Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #16, and this week’s question is really just a continuation of last week’s:
What is my countdown of the worst-to-best Starfleet uniforms in the history of Star Trek?
Through the 50+ years of Star Trek on television and the movies, there have been lots of variations of how a Starfleet crew dresses. Different designers and different eras in real life fashion have led to radically different interpretations of what a Starfleet uniform looks like. The future back in the 1960’s looked completely different than what it looks like today.
So today we’re going to countdown from the worst to the best versions of the Starfleet uniform–in my opinion, of course.
Now, I’ve listed 11 different styles on my countdown, but if we’re really going to be thorough, there’s a lot more than that, thanks to all the alternate futures and parallel dimensions that we’ve had in the franchise. But I’m limiting myself to these, most of which either appeared as a “regular” style over an extended period of time, or gotten major screentime in a theatrical movie. There’s one exception, but it’s a notable one so I’m including it.
11. Star Trek pilot episodes: The Cage & Where No Man Has Gone Before
This is the exception that I mentioned above–the earliest version of the Starfleet uniform only appeared in Star Trek’s original, unsuccessful pilot episode, The Cage, featuring an Starship Enterprise commanded by one Christopher Pike. But it was branded “canonical” when the footage was re-purposed into the Original series two-part story, The Menagerie. Similar costumes were also used in the second and more successful pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before.
The outfits consisted of a dull looking sweatshirt, with muted colors (either blue or goldy-green), which got an even more boring jacket thrown over them for the away mission stuff.
They didn’t give the characters any sort of vibe beyond “recycled 1950’s sci-fi cliché”. Given that this was a pilot for an untested series, it probably had the smallest wardrobe budget of any version of Star Trek ever, so we’re not blame here, just pointing out that the results were not very inspiring.
10. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
In 1979, plans for a new Star Trek TV series were shelved and a feature film was developed instead. Some people like the results and laud it as being cerebral and thought provoking, but most (myself included) criticize it for being dull, drab and unengaging. The Starfleet uniforms, which were really the first major redesign that viewers had had (up to this point they’d mostly seen the main Original Series outfits, more on those later), and though it made sense to give the women long pants, they sadly limited themselves to such diverse hues as grey, white, black and beige.
I don’t have any images to share for this one but it’s an easy enough thing to go and search out (try here, for example), but never before has the future looked so boring.
9. Star Trek: The Next Generation (first version)
(1987 to roughly 1989)
So in the 1980’s when Star Trek finally did make its way back onto TV, they very deliberately re-introduced color into life on board a Starship. Similar to the original series, officers wore different colored uniforms based on what area they worked in (though some of the colors had changed). The visual design of the uniforms was pretty appealing, with some nice use of blacks, the metallic pinned logo-shaped communicators, and more sensible rank insignias (pins on the collar).
Unfortunately, Gene Roddenberry (or someone) also decided that the future was dressed in spandex, which definitely made the characters look like they were dressed in costumes more than they looked like they were in uniforms. Like the other designs that are lower on this list, the whole effect is to bring to mind cheesy science fiction clichés, as if the characters were standing around and screaming, “Look at us, we’re in the future!” Apparently, the outfits were so uncomfortable that they actually began to give Patrick Stewart back problems.
8. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (second version); plus most of the Next Generation movies: Star Trek First Contact, Star Trek Insurrection and Star Trek Nemesis
There’s nothing overtly wrong with these costumes, but they are just a disappointment compared to the superior outfits they replaced. During the last few years of Deep Space Nine the story became increasingly focused on the extended war between the Federation and the Dominion, and the uniforms of the Starfleet personnel adjusted to reflect this heavier mood: almost all of the brightness was removed with the uniforms retaining the black of the previous versions (see below) but with the color replaced by a dark bluish-grey (although traces of the color remained in the tunic underneath). They were also given a bit of a puffier look, like they were meant to be warmer or something.
Now, on Deep Space Nine, these changes kind of fit in, but it was disappointing to see the same designs showing up in the Next Generation movies that came out at the same time. Of course, it was logical from an internal continuity point of view, but still stripping away the brightness of the uniforms robbed Next Generation of some of its flair.
7. Star Trek: Enterprise
Enterprise, as you probably know, is the earliest set iteration of Star Trek, mean to be over a hundred years prior to the Original Series. It was also meant to show a Starfleet crew from a period when the organization was really just getting going, and so the costumes were deliberately designed to be reminiscent of more to modern-day NASA and Air Force uniforms. Basically, they are just blue flight uniforms, with a few distinguishing details and sci-fi twists added on. They suited the series, and were probably the most realistic version of the Starfleet uniform, but don’t really stand out as being particularly memorable or anything special.
6. Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Trek Beyond
(2009, 2013, 2016)
There’s actually a bit of variety in the uniforms over these three “modern-day Star Trek” movies, but I’m speaking specifically here about what appears to be the standard Starfleet uniform, which were clearly an updated version of the old uniforms, with with tunics of gold, blue or red over black shirts. The costumes are pretty good, I think–they are bright and visually pop against the seemingly all-white Enterprise interiors, although they use an obviously textured material that’s a bit distracting.
The limitation of the costumes is basically the limitation of any movie that sets itself during this time period in Trek history, which is that we older viewers can’t help but to be asking ourselves why everything looks so different. Really, it’s a bit of a no-win situation for the movies: if they’d used the exact costumes from the original series, they would have looked really dated and bad, but if they’d completely redesigned them then we’d all go from somewhat befuddled to outright upset.
Really, the success of the costumes goes hand-in-hand with the success of the movies themselves. When they are working, we don’t really care (indeed, in Star Trek Beyond I generally didn’t mind when a lot of the costumes began to deviate from the familiar design) but when they don’t, they just start looking like weak imitations. There are moments in Star Trek Into Darkness, for example, that are so derivative that you can’t help but to feel like the whole thing is just a bunch of people dressing up and playing Star Trek rather than actually being Star Trek.
That being said, maybe if I was unfamiliar with the Original Series I’d find nothing wrong with them. But…I am familiar with the Original Series, so that point is moot.
5. Star Trek (The Original Series & the Animated Series)
(1966-1969, plus 1973-1974)
Once the original series of Star Trek got underway, the uniforms went to a design which were probably the least obtrusive of any version that we’ve ever had. Officers wore black shirts with tunics over them, color-coded for the first time to distinguish the area that the officer served in. Kirk and the command staff wore gold (although apparently in real life, it was green, and just looked gold under the lights—much later it was retroactively stated to actually be gold), Spock and the science guys wore blue, and Scotty and the “ship’s services” people wore red.
The uniforms were not flashy at all but that’s part of why they worked for a weekly TV series: they had a natural feeling which served the concept of the show without drawing undo attention to themselves, coming across as clothes people were wearing more than they did costumes they had put on.
The exception to all this were the absurdly short skirts that most of the female officers wore, which even the most creative modern minds would find hard to justify. Also, Kirk spent a bunch of episodes wearing an odd wrap-around tunic which I don’t think did William Shatner any favors (see the above image).
4. Star Trek: Discovery
The most recent version of Star Trek has a really nice design to the uniforms, with them being primarily a bold blue with gold or silver accents. They feel like potential descendants of the Enterprise suits (which fits the timeframe of the show), but more overtly futuristic and form-fitting look. The results are attractive without being distracting.
Maybe in 20 years it’ll feel like they are a product of the science fiction clichés of the day, but for the time being they work pretty well.
3. Star Trek: The Next Generation (second version) and part of Star Trek Generations
(roughly 1989 – 1994)
After the first couple of years of Next Generation, the uniforms shifted away from the ridiculous spandex versions to a similarly designed but much more effective two-piece wool versions. The overall effect led to far less bizarre body posture amongst the main cast, and an overall more commanding look to the crew. On the negative side, it meant that everyone had to spend time pulling their shirts straight every time they stood up (something jokingly referred to as “the Picard maneuver”–check out this video for example), but that wasn’t a large price to pay for what was overall an extremely positive redesign.
2. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (first version) & Star Trek: Voyager
With the introduction of Deep Space Nine, the Starfleet personnel starting wearing outfits that had previously been used for Starfleet cadets. They were comfortable looking jumpsuits that looked pretty much like Next Generation uniforms but with the color and black portions inverted. It was a good look that worked for the first four years of Deep Space Nine and the entirety of Voyager, with a bit more of an “in the trenches” vibe than the more civilized Next Generation uniforms. The prominence of the black in the uniforms actually helped to focus attention on the actors themselves, and gave the uniforms a more streamlined look.
It’s a bit of an even bet whether I like these or the main Next Generation uniforms better, but these eventually got the nod simply because the cast didn’t need to keep adjusting their jackets every time they stood up.
Interestingly, Voyager didn’t shift away from these uniform designs at the same time that Deep Space Nine did, which was consistent with the idea that they were lost on the other side of the galaxy and not actively keeping up with Starfleet fashions. Of course, inconsistently, Next Generation didn’t shift to these costumes even though they were wearing them on Deep Space Nine at the same time for a few years. At least, they didn’t shift over until the movie Generations, and even then they spent the whole movie with the cast shifting back and forth between them.
1. Star Trek original series movies (The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, The Final Frontier, The Undiscovered Country, and the beginning of Generations)
(1982, 1984, 1986, 1989, 1991, 1994)
And this is my favorite Starfleet uniform. Introduced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (one of the franchise’s best segments), they were part of an overall redesign which took its cues not from something like NASA, but from the Navy. A lot of people objected to this and felt like it plunged Star Trek into a more warlike milieu, but I for one thought it was a welcome and needed adjustment. Suddenly, life on-board a starship felt urgent and energized (no pun intended), which went along with the story being more dynamic and relevant. And frankly, the idea that Starfleet wasn’t always military is a bit absurd–the Enterprise in the old series fought in wars and so on, which is definitely not something NASA does.
Anyway, the uniforms had an overall more formal look to them more clasps and decoration than we’d seen before, and which featured a dark red jacket which could be dramatically opened depending how disheveled the characters needed to look–Kirk even spent a bunch of time with a bloody hand-print on his white tunic. This gave the costumes a more cinematic quality which fit the big-screen environment of these stories.
These uniforms were also the go-to uniform for whenever Next Generation had a scene set in the past. In terms of internal continuity, these uniforms seem to have been in use in Starfleet longer than any other, as they were introduced at least by 2285 (when The Wrath of Khan takes place) and were still being used at least until 2348 (when Wesley Crusher was born), so that’s 63 years or more, according an online Star Trek chronology that I found.