Fifty years ago, Americans were first introduced to an outer-space television phenomenon that would become a pillar of pop culture: Star Trek. Creator Gene Roddenberry broke from the tradition of dominant science fiction narratives of doom and gloom, noting, "Humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms." For Star Trek fans, the show's theme song serves almost as a Pavlovian trigger, reliably heralding a single bracketed hour in which integrity triumphs and audacity serves a universal good. Its reverberations in later film scores periodically remind us that, at least within the confines of the Star Trek universe, it's safe to feel hope for humanity's future.
The distinctive sequence of drawn-out notes that introduces Captain Kirk's monologue at the beginning of every episode comprises Star Trek's signature opening fanfare. Composed by Alexander Courage for Star Trek's initial broadcast in 1966, this melodic line would insinuate its way into many subsequent Star Trek scores, but its obscured legacy stretches back centuries through Mahler and Brahms to Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 4. Whether accidental or intentional, these echoes of Beethoven provide a neat metaphor for the Star Trek ethos itself. Just as Beethoven bridges the Classical and Romantic eras in music, so does Star Trek's Federation aim to situate itself somewhere between the Vulcans' cold rationality and the Klingons' passionate belligerence. What emerges is a humanity motivated by the courageous pursuit of difference, a universe made harmonious through diversity, diplomacy, and acceptance.
Beginning with Star Trek: The Original Series, each introductory theme provided something of a road map to help audiences navigate the ensuing content. For example, following the opening fanfare Courage's original score favored classical orchestration, popular brass composition, and jazzy riffs over the spacey sound effects common to contemporary science fiction film scores.
The eclecticism of Courage's work spoke to contemporary transitions in American popular music while urging viewers not to dismiss Star Trek as generic B-rate science fiction; instead, the show demanded recognition as a familiar human drama—both timely and timeless—that happened to be playing out against an interstellar backdrop.
In the long hiatus between Star Trek's original run and the 1987 premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the franchise released several films, the first of which, 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, featured music from celebrated film composer Jerry Goldsmith. Adapting the Star Trek universe to the silver screen necessitated a more theatrical score. Goldsmith abandoned the jazzy freneticism of Courage's original theme in favor of epic swells and strings in percussive staccato, and the score earned Goldsmith both Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. When The Next Generation finally aired, Roddenberry instructed composer Dennis McCarthy to combine Courage's opening fanfare with a slightly modified version of Goldsmith's rousing score, setting in place the sprawling romantic mood that would come to characterize nearly all subsequent Star Trek scores.
The only notable infringement on Star Trek's musical motifs was the theme song for 2001's Star Trek: Enterprise. Enterprise's theme marked the first and only time in Star Trek history in which the franchise featured a vocal theme: "Where My Heart Will Take Me," performed by Russell Watson. The song was derided as cheesy and tone-deaf, and its unmitigated unpopularity prompted boycotts of Enterprise—a reception that mirrored the series's overall lackluster reviews that resulted in its aborted run.
It therefore came as no surprise when highly celebrated film and television composer Michael Giacchino was hired to score Star Trek's recent reboots. He returned the franchise's musical landscape to Star Trek's earlier interpretations, with a classy twenty-first-century rehabilitation, resulting in scores that treat the high-octane, big-budget reboots on their own terms while paying homage to the daring optimism of Star Trek's earlier scores.
This weekend, the North Carolina Symphony honors the half-century legacy of Star Trek's most iconic music with A Star Trek Spectacular. Perhaps this is just what we need for these troubling times—somewhere to let sounds of optimism and unity wash over and through us in recognition of the symphonic legacy that helped Star Trek boldly go where no one had gone before.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Space Is the Place."