Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Directed by: Leonard Nimoy
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Catherine Hicks, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nicols, Walter Koenig
(out of 4)
WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
With Spock brought back to life in Star Trek III, the crew of the late starship Enterprise have been living on Vulcan for a few months while Spock recuperates (the retraining his mind is fairly successful even if, as McCoy suggests, he’s not exactly working on all thrusters). The crew make the decision to return to Earth and receive whatever punishment Starfleet deems fit to dish out, considering that they are responsible for disobeying orders, sabotaging the USS Excelsior, and destroying the Enterprise, among other things. Unbeknown to our heroes, a mysterious black probe, cylindrical in shape, has made its way to Earth, inflicting massive environmental damage with its powerful transmissions. After receiving a distress signal from the Federation president, Spock determines that the probe’s transmissions are the songs sung by humpback whales. Since humpbacks are extinct in the 23rd century, Kirk makes the (rather quick) decision to travel back in time using their stolen Klingon warship, retrieve some whales, bring them forward in time, drop ’em off, and as Bones puts it – “hope to hell they tell this probe what to go do with itself.”
This is the setup for the light fish-out-of-water comedy known as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. (Think of it as the polar opposite of the serious-minded Star Trek III). The bulk of the movie is spent on Kirk and company trying to adjust to 20th century San Francisco, getting into wacky situations involving “colorful metaphors” (Spock can’t quite get them right), Apple Macs (Scotty knows them inside and out – they must be a hobby), medieval (20th century) medical practices (Bones calls it the dark ages), and Kirk wooing an opinionated, emotional Dr. Gillian Taylor (Hicks), who happens to be taking care of two whales named George and Gracie at the nearby Cetacean Institute. Obviously not believing Kirk’s “cockamamie fish story” about traveling from the future to get whales, she still can’t stop herself from paying for dinner and giving him details about the whales’ upcoming whereabouts. Kirk is just that good!
Let’s talk about the best bits. I enjoyed that, as Roger Ebert put it, the series remembers it has a history. The 23rd century sequences are good; it’s nice to get reacquainted with the cast and their situation before they have to get down to business. Once they have slingshot around the sun into time warp, Star Trek IV plays the comedy angle very well for this sort of thing. Not the best “sci-fi” film in the franchise, but certainly the best “comedy”, and like most good comedies, the movie derives its humor from the peculiar character quirks of the crew. Kirk charms the female lead while passing off Spock’s odd behavior as a consequence of the Berkeley free speech movement (“I think he did a little too much LDS”). Sulu gets to fly a Huey around, Scotty gets to play professor, and McCoy is horrified by the state of our present day health care system. Don’t forget the classic bit involving Chekov asking a cop where the “nuclear wessels” are. I like how, when caught aboard an aircraft carrier, he is dismissed as a loony Russian agent. Star Trek 4 gets props from me for dealing in unknown intelligences, like the first film did, and bringing up the suggestion that you don’t even need to leave the planet to find them. I am especially glad that the ending sequence doesn’t subtitle the conversation between the probe and the whales, as the studio apparently wanted. (Would any subtitled exchange be as good as the ones we can imagine?) The probe itself is both simple and wondrous – it reminded me of the monolith from 2001. Where Star Trek IV starts to weaken is when it indulges too much in the save-the-whales ad campaign, threatening to bring it very close to an after-school special. There is also some drama on the level of soap opera involving Gillian and how close she is to the whales; it’s out of place but fortunately there aren’t too many scenes of it.
Star Trek 4 is enjoyable and competently directed by Leonard Nimoy, with a budget that seems higher than the previous two movies (which, along with this film, make up an unofficial “trilogy”). It also seems to make much better use of the widescreen format than the previous two films (Don Peterman’s cinematography earned him an Oscar nomination). I am a little bit amazed that it has been embraced by so many non-trekkies, given that how much you get out of the film depends on how well you know these characters. (Or perhaps everybody just loves whales and San Francisco). As it happens, it’s a very clever way of incorporating an ecological message into a science fiction comedy. There are some definite well-known tropes, like the idea of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons – one thing the Trek films have done so far is show that every action has consequences, but we are given an optimistic future where not only have we learned from our mistakes but we will be capable of dealing with the effects of previous ones. It’s a nice way to tie together past, present, and future generations into this complex web we call humanity.
– Bill Gordon