Ship’s Log, Supplemental: Star Trek: The Next Generation: Encounter At Farpoint (Original TV Soundtrack)
I didn’t own a lot of music when I was younger. CDs were expensive, vinyl records moreso, both were hard to find where I live at the time and we didn’t really have much to play them on anyway. Any music I did have was strictly on audio cassette, and one of the most life-changing moments for me came when my aunt bought me a Sony Walkman so I could actually listen to my own music wherever I wanted.
Naturally, an album of music from Star Trek: The Next Generation got one of my scarce tape deck slots. There were a lot of soundtracks released for the series, but the one I had was the very first-Dennis McCarthy’s score for “Encounter at Farpoint”. Trekkers may disagree, but McCarthy is for me the iconic and quintessential Star Trek composer, with what’s probably my absolute favourite piece of music and score in the entire franchise to his name. We’re not talking about either right now, but we are looking at his first Star Trek work and one that holds a great deal of meaning for me personally.
I’m not ashamed to admit one of my favourite genres of music is film, television and video game soundtracks, especially theme songs. I admire how musicians can create songs that are designed to be equal parts short, catchy, memorable and deeply evocative. I can put on a good soundtrack and be instantly reminded of what I love about the actual work so much without being burdened with the infelicities that sometimes accompany the works themselves: It’s like a version of the work with the contrast dial turned up, and I’ll frequently put a soundtrack on in the background if I’m trying to cultivate a specific mood surrounding its parent work, like if I’m trying to write about it or something.
Dennis McCarthy’s score to “Encounter at Farpoint” is very solid: It is, I have said, not my favourite of his scores, though there are one or two pieces that stand out for me, but it is quite good. Indeed, it’s probably the best kind of soundtrack for the background music style of listening. It should probably say something that this has never been an album I listen to in its entirety very frequently-Not that it’s bad, but rather, that “Encounter at Farpoint” itself is so good I typically prefer to just go watch that. Although that said, I do have memories of putting this on during a road trip to Boston once and it making the other passengers quite happy. The real draw of this album for me has always been two things: Firstly, the sleeve art, which is one of the most evocative and meaningful images ever associated with Star Trek for me. The shot of the Enterprise in particular is my absolute favourite. Second, the theme song, which is, ironically enough, the one part of the soundtrack McCarthy *didn’t* do.
When I was younger I adored this song; it was probably one of my favourite pieces of music ever for a very long time and seemed to embody everything I saw in and loved about Star Trek: The Next Generation. The pounding, rhythmic beat sounded so triumphant and energetic and the “Space…The Final Frontier” section sounded ethereal, haunting and mesmerizing. I would listen to it over and over again (a very hard thing to do in the late ’80s and early ’90s when all you have is a tape deck and a rewind button: I have never once taken for granted my iPod’s face controls and repeat functionality and give thanks to Apple for that every time I turn it on), which is a habit I still have today. I tend to like listening to one single song for an extended period of time instead of full albums because of how the cyclical melodies invoke a droning, zen-like state of mind after awhile (but only when I’m by myself: Another thing I’m eternally grateful for are earbuds). I guess that’s what raising myself on Kraftwerk-inspired electronica and acid house Hi-NRG trance did to me.
Although the pilot and Season 1 versions of the intro credits sequence are not the ones that hold the most meaning to me, this rendition of the the title theme itself may be my favourite. Although there’s an even better remix of “Space…The Final Frontier” to come later, the rendition of the title theme itself may be the best in the series in my opinion. After Denise Crosby and Wil Wheaton left, the entire sequence was shortened to accommodate their absence in the credits by omitting the second refrain of the song’s opening beats. I’ve always felt this version of the song feels, well, artificially truncated. To me it sounds awkwardly as if the song has skipped its own beat somewhere, which indeed it has, and it’s always bugged me. But the version we get on this album is the full, uncut original recording, so even though I by far prefer the later intro sequence overall, if I’m going to listen to an audio recording of the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme song, this is the one I reach for. Not only is it complete, it does tend to win out in terms of nostalgia as this is the version I’ve always had a physical copy of.
But of course, the song used as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation wasn’t actually written for Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s a very lightly retooled version of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I remember when I first discovered that, and feeling so deeply crestfallen and disappointed (recall I saw The Next Generation before anything else): I was watching the first Star Trek movie with my family and was stunned to hear that ever familiar song announcing Captain Kirk flying into Starfleet Command. At first I couldn’t accept it, and for the longest time afterward I still associated Goldsmith’s song primarily with Star Trek: The Next Generation, not Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It never sounded right to be used as often in Gene Roddenberry’s magnum opus as it is. But nowadays, especially after being exposed to the full spectrum of Star Trek music, my opinions have turned 180 degrees.
I now feel The Next Generation was hurt by recycling Goldsmith’s piece because this means the series doesn’t really have its own signature song, which all other Star Trek works do, love them or hate them (we’ll get to “Faith of the Heart” someday). It may not sound like much, but in an era where so much can be conveyed through sound and vision alone, things like theme songs are important. And furthermore it certainly couldn’t have helped a skeptical contingent of hardcore Trekkers at the time already suspicious of a Star Trek with no Kirk, Spock and McCoy to tune into “Encounter at Farpoint” on first transmission and hear not just the old theme song from Star Trek: The Motion Picture but Alexander Courage’s old “Space…The Final Frontier” piece from the Original Series (incidentally, I personally feel the reverse is true for that song: It now *absolutely* belongs to Star Trek: The Next Generation in my mind and it feels weird to hear it used on the older show). I could see it being one more thing people like that could use to argue Star Trek: The Next Generation was permanently in the Original Series’ shadow and to justify endlessly comparing it to and connecting it with its predecessor. So sadly, I simply can’t enjoy this song at quite the same level I used to be able to because of that.
And this does confuse me some, as there was an alternative. There was, in fact, a unique theme song specifically written for Star Trek: The Next Generation. I don’t know much of the background for this song; I presume Dennis McCarthy wrote it because it’s on this album as a bonus track and he’s credited for it in the metadata, but apart from that I’ve been able to find out next to nothing about it. I happen to like it: It’s been described as sounding like John Williams’ theme for the Superman movies, and I can definitely hear the similarities. Maybe that’s why the creative team decided not to go with it, but I actually prefer it when compared to the one they went with nowadays. It’s just as upbeat and rousing, but it has the benefit of not being derivative of anything else. And, most importantly, “Space…The Final Frontier” leads just as effortlessly into it as it does into the official theme. Although ultimately, I have to reassert a point I made in an earlier post and say the Star Trek: The Next Generation remix of the Reading Rainbow theme should have been the official theme song.
(Just in case it turns out the composers do actually talk about this during their roundtable discussion on the Season 5 Blu-ray box set special features, I’ll just throw out the temporary defense that I haven’t watched that yet as of this writing and will have to revise accordingly later. Although I’m sure someone will let me know in the comments.)
And I suppose that’s a solid description of this soundtrack: It’s an album I treasured when I was younger whose luster may have faded in my mind a bit over the years, but that still holds a special place in my heart. Much like Star Trek: The Next Generation itself.