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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Ron Jones Project & The Best of Both Worlds OST (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

In 1991, The Best of Both Worlds got a CD soundtrack release. It was incomplete, running just under forty-seven minutes. (Five minutes music would be included on The Ron Jones Project and 2013 would see a release of a more complete two CD set running fifty-five minutes.) However, this was the first soundtrack album released for Star Trek: The Next Generation since Dennis McCarthy’s score to Encounter at Farpoint in 1988.

The music for The Best of Both Worlds is iconic. In the Regeneration documentary included with the blu ray release of the episode, Seth McFarlane jokes about hiring Ron Jones on the strength of that closing sting. The impressive orchestral score to The Best of Both Worlds remains one of the most instantly recognisable soundtracks in the Star Trek canon. And yet it was written by a composer who was on his way out the door.

Of the twelve discs in The Ron Jones Project soundtrack collection covering the episodes scored by Jones, only three include scores for episodes that aired after the second part of The Best of Both Worlds. (And the third-to-last disc only features one episode from the fourth season.) So, what happened?

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During its early years, The Next Generation employed a number of in-house composers who would rotate through the episodes. Each composer would be given an episode to score, while the other composers worked on other episodes. So the first season of the show was split between composers Ron Jones, Dennis McCarthy and Fred Steiner. However, Steiner’s decidedly “retro” score to Code of Honour was deemed a little too out-of-touch with what the producers wanted, so the bulk of the season was split between McCarthy and Jones.

There was a phenomenal amount of work involved in writing and composing music for Star Trek. Episodes would frequently have more than twenty minutes of music composed explicitly and exclusively for them. Jones’ soundtrack accompanying 11001001 runs to almost half-an-hour. Given that the average Star Trek episode ran forty-five minutes, that’s quite a heavy workload, week-in and week-out.

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Given how distinctive Jones’ work tends to sound, particularly when compared to McCarthy’s more ambient approach to the score, it’s tempting to suggest that Jones’ soundtracks are all distinct and unique. This is a common criticism of Dennis McCarthy’s soundtracks for the franchise – suggesting that McCarthy is much more prone to recycling and repetition than his collaborator on the early years of The Next Generation.

This is not entirely fair. The reality of producing so much music so consistently means that there will inevitably be echoes and reverberations to be found amongst the body of work. Among Jones’ output, now collected in one place, one can hear faint echoes of themes that would be recycled into The Best of Both Worlds in the scores to a couple of the first season scores, as if Jones were consciously building towards a singular soundtrack thesis, as if The Best of Both Worlds is really the logical end point of Jones’ approach to The Next Generation. (Certainly, his fourth season soundtracks all have a certain sameness to them.)

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However, even with that caveat, the variety and originality of Jones’ work is nothing short of astounding. Episodes have their own individual themes, built around particular instruments and recurring motifs. Jones even builds in musical motifs for the most familiar and iconic races. For example, one can quickly identify the similar “Romulan” sounds of Trouble Zone and Romulan Encounter from The Neutral Zone and Scout Ship and Rescue from The Defector. And the two episodes don’t sound like carbon copies – each is distinct, and yet similar.

There is over seventeen hours of music to be found on The Ron Jones Project, but there’s a staggering amount of internal continuity at work. There’s also an amazing amount of diversity to be seen here. Jones might have relied a little too heavily on synthesiser, but he was willing to commit completely to the idea of his music existing as a character in the show. Which is really the key to understanding Ron Jones. If you notice the ambient music from an episode of The Next Generation – for better or worse – it’s probably down to Jones.

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Sometimes this worked very well – the ambient jazz of 11001001 is integrated beautifully with the grander familiar Star Trek themes. Other times this was fascinating – the music for The Royale is incredibly corny, but kind of fun and fitting with the show’s themes. Sometimes it missed horribly – the attempt to do a vaguely whimsical score for the children-centric When the Bough Breaks isn’t a bad idea, but the soundtrack is incredibly frustrating.

While Jones doesn’t always hit his mark, his work is often sensational. The eerie mechanical pounding soundtrack to Evolution (notably the wonderful synth tracks System Failure or Computer Daydreams) is utterly unlike anything you’d expect to hear in a prime time drama in late 1989, but that’s why it’s so effective. Star Trek really shouldn’t be trying to be generic prime time drama. It should really exist as genre unto itself.

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In many ways, Jones’ music in the first couple of seasons served as an effective piece of continuity to classic Star Trek. Fred Steiner, dismissed after Code of Honour, had actually worked on the classic Star Trek show, and had written a score that felt like a conscious throwback. Jones was doing something similarly, but more adventurous. He was writing this sort grand soundtrack music that was very much in tune with late eighties sensibilities. Talking about the early days in the In Conversation feature on The Next Generation fifth season blu ray releases, Jones suggests this was a concious choice:

The one thing they told me – I don’t know if they told you this – but they were trying to bring in the old audience. They were very concerned about the demographic that loved the old series. They thought it was going to be so shocking that maybe the music could be a cushion to bring them in. So I felt like – and Bob Justman was there to remind us – to bring them along; to bring the original audience in and not be a shock to the system with the music.

In effect, Jones was writing in a style comparable to that used on the classic Star Trek, but updated for the show. After all, the music remains one of the most distinctive features of the original Star Trek. Gerard Fried’s battle theme from Amok Time is instantly recognisable, and has become a pop culture touchstone long after the show went off the air. It has been used in shows like The Simpsons and movies like The Cable Guy. It is incredibly overpowering and very forceful, but its presence enriches and enhances the original Star Trek.

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It’s quite telling that the only piece of music from the televised Star Trek spin-offs approaching that level of iconic stature is the climactic sting (Captain Borg) from The Best of Both Worlds, written by Ron Jones. The theme is ridiculously over the top, building to no less than four cliffhanger beats (“da-da-DA, da-da-DA, da-da-DA, da-da-DA!”) which is at least one set of “da-da-DA!” longer than strictly necessary. And yet it is brilliant. It is powerful, it is striking, and it is an essential part of how that cliffhanger works.

More than that, though, Jones is quite clever in how he draws from his influences. Jones is an artist influenced by Jerry Goldsmith, which is appropriate given that Goldsmith wrote the show’s theme. However, Jones is perfectly able to channel Goldsmith. For example, Omicron Arrival from Datalore briefly channels Goldsmith’s haunting introduction to Alien. Spin Out from Q Who? also seems written in the same sort of style, quickly affording the Delta Quadrant (and the Borg) an unsettling menace that seems to have echoed across from a science-fiction horror classic.

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Of course, Jones is incredibly flexible. Listening to the full seventeen hours of material on offer in the wonderful Ron Jones Project boxset, you really get a sense of his range. While Datalore and Q Who? might nod towards Goldsmith, parts of Stealing the Enterprise from 11001001 feel like it was written in the style of John Williams and would almost make a suitable accompaniment to a random Star Wars video game.

That said, Jones’ soundtracks could occasionally veer into irritating when trying to cute for the sake of being cute. For example, Jones is really the wrong choice to do an over-the-top comedy episode, because he goes very over the top – seemingly unwilling to play it the least bit straight. While his scores frequently elevate poor episodes like Datalore and The Neutral Zone, they only enhance the pain of episodes like The Outrageous Okona or Up the Long Ladder.

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So, with all of this in mind, why didn’t Ron Jones stick around? Dennis McCarthy worked on the following three spin-offs, so it’s not unreasonable that Jones could have worked so long on the show. However, Jones’ departure came at a transitional time for the franchise. He was already being phased out of rotation during the show’s third season, and he only contributed a handful of scores to the fourth.

This was a period of great chance for the series. The end of the third season and the start of the fourth were very much about consolidating The Next Generation. The show had just come out of a phenomenal year. It had settled down into a workable niche, after two years of trying to figure out what it wanted to be. However, the series was also undergoing more fundamental shifts. Gene Roddenberry’s health forced him to pull back further from the show. Although Michael Piller had stayed on, the bulk of the writing staff had left.

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In purely political terms, this was the point where producer Rick Berman – who had been working on the show since the first season – was able to consolidate his control over the franchise. And that meant that his insight and instruction became guiding principle. As Dennis McCarthy notes, Berman had not been a fan of particularly colourful music from as early as the first season:

I did Encounter [at Farpoint] and everybody loved it, and I did Haven with the same sort of romantic feel. So Rick Berman came to me after Haven and I said, ‘How did you like the score?’ and he said, ‘You know… it’s just not what I want to hear.’ He said, ‘I don’t want the music in our face, I want it to be wallpaper.’ So I of course said, ‘Oh.’ I was stumbling for words. I said, ‘Well, how about, you know,’ and I named off a few composers, and it ended up that what he wanted was like Mahler’s slow movements. He didn’t like hot percussion because it cut into things and…this is his taste, so…this is the job and you do it. I accepted it as a challenge and I said, ‘Okay, within the parameters I’ve been given, can I still be creative?’

McCarthy had a family to feed, so he toed the line. Haven was arguably the first and last truly distinctive soundtrack that McCarthy contributed to The Next Generation. Ron Jones was a younger composer, so he felt less obligated to follow Berman’s guiding principle.

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It’s worth pausing to reflect on Berman’s role within Star Trek. Rick Berman is maligned by a significant proportion Star Trek fans for “killing” the franchise. Indeed, fans have coined the less-than-affectionate nickname “Bermaga” for the producing duo of Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, who oversaw the second half of Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. Having the misfortune to preside over the collapse of the reinvigourated Star Trek franchise, the duo are often blamed for the implosion of the spin-offs in the early naughties.

There’s a complex debate to be had about how many of the problems with Voyager and Enterprise are squarely the fault of Rick Berman, with the issue clouded by various accusations and insinuations tossed around the final years of that iteration of the franchise. Both have been quite candid about some of the failings of the later spin-offs, but there’s also a conscious effort to cloud the issue and to assign blame to external parties. But all of that is in the future.

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For all the hatred that Rick Berman attracts, it’s worth noting that he effectively built the spin-off franchise machine. Drafted in by Roddenberry to work on Encounter at Farpoint, Berman claims that his lack of direct experience with Star Trek was seen as a strength. Unlike many of the producers and writers who came with external baggage, carried over from decades of Star Trek history, Berman was very consciously an outsider, but one experienced in the artform.

A veteran of the industry, Rick Berman already had an Emmy and fifteen years of writing experience when he joined The Next Generation. Berman wasn’t hired because he knew Star Trek. He was hired because he knew television. As such, working with a team of Star Trek veterans, Berman quickly found himself at odds with Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek establishment during the first few years of the show.

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It’s quite clear that Berman did not entirely agree with Roddenberry’s utopian philosophy as a way of producing quality television. There’s a famous story about how Berman would blindfold the bust of Gene Roddenberry in his office when the production staff discussed something with which Gene would not approve.  Berman frequently found himself in conflict with the elements of the production. He had confrontations with Ron Jones during the recording of the soundtrack for The Naked Now, the first score recorded for the series. However, producer Robert Justman would champion Jones’ work on the score.

Brannon Braga and Manny Coto, writing an episode of 24 years later would see President Taylor and her daughter arguing over who to appoint as a new chief of staff. The two names in contention are Berman and Justman, with the daughter favouring Berman over Justman. She contends “never underestimate the value of a fresh perspective.” While this statement might seem surreal in the wake of Berman’s eighteen-year tenure on Star Trek, it does feel like a reasonable piece of commentary on the early years of The Next Generation.

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The irony, of course, being that Berman was a radical heathen in terms of Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek in those early years, but a staunch conservative in terms of television production. Berman was a producer who believed in a formulaic way of producing television. Consistency was very much Berman’s ideal, adhering to an increasingly dated model of television storytelling that had worked in the eighties and into the nineties, but would wear quite thin by the time that Voyager hit the airwaves.

Berman was a producer consciously afraid to rock the boat or to challenge middle-class viewers. In the commentary on Sins of the Father, Ronald D. Moore recalls that Rick Berman made it quite clear that the show would never become serialised. He felt that the Dominion War was a storyline that could have been finished in “something that could get done in half-dozen episodes.” While reluctant to take the blame himself, Berman has confessed that the lack of representation of gay characters was not an edict from the studio.

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Berman’s conservativism bled into his work on Star Trek as well. After the production team figured out how to make good episodes of The Next Generation, it seemed like Berman treated that as the default template for producing Star Trek. And so Voyager was treated as “The Next Generation… with a vague high concept we ignore” and the first two years of Enterprise were developed as “The Next Generation… in the past.”

So the objections to Berman’s approach to Star Trek are quite clear. And, yet, it’s also worth reflecting on the fact that Berman’s methods worked… at least in the short term. While The Next Generation was never a syndicated ratings failure, it only truly took off when the old guard stepped back from production. The third season saw Gene Roddenberry take a back seat role, and he moved further away as the show entered its fourth and fifth seasons for health reasons. Rob Justman left after the show’s first year. Maurice Hurley departed at the end of the second season.

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Indeed, Berman was responsible for convincing Gates McFadden to return during the show’s third season, following the departure of Maurice Hurley. Acknowledging the sometimes tumultuous relationship he had with Berman while producing Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Ira Steven Behr paints a more balanced picture of the producer who would fight for his colleagues:

We disagreed on lots of small and large things, but he went in there with me to fight for Avery Brooks, to shave his head and keep the goat. We walked across the lot together to the executive offices. We were jazzed and we had this disk of how he looked, and we were a team to do that. We got there and they immediately gave up, which was funny after three years. We were all set to go in with guns blazing and they said, “OK.” So it was a little anticlimactic, but we were a team at that moment.

Brent Spiner has mounted a similar defence of Berman’s professional approach to the production. “Trying to get a single episode of television on the air on time is such a daunting task, and this guy did it week after week, year after year,” Spiner argues. “And he did it in the most graceful manner.” Of course, Berman was (and remains) a divisive figure. Veteran writer Ronald D. Moore was quite harsh on Berman in his infamous fan interview following his acrimonious departure from the Voyager writing staff.

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Still, while a large amount of the credit for the success of the show’s third season belongs to Michael Piller, it’s hard to discount Berman’s contributions. Berman was in charge of the show during the zenith of its popularity in the mid-nineties. Berman was the producer during that phenomenally over-stuffed period where The Next Generation ended, Voyager began, Deep Space Nine was taking off and Star Trek: Generations was coming to theatres. Berman was in charge when Star Trek: The Experience opened in Las Vegas.

And one of the things that is quite striking about Berman’s work on the final four seasons of The Next Generation is just how cleanly and carefully he managed and maintained the production. The first three years of the show featured production chaos behind-the-scenes. Most of the writing staff quit after their first year under Michael Piller. There’s a sense, watching the third season of The Next Generation, that the show’s genius is driven as much be desperation as by insight.

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After the third season, everything became a lot more balanced. Having produced a phenomenal season, Berman pretty much managed the show in order to maintain something approximating that level of quality. He tried to standardise The Next Generation, reducing a lot of the quirky outlying elements and streamlining the production into a well-oiled machine. After all, there’s no way that you could imagine a show as troubled as the first three seasons of The Next Generation producing three separate spin-offs, two of which overlapped.

And – as ever – there were costs and benefits to this approach. The following four seasons of The Next Generation were (generally speaking) consistently well-produced. That said, there’s an argument to be made as to whether any of them managed to match the manic brilliance of the third season. (The sixth comes closest, I’d contend.) However, this meant that the Star Trek directly overseen by Berman really ceased to innovative, up until the penultimate season of Enterprise. Sure, Deep Space Nine was doing all manner of interesting things, but Berman’s primary focus was on The Next Generation, Voyager and the movies.

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Discussing his experience with the other composers who had worked on The Next Generation, Jones explained that the production team really maintained a much tighter rein on the music department after his departure:

I had creative real estate. I think I got away with a huge amount – I can’t figure out why, I don’t know what it was about. But when they decided to get rid of me, they decide to really change the music and sit with the composers. I never saw Rick at a session once.

From this point on, Star Trek was going to be a carefully managed and maintained and well-oiled machine. There would never be a season quite as chaotic as the third season of The Next Generation again. However, this approach inevitably dampened some of the creativity.

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As such, it was almost inevitable that Ron Jones would end up one of those aspects to be “streamlined” once Berman became the driving creative force on the franchise. After all, Jones’ ideas were bold and bombastic and crazy and ambitious:

I’d say, you know, Jimi Hendrix music now is actually ancient music to the Star Trek guys, so why is it we’re doing this Holst stuff that is classical to us now, but even Jimi Hendrix would seem like a string quartet to them, so why are you guys saying I can’t do this, I can’t do that, when even avant-garde music would seem tonal by now? Another thing I said is, “Why can’t you guys have any fun on this show?” Finally, in the [second] season they built this bar, Ten Forward lounge, and I said, “I’ve got source music for Ten Forward.” They said, “Great, you can score it.” So I did and they never used it. I said, “Why, do you feel like they’re going to the library?” I could release an album of music for a 23rd century lounge and it was fun, I was able to project what trends would probably be there, and expand on that. Then they said, “Well, we don’t want you to dictate what the future is going to be.”

These are ideas that will either work brilliantly or terribly – there’s no chance that they will just be “okay.” As such, they are massive creative risks for a franchise that was solidifying its place in popular consciousness. When those risks pay off, as Jones’ compositions very frequently did, they were brilliant.

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However, it seemed like the production team behind the scenes on The Next Generation was growing quite risk adverse. Ira Steven Behr infamously described The Next Generation as “the Connecticut of the Star Trek universe” because “there was not a hell of a lot of fun.” Berman himself has articulated his reasons for letting Jones go:

The music on Star Trek was something that was supervised by me and by Peter Lauritson. Peter had been involved in hiring and firing conductors from the first episode of Next Generation to the last episode of Enterprise. Ron came on at one point, I forget exactly when, and he did numerous episodes for us. We got along fine. And at one point, because there were other composers we’d try out and we’d use for anywhere from one to dozens of episodes, it got to a point where neither Peter nor I were pleased with Ron’s work. As I believe I said at the time to somebody, he was doing the kind of scoring that was calling attention to itself. That doesn’t mean, as some people have interpreted it, that I wanted dull, boring music. What it means is that the music is there to enhance the scene that is going. The scene is not there to enhance the music. And Ron’s stuff was getting big and somewhat flamboyant. It was a decision that Peter and I made that was just a simple moving on to other composers. I think Ron was a perfectly good composer. I didn’t think he was in the same ballpark as Dennis McCarthy or Jay Chattaway, who we used a good deal of the time. But we decided to move on and try other composers.

While he rejects some of the harsher criticisms directed at him, he concedes that Jones’ scores were too “flamboyant” for his vision of the show.

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When Ron Jones left, The Next Generation lost an incredibly unique and ambitious voice – a voice that wasn’t always pitch perfect, and that could occasionally go a little too far or a little too ridiculous, but an ambitious voice just the same. It was a microcosm of the “house style” that seemed to be creeping into the production, and something that would fester and diminish the franchise across the next decade.

While it’s not fair to draw a line from the firing of Ron Jones to the cancellation of Enterprise, they are both products of the same mindset – an overly conservative and micro-managed approach to the franchise more concerned with being consistent and reliable than with being ambitious and provocative.

Read our reviews of the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

2 Responses

  1. This is a brilliant write up, really interesting read, and I was reading it as I was watching BOBW 🙂

    I can’t think of a single Voyager episode that had memorable music, which says a lot.

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