Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Battle Hymns Beyond the Stars: The Music of Great Space Battles

Nothing beats a great space battle...except great space battle theme music! Here you'll find a wide-ranging (but by no means comprehensive) list of pieces of music from certain SF television shows and films which have a hold on the public consciousness (and, with the exception of the final five, in no particular order). Hopefully, you'll also find a few surprises...

[some spoilers follow]

The Avengers (Alan Silvestri): Truth be told, I can't remember much about the Avengers theme music. I know I liked it, and I know when I see Alan Silvestri's name, I think of Back to the Future. Nevertheless, he wrote some great music during the grand finale sequences when Manhattan is under attack from an alien army (thanks to Loki) and Iron Man nearly sacrifices his life to save everyone. What works about this battle music is not only the music itself, but the way the music and sound effects cut out as Tony Stark reaches the other side of an interdimensional portal and thrust a nuclear warhead into the heart of the enemy fleet.

"Kara Remembers"/"Colonial Anthem" from Battlestar Galactica (Bear McCreary). The finale of the revived Battlestar series contained the solemn Colonial Anthem (which featured cues from Stu Phillips' original Battlestar theme), but was also enhanced at the climax with the ghostly tones of Kara Thrace (aka "Starbuck") playing Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" on a keyboard as a means of helping the Galactica fleet make a hyperspace jump. This can still sends shivers down the spine, even if you hated the series ending (which I did not).

"Launch When Ready" from Buck Rogers / Battlestar Galactica Theme (Stu Phillips): Let's face it: Phillip's incidental music for these two Glen Larson produced space shows is pretty incidental. But he crafted two memorable themes (one even with lyrics, thanks to Larson), so I'm mentioning them there. Besides, the irony of a space battle that doesn't happen (in Buck Rogers, since he puts bombs in the tailpipes of the Draconian ships) is pretty funny.

"Solar Sailer" from Tron (Wendy Carlos): A bit of a cheat? Consider: Tron is innerspace. There is a flying sailing ship and a giant carrier chasing it. Carlos' electronic score is exciting, inventive and beautiful. It gets a mention here.

"The Majestic Tale of a Madman in a Box" from Doctor Who: Series 6 (Murray Gold). Gold spins gold for Matt Smith. The Eleventh Doctor's theme is used at various points of the season, notably in "A Good Man Goes to War" which features a pretty kick-ass space battle, as well as the timeline-strained finale that puts all of existence in peril. Both bombastic and playful, truly a theme that fits the Last of the Time Lords.

"Rose Defeats the Daleks" from Doctor Who: "The Parting of the Ways." Rose Tyler blows up a Dalek fleet. The Doctor regenerates. Murray Gold composes.  'Nuff said.

V: The Final Battle -- "Breath of Freedom" (Dennis McCarthy): Contains the excellent V resistance score as well as an uplifting tune as humans liberate the Earth from the reptilian Visitors thanks to "red dust" being dropped from the skies by freedom fighters manning hundreds of hot air balloons.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Intro (John Williams): After two prequel movies with relatively tame openings, John Williams pulls out all the stops as two starfighters, piloted by Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi, hover, spin, duck, dodge, roll, and attack multiple battleships in this Clone Wars finale. People who derided the Star Wars prequels finally breathed a sigh of relief...at least until Vader screamed "Noooo!"

Babylon 5: Season 4 Main Title/"Into the Fire" (Christopher Franke): Franke's electronic scores for Babylon 5 were not always out-and-out bombastic, but often reflected the inner workings of the characters and machinations they went through (and took others through). This music accompanies the end of the Shadow War, and, like all episodes that season, opens with the best variation of Franke's main Babylon 5 theme that emphasizes the best of the often war-bound series: truly "a time of pain, a time of joy."

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire: "The Battle of Gall" (Joel McNeely): Surprise! A Star Wars score that's not by John Williams. And a score that's not even for a film! Before Clone Wars cartoons, there was Shadows of the Empire, a multimedia experience that tied up loose ends from Empire and set the stage for Return of the Jedi. It sounds at times more like Indiana Jones than Star Wars, but so did The Phantom Menace score, so in retrospect, "The Battle of Gall" is more John Williams than John Williams. It's also a string piece in its own right.

Men in Black -- "Deliver the Galaxy" (Danny Ellfman): Elfman's music for the series sounds much the same in all three MIB films, but it's very memorable, catchy, and intense. Here it accompanies the scene where a space armada is ready to blow up the Earth unless Agents J and K can return "The Galaxy" to its rightful owner. Fun stuff.

Dune -- "The Descending Storm" (Toto): Love it or hate it, David Lynch's Dune is a sight to behold, and Toto's score comes to the fore here as Paul M'uad Dib's Freemen army launches a space, land and worm attack against Emperor Shaddam IV and the Harkonnens. Spikier than a Gom Jabbar, and hard to get out of your head once you hear it.

Moonraker: "The Final Battle" (John Barry): Some actually haunting music only occasionally interrupted by space silence and the Bond theme. A bad Bond movie, but a fun flight and fight of fancy for space battle lovers.

Starship Troopers (Basil Pouledaris): Sounds like most of Pouledoris' scores (Conan, Robocop), but who cares? It's in space! With asteroids! Crashes! Lasers! Bugs! Enlist today!

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (TV series): "Vl'Hurg's vs. The G'Gugvants" (Paddy Kingsland): Kingsland's hilarious electronic anthem for two mighty battle fleets who go to war over a miscommunication before being eaten by a small dog accentuates Douglas Adam's already hilarious point: If you're a powerful fleet that's going to attack something, you'd better have a good sense of scale. Accompanied by goofy BBC costumes and the Guide's video game-style graphics rendering an enter space battle in "Asteroids" style, this is a treat.
Serenity: Federation vs. The Reavers (David Newman): Some haunting Eastern tunes give way to a percussive space battle score in this tense scene in which both Serenity and Federation ships face off against the deadly Reavers.

Flash Gordon (1980): "Flash/Flight of the Hawkmen" (Queen): Another rock score, recently parodied in Seth MacFarlane's film Ted, and a staple song on 80s airwaves. It's catchy, powerful, alive. Accompanied by the electronic Hawkmen music as Vultan's Hawkman army descends upon Ming's fleet, it makes for perfect 80s SF rock battle cheese. It was also used in Atari's Vanguard game.

Star Trek: The Original Series -- "The Corbomite Manuever" (Fred Steiner): This music was reused many times in the original series, and for good reason. It's awesome.

"Sontaran Attack" from "Doctor Who: The Two Doctors" (Peter Howell): It was very rare for Classic Who to feature space battles, namely because the effects were so naff and the budgets were so sparse, but some fairly decent effects are put to good use with Howell's pulsing score for the Sontarans as three battlecrusiers attack a space station and appear to leave the Second Doctor and Jamie for dead.

"Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks" (Malcolm Clarke): Again from Classic Who, this metallic "march" (for lack of a better term; these are Dalek's we're talking about, after all) accompanied the scene when Daleks board a space station prison in an effort to free their creator, Davros, from cryogenic suspension.

"Hyperspace" from The Empire Strikes Back (John Williams): The most popular film in the Star Wars saga has very little actual space battles in it. Lucky for us that there's a gripping scene at the end of the film when the Millennium Falcon has to fight and escape from Darth Vader's Star Destroyer, and has this music to do it.

"Nailin' the Kelvin/Labor of Love" -- Star Trek (2009) (Michael Giaccino): Like the best of battles, JJ Abram's Star Trek opener, in which the Romulan Naruda attacks and is rammed by the USS Kelvin (piloted by James Kirk's father), is both action packed and tear-jerking. Giacciono's score and its many themes prove to be a worthy successor to the Star Trek scores that came before.

"The Battle of Wolf 359" -- from "Emisarry," Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (Dennis McCarthy): The pilot episode of Deep Space 9 opens with a doozy: a battle talked about but barely shown on TNG's "The Best of Both Worlds." The music echoes the desperation of the entire Starfleet, and in particular, Benjamin Sisko, as he and his son Jake flee the "sinking" Saratoga. Haunting and powerful in a way that was not matched until 2009's Star Trek (see "Nailin' the Kelvin").
"The Battle for Peace" -- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Cliff Eidelman): The final battle of the original Starship Enterprise as it faces off against General Chang's cloaked warbird features some great action motifs interlaced with the classic Alexander Courage Star Trek theme, as well as riffs on Holst's "The Planets."

Top 5:

5. "Alliance Assembly"/"The Battle of Endor/"Into the Trap" from Return of the Jedi (John Williams): Easily hummable, packed with suspense, and filled with snippets of music from the first two original Star Wars movies as the Rebel fleet assembles, rips through hyperspace, and attacks the second Death Star. This music was one of the highlights of Jedi, especially as it accompanied Admiral Ackbar's famous cry: "It's a trap!"

4. "Klingon Battle" from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Jerry Goldsmith). Klingons, rhythmic percussion. You know it. Go on hum it. You know you want to.
3. "The Battle of Yavin" from Star Wars (John Williams): An undisputed classic, tracking in at over 11 minutes of film music that often reappeared throughout the series. Suspenseful, engaging, uplifting, intense. It even appeared in the Atari video game. The Force will be with you...Always.

2. "Surprise Attack: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (James Horner): Heavy percussion. Cymbals. Horns. A nautical theme for the enterprise and a haunting whine for its foe. James Horner's best score is battle magic.

1. "Intervention/Sleep Command" -- Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Best of Both Worlds" (Ron Jones): Jones was one of two main composers for TNG until its forth season. His scores were rich, lush, and thematic--he was the John Williams of the Star Trek franchise. His score for "The Best of Both Worlds" (i.e., Picard becomes a Borg) is so fantastic, it was granted an entire CD release. You can listen to more of Jones' scores on a multi-CD collection, The Ron Jones Project, but if it's a little pricey for you, then these two tracks will give you a good indication of what you are missing. Both bombastic and intimate, with renderings and revisions of the infamous TNG theme, this is simply one of the best pieces of battle music ever recorded...and yes, it's as good as Star Wars.

By Adam Throne