The magic of movie music

I was fascinated by the liner notes to the first Star Wars soundtrack, in which John Williams explained how he developed musical themes for all the characters, the feisty rebels, and of course the evil Empire. Princess Leia has a memorable theme; so does Indiana Jones in other movies that Williams scored.

There’s a moment in the third Indiana Jones film when he and his lady friend are exploring a sewer and suddenly a familiar theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark emerges from the background music. “What’s that?” she asks, pointing to a drawing on the wall. “The Ark of the Covenant,” says Jones. “Are you sure?” “I’m sure,” Jones says confidently, and because of the music we are, too. It’s a cute Easter egg in a time before Easter eggs had a name.

Probably from the moment I listened to the Star Wars album with Williams’ notes in my lap, I’ve paid attention to the musical scores when I watch movies and often been rewarded. 

Not long after Star Wars came out, we were thrilled to see Star Trek translated to the big screen — at least until the film was released. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a plodding disappointment, and among the wrong moves was the music. 

Jerry Goldsmith composed a rousing Star Wars style theme, but the Trek universe already had an iconic theme composed by Alexander Courage that we heard every week for three years, and the new theme just didn’t feel like Star Trek. They compounded the mistake by sneaking an echo of the original theme into the background about an hour and a half into the movie. I remember the audience cheering the familiar notes, which I don’t think were heard again until the second Trek film.

Fast forward a few years to the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation. They made what seemed to me to be a strange musical choice: The new TV show adopted the main theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I didn’t understand why they would do that, although I had to admit it’s a good piece of music. It just never felt like Star Trek.

Imagine my surprise the next time I felt like revisiting the first movie and that theme burst out from the screen. After a few years of watching Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his friends, all of a sudden the theme from the first movie felt very, very much like Star Trek. What had seemed like a weird musical choice had rehabilitated at least one aspect of ST: The Motion Picture.

Those memories came back this week as I watched the third season of Star Trek: Picard, which leans into our fondness for the seven seasons of TNG even more so than the first two seasons. They make liberal use of the Jerry Goldsmith theme to great nostalgic effect.

I suspect this season will fit into Trek lore much like The Undiscovered Country did for the cast of the original series. That sixth movie was a fitting last hurrah for the original cast in the wake of a somewhat disappointing fifth movie. It can be argued that the last two Next Generation movies were not that great. In Star Trek: Picard 3, they gather the gang back together for one great adventure and a more appropriate sendoff. It’s a lot of fun, it’s good to see the old faces again, and as the Jerry Goldsmith anthem bubbles up under the closing credits, there are goosebumps and moistened eyes.

Star Trek: Picard is on the Paramount+ streaming service. They have a 30-day free trial going, and I’m using it to catch up on Picard and the other very good new Trek series, Strange New Worlds featuring Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike, who preceded James Kirk as captain of the Enterprise. I’ll have to see if there’s enough other good stuff to start paying for it. 

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