Star Trek, through its television series and films, has been blessed with some iconic starship designs, from the original Enterprise 1701, all the way up to the fan favourite – and, personal fave – the Akira class cruiser seen in Star Trek: First Contact. The USS Ares, and her shipmates, are continuing a fine tradition.
However, due to budget restrictions, especially in later seasons of Deep Space Nine, there have also been some serious stinkers.
There’s a lot to be said about having an artist like Andrew Probert design your lead vessel, and giving him the time to come up with something timeless, like the Galaxy class Enterprise D. But a weekly television show is a harsh mistress, and sometimes production crew are called upon to not just provide one ship, but entire fleets. In the classic Best of Both Worlds, there’s a few shots of the destroyed Federation fleet at Wolf 359, and for the most part, there are ship designs that are only ever seen for those fleeting, blasted moments, so any peculiarities of design are easily looked over (though, that hasn’t stopped fans obsessing over them!).
In Deep Space Nine, however, as the Dominion War plotline came into full swing, some serious kit-bashing was required to build out the Federation fleet. This called for commercial model kits to be plundered for parts, mashed together, painted for the screen, and then filmed. As I said, there were some seriously dodgy designs – one combined the Maquis ship from Voyager’s pilot, with the upper saucer of the Voyager itself, and boy did it look dodgy. Saucers were flipped, nacelles glued at strange angles, and all kinds of design curiosities emerged. And a lot of them were seen regularly on the show, patrolling space around DS9 itself.
The canon excuse for the kitbash fleet was that, in dire straights, the Federation was using any ship components available, and grafting them together in expedient designs. It sounds good on paper, but many of the ship parts are clearly so far out of scale as to make the canonical reasoning rather… fraught. To say the least.
That all said, this kitbashing did lead to one of the most elegant and sleek ship designs of entire series – the Centaur class, as first seen in ‘A Time to Stand’. The USS Centaur was deep behind Dominion lines, on a patrol, when it’s encountered by a Jem’hadar attack ship commandeered by our heroes. It’s not a long scene, and the only other time the ship was seen was in ‘Behind the Lines’, but like the Akira class, it made a firm impression. It’s widely-spaced nacelles suggested speed and agility, while the torpedo tubes on its very small secondary hull suggested a ship with punch.
But what is its backstory?
The Centaur was recently featured as part of the rather excellent Official Starships Collection, and boy is it great to be able to handle the model in the flesh. But the included guide goes with the canon thinking, that it’s part of the Federation drive to build more warships for its clash with the Dominion, and was cobbled together from Excelsior and Miranda class hull sections. By eye, the providence of those parts are obvious: the weapons pod from the Miranda is the Centaur’s secondary hull, while its saucer is clearly from an Excelsior class vessel, with other Excelsior model parts used for other structures, including the nacelles. However, again, the scale of the parts is what makes this hard to actually believe. The weapons pod is simply too large.
This is not meant to take anything away from the designer of the Centaur, Adam Buckner. It’s not only the best of the kit-bashed ships, but a great design in its own right. And the Centaur, after all, was one of the design inspirations for Axanar’s USS Ares!
There are other, better theories about the Centaur’s design history, though. The Daystrom Institute Technical Library is an exhaustive site, with write-ups on every ship class from the entire run of the show, and the site’s author, Graham Kennedy, has striven to work with canon-sources, and his own take on some of the more obscure builds. His take on the Centaur is that it’s actually an older design, from the 2320s, and part of the Excelsior design era. He agrees, though, that it was designed to be fast, often deployed in a scouting role. He also posits that the ship was nearing the end of its operational cycle, but was pulled out of mothballs for the Dominion War, which is why this design ‘suddenly’ shows up when it’s never been seen before.
Regardless of where you think the ship fits in Starfleet’s design evolution, I think the Centaur more than makes up for some of the lesser designs of the period.