Saturday Cinema

The music of Star Trek on TV

The cast of the original 'Star Trek' seriesCBS

September 06, 2016

Sept. 8, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of Star Trek. We're celebrating the birthday of this beloved science fiction franchise with stories and music all week long. Here, Garrett Tiedemann looks back at the history of the music composed for the several Star Trek series, starting with Alexander Courage's original theme.

Gene Roddenberry said, "Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in, differences in ideas and differences in life forms."

From the first notes of the series' now-iconic theme, Alexander Courage articulated these ideas with a mixture of big brass and jazz-based riffs that communicated the show's simultaneous appeal to classicists and experimentalists alike. It was unique for 1966, and it's still distinctive today.

Mixing classical orchestration with jazz bass lines and horn sections, it's a musical reflection of the transitions taking place in American culture at the time. Courage's music appealed to broad sensibilities in an effort to capture the show's universal vision of a better world.

After the original series' run (1966-69), an animated series was developed for what became a very short run from 1973 to 1974. The music did not drastically shift from the sensibility established by Alexander Courage, but amped up the brass and took its spacey sensibilities further out, with fewer of the jazz elements and dramatic tonal shifts. It's much more classical in its approach and feels more like what we now think of as television music.

The next move for Star Trek was to leap to the big screen with 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture — scored by Jerry Goldsmith, who Gene Roddenberry wanted for the show's original pilot but was unavailable at that time. (More on the music of the Star Trek movies here.)

When Star Trek: The Next Generation took flight in 1987, it came with a score that sounded much more cinematic than those for the previous series. The music was far richer, and very much in tune with a show trying to live up to the large-scale narratives the series had brought the big screen. Courage's jazzy riffs were reduced to cameo status as Goldsmith's movie theme remained front and center. The lower registers of the brass and string sections featured prominently, and percussion brought a military ambience that was foreign to the original series.

From Goldsmith also came a blend of synthesizer and orchestra, unifying the show with its earlier counterparts in the sense of having an experimental mix of sounds, if not in the overall tone of the music. Next Gen had more choral work and complex arrangements, thanks to composer Dennis McCarthy — who also scored the 1994 film Star Trek Generations, a crossover between the original cast and the new crew.

Three more series followed, with one more currently in development. Each has had a composer who brought a unique vision to the series, but remained broadly in keeping with the franchise's general aesthetic. While Courage was there first, Jerry Goldsmith's shadow has in many ways always been there, and ultimately it's he who's had the greatest influence on the musical identity of Star Trek on TV.

Star Trek is an investigation of humanity's ideal being forged, and the music has similarly explored grand ideas: the sound of dreams as yet unfulfilled.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker, and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.

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