Star Trek 50: First, Let's Take a Close Look at the Music

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As we gear up for the 50th anniversary of Star Trek on September 8, the Houston Press boldly goes in search of those who have turned their passion for the landmark television series into a mission.

Trekkies can (and do) spend hours debating which episode had the best special effects, plot, guest star or set design, but when it comes to best score, it's been fairly uncharted territory until now. We checked in with Shem von Schroeck, arguably the premiere Star Trek musicologist of our day, about why he's so fascinated by Sol Kaplan's score for The Doomsday Machine.

“I'll have to answer it from a side hatch entrance. It's because I was always listening to the music my dad was interested in. Wagner operas were played a lot at home,” says von Schroeck. His father, Artie Schroeck, is perhaps best known for his compositions and arrangements for Frankie Valli, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. Von Schroeck says that some of his earliest memories were of growing up around symphonic music. “That would be key to our discussion today because Wagner was the godfather of the leitmotif.”

As a child, von Schroeck latched onto Deryck Cooke's analysis of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. The studio recording was accompanied by a booklet that explained Wagner’s various leitmotifs and its forms. “[The leitmotif technique] is in my blood and the roots of my musical training. It’s always stuck out to me when I listen to composers and how they approach film and symphonic scores,” says von Schroeck.

Today, von Schroeck stays busy working as a musician, singer, composer, director, filmmaker, producer, conductor and author. He had a stop in Houston this May singing with the Houston Symphony Orchestra's Journey, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac & More, and we caught up with him by phone as he was shooting a special in Chicago with Kenny Loggins, set to air this Thanksgiving. 

So, yes, von Schroeck is likening composer Sol Kaplan’s approach to scoring music for Star Trek to Richard Wagner and – in spite of his busy schedule – he's directed a documentary that, in part, lays out his arguments, including interviews with Eddie Paskey (who portrayed Lieutenant Leslie in more than 60 episodes) and novelist Norman Spinrad (who wrote the script for The Doomsday Machine at the age of 25). 

In “The Doomsday Machine” Revealed, von Schroeck identifies several examples of Kaplan’s use of the leitmotif technique to identify or represent a character, object or emotion. “What Sol Kaplan did with that score was very, very intentional. Very deliberate. These themes don't just appear out of nowhere,” says von Schroeck. “How well-crafted on the surface, and to the nth degree. The principal characters, especially [Captain] Kirk and [Commodore] Decker, have their own themes, based on their corresponding ships.”

He labels many of those leitmotifs in his documentary: Constellation (definitive form), equipment (misuse or malfunction), Enterprise (Kirk form), Decker (Constellation), sense of duty, Kirk coda, ship's functions and even the transporter, among others. “These things are wonderful devices that a composer can use to further enhance the telling of a story.”

Von Schroeck says that associate producer Robert H. Justman wanted to hire Sol Kaplan to score more episodes, but he had other commitments. “Kaplan composed only two episodes of Star Trek: the other being The Enemy Within from season one. He was quite the intellectual, a very cerebral, brilliant man. He also was a concert pianist. He performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 12; he was a child prodigy."

Up next, and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the iconic series, von Schroeck is releasing a follow-up video to his Doomsday Machine project on his YouTube channel. “You’ll be able to watch the entire episode with just the music over picture accompanied by my captioned analysis of Kaplan’s score.”

He says he can watch this particular episode ten times, or 100 times, and still find new things. “After viewing the entire series, I would always come back to The Doomsday Machine. In my opinion, it was the finest-crafted of all episodes: script, casting, acting, William Windom. Spock is the best first officer, Scotty is at his engineering best; there's very little McCoy, but he was still essential. Kirk saves the day,” says von Schroeck. “And then, on top of all of that, you have this incredible score."

The documentary is available for viewing now at youtube.com/user/shemvonschroeck/videos, with the full episode analysis of the music set to be released soon.

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