It’s impossible to imagine Wrath of Khan without the James Horner score. When Star Trek II came out in 1982, it was the third of the late seventies, early eighties sci-fi franchises. Star Wars and Superman were both looking forward to their third films in 1982, while Trek was recovering from its troubled 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In addition to age (as movies, anyway), Star Wars and Superman also shared the John Williams “sound” (though Superman II had Ken Thorne imitating Williams). The Motion Picture’s score was from Jerry Goldsmith, who came up with some great music, but it didn’t seem to compare—in the public mind—to Williams’s space-based scores.
Well, outside the Goldsmith’s new Star Trek theme. That piece announced a bold new beginning for the franchise (and later became the “Next Generation” theme). And Star Trek II announced a bold new direction too….
The literal first thing composer James Horner does in Khan is bring back the original “Star Trek” theme. Just enough to establish, along with the titles, it’s Star Trek. And then the music starts going in new directions, mostly focusing on the “adventure theme.”
The Khan score, or so some quick Internet searching says, has three recognized themes. Kirk’s theme, Khan’s theme, and Spock’s theme. Spock’s theme is the only one to get broken out on the soundtrack album—though it’s just called “Spock.” It’s the mystical one. Khan’s is the foreboding one. Kirk’s is the adventurous one. I’m not eager to name the themes, outside Spock’s, just because it doesn’t leave room for the Genesis theme, which is separate from the others. The music, like everything in Khan, is exquisitely layered, exquisitely complex.
Soundtrack score album affection is a sometimes difficult one to explain. Especially as I’ve noticed I feel different about it now than I did in the late eighties and early nineties. Basically, it’s a “you had to be there.” Listening to a soundtrack score is not like watching the movie, but from the right angle—for me anyway—it can tickle the same hairs and produce some of the same feels. The Star Trek II soundtrack is very good at tickling said hairs. Both because Horner does such a fantastic job with the score and because the film, directed by Nicholas Meyer, uses it so well. Horner’s score, with its reused themes and its various echoes, stays in the active imagination even when it isn’t heard.
Khan (the movie) has a surprise open—it’s the Enterprise, but it’s got a female Vulcan in command (Kirstie Alley). Spock’s there, but he’s at his science officer station. It’s Enterprise versus Klingons and there’s no music, which is very different from when the previous film had its Klingon scene—even Khan reuses that footage. Goldsmith had a whole Klingon theme in The Motion Picture. Horner and Meyer let them act without accompaniment. Horner’s themes are specific (which is why calling it the Khan theme doesn’t make sense to me—it’s the Reliant theme); they can’t be broadly applied. Horner’s score tells the story of the film. The title music has some hints of what’s to come, the end credit music literally recaps what’s come before. The end credit music is some of the most complex in the score—though the action sequences are also exceedingly complex, just in a different way. The action sequences don’t use recall in the same way; when Horner uses the established themes during an action scene, it’s still moving at a clip. End credits it’s about inviting recollection, taking time to think back. The score’s very active with its audience and separate from the movie action. Though tied so close the film’s cut to the music.
And all the story and all the emotion come through on the soundtrack album too. I don’t think I had the album on LP. I know I had the CD, from GNP Crescendo (came out in 1990). The early nineties were the peak of my soundtrack enthusiasm. It didn’t survive high school. Though I also started watching a lot more movies then (instead of the same ones over and over); maybe it was a combination of things. I didn’t really have a handle on what I liked about soundtrack albums back then… not to mention I had… collecting problems. Have collecting problems.
In 2009, Film Score Monthly put out a “Newly Expanded” edition of the Star Trek II soundtrack with more than twice as many tracks as the original soundtrack release. The expanded edition’s track order matches the film’s order of events, remastered from the film mixes. It’s all the music from the film, not just select arrangements.
But if I’m listening to Star Trek II and not watching Star Trek II… I don’t want to hear all the music. I don’t want short tracks, I want the long ones produced for the soundtrack album. Horner’s able to tell the story of Khan in nine tracks, forty-five minutes. Sure, it’s mostly the action and it leaves out Kirk’s (great) old mope arc, but it’s also grand adventure. The grandest adventure.
I had no idea how to write about James Horner’s Khan score so I watched the movie scenes cut to the original nine soundtrack album tracks (and the album’s jumbled order). I’ve seen film so many times I could still “hear” the now silent dialogue. The experience did not provide a profound new version of Khan. Instead, it was Khan; abbreviated but amplified.
The original, nine track Wrath of Khan soundtrack is available through music streaming services. The expanded version, which also came out on LP from Mondo, is out of print.
There’s not much like Horner’s Star Trek II score. It’s an integral part of the film’s success, it’s a success on its own, it’s superlative both on its own and as part of the film.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture might have begun “the human adventure” in 1979, but Khan—in no small part thanks to James Horner—guaranteed the Star Trek film adventure would keep going.