Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ship's Log, Supplemental: Star Trek: The Next Generation: Encounter At Farpoint (Original TV Soundtrack)

I didn't own a lot of music when I was younger. CDs were expensive, vinyl records moreso, both were hard to find where I live at the time and we didn't really have much to play them on anyway. Any music I did have was strictly on audio cassette, and one of the most life-changing moments for me came when my aunt bought me a Sony Walkman so I could actually listen to my own music wherever I wanted.

Naturally, an album of music from Star Trek: The Next Generation got one of my scarce tape deck slots. There were a lot of soundtracks released for the series, but the one I had was the very first-Dennis McCarthy's score for “Encounter at Farpoint”. Trekkers may disagree, but McCarthy is for me the iconic and quintessential Star Trek composer, with what's probably my absolute favourite piece of music and score in the entire franchise to his name. We're not talking about either right now, but we are looking at his first Star Trek work and one that holds a great deal of meaning for me personally.

I'm not ashamed to admit one of my favourite genres of music is film, television and video game soundtracks, especially theme songs. I admire how musicians can create songs that are designed to be equal parts short, catchy, memorable and deeply evocative. I can put on a good soundtrack and be instantly reminded of what I love about the actual work so much without being burdened with the infelicities that sometimes accompany the works themselves: It's like a version of the work with the contrast dial turned up, and I'll frequently put a soundtrack on in the background if I'm trying to cultivate a specific mood surrounding its parent work, like if I'm trying to write about it or something.

Dennis McCarthy's score to “Encounter at Farpoint” is very solid: It is, I have said, not my favourite of his scores, though there are one or two pieces that stand out for me, but it is quite good. Indeed, it's probably the best kind of soundtrack for the background music style of listening. It should probably say something that this has never been an album I listen to in its entirety very frequently-Not that it's bad, but rather, that “Encounter at Farpoint” itself is so good I typically prefer to just go watch that. Although that said, I do have memories of putting this on during a road trip to Boston once and it making the other passengers quite happy. The real draw of this album for me has always been two things: Firstly, the sleeve art, which is one of the most evocative and meaningful images ever associated with Star Trek for me. The shot of the Enterprise in particular is my absolute favourite. Second, the theme song, which is, ironically enough, the one part of the soundtrack McCarthy *didn't* do.

When I was younger I adored this song; it was probably one of my favourite pieces of music ever for a very long time and seemed to embody everything I saw in and loved about Star Trek: The Next Generation. The pounding, rhythmic beat sounded so triumphant and energetic and the “Space...The Final Frontier” section sounded ethereal, haunting and mesmerizing. I would listen to it over and over again (a very hard thing to do in the late '80s and early '90s when all you have is a tape deck and a rewind button: I have never once taken for granted my iPod's face controls and repeat functionality and give thanks to Apple for that every time I turn it on), which is a habit I still have today. I tend to like listening to one single song for an extended period of time instead of full albums because of how the cyclical melodies invoke a droning, zen-like state of mind after awhile (but only when I'm by myself: Another thing I'm eternally grateful for are earbuds). I guess that's what raising myself on Kraftwerk-inspired electronica and acid house Hi-NRG trance did to me.

Although the pilot and Season 1 versions of the intro credits sequence are not the ones that hold the most meaning to me, this rendition of the the title theme itself may be my favourite. Although there's an even better remix of “Space...The Final Frontier” to come later, the rendition of the title theme itself may be the best in the series in my opinion. After Denise Crosby and Wil Wheaton left, the entire sequence was shortened to accommodate their absence in the credits by omitting the second refrain of the song's opening beats. I've always felt this version of the song feels, well, artificially truncated. To me it sounds awkwardly as if the song has skipped its own beat somewhere, which indeed it has, and it's always bugged me. But the version we get on this album is the full, uncut original recording, so even though I by far prefer the later intro sequence overall, if I'm going to listen to an audio recording of the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme song, this is the one I reach for. Not only is it complete, it does tend to win out in terms of nostalgia as this is the version I've always had a physical copy of.

But of course, the song used as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation wasn't actually written for Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's a very lightly retooled version of Jerry Goldsmith's theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I remember when I first discovered that, and feeling so deeply crestfallen and disappointed (recall I saw The Next Generation before anything else): I was watching the first Star Trek movie with my family and was stunned to hear that ever familiar song announcing Captain Kirk flying into Starfleet Command. At first I couldn't accept it, and for the longest time afterward I still associated Goldsmith's song primarily with Star Trek: The Next Generation, not Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It never sounded right to be used as often in Gene Roddenberry's magnum opus as it is. But nowadays, especially after being exposed to the full spectrum of Star Trek music, my opinions have turned 180 degrees.

I now feel The Next Generation was hurt by recycling Goldsmith's piece because this means the series doesn't really have its own signature song, which all other Star Trek works do, love them or hate them (we'll get to “Faith of the Heart” someday). It may not sound like much, but in an era where so much can be conveyed through sound and vision alone, things like theme songs are important. And furthermore it certainly couldn't have helped a skeptical contingent of hardcore Trekkers at the time already suspicious of a Star Trek with no Kirk, Spock and McCoy to tune into “Encounter at Farpoint” on first transmission and hear not just the old theme song from Star Trek: The Motion Picture but Alexander Courage's old “Space...The Final Frontier” piece from the Original Series (incidentally, I personally feel the reverse is true for that song: It now *absolutely* belongs to Star Trek: The Next Generation in my mind and it feels weird to hear it used on the older show). I could see it being one more thing people like that could use to argue Star Trek: The Next Generation was permanently in the Original Series' shadow and to justify endlessly comparing it to and connecting it with its predecessor. So sadly, I simply can't enjoy this song at quite the same level I used to be able to because of that.

And this does confuse me some, as there was an alternative. There was, in fact, a unique theme song specifically written for Star Trek: The Next Generation. I don't know much of the background for this song; I presume Dennis McCarthy wrote it because it's on this album as a bonus track and he's credited for it in the metadata, but apart from that I've been able to find out next to nothing about it. I happen to like it: It's been described as sounding like John Williams' theme for the Superman movies, and I can definitely hear the similarities. Maybe that's why the creative team decided not to go with it, but I actually prefer it when compared to the one they went with nowadays. It's just as upbeat and rousing, but it has the benefit of not being derivative of anything else. And, most importantly, “Space...The Final Frontier” leads just as effortlessly into it as it does into the official theme. Although ultimately, I have to reassert a point I made in an earlier post and say the Star Trek: The Next Generation remix of the Reading Rainbow theme should have been the official theme song.

(Just in case it turns out the composers do actually talk about this during their roundtable discussion on the Season 5 Blu-ray box set special features, I'll just throw out the temporary defense that I haven't watched that yet as of this writing and will have to revise accordingly later. Although I'm sure someone will let me know in the comments.)

And I suppose that's a solid description of this soundtrack: It's an album I treasured when I was younger whose luster may have faded in my mind a bit over the years, but that still holds a special place in my heart. Much like Star Trek: The Next Generation itself.


 Here's a fan re-edit of the "Encounter at Farpoint" intro sequence with the unused theme song.


  1. I think that McCarthy is vastly underrated. I'll concede that he's not even the composer I think of when I think of Star Trek.

    Obviously there's the Original Series guys, but when I think of the soundscape of The Next Generation, I think of Ron Jones. Yes, it was over-the-top, but when it worked it worked beautifully. In particular, I love Jones' underused Romulan fanfare (if I am being scathing, I could suggest that it is perhaps the most interesting thing about the Berman-era Romulans) and the "aw, heck, let's just commit to it" cheese of The Royale. And, of course, his score to The Best of Both Worlds. I think that The Next Generation lost a lot when Jones was let go at the start of year four.

    When it comes to DS9, I actually think of David Bell's scores as the ones that gave the show its unique flavour. I suspect I'm fonder of the last four seasons than you are, but Bell seemed to enjoy a great deal more freedom with his orchestra than McCarthy did - perhaps because Bell really came into his own on DS9 after Behr had taken over, where things were a bit more fluid, while McCarthy had already been receiving notes from Berman for seven years before Behr loosened things up on DS9.

    So McCarthy is most associated with Voyager and Enterprise in my mind. I think he did a lot of very good stuff on Enterprise, even if he is ultimately overshadowed by the theme tune. (Of course, this being Enterprise, the good stuff is often overshadowed in discussions of the show by the truly undeniably terrible stuff.) Nevertheless, I have a massive fondness for his "Archer" theme, which is really the soundtrack for what Enterprise kinda felt like it wanted be, rather than that show that it was.

    Great article. I really think that Star Trek soundtracks get glossed over in discussions of the show.


    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      Ron Jones seems to be the fan favouirte of the TNG composers. I do like and appreciate his work, but I have to say I'm less fond of his mini feature film approach than some others. That's not to say I don't think it's good, but I personally like a different style of Star Trek music than that. Next time we look at McCarthy, I'll talk about how, in spite of the limitations he sometimes faced, he still came up with a sound I think is very distinctive and appropriate.

      Definitely second your comments about Enterprise and "Archer's Theme". That was going to be the theme song for the show itself, and, like much about this show, it should have been. And of course his Voyager theme was a smash hit.

    2. Well, to be fair, the mini-feature approach was mandated. The composers feature on the blu ray has the various composers discussing how Berman thought it made the show sound "cheap" - that it would look to casual viewers like they were recycling musical cues to save money.

      (And, for all the stock complaints about Berman, he never made a decision without a clear logic behind it. I can respect that concern about a syndicated science-fiction drama series in 1987 being perceived as "cheap" in any way. It may not be a creative decision with which I would agree, but it makes sense from Berman's perspective - Berman deserves the vast majority of credit for that beautiful polished look and feel of The Next Generation's production.)

      On that feature, McCarthy talks about the pain he had trying to sneak in Picard's theme during the first two years, with Berman frequently catching him out.

      (Although, in Jones' defence, I think that he did it just as much. The seeding of the Romulan motif in The Neutral Zone and The Defector, the faint traces of that iconic cue from The Motion Picture echoing in some of his Klingon scores or the way that the faintest of traces of Q Who? can be heard on The Best of Both Worlds.)


  2. I found myself tiring of the TNG theme by the time it was reused in Star Trek V. It seemed sort of unfair that they'd recycle the theme from the first film in both TNG and the fifth film, when it was so patently obvious to young-me that the theme from Star Trek IV was the best piece of music in the franchise and should be used for everthing from now on. (These days I think I have a bit of a preference for the Star Trek II theme).

    One thing I've always regretted was that we never got a modern reinterpretation of Alexander Courage's original theme music. I hear they actually did one for the 2009 movie, but decided not to use it.

    1. Leonard Rosenman was instructed to write an interpretation of Courage's TOS theme for the main title of Star Trek IV--it's one of the samples available for the expanded edition of the score. It's...not great, sadly. After it was recorded, Nimoy and the producers decided to have Rosenman write a new main title piece with his own theme, though he did drop the TOS theme into the score toward the end of the movie, just like James Horner did at the end of Star Trek III.

      Personally, I love the version Michael Giacchino did for the end credits of the 2009 film, using every part of Courage's original piece and placing the melody in counterpoint to his new theme in interesting ways.

  3. McCarthy's alternate main title was written first and was actually supposed to be the main theme for the show. When it was decided to use Goldsmith's theme, McCarthy arranged & conducted the opening and closing cues, and the Goldsmith section of the opening credits was edited into the original recording. (You can actually hear part of the first note of McCarthy's theme in the opening as used in the first season, before it was re-recorded as one piece for season...two or three, I think.) Even after his theme was replaced in the opening, McCarthy kept it around for a short time as Picard's theme, until it was dropped as part of the increasing Bermanization of the show's music.

    I always figured that the use of Goldsmith's theme was one of Roddenberry's decisions, and may have had something to do with the fact that The Motion Picture was the last time Roddenberry was really in control of Star Trek before the development of TNG. (Not that that has anything to do with the theme coming back for The Final Frontier; that's just due to hiring the same composer.)

    Just about every Star Trek soundtrack there's ever been has had an expanded reissue come out within the last five years (you can now buy every note Ron Jones ever recorded for TNG, for instance), and Farpoint is the most recent of them. The Farpoint score is now complete, but for me, the real gem there is the addition of McCarthy's score for The Arsenal of Freedom.

    It's hard to say who the quintessential Trek composer is for me. A lot of the great music for TOS' first two seasons seared itself into my memory through repetition, as did the scores for the first seven films. (Star Trek and Star Wars are, together, responsible for my lifelong love of film music.) McCarthy was a little too Bermanized to fill that role for me; my favorite McCarthy score is definitely Generations, with a nod to his DS9 scores for the same general time period--listening to the McCarthy disc of the 2013 DS9 set, it seemed like he was writing Generations for three or four years, and I ate it all up.

    1. You know I feel bad that you left this really lengthy, thoughtful comment and all I can think about right now is how bemused and pleasantly surprised I am that GNP/Crescendo is selling the soundtracks to Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla vs. Megaguirus alongside their Star Trek reissues. I've actually been thinking about Godzilla movies a lot recently, in particular those two, so I was admittedly taken aback to see them. Great stuff!