Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ship's Log, Supplemental: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Emissary (Music from the Original Television Soundtrack)

Other composers may be more renowned in the fandom today, but when Paramount needs to launch a Star Trek show, they turn to Dennis McCarthy. He's the working composer who holds the franchise together in song on a day to day basis. And his score for “Emissary” (mistakingly affixed with the definite article on the sleeve notes) may well be his magnum opus. It's definitely a major turning point.

You can make much the same argument for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine itself, at least as it exists now in January 1993. It's the culmination of everything Rick Berman, Michael Piller and the rest of the Star Trek creative team had learned over the past three years, and it's the fullest realisation of everything they'd ever wanted to do with Star Trek. More importantly it's a vision that finally and at long last embraces the franchise's utopianism instead of bristling up against it, in spite of how many overtures to conflict for conflicts sake the team makes in interviews. In absolute defiance of the “three season rule”, in “Emissary” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine opens straight up with a defining statement that's easily a contender for the title of Greatest Star Trek Story Ever Told, and it's a testament to how good this season is that it ends with one too.

Dennis McCarthy's soundtrack is reflective of every ounce of the team's newfound confidence and inspiration. There's even one obvious standout cut from this album that's just as definitive as “Emissary” itself, and is in my mind the single greatest piece of music ever composed for Star Trek. We'll talk about it in good time, of course, but as that's obviously going to take up the bulk of this essay I'll save it for the end. In the meantime, on the rest of the record McCarthy finds the perfect feel for what Star Trek in the twilight of the Long 1980s should sound like: There's still a little of that golden age film score sound Ron Jones popularized, albeit quite a bit less bombastic than Jones' work. And there are definitely slower parts where the music is intended to fade into the background a bit, and by that I mean there are parts of “Emissary” that absolutely sound like, well, a TV soundtrack. But McCarthy strikes just the right balance between that and a more eclectic edge that he's quite frankly never been given the credit he deserves for.

(Although quite frankly, any argument that McCarthy just writes "sonic wallpaper" flies straight out the window for me whenever "New Personality" starts playing. It's an instantly reconisable piece and it immediately transports me right back to one of my most formative and evocative television memories.)

Where Ron Jones was given instructions to be extremely classical and old-fashioned Hollywood (a tad dated and overblown to my ears, though I concede that's my opinion) and Jay Chattaway does his best stuff with organic world sounds, particularly Celtic ones (c.f. “Tin Man” and “The Inner Light”), Dennis McCarthy's best work plays with a kind of fusion sound that would have been very much in vogue at the time. His work on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine here is the best example of this to my mind because he hits on the frankly inspired idea of bringing in a heavy dose of New Age influences. It's a trend in McCarthy's work you can trace all the way back to (fittingly) “Encounter at Farpoint”, but it's showcased the best on “Emissary”. “Into the Wormhole” is probably the best immediate example, with all kinds of trippy, howling witchy sound effects that are actually part of the song itself and capture the mood of that scene perfectly.

Then there's “Passage Terminated”, which is just flat-out brilliant. The best way to describe it is...Did you ever listen to those cassette tapes they used to make of ambient music and sound effects meant to calm you down and relax you? I did, and it left a lasting impression on my musical sensibilities. They're actually terrific for helping put you into a meditative trance-Just get comfortable, close your eyes and focus on the music, and from there it's very easy to enter into a heightened state of conscious awareness. In fact, I have hypnotherapy recordings that use this exact type of music as a backing track. That's the kind of song “Passage Terminated” is, and it's only natural that it plays when Ben is trying to explain linear existence to the Prophets through Baseball. It's the exact right fit for not just that scene, but the feel of the episode on the whole. McCarthy had even dabbled with this sound before (again, in “Encounter at Farpoint”), but “Passage Terminated” is his finest execution of it. It's a stroke of utter genius on McCarthy's part and unlike anything else in Star Trek.

In the most primordial recesses of my memory, this is the music I associate with both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine *and* Star Trek: The Next Generation; the energy and emotion of being in its purest form. And yet even “Passage Terminated” isn't the most defining moment on this album. Really, there could only ever be one song that was.

“Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” is the greatest musical moment in Star Trek's history. Because of course it is. What else could it be? This song is a masterpiece: Just a solitary French horn with a hauntingly subdued backing synth pad, yet one of the most complexly moving and powerful compositions ever set to film. I remember the first time I saw Deep Space Nine's opening credits: I'd long since decided the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme was basically the greatest TV theme tune ever (I hadn't heard a lot of TV theme tunes at that point, mind), but I remember being absolutely *blown away* by this, literally rendered speechless. I couldn't even come up with a way to compare the two pieces; all I knew was that I had just heard one of the most amazingly beautiful songs possibly ever. A little piece of my youth died that day, though: Never again would I be able to be quite so enraptured by my first love. Star Trek now meant something else to me.

The Next Generation theme's unfortunate fate was finally sealed when I later learned that it was, in fact, The Motion Picture theme. Which also leads us to how historically important “Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” actually was: This was the first time a theme song was written *expressly* for a new Star Trek show, without any lineage or continuity with the Original Series whatsoever. And this is a metaphor for the state the franchise is now in as of January 1993: From its very beginning, Deep Space Nine has been gifted a freedom, agency and individuality Star Trek: The Next Generation was never quite able to maintain. Until now. As counterintuitive as it perhaps may seem at first, it's really Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that finally breaks the chains that had bound Star Trek: The Next Generation to its inescapable predecessor. These two shows have together created a new universe for them and them alone to inhabit. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine belong with each other, not with the Original Series. So maybe in that sense this song is for both of them.

It's 1993. This is it. We've reached Star Trek's cultural peak; its annus mirablis. And the theme song to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the soundtrack to the apex. The majority of my fondest memories of Star Trek pertain to this zeitgeist, and one of my most vivid is connected to this song. I was hanging out at my local mall, about an hour and a half north of me, nestled beneath one of the tallest ski mountains in the state. I was walking between the K-B Toys and Disney Store when suddenly this song comes on the mall radio. I was stopped dead in my tracks. No, that couldn't be...Could it...? Oh My God *it is*! The radio is the absolute last place I would have expected to hear Star Trek *anything*, but there was “Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” clear as anything. It was at that point when it finally clicked with me how big a thing Star Trek was. No, that Star Trek had *become*. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was producing *charting singles*. I was overjoyed and overwhelmed all at once: Never in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined something like that happening before now, and never again was Star Trek just the thing my family and I watched together at night.

And this literally was a charting single too: I even have the Maxi-CD single that was actually cut from the “Emissary” soundtrack, with “Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” as the A-side. The B-side is “Passage Terminated (Love Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)”, which is an entirely reorchestrated and reconceptualized version of the song used on the show. It's a masterpiece in its own right, really bringing out all the ethereal and meditative qualities of the original and putting them centre stage. I *highly* recommend giving it a listen. And the theme song itself gets a makeover of its own: Neither this nor “Passage Terminated (Love Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)” are simple edits or rearrangements, but rather entirely new recordings and new takes on the songs with all-new (and superior) instrumentation.

This version of the theme song is particularly wild, as it opens up even moodier and more atmospheric than the TV version, before leading into a plodding doom march of a drum line that underscores the whole piece. Then suddenly, McCarthy breaks out electric guitars which he proceeds to just shred in accompaniment for a whole 3 additional minutes to bring the song up to standard radio length! You would think this would kill the contemplative mood of the song, yet somehow it manages to enhance it! Dare I say it, I think this is the definitive version of the piece. It's the first glimpse we get of the pop rock sound that's a big influence on McCarthy that will shape a lot of his early work for Enterprise (particularly “Archer's Theme”), but it's on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where I find it to be the most pleasingly unexpected and oddly affecting.

You could find these songs (along with the similarly offbeat and fun “Cucumbers in Space”) as bonus tracks on the “Emissary” soundtrack, or together on this Maxi single. This is the soundtrack CD from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine I confess is the most precious to me: I didn't own the full “Emissary” soundtrack but I did own this, and the dimly lit photograph of Kira, Dax and Bashir on the upper level of the Promenade that's in the liner notes for this single is one of my favourite and most formative images in the show for me. Together, they comprise an audiovisual scrapbook of a very special and exciting time in my life, a happier time I can always transport myself back to and whose emotions I can channel through the music that was left behind.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely post Josh. I am a big lover of some TV and film music myself, and often feel that this area of musical composition is sometimes looked down on by more 'establishment' types of music. I don't have as big a collection as I used but still love it.