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Appreciating James Horner’s Musical Score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

It’s sometimes impossible to think of famous movies without their iconic musical scores.  For example, Jaws simply isn’t Jaws without John Williams alternating between E and F chords to let us know when the shark is nearby.  Similarly, the Star Trek movies and TV shows have always been closely identified with their orchestral scores to the point that when the franchise dared to use a pop song as the theme for Enterprise fans started petitions to get rid of it.  Next year, to celebrate Star Trek‘s 50th anniversary Paramount is launching a 100 city North American tour of “Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage,” a symphonic tribute to the music of the films and shows.  Sadly, this tour will have an added layer of poignancy since one of the great Star Trek composers, James Horner, died in a plane crash this week.   He’ll always be remembered for James Cameron’s Titanic, for which he won two Oscars (Best Original Score, Best Original Song – “My Heart Will Go On”).  He’s also known for Cocoon (1985), Aliens (1986), An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), Willow (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), Glory (1989), Patriot Games (1992), Braveheart (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Avatar (2009). Before all of that, he made his first big splash with Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (1982).

His earliest Star Trek experience pre-dates Wrath of Khan, though.  In 1979, Horner was still breaking into the business of film composing and quickly befriended Jerry Goldsmith, who allowed him to sit in on the recording sessions for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Horner took mental notes on the mechanics of writing and recording a score with a large orchestra for a big budget movie, applying what he learned to his first big gig, Lady in Red (1979).  After that, he toiled away for several years on B-movies, such as Roger Corman’s Humanoids from the Deep (1980) and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing (1981). He showed he could get things done on time and affordably.

That made him an ideal candidate for Wrath of Khan’s producer (Harve Bennett) and director (Nicholas Meyer). They were both new to the Star Trek franchise, series creator Gene Roddenberry having been pushed aside after he mismanaged The Motion Picture and allowed it to become the most expensive film ever made in North America to that point.  A sequel was only going to happen if they could find someone to make it on the cheap, to which I like to think Harve Bennett pulled a Barney Stinson and proudly declared, “Challenge accepted!”  The Motion Picture cost $46m, and Bennett brought Wrath of Khan in on a budget just over $11m.  However, the cost cutting meant they couldn’t afford to bring back Jerry Goldsmith nor could they afford Miklos Rozsa even though Meyer had just worked with him on Time After Time.   So, Horner was most definitely not their first choice, but he was the guy they could afford.

Replacing Goldsmith was a tall task for the 28-year-old Horner.  Whatever its failings as a movie, The Motion Picture has an undeniably gorgeous and iconic score, giving us the music we forever associate with Klingons as well as what ultimately became the theme song for Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

Jerry Goldsmith’s Enterprise Theme from The Motion Picture:

However, Wrath of Khan was a purposeful soft reboot of everything Star Trek, shoving Gene Roddenberry’s wide-eyed idealism aside for a world in which people get old, forgotten vendettas come back to haunt us, Starfleet is basically the outer space Navy, not a glorified UN, and people wore red, militaristic nautical-themed uniforms instead of some hippy dippy 70s things.  So, if Star Trek was going to look different it should, by extension, also sound different.

As Meyer later explained, “[Nicholas Meyer] told me what his ideas where, which were very literary, very sea-faring in his mind. The producer, Harve Bennett, would have probably been more comfortable had I re-used material from the television show, but I chose not to do that and Nick backed me up on that decision. They didn’t want to repeat the theme of Star Trek 1. They wanted a new theme. Nick wanted it to be seafaring. So, they didn’t want to re-use or reference anything from Star Trek 1. That was history now. So, we had to come up with a new theme, and it had to be very musical and memorable.”  Of course, it’s not completely new – it’s a reworked version of Alexander Courage’s original TV fanfare – but it’s perfect.

James Horner’s End Theme from Wrath of Khan:

Goldsmith and Horner’s respective scores are both perfect complements to the movies they were paired with, the ponderous, 2001-wannabe The Motion Picture and the nautical-adventure-in-space and revenge tale of Wrath of Khan.  Horner’s philosophy on the subject was, “I believe that you had to have 2, maybe 3 maximum, themes that the audience could keep track off. So, it was important that your three themes be your principle themes, and then you have maybe a motif or two that were very short but narrated other things. Themes tended to be long narratives, and the motifs could be short blasts of things.”

What the heck does that mean? Well, it’s perfectly apparent throughout the battle scenes in Wrath of Khan where Horner helps us follow the action by assigning a short motif to Khan via eight French Horns, used to communicate Khan’s power, and a long melodic theme for the Enterprise. As he explained, “That way these chases could be very easily theme driven because there was a lot of battle music and it was incessant. I had to find a way to musically say what was what, who was who, who was damaged, who was not damaged, and that helped a great deal knowing how the battle was going. Otherwise it’s just action music.”

You can really hear it in the following clip from the movie, starting off with Khan’s motif, switching to the Enterprise theme and then back to the Khan motif:

As Horner said, “You shouldn’t be aware of the music. It’s the visuals and music working together that make that moment dramatically.”

However, while Horner’s music helps us follow the fantastic action scenes throughout Wrath of Khan it’s also there for the film’s most memorable moment: Spock’s death, which Horner recognized as being the true heart of the movie, “I wanted to make much more of Spock than had ever been done before, and that unique undercurrent of the film between Spock and the Captain. That was a relationship which had never played in anybody’s approach. It played into a little of what they did on the series, I was told, but I wanted to make that bond very tight. I wanted to tell the story of two men and their friendship, and that’s what I gleaned out of the series and out of the first movie. The closer I could play that bond during the movie the more I could make of that bond’s separation when Spock dies, the more I could break the audience’s heart at the end of the movie.”

And holy shit did he ever break our hearts with Spock’s death, a scene which actually begins without any musical score before kicking into a sad reprisal of Horner’s Spock theme the moment we hear the line, “Don’t grieve, Admiral.” You may have seen the scene so many times and never noticed this before, but Horner actually breaks from the sad music to punctuate Spock’s final line “Live long and prosper” with a brief reprisal of the iconic Star Trek theme as if to suggest there might be some life left. However, it disappears the moment Spock crumbles to the ground and dies, Kirk looking down and mournfully muttering, “No.”

Excuse me.  I need a moment.  I have something in my eye [wipes away tears].

Horner returned to score Star Trek III: The Search for Spock in 1984, but by the time Nicholas Meyer called him for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986 he was out of their price range, having come full circle from the young up-and-comer replacing an expensive veteran to an in-demand talent who demanded top dollar. Over the years, he gravitated toward composing far more sentimental scores for heart-string-pulling movies like Braveheart and Titanic. He gained a reputation of re-using elements of his scores across movies, with Wrath of Khan’s Khan motif re-used in Aliens and then parts of Aliens re-used in Cocoon, Project X and Patriot Games.  To be fair, Aliens was a nightmarish experience for Horner, forced to write parts of the score essentially overnight, thus explaining why he might have pulled some melodies from his back catalog.  However, he kept doing that in the future as well.  As a result, I always got the impression that Horner wasn’t quite as well-respected a composer (at least among people who discuss these types of things on the internet) as some of his contemporaries, and some may never forgive him for giving us Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”  But in 1982 he was just getting started, and his music in Wrath of Khan has always been an overlooked key to the film’s effectiveness.

What about you?  What are some of your favorite James Horner scores?  Or has his music and the types of films he scored never quite been your thing?  Do you think his music in Wrath of Khan is overrated?  How dare you!  You better explain yourself in the comments section.


  1. I think you’re absolutely bang on with everything you’ve said here. I’ve thought the same thing for years, and with this movie in particular. I’m so glad there is someone else out there that can appreciate Horner for the reasons I do.

  2. I grew up wanting to write film scores because of Horner and Goldsmith. Horner’s music for Star Trek was amazing and I couldnt wait for the next score he did. He borrowed A LOT from other composers like Prokofiev (my favorite composer) but what he did with the material he used makes his transgressions a little less severe in my book. Other scores of his that just blew me away include Willow, the Land Before Time, the Pagemaster, and Batteries Not Included.

    1. The thing with James Horner for me is not what he borrowed from others but what he borrowed from itself, just straight-up lifting entire sections of scores from his older movies and carrying them over to his newer ones, e.g., there’s a lot of Wrath of Khan in Aliens then there’s a lot of Aliens in Project X then there’s a lot of Project X in Patriot Games, etc. It seems like most composers repeat themselves, sometimes unconsciously and partially due to the sheer weight of their workload, but they usually try to change it up enough to sound newish. I was surprised at how often Horner didn’t even do that.

      Understand, though, that I don’t really mean that as a criticism. All those movies I mentioned above? Adore Horner’s music in every single one of them. It’s more that it’s always been this historical curiosity for me, i.e., his tendency to carry his scores with him from film to film. In a way, it can sometimes be fun, like how a particularly eerie bit from Aliens can be used to similar effect in Project X but then build to a completely different crescendo or go off in an entirely new direction. It’s like hearing an alternate, re-worked recording of a familiar song.

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