Music has always been a huge part of Star Trek, from 1966 and that fanfare to the modern stylings of Star Trek: Discovery, which begins its second season this week. Over the course of 13 movies and seven television series, not to mention a boatload of video games, various composers have tried their best to musically represent Gene Roddenberry‘s vision of gunboat diplomacy and utopian societies. But which theme reaches maximum warp first? Which of the many pieces of music can deal with the most phaser hits and deciphering technobabble? Let’s find out.
Legend has it that when Enterprise launched there was a petition to ask the producers to ditch the opening theme. This is no surprise, I only wish I cared about the show back then to sign it. There’s no point beating around the bush here: it’s a dreadful theme. Probably the worst thing is that it’s not even original. It was written by super-songmeister Diane Warren for Rod Stewart to sing in the horrible Robin Williams picture Patch Adams, a movie so bad even the man it was based on came out to say how much it sucks. Even Russell Watson, who sings it for the show, does a poor Stewart impression, and it’s really the one and only reason for Netflix’s “skip intro” button to exist.
14. The Animated Series
While Star Trek only got one more live-action series after its initial cancellation, it did get a third lease of life in cartoon form in the shape of Star Trek: The Animated Series, which received 22 episodes from Filmation between 1973 and 1974. Most of the principal cast returned to voice the characters, but the task for the music for the entire series fell to two people, Yvette Blais and Jeff Michael, otherwise known as Ray Ellis (Blais was his wife) and Norm Prescott (who had two sons, Jeff and Michael). Ellis was a producer and arranger who had previously worked with the likes of Billie Holiday and Emmylou Harris as well as composing for the 1960s Spider-Man animated show, while Prescott was one of the Filmation producers along with Lou Scheimer. Being fair, their theme is heavily based on the Alexander Courage TV theme, but it’s still a decent tune. I guess they couldn’t afford to use any music from the live-action show, but for what it was it worked.
13. The Voyage Home
On the surface, Leonard Rosenman wasn’t really a bad choice. He was a famous composer with a back catalog anyone would wish for, such as East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Fantastic Voyage, and Barry Lyndon among others. So while he might have been an odd choice for “the one with the whales,” especially after James Horner, he was nevertheless a good one. His score, however, well let’s just say it has divided fans a fair bit. His main theme isn’t that bad, a strong brassy effort with the pomp and circumstance you’d expect, but it just doesn’t feel like the right tone. It doesn’t help that the theme’s bridge is taken straight from the bridge of his theme from Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated Lord of the Rings. FFS, Lenny.
12. Deep Space Nine
Dennis McCarthy didn’t have much luck in 1987 when his theme for The Next Generation was rejected in favor of Jerry Goldsmith‘s movie theme, but the stars were with him in 1993 when Deep Space Nine came around. The producers initially requested Goldsmith but he had another project at the time, so McCarthy finally got his chance. And it’s a strange theme. It was always going to have a different feel, with the show about a space station rather than the naturally propulsive starship, and it has a rather gentle feel to it, like a stately fanfare. A more dynamic arrangement was created for season four onwards, but it didn’t change much. It’s wonderful in its full concert arrangement, and in a solo piano arrangement McCarthy later did, but it was the one weak link in DS9‘s chain.
We meet again, Mr. McCarthy. Despite heavily featuring the TNG theme in marketing, the producers of Star Trek Generations decided to plunk for Dennis and he actually did a fine job, composing a stirring and muscular theme that works very well with horse riding scenes and Shatner making breakfast for Picard. It also blends in well with the original fanfare, which was pretty much a requisite for everyone but Jerry Goldsmith. The film and score get reasonably short shrift when it comes to fan debates, but both are better than their reputation. Unfortunately, McCarthy is now composing music for the films of convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza, which is about as far from the principles of Star Trek as you can get.
The new kid on the block is yet another example of the division of fans today on social media. Discovery is an interesting case, it’s definitely different than previous Treks, especially with heavy violence, interspecies intercourse, and a couple of F-bombs in its first season, but it’s gotten better and better to the point where it feels to me like it’s Star Trek. And it has a pretty great theme by omnipresent TV composer Jeff Russo that takes the modernistic approach while still remaining true to what has come before. Russo’s own theme is a wonderfully stirring and adventurous melody that fans out like the intriguing shape of the vessel before segueing to the classic fanfare at the climax. More, please.
For the last installment of the original film series, Jerry Goldsmith tried something different. Instead of something more heroic, the score is dominated by the theme for Shinzon, Tom Hardy’s genocidal Picard clone hellbent on conquering everything, including his twin. Goldsmith’s theme is economic, only using five notes, but it’s versatility allows it to be used in different modes throughout the film, often in a tragic tone. But perhaps the best is the end credit suite version, where it’s beautifully drawn out into a stunning full orchestral concert rendition that perhaps does the best job of musically describing Picard and his villainous equal.
8. Star Trek ’09
Everyone remembers the first time Michael Giacchino‘s thrilling theme for the alternate universe adventures of the Enterprise appears properly in the film; when Kirk et al are transported to the flashy new hot rod of a ship for the first time. Known as “Enterprising Young Men,” the cue begins with an initial ostinato representing Starfleet cadets as they travel via shuttle, with the orchestra building and building with a fanfare of its own until the Enterprise is finally revealed and that huge brass melody soars. A classic moment that shows the power of the theme and why it really is the main theme of these movies, despite the end credit use of the ’60s tune.
7. The Undiscovered Country
For the 1991 sendoff of the original crew, director Nicholas Meyer picked a young composer named Cliff Eidelman to handle scoring duties, and he subsequently turned out one of the best scores in the series. While he used the original fanfare fairly liberally, his own theme was a wonderful tribute to the exploration and adventure of the franchise, a richly textured and emotionally resonant melody that hit exactly the right notes of nostalgia and optimism, allowing for a perfect goodbye to those we had spent decades traveling with.
Insurrection is usually remembered as a lesser-known entry and proof of the odd-numbered curse. But whatever you think about the film, Jerry Goldsmith’s sweet-natured main theme for the Ba’ku people is a gorgeous reminder of the composer’s ability to write memorable themes that stick with you beyond the film — often a good thing considering some of the pictures Goldsmith scored. The youthful nature of the Ba’ku is reflected in the delicate opening phrasing and the way the melody develops, a beautifully innocent theme that is eventually corrupted when the Federation step in.
When Paramount decided on launching a third Star Trek series set in the time of The Next Generation, Jerry Goldsmith was the only sane choice. The composer’s subsequent theme is a triumph, a melody that at first sounds somewhat subdued but is really keyed into the emotional plight of Voyager‘s crew, being lost 70,000 light years away from home. Goldsmith gives a real mythic quality to the piece, and it’s a fitting theme for a ship that traveled for seven long years before finally getting home. Emmy-winning, too.
4. The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek II is often regarded as the film that truly kickstarted the movie series, and from that, there is a very definite decision to open the film and score with the original fanfare. However, what really makes it a success is James Horner’s sweeping nautical theme, itself a callback to Roddenberry’s original concept of Star Trek as “Horatio Hornblower in space.” It’s a stunning theme and is beautifully used throughout both II and III as an emotional crux for Kirk and Spock, with the B-section used as the A-theme in the latter film. It has hallmarks of Horner’s previous work, especially his score for Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond The Stars, but remains its own thing and an integral part of the franchise’s musical history.
3. First Contact
After Generations passed the torch to the TNG crew, along came their first solo film where they fought the evil Borg to the strains of a terrific Jerry Goldsmith score (with additional cues by his son Joel Goldsmith). It’s a fine action work, but what really stands out is his spectacular main theme, for once not a march but a more emotional and evocative piece reflecting the human elements of the story, pulled along by one of the most gorgeous melodies you’ll ever hear. It connects Picard and Lily in the film, but its best use is as a triumphant closer for the climax of the film, where Farmer Hoggett meets the Vulcans. Stunning.
2. The Original Series
It’s impossible to overstate just how important this theme is to Star Trek; it is Star Trek. Those four opening notes, that fanfare, that sweeping theme. It was an incredible time for television scoring and some of the best of that era came from the tales of the Enterprise. Of course, Jerry Goldsmith’s name comes up, as he was originally asked to write it but couldn’t (yet would still write themes for shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Waltons) so it fell to Alexander “Sandy” Courage, who couldn’t have done better. Over the show’s lifetime, it had three different flavors for the main melody; electric violin, cello, and soprano (I prefer the cello), and it’s still an instant musical memory for millions of people, and pop culture itself.
1. The Motion Picture
It may have been thought impossible to have a musical theme for Star Trek other than Courage’s piece, yet none other than Jerry Goldsmith showed everybody with his theme for the 1979 big-screen debut, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Initially struggling to come up with something, Goldsmith eventually pulled out of his hat a powerful and stately march to underscore the adventures of the new Enterprise. The theme was so successful that it became the main theme of The Next Generation in 1987, and so to certain generations, it is Star Trek. And really, you couldn’t ask for a better piece of music to represent the sheer adventure, romance, and humanity of the franchise. A bold new musical step, but one that so far, hasn’t come near to be bettered.