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I am watching Star Trek together with my wife. We just finished the three seasons of The Original Series1, and are now mid-way into Star Trek Next Generation.

I don't think I have seen the Enterprise fly right-to-left even a single time. It always flies left-to-right, appearing on the left edge of the screen, and flying towards the right edge of the screen. In the dozens of episodes seen so far, with many different encounters with planes, ships, stations, creatures, ... it seems strange that this random fact is so consistent.

Is there any specific reason for this curiosity? Is it simply (overly?) consistent imagery and visual style of the tv series? Or because doing it this way reduced production costs?


1 We watched the remastered version with some (crude) CG graphics, there might be differences to the original.

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    Because you're watching the same shot endlessly recycled
    – Valorum
    May 3 at 9:38
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    I recall that in "Mirror, Mirror" there's a shot where we see the Mirror Universe Enterprise going right-to-left. This was done by flipping the negative, so it's still the same side of the model we're seeing though.
    – dennis_vok
    May 3 at 10:14
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    Yeah, and why is it always "right side up" on the screen when there's no up or down in space?
    – user14111
    May 3 at 10:15
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    Furthermore, in addition to @Valorum's main point of recycling stock footage, the reason that the stock footage is left-to-right (and not right-to-left) could be due to the fact that audiences in Western cultures tend to view L2R movement as more positive than R2L. So often you'll see the 'hero' of a movie or tv-show move from left to right and the enemy from right to left. See also here: kottke.org/16/02/left-to-right-character-movement-in-movies
    – dennis_vok
    May 3 at 10:37
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    As the lyrics in star trekking mention "always going forward 'cos we can't find reverse"
    – Alith
    May 3 at 11:22
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The large model of the Enterprise used to film those shots was rather unfinished on the port (left) side and had plugs for the power cables for the lights on the port side. So the big 11 foot model was always photographed from the starboard or right side and thus with the stern (back) on the left and the bow (front) on the right, and thus travelling from left to right.

And as Valorum wrote, the same shots of the Enterprise were used over and over again in various episodes, but with different star-fields or planets in the background.

Contrary to the three-foot model, the port side of what Datin himself referred to as the "4X model" (as the model was exactly four times the size of its smaller sibling) was not as detailed as the rest, especially on the secondary hull and the dorsal. As this was the location point where the electric wiring was connected, this side would never be filmed. By far the vast majority of the shots seen of the "'eleven-footer" is the ship moving from left to right. On the very rare occasion that a port-side view was required (which occurs in only three episodes, "Dagger of the Mind", "Shore Leave", and "Mirror, Mirror"), a visual trick was applied. Datin fabricated mirrored decals of the registry number on the nacelles and these were applied on the starboard nacelles. In post-production, the image was flipped so that the number could be read as normal. (To Boldly Go: Rare Photos from the TOS Soundstage - Season Two, p. 92) As a precaution, Datin produced several copies of the decal sheet as spares, in order to replace decals on the model when they got damaged through use.

Constitution class - Eleven-foot model

There were tiny 3 inch and 4 inch models of the Enterprise which made brief appearances, and a three foot model which made most of the special effects shots in the first pilot "The Cage" and most of the shots of the Enterprise zooming by in the opening title credits.

And I have seen a site which lists all of the special effects shots of the various Enterprise models and all the episodes in which each shot is used.

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    As additional information, one of the original models is now at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and went through a very thorough refurbishment. One of several videos documenting the refurbishment process is here: youtube.com/watch?v=CA8D5lK8guE In this video is a discussion of the myriad of lighting effects inside the original model, and how the connections were made on the port side of the model.
    – Milwrdfan
    May 4 at 0:57
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    The model can be seen at an online exhibit at airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/…. You can see the unfinished starboard side on e.g. photos 8 and 17. May 4 at 2:08
  • Does Star Trek actually use the stern/bow terminology? I don't think I've ever heard that used with an aircraft or spacecraft before. We do use 'port' and 'starboard' in aviation, but I've always just heard 'forward' and 'aft' for front/back.
    – reirab
    May 4 at 14:07
  • This answers the question for the TV show - did the movies have the same limitation? I know they went through several Enterprises over the course of the original-cast movies (and of course in IV they were in a stolen Klingon ship), but did they continue to follow the left-to-right rule even then, when they had a larger budget and presumably better models? May 4 at 14:46
  • Thanks, this is exactly the real-world-based answer which I was looking for.
    – fgysin
    May 5 at 7:27
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In western cultures, we typically read from left to right (and from top to bottom). Therefore, going from left to right is often subconsciously interpreted as "going forward", whereas going from right to left is often interpreted as "going back" or "retreating".

For example, it has been demonstrated that people look at websites from left to right - not just while reading the text, but while looking at the overall site as well. And if you look at military footage, typically the own forces are shown "advancing" from left to right, and the enemy is shown "retreating" from right to left. This principle has also been used in famous logo graphics like the FedEx logo or many sports-related logos (while there are examples for logos implying movement from right to left).

So, if the Enterprise flies from left to right on our screens, it flies "forward", "toward the solution of this week's problem", "into the future".

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    This isn't the case at all. The fact of the matter is only one side of the ship was fully detailed. The other had cables for lighting hanging out of it. May 5 at 13:34
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    @MatthewWhited And why did they decide to put the cables on that side of the model, instead of the other side? There's no contradiction between their explanation and your explanation.
    – MJ713
    May 5 at 17:14
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    It might be worth adding a reference to the other answer here, or at least something along the lines of "They chose to fly from left to right because...". Just to make it explicit how this mental bias would have led to the setup that got built.
    – Bobson
    May 5 at 17:52
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    @MJ713 there is no contradiction, but it may well be a coincidence. It is just a subjective evalution.
    – nurettin
    May 5 at 19:42
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    @nurettin - The left-to-right for progress & right-to-left for setbacks is a well-known and widely utilized paradigm in the entertainment industry. You can find numerous references to it. It would be quite surprising if the Star Trek production team had not considered it when designing the prop. May 5 at 19:54
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TNG had the benefit of a large model (and better video editing) to work with at Image G (the company that did all the special effects for the series). Levar Burton's other series, Reading Rainbow, had a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how they did it (they talk about the ship itself around 11:04)

The TL;DR there is they had a 6-foot diameter model they would pan cameras around to take various shots. Since scenes were expensive to shoot, they often reused a lot of shots, which (in the first few TNG seasons) were mostly left-to-right. But I watched the TNG episode A Matter of Perspective and the shots they had of the Enterprise orbiting the planet were all right to left. As you can see in the title card below, the Enterprise is moving from the right, and did so most of the episode.

Title card with right-to-left movement

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    I know it's an optical illusion, but that last image from TNG makes the Enterprise look totally warped to me, as if the saucer is is twisting down to the starboard side.
    – Peter M
    May 4 at 0:05
  • @Peter M Yes, I often see that illusion. Usually when the model is pointed in the other direction, so it is nice to see this example, and know itis just anillusion and not a warped model. One possible reason for the illusion may be that the camera may be very close to the model, thus making the farther nacelle look closer to the saucer. and May 4 at 17:32
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    This was one of my favorite episodes of Reading Rainbow as a kid! May 4 at 19:35
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Although the OP is satisfied with the answer to their question, @henning-kockerbeck also nails it on the head, but for a different reason.

It's a question of which came first, and in this case, the Enterprise being filmed left to right came last, and film theory as taught in Western culture, came first.

With regards to the Enterprise TOS model, someone had to make the decision before of: which side was going to get the wiring put in. (I know the model was originally built sans internals, but IIRC the detailing was already bias to starboard)

The usual case is that a bunch of story boards are made up in pre-production. These little 'picture-grams' give an idea of the movement or action on screen and usually gives visual cues as to direction of travel and movement, usually again with arrows and or descriptions.

The model shop with this knowledge and through experience then builds the model, knowing that at least one of the sides is going to be fitted with not only wiring but also the supporting rod for when it gets filmed.

Now this is where it fits for the TOS model only - the model builder built his models a particular way, and not in a way that is commonly used for filming physical models, true even back then and especially true today (ignoring CGI). This then meant that even if storyboards dictated a different direction, they had to film it with reversed decals and then flip it (as mentioned in other answers).

This is not normal.

This is only for the eleven foot model.

All other sizes of the model could have been filmed from other angles.

In fact the eleven foot model was mostly ignored once the 'beauty' shots were done, as it was the other, smaller, models that got all the 'action' shots instead.

This also led to the rebuilding of the model to make it 'proper' for filming when they went to the big screen and beyond (in addition to the original model not being loaned out).

This meant the physical model, at the very least, is built, complete, all around (using the Enterprise as the example), with around 5 points for the armature rods to be plugged into.

This then allows the model to be filmed from a variety of angles as dictated by the director.

As the OP mentions Star Trek Next Generation too, then the following applies:

So although the OP's preferred answer is technically correct, especially for the singular eleven foot model in ST:TOS, in almost all other cases building the model that way is not the reason it was filmed that way.

The reason for this is because the director, together with the storyboard artist and possibly the writer, would have put it down on paper that way, and it is the culmination of theory that is taught, consciously or otherwise, that people accept seeing things go a certain way to indicate a protagonist or an antagonist, in film.

The old Good vs. Bad.

But where does this come from?

..right and left hands are tied to positive and negative depictions in the Bible.

Some religions have held (perhaps only in passing discussion) that the right hand is that of good, and the left hand is that of evil, and as such it seemed a natural fit into understanding the underlying semiotics of directionality and affect.

...clearly not the most direct influence but it may have effects on a more cultural level.

enter image description here

Note right-handed-ness.

The horizontally drawn cross is left to right.

Read this article:Why a Characters Lateral Movement On-Screen Matters in Film

The footage that showed right to left lateral movement made the participants feel bad. They responded that watching the footage made them have more negative feelings than the footage in which the lateral movement went from left to right. ... our culture has trained our brains to view left to right movement as an indicator or progress of success.

and it refers to a dead link which is now a pdf: Directionality of Film Character and Camera Movement

In film:

The primacy of the “right” hand is often repeated in popular culture, and the films themselves reflect this perspective. For example, an important monologue from the classic film Night of the Hunter (1955) overtly describes this belief structure:

Would you like me to tell you the little story of right hand left hand?
The story of good and evil?
H-A-T-E…it was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low.
L-O-V-E…you see these fingers, dear hearts?
These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love.

NotH and Cruel Sea

The Cruel Sea, uses ships of a different kind, and shows that the direction a hero takes is not related just to a fight but rather its journey too, as described in Donald Sinden's "Laughter in the Second Act":

The editor, Peter Tanner, showed me a clip of film in which the Compass Rose was sailing from left to right across the screen. 'Now, that is exactly the shot I need to show the ship returning to Liverpool – but the ship is going the wrong way.' I asked him what he meant and he said 'The eye of the viewer accepts anything travelling from left to right as going away from home, anything going from right to left is returning home.

(My emphasis)

And since film predates videogames, you see this in videogames too:

For example, a number of video games have featured left to right movement as the dominant direction. The Atari 2600 game Pitfall! (1982) pioneered the popular side-scrolling platform genre in which the main character “is seen from the side and typically moves from left to right as the background and structures continuously appear on the right and disappear on the left”

enter image description here

Including:

...the iconic, mega-selling Super Mario Bros. “Horizontal scroll” was a common aesthetic feature of games in the 80s, titles that feature it as ones in which “the player character would fight his way from left to right, by either battling or avoiding opponents”

This seems to point to a universality of the primacy of the “right,” that is robust and enduring...

(My addition) in Western culture...

Here's another example, illustrating the use of concept artwork and use of directions or visual cues in storyboards:

conceptstoryboardcombo

Of course, (film) rules are made to be broken:

Rag tag fleet 1978

(I know, I know, Star Wars Episode IV's attack on the Death Star is right to left, and just goes to show that it is not a hard and fast rule, but in absence of a directors direction, it is the fall back 'guideline', or perhaps, trope. And usually, if it is established in that direction, visual consistency then usually flows thereafter. Modern tv and film has shown that the audience can accept both directions without questioning it, and also that the audience is now very much beyond just the western world)

So, to summarize: the ones-sided nature of eleven foot model forced filming on that side, but it is not by any means the sole reason for having filmed in that particular direction on screen

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    Excellent answer. The Battlestar Galactica reference is not so much an exception as it is a nuanced example. The heroes are fleeing home, they're on the run, they're not making progress. Their right-to-left flight underscores the fact that the entire series is about a retreat. May 6 at 18:12
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A consistent left-to-right movement means that what has been visited lies on the left, and to the right is where no man one has gone before.

A mixture of right-to-left and left-to-right traversal would be contrary to the Star Trek mission; the ship would be going places where it has gone before.

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    Hi, welcome to SF&F. Can you explain how you are extrapolating this to a universe that has more than 1 dimension?
    – DavidW
    May 5 at 20:49

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