In this installment, Battlestar Galactica Season 4, Torchwood: Children of Earth, and The Music of Star Trek
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]
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]
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]
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.