Star Trek songs are often a risky listen, with enough eye-rolling clichés, dumb jokes and badly played filk to turn off even the most diehard fans. But when the members of Five Year Mission came together in Indianapolis with the goal of writing a song for every episode of The Original Series, their approach set them apart. All veterans of other rock bands, they put complex songcraft and skilled musicianship into making not just great Star Trek music, but great music, period.
The episodes are divided evenly among the four songwriters in the band—Noah Butler, Patrick O’Connor, Mike Rittenhouse and Chris Spurgin, who all sing lead vocals on the songs they’ve written—and even drummer Andy Fark eventually took on a couple.
The project has already taken twice as long as their name suggests, but over the course of four albums (featuring songs about the first 64 episodes, in broadcast order except for “The Cage”) and two EPs (each dedicated to one specific episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles” and “Spock’s Brain”), they put together a vast musical and lyrical exploration of the TOS universe. Beyond being catchy and packed with show references, the songs often function almost like three-minute (or longer) Star Trek novels, exploring an unexpected character’s viewpoint, or the philosophical themes of an episode, or just the funny, quirky elements of it that only emerge after repeat viewings.
With the band now preparing its final album, Year Five, here are 10 selections (and a few other highlights) that are must-listens for Star Trek fans.
1. “The Cage”/”The Menagerie, Part 1”/“The Menagerie, Part 2”
What’s remarkable about the band’s “Captain Pike cycle” on Year One is how poignantly this trilogy traces the emotional arc of TOS’ first fearless leader, and the fact that all three songs fit together despite being written and sung by different band members. Rittenhouse’s “The Cage” is one of his punk-edged anthems, with all the adrenaline and attitude of Pike in his prime. O’Connor’s “The Menagerie, Part 1” calls back to “The Cage”’s lyrics with the line “I was the hero, I was exploring strange new worlds,” while capturing the apprehension and reflective melancholy of the now-paralyzed Pike. Spurgin’s gorgeous finale darkens them further—“I’m not your hero, what was I doing in your world”—before gradually opening up the promise of a new dawn with a reunion on Talos IV.
2. “The Naked Time”
Arguably the band’s best Spock song (though “The Enterprise Incident” is a close second). The “Vulcans don’t cry” chorus was apparently not intended as an echo of the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” but it definitely sounds like one, giving the Enterprise’s first officer the mope-rock hymn we didn’t know he needed. The fact that this entire song is centered around just one scene from the episode (the Kirk-Spock brawl at the end) shows how FYM’s songwriters were getting inventive with their approaches even early on. This was the first of many songs in which Spurgin found a way to get to the emotional heart of an episode; his “”Metamorphosis,” “The City on the Edge of Forever,” “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” and “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” would all be powerful love songs even if they weren’t about Star Trek.
O’Connor has a gift for reflecting the philosophical themes of an episode, as on “Who Mourns For Adonais” (with its chorus, “There’s no time for gods”) and the almost unsettling cry of Horta despair that is “The Devil in the Dark.” But he can also be counted on for some of the band’s wildest moments, like this unlikely cross between the Ramones and the Old 97s. From its repeated “bonk-bonk, bonk-bonk on the head” and “blah, blah, blah” refrains to un-brain-get-out-able lines like “I don’t wanna be a group” and “Miri is 300 years older than you/And 298 years older than me,” there’s never a dull moment.
4. “Shore Leave”
It might seem surprising that the band’s longest entry—at more than six-and-a-half minutes—would become its signature song. But from the big riffs and harmonies of the chorus to the way the Enterprise sound effects have been worked seamlessly into the rhythm, Rittenhouse’s take mirrors the pure fun of the episode. There’s something about the way he lovingly calls out all of the story’s eccentricities (“It’s a good thing the antenna didn’t hear what McCoy said/Or there’d be armies of Don Juans around”) as he runs through the plot that is satisfying no matter what your level of fandom. Also, pronouncing “sure” like “shore” in the “I sure want to leave” chorus is not only a great pun, but also a sly nod to FYM’s Midwestern roots.
5. “The Galileo Seven”
This song is actually more like a response to the episode, and its notoriously flawed logic concerning Spock’s actions during his first command mission. If you ever watched “The Galileo Seven” and rolled your eyes at the way the other characters treat the embattled Vulcan throughout—despite the fact that he basically does everything right—you’ll love Butler’s chorus “But I believe in you, Spock, I know/You’ll get them off of this rock, and go” and the final “I agree with you, Spock, and so/It was nothing more than logic, I know.”
6. “Tomorrow Is Yesterday”
You will believe a man can time travel —in song!— when you finish with this unassuming gem for O’Connor, based on the first Star Trek episode to use the “slingshot around the sun” idea (which, let’s face it, never made sense even as a sci-fi device, but whatever). The song starts out as a bouncy acoustic testament from Captain John Christopher, who explains how he was dispatched to investigate a UFO and wound up on the Enterprise, leading to a simple, sudden break—“Uh oh.” Then it goes nuts, as O’Connor warp-nines through the episode’s story. The whole thing would already be a blast even if it didn’t have one more trick up its sleeve— as the song seems to be winding down, it actually rewinds itself back to the beginning, mirroring the crew’s climactic time travelling. Just as in the end of the episode, Captain Christopher winds up in the cockpit of his F-104 jet again. The opening verse repeats, except for an altered last line as his new, Enterprise-less timeline starts: “Then it was gone/Guess I was wrong/The end.”
Rittenhouse has a knack for finding a surprising point of view, or even multiple points of view—“Errand of Mercy” gives a verse each to Kirk, the Klingons and the Organians, while despite being Kirk’s big action-hero number, “Arena” is actually about the whole Enterprise crew, as the captain imagines what each would do if they were stuck fighting the Gorn. Rittenhouse also turned the “The Ultimate Computer” into a hilariously narcissistic rant by the M5 computer that’s way more entertaining than the actual episode. But his crowning achievement in this regard might be “Catspaw,” which is told not from any of the crewmembers’ perspectives, or even that of head alien Sylvia, but from the point-of-view of her glorified henchman Korob. What might seem like an odd choice at first actually turns the song into a compelling outsider’s tale of regret and lost love. The heartbroken sincerity with which he proclaims, over crunchy layers of guitar, lines like “Sylvia, I thought we were together/Until I saw you with another/You think I’m a puppet, a fool, I am a catspaw/You’re a traitor/You forget what we came here for” will make you look at the episode in an entirely different way.
8. “The Trouble With Tribbles”
This one is kind of a cheat, since FYM actually has five songs called “The Trouble With Tribbles,” with each member writing one for the EP of the same name. They did “Spock’s Brain” in even more completist detail for their second EP, writing two songs each about the episode. The “Spock’s Brain” stuff is a hoot, but the “Tribbles” songs have the advantage of being about one of the best installments of the series. The band’s special affection for this episode really comes across in these songs, which take on the perspective of everyone from the crew to Cyrano Jones to the tribbles themselves. There’s also a flat-out amazing rap from the Klingons’ perspective, done in the style of early Beastie Boys. (All the videos FYM make to accompany their songs should be checked out, but this one is just beyond words). The Klingons got a follow-up rap for Year Four’s “Day of the Dove.”
9. “The Immunity Syndrome”
Butler’s waves of guitar can carry the band to sonic deep space, never more so than on this song. As he sings, “We sink so deep/Into the great and dark unknown,” the music does the same. The video for “The Immunity Syndrome” does a great job of pairing the song’s riffs with the fantastic visual effects in this episode, which were arguably the best in the series. But it’s worth doing a “Dark Side of the Rainbow” type thing where you watch this episode on the biggest possible screen while looping the song over and over. The repeated spelling out of “I-M-M-U-N-I-T-Y” is one of the band’s catchiest hooks; like the chorus of David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” it’ll circle around in your head endlessly if you let it.
10. “The Omega Glory”
A prime example of how FYM can turn a terrible hour of Star Trek into a great song. While many of the band’s adaptations are thoughtful deep-dives into various aspects of the characters or storylines, Sturgin clearly realized that this one needed to be big, dumb fun for a big, dumb episode. The result is a heavy slice of arena rock with a chorus—“Welcome to Omega!”—that is irresistibly ridiculous.
You can connect with Five Year Mission at their website, fiveyearmission.net, or on Twitter at @5YearMission. Their videos can be found on their YouTube channel, and ‘Five Year Mission: The Podcast’ is distributed by the Trek Geeks network.
Steve Palopoli (he/him) is a writer and newspaper editor in California. Find him on twitter @stevepalopoli.