Director: Leonard Nimoy
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Jane Wyatt
Runtime: 119 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
Imagine a Star Trek film that considers elaborate space battles, photon torpedoes, phaser blasts, and your typical despotic villain role inconsequential to the narrative, and so doesn’t include any of them. Left are the characters that propel the franchise and a conflict that allows those characters to reestablish their charm over the audience. Diverting far from standardization, the result even purports a swell of social relevancy flawlessly engrained into the story, though it never sacrifices entertainment value by shouting its message on a cinematic soapbox.
Developed by producer Harve Bennett and director Leonard Nimoy, the concept behind Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a noble one for a blockbuster. The film takes a stance to protect the dwindling population of humpback whales, using a sci-fi setup to address their status as an endangered species and further emphasize the ongoing effort to protect them. More than any other film in the franchise, the outcome is lighthearted, as close to pure comedy as the series would ever come. And despite this departure from the normal procession of alien encounters and science-fiction thrills, the film thrives on its imagination.
Indeed, there is hardly any star trekking in this entry, as the Enterprise was destroyed in the last film, The Search for Spock. The story begins some time later, with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the Enterprise still on the Vulcan home planet, awaiting the newly reborn Spock (Nimoy) to once again become whole. The crew plans to return home and has refitted their stolen Klingon Bird of Prey to read HMS Bounty. Meanwhile, a mysterious craft approaches Earth, disrupting the power of any nearby vessel with its indecipherable signals, causing the planet’s weather patters to go haywire, thus threatening all life. Tracking the object, Spock determines its signal matches that of a humback whale, completely extinct in their future. And in one of those best-left-unexplained movie time travel moments, the crew resolves to journey to an earlier period in time, recover a humpback whale, and return to the future to answer the alien probe’s hail. So they slingshot around the Sun using its gravity to fly into the past, circa 1986.
Their cloaked ship lands in a quiet park in San Francisco, California, and immediately the film shifts gears into subtle comedy as men from the future acclimate themselves to 1980s culture. And upon revisiting the film, there is yet another level of humor as both the ‘80s and Trek timelines share their eccentricities. First thing’s first, getting money. Kirk pawns his antique glasses for some measly cash distributed throughout the crew. Scotty (James Doohan), McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and Sulu (George Takei) conceive plans for a whale holding tank within their ship, meeting some resistance when they visit an industrial factory speaking of yet-uninvented technologies. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) head for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, aptly named the USS Enterprise, for an alternate power source to propel their ship, but the 1980s naval authorities don’t appreciate Chekov and his Russian accent near their nuclear reactor. Go figure.
Kirk and Spock, the latter decked-out in his ceremonial white robe and a headband to hide his pointy Vulcan ears, visit the nearby Cetacean Institute where the fraught Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks) laments releasing two humpback whales into the wild, where they’ll likely be hunted and killed. Kirk tries to convince her that his crew can protect the whales by taking the sea mammals in their spaceship, but understandably, his claims of being from the future are met with accusations of craziness. And only out of fear that they’ll be slain otherwise does Dr. Taylor ultimately agree to Kirk’s proposal. One daring rescue after another—first saving Chekov from his government captors, second transporting the whales onto the Klingon ship before whalers attack—Kirk and crew return to the future where the whales’ songs kindly ask the unidentified object to stop sending Earth’s weather into a frenzy.
Accessible to non-Trek fans, the film’s universal themes speak to environmental responsibility, and in effect force the audience to consider the implications of their present-day actions, or more importantly our present inactions concerning the future of whales. Though near to extinction when this film was made in 1986 around the height of the “save the whales” campaign, humpback whales have made a comeback in the subsequent two decades, increasing in numbers by several thousand in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But they remain on the endangered species list to continue their conservation, as whaling ships still hunt these creatures illegally in international waters. Unfortunately, there’s not always a water-logged Klingon Bird of Prey to fly to the rescue...
Earning more than $130 million worldwide, the film proved Trekkies sought more than simple sci-fi escapism, but rather relationships that still exist when removed from their typical setting. Detractors from the almost universal acclaim for this picture cited feelings of disconnection from the usual Star Trek yarn. But isn’t that the point, that the characters are displaced from their normal environment and forced to adjust, hence the intended culture-clash humor? Certainly the filmmakers weren’t concerned with the usual recipe when Spock administers his “Vulcan death grip” to a loud punk-rocker on a city bus, earning applause from his fellow passengers. And weren’t time-travel episodes of the show all-too-common? So isn’t The Voyage Home more than adhering to cannon?
Remove the technology, the fascinating yet questionable science, and the perceptible surface of the Star Trek continuum, and still there remains involving characters engaging us with their diversity and omnipresent dynamic as an ensemble. However cheeky and hammy and dated some of the jokes may be, there’s also a timeless quality to the story because of the time travel device. And though, arguably, the humpback whales are merely the film’s McGuffin, they are also the emotional core for understanding Dr. Taylor, and an endearing cause for the Enterprise crew beyond your standard zapping of the bad guy with futuristic weaponry.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home may be the most important film within the franchise, as it demonstrates how the authority of its venerable characters transcends space and time. That a series whose central appeal involves traveling by space vessel to the farthest reaches of the galaxy limits itself so and still flourishes, boasts incredible merit not only for the characters it validates, but the film in which this limitation takes place. And as a commercial product whose most successful entries rely on an engrained formula, this film’s success, despite its uncharacteristic approach, should serve as an example to other such franchises unwilling to divert from the norm.
More from this series:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)