For more than a half-century, the “arrowhead” or “delta” has been synonymous with Star Trek.
As much as the Enterprise itself, the arrowhead is the visual cue that provides context and sets the stage for the audience. And yet, despite its popularity, the arrowhead is currently surrounded by controversy. The revelation of a memo between Robert Justman and William Ware Theiss turned fans’ understanding upside down and stripped the arrowhead of its Enterprise connection, in favor of its status as a general Starfleet symbol. This is problematic on multiple levels and unnecessarily complicates the meaning of the most ubiquitous symbol in all of Star Trek history.
During the original series (1966-1969), it was understood that the arrowhead was a distinct signifier of the Enterprise and its crew. By the time of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it had become a symbol for Starfleet as a whole, a tradition carried on by all subsequent iterations of the franchise. However, due to its inclusion in the Kelvin and Discovery prequels, there has been a need to justify its inclusion and change its meaning as that of “starship officer” or just Starfleet.
John Cooley’s article in StarTrek.com is the best example of this. By referencing an internal memo between William Ware Theiss and Robert Justman, Cooley proposes that fandom has been wrong for nearly 50 years, and the arrowhead was always meant to stand for more than just the Enterprise. Understandably, this has caused some pushback. To come to any sort of resolution, we must consider the insignia itself, the role of Starfleet as understood in-universe, and the nuances of visual storytelling.
First, it’s important to understand the on-screen evidence. During the original series, we see a wide variety of chest insignia. Other than the Enterprise’s arrowhead, we see distinct patterns for the Antares, starbase officers, cadets, Starfleet command officers, Commodore Decker on the Constellation, and the Exeter crew. It should be noted that I agree with Cooley on everything not-Starship related. It makes perfect sense that the Antares had a “merchant marine” insignia, that cadets have a smaller version of the Starfleet command sunflower, and that Starbase personnel have different insignia than Starship personnel. No debate there.
As for those Starship personnel, though, Cooley takes the on-screen evidence and interprets the exact opposite of what the audience has interpreted for five decades. The audience saw the Enterprise arrowhead, the Constellation pretzel, and the Exeter rectangle. According to the memo between Justman and Theiss, the Exeter was a mistake: “I have checked the occurrences out with Mr. Roddenberry, who has reassured me that all Starship personnel wear the Starship emblem that we have established for our Enterprise crew members to wear.”
Note the capitalization of Starship. We’ll come back to that.
Timing is the key, here. The Exeter was featured in “The Omega Glory,” airing in March, 1968. There was not another instance when a starship’s crew was featured through the rest of the series, which ended in 1969. So, in effect, this was a memo without consequence. The (dead) crew of the Defiant was featured in “The Tholian Web,” in November 1968, but the original audience never saw a full uniform to confirm either way. In fact, the only true point of contention was during “Court Martial,” airing in February, 1967. In it, background personnel and extras clearly wore the familiar arrowhead. This forced the audience to make a mental choice: which was the mistake? Now, was it more plausible to the audience that the Constellation and Exeter were mistakes, or that background characters in a single Season One episode were wearing extra’s uniforms because the show’s budget was infamously shoe-stringed?
More practically, why would the production team go out of their way to make new insignia for Decker and Ron Tracey if they could and should have just been using the same uniforms? As far as the viewing audience knew in the 1960s, every instance of not-Enterprise personnel featured on screen was accompanied by a different chest insignia. Well, the fans clearly chose a side: the “Court Martial” extras were the outliers. And out of this, fanon was born.
Fanon, or “fan canon,” evolved from the post-TOS community, bound by conventions and fanzines. This fan community invented a series of facts that became internally canonized over the decades. One of the most prominent of these beliefs was that each Starship had its own assignment patch. After all, there were “only twelve like [the Enterprise] in the fleet,” why wouldn’t they each have their own patch?
The arrowhead was not the symbol of Starfleet or the Federation, it was uniquely attached to the Enterprise. Its later adoption by the whole of Starfleet was an honor, a recognition of the extraordinary accomplishments of Kirk and his crew. In the novelization of The Motion Picture, Gene Roddenberry himself gave justification for this exceptionalism: the Enterprise was the only Starship to complete its five-year mission successfully.
Truly a feat worthy of fleet-wide praise.
This brings us back to the capitalization of Starship. During the original series, there are only a dozen or so Starship class ships. This doesn’t mean there were only a dozen ships flying around, but rather that as a classification only those dozen were “Starships.” Think of “Starship” like you would “Battleship” or “Cruise Ship” – it denotes a specific class of vessel.
Starships are the top of the line, the most powerful, the most advanced ships in outer space. By Roddenberry’s own confession, calling them a “heavy cruiser” was a euphemism for the true power these ships held. This was long before the accepted use of Constitution Class or the massive space battles of Deep Space Nine, wherein starships were mass-produced and expendable. Instead of a reflection of the navy of a superpower, Kirk’s Starfleet was a Napoleonic NASA – individualized ships manned by highly specialized crews, sailing about space in search of adventure. Pride in your ship was paramount, and what better way to show that pride than through individualized symbols?
Enterprise retroactively confirmed this trajectory: Jonathan Archer’s Enterprise wasn’t mass-produced, it was unique ship, staffed with a crew trained for its specific operations. Erika Hernandez’s NX-02 was of the same class but upgraded from Archer’s NX-01. It’s most useful to think of these as warp-capable versions of space shuttles, individual ships at the cutting edge of scientific technology. And like in NASA, each ship, each program, and each capsule had its own assignment patch.
Today’s astronauts wear American flags, they wear their qualification wings, they wear their rank, but they also wear their assignment patch(es), be it Freedom 7 or STS-135 or Project Orion.
Moreover, every unit in the US armed forces has its own insignia, from Army regiment to Air Force wing to, yes, individual warships. Cooley’s notion that each ship having its own patch is somehow odd is divorced from the current state of military traditions where ships in the US Navy have their own patch. When Cooley says: “The insignia worn on Starfleet uniforms is the equivalent of the badges worn by U.S. Service members — to show how they serve, not where they serve” he’s getting it backwards. Cooley is confusing the assignment patch with a qualification badge because of its physical location on the person.
But location is also critical to the correct interpretation: Kirk isn’t wearing “starship qualification” on his breast, he’s wearing “Command Division, Enterprise” on his breast. The symbolism is as important as the literal interpretation – it’s a source of pride, an uncluttered and clear message to all who see it. “Kirk, Enterprise.” Not “Kirk, Starfleet.”
Most importantly though, Star Trek is, by definition, an exercise in visual storytelling. Visual storytelling is about conveying information without verbal exposition. The audience doesn’t need to know why sciences wear blue and security wears red, simply that they do, and neither wears gold, like the Captain. In the case of the assignment patches, the arrowhead absolutely must equate to the Enterprise because if it doesn’t, the producers are intentionally confusing the audience. The Antares, Starbase, and command personnel aren’t wearing different insignia because Theiss wanted to come up with an elaborate matrix of patches and logos. They’re wearing different insignia because the audience needs to know these characters are not a part of the Enterprise crew.
By Cooley’s interpretation, Matt Decker needed to be wearing an arrowhead. To explain this invented inconsistency, Cooley claims the pretzel means someone with the rank of flag officer in field command. There is absolutely no canon justification for this interpretation other than the word “Commodore,” which in itself isn’t necessarily a rank but a job title. Cooley ignores the much easier answer that the pretzel was a visual cue to the audience that Decker was an outsider. The image of Decker and his pretzel sitting in Kirk’s chair surrounded by bridge officers wearing the arrowhead was a way of telling the audience information: Decker did not belong there.
The same with Ron Tracey and Charlie Evans: they’re outsiders. When Charlie Evans donned the arrowhead it was a visual reinforcement for the audience that the Enterprise crew was attempting to integrate him. But note that it was not the normal uniform, it was the wrap-around with the arrowhead pointing sideways. This is all visual storytelling, reinforcing for the audience that Charlie isn’t successfully being acculturated; he’s still different. In the later series, they do similar things by having admirals and cadets wear different uniforms, even while the arrowhead had become standard.
Michael Okuda understands visual storytelling better than I could ever dream, which is exactly why he retroactively canonized the Defiant’s stylized “D” assignment patch for the remastered “The Tholian Web” and Enterprise’s “In a Mirror, Darkly.” Outsiders, be they friend or foe, need to be recognized as outsiders, and the easiest way to do that is through different costumes and accessories. The audience needs to be able to see a man in a gold shirt and understand that’s Ron Tracey, a character similar but different, Starfleet but still an antagonist.
Of course, the only reason this debate is happening is because of the prequels. The Kelvin timeline used the arrowhead indiscriminately and assigned it to the Franklin as well as Starfleet in general. Discovery similarly relies on the arrowhead as a visual signifier for all of Starfleet. Interestingly, both examples are further proof of the visual storytelling mechanisms that led to the creation of different assignment patches in the first place: the producers are reinforcing for the audience they are watching Star Trek.
As prequels, those iterations are forced to lean on familiar elements to establish their storytelling context. For a modern audience, growing up in the shadow of fifty years of Star Trek and the dominance of the arrowhead as a general symbol, it is likely easier to just use the arrowhead and appeal to the audience than create new assignment insignia and have to explain the reason for the change. Somewhat notably, however, it could easily be argued that Discovery had in fact created their own unique ship insignia, but the show used the split arrowhead across various parts of Starfleet, negating a potentially creative solution.
Regardless of current Star Trek, the fact remains that the production staff of the original series intentionally gave different ships different assignment patches. Why? Because they understood visual storytelling and that the Enterprise was unique. When they were told to stop and make everyone wear the arrowhead, it was an irrelevant point because the need never arose again. It’s very possible that the 1968 memo was treated as gospel by the production staff. And it’s very possible Theiss made a mistake by giving Decker and Tracey different designs. However, once the audience took a hold of the series and birthed a community, the authority of the producers was gone. Sure, Star Trek legally belonged to them, but the culture belonged to the fans. And from that fan culture, ideas evolved and truths were forged.
The debate over the arrowhead, despite being unnecessary and wrong, is unproductive. Simply telling a community their beliefs are mistaken won’t undo decades of reinforced orthodoxy. Falling back on a memo that had zero influence on the series won’t change the accepted truth that each Starship had its own assignment patch. Ironically, Cooley’s own examples prove this interpretation: the Exeter’s rectangle is not the exception, it is the rule; the Constellation’s pretzel is not a Commodore’s rank, it’s the ship’s unique patch. And most frustratingly, the Defiant’s “D,” retroactively made canon, has already settled this “debate.”
Arguing over what is plainly evident is pointless, and inverting the meaning of on-screen visuals comes dangerously close to regressive revisionism. It may be legally or aesthetically necessary for the current stewards of Star Trek to use the arrowhead in their prequels and reboots, but the truth has not changed: all is as it was before.
John E. Price, PhD has a doctorate in American Studies is a lifelong Trekkie and co-host of the award-winning podcast SERIOUS STAR TREK. In his free time he enjoys golf, cigars, scotch, and Bruce Willis. For more of his nerd ramblings, follow him on Twitter @thejohnprice
*This seminal piece of speaking truth to power was originally published on Stefan Blitz’ fantastic website forcesofgeek.com in April of 2018 and has been a vibrant solver of bar bets ever since.