DennisMcCarthy - Syfy

Longtime Star Trek composer Dennis McCarthy on his scores for DS9 and Generations

Contributed by
May 24, 2018

This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our heads long after the credits roll.

As part of our focus on movie and TV music this month here at SYFY WIRE, we've been taking a look at the music of Star Trek on television. If you missed them, do take a look at our oral history of 26 seasons of Trek music and our focus on Jay Chattaway's hauntingly gorgeous melody from "The Inner Light," a fan-favorite episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Today, we're chatting with Dennis McCarthy, who might just be the only person to be involved in all 25 seasons of Trek from The Next Generation through Star Trek: Enterprise. Certainly, no one else had the magnitude of creative output as he had during his 18 years on Trek. He scored 88 episodes of TNG, 77 episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 65 episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, and 30 episodes of Enterprise. He also wrote the theme for Deep Space Nine (for which he won an Emmy).

No one else — no one — wrote as much music for Star Trek as McCarthy.

In addition, he's also the only Trek composer to have made the jump from TV to the big screen. McCarthy scored 1994's Star Trek Generations, the seventh feature film and first to feature the TNG cast.

SYFY WIRE sat down with McCarthy to talk about his work on Deep Space Nine and Generations, especially his themes for those two properties. (Listen to my full conversation with Dennis McCarthy here.)

How much of a shift was it to go from the frantic pace of The Next Generation to working on Generations? The soundtrack to the film is noticeably more lush and "cinematic," plus you had a full chorus.

With film, the director takes precedence. On TV, it's producer-driven. David Carson was the director, and, of course, Rick [Berman] was producing. But David really wanted it to be big and cinematic — that's a great term for it — and not just be wallpaper.

It certainly was not.

No, I just went for it. I had a great time.

The scene with [William] Shatner running across the rocks before he died, that was done 17 days ahead of release or something, but that was a panic score. As a matter of fact, for some reason, I forgot to write percussion in four bars [as Shatner was running], and it sounds like the "Baby Elephant Walk" for four bars.

I was given permission, in essence, to go apesh*t, which I did. The hardest part of that film for me was the scene with the dream — inside the Nexus where [Patrick Stewart] starts off on a merry-go-round and is with the family — because Steve Rowe, the brilliant film editor, had put in the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th [symphony], this beautiful, heart-wrenching piece. He temped the scene with that.

I listened to that and thought, "Oh my God, how am I going to get that out of my head?" So I told myself, "Just do a 180." The Mahler is very tonal; it shifts from major to minor a lot, so I did almost a Phil Spector wall of sound. I had the L.A. Master Chorale singing and an 80- or a 100-piece orchestra.

A lot of people didn't like it; I'll be honest with you. They thought it sounded like a Prell shampoo bottle. That was hard for me because my wife's father had died the night I wrote it. For me, it was an elegy to him. And to have somebody slime it? I was offended. I don't offend easily, but that offended me.

Noticeably absent from that movie is the Jerry Goldsmith theme that was in every episode of the show for seven seasons. Why leave behind that iconic theme that carried the show for so long?

If memory serves, that was David Carson. He said he didn't want it. And I said, "Well, let me in at least one or two spots put in the first few bars of [the] theme because that is…

That's Star Trek.

Yeah! If we don't do that, the fans are going to come to my house with pitchforks.

So, I know they're obviously not the same, but to my ear, I do hear some similarities between your Generations theme and your Deep Space Nine theme. Was that intentional on your part, or was it just because they were written around the same time?

Yeah, I think it's just kind of what I like. I love the trumpets and French horns. I was aware that David liked the Deep Space Nine theme and the way that it worked.

I'm not fawning praise, but I have to say that the Deep Space Nine theme is my favorite Star Trek theme.

Oh, well thank you. Jerry [Goldsmith] was contacted to do it. I don't know if [he didn't do it because of] workload or if they were being cheap. Of course, I'm cheap! I'd do it for free; I don't care.

That theme, just like the show as a whole, was such a departure for Star Trek at the time. Do you remember what kind of direction you got before you sat down to write?

That was with Rick Berman. He and I talked about it at length. He showed me the mock-up for what the visuals were going to be for the main title. He said this is an extremely lonely place out here, and it's going to be more psychological darkness than we had in The Next Generation. So I want the theme to say, "We are alone."

I just went off of that, and I thought, what's lonelier than a trumpet player with a part that he's hoping he doesn't blow? So that's what I did. I kept it as simple as I could.

But when it came time to do the redo on the fourth season, I had to add more life and action. And I thought that kind of negates what we're shooting for.

Right! So why did it change? Was it just to accommodate a longer opening credit sequence?

No. I think what it was is that they thought the show had evolved with more people and more stuff going on. It wasn't as dark (although it still was). There were more personalities being used in the show, so they wanted [the theme] to have a bit more life to it. So I moved the trombones up, did this, did that. It wasn't my favorite thing to do to a piece of music. But it's a gig. If you're a carpenter, and somebody says they want their closet done in knotty pine, but you think it should be done in oak or teak... the person says, "Yeah, but then I won't pay you." Okay! Knotty pine it is!

OK, we'll do it your way.

Yeah, exactly. You have to check your ego at the door.