Music Album Review: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’

(C) 1990 GNP Crescendo Records. (P) 1990, 1982 Paramount Pictures

Rating: 4 out of 5.

On June 4, 1982, Atlantic Records released Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Original Music Soundtrack) on vinyl LP and audiocassette. It featured music composed by a 29-year-old James Horner for Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  It was not, by any means of the imagination, a long album; it consisted of nine tracks, the longest (Epilogue/End Titles) clocks in at eight minutes and 40 seconds. However, this was Horner’s breakout score – he had already written music for six films before getting the Wrath of Khan gig – and one of his most popular soundtrack albums in his career.

Nicholas Meyer – like Gene Roddenberry – thought of Star Trek as “Horatio Hornblower in Space,” and he wanted the score to reflect the naval ambiance that he insisted for the movie. Meyer, as well as producers Harve Bennett and Robert Sallin, did not want to use any themes from Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, nor did they want a John Williams-like score a la Star Wars or Superman. Horner was free to use the theme from the original TV series by Alexander Courage, but aside from that, Star Trek II should have its own sound and not mimic what had come before.

Horner wrote several leitmotifs for Star Trek II. The main theme, which follows Courage’s iconic fanfare to the Original Series’ theme, is Kirk’s (William Shatner), which quickly segues to a sweeping, flowing theme for the Enterprise that evokes ships from the Age of Sail and swashbuckling buccaneers. There’s a driving, violent, percussive motif for Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), the film’s titular revenge-seeking antagonist. There’s a mysterious, alien-sounding motif for Spock (Leonard Nimoy, which adds depth and warmth to the half-Vulcan, half-human character.  

Although most of Horner’s score is symphonic, he was willing to experiment with various musical styles and instruments. Thus, for some scenes, the score uses synthesizers and a unique instrument – invented by Craig Huxley[1] – called the Blaster Beam to add futuristic, “space-y” textures and separate Star Trek II’s score from the conventional Hollywood symphonic score.

Horner composed 72 minutes’ worth of music in four and a half weeks and recorded it in Los Angeles with a studio orchestra, as well as Huxley and his Blaster Beam. The original 1982 LP/cassette album, as well as the 1990 GNP Crescendo compact disc recording, present nearly 45 minutes’ worth of music from Horner’s Star Trek II score. [2]

Track List

1Main Title3:03
2Surprise Attack5:06
4Kirk’s Explosive Reply4:02
5Khan’s Pets4:18
6Enterprise Clears Moorings3:32
7Battle in the Mutara Nebula8:08
8Genesis Countdown6:36
9Epilogue / End Title8:40

My Take

I have owned this album since my senior year in high school. I bought the cassette in 1982 after seeing Star Trek II at the theater in the Concord Shopping Mall in southwest Miami-Dade County. Later, in the 1990s, I bought the compact disc version, which features the same nine tracks and 44 minutes and 35 seconds’ worth of music.

Like most commercially released soundtrack albums, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a selection of themes and action themes presented in non-chronological order and not as heard in the movie. Sure, Main Title and Epilogue/End Title are heard at the beginning and closing scenes of Star Trek II, but the other seven tracks were arranged by the producer of the album for purely aesthetic reasons and don’t match the timeline of the film.  

Nevertheless, Horner – who would go on to write scores for Aliens, Clear and Present Danger, Apollo 13, Titanic, and Avatar – captures the “Horatio Hornblower in Space” vibe that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek II director Nicholas Meyer wanted for the adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the valiant crew of the Starship Enterprise. The nine selections of Horner’s score presented here reflect the themes of the script by Jack B. Sowards and an uncredited Meyer: Kirk’s return to action after an unfulfilling tour of duty as a deskbound flag officer; Spock’s wisdom and heroic self-sacrifice, the Enterprise’s unexpected and near-fatal encounter with the Khan-hijacked USS Reliant; the frightening alien menace of the Ceti eels (Khan’s Pets), the destroyer-vs.-U-boat vibes of the Battle in the Mutara Nebula with the dueling themes for Kirk and Khan, and the tense, fateful notes of Genesis Countdown are presented here in musical form.

Horner would reprise the nautical feel of the Star Trek II score in other films, especially in Clear and Present Danger (1994), Apollo 13 (1995), and Titanic (1997). The soundtrack for the latter film, which also features Celine Dion’s performance My Heart Will Go On, is the best-selling orchestral soundtrack of all time (as of this writing).  They have, of course, different themes and are heard in films from three different genres, but they still have that “going out to sea” flavor heard in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Even though it’s an abridged soundtrack album, the original 1982 version of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) is my favorite James Horner CD. It’s my second favorite Star Trek score – I like Jerry Goldsmith’s more elegaic score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture just a tad better – and I listen to it often.

[1] Before becoming a musician, inventor, and composer, Huxley was an actor. He was no stranger to Star Trek; in 1967, Huxley played Capt. Kirk’s nephew Peter in the episode Operation: Annihilate!

[2] There is a 2009 extended edition released by Retrograde Records that presents most, perhaps all of Horner’s music in the chronological order of the film, but I don’t have that one.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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