Monday, January 28, 2013

Battlestar Galactica (2003 Miniseries): Step Away from the Orchestra, Mr. Gibbs.

Let's do a bit of time traveling. Jump forward a quarter of a century from our last entry, and everything has changed - but we're still talking about Battlestar Galactica. Ronald D. Moore's re-imagined rendition of the disco era space opera hit the Sci-Fi Channel in 2003, as a miniseries that would serve as a pilot for an extended regular series that lasted much longer and was much more successful - in every way - than its 1978 ancestor (and its similarly short-lived spinoff, Galactica 1980).

Ron Moore, among his other accomplishments, is a veteran writer of several Star Trek TV incarnations, starting with Star Trek: the Next Generation, and of the best of the big screen adventures with the TNG cast, Star Trek: First Contact. In that context, Moore was able to experiment with what works and what doesn't in sci-fi television with the most successful sci-fi TV franchise of all time. Much of what hit the screen in the 2000s version of Battlestar Galactica seems to be informed at least as much by that experience as by the concept and story of the original Galactica. In some ways, Galactica is the anti-Trek. There are no humanoid aliens with funny foreheads - in fact, there aren't really any aliens at all, in the usual science fiction sense. Space travel is neither comfortable nor convenient, prominent characters die, nobody gets along especially well, and actions in one episode have major consequences that carry through for the rest of the series - even when that sometimes leads to extreme or absurd situations.

The Galactica miniseries of 2003 was a bold opening gambit for such risk-taking storytelling. As a stand-alone story, it's pretty grim, telling the tale of the destruction of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, home of the entire human race, and all life in the Universe as far as anybody's aware in this world. One inescapable association of this story in 2003, of course, is with the coordinated terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, still pretty fresh in the minds of Americans less than two years later, and certainly on the minds of Moore and the creators of this series. The longer regular series of Battlestar Galactica would go on to become a major exploration of many sensitive and relevant political topics of post-9/11 America, a product of and reflection on its time, in ways that the creators of the original '70s Galactica could never possibly have envisaged.

The Beta version

Of course, as with most pilots, the Galactica miniseries wasn't fully realized right out of the box. There were incomplete or unresolved concepts, story hooks that never quite panned out, and some components that were just later altered or scrapped - some for the better, as in the case of the glowing red spines of the humanoid Cylons in the miniseries, which rather thoroughly defeated the purpose of disguising themselves as human in the first place. One of the incomplete elements, as it would later turn out, was the music.

Just as the plot, characterization, visual style, and long-form storytelling of the 2000s Galactica were a reaction against the more episodic mode of shows like Star Trek, so was the tone of Galactica's music a reaction against the rousing, adventurous, classically inspired musical style of the original Battlestar Galactica and all sorts of sci-fi space adventures since. As lush, Romantic, and classically Western as the original Galactica score was, so would the new Galactica's miniseries music, by Richard Gibbs, become spare, primitive, and internationally flavored,. "Minimalist" is a word that was kicked around a lot to describe the music of the miniseries, though it's not strictly or truly minimalist music, just sparsely orchestrated and thematically simple.

A Mystic Knight

A veteran of the band Oingo Boingo, Richard Gibbs went on to television and film scoring, just like his bandmate Danny Elfman, but without as much prominent success and arguably without quite the same distinctive musical voice. (As it turns out, pretty much every member of Oingo Boingo ended up in the TV/film music business at one point or another, and later seasons of Galactica would showcase their talents.)

To be fair, though, it is a bit difficult to tell exactly what musical gifts or invention Gibbs brings to the table, based only on his score for the Galactica miniseries. Since he was apparently under orders to present a stripped-down, purely functional score for this effort, he had arguably little opportunity to spread his wings as a musician. The fact that I feel compelled to talk about the show more than the music itself - presumably why I'm writing this blog in the first place - is probably a hint as to how I feel about it in comparison to what came later in both the TV series and its music.

Seeds of inspiration

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of worthy musical ideas in this score album - it's just that many of them are very subtly expressed. Some were indeed carried over to the regular series, like the very first sound one hears on this soundtrack - a high-pitched, single note rhythmic motif accompanied by a two-note descending long chord (as heard in Track 1, "Are You Alive?/BSG Main Title," but showcased most completely in "The Sense of Six" (Track 22)). It begins here as a musical signal for the arrival of the sexy, mysterious Cylon Number Six, and it would indeed continue throughout all four seasons of the show, in situations of increasing psychological complexity to accompany several of the many incarnations of Six (including one which may or may not be an angel or a manifestation of madness).

There are also several outstanding moments in the quieter parts of the story, such as a gentle romantic theme called "To Kiss or Not to Kiss (Track 4)." While the melody and themes of this piece are never revisited in the main series' music, the lovely harmonic singing of what I believe to be Sanskrit phrases (I can't find my liner notes right now) presages many such sung passages that would become an integral part of the musical identity of the main series. In fact, "To Kiss or Not to Kiss" may just be the single "five-star" moment in a score that's otherwise quite competent, but unremarkable.

The Shape of Things to Come

Of course, the most important part of this score, and the key to its future evolution of the music of Galactica, is its co-creator, a young composer named Bear McCreary. McCreary was brought on board to assist Gibbs in creating this score on a very short TV schedule, and later got the opportunity to take over the primary scoring duties when Galactica was picked up as a regular series on the Sci-Fi channel.

Did I mention his youth? Bear McCreary is actually my age - and I still consider that pretty young, dammit. As I type this, he's just a few weeks shy of his 34th birthday. If we had gone to school together, he would have been in my class. He grew up in the same pop culture environment I did, with many of the same influences coming at exactly the same time in his life as they did in mine. As such, I feel a kinship and a direct connection with McCreary that I don't with nearly any other composer. Just like me, he loves the sci-fi and fantasy movies of the '70s and '80s, and idolizes composers who defined that era, including John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, and others. (He's even told the story of sneaking a tape recorder in to a screening of Back to the Future when he was about 8 years old with the sole purpose of recording the music.)

Some of that direct connection also comes from McCreary's own extensive engagement with the public through his blog and through social media. So I can say that I actually have directly interacted with him - only by virtue of the fact that he's answered one or two of the comments I've made on his blog, but that's more interaction than I've ever had with any other film or TV composer.

McCreary's nascent musical voice is evident in traces here - he was just 24 when he worked on this pilot, after all. It's most clearly heard in action cues, which usually feature a bare (no pun intended) minimum of orchestration but a whole lot of active percussion from Japanese Taiko drums - the kind popularized by the fantastic Kodo ensemble. There are a few hints of the vocal style he would later employ to great effect that can be heard here as well, thought it is a little difficult to say to what was the result of his input vs. Richard Gibbs here. Those drums would become the foundation of an ever-expanding musical palette that Bear would bring to the table for Galactica and for a growing list of other TV and film projects in the ensuing decade.

Saving some for later

I could continue geeking out about Bear McCreary, but I have four seasons' worth of scores for the regular series of Galactica to write about, so I'll spread out my praise and my thoughts a little bit, so as not to overwhelm now. I can't wait to get to it, so expect Season 1 soon!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Battlestar Galactica: Music to Watch Cylons By

And now we're back, in a new year. I've been spending some quality time with a few new outstanding Christmas gifts, including the box set of Indiana Jones scores, a new release of the Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack that came with the gorgeous 50th-anniversary Blu-Ray set that I received, and the complete edition of Jerry Goldsmith's outstanding score for the not-so outstanding 1994 film The Shadow.

But we'll get to all of those in due time. Meanwhile, we'll revisit some classic sci-fi TV cheese, the 1978 series Battlestar Galactica. This show hit the airwaves on ABC within weeks of my own birthday in that auspicious year, so it's been in the world more or less as long as I have. I like to think, however, that I've aged a little better.

It's not that Galactica is bad - okay, actually, it is bad. The concept is pretty fascinating - the scattered remnants of an entire race on the run in what's left of their space fleet after an army of malevolent robots destroys their home. It's kind of a spacegoing wagon train with none other than Bonanza's Lorne Greene in command, tossed in with some weird religious overtones from the Book of Mormon and plenty of influence from the monster hit of the day, Star Wars. As with many of the products that studios cranked out to cash in on Star Wars hysteria in the late '70s and early '80s, Galactica shared some of the trappings of that pop culture behemoth - including production design input from Star Wars'  own conceptual designer, Ralph McQuarrie - but little of its heart and soul.

Obviously the idea had legs, because it was much more successfully and compellingly converted into the Sci-Fi channel (now, ridiculously, "SyFy") TV series of the same name in the 2000s. More on that in future entries. But the short-lived original (just one season and a TV miniseries revival in 1980) was a much messier creature, with most of its plot delivered with a heaping helping of hokum and some ill-advised disco era flourishes to boot.

Everybody Loves Space Opera

One thing the series got right, though - very right - was its music. John Williams' Star Wars score re-introduced a grand orchestral style to Hollywood in a big way, so producers wanted more of that, too. This opened the door for some truly rousing space adventure scores in the following years, from cinema veterans like Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), John Barry (The Black Hole), and even Maurice Jarre (Enemy Mine), not to mention some talented new upstarts like James Horner (Battle Beyond the Stars, Krull, Star Trek II). In the TV world, Stu Phillips was ready to rise to the occasion of a grand space opera in the old Wagnerian tradition.

Never an A-lister for big screen scores, Stu Phillips was* nonetheless a hardworking and versatile composer for television. He supplied music for conventional fare like Quincy M.E. as well as yet another TV space show, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century . . . and my personal favorite, the indelible (and oft-sampled) pulsating theme from Knight Rider.

Battlestar Galactica, though, may constitute Phillips' most sophisticated scoring work overall. The sweeping, upbeat main theme is endlessly anthologized in collections of science fiction scores, but that may actually be the least interesting aspect of the show's scoring. The collection of cues on the 25th anniversary release of the show's score album reveals a versatile and intelligent application of the John Williams-like, classically inspired Hollywood style.

Symphony of a Star World

The Galactica score does supply plenty of cues that are reminiscent of John Williams' orchestral style, not only in the mighty full-orchestra flourishes like the driving string rhythms of "Fighter Launch" (Track 4), but also in its employment of character motifs, and also in its quieter moments. For example, in "Exploration" (Track 2), a contemplative passage for French horns, strings, and celesta (?) comes very close to a Williams-like use of harmony and orchestration, passing the brief melody back and forth between brass and strings.

I initially bought the Galactica score album with that general quality in mind - watching the show, I got an impression that the score was a pretty passable rendition of that Star Wars style; unremarkable, but with enough nostalgia value to be worth owning. Further listening, though, has revealed that there's much more going on here. Stu Phillips is a man who really knows his way around an orchestra, and has plenty of musical invention up his sleeve, drawing from a broad spectrum of influences.

Stu Phillips in the 20th Century!

Many of those influences have more contemporary roots than the 19th-century Romantic style that defined the Star Wars scores. Phillips clearly has some 20th century musical ideas in mind, embedded firmly within the overall structure of the score. Take, for example, the primary theme of and off-kilter orchestration of "Destruction of Peace" (Track 3) - I believe this is, in fact, the theme for the murderous cybernetic Cylons, and indeed, parts of it return in "The Cylon Trap" (Track 9). It's revealed fully in two jaunty, march-like passages in "Destruction of Peace," which shares both its propulsive urgency and unresolved melodic structure with some of Dmitri Shostakovich's more tumultuous symphonic works, which described cataclysmic events in Russian history. Some similarly Shostakovich-like runs can be heard near the beginning of "Dash to the Elevator" (Track 15).

Likewise, I hear possible echoes of Respighi in the brooding track "Suffering" (Track 12); and the brutal, syncopated rhythms of action cues like "End of the Atlantia" (Track 8) and "Escape from the Ovion Mines" (Track 14) call to mind not only Stravinsky, but also fellow film composer Alex North's percussive action style (like Spartacus, not to mention pieces of his unused 2001 score).

Shifting gears, Phillips also provides some beautiful, exotic sounds for the show's romantic or contemplative interludes. The all-too-brief "Cassiopia and Starbuck" (Track 7) a gentle love theme, passes the musical baton between woodwinds, strings, and electronic elements with smooth grace and occasional sparkling flourishes. Likewise, "Adama's Theme" (Track 5) establishes an elegant, haunting musical identity for the embattled Commander with a prominently placed oboe. "The Cylone Base Ship" (Track 6) gets just plain weird, with creepy whistling electronic tones setting an eerie mood for the villains' lair.

A Product of its Time

Of course, Battlestar Galactica was a product of the 1970s, and its connections to the pop culture of the time show through pretty clearly when viewed today, like the Shaun Cassidy haircuts of the hunky male leads - and also on this album, with a couple of truly dreadful disco cues - one a source cue called "The Casino on Carillon (It's Love, Love, Love)" (Track 13) and a regrettable disco arrangement of the main theme, much like Meco's famous (but only slightly less annoying) disco version of the Star Wars theme. The less said about either of those the better. I deliberately skip them every time.

Thanks to the balooning interest in film score collecting, especially among people around my age, there is now an expanded multi-disc set of Phillips' scores to the entire Galactica series. I'm still waffling on whether that investment would be worth it. The quality of this score tempts me, but a fella can only buy so many soundtracks. Besides, we must move on soon to the more recent incarnation of Galactica and its intriguing score . . . Next time.

*It's worth mentioning that Mr. Phillips is still very much alive, but I believe he's retired, or at least not actively scoring for TV or film anymore.