Jun 9, 2009

Soundtracks: The Star Trek Films

With the release of the new Trek last month, my inner Trekkie has come bursting to the surface once again (after a long hibernation). Though I tried to avoid the new movie, one aspect that caught my attention was its soundtrack. So after finally going boldly where I wasn't sure I should have gone, (my thoughts of the film here) I sought out the new soundtrack.

Here a month later I bring you my thoughts, weighed with lots of reflection and comparison of the various Trek soundtracks.

I decided to rather focus on music from ALL of the Trek movies, but not the episodic music. I only own about 1/3 to 1/2 of the TV music on CD, and they are hard to compare. The movies are by far better in overall quality (though there is something to be said for mustering compelling music with the limited time and smaller band size a TV show budget allows, but not this post!).

It must be said that for a franchise that has spanned over three decades and numerous incarnations Trek's music has varied a lot and has seen some big changes. Yet this considered it has fared well compared to many far younger franchise's, at least musically. The first Trek theme by Alexander Courage from the 60's show has managed to endure as a constant in all [good] Trek scores, and it has unified some otherwise totally different approaches. Due to this Trek's music can be interspliced for a somewhat coherent listening experience (ie. shuffle in your music player), but you can tell its many composers.

I'll note that many of these scores hold huge sentimental value for me. I've listened to and loved some of this music since I was 4 (the motionless picture specifically).

So come with me as I go into the music frontier...

As I do fairly lengthy reviews here is my quick summary:

The Absolute Best Star Trek Music:
  • Star Trek 1 the motion picture
  • Star Trek 2 the Wraith of Khan
  • Star Trek 6 The Undiscovered Country
Great Star Trek Music:

Star Trek 5 The Final Frontier
Star Trek Generations (but a great TV episode score, not movie! Details below)
Star Trek Insurrection

Mediocre Trek Music:

Star Trek First Contact
Star Trek Nemesis
Star Trek (2009)

The Worst Star Trek Music:

Star Trek 4 The Voyage Home (the worst hands down!)
Star Trek 3 The Search For Spock

Star Trek The Motion[less] Picture by Jerry Goldsmith

This was one of the first soundtracks I ever listened to. I believe the story goes something like this. My father seeking a follow up to the huge hit (at least with 4 year old me) that was Star Wars A New Hope, found this album at the library. It started my love affair with the music of Jerry Goldsmith.

I've already talked about Bad Movies=Great Soundtracks, and the incredible slow and dull first Trek movie is no exception. In fact I'd argue it was among the first of this trend (Goldsmith was the master of taking an awful assignments and turning them into musical masterpieces).

Though this film was an absolute waste of time and energy as far as Trek continuity was concerned, it was the single most important event musically to ever happen to it (though Alexander Courage's 60's theme is a keystone buried in it). The opening theme to this day is the song of Trek with the general public (due to it being the theme song of the Next Gen), and endured right up until the current re imagining of the franchise.

Despite the fact I reference the music of this film when I make fun of it. This is because it is the ONLY memorable thing about the first Trek movie. Goldsmith takes the rather impressive, but dull, visuals of the massive alien V'ger and brings them to life with his music.

The V'ger entity's score is the only thing that really communicates it raw power and menace. Interspliced is music the conveys the discovery and exploration for the Enterprise and her crew (not that any of this comes across in the film beyond Jerry's brilliant music).

This V'ger music is an early triumph of Goldsmith integrating electronic synthesizers into his orchestras. Though he wouldn't always be as successful as the Motionless picture, Goldsmith always had some synthesizers in his scores from here on in as a fifth element of his orchestra. This new view of orchestras led the way to such modern "greats" (depending on your point of view) as Hans Zimmer as his pupils.

Another highlight for me (and Trek) is Goldsmith's Klingon theme. I love this piece of music which thankful he would reprise in all his future Trek score efforts.

This is among the best of Trek's music, and I recommend it (though do NOT watch the movie to sample the music... you'll fall asleep trying! The album removed though will keep you quite awake and engaged!)

Star Trek 2: The Wraith of Khan by James Horner

This was the first CD I ever bought and owned! So that should tell you right there how much I like it! Back when I was 14, $20 for a CD I could only listen to on the family CD player (as back in those dark days all I had in my room was a tape cassette player!) was a big cost and condition.

The new direction of the franchise in the 80's after the removal of Trek's creator Gene Roddenbury (Trek was always SO much better when they got him out of the way!) they also departed from Goldsmith (though he would return thankfully!). Relatively new composer James Horner would be brought on. This would become one of his great classic scores (one whose sound he would recycle and reuse for many decades and films to come!).

Key strengths of this film are the pacing and the dynamic themes. The score invokes swashbuckling in space which matches the duel of wits between Kirk and Khan perfectly (and makes for good background music for imagining anything remotely exciting :P).

The Enterprise and her crew are given a very suitable heroic theme that is constantly threatened and overshadowed by an appropriately brutal but yet calculating horn suite for Khan .

Another treat of this music is Horners opening and closing theme for the final frontier. Goldsmith's opening Trek theme invokes a sense of adventure with a hint of awe and the unknown, but Horners is nothing but. Listening to Horners theme it vividly paints the picture (with sound ;p) of the vast infinity of space, and our standing on the threshold into it.

This is among my top Trek soundtrack recommendations, and it is only rivaled by Trek 6 in my opinion.

Star Trek 3 The Search For Spock by James Horner

Despite his amazing score for Khan, Horner couldn't seem to find his stride for Spock. His re imagined theme for the film's Klingons is an annoying twist on Khan's, meaning it sucks compared to Trek 2 on album right away. Plus even Khan's theme was no match for Goldsmith's Klingon theme (though Khan's benefits from appearing throughout all of Trek 2's score, and functions beautifully as a musical foil for Kirk and the Enterprise's heroics).

Frankly I find this score dull and mostly unmemorable. It is a grossly watered down version of Khan, and this is probably more to do with the rather boring film it is associated with.

There are some highlights though. Horner's infinite space opening and closing is still present, and as always fun. However the single track worth listening to (and honestly it is the only track I current have in my MP3s) is the 5 minute long track when Kirk and company steal the Enterprise. This single piece is like a mini movie score in and of itself, and is centered around one of the most awesome (in the scale sense... not surfer dude one) music the Enterprise has ever had accompanying her in any incarnation. Presumably to hit us the audience harder when they blow her up later in the film...

The Stealing the Enterprise track is most definitely worth getting your hands onto, but I seriously can not, and do not recommend this album. It is among my lowest rated Trek scores.

Star Trek 4 The Voyage Home by Leonard Rosenman

Well as in every franchise there is a weak link, and though it wouldn't be the film of Trek 4, in the soundtrack realm this is by far the worst of the Trek lot!

This score has no connect with the Trek universe, and feels more like a very generic action comedy score. The score is always upbeat and cheerful (taking away all the menace of the whale probe), and makes the serious conservation message of the film seem like an accident.

The one good aspect of this score I can mention is it very accurately conveys and highlights the 1980's era that Kirk travels back to. However that is about it. Typically I find 80's music overall very annoying, and so this causes this score to irritate me all the more.

The opening titles are a little catchy, and do justice to the heroics of Kirk and his crew, but it is devoid of any epicness, seriousness, and most importantly awe. When played beside any of the other opening themes it just plain sucks (even the new 2009 Giacchino one).

Just don't buy this album, it is easily the worst of Trek music!

Star Trek 5 The Final Frontier by Jerry Goldsmith

I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Kirk and company search out God (though with Kirk directing the movie, one kinda has to point the finger at him), but this is easily the most laughable Trek movie. Yet amongst the disaster that is this film (I personally love it, but as a comedy) is one shining beacon of awesomeness. Jerry Goldsmith's score.

Goldsmith makes his triumphant return to Trek in an action packed romp in search of the Almighty.

Having now just completed my Rambo collection this month, and comparing it to other Goldsmith efforts of the time, Trek 5 shares a great deal in common with Rambo 2 (the strongest of the Rambo scores). Though they aren't similar in theme, the pacing and general composition of both are identical making for some great action music! Sadly for Trek 5 due to the dumb story, and lack of ILM effects, this music fun Rambo-Trek music is restricted to the singular rescue mission track.

Despite Goldsmith's ability at producing great music for awful films, Trek 5 puts even his skills to the test. As an overall album it isn't strong, but the highlight tracks and segments still make this a great Trek CD.

The Klingon theme makes a triumphant return, and has some of its best performances are here (in place of the Russian theme from Rambo 2, and his Trek theme takes over for Rambo's... this may come across as dumb, but it sounds so COOL!). Helping hint at the renegade nature of this film's Klingon captain and his Bird of Prey the Klingon theme gets an over the top feral instrumentation, which is really neat.

The true highlight of this album is the music of "God's" planet. They are all the awe of V'ger without the over the top electronics. Thankfully this is not in a religious sense of awe, but rather of exploring an alien setting when Kirk and company search for "God" on his barren planet.

Though not my first pick, this is a very strong Star Trek score, and definitely one worth picking up. Especially if your an overall Goldsmith fan.

Star Trek 6 The Undiscovered Country by Cliff Eidelman

It is funny how with the Kirk Trek movies the strongest films produce the strongest scores (and the worst producing the second tear best!). Trek 2 and 6 are easily my favourites among the movies, and definitely what I consider the highlights of Kirk and his gang. It is odd that my favourite music comes from these films too (as often in franchises the best music is to be found with some of the weaker parts).
Star Trek 6 is an unmatched Trek score experience, with a unique dark atmospheric feel from start to finish. Yet it feels like Trek, despite not sounding like any other Trek entry before or after.
The aging (and impending retirement) of the Enterprise and her crew is one side of this score, off set by a brooding and dark theme for the changes occurring in the Klingon Empire that "threaten" the status quo of the rest of the universe. The intelligent and on going interplay of these two theme are simply incredible and match the film perfectly. Removed from the film it is a rare perfect soundtrack listening experience from start to finish.

The slow almost lethargic pace of the Enterprise (a hybrid of Goldsmith and Horner's themes) is very soothing, and sets up for an emotional farewell at the end of the film. One that really won't have been possibly without the musical setup throughout the film!

The dark ominous horn suite and Russian style chanting captures the Federation/Klingon cold war in space dynamic perfectly, and doesn't conflict with the Enterprises theme so much as converge with it. This is the single most intelligent part of the score. Rather then conflict or fight with the Klingon theme, The Enterprise and Kirk's music works alongside it, I dare say make love it, even though they are opposites in tone. It musically captures how the Enterprise was at the forefront of the Human Klingon standoff, and how it wasn't part of the solution to the conflict, but rather a big cause of it. You have to listen to it, and/or watch the film to hear what I mean, but it is brilliant (as is Trek 6 the movie!).

This is probably my favourite (overall) Trek soundtrack (but there are parts of some of the others I like as much or more), and I definitely recommend this to anyone seeking a great score. That alone Star Trek!

Star Trek Generations by Dennis McCarthy

The first of the Next Generation films, and a very odd entry in the Trek soundtrack family. With the film coming out on the heels of the Next Gene series ending, to ease production (and possibly connect the film to the still very popular show?) the Trek folks decided to carry over the TV's main composer Dennis McCarthy. Oddly either he or they decided to keep the sound and orchestra the same as on the show. So we ended up with essentially a ubber long episodic score for this film.
So immediately this makes it in outright comparison a weaker score. However unlike many soundtrack review sites I don't think evaluating this score in direct comparison to the other Trek movies is fair.
I note here it sounds like a TV score, and as of such if you like your soundtracks huge and polished this may not be for you. I myself can appreciate a good TV level score, and this is among the best (as McCarthy clear had time to perfect his usual show sound with the longer production time).
With those limitations in mind, this score is among my favourite Trek soundtracks as it really captures the feel of the Next Gene show, and has some very fun themes.

Kirk picks up a very catchy snare drum variation on the Alexander Courage theme Meaning every action sequence with Kirk are highlights, whether it be saving the Enterprise B or disarming the sunkiller missile.
The action music in general is strong, and despite the limited TV orchestra they put out some music that compositionally would rival Goldsmith and Horner in quality (not sound though). The music during the destruction of the Enterprise D was so strong it would be used in the First Contact trailers.

The awe music for the Nexus, though not on the level of the other motion picture awe music, has a creepy untrustworthy style awe perfectly conveying the Nexus' deceptive nature.

Though not necessarily the strongest Trek score, I recommend this for anyone seeking strong music from the Trek TV episodes. While I'm at it if you want more such music in addition to Generations, the score for the Next Gene episode "Best of Both Worlds" is low budget/scale soundtracking at its best!

Star Trek First Contact by Jerry Goldsmith

While this is easily the strongest of the Next Generations era movies, unlike the Kirk era, this doesn't translate to the best score. In fact this is a rare let down by Goldsmith, and though not a terrible score it isn't a particularly compelling one either (at least compared to other Trek entries or many of his other scores).
The real problem is that Goldsmith's two main themes for this film are not that interesting. The romantic theme for the first contact of humanity and the vulcans is very enchanting, but it is very mellow and slow. It plays for far too long when it occurs, and doesn't have much in the way of variation or rearrangment.
The music fo the Borg, while a bit more exciting is surprisingly not much more. Jerry went for a classic horror approach of minimalism. Which leads to some suspencful moments when the Borg theme revs up on rare occasions. However for the majority of the time it is a understated relentless and methodical theme, which doesn't lend itself to enjoyable listening.

Even saddier the coolest musical moment of the film, the Enterprise chasing the Phoneix, isn't even on the CD!
There are two standout tracks though. The space battle above Earth sees Worf personally take over the Klingon theme and carry it as his own (though in the film the Defiant with this theme is a little odd, despite Worf commanding it), as well as a heroic swell for the new Enterprise E swooping in to the rescue. The creepy and eerie temporal wake music is cool in how uniquely creepy it is.
First Contact is hands down the weakest of Goldsmith's Trek. Though it isn't the worst of the franchise by any stretch either. This is probably the most middle of the pack Trek Score if you ask me.

Star Trek Insurrection by Jerry Goldsmith

My theory on why the Kirk era Trek typically saw the better movies with the best music, and the Picard era ones saw the worst with the better, is Goldsmith. As this, my least favourite Trek movie (apart from the Motionless Picture possibly), has among my favourite scores.

Insurrection combines a touching melancholy love theme with very snappy and militaristic action music for a very dual sided album(as they seldom mix, and never effectively). Despite the fact these two sides don't directly compliment each other well, I enjoy both very much. Just when I'm in different moods.

The melancholy music has a very nostalgic quality and I find if I want to conjure a moment when a character is looking back on times long gone much of Insurrection's love music does the trick nicely. The third track has a hint of innocence covered up by something darker, and though I recall the movie's sympathetic aliens having a secret, this music ascends the film's pathetic story (I found the film sooooo boring it is the only Trek movie I've only watched once).

As for the action this is the pinnacle of Goldsmith's new millennium style, and has a very militaristic sound to it (which really didn't quite match the movie as I recall). The music swaps perfectly between moments of chaos to the calmer but tense moments of regrouping and planning.

I warn you though it is not a very solid listening experience from start to finish. Well unless you swing between hopelessly longing to wanting to smash stuff every few minutes.

This is my personal favourite of the Goldsmith Trek's, but again both dynamics of this score resonate with me. As an overall album Trek 1 is a better buy.

Star Trek Nemesis by Jerry Goldsmith
As the famous last episode of Next Gen stated "all good things must come to an end", not only was Nemesis to be the last Picard era (and may I venture "my" era) of Trek, but among the last scores Jerry Goldsmith would compose before his death in 2004. As of such this score has a sad place in my heart.

Immediately much like the movie it was attached to, this score was a bit of a let down. It certainly has cool moments, but isn't quite as strong as most of Goldsmith's previous Trek. ` Overall the first half of the CD is quite dull, and neither the Romulans nor the Enterprise receive any music or themes worth noting for the most part.

One exception in the middle of the album is a rather satisfying chunk in the middle of the 6th track where we get a very lengthy sentimental treatment of Goldsmith's Trek theme. If the score has had more of these (in the same way Trek 6 mixed its intrigue music with a touching send-off theme for Kirk and the Enterprise A) it would have been brilliant. Sadly it just teases us with what it could have been.

The latter half of the album is dominated by the villainous theme of Shinzon, a very satisfying mix of electronics and harsh winds and horns. The Enterprise and her crew are given a token heroic theme to futilely oppose this Reman theme, but as it is very understated and not very Trek in nature (or anything else really) so it throws the music off.

Had the Enterprise gotten a bit more beef to her side of the duel then this would have been the Goldsmith Khan, as Shinzon and his Reman theme are easily the highlight of the album.

However the lack of Enterprise causes this score to fail in comparison to most other Goldsmith Trek's where our main crew still feel like their a key element, musically speaking.

Interestingly this score blends really well with another late Goldsmith score, Tom Clancy's Sum of All Fears. The two have similar structure and sound, and though Sum lacks the Reman theme, they otherwise interplay rather well with each other.

Nemesis with its more memorable Reman theme, and solid action cues in the last tracks fairs better then First Contact, but fails compared to Goldsmith's Trek 1, 5, and Insurrection.

Star Trek by Michael Giacchino

I wasn't sure what to expect from the new reboot Trek's music. I'd paid so little attention to the making of this film, due to my dislike of JJ Abrams, I had no idea that Giacchino was attached (or for that matter that he is JJ's main composer on everything!). I'm only really acquainted with Giacchino's music from his Pixar scores, and of these I only moderately enjoyed The Incredibles.

However due to his work on this score (and others like it I've read about it) he was oddly the perfect choice. Giacchino has a talent at producing very authentic sounding era music, and in particular for the Incredibles 60's era Bond. With the new Trek trying to tie more into the 1960's TV series then an of my favourite incarnations of the franchise, there was a need for more cheese in the music then in any previous Trek film. He on paper would seem the perfect fit to capture the style and feeling of the old Alexander Courage music.

On occasion in the actual final score it would seem Giacchino succeeds. There are some moments where this score genially sounds like, through the composition, instrumentation, and even recording (Giacchino insists all his recording sessions be done on analog tape) to be a long lost 60's feature film score.

However these are sporadic and not necessarily logical in their placement. Personally I dislike that eras music too, and so they are not highlights to me. In fact the main version of the villainous Nero's music (which sounds like a 60ifed version of Goldsmith's Shinzon theme from Nemesis) is an irritating track, I only find it interesting due to how well Giacchino captured the 60's feel.

The one exception that is among my favourite tracks is that of the destruction of Vulcan (I refuse to quote the ridiculously stupid pun track titles for this disc). This ominous build-up of suspense music has the same feel and composition as my favourite TOS score for "The Doomsday Machine" by Sol Kaplan (I'll also note my overall favourite episode of TOS too), many argue the source for John Williams classic Jaws score (10 years after the TOS).

However the new Giacchino track isn't as cool as the Kaplan as it lacks a big payoff at its end. Kaplan's suspense built up to a terrific blasting theme for the Doomsday Machine, Giacchino should have followed this lead and tossed out the annoying Nero theme for a cooler Doomsday style theme (and while we're at it Abrams should have tossed out Nero for a new version of the Doomsday Machine instead!).

Overall this new Trek album is a very dysfunctional score, and to be honest feels like a compilation rather then its own thing. The only unifying element is the new Trek theme Giacchino composed for this film. It is ever present throughout most of the score. I do like this new theme, but it doesn't quite work at representing the Enterprise or Kirk as it is intended. Sure it is all heroism and adventure, but it lacks the intelligence I expect from Kirk and his crew. Plus there isn't a hint of awe or awesomeness (again in the true grand scale sense of the world) of space.

The new theme feels like it should be for something cool on the sideline or trim of the story, like space dock or a (friendly) rival ship like the Excelsior. In fact just like the Excelsior the theme is big, shiny, and very impressive, but deep down in the end it falls apart when it counts most. Still like the Excelsior I have a weak spot for it, so the score passes. The rest of the music is all over the place. The new Vulcan theme, though very intelligently designed with Chinese ethnic instruments, doesn't mesh with either the new Trek theme or the 60's moments. The action music is all over the board, and can't make up its mind as to whether it is 60's cheese, a bond film, or from Lord of the Rings. The sound style seriously jumps all over these ranges, sometimes in the SAME track (very odd).

Toping off the negative is the inclusion of the classic Courage theme at the end of the score. Clearly Abrams and company were impressed with the recent relaunch of Bond, and wanted to emulate this for their new Trek (and on every front including the music they failed utterly, if you ask me). For Bond, composer David Arnold decided to hold off on the classic Bond fanfare till the end of Casino Royale. It was a musical metaphor of Bond having to earn his double OO status, and it worked beautifully!

Well Giacchino follows this formula to the T, but it just does NOT work! Bond's original Barry 60's theme is still cool and sexy today. The TOS, though classic and iconic, is not slick or cool. It is ubber cheesy, especially considering he didn't retune or instrument it at all. The Courage theme may have a few more instruments playing it, but it IS the theme as you remember it from the Shatner days. What's worse is it is directly lead into by a powerful conclusion of Giacchino's new modern style Trek theme, and the transition between the two just sounds really stupid!!!

The new Trek, as a Star Trek score is very weak. Still not Voyage Home weak mind you, and it is a far more enjoyable album then Search of Spock or First Contact, but as a Star Trek score it has only a few scattered moments that fit in.

1 comment:

Dinorider d'Andoandor said...

Oh My Balrog! You are THE soundtrack master!