Poster Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Poster art for 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' (1979)
Paramount Pictures
Saturday Cinema

The music of Star Trek movies

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 many Star Trek movies.

When Star Trek shifted from television to film, Jerry Goldsmith was enlisted to handle the score. Gene Roddenberry wanted Goldsmith for the pilot episode of the original show, but the composer was unavailable. Instead, he became an ace in the hole for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), fundamentally changing the sound of the franchise both in cinemas and on TV screens.

Goldsmith's grand score has enormous weight and mythical sensibilities. "When you stop and think about it," said the composer, "space is a very romantic thought. It is, to me, like the Old West, we're up in the universe. It's about discovery and new life."

His take on the film was very romantic, clearly inspired by John Williams's work on Star Wars. He holds great reverence for the origins of the show, and uses synthesizers to keep some of the show's experimental sound, but with a distinctly different tone. From the first bars, one hears a shift for Star Trek from its original serial form to the epic multi-generational drama that it has become. There are echoes of Goldsmith's great scores — such as Alien from the same year — that allowed Star Trek to transcend its own identity.

While Goldsmith was very much an experimenter in composition, for Star Trek he sounded almost godlike: his score is sweeping and epic, with rich flourishes that keep the audience watching.

Though Goldsmith's score met with acclaim, the second film in the franchise, Wrath of Khan (1982), was seen as needing to be a departure. A young James Horner was brought in because of his early demos and previous film work, which showed promise. He was told expressly not to use any of Goldsmith's cues, and the project became a platform to forge his own road.

Horner started by adapting Alexander Courage's original theme, knowing that would help fans feel at home. Though he obviously needed to compose new themes for the main characters in the film, what Horner became interested in was scoring narrative themes rather than just the main action. This is a key detail of his compositional talents. Rather than simply articulate the big moments, he searched for what was beneath the surface. Much of Horner's early experimentations with brass and percussion are on display in Wrath of Khan and actually connect to another Goldsmith follow-up of his, Aliens, where the militaristic snare percussion with brass and strings wrap became key to the narrative.

As the films continued through the 1980s, there was a revolving door to the composer's podium. Horner stayed for the third installment (The Search for Spock, 1984) only to hand it over to Leonard Rosenman for the fourth (The Voyage Home, 1986), with a return to Jerry Goldsmith for the William-Shatner-directed Final Frontier (1989).

The next couple of pictures were handled by Cliff Eldelman (The Undiscovered Country, 1991) and then Dennis McCarthy — whose task with Star Trek Generations was to further the franchise while nodding to the music of the original series, the new Next Generation series, and of course the preceding films.

McCarthy managed to bring more choral work into the Star Trek universe, which in turn influenced subsequent composers in the Star Trek family, both for TV and movies. The stalwart Jerry Goldsmith then returned to score all three of the subsequent films starring the Next Gen cast: First Contact (1996), Insurrection (1998), and Nemesis (2002).

That was the end of an era for Star Trek. Goldsmith died in 2004, and the reigns went to Michael Giacchino, who has been the musical architect for the franchise's recent reboot. Like Goldsmith, Giacchino is fundamentally a classicist — but one who's not afraid to experiment.

Tasked with revitalizing Star Trek for a new generation, Giacchino seems to intuit Goldsmith's hold over the series. Director J.J. Abrams amped up the intensity for Star Trek (2009), but Giacchino didn't fret. He found places to let the music breathe a bit; introducing quieter melodies on piano in the second (Into Darkness, 2013) and third (Beyond, 2016) films where appropriate. He has done a remarkable job bringing Star Trek into the new century.

Whereas the Star Trek films were formerly character-driven, relatively quiet affairs that lagged behind the frenetic pace of the Star Wars movies, the film series it stands today is first and foremost action-driven cinema (Abrams now helms both franchises), which requires more propulsive music.

Brass and drums drive almost every cue, with very little of the spacey experimentation we used to hear from Goldsmith and Horner. It's become a less reflective world, and more of a world lived in continual struggle, holding on by a thread. The new Trek clearly resonates in the world we inhabit, and more than ever Star Trek speaks to an evolving society under threat of unraveling. The music of Star Trek today speaks to our struggle; hopefully it can continue to inspire us to achieve greater understanding as well.

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

Star Trek and the spirit of the '60s

Why Next Generation was Star Trek at its best

The music of Star Trek on TV

Flicks in Five: Star Trek

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