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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Film Score Monthly / 2009 / 75:28

The fervour fans had for any new Star Trek thirty years ago was so high that even the turgid Star Trek: The Motion Picture didn’t put them off.  Someone evidently realised that they couldn’t put out another film like that and expect to keep the punters coming in, so the studio went off in a completely different direction, pushing creator Gene Roddenberry off to one side and bringing in a new team of filmmakers, including young director Nicholas Meyer.  That move is essentially the one that leaves the franchise alive today, almost thirty years later – and Star Trek II is still the film that all the others have to live up to (and none has yet come close).  A classic tale of revenge, everything just works perfectly – the main cast’s advancing age is not ignored but taken on as one of the key themes of the film – the villain is memorable, over-the-top, and his wrath is personal.  It’s a perfect Star Trek film.

By far the best element of the first film was Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which is simply magnificent and one of his very best.  There seems to have been no desire from Meyer to engage Goldsmith for the sequel, even if he had the budget to do so – so a young, little-known composer was given the unenviable task of stepping into his shoes.  Quite a challenge for anyone, but James Horner took on that challenge, thrived under it, and almost unbelievably wrote a score which is just as good as Goldsmith’s and deserves its own place in the list of the great film scores.

James Horner

A young James Horner

Given his reputation (even then), and indeed the first score’s reputation, it’s remarkable that Horner trod a completely different musical path from Goldsmith.  Meyer’s instruction was to think of the film like “Horatio Hornblower in space” and that’s what Horner did, with music that sounds more seafaring than spacegoing.  It’s in evidence from the word go, in the main title – the swirling main theme, full of adventure, is a world away from Goldsmith’s stately march – but absolutely perfect for this film.  It’s not used that often within the body of the score, but when it is, it always leaves an impression (“Enterprise Clears Moorings” is, again, just as good as the equivalent piece from Goldsmith).

The twosome “Surprise Attack” and “Kirk’s Explosive Reply” present action music at a level rarely attained.  While Horner has always strived to keep his music within proper musical form, somehow writing ten-minute balletic pieces even for animated films when most of his colleagues struggle to get beyond thirty seconds in a cue, these are particularly fine examples of what makes him so good – nine minutes of fluid, vibrant music, so perfectly choreographed to the film – yet sounding so natural on the album, it might not be film music at all.  He plays Khan’s and Kirk’s themes off each other perfectly, particularly in the first cue, which is vaguely reminiscent of the best parts of Krull.

There are two similar sequences of shorter cues, with a very different tone, occurring either side of the explosive action music just mentioned.  These are brilliantly tense, with Horner capturing the horror of the characters to a tee.  Then we come to the score’s centrepiece, indeed perhaps the highlight of this composer’s career – “Battle in the Mutara Nebula”.  Horner follows the increasingly desperate battle between Kirk and Khan to a tee – accentuating every high, every low, yet still keeping things flowing musically, perfectly.  In eight minutes we move from despair to triumph and back again, in a film music tour-de-force that may add a debt to Prokofiev, but who cares?

The adventure continues in “Genesis Countdown”, in which Spock heroically battles to save his crewmates, who must get away from impending doom as quickly as possible.  Will they get away or won’t they?  The answer may be obvious, but that’s the question Horner asks through his music, in such thrilling fashion.  Of course, they do get away, but it comes at a heavy price – as evidenced in “Spock (Dies)”, a genuinely touching piece of music as the beloved character takes his final bow (well, kind of final).  Horner strains to wring every ounce of emotion out of the viewer – and does a fine job, with a variation on his Spock’s Theme designed to bring a tear to the eye.  The album ends with the great end title suite, reprising several of the main themes.

For years, we were able to enjoy 45 minutes of this magnificent music, first on an Atlantic Records LP, then a GNP/Crescendo CD.  For just as long, fans have clamoured for an extended release, which seemed destined never to happen – but as someone might say, there are always possibilities – and in the end, the needs of the many prevailed.  Film Score Monthly – forever, erm, enterprising – managed to secure the rights to release the complete score, and here it is for the first time.  The original album featured all the best cues, but the new ones heard for the first time (away from the film) here all have a role to play.  The pick of them include the tense “Captain Terrell’s Death”, the beautiful, shimmering “The Genesis Cave”, the explosive action vignette “Enterprise Attacks Reliant” and the previously-mentioned “Spock (Dies)”.  Even if it weren’t worth getting for the new music (which it is), then the vastly-improved sound quality would be a clincher; and there are of course extensive liner notes, including interview material with director Meyer and composer Horner.  The music is Horner’s masterpiece, one of the very greatest film scores, and it finally has the release it deserves.  I have been, and always shall be, its friend.  *****

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