Way back in 1964, just as GENE RODDENBERRY was beginning to work on pre-production for his new Star Trek TV pilot for Desilu Studios, the first miniature of the U.S.S. Enterprise was built from drawings by MATT JEFFERIES. It was only 4 inches long, but it was enough to work from in order to build a larger, more detailed 33-inch model.
Hollywood model builder RICHARD C. DATIN was hired, and he, in turn, hired a subcontractor with a large metal lathe to work on some of the major subcomponents. Together, during the month of November, the two men put about 110 hours into constructing a mostly pine wood model with Plexiglass and brass detailing. Roddenberry reviewed the model, requested some minor changes from Datin, and the completed model was submitted to Desilu for final approval in December of 1964. Total cost for labor and materials: $600 (about $5,950 in today’s dollars).
That 33-inch model (known affectionately as the “3-foot” model) was used for the majority of filming for the rejected first pilot of the series, “The Cage,” while Desilu ordered the construction of a larger 135-inch (11-f00t) model constructed from plaster, sheet metal, and wood…costing $6,000 in 1965. That more detailed, lighted model made it into the opening shot of “The Cage” where the camera zooms into the bridge, but all of the rest of the visual effects used the 3-foot model with shots filmed from farther away, as it was less detailed and had no working lights.
Ultimately (with some modifications), the 11-foot model was used for the rest of the Star Trek series, with a few notable exceptions. The Enterprise that whooshes past during the opening credits is the 3-foot model. Also, the Enterprise that emerges from the galactic barrier in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and the miniaturized Enterprise in “Requiem for Methuselah” were also both the 3-foot model…
Of course, the iconic 11-foot model now sits in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., recently restored to its former greatness and more. But whatever happened to that 3-foot model? Well, as it turns out, Gene kept it right there on his desk at home…!
Paramount had held onto that model and kept it in storage after filming wrapped on the last episode of Star Trek in early 1969. But when Gene returned to Paramount in 1973 for the production of the Star Trek animated series, Paramount presented it as a gift to the now-legendary creator of their highly-profitable (in reruns and licensing) tentpole property.
And there it remained until the early part of pre-production for what ultimately became Star Trek: The Motion Picture. At the beginning of 1978, a visual effects company called Robert Abel & Associates was brought in to create the refitted U.S.S. Enterprise and all of the VFX for the film. They asked if there was still a physical model of the original Enterprise they could borrow and work from. By this point, the 11-foot model had been at the Smithsonian for nearly half a decade, but Gene still had the 3-foot model on his desk. So Paramount “asked” (studio execs don’t typically expect to hear no as an answer) Gene if he would loan his model to RA&A for a short period while they worked on the movie. Associate Producer JON POVILL came to Gene’s home in Bel Air Estates sometime in early 1978, picked up the model, and left. And that was the last time Gene ever saw this cherished possession.
You can actually see the 3-foot model in the background of the left side of this 1978 photo taken at the RA&A workshop…
Unfortunately, things went rather disastrously with RA&A and their lackluster efforts to produce even two VFX shots (you can read the full story here), and the company was fired by Paramount a year later after blowing through a reported $11 million on what turned out to be completely unusable footage. That same day, Robert Abel immediately fired over a hundred RA&A employees on the spot, leaving almost no one to return the 3-foot model to Gene and probably not really having much inclination to do so.
Gene himself attempted to get back the model, even at one point in November of 1979 sending the following letter to Paramount Studios head JEFF KATZENBERG…
But to no avail. The model was never returned, and Gene and his wife Majel didn’t like to discuss it publicly. Gene was asked about the 3-foot model many times at convention appearances and would always respond with something like, “Well, I lent it out, but I don’t remember who it was lent to.” There is a story out there that, behind the scenes, Gene actually reached out to Robert Abel directly asking whatever happened to the model, and Abel responded that he couldn’t remember. So rather than harping on it until his death in 1991 and throwing Abel under the bus, Gene seems to have let it go and never mentioned Abel specifically during conventions. One fan on Facebook, DAVID KIRSCH, posted, “I remember asking Majel about what happened to it when we met at the Smithsonian after the large Enterprise restoration. She just responded with a scowl.” Robert Abel himself passed away in 2001, and MAJEL BARRETT died at the end of 2008.
And so the story and mystery might have ended there…were it not for a seemingly innocuous eBay posting on the evening before October 31 listing a “Rare Custom Star Trek USS Enterprise Spaceship by Richard Datin – Condition: Used.” The opening bid price was $1,000 with the lister identified only as merch_seller_90 (now storage_buyer_90), an eBay seller since 2014 based in Van Nuys, CA. Apparently, he had acquired it from winning an auction for an abandoned storage unit and seemed to believe that this was perhaps some prop replica of the original model and not the original model itself! The listing was first reported via X (formerly Twitter) by Trekcore.com co-owner ALEX PERRY.
Fans immediately jumped all over this. Could it be? Had the long-lost holy grail of Star Trek finally been located? Was this the same 3-foot model from (gasp!) 1964??? If so, it would be one of the oldest, it not THE oldest, pieces of Star Trek history still remaining intact! Looking at close-up photos of the auction piece (more at the bottom of this blog), fans began doing some serious sleuthing, as fans are inclined to do at the drop of any hat…
There was even a photo posted of a stamp/sticker at the bottom of the base of the model with “Richard C. Datin, Jr.” on it, including his mailing address and phone numberat the time. (Scroll to the bottom of this page to see that photo and others.)
Convinced that this was, in fact, Gene Roddenberry’s lost treasure, at least one fan quickly reached out to Gene’s son, ROD RODDENBERRY, and Rod reportedly contacted eBay to request that the auction be taken down, which it promptly was (and so the original auction page can no longer be accessed by anyone).
It’s not known if Rod told eBay that the item had been stolen—eBay does not permit the sale of known stolen property—or simply claimed to be the rightful owner and did not give his permission for the sale. However, word on social media (always a reliable source!) is that plans are now underway to return the model to Rod Roddenberry.
I reached out to Rod for a comment via his associate, TREVOR ROTH, but I haven’t heard back yet. Among the questions still unanswered are:
- Will the model be restored? (You can see the wear and tear damage in the close-up photos below.)
- If it is restored, will Rod keep it in his office, auction it, or donate it to the Smithsonian or some other Hollywood or Star Trek-themed museum?
- Does the model need to be returned to Paramount (since they gave it to Gene, not Rod)? Personally, I don’t believe so, as the model was obviously gifted to Gene. However, Paramount did, unofficially, retake possession of the model when Jon Povill came to pick it up. Hopefully, Paramount has no interest in going into the prop-collecting business.
Before the auction was taken down by eBay, some fans were able to capture the product detail photos. Here they are…