Just because Star Trek: Lower Decks is presented as a comedy, the composer for the series, Chris Westlake, knew the music couldn't be in on the joke. And, if you'd heard the Lower Decks main theme before actually seeing the show, there's a chance you might not even know that it was composed for a series that is (mostly) poking fun at Trek. That said, because this Trek series is specifically smaller in scope than some of its predecessors, Westlake admits he knew the theme couldn't be "too bombastic." In other words, when the USS Cerritos hits that space iceberg in the opening credits of the series, there's no rimshot doubling down on that visual joke. The sound of Lower Decks isn't the sound of "silly" Star Trek. It's simply a new and unique Star Trek sound that is somehow very old at the same time.
**This story contains mild spoilers for Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1, Episode 9, "Crisis Point."**
"There are jokes in the situations the characters are in, but the music has to think it's in a [Star Trek] movie or one of the TV shows," Chris Westlake tells SYFY WIRE. "It has to be sincere and not too aware of itself. And the more seriously we took the music, the funnier the comedy became. Which is why we added that choir to the main theme. We decided to just go for it. And the choir made it funnier. I mean, we did go through six or seven themes, which were narrowed down to two. One was more slow and stately, and we're between that and the one we ended up with, which is more energetic."
Like many TV series that have been completed in the COVID-19 era, Westlake reveals that the entirety of the Lower Decks score was recorded remotely, with each musician recording their part individually. This challenge was compounded by the fact that the debut of Lower Decks was "moved up by about two months," which Westlake says he thinks is "because we swapped with Discovery Season 3 in the schedule. Mostly because we could move forward because we were an animated TV show. So my timeline was super squeezed."
Despite these challenges, Westlake and his musicians "rose to the occasion," and have delivered unique music for each episode of Lower Decks that not only "gives Lower Deck its own sonic identity," but also, as Westlake freely admits, sprinkles in a fair amount of auditory Easter eggs. In Episode 3, "Temporal Edict," we get some musical homages to Original Series fight music when Jack Ransom battles a large alien, Captain Kirk-style, while the overall tone of TNG incidental music is subtly updated for a newer Trek. "I feel like fans have caught most of the Easter eggs," Westlake says, but this mostly refers to the musical cues from the episode prior to Episode 9, "Crisis Point." Because this is the episode where the Lower Decks score itself becomes a non-stop Trekkie Easter egg machine.
When Ensign Mariner turns a holodeck program into a "movie" featuring herself and the other Lower Deckers, the best references to past Treks are not ones you see but embedded into the clever score for this episode. When Mariner and the gang watch the "opening credits" for the Lower Decks movie, old school Trekkies will immediately recognize what Westlake's music is doing: referencing those French horns from James Horner's score for The Wrath of Khan.
"Even though we had our own sonic identity for the show, we wanted to tip our at the to the great composers who have written music for Star Trek," Westlake explains. "I mean, if I were a Lower Decker, my bridge crew would be like Jerry Goldsmith [The Motion Picture], James Horner [The Wrath of Khan], Jay Chattaway, and Ron Jones [The Next Generation]. But, there's nothing more exciting to me in all the Star Trek scores than James Horner's horn writing for The Wrath of Khan. It's tremendously exciting music. Of all of the movies, Horner's work feels the most action-packed and the most nautical."
The director of The Wrath of Khan, Nicholas Meyer, certainly backs up Westlake's assessment of Horner's score for The Wrath of Khan. In his memoir The View From the Bridge, Meyer writes that he told Horner that the music "should suggest the majestic sweep of the ocean. Nautical, but nice." This specific concept — that the score in Star Trek tells a musical story about sailing ships in space — is important for Westlake, and that's because, as someone who worked on trailer music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he knows that the pull of a John Williams score can be a very strong influence.
"I came from more of the John Williams side of things," Westlake reveals. "[Lower Decks showrunner] Mike [McMahan] and talked a lot about what makes Star Wars music Star Wars and what makes Star Trek music Star Trek. I mean, it's impossible to erase that John Williams influence entirely, and I'd say that even some of Next Gen was inspired by Williams. But, what's the difference? And the thing that I always have had in mind, is that Star Wars music is fast-flying ships and dogfights and ducking and weaving and fast movements. But Star Trek music is slow-moving ships. That nautical thing. And I even think that James Horner is doing a riff on Jerry Goldsmith."
For fans who might not remember, Jerry Goldsmith is the composer who wrote the main theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, which later went on to become the opening theme for The Next Generation in 1987. (Boimler is humming this theme in Episode 3 of Lower Decks.) And somewhat more famously, Goldsmith also wrote a slower — and very nautical — version of that famous theme, called "The Enterprise," which plays while Kirk and Scotty admire the Enterprise in an extra-long sequence in that film. And, just in case you weren't sure why the crew circles the USS Cerritos for so long in the newest Lower Decks, it's 100 percent a very long (and hilarious) homage to that scene, and perhaps more importantly, to that Jerry Goldsmith track.
"Yeah, we had to do our own movie-fied version of the Lower Decks theme," Westlake says with a laugh. "I don't think we can use it again. That is unless there is another Lower Decks movie."
Star Trek: Lower Decks has one episode left in Season 1. The finale will stream on CBS All Access on Oct. 8, 2020. One week later, Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 will debut.