Season Four

The Next Generation ended its third season with a thrilling cliffhanger, “The Best of Both Worlds,” with Picard assimilated by the Borg, and Riker—now in command of the Enterprise—preparing to fire on the Borg ship. Over the summer of 1990, the episode generated tremendous buzz and anticipation for the debut of TNG’s fourth season. The series had been popular since its 1987 debut, but as word spread about its superior third season, more and more eyes were on The Next Generation. The show’s demographics were broadening and critics were paying attention. By August 1990, CNN ran a feature on the series, its growing audience and the anticipation over the cliffhanger resolution that would open season four. TNG was moving from a cult program to a broad-based viewer phenomenon.

Season four produced a number of distinctive and high-quality episodes for Jones to score: “Brothers,” “Reunion,” “Final Mission,” “Data’s Day” and others. With technical and aesthetic aspects of the show improving, the composer found that episodes relied less often on music to cover up dramatic shortcomings. This had always been a goal for Rick Berman, and Jones agreed with the approach: “By season four, they knew the audience dug it, so they wanted to see if we could get away with less. We let drama be drama. At first, they slathered it with music because they were insecure, but they never thought of it as a forte. They always thought of music as glue or something to help something that was weak. So when the show started to get strong, I could pull back quite a bit. We probably had too much music in the first two seasons—we kind of over-slathered it with music. There were times when we would just go on and on.”

A budget cut slightly reduced the orchestra size, from the 40–50 of season three to 35–40 for season four, but the composer welcomed the challenge: “I tried to prove to them that I could do it with just an intimate group, and I liked the idea of it being more intimate, actually. If you look at different composers that are out there, there are some that try to draw the audience in with this big landscape, and I thought, ‘Well, I can do that, but if I need to get smaller and more transparent with stuff, I will.’ Less is more. You lose to the air conditioning on the bridge but other rooms that don’t have that, you can beat it. I did still have two or three basses live in the room. But I had a keyboard guy who did nothing but basses and cellos, because you can never get enough. You need six basses just to hear them.”

Jones used 49 players for “Part II” of “The Best of Both Worlds” but never again had access to an orchestra of that size. On scores that would otherwise have had a similar symphonic scope (“Reunion,” “Final Mission,” “Data’s Day,” “Devil’s Due” and “The Nth Degree”) he ingeniously employed synthesizers and woodwinds in lieu of low strings (normally carried by violas, celli and basses). The money he saved from omitting those players (sometimes there would be one bass) allowed him to retain a variety of woodwinds. Because the ear listens from the “top down” (see Jones’s comments for “Where No One Has Gone Before”), the audience likely never noticed that the lower “string lines” were not, in fact, played by strings.

“I loaded up the woodwinds so much to get these low colors and that was one reason I had to limit the lower strings.”

The bolder use of woodwinds gives the fourth-season scores more of an acoustic character—even though they use a smaller orchestra—than the scores from the first three seasons, which often employ a larger ensemble but make more prominent use of synthesizers. In the modern era, woodwinds have become all but extinct as individual colors in film scores—whereas a classic score by Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman or Bernard Herrmann might drop the entire orchestra for a clarinet or flute line, composers today seem to live in fear that doing so will make the score sound “dated” (John Williams and Alexandre Desplat remain two notable exceptions). The use of more woodwinds had another benefit: they often played in the sonic “midrange,” avoiding the bass frequencies (which were often obscured by Star Trek’s ubiquitous “air conditioner” sound effects).

Jones employed experimental orchestras on several episodes: the android family drama “Brothers” replaced the entire string section with a Synclavier (although this created a technical debacle); “Devil’s Due” dropped trumpets in favor of two harps, for a shivery “witch’s brew”; “First Contact” employed an “alien orchestra” of strings, keyboards, EWI and percussion; “Night Terrors” added four French horns and a 16-voice choir to this mix, for an evocative horror score; and the courtroom drama “The Drumhead” used strings, keyboards, EWI, percussion, three French horns, one trumpet and one oboe.

As the show settled into its latter-day style of dramatic presentation—a bit stuffy, like Masterpiece Theatre in space—the scores often featured a few long cues buttressed by short transitions. This had always been the case (it is a fact of life in television music), but the contrast was more striking during the fourth season: the “set piece” cues are more elaborate than ever, while the transitions sometimes consist of a single chord. Jones’s fourth-season scores are some of his most memorable due to the music-driven sequences: Data’s escape from the Enterprise in “Brothers,” the shuttle crash and desert scenes of “Final Mission,” Troi’s dream and the escape from the spatial rift in “Night Terrors,” and the space action of “The Nth Degree.” In these, his stylized scoring voice from “The Best of Both Worlds” comes to the fore.

“My talent is all in design—I’m not a great musician,” Jones says. “This is all architecture to me—this is all design with sound, and designing music that goes with emotion. If you’re totally a music guy, you’re always going to write pure music and not write what’s there. I’m the best friend of the director or writer, because I will tailor music that will fit the subject like a glove. You can’t do that if you’re a gifted music guy, because you’re always going to write the little tune that gets in the way. I say, ‘Don’t judge me on my music, judge me on whether it goes with the picture.’”

Ironically, it was the enlarged profile Jones created for his music on the series that led to eventual replacement.

Ron Jones’s 42nd episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was “The Drumhead,” a dialogue-heavy “bottle” show about a misguided admiral (Jean Simmons) conducting a Joseph McCarthy-style witch hunt aboard the Enterprise. It would be his last. “Just before I scored ‘Drumhead,’ they turned down all the lights in the production office and Peter Lauritson pulled me in and said, ‘Well, we’ve decided to go with someone else. I know you’re going to be upset, but finish this one and you’ll be done.’ I was told goodbye and I had to write knowing this was my last one. It was a show about being falsely accused, and I named every cue after what was going on at the time. I thought, ‘Man, if they’re going to fire me and I did nothing wrong, this is the perfect show to go out on.’”

Fundamentally, Jones’s departure was due to creative differences. As Rick Berman solidified his control over The Next Generation—turning it into a television phenomenon—his belief that music should be subtle and non-thematic resulted in Dennis McCarthy tamping down his own musical style to omit recurring melodies and unusual orchestrations. When Jay Chattaway replaced Jones during the show’s later years, he too followed Berman’s directives (as relayed by producers Peter Lauritson and Wendy Neuss) and stripped out most of what had been his initial, epic impression of space music (as heard in his first score, “Tin Man”). Film music fans were mystified how such obviously capable musicians would seemingly forget to write melodies—but McCarthy, Chattaway and other guest and regular composers on TNG and its spin-off series were just following orders.

Dennis McCarthy remembered learning of Berman’s wishes early during The Next Generation, telling Jeff Bond in The Music of Star Trek: “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 added, “Ron Jones did the show for four years and he was always pushing the envelope, which was great, and he’d pull off something and I’d go to Rick and say, ‘Hey, this really worked, what do you think?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, okay, I didn’t like this because it was too big,’ or it was too ethnic, and so on.” McCarthy said of Jones, “I always felt he was a very talented guy, and whereas when Rick told me ‘stop doing that,’ I said, ‘well, I have three kids,’ in Ron’s case I think being younger, he didn’t want to have any limitations.” (After Jones left Star Trek, during an inevitable deadline crunch McCarthy would occasionally suggest, “Why not call Ron? He’s not doing anything”—only to have the notion brushed off.)

An intriguing question is not why the producers dismissed Jones, but why they did not do so sooner. (It is a misnomer to think of him as “fired.” Television composers do not have ongoing contracts like writers and actors; they are hired on an episode-by-episode basis—or just as easily not hired.) One reason must have been the extraordinary quality of his music: he broke almost all of Berman’s “rules” as far as themes, military percussion, ethnic approaches and so on, but hewed so closely to the storytelling that his scores blended into their episodes with elegance and transparency.

Still, looking back at Jones’s history on the show, his departure seems inevitable. For one thing, Jones was hired not by Berman, but by Bob Justman, who retired at the end of the season one—leaving Jones without corporate “protection,” a creative orphan from the show’s earliest, chaotic days. (Justman’s taste was for more old-fashioned, flamboyant music, the opposite of Berman’s.) And Jones himself is a provocateur who works best with strong individual personalities (like Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy) and worst within a formal corporate structure. As is evident from his comments throughout these notes, he is his own man and not a political animal: for example, he once asked the producers if the Enterprise got its carpeting from K-Mart.

Reviewing Jones’s four-year tenure on the show, one can track the breakdown in the relationship. By Jones’s own admission, he worked too hard during 1988–1989, and as a result was let go from his other weekly series for Paramount Television, Mission: Impossible. He had a terrible deadline crunch on the second-season Next Generation episode “A Matter of Honor” (due to a conflict with DuckTales), finishing cues on the scoring stage but still requiring a handful of short pieces to be tracked from other episodes—in television, it is a cardinal sin not to finish a score on time. Late in the third season, he missed two episodes due to a long-scheduled trip to the Soviet Union; months in advance, Jones had called a meeting to clear the trip, but the schedule changed—and when the producers called him, they were alarmed to learn he was out of the country. Ironically, one of the episodes Jones missed would result in the show hiring Jay Chattaway (Jones’s eventual replacement) for the first time.

Jones’s colossal impact on the series’ best-ever and most-popular entry, “The Best of Both Worlds,” reasserted the special and invaluable nature of his talent. Critics and fans singled out his music for praise. Unfortunately, Jones’s next score proved to be an utter debacle—although you would never know it by watching the finished episode. For “Brothers,” a poignant but offbeat story personally scripted by Rick Berman (reuniting Data with his creator, Dr. Soong, and dangerous brother, Lore), Jones replaced his string section with a half-million dollar Synclavier for a souped-up electronic approach to the android family drama. Creatively, the results were brilliant, but the Synclavier’s MIDI connection crashed on the scoring stage—a result of pushing the technology too far, too fast. Jones had no choice but to abort the session with only half the score in the can. In television post-production, this is akin to detonating an atom bomb. Jones frantically rewrote the other half of the score over the weekend and recorded it—on his own dime—just in time for the satellite upload. Twenty years later, the composer still recalls the incident with pain and frustration.

Nevertheless, Jones persevered for another eight episodes, creating some of his best scores. But during the fourth season, the show moved away from its action-adventure origins for good, settling into a calm, controlled, dialogue-driven format—a weird formalism (loaded with “technobabble”) that came to define the show’s aesthetic. The contrast between the scores by Jones and McCarthy during this season is particularly striking: McCarthy’s music becomes less and less prominent, while Jones’s goes in experimental, cinematic directions. But the producers wanted the exact opposite: his theatrical, romantic score to “Devil’s Due” irritated Berman (as the kind of “old-fashioned” music he loathed), and two cues from the “alien orchestra” score to “First Contact” were replaced in the finished episode.

But the nail in the coffin may have been “Night Terrors,” a fear-based episode for which Jones requested a live chorus. Always interested in symbolism and metaphor, Jones wanted the soundtrack to feature lyrics relating to the “one moon circles” message within the story. Jones remembers the producers being surprised at the recording session because most of the choral tracks were textural (“oohs” and “aahs”) and, to them, could easily have been created with a synthesizer (for far less money). In the finished episode, virtually none of the lyrics are heard, with most of the chorus mixed low or removed altogether. So, on the one hand, Jones wrote a terrific score, arguably the best thing about the episode. On the other hand, if you are a producer, you don’t really want a chorus, you’ve just paid for 16 singers (a huge cost in television), and in the end you barely used it. This is like going to an ice cream shop, asking for vanilla, getting chocolate raspberry (along with a big bill)—and having the experience repeated time after time again.

Soon, it would be over. Lukas Kendall and Jeff Bond conducted the interviews for this project in four sessions of two to three hours each, often followed by lunch in beautiful downtown Burbank. Jones has sometimes spoken of the relief he felt once Star Trek was over for him—that it adversely affected his health, and he could finally reclaim his life and engage in other pursuits. But during one car ride to lunch, he confessed that he had been devastated to lose the show. He had imagined doing it for years on end, exploring the storytelling and mapping out an entire universe of themes and ideas. He had been astonished, listening to his scores for the first time in years, how long the cues were and what an irreplaceable opportunity it was. He was afraid he would never have such a canvas again as long as he lived. In that car ride, he laid it out exactly as he did in every score: the truth of the emotion, no matter how painful it was to express, and how hard he had to work to get there.

There is a happy ending. Years ago, in a brief phone conversation with Lukas Kendall, Dennis McCarthy—whose favorite topic must not have been Ron Jones, yet he always had a good word about everyone—said not to worry: Ron did such amazing work on Star Trek that it was only a matter of time before someone looked him up and gave him a gig. Dennis was—as he is about most things—absolutely correct. In the mid-1990s, Seth MacFarlane, then working at Hanna-Barbera, received a list of composers for a show called Larry & Steve. Recognizing Jones’s name from DuckTales and Star Trek, he hired him immediately. When MacFarlane started Family Guy, he again called Jones—today they are not only still working together on the smash success, but perform together with Influence, a big band Jones founded.

Nearly two decades after the score to his last TNG episode, Ron Jones’s Star Trek music has taken on a life of its own. While he provided some of the most exciting action music in the Star Trek franchise, it is the emotional, humanistic quality of his Next Generation music—so beautifully “in tune” with Gene Roddenberry’s ideas about the potential nobility of mankind and the wonder of exploring the universe—that may be his ultimate legacy. “There are people who are interested in how this works, so I think it’s cool to strip the image away and hear the music by itself,” he admits. “I got letters from people in NASA telling me that I’d humanized space. It was human to them because they were really doing what I was dramatizing, but they said I gave them a sense that they could still take their humanity into space with them.” — 

Disc Eleven »