The Sound of Star Trek, Part 2: The Wrath of Khan


In the second part of this ongoing series of articles about the music of Star Trek, we take a look back at James Horner’s untouchable score for Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan.

After 1979, Star Trek took a dramatic turn. The Motion Picture, as visually impressive as it was, did fall a little flat with fans and the general public alike. Box office returns nevertheless warranted a sequel and Paramount found a new production team and a young director to take on the challenge. Interestingly, producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer had, respectively, never seen an episode of Star Trek prior to coming aboard.

The result became a much loved and well-respected entry into the franchise and remains, nearly four decades later, critically (if not financially) the most popular of all the movies to date. Star Trek II – The Undiscovered Country, as it was originally called (before the subheading altered to The Vengeance of Khan then finally settling on The Wrath of Khan [because ‘Vengeance…’ was too close to Lucasfilm’s then-in-production Revenge of the Jedi]), acknowledged the characters’ ages, the unavoidable finality of death and how revenge could consume a person so.

To add further substance to this heady mix, Meyer appointed James Horner, a composer then in his late twenties and with only a handful of film scores to his name.  His work for Humanoids From the Deep and Battle Beyond the Stars had already established a particular style: bombastic, heroic and sensitive all at once, and would be an approach that would dominate the majority of his general output.

Certainly, Battle Beyond the Stars has all the Horner hallmarks (and trademarks) he would instill into The Wrath of Khan. In fact, Battle Beyond… is thematically a dry-run and, conversely, James Cameron hired Horner for Aliens a couple of years or so later, expressing his desire for Horner to create something akin to The Wrath of Khan. It is interesting to note that in the case of both Star Trek and Alien, Horner followed the more romantic and unsettling otherworldly sounds of Jerry Goldsmith with all-out sweeping , percussive action.

More from Star Trek

As a child, some films became indelibly inked onto my psyche and still hold meaning for me today. The Wrath of Khan is one such film. It triggered my true acceptance of and dedication to Star Trek and set me on the path of admiring sci-fi and fantasy as a whole. At the time, too, my father owned his own independent record store (something virtually extinct today, much to my sadness) and my sister and I were spoilt for choice when it came to listening to and having access to music beyond what we heard on the radio.

So I became aware of the importance of and the variations of music and, loving films, I understood even at that age what made a great soundtrack. Suffice to say, Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan, with music composed and conducted by James Horner, on vinyl in 1982, was the very first film score I ever owned and I am proud to say I still own the very same copy to this day. GNP Crescendo released a straight, remastered transfer to CD in 1990 and we were treated, finally, to an expanded edition from Retrograde Records in 2009. A further release appeared in 2016 from Mondo Records, taking the 2009 expanded version and pressing it into glorious 180 gram vinyl and wrapping it in exclusive new artwork.

What of the score itself?

There are the underlying themes prevalent in the script that find an outlet in Horner’s orchestrations. Even the first few bars sound threatening but soon give way to the reassurance of the fanfare to Alexander’s Courage’s Star Trek TV theme and a majestic, oceanic melody that is all at once powerful and resolute. It reappears again in the body of the score, giving a different feel to the re-used TMP footage of the Enterprise clearing moorings from dry dock.

While Goldsmith used the ‘Blaster Beam’ effect to create sounds for V’ger that were unfamiliar to us, Horner instead opts to use established instruments to bring a sense of dread and uncertainty to our ears. The motif for Khan teeters almost on the verge of despair before it grabs us tight and doesn’t let us go. Even the vile Ceti Eels have their own song, quick bursts of percussive abandonment as they slide into Chekov’s and Terrell’s ear canals.

Modern film music, the type we hear today in major Hollywood blockbusters, seems to stray away from clearly defined melodies on occasion. While they are effective in their own ways, personally, I do feel that this defeats the object of it being there. Film music has to play the part of an unseen character, coming in at points we don’t expect or reassuring us with a familiar tune that all will be okay.

Where we are witness to superheroes, we have to have that hero theme to cheer them along: Superman, Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker had John Williams on their sides, James Bond had Monty Norman (with assistance from John Barry) – so when we heard those familiar signature themes strike up, we knew we were on a rollercoaster ride of excitement.

Horner struck that balance with his debut Star Trek score: music for Spock, for Khan, for the Enterprise and for Kirk’s explosive reply gave new identity to these characters that we’d been following for over 25 years. It was a fresh sound, as well as being mature and seasoned. It gave new life where death was unavoidable and to hear Horner blending in ‘Amazing Grace’ as the sun rose over the newly formed Genesis planet, we really did feel that we were young again, as if the world really was new. It perfectly encapsulated Kirk’s sadness and acceptance of his friend’s sacrifice. We wept with him, but James Horner was there to tell us that life does go on.

Related Story. The Sound of Star Trek, Part 1: The original pilots. light

James Horner himself was killed in a freak airplane accident in June 2015. While his later scores never found the true originality of his 80s and 90s work, he is sorely missed in the film music world and you could do worse than to listen again to his exceptional score for The Wrath of Khan and hear every note he wrote, symbolising and enhancing the action on-screen in every shot. There hasn’t truly been a Star Trek score like it since. Some have come close…but not close enough.

Next time: Dennis McCarthy’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – ‘Emissary’