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Songs Of The Stars: The Music Of Star Trek

A look back at the history of Star Trek film scores, as well as a few other space-themed hits.


Star Trek Beyond opened Friday (July 22, 2016), the third film in the rebooted franchise begun by J.J. Abrams in 2009. As a whole, the Star Trek franchise turns 50 this year, so let's take a look back at the series' long history in film and the music that has taken us as moviegoers on so many adventures with the crew of the Starship Enterprise (with some other notable films mentioned along the way)!

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

10 years since the original series was cancelled, syndication had made the show a huge hit. So in 1979, after much pressure from creator Gene Roddenberry, Paramount brought this universe to the big screen with the entire original cast. Though certainly not the most beloved of the series, it did set things in motion for many superior sequels. And through the craft of composer Jerry Goldsmith came one of the most memorable themes in the franchise, later used for Star Trek: The Next Generation:

What else happened around this time?

1979 was a big year for enduring sci-fi classics about space, particularly Alien (also with music by Goldsmith) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with those unforgettable five notes from John Williams).

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Where The Motion Picture is a bit lackluster to some, The Wrath of Khan has received almost universal praise as one of the best films in the franchise. The new composer, James Horner, was specifically told not to use any of Goldsmith's music from the previous film. But, wanting to retain some familiarity, Horner did adapt some of the original fanfare from the television series in the opening title music, which has its own swashbuckling, space-faring feel:

What else happened around this time?

As far as memorable musical scores in 1982, it's hard to beat John Williams' work on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, especially that magical bicycle flying scene.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

This film and its immediate successor are notable for being directed by Leonard Nimoy, who portrays Spock in the series. Following the plot directly after The Wrath of Khan, this story pits the Enterprise crew against Klingons, who were frequent antagonists in the series. James Horner remained on board for this film, and wrote a brooding, ominous theme to represent this new (old) threat:

What else happened around this time?

Though not the most revered of science-fiction films, particularly in comparison to its source material, David Lynch’s Dune does have some particularly memorable music from the band Toto with additional work by Brian Eno.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Probably the most broadly appealing entry of the six films based around the original series cast, this time-travel caper brings the crew of the Enterprise to present-day Earth (in 1986, that is). This time around, Leonard Rosenman took the reins as composer after Horner declined to return. Given the modern setting, Rosenman inflected his score with a number of eclectic elements, from traditional classical-inspired sounds to music that feels very much at home in the 80s. But he kept that timeless fanfare music for the opening theme of course:

What else happened around this time?

In another case of James Horner coming in to do the sequel to a franchise that had begun with Jerry Goldsmith, Aliens was one of his three collaborations with director James Cameron, and the music was suitably more action-oriented like the film, contrasting from Alien’s focus on horror.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

This is yet another film in the series directed by one of its stars, this time by the leading man, Captain James T. Kirk himself: William Shatner. After a poor showing with critics and at the box office, The Final Frontier tends to be one of the more forgettable films in the franchise. Still, this is when Jerry Goldsmith returned to the franchise, 10 years after scoring the first film. And finally, we have a marriage of the two defining musical elements of the series:

What else happened around this time?

Though it doesn't take place in outer space, The Abyss has all of the hallmarks of an alien encounter story, and features music by science-fiction veteran Alan Silvestri.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Much better received than its predecessor, this movie has prominent themes of espionage and subterfuge, given the political climate of the Cold War that had just ended. Suitably, the new composer Cliff Eidelman wrote a score that was much darker and less bombastic than previous Star Trek scores. He essentially composed everything from scratch and did not base his material on older themes from the series:

What else happened around this time?

While 1991 did not have many successful space oriented movies, the following year brought another film in the Alien franchise, Alien 3. Scored by Elliot Goldenthal, one of the most striking moments in the score is during the famous 20thCentury Fox fanfare, which then melds into this haunting track.

Star Trek Generations

Worlds collide as the old meets the new! Featuring the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as William Shatner, James Doohan, and Walter Koenig of the original cast, this is the passing of the torch to the new Enterprise crew, who would go on to star in the next three films. Though not a smash hit with critics, it was an important moment of transition for the series at the least. Dennis McCarthy, composer for the numerous Star Trek TV series from The Next Generation onward, scored this film.

What else happened around this time?

In somewhat a reverse of Star Trek's trajectory, Roland Emmerich's 1994 film Stargate spawned a television franchise of its own 3 years later! David Arnold composed the music for this film, as well as another popular Roland Emmerich sci-fi hit a couple of years later...

Star Trek: First Contact

Since the Klingons had made peace with the Federation by the time of The Next Generation, the series was in need of a new set of recurring antagonists. Enter the Borg, a hivemind of different species assimilated into a cybernetic Collective. Present throughout the TV series, the Borg made their theatrical debut with this film, where they attempt to rewrite history in order to rule supreme in the future. Directed by cast member Jonathan Frakes (William Riker), First Contact was received positively, and Jerry Goldsmith even returned as composer!

What else happened around this time?

You have David Arnold to thank for providing rousing music to President James Whitmore's equally rousing speech in 1996's event of the summer: Independence Day. And how about those end credits?

Star Trek: Insurrection

Continuing the trend of every other Star Trek movie receiving praise and every other movie receiving mixed to negative reactions, this film is decidedly… mixed. Still, Paramount was on a roll with releasing a Star Trek film every couple of years or so, and given that this one was right on the cusp of the new century, they took advantage of growing movie technology by creating every space scene with CGI. Like it’s predecessor, Insurrection was also directed by Jonathan Frakes, and it was the 4th film in the series for Jerry Goldsmith.

What else happened around this time?

There were a number of science-fiction movies about space or aliens in 1998, but none of them seem to quite top the popularity and bombast of Michael Bay’s Armageddon. With former Yes guitarist Trevor Rabin taking on the music, some of it has a distinctly different quality than many of the films mentioned on this list, but it seems to suit its director perfectly.

And it was only a year later that we were treated to what many might consider the greatest Star Trek movie of all: Galaxy Quest. Okay, sure, it doesn’t actually have Star Trek in the title, but with so many references and nods to the fans, this meta-parody is a loving homage to the series that even Star Trek cast members love. And as far as the music goes, David Newman created a unique score that pays homage to the series much like the movie itself.

Star Trek: Nemesis

Perhaps a bit bittersweet for fans of The Next Generation and Jerry Goldsmith, this film was the last Star Trek entry to feature both. Unfortunately, critical response was not kind to this one either, and going all the way back to The Motion Picture, the gap between this and the next Star Trek film was the largest in the series (7 years). Of note, however, is the inclusion of Tom Hardy in one of his first film roles, who has now become quite a bankable star with films like Inception, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Revenant under his belt. Fittingly, Goldsmith’s score still holds on to that famous Star Trek fanfare from the TV series, but with a noticeably darker aura to fit the film’s plot:

What else happened around this time?

Given that CGI was on a big upswing at this time, science-fiction movies were coming in left and right. But there’s one score that seems to outshine its own movie: James Newton Howard’s music from Signs. To be fair, Signs does not seem to be as reviled as future M. Night Shyamalan suspense films like Lady in the Water or The Happening, but the music seems so absolutely crucial for this film’s success, and it certainly provides some heart-racing suspense.

Star Trek

And here we are with a rebooted universe that sort of takes place within the original series’ timeline… but not quite. This new, flashy franchise from J.J. Abrams features an entirely new cast in the roles of the original Enterprise crew, with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto taking the roles of series leads Kirk and Spock, respectively. Though some die-hard fans of the series have likely been turned off by these newcomers, it can’t be denied that the new film series has allowed for a new fan base to develop. Much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this revival is drawing in an entirely new generation and getting them interested in a decades-old franchise that has endured so strongly. Plus, with music by frequent Abrams collaborator Michael Giacchino (kind of a Spielberg-Williams thing), there are some suitably exciting new themes for the series:

What else happened around this time?

Speaking of frequent director-composer pairings, the James Cameron-James Horner train started a good thing with Aliens, and both would subsequently be involved in the two highest-grossing films of all time: 1997’s Titanic, and 2009’s Avatar. A sprawling epic, Avatar has a fairly familiar story of the soldier joining the local indigenous tribe to fight against his imperialist masters, but the film’s unique look and sound is what seemed to make it such a success, with a score from Horner that draws from a number of musical styles found around the world.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Though generally well-received, this film had a bit of controversy over some of the story elements and its main villain, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch. Given that it’s a relatively recent release I won’t spoil any of it, but Abrams was definitely taking a cue from previous films in how he approached this one. Still, it delivered what was essentially promised from the 2009 film: an action-packed space adventure with attractive young actors and actresses sharing witty banter. And Giacchino returned with his usually thrilling action cues, as well as some more somber moments like this Philip Glass-esque track:

What else happened around this time?

For 2013 movies set in space, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity took a strong lead with breath-taking visuals, and a tense, Academy Award-winning score by Stephen Price that really tries to get under your skin.

It’s interesting to see how much the music for this genre has evolved over the years, yet also what elements remain the same. The idea of space as the “final frontier” seems to inspire a sense of adventure and looming danger, which many of these scores also attempt to evoke in their own unique way. I suppose we’ll see where the music of space boldly goes next!

Joshua Zinn

Joshua Zinn

Producer, Houston Matters

Joshua is a producer for Houston Matters on News 88.7 as well as the host of Encore Houston on Houston Public Media Classical. He joined Houston Public Media as a radio intern in 2014 and became a full-time announcer the following year. Now he prepares segments and occasionally records interviews...

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