Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

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Before we begin:  the Star Trek universe was rocked with a tragedy this week, as actor Anton Yelchin (Pavel Chekov in Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond) passed away suddenly at the age of 27.  This post and the remainder of the “Countdown to Beyond” series are dedicated to his memory.

Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock made $76.4 million at theatres in 1984, which was only a slight dip from the $78 million pulled in by The Wrath of Khan.  Paramount Pictures’ studio executives, sensing a reliable trend and being notoriously averse to change, greenlighted a fourth movie with the same production team in place:  Leonard Nimoy directing, Harve Bennett producing and supervising the writing.  One would also think that the aforesaid suits would expect a story in a similar vein as the previous two films:  grand, epic struggles with life and death, steered by an implacable villain seeking to rain galactic destruction down upon the intrepid crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  However, Nimoy was having none of that.  Tired of dramatically heavy outings, he wanted to go in the opposite direction and tell a story where nobody died, nobody fired any weapons, nobody beat each other up, and there would be no “villain of the week.”  Nimoy also wanted to go back to the social commentary that the original series had become known for, and push a strong environmental message in the guise of a sci-fi action adventure.  He and Bennett came up with the notion of a time travel story in which the crew would have to go back to our present to retrieve something that had gone extinct.  (Gene Roddenberry, upon hearing that the focus of the new movie would be time travel, tried to pitch his JFK assassination story again, but was ignored.)  An initial concept revolved around the sudden strike of a plague whose cure had been wiped out centuries ago with the Amazon rainforests, but the spectacle of people coughing and dying wasn’t going to make for a very uplifting story.  Instead, Nimoy hit upon the idea of going back to retrieve a pair of extinct animals, and humpback whales were chosen because of their size (creating logistical problems for the crew to solve) and for the mysterious nature of whalesong.  Development was proceeding, ahem, swimmingly, until Nimoy and Bennett were advised that a certain famous comedic actor and Star Trek fan had requested a role in the film.  His name:  Eddie Murphy.

Star Trek has dallied with the idea of huge stunt casting in its movies, and it has never panned out, often for the same reasons.  This was the first (and regrettably not last) attempt.  In the mid-1980’s, after the success of Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy was arguably the biggest movie star in the world, and he also happened, like Star Trek, to be under contract to Paramount.  The possibility of combining these two proven moneymakers must have indeed been tantalizing; Murphy might bring in an entirely new audience for what was being counted on as one of Paramount’s tentpole productions for 1986, boosting its ticket sales.  At the same time, would the end result really be a Star Trek movie, or would it be an Eddie Murphy movie with the Star Trek characters in it?  Regardless of those misgivings, a screenplay was duly crafted by two comedy writers that would have Murphy playing a marine biologist and staunch believer in aliens who sees the Klingon bird-of-prey flown by our heroes de-cloaking over the Super Bowl and is the only person to realize it isn’t a mere stunt.  After a series of comic misunderstandings he winds up helping Kirk and Spock and returns with them triumphant to the 23rd Century.  Depending on whose account you believe, Murphy either didn’t like the script or was talked out of appearing in the movie, and went on to star in The Golden Child instead.  The comedy writers were fired and Nicholas Meyer, considered Star Trek‘s own golden child after saving The Wrath of Khan, was brought in to rewrite the screenplay from scratch with Harve Bennett.

Following a dedication to the crew of the lost space shuttle Challenger, we begin again in the 23rd Century, where a massive probe is heading toward Earth broadcasting an unintelligible signal and rendering every vessel that comes into contact with it inert (echoes of Star Trek:  The Motion Picture).  Upon arrival at the planet, its transmissions begin to tear apart the Earth’s ecosystem and vaporize its oceans.  Meanwhile, still in exile on the planet Vulcan from the end of the last movie, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and the rest of the crew have decided to return to Earth to face judgment for their illegal actions in rescuing a still-recovering Spock (Nimoy).  En route aboard their salvaged Klingon bird-of-prey, cheekily renamed the Bounty, they intercept a distress call sent by the President of the United Federation of Planets advising any passing vessels to avoid Earth at all costs.  When Spock makes note of the effect of the probe’s transmissions on the oceans, Uhura modifies the signal to reveal what it would sound like underwater:  the songs of humpback whales.  Unfortunately, humpback whales have been extinct since the 21st Century, so there is nothing on Earth that can respond.  Spock suggests, and Kirk concurs, that with defeating the probe impossible, the only option is to find some humpback whales – in the distant past.  The Bounty rockets around the sun at high warp (faster than 88 miles per hour, presumably) and plunges back 300 years.

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Arriving in the “extremely primitive and paranoid culture” of San Francisco in 1986, the crew is presented with a number of dilemmas:  the ship’s power is giving out, they’ll need to construct a whale tank in the cargo bay, and oh yes – they need a pair of humpback whales.  Scotty plays fast and loose with history (conjuring the formula for “transparent aluminum” on a first-generation Macintosh) to acquire a supply of six-inch plexiglass for the tank, Chekov and Uhura come up with a plan to extract fuel from the nuclear reactor of the aircraft carrier Enterprise, and Kirk and Spock visit a local aquarium where they are introduced to a pair of humpbacks, George and Gracie, by a marine biologist named Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks, playing the role originally written for Eddie Murphy).  Spock causes a scene by swimming in the tank to mind-meld with Gracie and ask for the whale’s help, which Kirk is forced to defuse by awkwardly invoking his patented starship captain’s charm and inviting Gillian for dinner.  There he learns that George and Gracie are scheduled to be released from the aquarium at noon tomorrow and shipped to the Arctic to spend the remainder of their lives in the wild – presuming that they can elude the widespread whaling fleets.  Gillian is shocked when she returns to work the next day to find that the whales were released ahead of schedule.  She pleads for Kirk’s help and finds herself beamed about the Bounty, where a more immediate crisis is pressing:  assumed to be a Soviet spy, Chekov has been captured and wounded while stealing fuel from the Enterprise and is scheduled to undergo surgery under heavy guard.  Kirk, McCoy and Gillian have to break into the hospital’s operating theater to save him from what McCoy calls “dark ages” medicine before the ship can go anywhere.

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With everyone back on board, the Bounty races to the Arctic to find George and Gracie, who are already being chased by a whaling vessel.  After planting the ship in the path of the harpoon – and decloaking overhead to give the whalers the fright of their lives – the crew beam the whales up and prepare to make the hazardous trip back to the future with Gillian in tow (handwaving the potential impact on history by pointing out that she will be the only person in the future with any experience with living humpback whales).  The return to the 23rd Century is more than the old Klingon ship can take, and it crashes in San Francisco Bay in the middle of a hurricane, where Kirk has to swim deep into the sinking Bounty to release the whales before they drown.  He is successful, and in a poetic, dialogue-free sequence, the whales sing to the probe and convince it to depart and leave the Earth unharmed.  The day is saved, and at their subsequent hearing, Kirk and crew are pardoned of all charges except one:  Kirk is held responsible for disobeying orders of a superior officer, reduced in rank to Captain and granted command of a starship:  the brand new U.S.S. Enterprise, registration NCC-1701-A.  “Let’s see what she’s got,” says Kirk, and the ship blurs away into warp and whatever new adventures await.

The Voyage Home completes what is called the “Genesis Trilogy” by fans, by picking up exactly where The Search for Spock ended and tying off each loose thread laid beginning with The Wrath of Khan.  As the film begins, following the appearance of the probe, the story starts to feel very much like a serialized, exposition-heavy episode, with the Klingons lodging formal protests at the Federation Council regarding Kirk’s actions and the Genesis Project, following a replay of the footage of the Enterprise being blown up (though likely unknown to the writers at the time, plot elements are also being laid here for what occurs later in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).  Even as the action shifts to Vulcan and the introduction of our heroes, we are still dealing with fallout from II and III – they’re even still wearing the same outfits from the last movie, and we get a very awkward, extraneous moment with Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis) as she tells Kirk how brave his son David was in facing his death (it was implied in scenes eliminated from the final cut that Saavik was pregnant with Spock’s child).  Perfectly fine if you’ve invested in the previous films, not so great if you’re coming to this universe for the first time.  But as the crew finds out about the probe and the wheels of the plot start to turn, the film’s energy picks up, and once they arrive in San Francisco, it explodes into fireworks.

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Tonally, The Voyage Home couldn’t be more opposite to The Wrath of Khan, but what makes it work isn’t the fact that there are a lot of laughs, it’s that those laughs are not gained at the expense of the characters.  No one is made to look foolish or subjected to dumb gags; it’s true character-based humor which we laugh at because we love these people and we get a kick out of watching the advanced humans of the future being stymied by the likes of fascist bus drivers, oblivious pedestrians, bureaucratic government functionaries, unhelpful doctors and in one particularly memorable sequence, an obnoxious punk rocker (featuring the immortal song “I Hate You”) – the same infuriating types every one of us has had to deal with at some point in our lives.  (Seriously – who has not ever wished they could neck pinch the odd mouthy yahoo into oblivion?)  Refreshingly for a time travel movie, and coming on the heels of Back to the Future, which came out just a year earlier, the plot has nothing to do with changing or restoring history.  Earth of 1986 is merely another alien culture for the Star Trek crew to explore – possibly the most alien one they’ve ever faced, and the foibles of 80’s culture are duly poked with the skewers they deserve, most notably our complete (and sadly lingering into 2016) disregard for our environment, in the movie’s strongest and most lasting message.

As a director, Leonard Nimoy has shed his training wheels here, and he feels more confident to let the camera run and let his actors enjoy the material that they are clearly having a lot of fun with, with each of the supporting players given his or her individual moment to shine.  Nimoy also populates his movie with a terrific guest cast and a refreshing dose of diversity:  we have our first black female starship captain (Madge Sinclair), our first captain from India (Vijay Amritraj, whom you may remember from Octopussy) and Starfleet Command itself headed by a black man (Brock Peters from To Kill a Mockingbird).  Catherine Hicks, later to be best known as the mom from 7th Heaven alongside Star Trek: The Motion Picture alumnus Stephen Collins, is a sharp and bright sorta-love interest for Shatner’s Kirk, and it’s always clear that whatever feelings she may have for the admiral are absolutely secondary to her passion for her work and her devotion to see her beloved whales kept safe.  I like the way that Kirk, the 23rd Century’s greatest womanizer, seems a bit stunned at the dismissive little kiss on the cheek and “see ya ’round the galaxy” line she lays on him at the end of the movie, as if he can’t believe that she’s turning him down – a remarkably progressive and feminist character beat given the era.

Afforded the privilege of shooting outdoors and in environments that for once don’t have to be redressed to hide the evidence of modern life, Nimoy and director of photography Don Peterman, who got an Oscar nomination for his work here, are able to give the movie a visual depth and sweep that shooting on soundstages in front of fake trees and matte paintings just can’t match.  There’s a shot in the movie that really stands out for me, and it’s not even that remarkable a moment:  Kirk and Spock walking along the shore of San Francisco Bay with the Golden Gate Bridge far in the background, where you can really sense the scope of the whole world here, and Star Trek suddenly feels out in the open in a way it never has.  Claustrophobia worked for The Wrath of Khan, but hindered The Search for Spock and made the latter feel like a glorified made-for-TV movie.  No such criticism can be leveled legitimately at The Voyage Home, even if the odd fan would be happier exploring strange new (artificial) worlds rather than wheeling a gurney wildly down hospital corridors.

Speaking of artificial – the footage of the whales, created entirely through models and special effects work as real life whales don’t like posing for the camera, is flawless and absolutely convincing, and garnered the effects team a well-deserved Oscar nomination (which it lost to Aliens).  Stunningly, the Paramount higher-ups, presumably the same types who thought putting Eddie Murphy in the movie was a brilliant idea, insisted that subtitles be added to the scenes in which the whales are speaking to the probe, worried perhaps that the rubes in the theater seats would not be able to infer what was going on.  Nimoy hit the roof.  He was right, of course; Spock points this out when he says on screen that “only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for Man.”  We don’t need to have what is being said spelled out for us – it would utterly compromise the movie’s message that there are things in this world beyond what we can understand and that we should not be so callous and cavalier in how we treat them.  Thankfully, Nimoy, coming off the success of The Search for Spock, had sufficient clout to win that battle.  (If you were really desperate to know what the whales were saying, down to the very last syllable, writer Vonda McIntyre provided one possible interpretation in her novelization of The Voyage Home, but her take is not any grand revelation.)

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This was the very first Star Trek movie I ever saw in the theater, in December of 1986, when I was all of eleven.  None of my family had any interest in Star Trek.  I seem to recall I had to offer to pay for their admission to get anyone to come with mebut my grandfather finally took one for the team and decided to tag along (and buy my ticket).  I was absolutely riveted.  I bounced back through the door and recapped the plot and all the great jokes at a mile a minute to a gaggle of uninterested ears.  I bought McIntyre’s novelization and read it obsessively until the spine cracked into shards, while waiting a desperately long year for the movie to come out on the pay TV channels (which we naturally didn’t get) so a friend could procure me a static-ridden, warbly, Betamax bootleg copy that I could screen over and over again until the tape demagnetized.  I was absolutely enthralled with this movie in a way that only kids can be, and I often wish that movies today could make me feel again.  Forty-year-old eyes can of course recognize the flaws in the film, forty-year-old ears can cringe at the blatty and occasionally goofy Leonard Rosenman score, and familiarity from having seen it probably thirty times since that cold 1986 night naturally softens the impact that it once had.  But the goodwill it engendered thirty years ago resonates today.

There is a popular Christian allegory that likens The Wrath of Khan to Easter, with Spock’s sacrifice on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday.  If we carry that a step further, then The Voyage Home is Christmas Day – complete with chimes and bells announcing its opening title march.  It is a gift to the Star Trek fan – a movie that succeeds in its director’s intentions to be positive and uplifting in every frame and sends us out cheering with a healthy dose of hope that we can correct the destructive course we have set upon in our treatment of Nature.  In 1986, that appeal extended far beyond merely the dependable core of Star Trek fans, as audiences responded to the tune of a whopping $109 million at the box office, cementing The Voyage Home‘s position at the top of Star Trek‘s cinematic earners and placing it as an aspirational benchmark for the other films to follow.

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In summary:  Big points for sweep and scope, a lasting positive message and a great sense of fun that suits the aging, beloved characters like old, comfortable leather.  A smidge of a point off for getting bogged down in the beginning by too much exposition, and Rosenman’s take-it-or-leave-it score.  Overall though, the happiest time you’ll have watching a Star Trek movie.

Next time:  Captain Kirk goes looking for God, only to be thwarted by budget cuts as first-time director William Shatner’s reach exceeds his grasp and the otherwise dependable Star Trek franchise receives its go-to punchline.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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10 thoughts on “Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)”

  1. Great read! About the “Next time:”,

    Is the punchline “what does God need with a ship?”

    I didn’t know that was the “go-to” one. Do you mean it is used to mock the franchise?

    1. Yep – The Final Frontier is generally considered the red-headed stepchild of the Star Trek movie series, as it was the first to be both a financial disappointment and a critical failure. But I’ll get into that a little more on Friday…

    1. Definitely. This is probably the only Star Trek movie where the comedy works really well though. It isn’t always a good fit, as you’ll see when I do the write-up on The Final Frontier.

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