After two seasons weakened by an extended Writers Guild strike and shakeups of its own writing staff, Star Trek: The Next Generation entered its third season with a strong group of writers led by Michael Piller. A veteran of Simon & Simon, Piller was—more than anyone—responsible for the show’s creative renaissance. He demanded that the stories revolve around character, hired major talents like Ronald D. Moore (who would later helm the critically praised revival of Battlestar Galactica, but at the time had no television experience) and instituted an “open submission” policy (unheard of in television) allowing story ideas and occasionally scripts to be purchased from amateurs. Executive Producer Rick Berman honed the previously ragged technical elements of the show, producing a series that boasted improved visual effects, sets, costumes and lighting. Characterization was more consistent, the tone more adult, and—best of all—the stories consistently stronger and more engaging.
Ron Jones had spent the previous two years honing his scoring style for the series. Some of the show’s most problematic episodes had actually created opportunities for him to stretch as a composer. Listening to his third season scores, one is struck by how different they sound: moodier, typically shorter in duration, and more “interior”—a reaction to the improved productions. “By the third season, I even felt more relaxed entering each show—that it actually was a well-thought-out story and they weren’t experimenting so much. I felt like it finally had legs and was going to stay—up until then I always felt it could implode at any second. We had Robert Justman [in the beginning], who was the voice to try and bring in the traditional Star Trek and some writers were in that camp, and some were on a different wavelength. Piller came in and said, ‘We’re going to do it this way,’ and they had a lot of scripts to pull from.”
Cinematographer Marvin Rush also came aboard the series and created a moodier, more realistic lighting scheme for the show that helped the drama enormously. “Some of those meeting rooms—before, they had fluorescent lights and all these other lights baking everybody,” Jones recalls, “and when the new guy came in, he brought everything down to more like a casino.”
While Jones still had differences of opinion with Berman, he had learned to make the show’s producers feel more involved by offering them alternates and mixing options on key cues. In a classic example of “managing up,” Jones would make subtle changes on the scoring stage to satisfy the producers, even though they were relatively easy to execute: a fade-out rather than a “button” end, a taceted instrumental section, or a take that is somewhat shorter or longer. (In television, the time simply did not exist to write wholesale “alternate” versions of a cue.) “They never said give me different versions—I went to the dub and I’d give them a variety of things to choose from. If you go into a French restaurant and there’s one thing on the menu, you just say, ‘I’m leaving.’ But if there’s a bunch of different options and the chef can cook things different ways, then you feel happy. I wanted to give them more on the menu, so if they didn’t like something, they had options to choose from. You have to give them a few little knobs to mess around with the music without making big changes.”
Jones had moved almost completely away from referencing Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek movie theme in season two (which remained the main title music for the show) and only used the Alexander Courage fanfare twice in season three: for the final act-out of his first score, “Evolution,” and in a rare dramatic moment in the cliffhanger, “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” (when the Enterprise crew discovers Picard has been turned into a Borg). The composer often wrote a new melody—never to be heard again—for the show’s iconic “warp-out” tags, in which the Enterprise soars away on its next mission, leaving the audience aloft on a high note of adventure and purpose, even following a relatively downbeat story (like “The High Ground”). “I kept trying to get away from the original Star Trek and let it be its own thing, and coming up with other themes for the vessel was like defining the pope. I would usually define it in terms of the shot and just say, ‘Well, this is a great shot,’ and I wanted to do something special for that shot.”
Jones was thrilled with the sound he got from his new recording engineer, Armin Steiner, on the 20th Century Fox Scoring Stage. Steiner’s peers have long regarded him as one of the geniuses of his profession, and Jones’s third- and fourth-season scores benefit from Steiner’s warm, spacious sound, with a richer and less “edgy” integration of the synthesizers with the orchestra.
Continuing his experimentation from season two (in which occasional scores would omit certain instrumental sections in favor of others), Jones called for a number of unusual orchestras for season three. The first four episodes (those on disc 8) are the most unorthodox: “Evolution” features a brass section of only one trumpet and one French horn; “Who Watches the Watchers” omits violins and all brass in favor of extra woodwinds; “Booby Trap” features no woodwinds and only two trumpets in the brass section; and “The Price” employs three woodwinds and no brass. Later in the season, Jones scored “A Matter of Perspective” for just strings, three keyboards and two harps; “The Offspring” omits trumpets; “Allegiance” omits brass, save three French horns; and “Ménage à Troi” used a budget-saving orchestra without strings (save two basses) and brass (save four French horns). While the orchestra size shrank slightly—typically using 40–50 players rather than the 50–60 of season two—the creative use of instrumentation made this less noticeable.
In April 1990, Jones took a long-planned trip to the then-Soviet Union, where he accepted an invitation to speak at a composers’ seminar (although he suspects the Soviets were really after his knowledge of high-tech synthesizer gear, which used some of the same cutting-edge electronics as defense technology). As a result, he missed two episodes: new series composer Jay Chattaway (recommended to the producers by Paramount television music executive David Grossman) did “Tin Man” as a fill-in score, while McCarthy scored “The Most Toys.” Although Jones cleared the trip with the production well in advance, the schedule changed—and when the producers called Jones to work, they were alarmed to learn he was out of the country. It was a step along the way in the deterioration of the relationship that led to him leaving the show a year later. —