Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Composed by Jerry Goldsmith

In 1979, Gene Rodenberry was able to bring back the cast of his space sci-fi show Star Trek, this time as a movie. Production actually started before Star Wars became a phenomenon, so there was no pressure to create a popcorn action flick (J.J. Abrams would commit this franchise sin thirty years later; also, Star Wars probably did help drive up attendance numbers for Star Trek). Unfortunately, Rodenberry and director Robert Wise went too far in the other direction, creating one of slowest mainstream franchise films of all time. Star Trek: The Motion Picture sees James Kirk, now a Starfleet Admiral, reunite with Spock and the rest of the original characters on the Enterprise. He oversees the investigation of a powerful destructive entity named V’Ger (alternatively spelled Vejur in the tracklisting) that is heading for Earth. Their investigation yields some surprises and also enables the characters and moviegoers to contemplate the definition and nature of life. It’s not a terrible movie. In fact it’s admirable that the cast and crew attempted to create a cerebral big budget sci-fi film, something that could almost never be achieved today.

The composer who would score Star Trek’s entry into cinema was the highly regarded Jerry Goldsmith. This would prove to be one of his most well-known scores, with a couple themes that would permeate the franchise going forward. The film’s plot is not enough to sustain a two hour running time and features several long sequences of the Enterprise being explored and doing exploring. While these scenes drove many moviegoers out of their minds with boredom, they provided an enviable chance for any film composer. With long, slow, dialogue-light sequences, Goldsmith was able to create powerful, lovely cues that could work wonderfully as standalone pieces of classical music. Goldsmith claims that he saw space as a place of romantic potential and, in contrast to the militaristic orchestration of Star Wars and its knock-offs, utilized more in the way of piano, harps, chimes, and similar “soft” instruments. Goldsmith also utilized a fair number of electronic elements in his score. Among these is the blaster beam, a musical instrument patented by none other than Craig Huxley. Huxley portrayed Kirk’s nephew on the TV series. This instrument sounds like an electric instrument, but is really a complex string instrument involving an empty shell casing. The blaster beam is heard in some of the cues focusing on V’Ger, adding to the unusual alien menace of the main antagonist. The use of the blaster beam, electronics, glass tubes, and ominous rhythms make for a decidedly alien musical palette.

The Enterprise fanfare from the original show was used to open up the score. Since then it customarily opened every film until the Abrams reboot. Instead of reusing the show’s credits theme (which does have one brief appearance in the complete score), Goldsmith created his own original theme. This iconic theme, which graces “Main Title,” is a wonderful piece that oozes swashbuckling adventure. This theme would actually be ditched for most of the following films as other composers took the helm. It would only be cemented as a fixture of popular culture with its adoption for the opening and closing credits of the Next Generation TV series (as well as Goldsmith’s later return to the films). Outside of “Main Titles,” Goldsmith presents two other wonderful performances of the theme. The first is “Enterprise,” which covers the infamous scene where Kirk and Scotty spend five whole minutes viewing the new Enterprise. Goldsmith rises to the challenge to rescue the scene, writing a lengthy elegant piece with liberal use of the main theme in different modes. About two minutes in he conducts the theme at a slower pace with a harp accentuating each note. Over a minute later he starts it soft again with heroic trumpets, only to morph it into a grand brass fanfare. At 4:37, in a wonderful moment, he takes a fragment of the theme and repeats it as he builds to a final full reprise.

The theme has a major function in the very next track, “Leaving Drydock.” Goldsmith builds up the Enterprise’s departure with expectant material, but even with percussion makes it sound more like a ship sailing for exploration rather than a military venture. Goldsmith has always been a master of inserting electronics into his scores while keeping them orchestrally epic and this cue is a prime example. At 1:38 and 1:50 he inserts an electronic horn alongside part of the main theme. One problem, that is also evident on the non-chronological original album, is that the main theme is heavily dominant in the score’s first act, but then largely disappears until the story’s conclusion. This is understandable as the second half of the film is centered on the dark mystery surrounding V’Ger. Still, it might have been nice for Goldsmith to utilize further low-key pieces of the main theme to remind listeners of its existence.

V’Ger is represented by several motifs. There is not so much emphasis on direct motifs here as on pure atmosphere of mystery and darkness. The first is an unearthly growl, produced by Huxley’s blaster beam and introduced in “Klingon Battle” (1:55). Goldsmith showcases V’Ger’s material in “The Cloud,” “Vejur Flyover,” and “The Force Field.” These three cues all come from the same sequence when the Enterprise meets and enters V’Ger, and altogether they run at a whopping 15 minutes! This is the part of the film that really antagonizes film viewers. “The Cloud” is a wonderfully dark cue, starting with a sinister rhythmic motif on piano. At 2:04 Goldsmith introduces a more defined and melodic motif for the alien entity. This leads into swirling strings and then a crescendo of dissonant orchestral effects that never gets unlistenable. “Vejur Flyover” relies on the same motifs, with more use of the melodic one as well as the sinister use of an organ. “The Force Field” takes the V’Ger piano rhythm and puts it on strings as the Enterprise finally nears the end of its journey. Nearly three minutes in the harp, with eerie sound effects, takes over to lead to the climax of this long album section. The music finally crescendos, dies down, then crescendos again with the rhythmic motif on horns. Goldsmith further creates an unnerving atmosphere with creepy electronic effects.

V’Ger’s theme starts to play off another major theme: “Ilia’s Theme.” Ilia is a bald alien woman who serves as the Enterprise’s navigator and later forms a bond with V’Ger. Director Robert Wise decided to use this concert cue for an overture preceding the film. It’s one of Goldsmith’s career bests. In the concert arrangement the composer starts off with a calm piano rhythm, with the theme itself appearing on lovely strings. Throughout its presentation Goldsmith inserts pieces of the main theme. In the story proper, Ilia’s theme comes in the second half when V’Ger turns her into a vessel for communication. Ilia’s music sounds like a love theme and it is, but it’s so much more. The incorporation of the main theme into its overture performance shows it to also represent the contemplative, beautiful side of space exploration. It also serves as yet another theme for V’Ger, as she and the entity start to link. This is best exemplified in “Inner Workings” where Ilia’s theme becomes part of V’Ger’s multi-motif textures (2:20). “Games” explores the heroes’ failed attempts to draw Ilia’s personality, with Goldsmith’s alien textures constantly overtaking Ilia’s theme.

Goldsmith also started the Star Trek musical tradition of giving Spock his own motif or theme. As a non-human with a totally different philosophy, Spock has always been an intriguing, unique character who presents an attraction to composers looking for another motif. Goldsmith’s own motif for the character might actually be the weakest of the bunch. Introduced in “Total Logic,” (0:28) it’s a long note followed by two quicker notes that conveys Spock’s Vulcan mind powers, but doesn’t have much dramatic depth. “Total Logic” sees the motif repeat itself, with V’Ger’s blaster beam intruding at several points to disrupt Spock’s efforts to complete his Vulcan ritual. Another simple motif, a dual rhythmic piece, is introduced in “Floating Office.” Several reviewers have identified it as a Starfleet motif and it does feature prominently in the scenes at Starfleet base. It tends to serve as an extension of the main theme.

The final theme may not have been intended as such. This theme has a heavy presence in “Klingon Battle.” Though it only appears in this one track, Goldsmith obviously intended for it to convey the militant nature of one of the most iconic races in Star Trek. The theme, usually played on trumpets, is supported by a distinctive rhythm of clicking percussion. Though the Klingons at this point were recurring antagonists, Goldsmith’s piece is surprisingly non-villainous. Neither is it particularly heroic. This was an incredible stroke of luck. In his future works on the franchise, Goldsmith would be able to use this theme not only to represent the Klingons as persistent enemies in Final Frontier, but also to serve as a motif for the heroic Worf in the Next Generation films. The theme’s use in opposition to V’Ger’s blaster beam in “Klingon Battle” makes this track a particular stand-out.

I should probably mention some of the other tracks. “Spock’s Arrival” is a light-hearted cue with fragments of the main theme and more of Spock’s motif. Outside of “Klingon Battle,” the score’s sole action setpiece is “Spock Walk,” a discordant piece built around V’Ger’s material as the Vulcan undertakes a risky mission. “The Meld” sees V’Ger’s material finally transform into an uplifting piece (the 1999 album booklet wonderfully describe it as “a musical fervor reserved to back up images of a biblical miracle”), with the more melodic motif in particular assuming sparkling romance in the middle portion. When V’Ger’s rhythm takes over, it leads into yet another triumphant fanfare. After a long absence, sans a short statement at the conclusion of “Spock Walk,” the main theme returns in all its glory at the end. The main theme centers “A Good Start” and bookends “End Title,” the latter cue having one last reprise of Ilia’s theme in the middle.

Goldsmith’s soundtrack is an important piece in film music history. Much of it harkens back to classical music in its style, drawing comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s use of classics to score 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the same time its heroic main theme and at times dense orchestral action and suspense makes it fit into the resurgence of big budged scores that was taking place at the end of the 70s. Goldsmith’s scoring would also have a specific impact on the franchise’s musical history. Though the composer himself would not return for the next three films, other composers in the series would emulate some of his choices. These include the use of Alexander Courage’s Enterprise fanfare as a signature opening, mystical motifs to represent Spock, clicking percussion and bombastic horns to represent antagonistic alien cultures, and of course epic adventure marches, often with a swashbuckling, seafaring feel.

There have been three album releases. The original 40-minute album has nearly all the great music. It is non-chronological, with Ilia’s theme serving as a mid-point highlight rather than an overture. Goldsmith also uses “Spock Walk” as the climatic penultimate cue, choosing to end with some action and suspense rather than the actual finale in “The Meld.” The 1999 20th Anniversary edition places the cues in their original order, with 25 minutes of previously unreleased music. Some listeners might be turned off by the large abundance of new tracks centered around the V’Ger material and indeed the album does slow down quite a bit in the third quarter. The 1999 edition contains a second disc, but instead of further music it’s an interview with Gene Rodenberry about the original show. In 2012 La-La Land Records released one of it exhaustive albums, a three-disc set with the complete score, original album arrangement, and a slew of alternate tracks. Most of the new music on this release honestly isn’t that gripping, a lot of basic suspense without the quirky and creepy alien sounds of the grand V’Ger cues. I would recommend the 1999 release, though the original presentation is good too. One can also always rearrange the music, excising some of the less interesting V’Ger tracks or spreading out the major performances of the main theme.

Though the score in its entirety has some dull filler, what’s present on the first two releases is all at least good. Also, since the film had far less emphasis on action and villains, its music stands out in the series. I won’t rate each album separately, as the original and 1999 releases each have their advantages, one being a concise collection of highlights and the other displaying the music’s chronological narrative.

Rating: 10/10

Original Album Tracklisting

  1. Main Title/Klingon Battle (6:50)
  2. Leaving Drydock (3:29)
  3. Cloud (4:58)
  4. Enterprise (5:59)
  5. Ilia’s Theme (3:01)
  6. Vejur Flyover (4:57)
  7. Meld (3:16)
  8. Spock Walk (4:19)
  9. End Title (3:16)

20th Anniversary Album Tracklisting

  1. Ilia’s Theme (3:01)
  2. Main Title (1:23)
  3. Klingon Battle (5:27)
  4. Total Logic (3:44)
  5. Floating Office (1:03)
  6. The Enterprise (5:59)
  7. Leaving Drydock (3:29)
  8. Spock’s Arrival (1:58)
  9. The Cloud (4:58)
  10. Vejur Flyover (4:57)
  11. The Force Field (5:03)
  12. Games (3:41)
  13. Spock Walk (4:19)
  14. Inner Workings (3:01)
  15. Vejur Speaks (3:50)
  16. Meld (3:16)
  17. A Good Start (2:26)
  18. End Title (3:16)

One thought on “Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

  1. I did not watch Star Trek on TV, but my college had a huge amount of fans and the communal TV was used to watch the show reruns every day. I never got into it, but did go to the theater to see this movie. I actually liked the slow, thoughtful presentation, and the implications of satellites and space exploration. From this review, I actually remember the blaster beam sound and the different cues.
    This movie made me much more interested in the franchise since there was a focus on the technology, as well as characters. Thanks for this review that shows how the music enhanced the story

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s