“NCC-1701. No bloody A, B, C, or D.” says a tipsy Captain Montgomery Scott in the 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Relics,” but what exactly does he mean? And does it have anything to do with the latest episodes of Star Trek: Discovery that introduce an upgraded version of its titular vessel with a spanking new “A” added to its registry? Stay with us as we learn a bit more about the alphabet, Starfleet-style.
If you’ve seen Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, you’ll remember the spectacular sight of the USS Enterprise exploding above the planet Genesis after being set to self-destruct by a desperate Admiral Kirk. And chances are you’ll also remember the end of the subsequent picture, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the crew is given a factory-fresh starship as a reward for saving the Earth. As the ship is revealed, the camera switches to a close-up of the saucer to focus on the alphabetical addition to the famous registry number, which now reads “NCC-1701-A,” the spaceship equivalent of a license plate.
The history of how this happened is somewhat fuzzy, but most people go along with Gene Roddenberry‘s suggestion that they grabbed the nearest identical spaceship — according to him, that was the USS Yorktown — and rechristened it to differentiate from the previous vessel. Longtime Trek designer Michael Okuda made his franchise debut on Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and tells me via Twitter DMs, “The first I heard of the “A” registry number was in the script for Star Trek IV. Harve Bennett was said to have written the 23rd-century portion of that script (with Nicholas Meyer responsible for the 20th-century segments).”
Amusingly, while this was happening in Paramount’s movie division, their TV branch was in pre-production on the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was set on another USS Enterprise a century later. Originally they had denoted their Enterprise as NCC-1701-7, but after The Voyage Home, the Galaxy-class ship ended up with NCC-1701-D. Okuda went to work on The Next Generation after The Voyage Home. “Early notes for Star Trek: TNG listed the ship as the starship Enterprise-7,” he says. “For a little while, that became the Enterprise-G. By the time I joined the production staff in February 1987, it had already become the Enterprise-D.”
Interestingly enough, the series would also introduce the 1701-C in the beloved third season TNG episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise.”
Across the franchise, this tradition has mostly been kept to the lineage of the Enterprise. The movies Star Trek Generations and Star Trek: First Contact introduced Enterprise B and E, respectively, while the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Azati Prime” first showed us the 26th-century Enterprise-J. Some ships have also been given erroneous registries; in the Next Generation episode “Where Silence Has Lease,” Riker names the USS Yamato‘s registry as NCC-1305-E, while the number stated in schematics and logs in the episode “Contagion” is NCC-70817. Likewise, the USS Nash, as seen in several Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes, has the registration NCC-2010-5, which is odd in itself. But its sister ship, the USS Jenolan — which appeared in the aforementioned episode “Relics” — has the registration NCC-2010, with the only commonality being that they are the same design, albeit with a vertically-flipped orientation.
The addition also happened in the Kelvin timeline. After the Enterprise is destroyed by the villainous Krall’s swarm ships in Star Trek Beyond, a brand new vessel is constructed at the Yorktown starbase with the familiar registry of NCC-1701-A. And back in the prime universe, things were muddied even more after the destruction of the USS Defiant in the Deep Space Nine episode “The Changing Face of Evil.” A new Defiant-class ship named the USS São Paulo replaced the iconic little craft, however: the registry remained NX-74205, which it had been from the Defiant‘s first appearance in 1994. This was probably to nix any further design costs, especially given that, firstly, like all Star Trek shows, Deep Space Nine features a fair percentage of stock footage and CG assets, and secondly, the new Defiant was introduced in the penultimate episode of the show’s run.
So let’s look at Discovery. After arriving in the 32nd century and agreeing to go on crucial missions for the current iteration of Starfleet, she was given an upgrade to bring her technology up to speed with what had evolved in the nine-hundred years since. The two biggest talking points are her warp nacelles, which have been now been detached from the hull, a la all Federation vessels circa 3189, and the inclusion of programmable matter, a substance made of nano-molecules that can be shaped into anything from ship controls to a bed, all adaptive to the specific user.
However, Discovery has not just been given a new lick of paint but an entire aesthetic overhaul to the point where it looks like a brand new ship. The central saucer ball has been flattened and smoothed out, the secondary hull has what looks like a full set of armor, and the nacelles seem brand new, along with a color change that makes you wonder if they ever considered rechristening her the USS Tron Legacy. And this is where it’s interesting that she now carries the registration NCC-1031-A. While large elements have changed, she is still ostensibly the same starship, much like the Enterprise refit in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That ship is a new upgrade from the original 1966-69 TV series Enterprise and has similar changes, from brand new warp nacelles and a whole new engine to a reshape of her lines and a fresh pearlescent paint job. But her registration? It remains NCC-1701, right up until she’s destroyed, and only then is the aforementioned 1701-A registry brought into service with a brand new ship.
However, as a certain pointy-eared Vulcan was said to say, there are always possibilities, and one of those is security. With the dilithium crisis as explained in the current season of Discovery and the amount that the ship carries, it may be that the Federation doesn’t want word getting out that a centuries-old ship is now in their service with a whole lot of coal in her firebox. Thus, the Discovery-A can present herself as a brand new ship free of any past associations with the previous NCC-1031. Saying that, given the lack of continuity Discovery has previously shown to any iteration of Star Trek, it might be that they just wanted to do it, history be damned.
Of course, her name and registry have no real bearing on her future exploits, and she will continue to boldly go wherever her commander pleases. As long as the Discovery continues to add to the quality of the franchise in the way she has these past few months, she can be A, B, C, or 7; it doesn’t matter. End log.