Remembering James Horner: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

*This is part of the Remembering James Horner blogathon to remember the late composer James Horner (1953-2015)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is (rightly) regarded as one of the best, if not THE best Star Trek film ever created. The film continues a story told in the Original Series episode “Space Seed” and brings back the villain Khan Noonien Singh (as played by Ricardo Montalban) to face off with Kirk and his crew once more.

Given how Star Trek: The Motion Picture suffered at the box office, Paramount greatly reduced the budget for the sequel and removed series creator Gene Roddenberry from the active production process. The music for the first film had been scored by Jerry Goldsmith, but with less money in the budget, he was no longer available. Nor was the second choice, Miklos Rozsa for that matter (though it would have been interesting to hear him score a Star Trek film). James Horner (who was only 28 at the time) was ultimately chosen because his demo music stood out from the group; this was Horner’s first big break into major motion pictures (his first credits after leaving film school begin in 1980). Horner stated once that the producers wanted a completely different score than what Goldsmith had given for The Motion Picture; it couldn’t be John Williams-like, but it still had to be different: more modern, more nautical. Horner did his best to oblige and the results are unforgettable.

In place of the grand theme created by Jerry Goldsmith for the first film, Horner created an entirely original theme and overture first heard in the opening credits of the film. This theme is repeated as the Enterprise leaves Spacedock (a theme I briefly discussed in the “Enterprise Clears Moorings” post below). What I love about this piece is the way the music audibly “ripples” as it builds to the climactic sounding of the main theme. I could literally visualize Horner conducting this music, and at times, I like to pretend that I’m conducting it as well. There’s a huge swelling of enthusiasm that wells up as the music grows and grows; which makes sense since the Enterprise is currently full of young cadets who have never been on a major space voyage before.

“Enterprise Clears Moorings” from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Another theme from this film that I love is “Surprise Attack” (originally covered in the post linked below). Horner related in several interviews that he created Khan’s musical theme to reflect the villain’s increasingly unstable mental state. For over fifteen years, Khan has obsessed over getting revenge on James Kirk, and now that he has his prey in sight, nothing and no one is going to stand in his way. “Surprise Attack” takes place when the Enterprise is being approached by the U.S.S. Reliant (which has been hijacked by Khan and his followers). From the opening notes, this theme is full of tension, created by contrasting Khan’s theme with that of the Enterprise (in a sense this could be considered Kirk’s theme as well). Khan’s theme is full of tension, rage and a thirst for war (lots of drumbeats and high shrilly strings and woodwinds), while the Enterprise/Kirk theme is dominated by lower, calmer strings and minimal percussion. Horner knew that in the upcoming battle scenes it would be vital to have two themes that were noticeably different from each other, to make it easier for the audience to keep up with which ship they were seeing (since there would be some very fast scene changes).

Star Trek II “Surprise Attack”

James Horner’s theme for Spock is also extremely beautiful and simple at the same time. It was created using a glass instrument that is something of a bowl and a chime, put together (think of how a crystal goblet will ring if you fill it with water and rub your finger on the rim). The theme highlights Spock’s devotion to Vulcan logic with it’s simplicity, there is not one note out of place. It is just the sort of music you might expect to find for a Vulcan. After Leonard Nimoy’s death, and again after Horner passed away, I played this theme several times a day for several days, as a way of saying goodbye to them both.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan “Spock” (1982)

Another theme that always tugs at my heartstrings is the conclusion of the “Genesis Countdown” (probably the last two minutes of the piece), which takes place when the crew is observing the formation of the Genesis Planet, unaware that Spock has given his life to save the ship. The moment when Kirk races down to Engineering (because deep down he KNOWS what has happened, even though McCoy won’t tell him) always makes my heart hurt, because I think we can all imagine the horror of that moment: racing down to find our closest, dearest friend, whoever that may be, already dead or nearly dead, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. This moment remains one of the most iconic in Star Trek history, because this is SPOCK we’re talking about, one of the most important characters in the series. Typically, there’s an unwritten rule that says these major characters never die; to see this happen sent shock waves through the Star Trek Universe. Actually, Spock’s death was originally going to happen at the beginning of the film, but news of this leaked out so to preserve the surprise it was switched to the end of the film. I know that after Nimoy’s death, viewership of this scene spiked, because so many people associated Nimoy with Spock, that it seemed like a good way to say goodbye. I did a similar thing when James Horner passed away. I didn’t just listen to the Spock theme, and various other themes, I also listened to this part as well, because in my mind, I needed to let the pain of Horner’s untimely death go (film composers mean a great deal to me).

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan “Genesis Countdown” (1982)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan “Spock (dies)” (1982)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan “Spock’s Death” (Film Version) (1982)

I could keep going about James Horner and Star Trek II for thousands of more words, but I think this will do. I will say that I highly recommend the full soundtrack of this film to anyone who has not heard it before. The entire soundtrack can be found on YouTube, so if you have a spare afternoon or evening one weekend, give it a try, you will not be disappointed. And if you’ve never seen The Wrath of Khan, definitely give that film a look as well, you won’t be disappointed.

We lost James Horner over a  year ago, and I don’t believe the void he left will ever be truly filled. But remembering him in this blogathon was the best way I could think of to honor his legacy, and I think that if he were here he would like that very much. James Horner, you are truly missed. Keep making music up in Heaven!

*The Remembering James Horner Blogathon has begun today! Several great posts have already appeared and I’m excited to see what the rest of the weekend will bring. Thanks again for contributing, this means a lot to me. -Bex


10 thoughts on “Remembering James Horner: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

  1. movierob

    great post Bex!

    Love Wrath of Khan, my fav of the original films. This is one of my favorite movie scores too, I can listen to The Battle in the Mutara Nebula over and over and never get bored by it because even in my head I visualize the space battle just from the theme music by Horner!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Film Music Central Post author

    This is definitely one of my favorite Star Trek films (though Star Trek VI is right up there as well). I just love Horner’s score for this film, this probably won’t be the last time I talk about it 🙂


  3. Plain, Simple Tom

    Ah, it’s a great score. Perfectly dramatic for the space battles and emotional and moving for the closing scenes.
    That moment at the end where Kirk says “I feel young!” is so wonderful; love the use of “Amazing Grace” as well. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Remembering James Horner Blogathon: Day One Recap | Film Music Central

  5. christinawehner

    I used to watch Wrath of Khan all the time with a cousin because we both had a crush on Ricardo Montalban. 🙂 But it has been too long since I have seen this and I am definitely going to have to watch it again…and pay special attention to the score! One of the things that has been so wonderful about your blogathon is that it is prompting me to pay closer attention to the music while watching a film.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. geelw

    One of Horner’s best scores and interestingly enough, he paid a little tribute to Herrmann’s Mysterious Island with two notes everyone who’s seen Wrath knows to this date.

    I recall seeing this on opening day in a PACKED theater and you could tell where all the soundtrack fanatics were sitting because of the heads whipping around to other thrilled fans and excited cheers when the Reliant swept over the Enterprise with those horns blaring. Some people didn’t get WHY that cheer happened at that moment, but it was just an automatic reflex upon hearing a cue already sunken into a bunch of brains from years of seeing MI on TV.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Pingback: Remembering James Horner: The Magnificent Seven (2016) | Film Music Central

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