Synopsis: Branded as fugitives by the very federation they swore to protect, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise dutifully returns to Earth to face charges for crimes committed in the course of rescuing a resurrected Spock. But en route, it is learned that the Earth is being ravaged by a strange alien probe demanding a response from a life form that no longer exists. Commandeering a captured Klingon Bird of Prey, Kirk and his crew bend time and space to save Earth and rediscover the meaning of friendship.
eyelights: Leonard Nimoy. DeForest Kelley. its combination of humour and social conscience. its character dynamics.
eyesores: its simplistic resolutions.
“To hunt a species to extinction is not logical.” “Whoever said the human race was logical?”
The ‘Star Trek’ fans that I know like to talk crap about ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’. Even though they once were extremely fond of it, their adult selves discredit the film for being the pop version of Trek, for being far too light fare. The standard argument is that it’s also one of the most popular of the whole franchise; if the masses gobbled it up, it must be dumbed-down Trek.
Admittedly, ‘The Voyage Home’ is a more accessible Trek: It takes us into the then-present day and uses the setting of 1986 San Francisco for fish-out-of-water humour. Audiences didn’t need to know much about Trek mythos, and they didn’t even have to feel displaced into the 23rd century. ‘Star Trek’ crossed time to join them on their turf and ensured that it made itself understood.
And made its message clear.
Because, for all the condescension, ‘Star Trek IV’ is a much deeper film than one might suppose based on the trailers: It’s a picture that concerns itself with the fate of the environment at humanity’s hands; it proposes that humanity should think of itself by thinking about other lifeforms, that our short-term views are detrimental in the long-term. What goes around, comes around, it says.
In effect, it’s an extension of the themes proposed in the previous films, the staples of Trek: ‘The Wrath of Khan‘s “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”, became ‘The Search for Spock‘s “The needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.”, and in this film becomes “The needs of the few equal the needs of the many”. We are all connected and we need each other.
More than we know.
‘The Voyage Home’ is the concluding chapter in the story arc that began with ‘The Wrath of Khan’ five years earlier, with Spock’s death. Having found Spock, and given him time to relearn all that he’d unlearned, the Enterprise crew are ready to return home to face the music. But a probe is Earth-bound and is inadvertently shutting down everything in its path, its transmissions unclear.
But it occurs to Spock that they may be directed at a long-extinct species, the humpback whale. When his suspicions are confirmed, and knowing that there is nothing they can do to stop the probe, the Enterprise crew (who are now aboard the same bird-of-prey ship they escaped with in ‘The Search for Spock’) decide to go back in time to find themselves some humpback whales – and save the day.
This adventure through time is very different in tone from its predecessors: it’s not action-based and there’s no villain. The crew has to find whales, prepare to contain them in their ship (ironically dubbed The Bounty by McCoy), and fix their dilithium crystals, which were damaged in transit. It only makes sense to up the humour as they chase around San Fran for various key components.
The humour also helps take the edge off of what could otherwise be a fairly heavy picture: It does, after all discuss our destruction of the environment and the extinction of other species at humanity’s hands. The humour in ‘The Voyage Home’ is the sugar that helps the medicine go down. It also serves the double purpose of diverting attention so that the message isn’t all there is.
The cast clearly relished this opportunity: One gets the impression that they’re having a blast with this one; not only do most of the crew get more meaty parts, but they all get to share the jokes. As good as they are in previous films, the dynamic between them is electric here, with each one bouncing off of the other to great effect. This may very well be their best work as a unit.
Light though it may be on plot, ‘Star Trek IV’ is filled with highlights:
Leonard Rosenman’s score: Although it takes us back to a more nautical thematic than its predecessor, Roseman’s score serves the picture well, enhancing the comedy and keeping things light – without eschewing the drama. Plus which he nods to the original ‘Star Trek’ theme a few times – including at the opening of his score. It plays well.
The theme: While some might feel that it’s heavy-handed, I remember as a kid how the extinction of whales and other species suddenly got on my radar thanks to this picture. Environmental groups had been warning humanity for years, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears (one could argue that it has continued to). I feel it’s an important message, and Trek did it well.
The Starfleet council: In the aftermath of Genesis, the Klingons are demanding Kirk’s extradition. The council concedes that he has violated nine regulations – only Sarek comes to his defense. I like that there are consequences to Kirk’s actions. It’s more real-world than most sci-fi films, which just blast their way through problems and never look back.
Vulcan: What a beautiful planet Vulcan is in this story arc. It’s nothing like the one from ‘The Motion Picture‘ or the television show (obviously, given the budgets).
Spock’s training: Spock has been spending the last three months relearning all that he’s lost upon dying. He hasn’t quite caught up, but he’s obviously doing rather well – he uses three monitors at once and is passing all the tests. Watching him is impressive both from a technological standpoint (he was using flat screens and sensory pads) but also from a character perspective.
The matte paintings: While most of the film is shot on location there are scenes (ex: Vulcan) that are enhanced by matte paintings. And they’re just gorgeous.
The probe: Watching the probe just lumber onward through space and shut everything down in its wake, is chill-inducing. What does one do without power in space? And when it gets to Earth and inadvertently starts ionizing the oceans, one gets the sense that it’s even more dangerous than anticipated.
The bird-of-prey: I can’t say it enough: it looks absolutely awesome.
The technology: Whether it’s on Vulcan or on various Starfleet bases, outposts or ships, everything looks really good. You really can believe that it’s the future.
McCoy and Spock: Once Spock joins the crew again, McCoy decides to try to reconnect with him. It’s a hilariously unsuccessful attempt:
McCoy (warmly): “C’mon, Spock, it’s me, McCoy. You really have gone where no man’s gone before. Can’t you tell me what it felt like?”
Spock: “It would be impossible to discuss the subject without a common frame-of-reference.”
McCoy (dismayed): “You’re joking!”
Spock: “A joke… is a story with a humorous climax.”
McCoy (shocked): “You mean I have to die to discuss your insights on death?”
DeForest Kelley: Seriously, he is SO good here, that he’s one of the film’s highlights. McCoy serves the purpose of both explaining things to the audience and also as comic relief; Kelley is brilliant at both, punctuating his lines just right, selling it as though it were merely part of his character. It could have fallen totally flat, but not in his skilled hands; McCoy’s a surgeon for a reason.
Leonard Nimoy: Not only was part of the film’s story Nimoy’s, not only did he direct the picture, but he also had a MUCH larger part to play in the film – Spock and Kirk are paired up for their mission on Earth, so he gets a LOT of screentime. And he’s pitch-perfect the whole way, the perfect straight man. And he gets so many hilarious moments just for being Spock – in a human environment he doesn’t understand. His use of cursing to try to fit in with late-20th century Americans is side-splitting.
The time travel: I’m not sure what they were going for with the effects for the crew’s time travel, but it looked quite good. It was basically a bunch of rudimentary CGI animation that brought up busts of each crew member and then whales. I’m not sure what it meant but it actually still looks good – they didn’t over-reach with the effects, knew their limits. And it works.
The cloaking device: I don’t know if the filmmakers had thought about this already when they made the last picture, but having the crew on the bird-of-prey was really timely because they could use the ship’s cloaking device to great effect now that they were in the 20th century. Genius!
Sulu’s outing: I don’t know if this was a subtle hint that George Takei was sending at the time, but once they get to their destination, Sulu says: “San Francisco… I was born there.”. Nice. Enough said.
Spock’s headband: When he realizes that he will stand out on 20th century Earth, Spock nonchalantly tears a piece of his robe off and makes a headband to hide his eyebrows and ears – eliciting a headshake from McCoy and a concealed smirk from Kirk. Ha!
The 20th Century: The crew don’t have any easy way to get by on Earth of the 20th century: they realize that they need money, they can’t get around without a vehicle, can’t find information easily. Other films wouldn’t consider this at all; their characters would just traipse about as though there was nothing to it.
23rd century vs 20th century: The whole fish out-of-water part of the picture truly hits its stride when the crew try to get started on their respective missions:
-While Spock uses logic to figure out where whales could be found in this area, Kirk just happens to see an advertisement and interrupts his friend’s thought process – explaining to a confused Spock that he also used logic to figure it out.
-Sulu, Scotty and McCoy don’t know where to start, are just looking around aimlessly – until they turn around to find a HUGE Yellow Pages painted on the edifice behind them.
-Chekov and Uhura are trying to get to the San Francisco Bay to find energy from a nuclear warship and Chekov, in his thick Russian accent, naively keeps asking around where there may be any “nuclear wessels” – all under the terse gaze of a police officer.
-Kirk and Spock, now on a bus to the marine life institute (after having been previously tossed out for not having correct change!) have to confront a punk with an attitude who is spreading noise pollution with his ghetto blaster. After Kirk fails to get him to turn it off, Spock uses a Vulcan nerve pinch on him – to the jubilation of everyone on board, who clap wildly.
-Spock breaks off from their tour to go communicate with the whales, leaving Kirk to wonder where he’s gone to. When their tour guide, Gillian Taylor, explains that no one understands the whales’ singing, a wide-eyed senior points to the large tank and says “Maybe she’s singing to that man!”. Because, naturally, Spock dove in to go mind-meld with the whale. I laughed so heartily during this moment, even though I’ve seen it countless times.
Kirk and Spock’s language skills: Not only does Spock try to curse to fit in, throwing in “Hell” at every other word (to hilarious effect), but Kirk tries too hard to use his limited knowledge of the period to get by. When he has to explain Spock’s behaviour to Taylor, he confides in her that he was at Berkley and did “too much LDS”! Ha!
The USS Enterprise: Amusingly enough, Uhura and Chekov find a ship to pull energy from: the USS Enterprise! Nice!
McCoy vs modern medicine: After Chekov finds himself in critical condition at the hospital, Kirk, McCoy and Gillian go to save his life – and break him out. But McCoy is aghast at the techniques they’re using there, exclaiming that it’s like the Dark Ages and the Spanish inquisition! ROFL!
The Bounty vs the whalers: It doesn’t look quite real by today’s standard, but the sight of the bird-of-prey just hovering ominously over the whalers boat is quite the sight.
The whales communicate with the probe: Back in the 23rd century, the whales that the crew brought back communicate with the probe. And just like that, the probe leaves and all is whale. Ahem… well.
Kirk is demoted: Although the whole crew stood for trial, including Spock (who insisted he should be with the others), considering that they’d saved Earth, all charges against Kirk but one were dropped. So Kirk is demoted to Captain – which is what he wanted all along. Nice.
Spock and Sarek: There’s a terrific moment between father and son as Sarek tells Spock he’s proud of him. It’s the closest thing to warmth that you’ll ever find between Vulcans, and it was actually rather touching.
Naturellement, even a film as enjoyable as this one has its wrinkles:
V’ger 2: The probe is really just a rehash of V’ger, except without any ill intent.
The matte paintings: They’re beautiful, but they absolutely don’t look real.
Transparent aluminum: Scotty and McCoy use a future invention, transparent aluminum, as collateral to get large sheets of plexiglass for the tank they’re building on The Bounty. Now, it’s suggested that the man they’re bartering with may have eventually been the inventor anyway – but it’s not explicit, even though McCoy asks Scotty about it. Plus which, even if it were the case, if the timeframe in which he invents it changes, that alters the future. So it’s reckless of Scotty. And I take exception to the fact that the inventor would just happen to be in San Fran, too. What a convenient coincidence!
Chekov’s escape: After getting caught on the USS Enterprise, Chekov escapes but leaves behind his gear. Wouldn’t this alter the future?
The third act: It’s not bad, but it lacks tension, doesn’t it? And excitement. And humour. It’s still very good, but it’s a bit lacking.
The Bounty crash lands in the Bay: Back in the 23rd century, the crew crash land The Bounty blindly into the Bay because the probe has shut down all their scanners. I just can’t believe that they got so lucky that they didn’t crash into something dangerous – like the San Francisco bridge, which they barely missed. What luck!
The crew vs the whales: It’s painfully obvious that the whales were shot in a completely different location than the crew of the Enterprise. Ahem… of The Bounty.
Kirk’s demotion: Did they really have to spell it out? I think that Starfleet, knowing that they were in fact giving Kirk exactly what he wanted, should have kept the pretense of disciplining him if only to save face – and let everyone else’s reactions explain that this is what Kirk wanted. Instead, they actually say it. Doh.
Ultimately, ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’ is probably one of the best examples of how to blend humour with a serious message with science-fiction. If not the best. It’s a terrific comedy on its own, and it’s a terrific science-fiction film too. Blended together as it is here, it’s not surprising that it was til then the most beloved and profitable film of the franchise.
Many years later, after many viewings, I think it still plays well.
It’s a modern classic.
Date of viewing: July 2, 2016