Star Trek -Starfleet Academy- Original Game Soundtrack
Star Trek -Starfleet Academy- Original Game Soundtrack
August 31, 1997
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Given the Star Trek franchise’s long history on cinema and TV screens – and its considerable financial clout – it was no surprise that when the use of live action scenes in games became possible, Star Trek games were among the first to rely on this technology. Among these early examples of these FMV-heavy Star Trek titles, 1997’s Star Trek: Starfleet Academy was a much stronger contestant than Star Trek: Borg, with much better developed gameplay and an intriguing premise – attend Starfleet Academy and ultimately become a ship captain – that saw Starfleet Academy reap strong reviews. The game was made even more attractive for Trekkies through the inclusion of high-profile talent form the original TV series, including William Shatner, Walter Koenig and George Takei.
The strong connection between Starfleet Academy and its iconic screen predecessors – and the game’s cinematic ambitions themselves – were made even clearer when Star Trek: The Next Generation composer Ron Jones was hired to write Starfleet Academy‘s soundtrack. Jones became involved with the game through his film scoring teaching role at the University of Southern California when some of his previous students, now working at developer Interplay, asked Jones whether he was interested in writing the music for Starfleet Academy. Convinced by Interplay’s assertion that “they wanted to do this like a movie and they wanted it scored like a movie”, Jones signed on to write his first video game score. Coming from a background in film and TV, one of the challenges Jones faced was to write music whose mood could be modulated instantly depending on the player’s actions. Jones solution was to use “tempos and key relationships and orchestration so they would seamlessly go from piece to piece and have transitions possible at any part of the cue.” Without access to the themes he wrote for Next Generation, Jones composed a new Starfleet Academy theme and delivered the soundtrack within a month, with additional music for the game’s briefings and cut scenes provided by Brian Luzietti.
Crucial for the history of Western game music, Interplay took their “score it like a movie” mantra serious enough to provide Jones with the budget to record a live orchestra for his soundtrack, making Starfleet Academy one of the first Western games to receive a live orchestral score. Realising the music’s potential, Interplay then released Starfleet Academy‘s music on a separate CD with some editions of the game. Of course, these promotional copies were soon very hard to find and Starfleet Academy‘s score became a much sought after rarity. That situation changed somewhat in 2010 when record label Film Score Monthly released a gargantuan 14 disc set of Jones’ music for The Next Generation, including his music for Starfleet Academy (minus Luzietti’s contributions) and 1998’s Starfleet Command. For many game score fans keen on accessing Jones’ music for these games, the box set – priced at $US150 – still wasn’t an ideal option, but at least it presented Jones’ 25 minutes of music for Starfleet Command on a commercially available product. This review refers to the original 1997 album release.
Both fans of Stark Trek scores and good game music in general will be excited to see that on a musical level, Starfleet Command realises its cinematic ambitions much more successfully than Star Trek: Borg. While the latter too often sounded like uninspired TV underscore, Starfleet Command‘s bold enthusiasm effortlessly imbues it with the spirit of spacefaring adventure that informs the best Star Trek soundtracks. Jones’ grabs the opportunity to write for a full orchestra outside of the restrictions of a TV series with both hands and delivers a full-bodied, skilfully orchestrated score that might well be the best Star Trek game soundtrack composed so far. These qualities are most convincingly displayed on the album’s opening track “Starfleet Academy Theme”. Alexander Courage’s classic theme for the original Star Trek TV series is expertly woven into the composition, but it’s Jones’ Starfleet Academy theme that takes centre stage – a beautifully sweeping melody that is less audacious than Courage or Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek themes, but which nonetheless maintains the sense of wonder and noble exploration that is so central to the Star Trek franchise (at least before the 2009 reboot). “Starfleet Academy Theme” beautifully develops its expansive melodies while injecting brief moments of swashbuckling action and quieter passages to keep things varied, fully justifying the decision to record Jones’ music with a live orchestra that brings out the warm melodicism of this piece. While Starfleet Academy‘s recording is hardly the last word in presence and clarity, it outclasses Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire among other early Western live orchestral scores. Ultimately, it’s no surprise that “Starfleet Academy Theme” was included on Silva Screen Records’ third instalment of its highly regarded Space and Beyond series – Jones’ overture is strong enough to hold its own against many of the Star Trek themes written for the franchise’s feature films.
Jones’ other compositions for Starfleet Academy, squarely separated in battle cues and non-action pieces, don’t quite reach the same level as “Starfleet Academy Theme”, but they’re not far behind. While Jones’ half of Starfleet Academy‘s score is a bit heavy on action music and doesn’t always make full use of its melodic potential, the score’s quieter moments still make their mark through their compositional quality and substance. “Exploring The Unknown” continues “Starfleet Academy Theme”’s spirit of exploration and adventure in stirring fashion with its expansive string melodies, but its lighter orchestrations – including a celesta – and elements like the chromatic ululations in the woodwinds and strings during the track’s second half create an element of mystery that’s both enchanting and intriguing, and which suits the cue’s title perfectly. “Discovery” takes the more ominous aspects of “Exploring The Unknown” and subtly moves them into more quietly volatile terrain, without sacrificing the alluring promise of discovery that made both pieces so attractive. The Starfleet Academy theme is reprised in creative fashion to adapt to the darker, haunting environment, which turns “Discovery” into a somewhat subdued tension builder that is still colourful and full of musical ideas. Lastly, “Crew Introduction” is the album’s most light-hearted track, featuring the Starfleet Academy theme in a tender rendition and easily capturing the sense of aspiration and hope that would dominate a place like Starfleet Academy.
Jones’ action tracks are equally strong and are particularly commendable for their ability to avoid the pitfalls that militaristic game action music faces regularly: monotony through repetitive snare drums and string ostinati, topped with snippets of “heroic” brass inserts. Jones is smart enough to change orchestrations on a claustrophobic tension builder like “Surrounded” frequently, making sure that the woodwinds get to add some colour to the proceedings. “Surrounded”’s ingredients are minimalist – crisis string motifs, percussive piano chords, sharply rising brass figures – but they’re varied and effective enough to never let the track’s momentum flag and to help the cue convincingly escalate into a loud climax. “On The Edge” and “Red Alert” are similar to “Surrounded”, benefiting like all of Jones’ music on Starfleet Academy from his ability to write well-developed, imaginatively orchestrated compositions that despite their frequent changes in material, colour and rhythm flow well – listen to how the martial rhythms on “On The Edge” are partially supplied by the orchestra’s light percussion, which helps these rhythms to avoid becoming too plodding and dominating. “On The Edge” and “Red Alert” hold back less than “Surrounded”, both cues moving forward at a steady, but never monotonous pace that keeps the music constantly exciting, particularly as “On The Edge”’s climax keeps pushing the music higher and higher. “Evasive Manoeuvres” and “On To Victory” allow for more heroism and melodicism as they return the Starfleet Academy Theme to celebrate the battle turning around in favour of the player. “On To Victory” comes closest among Jones’ tracks on Starfleet Academy to sounding a bit too much like other, similar pieces, but it’s still noteworthy for presenting the album’s most determined rendition of the Starfleet Academy Theme. The intensity of Jones’ action music is brought to a head on “No Way Out”, whose dire and discordant melodic material prepares the ground for brass fanfares that are more hammering than their predecessors on earlier cues, and the music turns more and more intense in the cue’s second half, drawing to a dramatic and impressive close.
However, Jones’ work on Starfleet Academy is only half the story, since the album also contains a bit over 20 minutes of Luzietti’s music. His compositions are markedly different to Jones’ pieces, most of them clearly written as atmospheric underscore. As if to further accentuate the difference – and cause an even bigger interruption to the album’s flow – Luzietti’s tracks are all fully synthesised, which after the lush sound (by 1997 game score standards) of Jones’ music is a source of disappointment. That is not to say that Luzietti’s pieces aren’t worthy of consideration and that he shows no talent: while none of his compositions are album stand outs, his longer cues show potential. “To Stop the Vanguard”’s sense of impending dread is communicated in competent, but uninspired manner through rolling snare drums and heavy deep string accents and drones. However, the track’s later move to a more optimistic mood – replete with strident brass fanfares – avoids monotony, even though the composition’s victorious finale feels somewhat hollow since there wasn’t a sufficient amount of drama leading up to this. “Venturi Suite” – like many of Luzietti’s pieces – is a forbidding mood setter, but despite its lack of development the cue manages to keep the listener interested by adding a sufficient amount of mystery and intrigue through booming percussion strikes and celesta and harp arpeggios. Finally, the album’s closing track “Forester – Captain of the Enterprise” not only reprises Jones’ Starfleet Academy theme, but also introduces new melodic material by Luzietti that’s just a bit too stagnant to fully carry the track’s running time. Still, together with the cue’s snare drums, the melodies successfully maintain the piece’s ceremonial atmosphere, proud and rousing enough to function as an appropriate album closer. Then again, it’s hard not to wonder why such a crucial moment – the successful completion of the game – wasn’t score with a live orchestra, which doubtlessly would have communicated the gravitas of the occasion much more successfully.
Luzietti’s other contributions are forgettable underscore that doesn’t hold much interest once divorced from the game. “Romulan Suicide” at least serves to highlight the problems that a formulaic approach to writing militaristic music can generate (which Jones avoided): hammering piano chords are set against suspended high-pitched violins, later brass lines start rising in volume… and then the music simply fades out, having evoked its martial atmosphere in disappointingly generic terms. The moody, tepid mix of sustained string chords – both high and low – snare drums and brass fanfares returns throughout “Kirk’s Briefing”, “Sneaking Instincts”, “The Vanguard’s Plans” and “Log – Looking Grim”, and while these tracks feature the occasional anaemic brass melody, this doesn’t make their meandering strains much more interesting. The mood on these pieces isn’t entirely one-note – “Personal Problems” has hints of lyricism in its pondering four-note motif, and “Log – Mission Accomplished” and “Thoughts Before The Briefing” are more uplifting than most of Luzietti’s tracks. But all in all, the inclusion of his compositions on Starfleet Academy creates an soundtrack album that falls apart into two distinct halves, with one of them adding little to score’s artistic merits.
As strongly as it starts out, Starfleet Academy‘s album is a frustrating affair, due to its disjointed nature. On the one hand, there are Jones’ pieces, fully-fledged orchestral compositions that make his part of Starfleet Academy a proud part of the Star Trek franchise’s musical heritage, imbued by the bold, romantic desire to venture forth and explore the universe. Among Jones’ warm and sweeping pieces that underscore adventure and discovery, “Starfleet Academy Theme” is easily the strongest cue, and might just be the best live orchestral piece of Western game music written before Michael Giacchino’s Medal of Honor exploded onto the game music scene. Jones’ ability to write well-developed, varied orchestral pieces serves him particularly well on his action cues, whose militant and martial nature is expressed in musical terms that inject the music with tension and excitement rather than making it monotonous.
Unfortunately, ‘monotonous’ is the adjective that best describes Luzietti’s work for Starfleet Academy, consisting of synth pieces that make for a jarring transition from Jones’ compositions not just because of their obviously artificial sound, but also due to their subdued, bland manner that doesn’t set out to achieve more than a generic sense of foreboding or cautious optimism. Luzietti displays some promise on his longer tracks, generating more potent moods and atmospheres, but even these cues are workmanlike rather than inspired. All in all, Starfleet Academy is an important part of Western game music’s history and half of it is rousing science fiction music that is absolutely worth seeking out – but taken as a whole, Starfleet Academy is only partially satisfying and fails to achieve the status of a genre classic that seems well within reach for a while.
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Posted on August 23, 2014 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 23, 2014.