The future was supposed to look cooler than this, right?
It’s 2018, which means we’re 17 years overdue for the majestic space stations of 2001: A Space Odyssey. According to Akira and Blade Runner, we’re a year away from moping through their skyscraping dystopias. And even though Back to the Future Part II got depressingly close to predicting America in 2015, at least Biff Tannen’s campaign to make Hill Valley great again came with hoverboards. It’s 2018, and we still don’t have hoverboards.
So I’ve ended up having to look even further to find a future that’s cooler. (Uh, both figuratively and literally, I guess?) Like, all the way to the 23rd century. The new art book Star Trek: The Art of John Eaves arrived at just the right time.
Trekkies have bickered for decades over which mutation of Star Trek is the best, and the battle shows no sign of letting up, even though we all know Deep Space Nine is the best. But regardless of which is your favorite (season of Deep Space Nine), chances are good John Eaves helped define its aesthetic: An artist and model-maker, Eaves started designing ships and props for 1989’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and then just… kept on going, all the way through last year’s Star Trek: Discovery. Over three decades, Eaves’ designs—of everything from phaser rifles to reimaginings of the Enterprise—have come to embody not just Star Trek, but how we imagine the future.
Written by Joe Nazzaro, The Art of John Eaves is crammed with Eaves’ concept art and told through the artist’s friendly, enthusiastic recollections. Eaves grew up at key points for both actual science (“The Gemini and Apollo missions taking us to the moon captivated me,” he remembers) and science-fiction cinema, devouring movies like Silent Running and Dark Star. The young Eaves was also exactly the right age to be influenced by brilliant concept artists like Ron Cobb (Alien) and Joe Johnston (The Empire Strikes Back)—artists he eagerly notes his debts to, when he isn’t remembering a few detours, like when he was diagnosed with red-green colorblindness. (“Of course the problem for an artist,” he dryly notes, “is that everything is made up of red and green.”)
But obviously, Eaves’ art is the real reason to pick up this book—and page after page, it doesn’t disappoint, with striking images that range from Eaves’ slick designs for ships like the Enterprise-B from Star Trek: Generations (a design that directly foreshadows his sinewy, powerful vision for the Enterprise-E) to his dark, creepy sketches of the bisected Borg Queen of Star Trek: First Contact.
Throughout, Eaves offers casual commentary, explaining everything from his color choices to inspiration. It’s the latter that’s the most fun: Eaves remembers taking bits and pieces from real-world aircraft, like the F-18 and the Corsair, but he also finds ideas in less likely places. “We used to sneak over and watch Jerry Goldsmith do the scoring for the movies,” he says of his time designing ships for Star Trek: Insurrection, “and at one point I remember seeing a grand piano with the lid open, and thought, ‘I don’t know how to do it, but wouldn’t that make part of a cool spaceship?’”
It’s impressive how closely Eaves’ designs have been replicated onscreen—though a few of his more inventive concepts never made it, including an eerie, spidery Cardassian shipyard for Deep Space Nine that, Nazzaro writes, was passed over for “a less ambitious design.” In some cases, these untaken roads are heartbreaking—like Eaves’ dramatic, baroque concepts for an alien village for Insurrection that promise a far more daring and interesting film than Insurrection ended up being. “Our budget was a lot bigger in the beginning,” Eaves explains, “so if you look at the initial sketches, we’ve got buildings set into a mountain, and a real tropical island look to it.”
There are challenges beyond the budgetary, too—from exhaustion during Star Trek: Enterprise (“By the middle of the first season,” Eaves says, “I was running out of different shapes for the ships. I would go to the grocery store or Target and look at everything. I would look in the kitchen aisle, so a couple of ships were based on blenders or juice mixers”) to the balance of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek, when Eaves was directed to take some inspiration from Star Trek’s original series, but not too much inspiration. Eaves faced similar constraints on Enterprise and Discovery. Thanks to contemporary Star Trek’s insistence on looking backward rather than forward, there’s a fascinating tension in Eaves’ most recent designs—the result of an artist trying to find an aesthetic that somehow looks both futuristic and like it predates a series that debuted back in 1966.
It’s not until the end of The Art of John Eaves that we get to his work redesigning the Enterprise—again!—for Discovery. “I did a bunch of sketches,” Eaves says, “knowing right off the bat I wanted to pay as much homage to the original Matt Jefferies design as possible, but change some of the configuration and surface detail.” And he did just that—somehow managing to slap a flashy new coat of paint on the Enterprise while still capturing and conveying the ship’s inimitable spirit. It’s pretty much what Eaves has been doing all along: Imagining stuff that comes from a future that doesn’t exist, then drawing it in a way that makes us wish it did.
Star Trek: The Art of John Eaves is available from Titan Books.
A writer, editor, and male model, Erik Henriksen lives in Portland, Oregon. He’s written for the Portland Mercury, The Stranger, io9.com, Wired.com, and Tor.com. (Hey! That’s this site!) Learn all you ever wanted to know and more at henriksenactual.com.