Despite the financial success of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979), the film was considered by Paramount Pictures to be a disappointment, owing to spiraling production costs and a script that came together literally at the last minute and that led to a story that left many Trek fans cold.
The end result was that Paramount Pictures decided, if there was to be a second Star Trek film, the budget would have to be considerably smaller. Series creator Gene Roddenberry, who was largely blamed for the cost overruns from the first film, was reduced to an “Executive Consultant” role, while well-regarded TV producer Harve Bennett was put in charge of the franchise.
As he was developing the script with writer Jack B. Sowards, Bennett turned to novelist-turned-director Nicholas Meyer to helm the film. Meyer had recently directed TIME AFTER TIME (1979), but he had almost no familiarity with Star Trek. This actually turned out to be a good thing, since he was able to focus on making the best film possible without staying overly (excessively) reverential to the material.
The worst of times; the best of times…
The reduction in the film’s budget affected several aspects of production; however, what could have been seen as a hindrance was actually embraced by director Meyer. In addition to finding creative solutions around the need to have to starship bridges (the Reliant is simply a redress of the Enterprise) and a decreased effects budget (there is a number of re-used shots of the Enterprise from the first film), the film’s music would be affected as well.
“I believe that art thrives on restrictions, and that when you’re forced to be ingenious, things get better than if you can throw oodles of money at the problem.”
– Nicholas Meyer, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN director’s commentary.
Because of his standing in the film community, there was simply no way the producers could afford to bring back Jerry Goldsmith, despite the incredible score he had produced for the first film. To take his place, Meyer would turn to a 28-year-old relative unknown: James Horner. Horner had scored a few small films to that point (including BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS  for Roger Corman), but this was his first major composing assignment.
Needless to say, Horner took advantage of the opportunity.
From the start of the project, Meyer had envisioned Star Trek as a version of Horatio Hornblower in outer space (ironically, this was one of Gene Roddenberry’s initial takes as well). This in turn led Horner to consider a more sea-faring style compared to the high-concept science fiction approach taken by Jerry Goldsmith.
This new focus is certainly evident in Horner’s main titles, which are made up of two complementary themes: first is one that I’ve always identified with Admiral Kirk, while the second with the Enterprise. I’m not sure if Horner himself intended this, but it’s how I’ve always associated them. On balance, I think I prefer the smoother Enterprise theme, but both work quite well. Horner also restored the Alexander Courage fanfare to the main titles (it having been dropped by Goldsmith), and its use at the beginning of the titles would become a staple for the series until STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991).
James Horner would also write a motif for Khan, and thus a controversy was born. While I find the charge to be mostly overblown, Horner has garnered criticism over the years for self-plagarization. Nowhere is this more apparent than his continued use of variations of the Khan theme , which became known as the famous/infamous “Horner Four-note Danger Motif.” Here, the four notes appear as the Enterprise is approaching the Reliant, unaware that Khan and his group have taken over the ship. When the image cuts to a closeup of the Reliant bearing down on Kirk and company, Horner lets loose with the full Khan motif:
The Kirk and Khan motifs play well off of each other, and Horner uses them both to great effect particularly during the final battle in the Mutara Nebula. Here at times, he uses a more action-oriented, abbreviated form of Kirk’s theme to play off the more fanfare-like qualities of the Khan theme. Quiet mysterious underscore follows the ships playing hide-and-seek in the nebula, with the occasional blast of one or both themes as one captain tries to get the upper hand on the other. Another aspect the the cue that continues to catch me off guard occasion is the way the sound drops off into silence, only to roar back as Khan suddenly appears immediately in front of the Enterprise.
The aftermath of the battle leads to Khan activating the Genesis Device, causing the wounded Enterprise to flee and Spock to ultimately sacrifice himself for the good of his ship. This sequence also introduces another motif that would find its way into many Horner scores in the future (including THE ROCKETEER (1991), which I am also reviewing for this blogathon). It’s something I affectionately refer to as the “revving-up theme,” it consists of three notes that rise chromatically. Often, Horner repeats this twice in different registers, allowing the two “revs” to overlap. It’s an effective way of the music showing that there is a build-up to something happening. Here, that motif builds as Kirk’s theme appears in the high brass, as he realizes that the crew is doomed unless they can somehow restore the warp drive.
In a subtle but effective bit of directing, Meyer allows the camera to slowly track from Kirk over to Spock, who realizes that there is only one way out. It’s also a fantastic bit of acting by Nimoy in this scene, as he conveys so much in just a slight tilt of his head and a determined exit from the bridge.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out the theme that Horner writes for Spock, which plays throughout the film, most notably in the scene in Spock’s cabin where he transfers command of the Enterprise to Kirk and at the end of the film, where he dies trapped inside the reactor room.
His theme is first introduced with electronics played over a lovely harp melody. As he dies, the electronics are largely replaced by a solo French horn. Spock’s theme would be developed further in STAR TREK III, forming a third thematic pillar with the Kirk and Enterprise themes in that film.
But that’s another blog post…