Movie Review: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Will driving down Lombardi Street help? (Image from fanpop.com, via Google Images, made by Bob Peak.)

Premiere: November 26th, 1986

Synopsis: Coming off their refreshing, life-renewing trip to Vulcan, the Enterprise crew – uh, the Bounty crew – begin their long trip back to Earth, where they will face a court-martial, and risk a long jail sentence. Unfortunately, Earth is intercepted by a probe (yet again) that threatens the planet with disasters of biblical proportions. Interpreting the signals as whale sounds, the crew realize that the probe’s calling out for other whales… which, since the whales are dead, is kinda hard to do.

Therefore, using scientific mumbo-jumbo, they go around the sun and wind up in 1986 San Francisco. There, Spock and Kirk talk to Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), a marine biologist at the Cetacean Institute in Marin County, to try the hell to gain access to two damn whales; Uhura and Chekov look for the nuclear wessels in Alameda, causing a bit of a mess-up with security; and Scotty, Bones, and Sulu try to create a tank, all the while messing with modern minds with their medicine and lack of keyboards.

Review: In short, this movie is TMP, as written by the creators of Captain Planet. If it was actually pretty good.

In long, this is often cited as a fan favorite, up there with Wrath of Khan, First Contact, and Trek 09 as the fan favorite. The Voyage Home was the most commercially successful Trek film, and many have argued that it was due to it’s more casual tone – that nobody really needed a deep knowledge of Trek history to get into it.

Does it still hold up, however?

Actually, it still does.

The selling point of The Voyage Home is that, compared to the cerebral, tragic and downright bittersweet moments of the prior three films, this one was a lighthearted affair – a bit of a throwback to the TOS era.

Strangely enough, this entire film is a “mirror” version of TOS’s “City on the Edge of Forever”, where McCoy goes back in time to 1930s New York City, and Kirk and Spock have to follow him and save history. Whereas that episode is as cynical as TOS ever got, this is as optimistic and warm as the movies ever got… without sacrificing quality.

This time, they have to change history to save the whales.

I am not making this up. This movie has a pretty heavy-handed “save the whales” message. Granted, Star Trek has had a mixed track record when it comes to subtlety – “The Omega Glory” is just one big “AMERICA IS AWESOME” message for one hour – but here, it’s pretty obvious.

At least this movie was funny, though.

In my opinion, I think that Star Trek handles it’s comedy best when it comes to character situations. Sure, you can have slapstick and one-liners, but it’s here where the comedy really shines. Most of the jokes revolve around the “fish out of water” status of the main characters, and just how different the climate of the 1980s was to the climate of the 2200s. In fact, through the trip to the past, we get a look at the society seen in the 23rd century.

Let’s start very minor – it’s heavily implied that “colorful metaphors” are somewhat rarer in the 2200s than they are in the 1980s, or at least they’re more common on Earth than in Starfleet proper. Let’s just remind ourselves that Star Trek: TOS rarely used “colorful metaphors” – due to the stricter standards of what could be shown on TV at the time. Kirk’s exclamation of “Let’s get the hell out of here” at the end of “City on the Edge of Forever” was more shocking in 1967 than it is nowadays.

In real life, it seems like “colorful metaphors” were only used in the 1960s when characters were placed at times of great distress, and thus, the more “lax” use of mild profanity in the 1980s was seen as strange. In-universe, replace the 1960s with 2200s, and the point still stands. Maybe that’s Star Trek‘s view of a utopia – where humans have evolved beyond the casual use of mild profanities.

Either way, watching Spock try his hand at “colorful metaphors” is hilarious… especially since he hasn’t had the more “human” aspect of his personality completely restored yet.

Oh, and Kirk gets quite a bit of comedy on his own terms, especially with Dr. Taylor (see a bit more below.) Kirk’s comedy is also impressive, because Shatner’s acting is relatively subdued here.

There’s also Uhura and Chekov’s Strange Adventures in Frisco Bay! (Uh, do I owe the Imperial Treasury $25 now?) While one would be a bit confused as to why Chekov wouldn’t know about the… anxieties in the 1980s, there is a reason for this. By 2285, humanity had been so far removed from the conflict in the 1980s that it’s natural for Chekov to not feel the need to lie to San Franciscans. He doesn’t feel that what he’s doing goes beyond normal theft.

This, of course, is played for a lot of comedy. Good comedy, in fact. I’ll spare you most of the details, just so you can go check it out for yourself. Still, I find a man with a Russian accent asking around San Francisco for Nuclear Wessles and Naval Bases to be amusing… and for the response from most of the citizens of the city to be even more so.

There’s also Scotty, McCoy, and Sulu having fun with 20th-century tech and medicine, including McCoy’s outrage over the state of 1980s healthcare and not knowing how to use a keyboard. (That age is coming sooner than the writers ever thought it would.)

However, the comedy manages to work even better because it subverts the idea that comedy comes from dystopian situations. While the 1980s aren’t nearly as utopian and light as 2285, most of the actions and comedy are genuinely lighthearted and fun. That, I think, keeps in the spirit of Star Trek: TOS as one of the most optimistic shows ever.

In fact, the overall ideas shared in the movie – that we could move past the competition of the Cold War, that humanity is basically a good species whose great faults come from minor mistakes – and the way they are delivered – through a sci-fi veneer – make this the closest the movies have ever come to recapturing the tone of TOS.

While character development isn’t the focus of the movie, that doesn’t mean that all the characters are necessarily stagnant. Spock gets the brunt of it – a given, once you realize that the previous two films centered on his death and life. In that order. The beginning shows him unaware of human customs – a computer’s question of “How do you feel” gets no response from him, despite managing to make exact calculations and answers in the same computer program. This entire film answers the question, both via comic means, and via his analysis of the progress of the whales, George and Gracie. The end result is quite heartwarming, including another look at the man who respects him most – Sarek, his father.

Oh, and Kirk forms a friendship/budding romance with Dr. Taylor. From my perspective, and feel free to disagree with me, Dr. Taylor seems written as more than just a love interest for Kirk – there are stakes that go far beyond the two’s personal interactions. Therefore, the hints of a romance aren’t cliche, or at least, aren’t irritating. In fact, a lot of the dialogue (“I’m from Iowa – I only work in outer space”) is downright hilarious.

This movie also continues the arc of Kirk and Company having their entire philosophies upended – the death and revival of Spock, the virtual sacrifice of their careers, and the destruction of the ship they called home. It’s how they worked through all of the troubles they faced over the prior months that makes this movie great – a relief for the characters and the fans.

What makes this all impressive is that there is no real antagonist. Sure, we get to see a boat of whalers (given the movie’s anti-whaling message, they are pretty much the default antagonist), and the Klingon Ambassador is seen as nuts in an attempt to portray Kirk as a terrorist. However, the lack of central antagonist is ultimately a benefit – the movie might have been bogged down by one.

Now, I’m not going to say it’s my outright favorite Trek movie – I think Wrath of Khan is still the closest thing to a perfect movie that I’ve ever seen. I think that the shift to comedy might be a bit jarring at first, and the message is pretty heavy-handed – true of several Trek episodes, but a bit egregious, given that the prior two movies were more subtle. That, and if you look closely, there are a few – albeit very small and/or very forgivable – plot holes.

I will, however, say that if I’m introducing somebody new to the franchise, this is up there with Wrath of Khan as great entry points to Trekdom. It’s just a fun, feel-good movie that’s actually good! Even if you like darker Trek, I still recommend it.

Tidbits:

  • Amusingly, Catherine Hicks would go on to play Annie Camden on 7th Heaven. Stephen Collins, aka Decker from TMP, would himself play Eric Camden from 7th Heaven.
  • Lieutenant Saavik got a brief cameo at the start of the film. I forgot to mention in my Search for Spock review that Saavik’s original actress, Kristie Alley, was dropped (she wanted more money) in favor of Robin Curtis. The producers officially intended for her to be impregnated with Spock’s child. However, this never made it into the final cut. Curtis would later re-appear in the TNG two-parter “Gambit”, albeit as a new character, Tallera.
  • Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, re-wrote the script, after an original draft that focused on Eddie Murphy’s character was spiked. Given what happened with this movie, and with Superman III (which focused on Richard Pryor)… this is for the best.
  • There’s also a rumor that persists that not a single phaser was fired during the movie. This is untrue – Kirk seals a doorknob with a phaser, and Chekov attempts to stun with one. However, there are no on-screen deaths in the movie – a turn, compared to the relative bloodbaths of Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock.
  • OK, the score isn’t nearly as memorable as it was for the prior two movies. It’s hard to beat James Horner’s soundtrack. Not that Leonard Rosenman does a bad job – it’s just not as memorable a job.
  • Given the cold-war parallels between the Klingons and Federation, the “secret base” that the Klingon Ambassador claims was being set up by the Federation might have vague a connection to the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as the fear of puppet states (such as the Koreas and Vietnams) on both ends to “spread” capitalism/communism.
Favorite Scene: Spock nerve pinching the punk on the bus. Hysterical to no end.
Least Favorite Scene: By default, it has to be Dr. Taylor’s speech on the whales. About as subtle as Kirk banging on the constitution, practically singing the preamble. I know the movie’s not renowned for its subtlety, but this was a bit too much. Then again, if it helped save the whales, it was sorta worth it.
Score: 8.75.
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