Thursday, May 22, 2014

McCarthyism in Star Trek

I write a fair amount here about my love of Star Trek and my love of soundtracks. Those things have intersected on occasion too, particularly when I've praised the work of composer Ron Jones (and been less enthusiastic about the line-toeing scores from others working on Star Trek series).

One composer I'm lukewarm about at best is Dennis McCarthy. When Next Generation producer Rick Berman pressed an edict that the music on the show be unmelodic, indistinguishable, sonic wallpaper, McCarthy epitomized that approach. His scores are usually bland and interchangeable. Not that you can blame the man for wanting to keep a job, but it generally doesn't make for good soundtrack purchasing.

But there are exceptions, because McCarthy wasn't always kowtowed. In the first season of the show especially, he was still willing to test the boundaries of what would and wouldn't get a slap on the wrist from Berman. And, of course, in the very beginning, those boundaries weren't defined at all. GNP Crescendo recently released a soundtrack of the best of McCarthy from that period, an album compiling all his music from the pilot episode, "Encounter at Farpoint," and a late first season episode, "The Arsenal of Freedom." Both are uncharacteristically bombastic scores from Dennis McCarthy.

"Encounter at Farpoint" is really playing around with just what the sound of Star Trek will be. There's pronounced brass throughout, some occasional pizzicato strings for tension, odd percussion accents, and some experimentation with unconventional instruments. (For example, Troi is introduced by something the liner notes of the album call a waterphone.)

Captain Picard has an actual character theme that recurs throughout the score (something Berman immediately declared a strict no-no). It's doubly interesting in that it's actually music that McCarthy was pitching for the theme of the series itself. Before the series had committed to using Jerry Goldsmith's indelible theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the anthem of The Next Generation, McCarthy tried his hand at an original brassy fanfare. It definitely comes off as "something that makes me feel like that Goldsmith piece does" without actually sounding too close to an actual style adaptation of the other composer. Not only does the theme pop up in phrases throughout the soundtrack, but the album actually includes a full recording of what the opening credits would have been like scored with this theme. It's a fun taste of what an alternate Trek universe might have been like.

"The Arsenal of Freedom" is the most action-packed score Dennis McCarthy ever delivered. It's even more aggressive than the music he provided for the Trek film he actually scored, Generations. With battles set in space and cat-and-mouse games of a planet surface, he had lots of material to work with.

I would stop short of calling any one track on the album an unqualified A.Still, there's a much higher quality here from beginning to end, with very few skippable tracks. So I'd give the album a B+ overall. Among the many, many Trek soundtrack albums out there, this is one a fan should seriously think about picking up.

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