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Ralph McQuarrie’s sci-fi vision has never been more alive

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Ralph McQuarrie died in 2012. But just as the most iconic heroes never truly die, the conceptual designer and illustrator — known particularly for his contributions to science fiction films and television such as Star Wars and Star Trek — was still influencing what we saw on screen in 2017 and into 2018.

Ralph McQuarrie’s influence on Star Trek: Discovery
Ralph McQuarrie's design for a USS Enterprise refit in Star Trek: Phase II
Ralph McQuarrie’s design for a USS Enterprise refit in Star Trek: Phase II

Star Trek: Discovery’s titular ship, a Crossfield-class vessel, uses a USS Enterprise design McQuarrie worked on that was created for the scuttled Star Trek: Planet of the Titans feature film project. When that project fizzled, work began on a proposed new television series dubbed Star Trek: Phase II; while the DNA of that ’70s sequel series to the original 1960s TV Star Trek ultimately morphed into 1979’s big-screen Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that film’s production went a different direction with the Enterprise post-five-year-mission refit that was less a radical departure and instead much closer to the original Constitution class in appearance.

Elements of the discarded design ultimately made it on screen as background starship models in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and television’s Star Trek: The Next Generation (whose own Enterprise-D, though curvier than what you see above, definitely took some of its sleeker cues from the concept).

But Discovery, which just finished its first season on CBS All Access, is the most prominent use yet of this more angular take on the traditional saucer-and-twin nacelle configuration used by most Starfleet ships.

Ralph McQuarrie’s influence on Star Wars Rebels
Ralph McQuarrie's concept art of what would become Imperial Stormtroopers
Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art of what would become Imperial Stormtroopers in the original Star Wars

Star Wars Rebels, which is just on the cusp of ending its run on Disney XD, is heavily influenced by McQuarrie’s concept art for the original 1977 Star Wars movie (aka Episode IV — A New Hope).

The “chunky” Imperial Stormtroopers in the series, in particular, bear more of a resemblance to McQuarrie’s illustrations that inspired their looks in the groundbreaking film, than to the film characters themselves. But it still works, because it’s almost more Star Wars than Star Wars …

And the pastoral Rebels planet Lothal, with its beehive-inspired gigantic abandoned structures, resembles McQuarrie’s paintings of what Alderaan, Princess Leia’s shattered world, might have looked like before it was obliterated by the Death Star. (This painting and many others were featured in The Illustrated Star Wars Universe,a 1995 tour of the original Star Wars trilogy’s major planets that used repurposed concept art from McQuarrie and others along with “travelogue” text by Kevin J. Anderson.)

It’s not just places and things that made it from McQuarrie’s canvas to the Rebels world, though: Garazeb “Zeb” Orellios, the TV series’ Lasat muscle, bears an uncanny resemblance to the artist’s original concept for a character that would eventually become the mighty Wookiee Chewbacca, and many background and supporting characters can be traced to his sketches. Even his “sexy,” feminine concept for a protocol droid that became C-3PO found its way into the Star Wars canon via Rebels.


Ralph McQuarrie’s influence on Solo: A Star Wars Story

Ralph McQuarrie's concept art of the Millennium Falcon in Mos Eisley's Docking Bay 94 on Tatooine
Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art of the Millennium Falcon in Mos Eisley’s Docking Bay 94 on Tatooine in the original Star Wars

The Millennium Falcon in Solo: A Star Wars Story — in addition to being noticeably cleaner before Han got the keys from Lando — contains “new” elements such as a single-barreled dorsal cannon and an upward-facing sensor dish, as well as a sleeker design (with forward mandibles filled in by … something) and cool blue accents.

All of these differences add up to an overall look that is closer to McQuarrie’s original vision for Star Wars’ iconic “pirate ship,” while still retaining the familiar Falcon feel we’ve known for so long.

It’s gratifying to see Ralph McQuarrie’s influence alive and well and still inspiring storytellers, from A Galaxy Far, Far Away to the farthest reaches of the Final Frontier.

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Jayson Peters

Digital, social and print media pro. Nerdvana's founder, curator and editor.

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