“Nautical But Nice”

James Horner and the Music for The Wrath of Khan

This post is written as a part of the Second Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon hosted by Becky at Film Music Central. It also continues my look at the music of the Star Trek film series. For previous reviews: 

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE 

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 [1980] for Roger Corman), but this was his first major composing assignment.

Needless to say, Horner took advantage of the opportunity.

IMG_0051From 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).

“Main Titles”

USS_Reliant

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:

Excerpt from “Surprise Attack”

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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.

Excerpt from “Battle in the Mutara Nebula”

Genesis_device_transporting

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.

Excerpt from “Genesis Countdown”

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.

spock2

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.

“Spock (Dies)”

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…

General Chang and STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)

“In space, all warriors are cold warriors.”

This post is written for the Christopher Plummer Blogathon hosted by Sean Munger. Thanks for the opportunity to participate, Sean!

plummer-blogathon-banner-2aEver since the success of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, subsequent films in the Star Trek universe have largely been judged by their villains (with STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) being the obvious exception). And like Shinzon in STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002) and Nero in STAR TREK (2009), many often feel like pale imitations of Khan himself.

However, this is not the case for Klingon General Chang in STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, which in my humble opinion is the only film in the series to challenge WRATH OF KHAN for the top spot among all Star Trek films. Chang is a big part of why I love the film so much, and a lot of that is due to his portrayal by Christopher Plummer.

img_0047As an actor who comes from theater, Plummer was the ideal choice to play a Klingon general with a penchant for quoting from the works of Shakespeare (even if they are not, as he remarks in the film, in the “original Klingon”). Unlike some of Trek’s more one-note villains, Chang is at various times cordial, cunning, or ruthless. Plummer’s theater background is most evident in the trial scene, where Chang is called upon to prosecute a case against Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy for the assassination of the Klingon chancellor. He shows tremendous range here, from quiet and almost chatty when he discusses the amount of Romulan ale consumed by McCoy prior to the attack to bombastic when, in perhaps the most famous exchange in the scene, he evokes Adlai Stevenson II’s famous remark to Russian Ambassador Zorin by yelling at Kirk, “…don’t wait for the translation! Answer me now!!!”

IMG_0048
“Have we not heard the chimes at midnight?”

Because Chang is not (deliberately) set up as the villain of the film, Plummer also has the added challenge of portraying someone who might be a reluctant ally to the Federation when he comes aboard the Enterprise for an ill-fated diplomatic dinner. His initial encounter with Captain Kirk is not one of hostility but one of admiration, as Chang sees himself and Kirk as two sides of the same coin. Plummer plays both his arrival and departure scenes with the perfect balance of relish, comradeship, and menace so that, despite the good intentions of Chancellor Gorkon, you’re not quite sure what to make of this bald fellow with the bolted-in eyepatch.

His attitude also serves as an interesting mirror on the character of Captain Kirk. Of course, Kirk is portrayed as the hero in these stories, but how would that hero be viewed by his long-time adversaries? While his deeds may not be celebrated, he certainly deserves respect as a warrior, particularly from a race like the Klingons. One gets the sense that Chang has had a similarly distinguished career as Kirk, and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that his appearance to Kirk and his crew is not dissimilar to how Kirk is viewed by the Klingons. The fact that both Christopher Plummer and William Shatner are classically trained Canadian actors makes the parallel even that much closer.

IMG_0050

Both characters also carry with them considerable prejudices as well. While some of Kirk’s is rooted in the death of his son at the hands of the Klingons, there is also the ingrained distrust built up over years of conflict that is shared by both. This is most apparent during the dinner scene, where a comment by Chang is attributed by Kirk to Adolf Hitler just prior to the Nazi invasion of Europe. It also helps that Plummer’s delivery when he responds, “I beg your pardon?” is absolutely perfect. Ultimately though, Kirk is able to overcome these prejudices (admittedly only after being sent to a Klingon gulag) and recognize that it is possible to make peace with one’s enemies.

ffh7ymChang, of course, isn’t able to make this leap, and because of how he sees Kirk as a mirror of himself, he believes that Kirk is right there with him about there being, “no peace in our time.” It is here during the final battle that Plummer lets loose, chewing the scenery with incredible gusto as he mockingly quotes Shakespeare from his cloaked bird of prey. While I suppose this aspect of his performance could be considered hammy, I just enjoy it so much that I can’t find fault. Chang is clearly having a wonderful time, slowly toying with his adversary, and his shocked expression upon realizing that Kirk has beaten him along with his subdued, “to be…or not to be,” final line is the perfect way for him to go out.

A couple of minor character issues aside — I was never convinced that Chang was anything BUT the bad guy, and his reveal as such in the film is more of a “well duh” moment than a surprise — Christopher Plummer certainly belongs up there with Ricardo Montalban when discussing the best villain portrayals the Star Trek franchise has produced. I cannot imagine another actor in the role, which is perhaps the greatest compliment you can give.

Finally, Christopher Plummer also made his mark in a different role: narrating the first teaser trailer for the film. Set to clips projected over the surface of the Enterprise, it’s probably my favorite Star Trek trailer of all time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Plummer, Chang, and the trailer, and thanks again to Sean Munger for the chance to revisit one of my favorites.

 

 

 

The Gold(smith) Standard

The Music of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE

In the coming weeks, I will be taking a look at each of the scores to the films in the Star Trek franchise. Here, I will talk a bit about the first film, which really set the template for what Trek film music would sound like for more than 35 years.

In 1979, Star Trek, a TV show that had been on the air only for three short seasons yet drew a fan base unequaled for its time through syndication, was reborn as a feature film. While the music written for the series by Alexander Courage, Gerald Fried, Fred Steiner, and others had often been memorable but not what I would call “cinematic.” To bring Trek to the big screen would require the skills of one of the biggest names in film music: Jerry Goldsmith.

Continue reading “The Gold(smith) Standard”