Good science fiction is hard to come by. For every District 9 there’s a Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. For every 2001: A Space Odyssey there’s a 2010: The Year We Make Contact. It’s hard to balance the needs of the devoted and demanding fanbase with the desires of the commercial demographic. As a result, most examples of cinematic speculation are ferocious shoot ‘em ups, lasers and starships taking the place of pistols and horses (or in more modern modes, handguns and SUVs). Instead of ideas, eye candy is regularly tossed around, F/X replacing characterization and narrative ingenuity. Still, if there is one consistent within the genre, it’s the music. Thanks to George Lucas and John Williams, every example of interstellar overdrive must have a soundtrack that resembles a lost work by the Martian Mozart. With rare exceptions - Danny Boyle’s brilliant Sunshine - it’s all space pomp and interplanetary circumstance.
This time around we have three rather indicative examples of such broad, brooding orchestrations. Luckily, Surround Sound has been given some of the better attempts at such scope. As he has done throughout most of the series, Bear McCreary delivers a significant sonic signature to one of TV’s best, while the British take on extraterrestrial gets an equally excellent overview by Ben Foster. Last but not least, Star Trek‘s entire legacy - cinematic and broadcast - is put under the sonic microscope as one of Europe’s premiere ensembles offers up their interpretations of its motion picture and small screen majesty. In each case, ambition supersedes stereotypes, our composer’s moving beyond the basics of the category to delve into areas both exceptional - and expected - within each of their assigned tasks. Let’s begin with one of the best:
Battlestar Galactica: Original Soundtrack from the SyFy Television Series - Season 4 [rating: 9]
Bear McCreary has rapidly become the composer of choice for intelligent, compelling science fiction, his stellar work with SyFy’s outstanding Battlestar Galactica the best that the broadcast genre has to offer. There from the beginning, the 30 year old has used an interesting combination of old school bombast and new world order diversity (and lots of heavy percussion) to give his score the necessary power and import. With the BG prequel, Caprica, now on his agenda, Universal is releasing a two CD set of McCreary’s work on the forth (and final) season of the hit action/drama. Disc one deals with most of the music he made for the regular episodes, while the second focuses solely on the two part finale, “Daybreak”. Together, they paint an intriguing sonic portrait of danger, excitement, sadness, and scope, each sentiment reflecting back on the dynamic music used to instill them. It’s a powerful bit of aural magic.
McCreary is a big believer in themes - tracks or individual songs (with vocals) that set-up or stylize a certain character or situation. “Gaeta’s Lament” starts off the set, and it reappears again later on in an instrumental version. Similarly, “The Cult of Baltar” offers another intriguing bit of near-operatic songwriting. While the ideas he is portraying are often big, McCreary is not really into stifling sonic explosions. Instead, he will let smaller moments sell the situation (“Among the Ruins”) before letting loose with the standard fight/flight for your life ideal (“Roslin Escapes”, “Laura Runs”). Another amazing thing here is how long some of these tracks are. Most TV music cues are one to two minutes in length. But brilliant pieces like “Blood on the Scales” or “Dreililde Thrace Sonata No, 1” run well over five minutes. The added time allows McCreary to expand on his ideas, to let organic flow battle against plot purpose as a means of inspiration - and it always results in something wonderful.
The most impressive work here comes from “Daybreak” and the amazing 15 minute “Assault on the Colony”. Ebbing and flowing between calm and chaos, the rhythm driven track is highly reminiscent of this man’s exceptional work. Mixing tone and type, McCreary gives us a sense of urgency and the agony of a battle lost. The beautiful vocal sigh in the middle reminds us that two sides to every skirmish and that no victory comes without a price. Elsewhere, on cuts like “So Much Life” and “An Easterly View”, the score settles in to put the final epic touches on a true televisual event. It is safe to say that McCreary and his varied aural approach stands as the perfect complement to Galactica‘s radical rethinking of the war between man and machine. One would expect something over the top and loud. What we get, instead, is cinematic composition at its finest.
Torchwood: Children of Earth: Original Television Soundtrack [rating: 8]
Unless you have BBC America, or are a true aficionado of British science fiction, you’ve probably never heard of Torchwood. To call it a UK X-Files would only be half of the story. As with most offerings out of England, this closely-linked Dr. Who spin-off explores elements of comedy, drama, interpersonal relationships, and social commentary along with its array of aliens and monsters. Now preparing its fourth series, Children of Earth represents that third season of the show - a five part mini-series following the invasion of our planet by unfriendly extraterrestrials. While the show itself is usually big and broad, F/X and locations marking a desire to keep things clearly within the realm of spectacle, the exceptional scoring work of Ben Foster (with the BBC National of Wales) is far less stuffy. It’s often a lot more fun than the material it’s meant to support. While he’s been in the background for the last few years, Torchwood represents his first big break - and what will surely be a big breakthrough.
There may be some who balk at the inclusion of slight electronica cues. Apparently, in the UK, in the year 2009, you can’t get away from the influence of dance music. But for the most part, Torchwood: Children of Earth is a sensational mix of suspense and action, emotional lilts and big bang send-offs. Over the course of 40 tracks (all on one CD only, so they are indeed short) we get pageantry, passion, prettiness, and the perilous threat of worldwide destruction. Cuts like the opener “The First Sacrifice”, set us up for the rest to come, while stand-outs such as “Double Crossed”, “Jack in the Box”, “Trust Nobody” and “Judgment Day” live up to their dryly descriptive titles. We get the standard vocal work, the distant female voice lamenting the loss of something special (“Requiem for the Fallen”) or sad (“Sacrifice and Salvation”). With his desire to incorporate modern musical ideas into what is basically a genre style score, Foster forces the material to enter the 21st century. The resulting aural discrepancies give Torchwood: Children of Earth a nice - and necessary - bit of tension. This is terrific stuff.
The Music of Star Trek Performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra [rating: 7]
It’s one of the most recognizable sonic signatures in all of science fiction - a brass fanfare, crafted by composer Alexander Courage, typically followed by a statement centering on the voyages of a certain starship and its five year mission. For decades it illustrated the best part of the genre, the forward thinking intelligence that such speculation had to offer. So imagine the pressure on Jerry Goldsmith when given the task to score the motion picture update of Star Trek. Coming up with something as classic as the iconic ‘60s television wasn’t easy, but somehow, his theme for the 1979 film remains as wonderful bit of sonic extrapolation. Goldsmith would go on to score three more Trek films, as well as working on the broadcast updates The Next Generation and Voyager. Along with James Horner and Dennis McCarthy (two installments each), and Leonard Roseman, Cliff Eidleman, and Michael Giacchiano (one each), the backdrop for the entire Trek franchise can be more or less accounted for.
Now the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra is celebrating the work of these fine musicians with another in their excellent The Music of… series. On the plus side, these grand orchestral takes really amplify the inherent majesty in each individual’s approach. On the downside, Star Trek - like Star Wars - all basically ‘sounds’ the same. In order to link each entry to its counterpart, these composers occasional ‘borrow’ bits from other scores, adding a bit of Search for Spook here, taking a bit of First Contact for its follow-up. Again, the polish and panache make it all worthwhile. But since we are dealing with opening themes here, large and thunderous announcements of the next in a long line of (often frustrating) sequels, there is very little nuance. It’s all huge symphonic statements with blasts of cinematic excess. While still a delicious listen, especially for those of us who love everything about the Trek universe, one can occasionally overdose on such classical gas. It’s nice nostalgia without much greater sonic significance.