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I recently came across this comic panel on Facebook, which I found on Twitter.
I have no idea if anyone has ever discussed this before, but my uncle and I had this conversation during the Next Generation run (I’m guessing around 1991). His idea was that the shape of these ships was influenced by their need to maximize combat efficiency. As a result, the best chances a starship had of winning an encounter is to be oriented face first towards the opponents. The problem is that the opponents had the same design characteristic, and it was difficult to get either ship into a bad position when facing off before combat started. That seemed reasonable to me.
However, it was really about things not looking stupid, or more generally making sure the viewers understood what they saw. For example, there was an episode of Next Generation called Power Play in which the Enterprise approached the “southern polar region” of a moon. In space, the “south pole” is really meaningless, but okay, fine. They approached the south pole. Why did they orient themselves like this?
The ship was shown underneath the planet, still right side up, but up and down make no sense in space. Why isn’t the ship upside down? In the alternative, why isn’t the ship right side up but above the planet (thus reversing the y axis of the shot)? The answer, of course, is to communicate to the viewer that the ship is at the south pole without disorientating them. It’s just a TV show after all.
So yeah, it’s probably about things not looking stupid.
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In case the tweet is ever deleted, here’s a copy of it. However, to avoid infringing his copyright, I don’t reproduce the image at issue here.