Here’s Why Star Trek Still Has the Best Theme Songs and Credit Sequences in All of SciFi Television

Star Trek: Discovery finally launched this week and that means there are two things making me very happy. The first is that we have a new Star Trek show that’s doing new things in a very Star Trek way. The second is we get a new credits sequence.

I am an easy mark for a good credits sequence. “Good” doesn’t necessarily mean long, either—Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s exuberant twenty-second sprint tells you everything you need to know, while (in the UK, at least) Law and Order’s Rob Dougan-scored doom grimly trudges toward the same end. Then there’s the dozens of different versions of the Doctor Who theme, not the least of which is the Twelfth Doctor’s epic rock guitar take on his own theme music. Much like the Nerf Herder intro to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s a perfect summation of the show, and (also like the Buffy theme) it’s a strong contender for best TV theme music, and credit sequence, ever.

But Star Trek is the all-time champion. Across all five live action iterations of the show, the credits and theme music have done an amazing job of encapsulating the shows’ spirit and scope. Take the original, for example: there are few things that give me goosebumps faster than the four opening tones of the original theme. The music builds slowly over the opening speech and it’s all aspirational and heroic and then…

Excitement! Adventure! Really wild things! Choirs! The Enterprise does half a dozen flybys!

It’s short and to the point, and embodies the exact sort of frantic action/adventure-with-intelligence feel that the show delivered at its best. The original theme is clearly a classic and deservedly so—so much so, in fact, that Michael Giacchino brought it back pretty much wholesale for the reboot movies, shifting from that to his own iconic “Enterprising Young Men” with flamboyance and aplomb.

The composer of that original theme, Alexander Courage, also produced the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation along with Jerry Goldsmith. We get the same opening tones, far better special effects, of course, and a very different sense of scale. That sense is reinforced by Patrick Stewart’s extraordinarily great delivery and the sheer size of the Enterprise-D. Not to mention the subtle, and vital, change from “No man” to “No one.”

This theme, which was first used in the “Captain’s log” scenes in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and reworked by Dennis McCarthy for TNG, is all heroic bustle and drive, and is notably more musically complex than its predecessor. This continuity taps into some of the show’s meta elements, too—first, the idea that this is the same concept, the same world, approached through a new time frame and perspective. And secondly, that the show is still honouring what went before it; or, to put it another way, recognizing that other people have gone here before and demonstrating an awareness of the debt that’s owed them.

And now we arrive at what I freely confess is my favourite: Deep Space Nine. The crowded skies of the previous two shows are replaced by a comet in interstellar space. There’s nothing out here; this is the edge of the edge. And suddenly, Deep Space Nine and its runabouts slide into view.

From a musical point of view, Dennis McCarthy has the most difficult job with this entry, and does the best work. DS9 was the first Trek show to not be set on a starship, the first to feature a person of colour as the main protagonist, and the first produced in the post-Cold War glasnost era. McCarthy’s theme has a serious tone to it that sets it apart from the previous entries. It signals a definite change in style, and also echoes the grief that defines Sisko for much of the early run of the show. It’s music that evokes both the frontier and the steep price paid to get there.

From a visual point of view it’s an amazing sequence, too. To my mind, the look of DS9 stands as one of the best designs in Trek’s history. It’s convincingly, relentlessly alien, but at the same recognizable as a transportation hub. You know what this thing is without having to be told, and the show’s central conflict—the collision between Starfleet pragmatism and the war-torn spirituality of Bajor and the Cardassians—is right there on the screen before anyone’s even had to speak a line of exposition.

The fact that later seasons had credits that closed with the Defiant undocking and flying into the wormhole? Just the space-icing on the opera cake. The show gets top marks for how the credits were tweaked and played with over the years. I loved the fact there was always someone working on one of the pylons. (I like to think it was usually Chief O’Brien, and that they’d designed a special suit for him that he could roll the sleeves up.)

Voyager built on that same principle of mapping an emotional tone onto its opening visuals. Again, the Voyager credits are beautiful—every shot looks like a painting as the scrappy little ship pushes through a gas cloud, flies over planetary rings, all while appearing very, very noticeably and completely alone. Just like DS9, the motifs of the show are present front and centre in the credits, so much so that when the warp pylons deploy at the end, it plays like an act of defiance: a single Starfleet vessel, years from home, carrying the light of the organization on its best day.

The music, by Jerry Goldsmith this time, is haunting. It’s positively mournful in a way that’s a thousand miles away from anything the show had done before. There’s a sense of yearning to the theme that somehow evokes both the isolation of the crew and Starfleet’s constant need to rush over to something new and poke it to see what it does. It achieves the same emotional heft as the other shows’ themes, but in a very different, and far more poignant way. (It’s interesting, too, to note that Trek-adjacent show The Orville riffs on the visuals here pretty heavily, too.)

And that brings us to Enterprise.

Yes, yes I know: it’s MOR rock, but it’s MOR rock that’s ON MESSAGE, and that counts for a hell of a lot. The montage of humanity’s exploratory adventures is great and again, I love how the show had more and more fun with the credits as time went on, especially in the Mirror Universe episode.

Also, you want to talk about aspirational themes and motifs? Look no further than Enterprise and Diane Warren’s song. This remains, even post-Discovery, the show closest to our timeline. It arrived in the middle of the first stage of an astonishingly turbulent period of history and at the end of an era in crewed spaceflight. That montage of the ISS being assembled makes the same statement like the warp pylons in the Voyager credits. It’s defiant. It’s a future we could have, but we aren’t quite there yet. Like the man said, it’s a long road. So yes, the rock may be Middle of the Road, but no, not a disaster.

And this brings us full circle to Discovery and Jeff Russo and those tones…to which something very strange seems to have happened, this time:

They stay, and become a refrain beneath a piece of music that shifts from the aspirational, mournful horns of Voyager to urgent, tense strings. We see the Discovery form, see pieces of equipment, see Burnham, as everything assembles and vanishes. It’s chaotic, uncertain, still figuring out what it wants to be. This is music for a series about the interrogation of an idea, Starfleet’s long dark night of the soul pairing with Michael Burnham’s own to create a piece that’s precise, chaotic, nervy, and resolute all at once. It finishes with those tones once again, and a flyby of the Discovery, complete and ready and good to go—Starfleet’s ideals writing themselves into existence in the midst of chaos, not inviolable but strong, and standing shoulder to shoulder with what came before them.

I LOVE credit sequences. I love themes and scores, and how the various incarnations of Star Trek have riffed and built on them all over the years to create something which is always unique and yet always draws upon what came before, conveying both progress and continuity. Still boldly going, and still finding new places to go.

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

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