Friday, 20 July 2012


A Model From the Dim, Dark, Distant Past

When "Star Trek: The Search For Spock" was released to cinemas in 1984 I was right in the middle of a fervent Star Trek model building frenzy - all sorts of starships littered the confines of my work area. After seeing the film, I fell in love with the simple design and gigantic size of the Spacedock model that played such an important role for Captain Kirk and his merry band of outlaws. The original Spacedock model appeared to be about 5 to 6 feet in height, with motorised doors and tens of thousands of pinhole window lights dotting the outer hull. Now, for some strange unfathomable reason, I'm unable to locate any original work-in-progress photos, so the only ones I've got are those black and white scans from Issue #15 of "Science Fiction Modeller". The completed model with its lights on have been scanned from hard copies and are therefore not of the best quality. I did find my original plans however.


I have some clear memories about the construction of this model, however I'll let my original self tell the story via Issue #15 of "Science Fiction Modeller". 

The impressive Spacedock model first appeared in “ST III: The Search For Spock”, Leonard Nimoy’s directorial debut. The 2.5km or 5km long (depending on your reference sources) orbiting space platform was a virtual “city in space”, containing docking, maintenance and repair facilities for Starfleet ships, as well as Habitat, Research, Communications and Administrative sections. The model also appeared in “ST IV: the Voyage Home” and “ST VI: The Undiscovered Country. Television’s “ST:TNG” has also featured the Spacedock in a number of episodes, usually under the guise of it being a Starbase.
Highly reminiscent in overall design of the Cloud City of Bespin in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”, the Spacedock model was constructed by Steve Gawly, Jeff Mann and many others from Industrial Light & Magic and was approximately 6 feet long. It featured motorised docking bay doors, interior neon lighting (most of the model was made from clear acrylic) and many lengths of optical fibre.
For my model, I decided that it was to be representative of a structure 5km in length, with an accompanying diameter of about 3km. Locating my trusty Plastruct hemisphere (78mm in diameter) for the Communications sphere near the bottom of Spacedock, I drew up a rough outline, using reference photos, of the basic shape. No details were incorporated into this drawing, save for the many doors, ports and bays present on the hull. This gave me a picture of the finished model as being about 48cm (19”) tall and 29cm (11.5”) wide.
Because I wanted to illuminate my Spacedock with 12Volt Grain of Wheat bulbs, I pre-planned where they should be positioned inside the model and how they were all going to be joined together and powered. I also wanted the model to be removable from its display base and to be powered separately from it, so a series of brass tubes of the appropriate diameter became the “spine” of my model, the lower end being hidden amongst the communication spires. A slightly narrower piece of tubing “telescoped” into this end, allowing me to mount the model in a vertical position on the base. The many lighting wires would be fed through these brass tubes and out to a female socket, disguised as detailing, on the lower cylinder, just above the Communications sphere, to allow the insertion of a jack from my 12volt plug pack.

Once organised with this major piece of planning, I literally began “at the bottom”, vacforming two hemispheres from my Plastruct dome, from 2mm plasticard. Two light bulbs were positioned of opposite sides of the central tube and Araldited onto the brass. The hemispheres were threaded onto the tube and joined together with a recessed strip of plastic. The large cavity at the bottom was a plastic cylinder with a hole cut in the centre for the mounting end of the brass tube. The spires themselves consisted of various lengths of sprue, girders, gun barrels and other assorted bits and pieces. My pin vice was used to drill out the many “windows” that dot the surface which was painted matt black to test out the effectiveness of the interior lighting. NOTE: The lights were constantly checked and re-checked as construction of each section was completed – a vital necessity as the model is permanently sealed.
Fate smiled on the next two cylindrical sections as I managed to locate a piece of plastruct for the lower half and one of the stages from an old Airfix Saturn V rocket became the upper half. Brass tubing again supported these sections, with circular plasticard “caps” joined to each of the ends. The installation of a pair of 12volt bulbs in each cylinder provided the internal lighting through the numerous (drilled and cut) ports and windows. The Communications sphere was connected to the lower cylinder (which, as mentioned before, featured the female socket for all the lighting) with the pairs of wires connected to just two extensions which exited the top of the three sections. For all the large ports and loading bays, clear acrylic was lightly “frosted’ with sandpaper and glued carefully onto the inside of each surface. Detailing consisted of many hundreds of tiny strips of plasticard, some vertical, some horizontal, glued in regular patterns over the surface.

Next came the difficult Habitat section, an almost hemispherical dome with large loading bays and four smaller truncated cones attached to the bottom. Lady Luck was still with me as, after a couple of days searching in various shops, I managed to locate, in K-Mart, a hemispherical plastic dish of the correct size, with four small legs that were easily cut and sanded from the surface. Unfortunately the dish’s soft plastic was incompatible with the glues I was using, but vacforming it a number of times resulted in one good copy with which to work. The twenty-four loading bays were cut out and backed with acrylic, as were a few other randomly spaced ports. On the inside, I constructed a triangular prism from plasticard, mounted a 12volt bulb in each of the three sides facing outwards and glued on the “bottom”. The four small truncated cones were vacformed from a single balsawood pattern. Detailing consisted of more narrow plastic strips, as well as many lengths of T-shaped Plastruct radiating out from the centre of the underside. The cylinder above this dome was cut from Plastruct tube with a couple of 12volt bulbs added to the interior.

And now to the section I had been dreading – the Drydock area – two quite large truncated cones atop each other, a myriad of pinpoints of light, as well as the installation of a pair of sliding doors for entry into the cavernous interior. The smaller cone was vacformed from a suitably sized and shaped plastic pot plant, the relevant section being trimmed from the whole shape – Lady Luck smiled once again! Lights were installed, details added and 1/32’ holes drilled for illumination. Because of the 29cm diameter of the main Drydock section, I was unable to vacform a suitable shape this large. The only alternative seemed to be to build up the area in pie-shaped sections. The basic framework consisted of a number of discs and circles cut from 2mm plasticard. The encompassing ring of “video” screens, situated on a vertical ledge inset into the underside, was roughly formed from randomly placed strips of plastic with the rectangular and square areas coloured with felt pens to provide the effect. Eight bulbs were positioned around the circumference of the bottom circle, while small pieces of Plastruct were used as “edges” to brace the pie-shaped sections that were laid on top and puttied and sanded smooth.
For the operational Drydock doors, only one out of the four equally spaced around the hull, I used a frame of Plastruct and plasticard glued to the inside of one section, to enable the sheets to slide back and forth by hand. Hundreds of tiny holes were drilled for the lights. Lady Luck deserted me at this crucial stage as my Dremel tool feigned illness and I was reluctantly forced to do all the holes by hand with my pin vice, a time-consuming and hand-aching chore.
The Administration section which rested atop the Drydock area consisted of a number of plastic circles, putty for the rounded edges and six vacformed structures, a truncated cone and a large donut shaped “bubble” with four smaller ones surrounding it, which were vacformed from two balsawood half shapes and joined together. The spires and towers were pieces of sprue and kit parts, similar to those used on the lower Communications section. More bulbs were installed, holes drilled, detail strips added and the entire model sanded as smooth as possible.
The Spacedock was sprayed light blue/grey, after firstly masking off the larger loading bays and ports. Additional shades of darker blue/grey were handpainted on in certain areas, while my airbrush and a rectangular piece of cardboard provided the necessary panelling and “dirtying down”. Letraset shapes and symbols added more detailing.

One final touch was the construction of a very small Enterprise and Excelsior from scraps of plasticard and putty, adding them to the model, just outside the open Drydock doors, by using two strands of optical fibre. These tiny models were only a centimetre or so in length and certainly provided a welcome relief from the enormity of the Spacedock itself.
All in all, this was a challenging project that took many months of work and much pre-planning. All twenty-nine 12volt lightbulbs were wired in parallel so as to cause as little inconvenience as possible if a couple should fail. The Spacedock model, I very happy to say, still lights up like the proverbial Christmas tree, a quarter of a century later!

Here's how my Spacedock looks today. Except for a few minor cracks in some surfaces, a couple of missing spires and layers of dust, it has survived surprisingly well, considering that it's more than a quarter of a century old! (Wish I looked that good after twenty-five years on a shelf and in cupboards!)

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