The Enterprise crew has some fun in San Francisco.
Who made it?: Leonard Nimoy (Director), Harve Bennett (Producer/Co-Writer), Nicholas Meyer, Peter Krikes, Steve Meerson (Co-Writers), Paramount Pictures.
Who’s in it?: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Catherine Hicks.
Tagline: “How on Earth can they save the future?”
IMDb rating: 7.2/10.
Should a film discussion with your friends ever get onto the subject of the Star Trek franchise, you can bet that someone will bring up “that one with the whales.”
For the longest time, that has been the distinguishing feature of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a comedy film set within the venerated sci-fi universe. Yes, it has a genre story to tell with a great deal of sincerity, but there’s no denying that this was a film made to be as commercially-viable as possible. That meant toning down a sense of continuity (although, a couple of plot threads are neatly tied-up), and bringing in a great deal of humour that made it one of the more successful entries with audiences. Indeed, it made $133 million on a $21 million budget, all but ensuring that the original crew would stick around for two more films.
The funds allotted returning director Leonard Nimoy are notable because there’s a sense Paramount wanted to churn these puppies out as cheaply as possible, and nothing says that more than a space-bound franchise moving the action to present-day Earth (well, a noticeably dated 1986). The Voyage Home‘s batshit crazy plotline (concocted by the late Nimoy and producer Harve Bennett) is still one of the most outlandish in the series, and yet one that non-Trekkers can easily embrace. Voyage is the most light-hearted and accessible of the lot by being, of all things, a cultural satire.
The Enterprise crew are exiled on Vulcan after their treasonous exploits in The Search for Spock, but they are soon called upon to save our world when a sinister cylindrical probe is discovered in space. It is pumping out a strange signal that disables starships and Earth’s power, and when Spock (Nimoy) determines that the signal matches the song of extinct humpback whales, the crew partake in a little time-travel (see, J.J. Abrams wasn’t just using it for the sake of it). This involves sling-shotting their commandeered Klingon Bird-of-Prey around the Sun, which leaves them in ’86 San Francisco on the hunt for humpbacks. Kirk (William Shatner) does his best to Captain in this fish-out-of-water scenario, but McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Scotty (James Doohan), Chekov (Walter Koenig), Sulu (George Takei), and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) are just as lost in what is, to them, an ancient culture. With help from marine biologist Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), the crew might be able to swipe two whales from the Cetacean Institute and transport them back to the 23rd Century…
It’s easy to see why hardcore Trekkers would despair at this concept. It doesn’t involve the Enterprise getting into elaborate space battles, and there’s no actual villain, but taken as a movie independent of the franchise, it really, really plays. When you get to number four knowing that it’s probably not the end, why not have a more offbeat and “fun” entry? All of the respective TV series did something like this to break the mold occasionally. Would Star Trek: The Next Generation have lasted seven seasons without something as playful as the Holodeck? Nimoy and the cast wanted to have a ball with these characters, and while the narrative isn’t what we’ve come to expect from this saga, the principle players enjoy themselves immensely. If you love this crew and their relationships, it’s also fantastic that the script gives everyone a chance to drive the story. Scotty, Chekov, Sulu and Uhura have often been periphery characters there to be shouted at by Kirk when the plot demanded it, but here they’re just as flummoxed as their Admiral. They all have substantial roles to play in making sure the mission is a success, and to see them struggling with 20th Century customs is frequently hilarious (Spock even has to “disguise” his unusual visage by simply covering his ears, which is perhaps the best gag about humanoid aliens ever). You could say that this is Star Trek by way of Red Dwarf, and that isn’t even a hollow comparison, as the scene of a cloaked Bird-of-Prey landing in a city park is almost identical to Starbug doing the same in “Backwards.”
While a light touch was the goal, Nimoy was smart enough to include some substance. The naturist angle is on-the-nose and obvious, but no less noble. A future without these creatures was very probable at the time, and no-one can deny that Dr. Taylor’s goals are admirable. Nimoy gets his points across with a pleasing lack of sentimentality. It’s also amazing how many scenarios this story conjures up, from Spock leaping into an aquarium to “mind-meld” with a humpback, to Scotty and Bones seeking a gigantic tank to hold the beasts (called “George” and “Gracie”). The latter scene is also interesting because, in their bid to find a strong enough tank, Mr. Scott reveals a futuristic combination for transparent aluminium that leaves the dealer dumbstruck. His aside to the doctor, “How do we know he didn’t invent it?” is one of those beautiful time-travel paradoxes that Star Trek revels in. If only there were more moments like it.
Shrewdly, the whale stuff isn’t the only problem they face. Those all-important dilithium crystals on the ship need recharging, forcing Uhura and Chekov to sneak aboard a nuclear-powered ship… the aircraft carrier Enterprise. That’s some fantastic writing right there. We don’t doubt that the crew will succeed, but the obstacles in their path make for surprisingly enjoyable viewing. The Voyage Home has humour, drama, an intriguing script, and a cast having a field day with roles very dear to their hearts. Behind the camera, Nimoy keeps the plot threads spinning fast enough so that we never have time to criticise the lapses in logic, or even pause to remark how ridiculous it all is. Despite verging on self-parody frequently, IV is a very well-made picture that gets everything it possibly can out of its mad concept.
If we were to rank the series, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home would land fairly low on the “good to great” pile, but I mean it no disrespect in saying that. It’s frankly hard to be mean about a movie so good-natured, and along with The Wrath of Khan and the reboot, it is one of the few entries that even Star Trek detractors have been known to appreciate. There’s also the fact that the next instalment, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, makes it look like a masterpiece.
Just you wait, Shatner.
Spock doesn’t like punks.
- The film was originally supposed to have Eddie Murphy instead of Catherine Hicks. Murphy was supposed to have played a professor concerned with UFO’s who spots the de-cloaking Klingon ship at the Super Bowl. Apparently, all others are convinced the ship is a half-time special effect while Murphy believes it is real. Paramount declined this script for two reasons: they didn’t want to combine their two most profitable franchises (Star Trek and Beverly Hills Cop), and Murphy had signed on to do The Golden Child instead.
- Some shots of the whales were in fact four foot long animatronics models. Four models were created, and were so realistic that after release of the film, US fishing authorities publicly criticised the film makers for getting too close to whales in the wild. The scenes involving these whales were shot in a pool underneath a Paramount parking lot. The shot of the whales swimming past the Golden Gate Bridge were filmed on location, and nearly ended in disaster when a cable got snagged on a nuclear submarine and the whales were towed out to sea.
- The officer on the Saratoga who announces that the thruster controls are offline is of the same alien race as the Federation President in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). This race has never been officially named, but some promotional materials identify the race as the Efrosians (named after Mel Efros, unit production manager for Star Trek IV).
- The scene with the punk music on the bus was written by Khan‘s Nicholas Meyer to revive a scene that was cut from his movie Time After Time, that had H.G. Wells (played by Star Trek: Generations‘ Malcolm McDowell) encountering a teenager with music blaring from a boom box. Amazingly, Time After Time was also set in San Francisco.
- The captain of the U.S.S. Saratoga, seen at the start of the film, was the first female captain ever seen in a Star Trek story. A woman (Kate Mulgrew) was cast as ship’s captain in the series Star Trek: Voyager.