Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan expanded soundtrack review

A seminal work for composer James Horner is honoured in this very welcome re-release from the 1982 movie...

The soundtrack collecting hobby is all about holy grails. Those albums which miss off a great deal of music, or which only had an LP release, or were never, ever issued at all. We all have them, and when one of them is ticked off the list it’s not just another CD to purchase, it’s a major event, usually treated like most people would treat the release of a big blockbuster or the latest Harry Potter book.

Recently people have been striking some pretty big titles off their lists – such as last year’s expanded Indiana Jones collection or the Superman “Blue Box” – but now one has come along which can probably count as a lot of enthusiasts’ one real holy grail. Film Score Monthly’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

As most people know, Star Trek II was on a much tighter budget than its predecessor, mostly due to The Motion Picture’s gigantic expenditure. As such luminaries such as Jerry Goldsmith – who memorably composed one of the franchise’s most recognizable and beloved themes for TMP – were financially out of reach of director Nicholas Meyer and producer Harve Bennett, they had to turn to the lesser-known composers, and came across a young man named James Horner.

At the time, Horner was used to working on more restrictive budgets after working with infamous producer Roger Corman on movies such as Battle Beyond The Stars and Humanoids From The Deep, and had started to score bigger budget films such as Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen and Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing.

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Horner was asked by Corman to score Battle Beyond The Stars in a similar way to John Williams’ Star Wars and Goldsmith’s Star Trek, of which Horner was more than up to the task, creating a score that certainly had much influence on Star Trek II, as did Wolfen.

Much of Horner’s “influence” from his previous scores has been hotly debated for decades, so I’m not going to go into it here, but there’s a certain sense of evolution from listening to BBTS, Wolfen and then Khan, with Horner refining his style until he has the confidence to let it open up, and subsequently let him create one of the most respected and loved film scores of all time.

Star Trek II originally had an LP release that ran forty-five minutes, which in itself was a great album, containing most of the score’s highlights. However, for the completists the FSM release now features the complete seventy-two minute score, along with one alternate cue. As before, the new album starts with Horner’s famous ‘Main Title’.

One of the things that Horner did differently to Goldsmith was bring back Alexander Courage’s opening fanfare from the television series, and it opens the track here, as it has done with the majority of the Trek titles since, before giving way to the film’s main theme a.k.a. Kirk’s theme, a sweeping nautical cue that instantly conjures up epic images of great sailing ships and the open ocean, while simultaneously saying “This is STAR TREK!”

But while Kirk’s theme is heroic and adventurous, the theme for Ricardo Montalban’s notoriously villainous – and charismatic – Khan is downright evil, and creepy to boot, which fits with some of the things he does. Having such a huge part to play as the character does, Horner gives him a lot of great moments, not least his introduction in ‘Khan’s Pets’ (a misnomer as the Ceti Eels are not introduced while this cue plays in the film), where Horner gives an incredible build-up to his unmasking, using descending strings to play up the tension as he slowly reveals himself.

In fact the early cues give the character a very dark yet surprisingly restrained underscore, more evocative than descriptive, and while Horner refuses to underscore every one of Khan’s words, when he does at Khan’s “This is Ceti Alpha V!” moment, it’s not as much of a crescendo as you’d have thought.

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His music for the malevolent ‘last surviving indigenous life-forms of Ceti Alpha V’ in ‘The Eels of Ceti Alpha V’ is pretty classically horrifying, as you might expect. The scoring of the eels is a joy to behold, immediately aurally describing their slithery and insidious nature to a tee and at the same time probably ensuring he got the gig for Aliens. There’s a lot of creepy, even haunted house-esque music here, especially when the crew are searching Regula I, which helps amp up the tension and the seriousness of the film that comes into play with Khan’s nefarious actions.

Completing the trio is Horner’s theme for Spock. Wildly different from Goldsmith’s very alien theme for the first picture, Horner pays much more attention to the human side of the character – as appropriate to the film – and therefore setting up the heartbreak of what will happen later. It’s a beautiful theme, very humble yet still having an alien quality to it, like it might possibly have been composed by Spock himself had he brought his lute along.

Back to Kirk, and as you know, it’s the law that if you have a scene where the Enterprise has to leave (or enter) its space dock, it must be scored with as much fanfare and pomp as humanly possible, and Horner doesn’t disappoint. Returning to the nautical material – which is somewhat ironic as Goldsmith’s original drydock material for The Motion Picture was rejected for being too seafaring – this is basically an excuse to show off Saavik’s piloting skills while using up lots of stock footage from the first movie. And it works beautifully, very militaristic in its percussion but lots of noble horns telling us we are basically following Horatio Hornblower, as Nicholas Meyer intended.

As everyone knows, one of the things Khan is most famous for is its plentiful space battles. Well, okay there’s only really two, but they’re really exciting and pretty long. Luckily Horner revels in this, and gives us nine minutes and eight seconds of bombastic genius as he mixes Khan and Kirk’s themes with fantastic results in ‘Surprise Attack’ and ‘Kirk’s Explosive Reply’. Horner is brilliantly illustrative here, as he runs between the short harsh motif for Khan, and Kirk’s longer and more heroic theme, adding more identification between the shots of the Enterprise and the Reliant so we – ergo the public – can tell them apart.

The second track is especially great, underscoring the build up to Kirk’s reply, a brilliantly-conceived set piece where Kirk and Spock exploit the Reliant’s “prefix code,” thus allowing them to order the enemy ship to lower its shields to leave them open to attack.

The first half of the cue works with Kirk’s distraction methods while they try and track down the code, with a tense but almost playful use of repeating strings, while Kirk’s theme plays over the top, occasionally punctuated by Khan’s menacing motif. This builds repeatedly, with percussion playing a big part as they execute the plan and Khan tries to figure out how and why this is happening, followed by a blast of Kirk’s theme as the Enterprise fires and Khan’s theme as the Reliant finally retreats and Kirk and Co. are left to survey the damage. Great stuff.

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This excellent material continues thematically in ‘Battle In The Mutara Nebula’, where Kirk and Khan have a faux-submarine battle amidst swirly semi-psychedelic clouds. It generally follows the same pattern of the aforementioned tracks, running between Kirk’s theme, Khan’s motif, and the stirring Enterprise theme as we cut between starships, but Horner uses the themes beautifully, and in different forms, to illustrate the tension and danger involved in this titanic battle of wits. But the really great material comes at the beginning with Kirk’s call to arms as the crew prepares for the battle, using a jaunty version of the Enterprise’s theme before segueing into a triumphant reading of Kirk’s own theme, before Khan and his motif take over.

One thing that The Motion Picture did not really have that much of – and that Khan supplies in bulk – is actual real emotion, which you might well expect, given that the picture culminates in the death of one of the main characters. This brings together a final reel that is almost equal to the finales of the typical milestones for this type of scoring; Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.

Starting with ‘Genesis Countdown’, Horner brings up a pulsing rhythm to illustrate the onset of the Genesis Device, building quickly before kicking in with an stunning explosion of brass as the Enterprise turns to escape, intercutting tense material illustrating Spock trying to fix the engines with incremental reminders of Khan and Kirk, all heroically building until the Enterprise warps away, the Reliant explodes, and everybody is happy.

Or not, as the case may be, as while the Genesis theme is playing away and there is a big sigh of relief from everyone concerned, Kirk realises his friend’s seat on the bridge is empty. Cue a soaring version of the Enterprise theme as Kirk runs through the ship, only to be held back as he sees Spock, on the verge of death from radiation poisoning.

Spock’s theme returns in ‘Spock (Dies)’ as the Vulcan explains to Kirk that this is his no-win scenario, and that he ‘always has been, and shall be’ his friend, leaving us with a reverent reading of Courage’s original series theme as he passes. ‘Amazing Grace’ is one of the iconic musical moments of the film, where Scotty plays his bagpipes to honour his fallen comrade, before the orchestra takes over to provide a lush arrangement of John Newton’s hymn, reportedly at Horner’s protest.

As the film winds up, ‘Epilogue’ returns to a ponderous and hopeful version of the Enterprise theme as Kirk reads his Captain’s Log, segueing to an equally optimistic reading of Spock’s theme as Kirk, McCoy and Carol contemplate Spock’s passing. As Kirk proclaims ‘I feel young’, we’re taken away to the newly-formed Genesis planet where the Enterprise and Spock themes soar as we see the Vulcan’s coffin, before the original series theme returns as Leonard Nimoy voice echoes with ‘Space. The final frontier…’ before it runs into ‘End Title’, where we’re given a representation of the film’s main themes.

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Make no mistake, this track (‘Epilogue’) is stunning and serves as a reminder of how talented James Horner really can be when he puts his mind to it (which – sadly – is not that often). It gives a brilliant end to the film and the score and, well, it’s certainly something to show his grandchildren to one day.

As this is a ‘Newly Expanded’ version of Star Trek II, and this album represents the film’s complete score, there’s quite a bit of new material to pore over, and in fact there are a few cues that fans have been dying to own for a while.

I’ve covered some of it with ‘Spock (Dies)’, ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘The Eels of Ceti Alpha V’, the latter of which is paired with ‘Kirk In Space Shuttle’ which provides a brief but magnificent cue mixing material from Kirk’s theme and the original series theme.

There’s more of Horner’s fine nautical heroics in ‘Kirk Takes Command/He Tasks Me’, which also features the underscore for Khan’s ‘I’ll chase him…’ bit, and the rest of the climactic space shenanigans in ‘Enterprise Attacks Reliant’. For those of you who are fans of Horner’s more creepy and atmospheric side, there’s some fine eerie work in ‘Inside Regula 1’, ‘Brainwashed’, and ‘Captain Terrell’s Death’, not to mention ‘Buried Alive’, which I’ll note does not contain Shatner’s now-famous and much parodied “KHAAAAANNNNN!!!!” cry.

However, more beauty can be found in ‘The Genesis Cave’, even if it is rather short-lived. The ethereal and slightly surreal music for the cave in question is a lovely piece and fitting for the semi-Biblical trappings of the scene in question.

There’s even a little bit of source music provided in Craig Huxley’s ‘Genesis Project’, which underscores Carol Marcus’ video proposal for Project Genesis. I’m not sure whether it’s supposed to be diagetic or not, but I suppose if you’re pitching a big project like this to someone it’s a good thing to have a kickass score behind your images. The cue is very minimalist and eerie and fits the visuals very well, although it’s a strange but curious interlude in the listening experience, being that the track is placed on the album based on its chronological appearance in the film, basically towards the middle.

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Probably the biggest coup for this album is the inclusion of the original ‘Epilogue’. As you may well know – and goodness knows it’s been documented enough times – the film originally ended with Kirk’s ‘I feel young’ bit and Nimoy’s narration, before Harve Bennett and Paramount decided that they would leave a thread hanging for a possible return of Spock.

The music had already been recorded, but they went and shot the scene of the torpedo on the Genesis planet and then asked Horner to rewrite what he had done to include this new sequence, which ended up as the ‘Epilogue’ we’ve all come to know and love. The original cue is very similar to the revised cue, with a few minor differences in the arrangement, although seems very brief, possibly because we are all used to the Genesis bit in the middle that it doesn’t have. For all the fans complaining that Nimoy’s voice is still on the original track, this provides a very similar orchestration of that section sans narration.

Together with this amazing musical package, we also have some very cool artwork for the CD case itself, the cover of which uses Bob Peak’s amazing art for the movie poster. But more importantly – and as we’re used to on the better specialist releases such as this – we get a bundle of liner notes going over the finer points of the film and the score track by track, as written by Jeff Bond, FSM head honcho Lukas Kendall, and Alexander Kaplan. It’s a great release, and as stated at the beginning, one that’s been anticipated for decades.

I personally wouldn’t say it’s as good as Star Trek – The Motion Picture, but it’s still a sure-fire five-star score and fits the film beautifully. Unfortunately, due to the various rights issues surrounding the soundtracks, it’s not a sure thing that we’ll see more of the Trek scores expanded any time soon. But don’t let that dampen your enthusiasm – this is an essential purchase.

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (Complete!) is out now.

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4 out of 5