Originally published in the Star Trek Beyond special issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2016.
“The spoken word, I’ve always felt, is music […] I know I can’t sustain the note to actually sing. But I have music in my soul, and I’m attempting to bring it out within the language, and along with the music.” – William Shatner
When actors record music, the results often range from weird to terrible. For every actor who carves out a second identity as a musician, there are dozens more whose musical careers are curiosities at best, and subjects of derision at worst.
More than those of any other screen franchise, the casts of Star Trek have produced a staggering amount of music. Some performers – The Next Generation’s Brent Spiner, Deep Space Nine’s Nana Visitor, Voyager’s Tim Russ, Enterprise’s Scott Bakula – were recording or Broadway artists before their Trek days, and some exploited their Trek success for musical releases later (like Spiner, with his jazz-standards album Ol’ Yellow Eyes Is Back). But it’s the original series’ cast that produced the most fascinating music – and who capitalised upon their onscreen personae the most.
William Shatner’s halting, spoken-word performance of “Rocket Man” at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards has become a legendary target of mocking and parody, hitting the big time as a Family Guy aside, but his recording history began back in the ‘60s. Captain Kirk’s first album, The Transformed Man, cemented the actor’s speak-singing style in 1968. It alternates between Shakespeare readings and pop covers, with “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” quickly becoming camp music favourites. He followed it up with a live recording of literature and drama readings set to music. Its liner notes describe the one-man show as “the ultimate of the actor’s medium,” and the album’s self-indulgence reflects that attitude pretty well.
Shatner appeared on Ben Folds’ experimental album Fear Of Pop: Volume 1 in 1998, beginning a collaboration that would result in 2004’s Has Been. Written by Folds and Shatner in tandem, the album contains one cover (a surprisingly strong rendition of Pulp’s “Common People”), but mostly consists of original songs featuring a host of guest performers. Without irony, Has Been is an outstanding album, displaying a disarming level of self-deprecating wit, soul-baring honesty, and musical eclecticism. “I Can’t Get Behind That,” in which Shatner and Henry Rollins rant about life’s little annoyances, is a highlight, but the crown jewel is “That’s Me Trying,” featuring Aimee Mann and lyrics by novelist Nick Hornby. I don’t know what Shatner’s relationships with his kids are like, but his wistful tale of a father trying to reconnect with his daughter bears the painful, unmistakable ring of truth.
Following Has Been, Shatner released a gratuitously long album of covers, including a tired studio retread of “Rocket Man,” called Seeking Major Tom, and a more interesting record entitled Ponder The Mystery. Produced by Yes multi-instrumentalist Billy Sherwood, it’s an concept album about despair, introspection, and beauty. Though not quite as focused (or as good) as Has Been, it’s still another intriguing glimpse into the mind of a creative desperate to express himself.
Leonard Nimoy’s contract with Dot Records came about when an executive’s daughter demanded that Spock feature on a “space music” album the label was producing. Following that record’s moderate success, Nimoy got signed and recorded four more albums between 1967 and 1970. His prolificacy was Beatlesesque, but the resultant records were not. But Nimoy’s discography isn’t without wonderful weirdness.
Nimoy’s debut Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space is almost entirely made up of space-themed songs and spoken-word narration, with themes from Star Trek and Nimoy’s other Paramount show Mission Impossible thrown in for good measure. It’s an intriguing oddity. But Nimoy’s best kitsch classics wouldn’t emerge until his second album, Two Sides Of Leonard Nimoy.
The first of those sides contains songs dealing with the strain between Spock’s human and Vulcan sides in a humourously 20th-century way. The bouncy “Highly Illogical” is a clear standout, seeing Spock enumerate vexing human behaviours. On the album’s second side is Nimoy’s most memetic song, the irritatingly catchy “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” Nimoy’s screen performance of it on the variety show Mailbu U would become popular on the internet, decades later.
From there, Nimoy released three more albums made up of covers and originals bearing a folksy flower-child sound. Only his rendition of “If I Had A Hammer” leaps out like “Baggins” or “Illogical”; the rest is acceptable and forgettable.
Unlike Shatner and Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols was a legitimate singer prior to appearing on Star Trek. She was recording even while filming the show, and in 1968 released jazz standard compilation Down To Earth. The album showcases Nichols’ versatile vocal talent – her upbeat “Feelin’ Good” is as celebratory as her “That’s Life” is sultry – via arrangements from legendary arranger Gerald Wilson.
Significantly less successful is Out Of This World, released over twenty years later, which eschews breathy jazz for instantly dated imitation ‘80s Motown pop. The production is cheap, the lyrics cringe-inducing, and the science fiction theme as gross and simplistic a cash-in on Trek as anything Nichols’ co-stars put out. It contains a rendition of the show’s theme tune, with unofficial lyrics; a song about Uhura; a dancey version of the song from “The Conscience of the King”; and a poem about Gene Roddenberry. Nichols is fine, but the material is a poor showcase for her talent.
Aside from Shatner, Nimoy, and Nichols, the recorded music of Star Trek cast members is sparse. George Takei (Sulu) sang “On The Road Again” on CBS’ Secret Talents Of The Stars in 2008, and James Doohan (Scotty) was known to sing Gaelic folk songs at conventions, but the most musically elusive Trek alumnus is Grace Lee Whitney (Janice Rand). Whitney had a musical career prior to Trek, and later released two cassette albums of Trek-themed songs. Only one track can be found online: a somewhat risible number called “Disco Trekkin’.”
What was it about Star Trek that pushed its cast to produce so much music? The cast wasn’t especially musically-oriented. The show had no songs to speak of. Perhaps it was the intense Trek fandom, begging for more from its favourite stars. Maybe Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision pushed them to follow their unfulfilled musical dreams. Whatever the reason, we should thank them for adding to the great galaxy of strangeness orbiting the bright, shining core that is Star Trek. Damn, is it ever strange.