Home > Reviews > STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – James Horner


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Original Review by Craig Lysy

James Horner won my heart in 1982 with his score to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and he quickly became my favorite composer. His tragic and untimely death was personally devastating to me and I to this day continue to mourn his passing. I realized that I was about to reach a milestone, my 100th review, and thought what could be more fitting than to use this special occasion to celebrate his legacy with a heart-felt homage to one of his greatest scores.

Although disappointed by the lukewarm reception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, Paramount was committed to continuing with its enormous investment in resurrecting the franchise, albeit with different leadership. Gene Roddenberry was assigned blame for the lethargic and plodding Star Trek: The Motion Picture and ‘promoted’ to executive consultant. Harve Bennett was given creative control and tasked with writing a better and more memorable story, which recaptured the spirit of the TV series. Bennett quickly realized that he faced a serious challenge in developing the new Star Trek movie, as remarkably, he was unfamiliar with its history, having never seen the television show! He studiously watched all the episodes, and had an epiphany after viewing “Space Seed”. He correctly reasoned that what was needed to make Star Trek successful again, was a villain worthy to serve as Kirk’s foil. The fierce and indomitable Khan Noonian Singh fully embodied the coveted perfect adversary for the film.

Nicholas Meyer was given the director reigns and he reassembled the original crew including; William Shatner as Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock, DeForest Kelly as (Dr. McCoy, James Doohan as Scotty, George Takei as Sulu, Walter Koenig as Chekov and Nichelle Nichols as Uhura. Joining the cast was Ricardo Montalban as Khan, Kristie Alley as Saavik, Paul Winfield as Captain Terrell, Bibi Besch as Carol Marcus and Merritt Butrick Dr. David Marcus. For the storyline, we are offered a classic morality play, which explored the intersection of competing imperatives; the unrelenting obsession of vengeance, the desire to recapture past glory, the unintended consequences of technological hubris, and the nobility of self-sacrifice. Khan Noonian Singh, who was stranded on an untamed world by Captain Kirk, and lost his wife and many friends in a terrible struggle for survival. He burns with rage and succeeds in commandeering a starship, seeking with a blood lust, revenge at any cost. He lures Kirk, who has reassumed command of the Enterprise from Spock, into ambush by threatening to steal the Genesis device, a new technology capable of transforming lifeless worlds into verdant habitable planets. He succeeds in his ambush, but is out–smarted and denied his coveted kill. As the two men contest wills, Kirk succeeds in luring Khan into a nebula for a final battle, where he succeeds in winning the day. Khan, who will not be denied his vengeance, activates the genesis device, knowing its detonation will not only kill him, but also Kirk and the Enterprise. Spock races to engineering, enters a radioactive chamber and restores warp drive in time to save the ship. Yet this is done at a heavy cost as he receives a lethal dose of radiation and dies. And so Kirk secures a Pyrrhic victory with the cost of his dearest friend. The film was a huge commercial success, which succeed in reinvigorating the Star Trek universe. Today most fans consider it the best film in the franchise.

Both Jerry Goldsmith and Miklos Rozsa were early considerations to score Star Trek II, but budgetary constraints made them unobtainable. Paramount’s vice-president of music, Joel Sill, brought in a young 28-year-old composer named James Horner, whose demo tapes had caught his ear. Bennett and Meyer interviewed him and were impressed by his versatility. Horner relates that he really wanted the assignment, and that they all got along well. He agreed with the producers’ expectations that they did not want a John Williams score, per se. They wanted something different, more nautical, which brought back the adventure of the great sailing ships of the 18th century. Now the film’s narrative was complex in that it explored powerful emotional drivers for vengeance, obsession, hubris and the need to recapture past glory. Horner’s score needed to speak to these character motivations, and more importantly to the core friendship that existed between Kirk and Spock, as well as the pathos of pain wrought with the severing of that friendship with Spock’s death.

Horner provided a number of themes, which were well conceived in differentiating our heroes from the villains. He created nautical-sounding major modal melodies for Kirk and the Enterprise that captured the spirit of the renowned Captain Horatio Hornblower. Horner contrasted these long-lined and sweeping themes for the heroes against the short-lined, minor modal and warlike music for the villain Khan. This was a masterstroke as it created dynamic and memorable battle music for the film’s battle sequences. The Heroes Theme serves as the score’s primary identity and bears within it themes for both Captain Kirk and the Enterprise. Its A Phrase serves as Kirk’s Theme and offers a flowing nautical melody born by heraldic trumpets eroici that sound of adventure and seafaring, and inform us of Kirk’s indomitable spirit. Its B Phrase is the Enterprise’s Theme, which is born by strings and is more free-flowing and lyrical. The two phrases are synergistic and perfect compliments. For our villain, Khan’s Theme like Kirk’s, is born by horn fare, however it emotes as its antithesis atop French horns bellicoso with col legno strings and a harsh percussive signature. There is an anger and fierceness within its notes. Spock’s Theme is serene, other-worldly and contemplative. It is tritone in construct and Horner uses a harp, recorder and pan pipes, which do not blend well together, to express the tension of his blended Human and Vulcan heritage. This is brilliantly conceived! Lastly, Horner also chose to interpolate Alexander Courage’s iconic Star Trek Anthem, as he wanted to connect the audience with the Star Trek universe.

We start right off with a glorious score highlight! As the opening credits roll the “Main Title” begins eerily with a violin sustain and pulsing bass line, which usher in the iconic Star Trek Anthem by the refulgent trumpets eroici! From this heroic declaration Horner unleashes a stunning interlude of dazzling virtuoso fanfare from which he boldly launches at 0:46 his Heroes Theme. We revel in a full rendering of both Kirk’s Theme and then at 1:52 the Enterprise Theme for one of the franchise’s greatest moments. We close as we began on the eerie technology motif that opened the cue as we pan in onto the bridge. In “Surprise on Ceti Alpha” Terrell and Chekov are exploring Ceti Alpha V when they, to Chekov’s utter horror, stumble upon the S.S. Botany Bay – Khan’s vessel. Khan and his party capture them as they in panic attempt to flee. Horner scores the scene from Chekov’s panicked perspective with horrific dissonance born on trilling strings, plastic pipe and discordant bass, which reaches a deafening crescendo!

This cue really is an exceptional example of perfect synergy between score and film narrative. In “Khan’s Pets” Khan relates to Chekov and Terrell the travails caused by Kirk’s decision to abandon them, as well as a reminiscence about the glory of his past as a ruler over millions on Earth. Horner’s music speaks to Khan’s menace, ego and insanity. A foreboding low register pulse supports eerie textural strings and menacing stacked horns, which sow tension. Trilling strings usher in an echoing trumpet militari figure at 3:53, which support Khan’s musings of his former glory. We close the cue darkly upon Khan’s Theme. In “The Eels of Ceti Alpha V” Khan implants sand eels into the ears of Chekov and Terrell to gain control of their minds. Horner uses orchestra instruments to create a dissonant and grotesque soundscape, including shattering anvil strikes, col legno strings, grim bass figures, pulsing trumpets and writhing percussive squeals to evoke our revulsion – brilliant!

We segue at 2:34 to “Kirk in Space Shuttle” where we see Kirk returning to his beloved Enterprise. We see the love in Kirk’s eyes and Horner supports his perspective with inspired interplay of Kirk’s Theme, the Star Trek Anthem and the Enterprise Theme. “Enterprise Clears Moorings” offers a glorious score highlight, which fully evokes the indomitable questing spirit that is the Star Trek adventure as we see the Enterprise ‘set sail’ for another voyage! The steadily building energy of Kirk’s Theme alight with heraldic fanfare crescendos to propel the moment with interplay of Spock’s Theme (who commands the training mission) and the Enterprise Theme. Horner relates that he wanted the scene to of the Enterprise leaving space dock to be proud, majestic and have a nautical air in the finest traditions of sea faring. I believe he achieved his ambition. “Chekov Lies” reveals a mind-controlled Chekov relaying Khan’s orders to Dr. Carol Marcus that they are ordered by Admiral Kirk to turn over the Genesis device to the Reliant upon their arrival. Horner supports the deception by reprising the trilling strings and pulsing bass motif. We segue to the Enterprise atop proud horns, which usher in Kirk’s Theme and the Star Trek Anthem as Saavik confronts Kirk in a turbo lift regarding her training performance. In “Spock” Kirk advises Spock of a crisis on Regula 1. Spock without hesitation offers command of the mission to Kirk, who at first refuses. Horner supports the scene from Spock’s perspective with a full rendering of his theme in all its mystical beauty.

In “Kirk Takes Command” Kirk succumbs to the power of Spock’s irresistible logic – “The needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few” and assumes command of the Enterprise. Spock’s Theme continues to support their interaction, but a scene change to the bridge ushers in a martial snare drum propelled rendering of Kirk’s Theme, informing us that he has regained his true destiny – commanding the Enterprise. Interplay with the Enterprise Theme, the Heraldic Fanfare Motif and Star Trek Anthem is glorious! At 1:25 we segue harshly to the bridge of the Reliant for “He Tasks Me” where Joachim tries to persuade Khan to lead them to a better life instead of seeking revenge. Khan will have none of it as he is now driven only by his blood lust for vengeance. Horner informs us of Khan’s madness through dark col legno strings, a grim bass pulse, wailing horns, and a grotesque and twisted restatement of the echoing trumpet militari figure, which portends his fate. Again, we experience a perfect marriage of film narrative and music. “Genesis Project” reveals Kirk playing a video of the Genesis Device for Spock and McCoy. Craig Huxley supports the display of awesome transformative power of Genesis technology with an ambient and textural milieu of electronica and the blaster beam.

“Surprise Attack” treats us to the first of two astounding score highlights where the contrasting Kirk and Khan’s Themes battle for supremacy! We see Reliant slowly approaching incommunicado on a parallel vector. Kirk is puzzled by her silence, yet fails to raise his shields as Saavik recommends. Horner supports the Reliant’s approach with horns bellicoso sounding Khan’s Theme with growing menace. Snare drums usher in Kirk’s Theme, which emotes with tense unease. As Reliant closes, rhythmic pizzicato strings join kindred swirling strings, which increase the tension and slowly crescendo. When Khan enters point blank firing range he raises his shields and pummels the Enterprise with withering phaser fire. Horner supports the attack with a shrieking cacophony as the energy bolts rip through the unshielded hull of the engineering section. Khan’s Theme is now ascendant and boldly sounds with brutal power as Reliant fires additional volleys and circles for the kill. An interlude by frantic strings supports Kirk’s and Spock’s damage assessment and efforts to find a tactical response. A plaintive Kirk’s Theme joins and underscores their desperate situation. In “Kirk’s Explosive Reply” Khan overplays his hand by demanding Kirk and the specs for Genesis be beamed to Reliant. This affords Kirk time to arm phasers and send a command to Reliant’s computer to lower her shields. As Kirk prepares his counterattack a slow string ostinato builds under his theme. Slowly and inexorably Kirk’s Theme gains strength atop the ostinato and a classic accelerando commences as Spock orders Reliant’s computer to lower her shields. Now vulnerable Kirk’s Theme sounds as the Enterprise unleashes powerful phaser strikes, which disable Reliant’s helm and warp drive. Khan’s fanfare sounds as the ships almost collide and move off on different vectors. A diminuendo on a plaintive Kirk’s Theme concludes the scene as Scotty brings the body of his dead nephew to the bridge.

Kirk and his landing party make a gruesome discovery in “Inside Regula I” when they find that Khan has slit the throats of the station’s crew. Horner sows tension and plays to our fears with ambient textural affects created by waterphone, strings and dissociated horns. A shrill orchestral stinger supports McCoy’s discovery of a hanging blood let corpse. In “Brainwashed” Kirk discovers the imprisoned Terrell and Chekov who claim to have defied Khan. Horner however informs us of their duplicity by supporting the scene with the dark bass pulsing and eerie strings with horn wails of Khan’s Theme. Terrell and Chekov join the landing party in beaming down to a vault inside the planet Regula, where the discover Carol and David Marcus and the Genesis device. In “Captain Terrell’s Death” the grim pulsing continues with dark woodwinds that usher in a threatening Khan’s Theme as Terrell and Chekov raise their phasers. When Khan orders them to kill Kirk, Terrell struggles, and Horner supports him with strings orribile and grotesques flutter-tongue horns, which crescendo as he kills himself. As Chekov collapses in pain, an eel crawls out of his ear and is incinerated by Kirk. A high register pulse and descending horn figures closes the cue. We conclude this sequence with “Buried Alive” where Khan beams the Genesis device aboard Reliant and then condemns Kirk to die buried alive. Khan’s dark pulsing line with wailing horns attests to his insanity. Kirk is enraged and screams out Khan’s name, which echoes to Khan’s horn fare.

In “The Genesis Cave” Carol and Kirk have a private moment where she informs him that David is their son. Kirk is surprised and unsettled by the news as David is decidedly antagonistic towards him. As they join the rest of the team in the Genesis cave Horner dazzles us with resplendent strings and shimmering chords, which speak to the Eden like beauty of Carol’s creation. The moment is shattered by horns brutale, which support a scene change to Reliant’s bridge that has now entered orbit hunting the Enterprise. “Battle in the Mutara Nebula” opens in the Genesis cave where Kirk admits that he does not believe in “no win scenarios” as Spock contacts him for a pre-planned beam-out. A light-hearted if not playful rendering of his theme supports the scene. As they rejoin the Enterprise Kirk orders Sulu to take them into the Mutara Nebula, which will mitigate the Reliant’s advantage of shields. A proud and confident sounding of Kirk’s Theme carries their flight. When Khan discovers the Enterprise fleeing the planet he initiates a pursuit. Horner supports this with inspired contrapuntal interplay between Kirk’s and Khan’s Themes! When Kirk taunts Khan who was hesitant to enter the nebula, Khan becomes enraged and his theme resounds in fury. As they blindly maneuver in the nebula Khan’s Theme joins the Enterprise Theme in a riveting tête-à-tête. Both ships misfire and in the ensuing attempt to blindly relocate each other, we are immersed in a dissonant and dissociated textural milieu, which sows tension. Khan’s Theme blares with Kirk’s Theme countering as both ships nearly collide and exchange fire, each suffering significant damage. We decrescendo as Joachim dies in Khan’s arms, who swears to avenge his death. In “Enterprise Attacks Reliant”, after Spock’s counsel, Kirk maneuvers the Enterprise downwards with the intention of reacquiring the Reliant from below. He succeeds and pummels the Reliant with a lethal barrage, which shatters her port nacelle and engineering section. We open on Khan’s Theme that yields to a heroic rendering of Kirk’s Theme as the Enterprise moves in and achieves the kill. The cue ends darkly as we see a mortally wounded Khan laying burnt and bloodied on the damaged Reliant bridge.

In “Genesis Countdown” Horner demonstrates his genius in sowing tension as we are treated to a dramatic and emotional score highlight. Khan is dying and lashes out with defiance, using vengeful quotes of Melville’s Captain Ahab. He activates the Genesis device knowing the Enterprise cannot escape its blast radius, reveling in their futile effort to escape their fate. A tense string ostinato commences and provides a foundation for Kirk’s Theme, which sounds, supported by heroic fanfare. Khan’s and the Enterprise Themes offer dramatic interplay as the Enterprise valiantly tries to escape certain death. Spock realizes that restoring warp drive is their only chance of survival and so races to engineering. When McCoy bares his path he paralyzes him with a nerve pinch so as to gain access to the irradiated engine control chamber. Horner provides a fleeting reference to his theme as he mind melds with McCoy. We hear one last statement of Khan’s Theme, which yields to a brilliant horn fare flourish as Spock restores warp drive and the Enterprise warps to safety! As the crew returns to observe the nebula transformed into a proto-planet, Horner creates an ambiance of wonderment using the Genesis chords. The moment is shattered however with a desperate call by McCoy for Kirk to come to engineering. He realizes Spock is missing and we feel his desperation as he runs. The Enterprise Theme, now full of heartache and pathos, supports his journey. Scotty and McCoy bar his way to the chamber, as opening its door would kill them all. We feel Kirk’s agony and the cue ends with a fleeting passage of Spock’s Theme, as his life is ebbing.

In “Spock (Dies)” we behold a truly heart-wrenching scene, whose pathos Horner fully captures. It is here that the score achieves its powerful emotional apogee. Transparent plexiglass separates the two men, and Kirk is visibly devastated by his helplessness and Spock’s noble sacrifice. To support the pathos, Horner provides an elegiac rendering of Spock’s Theme, which brings heartache and tears. As Spock offers the “Live Long and Prosper” salute one last time, the Star Trek Fanfare sounds to honor him as he passes unto death on a plaintive diminuendo of his theme. In “Amazing Grace” we open with a violin sustain with woodwinds affannato as we see the crew has assembled on the torpedo launch deck. A grieving and deeply wounded Kirk offers his dear friend a heartfelt eulogy and bids him a tearful farewell. Please note that Horner, against his wishes, was forced to support the scene with the source song “Amazing Grace” emoted by bagpipes (played supposedly by Scotty). The song emotes in traditional practice until the burial tube is launched, after which its melody swells gloriously on strings for a refulgent farewell.

We conclude with “Epilogue”, which offers a wondrous score highlight, brimming with emotion where the Enterprise Theme, Kirk’s Theme and Spock’s Theme join and achieve a glorious communion. Kirk and David embrace for the first time as father and son, and Horner supports the emotional moment with a warm rendering of Kirk’s Theme. In a scene change, Kirk, Carol, David and the bridge crew assemble on the bridge, and view Genesis on the view screen. We open with Kirk’s Theme joined with Spock’s Theme as Kirk realizes he must move forward and reengage life. He is contemplative and muses; “There are always possibilities Spock said, and indeed if Genesis is Life from Death, I must return to this place again.” He continues with a famous quote from “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens; “It is a far, far better thing than I have ever done before. A far better resting place I go to, than I have ever known.” Horner supports the poignant moment with a now fully emotional and lyrical orchestral statement of the Enterprise and Spock’s Themes. A bridge of French horns nobile voicing Kirk’s Theme ushers in a sumptuous rendering of an ethereal Enterprise Theme, which carries us as we descend through the planet’s cloudscape. We come at last to the surface with its verdant forests, eventually arriving at a small meadow where we see Spock’s burial tube resting. It is here that Horner’s score’s achieves its supreme moment. Spock’s Theme joins the melodic line on sumptuous strings and then welcomes Kirk’s Theme on soaring contrapuntal French horns to offer a sweeping and refulgent rendering of the three themes. My God! We close with a return aloft to starlight space and hear Spock speak the iconic Star Trek motto;

“Space: the final frontier. These are the continuing voyages of the starship Enterprise. Their on-going mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Horner astutely supports Spock’s reading and provides continuity for future voyages by using Courage’s Star Trek Fanfare as we see the Enterprise warp out to her destiny! We segue into “End Title” at 3:25, the score’s final highlight, which Horner ushers in with an exhilarating and joyful prelude of strings animato and with a counter line by celli. From here we are treated to one last glorious reprise of our primary themes and fanfares, which are rendered in extended statements. Horner closes our journey with a masterpiece cue that echoes through time.

We have a bonus track “Epilogue (Original Version)/End Title”. Meyer originally segued from the bridge scene directly to Spock’s reading of the Star Trek motto to end the film. The ending was reshot at Bennett’s insistence with the scene of Spock’s burial tube resting on Genesis to make it more obvious to fans that their beloved Spock may yet be resurrected. As such this rendering of the cue does not contain the glorious music Horner composed for the descent to Genesis. The End Title is the same in this version.

Allow me a to extend a heartfelt thank you to Lukas Kendall, Craig Spaulding and Film Score Monthly for this long sought and much appreciated release of the expanded score to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The expert 3-track restoration and digital conversion offers pristine sound quality. I believe the Star Trek franchise regained its footing with Harve Bennett’s superb story-telling, aided to a large extend by Horner’s rousing and inspiring score. We feel Kirk’s indomitable spirit, the wonder that is the Enterprise, the savagery of the maniacal Khan and the serenity of Spock, all of which Horner fleshed out with his music. The manner in which Horner rendered, adapted and offered interplay of his themes is of the highest order and offers testimony to his mastery of his craft. This is a glorious, rousing, inspired and heartfelt score, which I believe is the best in the franchise. I highly recommend its addition to your collection!

Buy the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:06)
  • Surprise on Ceti Alpha V (0:45)
  • Khan’s Pets (4:19)
  • The Eels of Ceti Alpha V/Kirk in Space Shuttle (3:53)
  • Enterprise Clears Moorings (3:33)
  • Chekov Lies (0:40)
  • Spock (1:12)
  • Kirk Takes Command/He Tasks Me (2:07)
  • Genesis Project (composed and performed by Craig Huxley) (3:16)
  • Surprise Attack (5:07)
  • Kirk’s Explosive Reply (4:01)
  • Inside Regula I (1:35)
  • Brainwashed (1:24)
  • Captain Terrell’s Death (1:58)
  • Buried Alive (0:57)
  • The Genesis Cave (1:09)
  • Battle in the Mutara Nebula (8:07)
  • Enterprise Attacks Reliant (1:29)
  • Genesis Countdown (6:34)
  • Spock (Dies) (1:53)
  • Amazing Grace (1:26)
  • Epilogue/End Title (8:41)
  • Epilogue (Original Version)/End Title (7:29) [BONUS]

Running Time: 74 minutes 41 seconds

Retrograde Records/Film Score Monthly FSM-80128-2 (1982/2009)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by Jack Hayes. Theme from Star Trek by Alexander Courage. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Bob Badami. Score produced by James Horner. Album produced by Lukas Kendall and Craig Spaulding.

  1. August 3, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    Congrats for your excellent review, Craig. All the movie music world has lost one of its great genius.

    May I give you a suggestion for your next review? I would love to read an in-depth analysis of Braveheart, one of Horner’s great masterpieces. Its beautiful theme is one of my all-time favorites.

  2. August 6, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Thank you tiagovieirar for your interest and kind words. My portfolio is to review scores of the Golden Age and archival releases. As to Braveheart, Jon, who is editor of this site, has already provided a superb review. Please check it out. All the best.

  3. September 2, 2015 at 1:10 am

    The film moves very quickly, it makes up for its very low budget by cannibalizing footage from Star Trek; The Motionless Model. The studio was almost burned to the ground by angry Trekkies after that horrible, over hyped piece of poo poo came out in 1979.

  4. May 26, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    Did you hear any hints of The Motion Picture in the score? They’re there, it’s been confirmed by several websites on the score, but which tracks specifically?

  1. August 17, 2021 at 9:37 am

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