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I have something of an obsession with the music of Star Trek and James Horner’s score for The Wrath of Khan is one of my all time favorites.
“Surprise Attack” comes in Act II of the film, when the Enterprise is en route to space station Regula One to find out why someone is trying to usurp the Genesis Project from Dr. Carol Marcus (who happens to be a former love interest of Admiral Kirk). Unbeknownst to our heroes, the villain Khan (first introduced in the original episode “Space Seed” (1967)) has hijacked the starship Reliant and is on an intercept course to have his vengeance on Kirk for stranding him and his crew on the planet Ceti Alpha V over fifteen years ago.
You can listen to the soundtrack here: “Surprise Attack” Soundtrack Version
The film version can be found here: “Surprise Attack” Film Version
Khan and Kirk in their first meeting
The cue begins in the film when Kirk is informed that the Reliant is approaching their position. The music begins with a menacing horn tone that slowly builds in volume and intensity until it cuts off in a percussion burst.This repeats several times, growing faster until the camera cuts to a shot of Reliant approaching and Khan’s theme is heard for the first time.
Reliant is coming…
Composer James Horner stated that he wrote Khan’s theme to be a reflection of his increasingly unstable mind. That is why the theme (beginning at 0:20 in the soundtrack version) is full of quickly trilling horns and woodwinds: Khan is so hellbent on revenge that it is literally driving him mad.
Meanwhile, going back to the Enterprise, the crew still has no idea they’re about to be ambushed. And from this point on, Horner begins a musical back-and-forth where the music quickly switches from the Enterprise theme to Khan’s theme and each time Khan’s theme builds a little more until a sequence begins that I like to call “the final countdown.”
Beginning at the section where Khan orders his crew to lock phasers on target (2:11 in the soundtrack version), the music begins a very slow build, starting very soft but gradually growing louder and more frantic as the crew of the Enterprise realizes, a moment too late, that they are about to be attacked. Once the attack starts, something very interesting happens. In the film, the first attack is full of the sounds of explosions, yelling and other sound effects. But in the soundtrack version of this cue, it comes out that Horner has created what can only be described as “musical chaos,” which is perfectly fitting for the mayhem that follows (musical chaos begins at 2:28).
Khan might just succeed in his dastardly plan!!!
The music violently shifts back to Khan’s theme as the Reliant circles around for another attack. Caught off guard with a crew filled with cadets, the Enterprise doesn’t really stand a chance (especially since Khan knows all the vital areas of the ship from the last time he was there.)
Disarmed and stunned (Scotty informs Kirk that the phasers only have power for “a few short bursts”), everyone is shocked when the commander of the Reliant sends a message asking them to surrender (4:29) The strange “twang” sound heard at that moment comes from an electronic instrument called a Blaster Beam, a 12-18 foot long metal beam strung with several metallic wires. The music dies away as Khan finally reveals himself to Kirk.
I hope you enjoyed this look into the score of The Wrath of Khan!
See also: Film Soundtracks A-W
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