The Musical Legacy of Star Trek: The Original Series
For the past two years, I’ve been developing a series of YouTube videos I call Scoring Star Trek. The viewer comments have impressed me and reveal a still-abiding appreciation for the great music that underscores the series. There’s certainly a lot of it. The introduction to Jeff Bond’s The Music Of Star Trek: Profiles In Style begins, “Star Trek has arguably produced more music than any single motion picture or television franchise in history.” Factor in the multiple later iterations — still in production over half a century later! — and “…the sheer tonnage of music written for Star Trek is imposing.” I think most people would agree. But how did it all start?
The Origins of Star Trek Music
In 1935, Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold made history with a symphonic film score, the first of its kind, for Warner Brothers’ Captain Blood. Composed in three weeks, it garnered an Oscar nomination.
Three decades later, this music inspired Gene Roddenberry, as production of his fledgling TV sci-fi drama was getting underway. The USS Enterprise and its crew mirrored the sea-going adventurers in literature, though in space, not at sea.
Roddenberry clearly valued soundtracks. “Music, to me, is where the inner you — your guts and so on — come in contact with a show. I wanted very earthlike, romantic music.” In early meetings with Star Trek’s first composer, Alexander “Sandy” Courage, Roddenberry shared his sea-going adventure concept for the show. (liner notes, Star Trek: The Original Series Soundtrack Collection) Courage’s successor, Fred Steiner, recalled Roddenberry saying he didn’t want “boops and beeps music, but adventure music — Captain Blood in space.” (Jeff Bond: The Music Of Star Trek – Profiles In Style) By all accounts, he got it.
Star Trek‘s music goes back to the famous eight-note fanfare that heralds the starship Enterprise zooming across our TV screens, accompanied by the iconic split infinitive, “To boldy go where no man (no one) has gone before.” This theme music was composed by Alexander Courage, who contributed much more than the theme.
Sandy Courage — the first and last composer of the original Star Trek series — set the standard by creating all the underscore music for the pilot episodes “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, and for two of the earliest broadcast episodes, “The Naked Time” and “The Man Trap”, the latter becoming the very first episode of Star Trek to air, on Thursday 8 September 1966. He returned for Season 3, writing a complete score for “Plato’s Stepchildren”. It was the final recording session of the series, recorded on 25 October 1968.
However, much more music was needed for the show. Associate Producer Robert Justman was tasked with hiring composers to meet the production schedule.
Justman’s go-to composer was Fred Steiner, a veteran in Hollywood known for his theme music for the courtroom drama Perry Mason and for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Steiner essentially “took over” for Courage, contributing original scores for most of Season 1: “Charlie X”, “Mudd’s Women”, “The Corbomite Maneuver”, “Balance of Terror”, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, and his adaptation of the 1931 popular song “Good Night, Sweetheart” for “The City on the Edge of Forever”. He wrote music for four episodes in Season 2 and two episodes in Season 3.
Almost as prolific was Gerald Fried, a veteran of film and TV including the comedy Gilligan’s Island. Fried’s work gave us, among many great scores, the epic dramatic cue from “Amok Time” that saw Kirk battling his first officer and friend, Spock. Fried took the sophistication of rhythmic and harmonic construct to new levels, borrowing a “trick” from Igor Stravinski to force dissonance between upper and lower voices.
Only two episodes were composed by Sol Kaplan, but they’re both unforgettable. In Season 1, he wrote for “The Enemy Within”, capturing the character split in Kirk’s divided self — “good” versus “evil.” For Season 2, Kaplan scored what many Trek fans note as their favorite episode and score, “The Doomsday Machine”, with some of the most memorable themes of the franchise.
Bringing an overall softer approach to the show was George Duning, who scored tender themes for “Metamorphosis” and “Return to Tomorrow” in Season 1, and three episodes in Season 3 that included another fan favorite, “The Empath”.
Jerry Fielding gave us playful yet dramatic music in Season 2’s “The Trouble with Tribbles” in Season 2, and “Spectre of the Gun” in Season 3. Finally, Joe Mullendore brought his own style to composing for “The Conscience of the King” — featuring the exquisitely romantic cue “Lenore’s Kiss” — and Samuel Matlovsky provided a quirky, often bizarre score in Season 2’s “I, Mudd”.
In the 1960s, TV producers were allowed to “re-use” recorded music from one episode for later episodes as they saw fit, as long as it was in the same production season. An example is the thrilling “Planet Killer” theme from “The Doomsday Machine” that is also audible in “The Immunity Syndrome”, “Journey to Babel”, and “The Ultimate Computer”. Not only a good economical practice, this so-called “tracking” gave the audience an immediate familiarity going into each new episode. Same familiar actors, sets, costumes, props — why not familiar music? Tracking was common practice in the ’60s but stopped in the early 1980s, due to a change in the musician union contract rules.
Because Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted after the rule change, its music could not be reused. Every TNG episode required a new score. As noted in Jeff Bond’s interview with Robert Justman, his partner and friend Rick Berman — who became associate producer of TNG — decided, wisely, that the musical aesthetic for this new ship and crew ought not to echo the dramatic, swashbuckling, over-the-top compositions of the original series. Subsequent series followed the musical template set by TNG. It is therefore this writer’s view that the music for the original Star Trek series will always be in a class by itself.