40 for 40 – #37. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
The latest installment of 40 for 40 straddles the space/time continuum.
It takes place in two time periods, neither of which is our own; the almost-Utopian 23rd century, and the hustle-and-bustle of 1986.
It began its life as a classic television show, which morphed into a much-loved film series. And yes, while not every adventure was a critical success, this one most certainly went where no one had gone before…
#37. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy. Directed by Leonard Nimoy.
I’ve always said, when it comes to judging movies, there’s a huge difference between best and favourite. Such is the case with this film.
As a Star Trek fan, I honestly enjoy all of the movies. Even at their worst, I find elements to appreciate. But as far as choosing one for this list, well, it was almost as tough as trying to re-crystallise Klingon dilithium.
In my head, The Wrath of Khan is easily the best Trek film (admittedly, an opinion shared by most people). But, and this is a whale-sized but… The Voyage Home is my favourite.
Dedicated to the late crew of the space shuttle Challenger, this third part of an accidental trilogy returned Star Trek to a light-hearted tone after the heavy themes of Khan and The Search for Spock. After all, in the last two outings, we’d seen the death of Spock, and also, Kirk’s son, David, as well as watch the beloved USS Enterprise burn in a blaze of glory, leaving Kirk and his crew as fugitives. Yes, the final moments of The Search for Spock culminate in the victorious resurrection of everyone’s favourite green-blooded hobgoblin, but after two grim-and-gritty films the DC Universe would be proud of, audiences were ready for some fun.
And they got it.
The Voyage Home is Star Trek at its best; an allegorical morality tale, disguised as a science-fiction adventure story. One that mixes the charm of the original television series with a classic, fish-out-of-water premise, crafted by the two men responsible for Star Trek’s greatest movie moments.
Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer reunite after working together on The Wrath of Khan. While Meyer directed that film, this time he joins Bennett on the screenplay. Famously, the two men shared writing duties on this movie with a rather unconventional approach. Bennett wrote acts one and three (the lore-heavy, future scenes) while Meyer handled the comedic 1986 storylines. Together, they crafted a wonderful story, even more remarkable when you consider the film has no outright ‘villain’.
No Khan. No Kruge. And definitely no Sybok. Instead, a simple miscommunication with an ancient, unidentifiable alien probe threatens to destroy all life on Earth unless a means to reply can be found. Of course, our heroes soon realise the probe is mimicking the songs of humpback whales (a species extinct in this universe’s 23rd century) and our time-travel adventure boldly begins.
Just as he did by bringing back Khan from the original series episode, Space Seed, Harve Bennett once again reveals his love of Star Trek history by reusing the ‘slingshot around the sun’ time-warp technique first seen in the episode, Tomorrow is Yesterday. Bennett’s respect for what came before him served him well on Khan, and it does so again on this occasion. Meanwhile, Meyer’s 1986 scenes shine just as bright, due in no small part to the charm of the cast, one of whom also returns to the director’s chair.
Leonard Nimoy is once again in command of the ship, returning to direct after taking the helm of the previous installment, The Search for Spock. Unlike that film, this time he delves heavily into comedy, a genre he would further excel at the following year with Three Men and a Baby, America’s highest-grossing domestic film of 1987.
In this film, Nimoy’s directing is simple-yet-effective. For example, lowering the camera to give the impression that our heroes and their starship are ascending into the heavens allows your subconscious to put the pieces together, leaving you free to concentrate on the actors and their dialogue. There are no overblown special effects to distract from the story. Simple matte paintings and miniature models get the job done; leaving the viewer to focus on what Nimoy feels is the movie’s most important aspect: its characters.
Obviously (adult) Spock only made the briefest of appearances in the movie dedicated to finding him. But in The Voyage Home, he’s front-and-centre, returned to life and ready to resume his duties alongside Kirk and the others.
But something’s wrong. Spock is different. He’s not quite right.
Going into this film, if you thought resurrecting our Vulcan hero would simply flick the reset switch, you were wrong. Spock is very much a blank canvas in this movie. He is aware of his surroundings, his intelligence and (most) of his memories have returned, yet, as Dr. McCoy points out… “He’s not exactly working on all thrusters…”
From the outset, we see that while Spock has regained his life, he has done so at the cost of his humanity. The Vulcan computer’s simple question, “How do you feel?” stops him in his tracks, and even some sage-like advice from his mother is not enough to solve Spock’s internal conflict.
Most classic Star Trek stories revolve around the Kirk/Spock rapport, a dynamic The Next Generation tried to duplicate with Picard and Data. In The Voyage Home, Spock’s relationship with Kirk gets to grow all over again. From Kirk pleading with Spock to call him ‘Jim’, to explaining the subtle ways Spock used to sidestep the Vulcan aversion to lying, we get to see a ‘greatest hits’ of their decades-old partnership.
Alongside The Undiscovered Country, I really think The Voyage Home is Nimoy’s best performance as Spock. Watching him play what is essentially a ‘new’ version of the character helps round out the film with one of its many delightful subplots. Spock’s inability to master the 20th century’s ‘more colourful metaphors’, his inappropriate mind-meld with Gracie, Vulcan nerve-pinching the bus-riding punk and basically being Guardians of the Galaxy’s Drax-before-Drax are some of Spock’s all-time best moments.
Only after the events of this film (observing a ‘less evolved’ version of human beings and the decision to save Chekov) does Spock regain his humanity and tell his father, Sarek, that he feels… fine. Plus, you just know that it was Nimoy’s idea for Spock to disguise his alien heritage with a simple headband. No more glue-on ears!
DeForest Kelley is simply terrific in this film. Dr. McCoy at his best. The hospital scene is vintage Bones, and while his disgust with 20th century medicine is hilarious, his trip to the manufacturing plant with Scotty creates a terrific double-act between the two. Scotty’s dissatisfaction with the non-speaking computer and its ‘quaint’ keyboard is rivalled only by his lack of concern when revealing the transparent aluminum formula. When Scotty asks Bones, “How do we know he didn’t invent the thing?” it’s basically the movie telling us not to get bogged down in the usual Star Trek techno-babble. Together, in this scene and many others, Kelley and James Doohan seem to be having a blast.
And so are we.
Yet, as wonderful as most of the characters are in this movie, unfortunately, both Sulu and Uhura are underused. Besides being the one with the technical communication abilities to rig up the probe/whale sounds, Uhura’s role is limited. And despite procuring a helicopter to lower Scotty’s new whale tanks, Sulu’s isn’t much better.
At least Chekov has his little naval adventure. His accident while fleeing the authorities and the decision not to leave him behind, is what ultimately restores Spock’s human/Vulcan balance. Only by acting ‘illogically’ does Spock understand that once again, sometimes the needs of the one, outweigh the needs of the many. And of course, Chekov’s ‘nuclear wessels’ line has become forever linked to the character.
I mentioned Spock, but as always, classic Star Trek always featured Captain James… sorry, Admiral James T. Kirk. I mean, would you have it any other way?
William Shatner is amazing in this movie. Like Nimoy, this is easily his best performance as Kirk. Shatner always shined when he got to play a jovial Kirk, and it took four movies to get it on the big screen. Kirk is over his mid-life crisis. He has his friend back. While still somewhat dealing with the death of his son, that plot point is pushed aside to make way for the comical nature of the story, and the movie (and Shatner) are better for it, giving us a fun, but still incredibly capable Kirk.
Kirk’s aloofness to money – “Is that a lot?” his ham-fisted attempts at fitting in with 20th century slang – “No, ma’am, no dipshit.” and first taste of 1986 beer gives Shatner some great material to work with. His (apparently ad-libbed) back-and-forth with Spock about Italian food is perhaps one of the best comedic exchanges the two ever engaged in.
Kirk also meets his match in Dr. Gillian Taylor, cetacean expert and pizza lover. There’s an air of mutual attraction of course, but Gillian is no romantic prize. From the get-go, she knows there’s something odd about Kirk. But even when she’s so desperate to save her whales she’ll entertain the idea that he really does ‘work in Outer Space’, her entry into the Star Trek universe ends with her triumphantly being taken to the 23rd century to become a leader in her own right.
Kirk’s look of disbelief as he realises he missed his window with Gillian is priceless. He didn’t even get her phone number…
Speaking of Gillian though, her concern for the whales and the dangers they face in the wild highlight the message of the film. By hunting and destroying whales, 20th century man was inadvertently dooming its own future. A not-so-subtle, ecological warning from Nimoy and the filmmakers; a theme that would return with the Russian/Klingon/Chernobyl subplot used later in The Undiscovered Country. Although, the confrontation with the whaling ship is a genuine feel-good moment. A jubilant sequence that is probably still replayed at every Greenpeace Christmas party.
But ultimately, the real heroes of the film are indeed the whales themselves, who manage to communicate with the probe at the last minute to avoid a disaster of planetary proportions. Even if they did need Kirk to save them from drowning in a scene that must’ve tested Shatner’s hairpiece to its limits, George and Gracie go where no whale has gone before.
In the end, Kirk also gets what he’s wanted since The Motion Picture. To captain a starship yet again. His joy at hearing the ‘punishment’ for his crimes is perhaps Kirk’s happiest moment, slightly above seeing his new ship is emblazoned with the designation: USS ENTERPRISE 1701-A.
At this moment, as Kirk says in the film, he and his crew truly have come home.
Looking back, this really could have served as the final Star Trek film, ending on a high and resetting the intergalactic status quo. A new Enterprise, with Kirk as its captain, warping off into space to explore strange new worlds and seeking out new life, and new civilisations.
But as we all know, money talks, and they’re still making movies to this day. But back in 1986, they made my favourite, and thankfully, I don’t need to slingshot around the sun to enjoy it over and over again.
Live long, and prosper.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Humpback whales.
Favourite Moment: The hospital scene. Cantankerous McCoy in all his glory.
Honourable Mention: “Well, double dumbass on you!”
Next week: #36 – “They called me Mr. Glass…”
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