Musings About Music In Film

No Holst Barred: 25 Years of Star Trek VI

Exploring Cliff Eidelman's score to the original cast swan song...

By Charlie Brigden

On December 6th 1991, the original crew of the USS Enterprise - Kirk, Spock, et al - took their final voyage aboard the iconic starship with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the swan song of the original cast movies (since then, we've had four "Next Generation" pictures as well as three of the J.J. Abrams-produced reboots). And while the series already had a rich musical legacy with music by luminaries such as Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner, Trek VI would boldly go with a relatively young and inexperienced composer.

Cliff Eidelman was a student at the University of Southern California when he submitted a demo to Paramount, who had put the call out for younger composers simply because of budgetary constraints. Director Nicholas Meyer, who cemented his place in the franchise's history with 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (still seen today as the best of the thirteen movies), hired Eidelman but initally wasn't interested in an original score. Instead he wanted the composer to arrange the famous suite The Planets by the British composer Gustav Holst, a curious idea but one albeit not completely original.

In 1976 while in production on Star Wars, George Lucas wanted to licence Holst's suite and other classical works for his space epic after the success of 2001. While he was eventually convinced to go with an original score from John Williams, the Holst influence clearly remained in the score, illustrating the impeccable way Williams used influences from Holst to Korngold to Herrmann to create a neo-classical symphonic tapestry (along with editor Paul Hirsch's temp-track). Along with the sheer cost of licencing, Eidelman's compositions won him the chance to create his own score, a mysterious, tense, and beautiful work encapturing the romance and danger of space travel in similar ways to Goldsmith and Horner.

Star Trek VI's score is different from the opening frame, with a slow-burning piece steadily building over the end credits, dominated by a six-note ascending/descending phrase that would become the conspiracy theme for the picture. Intentionally designed by Meyer to be something other than the usual broad representation of main themes that the previous credit sequences had been, the somber and questing tone helps the main title become a part of the narrative, all building to that memorable explosion of the Klingon moon Praxis, itself an iconic moment due to the CG shock waves not seen before in these kind of effects.

That's not to say the movie doesn't feature a more traditional main theme; Eidelman's bright and sweeping piece for the Enterprise and her crew is wonderfully majestic in cues such as 'Clear All Moorings' - where the theme is given its first workout as the Enterprise leaves spacedock - but also works in a reflective mode, something important given the status of the film as the last one featuring that iconic crew. It also fits beautifully with the Alexander Courage TV series fanfare, something which is used sparingly outside of the climax, where it's appropriately brought back to close the picture.

Eidelman also uses interesting colours and textures for the more alien parts, such as an ethereal and glasslike theme for Spock and his successor Valeris with a certain fragility that perhaps foretells the way the relationship plays out in the story. Brutal and bellicose brass scores the icy prison planet of Rura Penthe along with a male choir that recalls some of Jerry Goldsmith's terrifying choral work on The Omen (1976), but the escape from prison and the spectacular snowy vistas let Eidelman break loose with some evocative big string moments reminiscent of Maurice Jarre and David Lean.

The final big action sequence as the Enterprise takes on the Klingon warship is not only brilliantly tense but also thematically consistent with a great sense of clarity. But it's the ending where the score pulls out the stops, both aesthetically and emotionally, using the main theme to celebrate the first seeds of peace between the Federation and the Klingons being planted, before the crew is given a suitably wonderful final sign off. With Spock answering a request for the Enterprise to be decomissioned by uttering the now iconic "If I were human, I believe my response would be... go to hell." the Courage fanfare signals the beginning of a new journey into the unknown - to say goodbye to the gallant crew and the spaceship that has been a part of our dreams since the late sixties.

As William Shatner's Kirk gives a final log entry - signalling the hand off to the next generation with "...boldly going where no man, or no one, has gone before..." as the Enterprise disappears into a star, the fanfare exploding as a final farewell before the signatures of the cast are presented upon the screen, again capped off by that iconic fanfare that has meant to much to so many. The essence of Star Trek, a call to arms for humanity.

Twenty-five years on and Star Trek has experienced many more highs and lows, with music from all kinds of composers, and with a new show about to launch - Star Trek: Discovery, due in mid-2017 - it has the potential to reach more people than ever. And they could do worse than look at Cliff Eidelman's Star Trek VI as an example of what the franchise is, not just romantic space travel but an exploration of the complexity and fragility of the human body and mind, emotions, prejudices, and that which has nurtured and influenced those. As Jean-Luc Picard once said, "Starfleet was founded to seek out new life: well there it sits!"