Star Trek: Borg Original Soundtrack to the Interactive CD-Rom Video Game
The mid-1990s were a great time for the Star Trek franchise. With The Next Generation, one of the most popular incarnations of the Star Trek myth recently finished and Deep Space Nine going strong, it was no surprise that the number of Star Trek video games was also on the rise. Another trend that enjoyed great popularity in the mid-1990s – if for a much shorter period of time – were video games not just incorporating, but built exclusively around full-motion videos, or as some would call them, 'interactive movies'. Touted as the next generation of video games that would rival Hollywood, these titles ultimately turned out to be part of a short-lived trend, rarely delivering satisfying gameplay. For a while though, FMV games were quite the rage, and given the Star Trek franchise’s origin in TV and feature films, it was probably only natural that at least one Star Trek game would try to harness the franchise’s cinematic qualities through the excessive use of FMV videos. That game was Star Trek: Borg, which put the franchise’s most formidable antagonists – the drone-like and merciless Borg – front and center. Despite a decent budget and the involvement of Star Trek veterans Jonathan Frakes and John de Lancie, Borg couldn’t overcome its inherent limitation of trying to play like a feature film, while discarding most things that would have made it fun as a game.
Another Star Trek alumnus that worked on Borg was Dennis McCarthy, who would go on to clock up more hours of music for Star Trek TV series than any other composer through his work on Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. For Borg, he was joined by fellow TV composer Kevin Kiner, who would become best known for his work on Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Together, the duo were looking forward to explore musical territory uncharted on Next Generation, as described in the liner notes of 2013 compilation album Star Trek: Music from the Video Games. This aspiration included not only a bigger emphasis on orchestral elements such as French horns, but also the use of more exotic elements which hadn’t featured in Star Trek TV music yet, such as African percussion and Indonesian Gamelans. At the same time, McCarthy and Kiner didn’t have the privilege of a budget that would have allowed the use of a live orchestra. Instead, they settled on synthesised sounds that would still retain an organic quality, processing natural sounds and instruments to “make them [the Borg] sound unusual and mechanical while maintaining their organic foundation”, according to Kiner.
As so many Star Trek video game scores, Borg didn’t see an album release when the game hit the shelves. In 2007, McCarthy surprised Star Trek fans by offering Borg’s score as a CD-R, available for purchase on his website. This album also included three tracks McCarthy had written for the Borg Invasion 4-D ride at the Las Vegas Hilton’s Star Trek Experience in 2004. The album soon disappeared again from McCarthy’s website, but Borg's music was made available again to the general public when it was included in its entirety and newly arranged on Star Trek: Music from the Video Games – minus the Borg Invasion 4-D tracks. This review refers to the 2007 album release.
Borg is hardly the only Star Trek game released in the mid-1990s that harboured cinematic ambitions – look no further than 1997’s Starfleet Academy, scored by Next Generation composer Ron Jones and starring William Shatner, Walter Koenig and George Takei. Comparing the music for both games however highlights how Borg consistently fails to live up to these ambitions. McCarthy and Kiner miss the chance to realise their goal of providing Borg with a sound that breaks new ground for the Star Trek franchise. While it’s true that some elements of Borg have a closer affinity to horror movie soundtracks than anything else in the Star Trek canon up to that point, most of the time the two composers musically translate the fascinating Borg race into murky underscore and perfunctory action cues that keep relying on the same musical ideas with frustrating insistence.
What sets Borg apart from most other Star Trek game scores is its gloomy and claustrophobic mood, a pronounced contrast to the sweeping nature of most Star Trek soundtracks. This might be an apt choice for the fight against the Federation’s most overwhelming enemy. However, on Borg this atmosphere is often expressed by the kind of sparse suspense music that is functional in the context of the game, but on a standalone basis hardly leaves any impression beyond a vague sense of eeriness. Second album track “The Legend Of The Borg” sets the stylistic blueprint. As on Next Generation, the Borg are represented by a droning synth choir, which unfortunately is used by McCarthy and Kiner in decidedly conservative fashion, never developing into more than ominous background humming. The choir is surrounded by subdued layers of sound effects and percussion, including the aforementioned African and Indonesian instruments. Sadly, these are used too sparingly and stereotypically to add as much allure to the music as the composers had intended. After less than 90 seconds of distinctly thin musical material it’s over – only to continue on tracks like “"I Am Berman Of Borg"”, which feels just as underdeveloped and minimalist as “The Legend Of The Borg”, with its reliance on layers of deep string drones. At least the track’s second half introduces some faintly melodic elements. “Searching The Borg Ship” proceeds in similar fashion and highlights once more the uncreative use of the Borg synth choir, whose simple chromatic harmonies feel like a lazy short cut to a mildly ghostly atmosphere. Taking also into account the underutilised timbres of the African and Indonesian instruments, Borg can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity to create a memorable and – at least by Star Trek standards – unique score, instead settling for unremarkable sonic wallpaper. “Time Is Running Out” plunges into more repetitive underscore, while “Escape From The Borg Collective” veers back and forth without much sense between sombre background mumblings and a two-note harp ostinato that pops up for some seconds and then suddenly disappears again.
There are only a handful of occasions when Borg’s quieter moments are able to convince, at least to a degree. “"Goldsmith Has Been Assimilated!"” is a reference to Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek scores not only in name, but also in the way it tries to underscore the sense of wonder imparted by the exploration of outer space. The track's relatively intriguing string melody in the first half – over a simple-minded double bass and harp ostinato – and a woodwind solo lost in the emptiness of space in the second part of the cue manage to introduce some much-needed melodic content. “"Welcome to The Collective Cadet"”, after opening with a straight reprise of the soundtrack's main theme, delivers more stealth atmosphere and is the first track to run the way overused two-note harp ostinato into the ground. However, its – again admittedly simple – horn lead gives the music some feeling of dogged resistance, as opposed to rambling through more faceless underscore.
Borg’s action tracks feel as bereft of ideas as their moody counterparts. Things start out on a workman-like note with opening track “Main Theme”, a militaristic march that’s overlaid with an appropriately striding brass melody which despite its generic character does a reasonable job at evoking heroism in the face of the approaching enemy. The general impression that Borg gives off – that of a lack of creativity – unfortunately permeates most actions tracks from here on, starting with “Battle At Wolf 359”, which is happy to plod along for three minutes to simplistic, tiring deep string and snare drum rhythms. These are overlaid with perfunctory slow brass lines that are meant to sound inspiring, but are not only buried too far in the muddy album mix, but are also too clichéd to elicit much fighting spirit. There are some changes of rhythm and texture – most noticeably the introduction of sharp metal stingers that will become the Borg’s second and more effective sonic trademark – but these changes only result in passing interludes, which in their brevity feel perfunctory.
There’s not much excitement to be found on “Battle At Wolf 359”, and this continues with “The Battle Rages” and “Borg Hell”, although the interruption of the ever-same French horn leads and churning deep string rhythms by the orchestral stingers and the Borg choir is more effective here. It's particularly on these cues though that the quality of the synths and of the album mix take their toll – the album's sound simply lacks presence and increases the impression that the music holds back too much. After “"You Will Be Assimilated. Have A Nice Day"” has once more walked on exhaustingly familiar ground, the first half of “"Resistance Is Futile, My Ass!" / Finale” starts out by simply reprising the beginning of “Battle of Wolf 359”. After that, the composition continues the impression of tired repetition by reprising all of the elements previously heard on Borg's action tracks, combined with shades of the main theme. There's slightly more variety and development than let's say on “Battle of Wolf 359”, but it's still far from being award-winning material. The best thing about “"Resistance Is Futile, My Ass!" / Finale” and Borg as a whole is the track's second half, which hails victory for the Federation and gives way to the most unadulterated melodic segment on the album, as the main theme returns in unexpectedly noble fashion. This time, it's not a semi-resilient call to battle, but instead is allowed to breath and expand, recalling – if not necessarily attaining – the majestic quality of the sweeping sound so strongly associated with the Star Trek franchise. The composers still don't manage to inject enough substance into “Finale” outside of repetitions of the pleasing main theme, but the music is still more entertaining than anything heard up to this point.
If there's any reason to seek out this album release then, it's not the music for Borg – it's McCarthy's work for Borg Invasion 4-D, which not only highlights that McCarthy can write music outside of his Star Trek TV music comfort zone, but also that he can compose strong action cues. “BORG INVASION Suite Part 1” delivers a surprise with its unexpectedly contemporary style that recalls Don Davis' Matrix scores. There's not much focus on melody, rather on a mix of various orchestral and synthetic rhythms that are given added grit when distorted electronic guitars kick in. After the sedate experience that was Borg, the aggression of “BORG INVASION Suite Part 1”'s tough rhythms is a welcome change of pace. In its second half, the cue relies a bit too much on sinister underscore, but through it pulsating synths, percussive piano and twitching sound effects, the music maintains an edginess that was lacking on Borg's mood material.
“BORG INVASION Suite Part 2” ups the ante and focuses on its predecessor's battle material to winning results, this time with a greater emphasis on melodic elements, which manifest itself in the track's rising brass motifs. It's quite astonishing to see how much more energetic and varied this piece is compared to Borg's limp action cues – and not only that, as “BORG INVASION Suite Part 2”'s deep Borg choirs and quivering violin dissonances also give the music a sense of near panic and horror that was lacking previously on the album. “BORG INVASION Suite Part 3” continues in a similar vein and manages to keep the tension up for more than seven minutes without exhausting itself. The propulsive rhythms and brass figures are now joined by swirling strings, and mixed with the trademark Borg sounds create the album's most powerful, full-bodied and simply best composition. The rasping brass notes used in a pounding action context like this are another nod to the Matrix scores, and after the track's mid-section keeps listeners engaged through its skilfully deployed horror score tactics, “BORG INVASION Suite Part 3” caps off its well-developed arc with a triumphant reprise of Jerry Goldsmith's theme for Star Trek: Voyager. None of this is ground breaking stuff, but it's miles ahead of Borg and shows McCarthy more than capable of working within contemporary, big-screen scoring conventions to deliver rousing results.
There's not much reason to spend time with Star Trek: Borg. Despite the composers' ambitions, the score is almost wholly unremarkable on a standalone basis. Both battle tracks and atmospheric cues are devoid of ideas, repeating the same formula over and over – sparse percussion and droning, chromatic synth layers for the mood pieces, repetitive militaristic rhythms and uninspiring brass leads once the action heats up. It's a shame, considering that the ingredients for a strong and unusual Start Trek were in place – a fantastic antagonist like the Borg to underscore, and a wider array of instrumental colours to evoke than usually for a Star Trek score. This feeling of frustratingly unfulfilled potential only increases when listening to McCarthy's music for Borg Invasion 4-D. Suddenly, the music summons up the gritty force and unsettling atmosphere that eluded Star Trek: Borg, and McCarthy shows himself capable of penning some strong action tracks. It's too little too late to safe the album, but it gives this release at least a couple of standout cues. Still, you'd have to be a hardcore Trekkie to seek out this album only for the Borg Invasion 4-D tracks. So many years after the fact, Star Trek: Borg is best left forgotten – which makes it all the more curious that it features so prominently on Star Trek: Music from the Video Games.
This is a non-factory-pressed edition (CD-R) only available from Dennis McCarthy's website. "BORG INVASION Suite Part 3" contains the theme from Star Trek: Voyager by Jerry Goldsmith.
Main ThemeDennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
The Legend Of The BorgDennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
Battle At Wolf 359Dennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
The Battle RagesDennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
Club QDennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
"I Am Berman Of Borg"Dennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
"Goldsmith Has Been Assimilated!"Dennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
"Welcome to The Collective Cadet"Dennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
Searching The Borg ShipDennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
Time Is Running OutDennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
Escape From The Borg CollectiveDennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
Borg HellDennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
"You Will Be Assimilated. Have A Nice Day"Dennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
"Resistance Is Futile, My Ass!" / FinaleDennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
End TitlesDennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
BORG INVASION Suite Part 1Dennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
BORG INVASION Suite Part 2Dennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner
BORG INVASION Suite Part 3Dennis McCarthy, Kevin Kiner, Jerry Goldsmith