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.

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