Trek's Musical Problems
By Jamahl Epsicokhan
January 24, 1995
I still don't understand what it is with the music on TNG, DS9, and now Voyager. Don't get me wrong. I don't doubt the talents of the composers, and I'm not talking about the main themes (I believe the main themes to TNG, DS9, and Voyager are quite good). But the scores for each episode lack energy and interest, and I'm very disappointed with what I hear most weeks.
Currently on DS9 (and in seasons 4-7 of TNG), the music is primarily scored by Dennis McCarthy and Jay Chattaway, who alternate every other week. And week after week it's flat and uninspiring. Occasionally I will be surprised, like with Chattaway's recent score to "The Search, Part I," which accompanied the closing action scene with some bombastic energy. And McCarthy will sometimes turn out nice work, most recently displayed in "Past Tense, Part I." It just makes me wonder why in the world we can't get decent scores like that more often.
In an article in the October 1993 issue of Cinefantastique magazine, I read an interesting article about the music on TNG and DS9. Apparently, the linear-restrained quality has nothing to do with the composers' abilities, but rather the wishes of the producers, and the strict guidelines they impose. It appears to be the reason that led to the firing of Ron Jones (who turned out some of TNG's best scores, including "The Best of Both Worlds" parts I and II, as well as "Brothers," "Final Mission" and many more). Jones was reported as an overbudgeted "troublemaker" who decided to ignore these guidelines—i.e., they got rid of him because his music was too "noticeable." For some reason, the producers decided they wanted no recognizable or recurring themes in the episode scores.
When Jones was gone, the producers gave Jay Chattaway the full time position, working with him to tone down his work. If you go back and watch TNG's third season "Tin Man," you will notice a very atypical score (by recent Trek music standards), with a recurring theme and many bombastic qualities. That was Chattaway's first score for TNG, and many of the qualities within it were exactly what the producers didn't want and had Chattaway tone down throughout his fourth season "break-in" period.
Apparently, Dennis McCarthy's situation was similar. McCarthy started on TNG from the very beginning, and his early works were much more interesting than his post-third season outings (I think the article mentioned that a certain producer retired around that time, leaving the other producers to influence the composers more directly). If you doubt McCarthy's abilities, listen to the very commendable score of "Star Trek: Generations" and you will hear his best work yet. Granted, that was a feature-film budget orchestra, but I know the composers could get more out of their television orchestra—Ron Jones did it every week.
Recently on DS9, they brought in a new composer named David Bell. So far I've liked his work a lot ("Second Skin" and "Past Tense, Part II"). It has a melody that inspires. I'm just afraid that he will sound just as boring as McCarthy and Chattaway by the end of the season, because, provided the producers keep him around, they're going to work on him to get what they want.
I'm not saying the music on Star Trek is totally without merit. But with the resources the composers have at their disposal, it's awful to know that it's being so toned down because the producers think it shouldn't be "overwhelming." I defy anyone who can tell me that they were more excited when Picard was in 10-forward with the baryon sweep coming at him ("Starship Mine"—6th season) than when Data and Worf kidnapped Locutus off the Borg ship and escaped ("The Best of Both Worlds, Part II"—4th season). The reason—linear monotony versus exciting bombastitiy, respectively. Music is about 70% of action or suspense.
Hey, I'm not asking for miracles. But something with some energy, along the lines of "The Search, Part I" would be nice. I knew before the pilot aired that Chattaway was scoring the first episode of Voyager. Being the major TV debut it was and considering Voyager is supposed to be more "adventurous" than the other Treks, I thought we might get something like "Search, Part I" in "Caretaker." But it was just more of the same boring stuff, and worse, because it was at such a low volume it almost didn't matter at all. Take, for example the scene in the tunnels where Paris rescues Chakotay from the staircase about to collapse. The music was so soft and unexciting that it destroyed the scene completely. I'm fed up with that.
The question I ask is, WHY DO THE PRODUCERS THINK THAT TONING THIS STUFF DOWN IS BETTER OFF FOR THEM? "Best of Both Worlds" felt like a movie because of its thundering soundtrack. What can the producers possibly fear in a soundtrack like that?