To Boldly Flow: Star Trek’s Complex Relationship With Pop Music

Over the course of its 50-plus-year history, Star Trek has had a complex relationship with library music. Being set in our future, Trek can plausibly appropriate any piece of music that exists in our world to use in the context of a scene. Our history, for the most part, is their history. And yet, Trek has long shied away from using contemporary pop music in its soundtrack, for fear that their choice will be viewed as embarrassing later. Now, given the increasing use and prominence of pre-existing music in Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and Short Treks, let’s take a look at the long road getting from there to here.

I Have Heard the Future of Music and it is “Lutes”

The original Star Trek series offered us a limited lens into what pop music might be like in the 23rd century, usually through communications officer Lt. Uhura. Portrayed by singer/actress Nichelle Nichols, the series incorporated her talents into her character and gave Uhura several opportunities to sing throughout the show. In the early episode “Charlie X,” members of the Enterprise crew are lounging in the ship’s rec room, where Uhura improvises a song flirtatiously poking fun at Spock, who accompanies her on his Vulcan lute. An effort is made here to keep the song from feeling dated in 1966 — the melody is more like something you might hear at a renaissance faire than at a 60s jazz or rock club — but the next time we hear Uhura sing, she’s performing the original ballad “Beyond Antares,” which you could easily slide onto a Shirley Bassey album.

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The death knell of original pop in Star Trek was likely the critically-panned 1969 episode “The Way to Eden,” in which the Enterprise plays host to a band of jammin’ space hippies. “The Way to Eden” featured multiple musical numbers composed by the guest actors and a series staff writer born in 1910, resulting in a sound that I will describe as “The Mamas and the Grandpapas.” One would speculate that, after this, a decision was reached not to make any more attempts at original pop music in Star Trek. After all, if anyone working on the show had the ability to predict the future of pop, they would be out producing hit records, not cult TV.

(I do want to give a quick shout-out to one final attempt at future pop made in 1989, when composer Jerry Goldsmith and lyricist John Bettis wrote “The Moon’s a Window to Heaven” for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The song accompanies the infamous scene in which Uhura — now in her late 50s — performs a naked fan dance in silhouette in order to distract some horny revolutionaries. The song was recorded by jazz/rock fusion band Hiroshima on the film’s soundtrack album, it kind of whips, and I can find almost no information about how it came to be. If you have any leads on this, please hit me up @DylanRoth on Twitter, I am fucking fascinated.)

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A Galaxy of Frasiers

When Star Trek returned to television in the form of The Next Generation in 1987, diegetic cultural references were limited to music or literature that had already become a time-tested part of our own cultural canon. There’s a logic to the premise that, if we’re still reading Shakespeare and listening to Beethoven today, centuries after they were alive, then people will still be appreciating them centuries from now. And so, the crew of the USS Enterprise-D, from Captain Picard to Chief Engineer La Forge, are often shown listening to the likes of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, either alone and in their quarters or at live recitals in the ship’s lounge.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying European classical music, either today or in the 24th century. The issue is that the characters listen to European classical music almost exclusively, and they are complete and total nerds for it. The computer aboard the Enterprise contains an unimaginably huge library of media that would presumably include not only every piece of recorded music in the history of Earth but also hundreds if not thousands of other worlds, and our evolved future-human leads are busy studying Chopin’s Piano Trio, Opus no. 8 in excruciating detail.

It’s as if the 24th century has produced an entire generation of Frasier Cranes, snobbishly particular about the high art of old and completely uninterested in the urbane. Of The Next Generation’s human characters, only Commander Riker, “the cool one,” seems able to branch out from classical music, and his genre of choice is jazz. It speaks to a failure of imagination on the part of the show’s writers and producers (at the time, almost exclusively white Americans) to look beyond their own culture’s conception of what music was “timeless.”

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Prima Donna Directive

Not all of Star Trek’s fixation on “the classics” came from the writers’ room — as in the case of Nichelle Nichols, the interests and talents of the actors have often influenced those of the characters they portray. One might imagine this would mitigate the show’s cultural homogeneity, until you remember that most actors are just grown-up theater kids.

On Star Trek: Voyager, actor Robert Picardo requested that his character have an interest in opera, and soon The Doctor was obsessed with Giuseppe Verdi. The works of Gilbert and Sullivan were inserted into a story by actors twice — once when Sir Patrick Stewart suggested singing “A British Tar” for a comedy beat in Star Trek: Insurrection, and again recently when Rebecca Romijn offered her ability to rapidly deliver “The Major-General’s Song” from Pirates of Penzance as Commander Una’s “freaky talent” for the Short Treks episode “Q&A.” (This song had even been performed on Trek before, by Geordi La Forge in the TNG episode “Disaster.”)

At the height of The Next Generation’s popularity In 1991, actor Brent Spiner recorded an album of old jazz standards entitled Ol’ Yellow Eyes is Back in reference to his character, the android Commander Data. And wouldn’t you know it, in Star Trek Nemesis — the first and only Trek film for which Spiner received a producer and story credit — Data sings Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” as a comical wedding gift to Will Riker and Deanna Troi. (Both Data on screen and Director Stuart Baird in commentary call this moment a tribute to Riker’s established love of jazz, but, c’mon.)

Nemesis as a whole is not well regarded by fans or critics, but Data’s rendition of “Blue Skies” turned out to be one of the only strong positive memories of Nemesis among audiences, creatives, and characters alike. Having lived on as the last joyous memory of Data before his death, “Blue Skies” resurfaced eighteen years later as a bookend to the first season of Star Trek: Picard (2020), which finds the titular captain still grieving Data’s loss. The popular Bing Crosby recording underscores the nostalgic dream sequence that opens the series, in which Picard attempts to savor a moment with his lost friend. In the season finale, a more somber version arranged by series composer Jeff Russo and sung by Isa Briones (who portrays Data’s quasi-daughter) plays non-diegetically under the season finale’s powerful closing moments, in which Picard must finally let Data go.

Songs from and Inspired by the Hit Holoprogram

Apart from the rare “Blue Skies”-style aberration, nearly any time non-classical music is heard or referenced in 24th Century Star Trek, it’s via the artifice of a period piece on the holodeck, the immersive video game console of the future. Each series in this era of Trek has its own recurring holodeck programs in which characters enjoy, among other things, the music and atmosphere of an era in the viewer’s past. Jean-Luc Picard dives into the world of hard-boiled 1940s detective Dixon Hill, where the soundtrack includes chestnuts like “How High the Moon” or “Moonlight Becomes You.” Voyager’s Tom Paris has a fixation on the 1950s — in one of his programs, he relaxes in a ‘57 Chevy overlooking a fantastical makeout point while The Flamingos “I Only Have Eyes for You” plays on the radio.

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But no other holodeck program centers on its soundtrack nearly as much as Bashir 62, better known as Vic’s Lounge in Las Vegas, Nevada, circa 1962. Introduced in Deep Space Nine’s sixth season, Vic Fontaine is a holographic lounge singer who, in a twist meant to “[give] him the right attitude for the era,” knows he’s a fictional character in a video game being run on a space station in the 24th Century. Portrayed by James Darren (who had a Top 10 hit in the real 1962), Vic sings tunes made famous by Frank Sinatra at a fraction of the cost and with a fraction of the vocal range, but he forms an intimate connection with the crew and provides the atmosphere for some of the series’ most emotional moments.

Vic injects some much-appreciated fun into the darkest seasons of Deep Space Nine, beginning with the episode “His Way,” in which he helps Major Kira and Constable Odo finally hook up using the power of  “Come Fly with Me” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” (This episode also gives us Kira actress Nana Visitor performing the classic “Fever,” which she selected herself in tribute to her childhood idol and acquaintance Doris Duke.) Vic even shares a duet with Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) in “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang,” in which they sing “The Best is Yet To Come,” a tip of the hat to the impending ten-part series finale. But Vic’s finest musical contribution to DS9 has to be either his rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which Dr. Bashir plays over a P.A. in the breath before a tense trench battle in “The Siege of AR-558,” or his performance of “The Way You Look Tonight” during the crew’s final peaceful evening together in the series’ last episode. It may sound cheesy on paper, but playing either of these songs in front of a DS9 fan is tantamount to emotional warfare.

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Well, it’s an Oldie Where I Come From

When the J.J. Abrams-helmed Star Trek reawakened the franchise from a four-year slumber in 2009, it boldly announced that the Mozart-and-Sinatra era of Star Trek was over. In a scene early in the film, a teenage James T. Kirk goes for a joyride in a stolen antique Corvette, where he swipes through the onboard (Nokia?) console and selects an “Oldie” from the media player: “Sabotage” by The Beastie Boys. This was the most contemporary song choice in Star Trek by about a quarter-century at the time. Conspiracy theories immediately began flying that this song choice was meant to poke fun at original Kirk actor William Shatner for an infamous audio tracking session in which he refused to pronounce the word “sabotage” in the expected manner. In his director’s commentary for the film, Abrams acknowledges the rumor but insists “Sabotage” is in the movie simply because “it’s a kickass song.”

And that was essentially the point: to announce that Star Trek was aiming to kick ass now, whether that’s something you wanted it to do or not. The goal of what we now call the Kelvinverse Trilogy (Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Star Trek Beyond) was not to be timeless or profound, but modern and fun, and to convince new audiences that this was something Star Trek could achieve. The “Sabotage” needledrop became a popular enough moment that it would be alluded to in each sequel, first by having Kirk play a remix of the Beasties’ “Body Movin” on his turntable while engaging in interspecies group sex in Into Darkness, and then with a reprise of “Sabotage” in Star Trek Beyond.

For all the times that the Kelvinverse films fumbled pandering to Trekkies by referencing classic episodes or films (like the completely mishandled Khan reveal in Into Darkness), the return of “Sabotage” is by far the most successfully weaponized piece of nostalgia in the trilogy. When the crew realizes that they can destroy the drone fleet threatening Yorktown Base with a high frequency broadcast, it’s obvious that guest star Jaylah, who’s already blasted Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” earlier in the film, will use more “beats and shouting” in the big space battle. But on Kirk’s cue, Jayla hits play, the instantly recognizable opening riff of “Sabotage” begins, and we cut to a boyish smile curling on Kirk’s face. Kirk, who has lost the sense of adventure that led him to Starfleet in the first place, is a kid again. The beat represents only seven years of nostalgia for the audience, but decades’ worth for the character. And for him, it’s just the kind of happy accident that makes this job so fun.

More Trek:

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Discovery Playlist

Star Trek and Into Darkness writer-producer Alex Kurtzman has since been given the reigns of the rekindled television franchise beginning with Star Trek: Discovery, which has also overcome Trek’s fear of employing contemporary music. The Season One episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” made waves with the inclusion of the Wyclef Jean track “We Tryin’ to Stay Alive” in an onboard dance party sequence. The script had called for a generic EDM track, but when Kurtzman and the editors experimented with the Wyclef song in the editing bay, they fell in love with it and decided “why not?” Characters on Discovery, set in the 2250s, namedrop The Beatles and Prince, and Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) even share a verse of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” — which Tilly calls her favorite song — during a tense moment in which she faces possible death by a cosmic entity.

The traditions are being bent further still in Short Treks, the increasingly experimental series of short films that is using licensed music more and more often. “Calypso” culminates in its two characters reenacting a dance number from the 1957 film Funny Face. “The Trouble with Edward” returns to using Bing Crosby, but as a gag for a montage. And in the most recent installment, “Children of Mars,” Peter Gabriel’s 2010 cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” is used in place of dialogue for most of the short. This is the first non-diegetic use of rock on Star Trek since the poorly-received decision to play a Diane Warren power ballad under the opening titles of prequel series Enterprise in 2001.

The variety of music being adopted by Star Trek is widening, as is how it’s being used. And while it’s still probably a good idea to avoid placing whatever song happens to be charting that week into a story set in the distant future, there’s something to be said for confidently stating that something may not have stood the test of time yet, but it will. After all, isn’t that how the creators of modern Star Trek should approach their own work?