Level 3

Star Trek poster

Image belongs to the Paramount

Film: Star Trek (2009)

Studio: Paramount

Composers: Michael Giacchino

WARNING: Contains spoilers.

This is, quite possibly, one of the most difficult analyses I’ve done so far. There are so many complex layers to this score and an infinite number of possible meanings. As with all things I obsess over, I wanted to take it apart and find out what made it work, but it was so big that I had no idea where to even start! So, instead of taking the entire score as a whole, I’ll be breaking it down into pieces, and perhaps eventually working up to dealing with the entire thing.

I decided to start with my favorite track on the CD, “That New Car Smell” (opens a link to YouTube). Visually, it accompanies the conversation between the two Spocks towards the end of the film, so I’ve nicknamed it “Spock’s Theme.” There are traces of this theme throughout the film, but this is the first time we hear it in its entirety – a whole minute and a half devoted to developing it. From the very first time I heard it, I thought it was perfect for describing Spock. I wanted to understand why.

The surface level of Spock’s theme is fairly easy to understand. The theme is extremely placid, reflecting Spock’s cool, unruffled demeanor. It is played by a traditional Oriental string instrument – in Western culture Oriental instrumentation has been the universally accepted symbol of “different” and “foreigner” since exoticism back in the 1800s. Furthermore, it sets up a strong theme of solitude with the four single tones sounded at the beginning. This could either be interpreted as setting up “outer-space”  (most people would agree that space is pretty lonely) or setting up Spock’s emotional solitude.

I knew there was more to it than that, though, so I dug deeper. The first thing I like to do when analyzing a new piece is write it down – it is much easier to understand what is going on when you can see it on paper. So I did, and then I ran into my first snag: Spock’s theme isn’t logical. V chords “resolved” to second inversion I chords, D-flat major jumped directly to G major, and what might have been a major II was in third inversion, none of which makes sense in a piece that sounds tonal! It is essentially centric, with a focal point of E-flat, and a secondary focal point of G. So, I put it aside, pushed back this essay, and let it simmer for a while hoping to make sense of it.

Finally I realized, while Spock’s theme is not logical, it is, essentially, unemotional. As a culture, we have developed certain emotional responses to certain scales – minor is “sad,” “mad,” or “scary,” major is “happy” etc. Spock’s theme avoids all of these connotations by jumping from one mode to the next. Almost every time it gets close to identifying with a mode, one of the voices will land a half-step away from where we would expect it to go, and suddenly we’re already halfway to a different key. But Spock isn’t entirely Vulcan, and he’s not entirely emotionless, as we see when he attacks Kirk – and the trigger of that attack is extreme sadness. Appropriately, a few times, the theme actually manages to hang around one chord or set of notes long enough to make it feel like an established key. Each time it does so, however, it fairly quickly moves on, often to someplace completely different, mirroring Spock’s wish to distance himself from these “bursts” of emotion.

After a while, the track moves on to other things, seamlessly changing into the “Enterprise/Kirk theme” (Spock is essential to the Enterprise? Spock becomes something more as part of Starfleet and as James Kirk’s friend? The possibilities are endless.) But the impressive part is what Giacchino managed to do with Spock. The theme is unemotional, and yet incredibly lifelike – hearing it, one could never accuse Spock of being a computer as Kirk and McCoy often did in the original series. I can’t wait to see what other interesting things I might find in the rest of the score!