Emotion and melody propel the “Star Trek Discovery” and “Lost in Space” scores from Jeff Russo and Christopher Lennertz. (The soundtracks are available from Lakeshore Records.) Of course, they’re nostalgic in paying homage to their predecessors, but they offer their own sense of grandeur and distinctive grace notes in underscoring topical adventures about inclusion and diversity.
In “Discovery,” Sonequa Martin-Green stars as Science Specialist Michael Burnham, a human raised by Vulcans, who provides a complex dynamic with superiors and subordinates. And, in “Lost in Space,” the new twist of a bi-racial Judy (Taylor Russell), empathetic Robot, and female Dr. Smith (Parker Posey) make the series more topical, compelling, and unpredictable.
Discovering Compassion in “Star Trek”
Emmy winner Russo (“Fargo”) was fascinated by the emphasis on compassion in exploring the various inter-relationships. “Discovery” takes place a decade before the original series and focuses on the Federation-Klingon war. However, unlike its predecessors, the CBS All Access series, was more concerned with uniting its characters than dividing them. That is why Russo experimented with a musical theory to convey the unity of the universe.
CBS All Access
“I tinkered around on my piano and thought about ‘Common Tone,” Russo said. “In any given chord progression, common tone would be a single note that is shared among all those chords. So I did that with the idea that the show is about how we’re all tied together by a single humanity. As I fooled around with different chords, that was my jumping off point for the main title theme: There’s still this hope and the idea of adventure and exploration, but there’s also a touch of melancholy in humanity. And by humanity I mean any living sentient being.”
Although Russo was initially terrified about composing a new theme, he was able to combine the “Common Tone” with Alexander Courage’s iconic fanfare theme. “Having to think about it was a pretty daunting task, but the idea was to harken back to where we were yet also update it for a more modern take on that musical type,” he said. When recording the brass section of the orchestra on a music stage one afternoon he felt the score truly become “Star Trek” because of the overpowering horns.
With little time, Russo worked quickly in developing themes for Burnham, the other crew members, and the Klingons. “Her emotional core came from the main theme,” he said. “She’s identified by strings, but in thinking about her and love interest Ash Tyler [a Klingon posing as a human, portrayed by Shazad Latif], I thought about piano.”
For the Klingons, though, Russo was able to musically treat them with greater depth and sympathy. “They are not merely the baddies, they have their own cultural identity and emotional problems, and the music reflects that.” As a result Russo was able to get more instrumentally exotic, using the Middle-Eastern, double-reeded duduk, and the yayli tambur, a stringed instrument of Turkish origin.
An Amblin “Lost in Space”
For Netflix’s “Lost in Space,” Lennertz (“Supernatural”) was reunited with USC chum Zack Estrin, the showrunner of the reboot. The brief: Make it like a Steven Spielberg/Robert Zemeckis, updated Amblin adventure for the Robinson family. “He said he wanted themes and melodies, really big and not campy,” Lennertz said. For the main title theme, he composed a majestic fanfare that gave a shout out to John Williams’ second theme for the original series. “It was jaunty and more recognizable,” he added.
With only three months to deliver the score, Lennertz immediately dove into composing themes for parents Maureen (Molly Parker) and John (Toby Stephens), the kids, the planet, the Robot, and Dr. Smith. He leaned on strings and brass, composing a frontier vibe for the planet and sprinkling tense or hopeful music throughout.
Courtesy of Netflix
The Robot theme was obviously the most complex and took the most time to develop. “Zack was concerned that my first pass gave away too much about the robot’s friendly relationship with Will [Maxwell Jenkins],” he said. “So I revised it to be a little more ambiguous. Initially, we just hear the chords, low brass. without the melodic emotion.”
For the alien robot baddie, Lennertz went with dark brass, strings, basses, and a synthetic metal, grinding sound. This was composed in collaboration with the composers former assistant, sound designer Alex Bornstein. “This was an unsettling, digestive kind of thing,” he said.
Composing an atonal piano etude for Dr. Smith provided another fresh opportunity, not only as a gender reversal but also as a more nuanced baddie. “I knew from the get-go that her theme was going to be slightly creepy due to her manipulative nature,” Lennertz said. “She was important, much like the robot, where the music tells us about her at the same rate as the Robinsons were figuring her out.
“So, as we get to the middle of the series, there were a lot more wrong notes, a lot more scary texture around this little piano etude. And the whole idea was that the piano’s supposed to represent the workings of her mind, trying to figure out what lies to tell to get the Robinsons to do what she wanted. It was very much a ticking clock in the mind of a pathological liar.”