Star Trek (2009)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

After the under-performance of Nemesis killed the film franchise, Star Trek fell into a hiatus of a few years. It did not take long for Paramount Pictures to revive the series. This time it was to be a full reboot under the direction of J.J. Abrams. The movie was a success and I used to like it. Over time, though, as I’ve watched more original Trek, I’ve found the film to be uninspired and only superficially Star Trek. A Romulan mining ship led by Nero (Eric Bana) goes back in time thanks to some black hole physics. It attacks a ship and kills Kirk’s father. Over twenty years later Kirk (Chris Pine) and his future crew are called up due to an emergency. Nero is out for revenge and plans to use a weapon to destroy earth. It turns out that in the future Romulus was destroyed, despite the efforts of Spock. The time travel creates a separate timeline so Abrams doesn’t have to worry about linking up with the original show (called the Kelvin timeline). The movie is a lot of people running around and yelling and shooting each other so nobody will notice the plot holes or Abrams’ horrible grasp of space distances and physics. The plot itself boils down to bad guy wants revenge, and this story would be told in the two sequels itself. Abrams also has a very superficial grasp of the characters. He assumes Kirk is a reckless hothead (he was actually very considerate and thoughtful), makes Spock is prone to emotional outbursts because of his human side, and replaces Dr. McCoy’s place in the main trio with Uhura, throwing off the character dynamics that fueled most of the Star Trek’s emotional and ethical stakes. In short it heralded the simplistic, uninspired plotting Abrams would conduct for The Force Awakens. At least the music is good.

A common collaborator of J.J. Abrams, Giacchino naturally got the role of composer. 2009 was a big year for Giacchino. He scored three films (while still doing scoring duties for Lost), among them this one, Land of the Lost, and Pixar’s Up (for which he won an Oscar). While he would not regularly compose films for a couple more years, his placement on a globally identified franchise did wonders for his career and allowed him to flex his musical muscles with a larger orchestra. Continue reading

Star Trek: Insurrection (1999)

Composed by Jerry Goldsmith

After witnessing a cinematic showdown with the Borg in First Contact, audiences were let down by Insurrection. The plot of Insurrection revolves around an idyllic village where the human-like inhabitants are blessed with perfect health and, as it turns out, extended lifespans. Working with the alien So’na, a Federation admiral plans to relocate the people so they can tap into the planet’s properties and extend its gifts to its own citizens. Not happy with this forcible removal of people from their homes, Picard and the rest of the Next Generation characters defy authority and seek to protect the villagers while uncovering a conspiracy. If this sounds like a run-of-the-mill episode from the series, then you’ve figured out one of the issues audiences had with the film. Worse, this film came out at the same time the Federation was locked in a galaxy-spanning war with the Dominion on Deep Space Nine. Why the famed Enterprise would focus its efforts on a few hundred villagers instead of fighting on the front lines is anybody’s guess. Also, the moral messaging of the film is undone by plot holes and the ongoing context of the Dominion War. It’s perhaps the dullest and most uninteresting film of the entire franchise, though one would not guess it if he or she were to first listen to Goldsmith’s exciting score.

Goldsmith’s work on Insurrection is not as, how shall I put it, innovative as his previous forays into the series. The plot doesn’t have as much alien elements to work with. However he still takes out the electronics for some unique atmospheric segments. For the most part the score is traditionally orchestral. The primary theme is the Insurrection motif, which usually appears as a rising four-note action signature. In some of its lengthier iterations it almost sounds like Goldsmith’s main theme form The Mummy (which came out the same year). This motif appears in just about every action cue, to the point that it will definitely stick in the listener’s mind. It’s introduced in the midst of the Alexander Courage fanfare at the opening. It frequently appears in counterpoint with a piano rhythm motif that represents the suspense and action. These two motifs are good, but are perhaps repeated too much, producing a potentially tiring listen. Continue reading

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Composed by Jerry Goldsmith and Joel Goldsmith

First Contact is considered to be the only truly good film starring the Next Generation cast. The plot sees the Borg mount another assault on earth. This time Starfleet is able to destroy the Borg Cube, but Picard learns that it sent out a time machine. Following it back in time, he learns that the Borg seek to prevent earth from contacting alien life and thus eliminate Starfleet as a threat in the present. The Borg overrun part of the Enterprise and the two sides have a series of fights. On the character side of things Picard’s PTSD from his previous experience with the Borg starts to cloud his judgment as he focuses on personal vengeance. I have some issues with the movie, particularly with how it portrays earth’s first contact with an alien species, but it’s definitely the best of the four TNG films. One thing that definitely works in its favor is the permanent return of Goldsmith to the franchise. The composer would score this and the next two films.

The greatest positive of Goldsmith’s longer tenure is the cohesion of the themes. Now every film would have his Star Trek theme. He would actually use it less, preferring to focus on his newer material. There’s not much in the way of new variations of the theme, but this is more than made up for by both new and other returning themes. Of the new themes, the most memorable one is the First Contact theme. It’s a lovely optimistic melody, symbolizing humankind’s ascent to the stars. Doubtlessly not wanting to simply rehash the main theme again, Goldsmith lets this theme grace the opening credits in “Main Title” (0:38). As with the main theme Goldsmith doesn’t reference it that much, but when he does it’s to great effect. Most of its iterations conclude with a familiar motif. It’s the Quest theme from Final Frontier. Recognizing its reliable flexibility, Goldsmith began to frequently pull it out in his TNG scores. One of its main uses is as an ender for the First Contact theme, where its statements are tied together by two extra notes (2:29 in “Main Title”). Finishing up the heroes’ side of things is the Klingon theme. Though the Klingons are not present as a faction in the story, Goldsmith is still able to bring back this popular melody to represent the race’s sole representative, famed character Worf. One might find it odd that one member of the Enterprise gets a theme and the others don’t, but Goldsmith’s melody is so good that listeners won’t care. It helps that as a warrior in a more action-oriented Star Trek film, Worf is constantly called upon so the theme’s inclusion is appropriate. Continue reading

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Composed by Cliff Eidelman

After The Final Frontier shook confidence in the Star Trek franchise, Nicholas Meyer, director of Wrath of Khan, returned to give the original cast a fitting send-off. Undiscovered Country seeks to explain how the Federation and Klingon Empire made peace before the Next Generation TV series. Thus it serves as a prequel of sorts for the 90s Star Trek shows. For some reason this movie doesn’t get as much attention. It was well received at the time and is still highly regarded by those who remember it. In fact it’s considered one of the best films (my personal third favorite). The movie’s plot is a reflection of the end of the Cold War, down to a moderate Klingon sporting the name Gorkon (as in Gorbachev, get it?). After a Chernobyl-like disaster, the Klingon Empire is pressured to finally seek peaceful relations with the Federation. The peace talks are undone, however, when the Klingon ambassador is assassinated. Kirk, who retains an intense hatred of the classic antagonists, makes a convenient target to frame for the assassination. It’s up to him and the rest of the Enterprise crew to uncover the conspiracy to derail the peace talks.

Instead of bringing back Goldsmith or Horner, Meyer planned to have Gustav Holst’s Planets rearranged and used as the score, akin to Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It turned out that the rights to Holst’s music were quite pricey. Meyer ended up hiring the 26 year old Cliff Eidelman based off a submission he sent in. The young composer was ecstatic at the chance to do a Star Trek score. Meyer instructed him to look to Holst for inspiration but otherwise Eidelman had a massive chance to do his own thing and make his mark. His music is distinctively darker, though there are a few nods to established conventions such as spiritual Vulcan material and a nautical theme for the Enterprise. The most obvious reference to Holst is the dark rhythmic action and suspense. These quite intentionally bring to mind “Mars, Bringer of War.” Continue reading

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Composed by Jerry Goldsmith

With Leonard Nimoy having directed two successful Star Trek films, William Shatner felt that he deserved to have his own shot, creating a film inspired by 80s televangelism. The Final Frontier sees Sybok, a Vulcan who rejects the traditional philosophy of logic in favor of spiritual emotionalism, lure the Enterprise so that he can use it to find the fabled world of Sha Ka Ree. Along the way he brainwashes many to his cause with his variation of the Vulcan mind meld, turning most of Kirk’s crew against him. Also, a Klingon warrior pursues the Enterprise in hopes of defeating Kirk and gaining gory. The Final Frontier proved to be the worst of the original cast films. It had many interesting ideas, the best the concept of the antagonist trying to destroy get at Kirk by destroying his iconic three-way relationship with Spock and Dr. McCoy. However a litany of production troubles (ongoing writer’s strike, budget cuts, etc.) as well as Shatner’s ego created a messy film with astonishingly sub-par special effects, inappropriate comedy, and inconsistent storytelling. To be fair, it is at least fun to watch unlike the other bad Trek films. One of the genuine positives is the return of Jerry Goldsmith to scoring duties.

At the time Star Trek: The Next Generation was just into its second season. The producers used Goldsmith’s Star Trek theme for the show’s opening and closing credits. Now Goldsmith would ensure some continuity between films and television. His score for Final Frontier is very different from his previous offering. This time he did not have long dialogue-lite scenes to work with (save one that produces an excellent piece). The end result is a more conventionally structured score, with shorter cues as opposed to lengthy classical pieces and dueling hero and villain themes. The composer is still experimental, though, relying heavily on electronics to create an alien atmosphere. Since the plot concerns such things as spiritual enlightenment and God, there is an abundance of unique synthesizer-laden cues. While The Motion Picture had Craig Huxley’s growling laser beam, Final Frontier has the synclavier, used most noticeably to create disturbing ethereal sounds for Sybok’s mind meld scenes. The synclavier is a digital system through which one can produce a wide range of sounds via a piano-like keyboard. Goldsmith’s Star Trek theme itself is of course back. With more action scenes and moments of heroism, the theme has more of a recurring presence, though as with its previous foray it’s largely absent for a large chunk of the film as the characters get lost in an alien environment. Continue reading