Star Trek: Starfleet Academy Soundtrack, Ron Jones / Brian Luzietti, 1997
The Star Trek: Starfleet Academy soundtrack is a prime example for how – and why – the conventions of Hollywood film music have been so deeply ingrained in orchestral game music right from the start. Star Trek: Starfleet Academy was part of the short-lived craze surrounding games based on full-motion videos in the mid-1990s. And if your game looks like a film, it makes sense to also make it sound like a film.
And so, developer Interplay decided to use a live orchestra to record Starfleet Academy‘s soundtrack. In 1997, this was quite a novelty. Still, a live orchestra was integral to capturing the Star Trek franchise’s trademark romantic spirit of bold spacefaring. Interplay even went one step further and hired Ron Jones to write the Star Trek: Starfleet Academy soundtrack. Jones had done outstanding work on Star Trek: The Next Generation and would be able to maintain the Star Trek franchise’s characteristic sound.
But what Jones achieves on the Star Trek: Starfleet Academy soundtrack is not just the faithful emulation of his stylistic television role models. More than that, he successfully realises the game’s cinematic ambitions. In other words, Jones’ full-bodied, skilfully orchestrated music would shine in any Star Trek motion picture. Jones clearly makes the most of the opportunity to write for a full orchestra outside of the restrictions of a TV series.
The score’s undisputed highlight is its opening track “Starfleet Academy Theme”. Yes, Alexander Courage’s classic theme for the original Star Trek TV series is expertly woven into the composition. However, it’s Jones’ Starfleet Academy theme that takes centre stage. It’s a beautifully sweeping melody that is less audacious than Courage or Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek themes, but it still brings to life the sense of wonder and noble exploration that is so central to the Star Trek franchise (at least before the 2009 reboot).
Jones’ other compositions for the Star Trek: Starfleet Academy soundtrack are squarely separated into battle cues and non-action pieces. They don’t quite reach the same level of excellence as “Starfleet Academy Theme”, but they’re not far behind either. Starfleet Academy’s more melodic compositions continue “Starfleet Academy Theme”’s spirit of exploration and adventure in stirring fashion. Charming listeners with expansive melodies, they also find their own individual approach to each scenario that they underscore.
“Exploring The Unknown”’s lighter orchestrations (including celesta) and elements like the chromatic ululations in the woodwinds and strings create an element of mystery that’s both enchanting and intriguing, and which suits the cue’s title perfectly. “Discovery” takes the more ominous aspects of “Exploring The Unknown” and subtly moves them into more quietly volatile terrain. At the same time, the composition doesn’t sacrifice the alluring promise of discovery that makes both pieces so attractive. Finally, “Crew Introduction” is the album’s most light-hearted track, featuring the Starfleet Academy theme in a tender rendition. With remarkable ease, it captures the sense of aspiration and hope that would inhabit a place like Starfleet Academy.
Jones’ action tracks are equally strong. What’s particularly commendable about these compositions is how they manage to avoid the pitfalls that militaristic game music so often faces: monotony through repetitive snare drums and string ostinati, topped with heroic brass snippets. On the contrary, Jones is smart enough to frequently change orchestrations on a claustrophobic tension builder like “Surrounded”. Here, he ensures that the woodwinds add some colour to the proceedings. Equally, listen to how the orchestra’s light percussion section supplies the martial rhythms on “On The Edge”, so that these rhythms don’t become too plodding and dominating.
“On The Edge” and “Red Alert” hold back less than “Surrounded”. Both cues move forward at a steady, but never monotonous pace that keeps the music constantly exciting. “Evasive Manoeuvres” and “On To Victory” allow for more heroism and melodicism. They bring back the Starfleet Academy Theme to celebrate the battle turning around in favour of the player. The intensity of Jones’ action music comes to a head on “No Way Out”. Its dire and discordant melodic material prepares the ground for hammering brass fanfares. The composition turns more and more intense during its second half, drawing to a dramatic and impressive close.
Jones’ contributions to the Star Trek: Starfleet Academy soundtrack are literally only half the story though. It was Brian Luzietti who provided the music for the game’s briefings and cut scenes. Unfortunately, his work can’t hope to match the quality standards set by Jones (or by Luzietti’s own work on Descent, for that matter). The subdued, bland manner of Luzietti’s compositions only achieves a generic sense of foreboding or cautious optimism. The fact that he is confined to using synths rather than a live ensemble doesn’t help matters.
Ultimately though, what Jones delivers on Starfleet Academy is one of the best sci-fi video game scores. On their own, his compositions are strong enough to make the soundtrack a worthy entry in game music history. This score and Total Annihilation – also released in 1997 – truly set high standards for any orchestral game soundtrack to follow.
Purchase on Film Score Monthly.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the soundtrack album.
- 01 - Starfleet Academy (Opening) Ron Jones / Brian Luzietti 4:07
- 02 - Surrounded (Losing Combat #1) Ron Jones / Brian Luzietti 2:22
- 03 - Evasive Manuevers (Winning Combat #2) Ron Jones / Brian Luzietti 2:22
- 04 - Exploring the Unknown Ron Jones / Brian Luzietti 1:57
- 05 - On the Edge (Tied Combat #2) Ron Jones / Brian Luzietti 2:49
- 06 - Crew Introductions Ron Jones / Brian Luzietti 1:50
- 07 - Red Alert (Tied Combat #1) Ron Jones / Brian Luzietti 2:49
- 08 - On to Victory (Winning Combat #1) Ron Jones / Brian Luzietti 2:22
- 09 - Discovery (Exploration #2) Ron Jones / Brian Luzietti 1:59
- 10 - No Way Out (Losing Combat #2) Ron Jones / Brian Luzietti 2:27