what a Class F shuttlecraft looks like. We've no idea what a Class E or A or L looks like.
We know what one Class F shuttlecraft looks like. There might be dozens or hundreds of different designs meeting those criteria. After all, "Class F" is the first, arguably most generic thing the computer is able to establish about the target it is asked to scan; narrowing down might allow it to eventually deduce that it is of the M-47 Widowmaker type rather than the H-227 Beater model with the triangular hull and three nacelles but with similar performance appropriate for Class F.

The same would apply to Class J. Perhaps both the Mayweathers' old transport and Mudd's completely different-looking craft fit the parameters somehow?

There is also of course the possibility that Class F and Class J are actual "proper" class names, in the spirit of the Royal Navy's R-class battleships: there is no USS J, but there is a general theme of all the ship names beginning with the letter J. We never heard the name of any Class J ship in TOS, after all.

Of course, in ENT one J-Class vessel had the proper name Horizon, and one Y-Class ship was the Fortunate. The concept of Class J might be a Starfleet one, and the name in turn something the users later gave to the vessel after acquiring it from Starfleet surplus... But I rather doubt the Boomers would have referred to their home by Starfleet terminology, and we never really heard hints of such a backstory, either. Best, perhaps, to accept that civilian ship designations from before the founding of the Federation should not be expected to be in line with 23rd century Starfleet parlance.

On a general note, civilian ship classes seldom follow the concept of being named after the inaugural ship. Designations like "DY-100 class" are quite likely to be found there, in the world of multiple operators, constant sales forward, customized orders and so forth. And the industries selling to various militaries in turn have their own designation schemes, so various navies might purchase ships designated MEKO-100 or MEKO-350 - but would never refer to their vessels by this designation again after they were handed over and integrated to the fleet.

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Old March 9 2013, 12:08 PM   #7
King Daniel Into Darkness
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

As far as I'm concerned, the "old class J starship" from The Original Series is supposed to have been represented by the far newer (at the time) class-J cargo ship from the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise. I think TOS-R dropped the ball by not using that design (sans cargo pods in instances where they'd not be appropriate)

Of course, that's from the perspective of looking at the Trek universe as a whole.
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Old March 9 2013, 12:55 PM   #8
Timo
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

The division to the pre-UFP and UFP eras of this fictional universe is pretty blatant, though, and might be utilized here to advantage.

Yeah, Pike might have been training cadets aboard an old freighter. Many a navy today gives training on a mixture of old rust buckets, frontline combat vessels and dedicated schoolships, after all. And yeah, Leo Walsh and Harry Mudd might have flown one of those all by themselves, even if significantly larger crews were standard a century prior. Those old crews were more like inhabitants, after all, and increasing automation (remember the drone freighters of "Ultimate Computer" and "More Tribbles"!) plus faster engines (but Scotty still speaks of a warp 2 limit in "Friday's Child"...) would have made all the difference in operating practices.

But it's a bit simpler to assume that both Mudd and Pike had a somewhat more modern vessel at their disposal. Perhaps a more compact one as well, too.

A contradiction internal to TOS(-R) remains, though, as Pike's ship was apparently compartmentalized whereas Mudd's ship appeared small - both because of the crew count of just one or two, and because TOS-R adds visuals that match the small Space Kleinbus of the "Way to Eden" hippies. Thus, I'd vastly prefer Class J to be a set of parameters fitting a large number of designs, not a single specific ship design.

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Old March 9 2013, 10:21 PM   #9
Robert Comsol
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

blssdwlf wrote: View Post
Don't forget that we do see what a "Class J" classification looks like. See Mudd's ship cargo ship from "Mudd's Women".

An "old Class J Cadet Vessel Starship" = "small Class J cargo ship".
Now, you are kidding? Throughout TOS it had been established that starships are the most sophisticated vessels and the most rare and wanted command opportunities (apparently, back in the 1960's and in the original context the term "starship" meant something else to audiences before "Star Wars" came along. Retcon Alert!). And the oldest one we became aware of in TOS was the Archon in "Return of the Archons" (maybe a ship like that was a Class J starship?).

Just because there obviously is a similar alphabetical classification system for cargo ships and shuttlecraft (and planets one should add) doesn't mean, that just because there happens to be a Class J starship and a Class J cargo ship they are one and the same.

Bob
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Old March 9 2013, 11:16 PM   #10
Marsden
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

The "J" class could refer to the type of engines. That means a cargo ship and Starship with that type of stardrive could be very different in size, shape, armament, and duty.

And by type of engines, it could be a way in which the anti-matter flow is controlled, possibly having a higher danger possiblity eliminated in more modern designs.

But I agree overall, I think they wanted things to me simple and not overly complicated, thus the "J" class rather than some other name, human or alien.
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Old March 10 2013, 05:10 AM   #11
blssdwlf
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

Robert Comsol wrote: View Post
blssdwlf wrote: View Post
Don't forget that we do see what a "Class J" classification looks like. See Mudd's ship cargo ship from "Mudd's Women".

An "old Class J Cadet Vessel Starship" = "small Class J cargo ship".
Now, you are kidding? Throughout TOS it had been established that starships are the most sophisticated vessels and the most rare and wanted command opportunities
That's a bit broad, IMHO. The only thing we know is that starships like Kirk's Enterprise were rare and wanted command opportunities. Other starships, like an old Class J starship could be found as a cadet vessel...
MENDEZ: Inspection tour of a cadet vessel. Old Class J starship. One of the baffle plates ruptured.
Robert Comsol wrote: View Post
Just because there obviously is a similar alphabetical classification system for cargo ships and shuttlecraft (and planets one should add) doesn't mean, that just because there happens to be a Class J starship and a Class J cargo ship they are one and the same.
If it makes it easier to swallow, think of it as a Class J training vessel

Although one could argue that Class J doesn't indicate size since Spock indicates Mudd's ship as a "small Class J cargo ship". He probably wouldn't need to point that out unless it wasn't part of the description.
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Old March 11 2013, 01:57 PM   #12
Robert Comsol
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

blssdwlf wrote: View Post
If it makes it easier to swallow, think of it as a Class J training vessel
I'm just fine with imagining an outdated Class J starship serving as a training vessel for cadets, especially since many of our training vessels are sometimes really old.

blssdwlf wrote: View Post
Although one could argue that Class J doesn't indicate size since Spock indicates Mudd's ship as a "small Class J cargo ship". He probably wouldn't need to point that out unless it wasn't part of the description.
Very good point, "Class J" is apparently no indication of size and tonnage, because Spock usually doesn't provide redundant information.

With Commodore Mendez' statement (at McCoy) it is not entirely clear whether he meant "old Class J" or just "old starship", but maybe the alphabetical class isn't an indicator of age neither.

And how can you determine the stardrive / warp capability of any vessel with your scanners if said ship, for example, was running on impulse?

Maybe the alphabetical classification refers to the energy output a certain vessel is capable of. Wouldn't that be the first thing to register on your scanners ("Class J vessel of some kind, which now appears to be some kind of cargo ship according to our sensors")?

Bob
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Old March 12 2013, 08:58 AM   #13
Timo
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Re: TOS Alphabetical Starship Classifications

Spock usually doesn't provide redundant information
Unless he's working his way through gradually emerging sensor data in real time: "It's small... It's a class Z pleasure vessel... It's the SS Shenanigan, one Foil O'Week commanding... It's got a fuel leak problem." The scene in "Mudd's Women" might well be one of those.

And how can you determine the stardrive / warp capability of any vessel with your scanners if said ship, for example, was running on impulse?
Warp engines seem to have more modes than "running" and "off" in TNG. There's also the "not running but still glowing blue" mode, which might be detectable in most cases. A misunderstanding of how this applies to alien tech would explain Scotty's analysis of the Romulan FTL combatant in "Balance of Terror"...

OTOH, as regards e.g. SS Beagle, her exact identity was known before her stardrive was discussed.

Maybe the alphabetical classification refers to the energy output a certain vessel is capable of. Wouldn't that be the first thing to register on your scanners?
Good idea - but Spock had time to observe the maneuvering of Mudd's ship before obtaining what he called "sensor data" and nailing down the classification. Engine specs would probably be evident from the early observations already, especially since the heroes can determine the engine overload timetable before getting the sensor data.

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