How Picard’s Return Brought Some Surprising Starships to Star Trek Canon

How Picard’s Return Brought Some Surprising Starships to Star Trek Canon
The fleet gathers. (Gif: Paramount)

When Star Trek: Picard returned last week, it inched the Star Trek timeline forward into a period largely untouched in its TV history. Discovery may have jumped all the way to the 31st century, but a 2401 setting meant exploring Star Trek’s 25th century future. Except one piece of Star Trek was already charting where no TV show had gone before — and it was a chance to bring it into the fold.

How Picard’s Return Brought Some Surprising Starships to Star Trek Canon

“The Star Gazer,” the second season premiere of Star Trek: Picard, caught up with our heroes a year and a half on from the events of the first season’s finale. But when a new threat emerged out on the fringes of space in the form of a massive spatial anomaly — revealed to be a rift in time and space holding a massive Borg vessel — Starfleet had to muster a fleet of assisting ships to answer a threat. And not only this time were they not a carbon-copy flotilla of identical vessels like the last time Picard saw some fleet action, they also made Star Trek history: placed alongside designs old and new, from the updated Stargazer to the latest Excelsior, for the very first time in Star Trek TV canon were original ship designs from Star Trek Online.

Now over a decade old, the free-to-play MMORPG has made the most of charting its own vision of the future in Star Trek’s timeline, playing out an early 25th century that has seen the Federation and Klingon Empires at war with each other as well as warily united against existential threats, picked up on the fallout from the ends of series like Voyager and Deep Space Nine, and more. But now for the very first time, original content from the game itself has made its way into Star Trek’s TV canon, thanks to the designs of the Gagarin Miracle Worker Battlecruiser — inspired by the Shepard-class from Discovery; the Legendary Ross Command Exploration Cruiser, a hybrid of the Sovereign and Galaxy-class ships made famous by the Enterprises of The Next Generation; the Sutherland Advanced Research Vessel; and the Reliant Advanced Light Cruiser, a modern update on the classic Miranda-class made famous by the U.S.S. Reliant in The Wrath of Khan. To find out more about the process of bringing a little touch of Star Trek Online to Picard, Gizmodo spoke to Picard Production Designer David Blass and Star Trek Online Associate Art Director Thomas Marrone to learn more about the unprecedented team up.

Image: Perfect WorldImage: Perfect World

James Whitbrook, Gizmodo: How did the opportunity come about to bring some STO designs into Picard season two? From Paramount’s standpoint, as far as the Trek shows go, why was now the time to start pulling on the threads established in the game’s fiction?

Dave Blass: It all started when we realised we needed a larger fleet for Picard. It occurred to me that this could be a great world-building opportunity for Star Trek. Star Trek has all these different elements between TV, film, gaming … I thought if we could find a way to intertwine them and connect them, it would be better for the fan experience.

Star Trek has all these wonderful fans that are so passionate about the series. Video games allow them to become immersed in the Star Trek world but there is not as much crossover as there should be. I was looking at these amazing ships from Star Trek Online and was thinking about how we were missing out on a gigantic opportunity to bring these two worlds together. To use these amazing ships would be a win for everyone. The ships become canon, we get new ships for the show and the fans would be ecstatic.

Thomas Marrone: It really pays off for our players, too. If they’ve been playing STO for the last 12 years and one of the ships appears on the show, that’s a huge emotional touchstone for them. Not only that but the timeline syncs up too. It was exciting when Picard was announced and it was set 30 years after TNG because it butts up against the STO timeline. It makes sense that ships from Star Trek Online would be contemporary to Picard because they are set in the same century.

Throughout its history, Star Trek Online has done a lot to bring canon ships into the game, but we’ve also made our own. This is the first time it happened in reverse direction, where the ships we made for Star Trek Online appear in a canon television show. We did have the opportunity to work with IDW Publishing to bring the Odyssey class into the Picard prequel comics with the U.S.S. Verity, which was a great collaboration. It’s a whole other thing to see it on a Star Trek TV show, for it to jump from licensed work to canon work.

Additionally, Star Trek Online started in 2010, right after the first Kelvin movie and then throughout the drought after these films, we’ve been building our own catalogue of ships. Now with this renaissance of Star Trek on Paramount+ — Discovery, Picard, Strange New Worlds, Lower Decks, we have an interesting perspective because we were there during the drought and now it’s pouring again. We get to have the best of both worlds.

Gizmodo: Tell me a little bit about the collaborative process from a design perspective. Typically STO is working on bringing show and film designs into the game, but this was the other way around — what was it like working together as designers here?

Blass: When I started the design process for Picard, I had to build a team. Back in the ‘90s when they did TNG, Voyager, and DS9, they had the same group of people who moved from show to show and even worked on ships for the films, so you had the best Star Trek designers in one room for an entire decade. When you had someone design a ship, you had people who understood the vernacular and knew what to do. You didn’t have to explain things to them, like what a nacelle is.

So when I was building my team, I started looking for Star Trek designers – the people who created the ships. In that quest, I found these ships online and thought, “Wow, those are good looking ships.” I kept going back to Gagarin and when I researched it, it led me to Star Trek Online and I thought, “They make a lot of good ships and it’s upgraded to exactly my time period. Who are these people?” I reached out to Thomas and said “You’ve got ships. I need ships. How do we do the thing?” Then we got into the design of the Stargazer and I told him that we also needed help with the design. In the middle of the covid lockdown, we all got into a Zoom call with Thomas, Hector Ortiz (senior concept Artist for STO), John Eaves (production illustrator for Star Trek), and Doug Drexler (Academy Award winning designer for Star Trek) to come up with all of these different ideas and initial sketches. Then it expanded to the fleet and whatnot and it just became a collaborative experience of people who live and breathe the Star Trek design aesthetic, all working together to bring these ships to the fans. For me, it was a no brainer. They have ships and we needed ships. Plus how cool would it be to go online and command the Stargazer? It wasn’t as easy as one would think but we were able to do it. We put together a batch of the ten best ships and showed our VFX department and at first I think they thought, “Oh this is just from a video game.” Then they took a closer look and said “Wow. These are really good.” They were well thought out, well designed and really well made. It was such a really great experience and once we were able to get our foot in the door, it opened it up to other opportunities.

Gizmodo: STO has a huge selection of original starship designs. Can you tell me about the process for selecting which ships would be the ones brought into TV “canon”?

Marrone: Dave asked me to put together a list of ships that I felt players really connected with, that had a good reputation and were successful in STO. I made a big chart of the 25th century ships in Star Trek Online that might work, then we sort of narrowed it down. There were some that had four nacelles, so we didn’t use those because we didn’t want them to compete with the Stargazer. There was something about the ships that had their own unique silhouette — the Gagarin, Sutherland and Reliant. They were ships that STO players would immediately recognise. Eaglemoss already had a model for the Gagarin so we knew those ships were already out in the wild. We looked through the ships that were the most popular then mined them for ships that were contemporary and fit with the visual style of what they were doing with Picard.

Gizmodo: Obviously, STO has digital assets of these vessels, but there’s a difference between what works for an MMO designed to run on various scales of hardware and the sort of intense VFX detail we know goes into a show like Picard. What was it like preparing to take the game’s designs and re-imagine them in the sort of detail needed for a big-budget streaming series?

Marrone: This ended up being a great excuse for us. When I found out these were the ships that were going to be in Picard, I spent a lot of time remastering those ships to STO’s quality bar. Some of the models were four to five years old, so it meant doubling the triangles and some of the details. This actually worked out anyways because STO was about to start its Terran storyline, which meant we would need those ship models anyways and it was a good confluence of resources because we could add a lot of quality to these Starfleet ships. The Sutherland, Reliant, and Gagarin, those all need a pretty good facelift, but it’s still the same model for the game. I updated the model and sent it to the Picard VFX team. The curves were smoother and there were a lot of details. Because our in-game models are so detailed, they can hold up on screen at a certain amount of distance.

Blass: I think people think there’s some hard drive that says Star Trek on the side that has every model that has ever been used (There isn’t). The reason why TNG featured ships like the Bird of Prey so often is because they had the physical model and were able to re-use it. It was ancient technology. Whatever worked back then doesn’t exist anymore. Everything had to be re-done but STO allowed us a bridge to get the older ships like the Akira class and bring them into the new world. I can’t wait to see what the fans think. I tweeted all of our credits and put Thomas and Hector from Cryptic and people were like “OMG.” It’s improving the situation from season one, where we used a lot of the same ships. The fans didn’t like that and so we solved the problem and we did it in such a way that now fans will have all these new ships. People who have never played Star Trek Online will look at these ships and say “Wow, what a great ship. I didn’t know these existed.” And those who play the game will recognise the ships and to fans, that’s what matters. To realise that the ship you fly in the game is a real Star Trek ship, it’s going to be a big thing for these fans.

Screenshot: ParamountScreenshot: Paramount

Gizmodo: STO also has aesthetic differences to consider. What were the biggest challenges in adapting the visual feel of these ships into the aesthetic for vessels we’ve seen in the current Trek series like Discovery and Picard?

Blass: Thomas sent me this giant packet of ships. There were tons. I would flip through them and find ones that matched the cohesive world of the Stargazer. We had four nacelles so we didn’t want another one with four in the wide shot. What do fans want to see that are popular? What are people going to be excited about? We wanted to pick things that felt like they were in the same fleet visually. There were so many to pick from — it felt like a kid walking into a candy store. It worked out amazingly. When we had the trailer a few weeks ago, the fans already noticed the Nova class and Steamrunner. My Twitter will be very busy and it’s so great that we can finally share the news. Thomas and I have been working on this for almost two years now. It’s definitely something we’ve been holding onto.

Gizmodo: STO has had such a huge legacy the past decade telling its own story for Star Trek’s 24th century future. What does it mean to see some recognition of that work playing out on screen now, especially in a show as nostalgically connected to Trek’s past as Picard?

Marrone: It’s a realisation of our greatest hope, in a way. As Star Trek fans who worked on this licence for a while, we’re still really proud of the art and of the story that we make. To see that being recognised by Picard, it’s very fulfilling and it’s a validation of how much we care and how much of our own fandom we put into our work. So many people who work on Star Trek Online are huge Star Trek fans and are dedicated to getting everything right and continuing that legacy forward, especially as a continuation from TNG to DS9 and Voyager then to the 25th century. For STO, our goal was to feel like the show never stopped, like you’ve never stopped watching Star Trek. To see that come to fruition with Picard, it feels incredible. It’s such a fulfillment of my wildest hopes and dreams for what we can do with Star Trek Online.

Star Trek: Picard is streaming now on Paramount+.