The film served as the main event in the franchise’s 20th anniversary celebration—and it turned out to be a big hit, one of the highest high points in the movie series. It attracted Star Trek fans and “mainstream” audiences alike, resulting in a significant increase in ticket sales over its predecessors. In fact, The Voyage Home remained the most successful Star Trek movie until J.J. Abrams’s 2009 restart of the series.
Star Trek IV also marked the last time that the original cast would have the stage all to themselves. Less than a year later, Star Trek: The Next Generation would premiere on television, introducing a whole new group of characters and marking the end of Star Trek as we knew it.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
After the destruction of the Enterprise and three months in exile on the planet Vulcan, Admiral James T. Kirk and his senior officers decide to return to Earth to answer for the crimes they committed in their effort to rescue Captain Spock from the forbidden Genesis Planet. Meanwhile, on Earth, a special session of the Federation Council is underway, overseen by the Federation President himself, in which the fates of Kirk and his crew will be decided. Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek, shows up to defend Kirk, but a Klingon ambassador declares that there will be no peace as long as Kirk lives. Spock, his memory restored but not yet fully recovered, chooses to join his former shipmates on their voyage home aboard their captured Klingon bird-of-prey. En route to Earth, Kirk and crew discover that an enormous, mysterious, vastly powerful alien probe has appeared above the planet and is vaporizing the oceans while attempting to communicate with an unknown life form that has failed to answer. Spock determines that the probe is seeking to make contact with Earth’s humpback whales—a species that has been extinct for several centuries. The only way to get the probe to break off its attack on Earth is to find some humpback whales to respond to its call. That means a trip into the past—specifically the year 1986. In that backward, primitive, tumultuous era, Kirk befriends Dr. Gillian Taylor, a lovely female cetacean biologist, who may be able to provide exactly what he—what future-Earth itself—needs so desperately...
After the high drama and literally world-shattering events of the two previous films, Star Trek IV goes in a completely different direction. There’s no real villain, no battles, no fight scenes. The stakes are certainly high—namely, the survival of 23rd century Earth—but the film is a lighthearted romp that masterfully recaptures the spirit and the feel of the original series, particularly such comedic episodes as “A Piece of the Action” and “The Trouble With Tribbles.”
Star Trek IV is blessed with a top-notch creative team, all of whom had already played key roles in making the film series a success after Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Harve Bennett is still onboard as producer/co-writer, providing continuity and consistency. Leonard Nimoy is back as director, having proven himself on Star Trek III. And I remember being particularly excited when I first heard that Nicholas Meyer, the director/co-writer of Star Trek II, was returning to the fold to help write the screenplay. (Meyer had turned down the offer to work on Star Trek III because he didn’t want to be involved in undoing the death of Spock. So it must have been somewhat strange for him to sit down and start writing new scenes for a character he’d killed off so effectively several years earlier!)
Before re-watching Star Trek IV for this blog entry, it had been quite a while since I’d last seen it, so I was able to come at it with a somewhat fresh perspective—though not nearly as fresh as my eight-year-old daughter Maddie’s, of course! But what I found was that, 25 years after its release, The Voyage Home holds up extremely well. Sure, certain elements are dated—particularly the Cold War references, with Chekov, a Russian, sneaking aboard a U.S. nuclear-powered naval vessel (or should I say, “wessel”?) in Ronald Reagan’s America. I had to explain the significance of this to Maddie to put it in the proper context, but she seemed to get it.
But overall, the film is just damned entertaining. The humor works extremely well because, first and foremost, it’s very funny! But also because it feels very natural, never forced, and never at the expense of the characters. The laughs come primarily from the situations in which the characters find themselves, and their reactions to those situations. My favorite bits are Kirk and Spock on the bus with the punk rocker, their response when Gillian asks them if they like Italian food (a bit supposedly improvised by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy on the spot), Kirk’s reaction when he sees Spock in the water tank mind-melding with one of the whales, McCoy’s biting comments about 2oth century medicine, and Scotty trying to interact with a Macintosh computer. Wonderful, wonderful stuff!
The central plot doesn’t tie in with those of the two previous films. In fact, this story could have been told when Kirk and crew were still aboard the Enterprise. And yet, thanks to the opening and closing scenes, the film ends up being a very satisfying follow-up to—and wrap-up of—the events that began all the way back in Star Trek II. As a cinematic trilogy—a completely unintended one, mind you—The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home work together even better than the much beloved original Star Wars trilogy, which George Lucas has claimed for many years was all planned out from the start. Harve Bennett has never hidden the fact that the “Genesis Trilogy” was totally made up on the fly, as he and his collaborators went along. No one knew when Spock’s death scene was filmed that he would come back in the next film. No one knew what his brief “remember” mind-meld with McCoy meant. Showing Spock’s coffin on the Genesis Planet was just meant to give audiences a feeling of hope—it wasn’t a guarantee. While making The Search for Spock, there was no master plan for how to resolve the crew’s outlaw status, or where to place them after the destruction of the Enterprise. (According to some accounts, Bennett hoped to put them on the brand-new Excelsior.) But even with no clear road map, these three films ended up flowing into each other extremely well, with tight continuity and a highly satisfying resolution with no major copouts (“Leia is my sister!”) or recycled concepts (“…the Galactic Empire has secretly begun construction on a new armored space station even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star…”).
The film’s not perfect, of course. For one thing, there’s the casual, downright reckless attitude some of the crewmembers display with regard to preserving the timeline. It was stressed in such episodes as “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Tomorrow is Yesterday” how important it is not to change anything in the past because it could have devastating effects on history. But in The Voyage Home, while operating in the 20th century, Chekov leaves behind a Klingon weapon on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier—the Enterprise, amusingly enough. And Scotty and McCoy visit the owner of a manufacturing plant, offering to trade the formula for the not-yet-invented transparent aluminum for its 20th century equivalent, so that Scotty can build a water tank for the whales. To McCoy’s credit, he warns Scotty, “If we give him the formula, we’ll be altering the future.” Scotty replies, “Why? How do we know he didn’t invent the thing?” McCoy grins and says, “Yeah.”
It’s a very cute bit, for sure. But I think it would have been just as cute, and would have made Scotty seem less irresponsible, if his line had been, “Why? Don’t ye know? He invented the thing!”
And then there’s the matter of Kirk’s eyeglasses, the ones McCoy gave him in The Wrath of Khan. In The Voyage Home, Kirk sells them to an antique shop, so that he and his companions will have spending money in 20th century San Francisco. During the transaction, Spock asks him, “Weren’t those a gift from Doctor McCoy?” Kirk replies confidently, “And they will be again—that’s the beauty of it.”
Another very cute bit, one that’s always gotten laughs from audiences. But from a logical standpoint, it doesn’t really work. When Kirk returns to the 23rd century, the glasses won’t suddenly reappear in his pocket. Given his experience with time travel, you’d think he’d be aware of this. (Come to think of it, the same can be said about Nicholas Meyer, who had already written and directed the excellent time-travel adventure Time After Time!)
But really, these are just minor nitpicks. My only major beef with the film is the musical score by Leonard Rosenman. It’s not bad, it just… doesn’t really feel like Star Trek. Which, to be fair, may have been exactly what the filmmakers wanted, since this isn’t a typical Star Trek movie. But the thing is, The Voyage Home completes a trilogy. The previous two installments of this trilogy had the same composer, James Horner, so there was very tight musical continuity between them. Not to mention the fact that Horner’s work was magnificent. Sure, The Voyage Home goes off in a different direction for the most part, but it’s still linked to its two immediate predecessors in a strong way, and it would have been more effective to have Horner return and both touch upon his previously established themes and explore new musical territory, just as the film itself does. (It’s certainly possible that Horner was asked to return and declined. However, the liner notes for the recently released expanded edition of the Star Trek III soundtrack reveal that director Nimoy had actually wanted Rosenman for The Search for Spock, but was ultimately convinced by producer Bennett and Paramount brass to bring back Horner to keep the film tightly connected to The Wrath of Khan.)
So the shift in musical styles is a bit jarring. I liken it to having John Williams compose the scores for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and then bringing in Henry Mancini for Return of the Jedi.
While I don’t have a whole lot of enthusiasm for the music, the exact opposite is true with regard to the cast.
William Shatner wraps up the trilogy with another winning performance as James Kirk. Regardless of whatever behind-the-scenes rivalry may have existed over the years between Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, it’s clear from watching both The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home that Nimoy the director was very good at getting the best out of Shatner the actor. In The Voyage Home, Shatner is in total command, as much The Leader as ever, but he’s also likable, witty, charming, funny, eloquent, and under certain circumstances, even a bit goofy—but in a very endearing way.
Shatner’s onscreen chemistry with Nimoy is magical—they really are a great team. He also has strong chemistry with Catherine Hicks, who plays Gillian. It’s very interesting that Kirk’s relationship with Gillian is purely platonic—with just the slightest hint that maybe it could turn into something more if their paths were to ever cross again. Alas, this was the closest Kirk ever came to having a romance in the film series.
Nimoy shows off his multitasking abilities by returning to full-time acting duty as Spock while also directing the whole shebang. And he brings new dimensions to the character. Nimoy doesn’t simply slip back into the role, he gives us a Spock we’ve never really seen before: naïve, out-of-step, occasionally befuddled, sometimes childlike—but certainly on his way to recovery. And Spock’s final scene with his father, in which they acknowledge their past differences and put them aside once and for all, is quite touching.
As always, it’s a delight to watch DeForest Kelley portray Dr. McCoy. Since this movie is more comedic in tone, McCoy’s not the only one delivering the funny lines. But he has a crucial role in the story, functioning as Spock’s guardian (“Someone’s gotta keep an eye on him!”), Scotty’s sidekick, and, most importantly, the best damn doctor in the galaxy. His scenes at the hospital are an absolute triumph.
James Doohan gets a rare opportunity to shine as Scotty this time around. He’s responsible for two of the film’s most iconic moments: the aforementioned bit with the Macintosh computer and “Admiral—there be whales here!” Doohan and Kelley play off each other very well—we discover a whole new relationship that was there all along but we just never got to see it before.
Walter Koenig also gets some nice time in the spotlight. It would seem Nicholas Meyer has a real soft spot for Chekov, since most of the character’s best moments are in the movies that Meyer wrote. The scene where Chekov is interrogated by federal agents aboard the aircraft carrier is a highlight. (I remember that when I saw this movie on opening night, at the moment when Chekov tells the lead agent his Starfleet serial number, some uber-Trekkie sitting behind me blurted out, “Oooooh! New trivia! New trivia!”)
Speaking of Uhura, Nichelle Nichols doesn’t get as much to do, and neither does George Takei as Sulu. There’s only so much screen time available, after all, and with such a big regular cast, not everyone can get a plum role every time. But Nichols and Takei make important contributions nevertheless.
As Gillian, Catherine Hicks is charming, intelligent, funny, warm, and a very good fit with the rest of the cast. I would have liked to see her again—the same way I felt about Bibi Besch’s Dr. Carol Marcus. (Interestingly, Nicholas Meyer wanted Gillian to remain in the 20th century, where she would work tirelessly to prevent the extinction of humpback whales, but Harve Bennett overruled him. I agree with Bennett on this—if Gillian were to stay in the 20th century and actually succeed in her work, the events in this movie would never happen!)
Mark Lenard is back once again as Sarek, which is always a treat, and this time, we actually get to see him interact with Nimoy.
And as an added treat, Star Trek IV features the return of Jane Wyatt as Spock’s mother, Amanda, who was mysteriously missing from the Vulcan ceremony in Star Trek III that restored Spock’s katra to his reborn body. (Why wasn’t she there, dammit?) It’s great to see her back, and while it’s not a big part, it’s a crucial one, as it helps set up Spock’s character arc.
Also making a welcome (though brief) return is Robin Curtis as Lieutenant Saavik, playing the character for the last time. I wish more had been done with her, but the fact is, if you’ve got Spock back full time, you don’t really need Saavik anymore. We learn that she’s staying behind on Vulcan. Why isn’t she going to Earth, to provide testimony on behalf of Kirk and the others? After all, she was an eyewitness to what happened on Genesis, even moreso than Spock. Unfortunately, most of Saavik’s dialogue in The Voyage Home is just her retelling Kirk information about his son that she’d already told him in The Search for Spock—though, oddly enough, she says that she hasn’t had the opportunity to tell him. Weird.
There was actually more stuff written for Saavik in the screenplay. It may have even been filmed. She would have appeared in one additional scene, in which she hands Kirk a deposition that she recorded for the hearing on Earth. And it would have been revealed that she was granted leave from Starfleet, and was staying on Vulcan, because of a medical issue.
The implication—and the actual intention on the part of the filmmakers—was that Saavik was pregnant with Spock’s child, the result of her helping him through the Vulcan mating cycle in Star Trek III. Apparently, Nimoy, Bennett, and Paramount ultimately decided not to take Saavik (and, by extension, Spock) in this direction. If the scene was filmed, that footage has never seen the light of day, and it’s safe to assume that the pregnancy is sure-as-hell not canonical.
There are some other notable appearances in the film, including Brock Peters as Admiral Cartwright. (The character was originally written as Admiral Morrow, who appeared in Star Trek III and was played by Robert Hooks. I’d love to know why the switch to Cartwright happened—I liked Hooks as Morrow.) Majel Barrett pops up as Doctor Christine Chapel, as does Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand, both of whom are now stationed at Starfleet headquarters—but don’t blink too often, or you’ll miss them. Sharp-eyed viewers will also catch Jane Wiedlin, of the Go-Go’s, as a Starfleet officer on a viewscreen.
But without a doubt, the final “cameo appearance” in the film is also the most important: the U.S.S. Enterprise. NCC-1701-A.
At the end of The Voyage Home, our heroes truly have come home. After all the death, destruction, personal losses, and uncertainty they’ve faced throughout the trilogy, they are restored to their rightful positions—particularly James T. Kirk, no longer an admiral but once again a captain, the commander of a starship. They have a new—though strangely familiar—vessel on which to live and follow their mutual true calling: the exploration of the unknown. It’s a fresh new start, a clean slate, for Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, and the Enterprise. They—and the movie series—can go pretty much anywhere from here. With the great success of The Voyage Home, there was a lot of enthusiasm—throughout Paramount and the now-growing audience—for the inevitable Star Trek V.
Now, I’ll turn things over to Maddie…
MADDIE: “I thought it was okay, I liked it. It’s not my favorite so far. The Wrath of Khan is still my favorite. I thought this one was a little too long.
“I thought the probe was going to attack people and blow up Earth.
“I was surprised that the movie turned out to be about time travel. I liked how they went back in time to the 20th century.
“I was happy that Spock was going to join everyone on the bird-of-prey, because I like it when Spock is with them.
“I was happy to see Saavik again, but I was sad that she wasn’t going to go with them. I would have liked to see more of her.
“I liked seeing Spock’s mother Amanda again. I thought it was weird when the computer asked Spock, ‘How do you feel?’ and he didn’t understand the question. And then Amanda explained to him that the computer knows that Spock is half human.
“Sarek looked very old. It was very nice of him to go to Earth to defend Kirk and everyone.
“It was interesting to see them in 1986. Kirk was cursing! ‘Double dumb-ass on you!’ It was great when Spock did the Vulcan neck pinch on the guy who wouldn’t turn down his radio—and then the people on the bus started clapping! And then when Gillian asked Kirk and Spock if they like Italian food and they keep saying, ‘Yes/no, yes/no,’ and then Kirk finally says, ‘I love Italian—and so do you,’ and then Spock says, ‘Yes.’
“I liked Gillian. She was pretty. She was making fun of Spock a lot. She was very close to the whales—she reacted the right way when she found out that the whales were taken away the night before. She was really angry and she slapped that man.
“I thought Gillian and Kirk had the start of a relationship going on. I was disappointed that they didn’t end up together.
“I guess there won’t be peace with the Klingons, because at the end, Kirk is still alive and Starfleet gave him a new ship!
“I was happy that Kirk got what he wanted by being bumped down from admiral to captain and getting a ship. I thought he was going to get the Excelsior. I was surprised to see that they built a new Enterprise!
“I wanted Kirk to change his hair. It’s always up and puffed and curly now. I want it to be like his hair on the TV show.
“I liked the music that was playing when Kirk, McCoy, and Gillian were trying to get Chekov out of the hospital. That was great, it was perfect for that scene. The music in this movie was funnier than in the others. I liked it.
“All the stuff with Kirk and Spock was very good. But I wanted more McCoy. I felt like I didn’t see him enough. And I would have liked to see more of Scotty—but it was very good when he made the aquarium for the whales. And it was very funny when he was trying to talk to the computer and he was speaking into the mouse.
“It was also funny when Chekov and Uhura were trying to find the ‘nuclear wessels’ and no one would talk to them! It was cool when they were on the ‘other’ Enterprise—the big U.S. Navy ship.
“I was happy that no one died in this one. There was too much death and explosions in the last two movies and this one was more calm and more of a clean slate.
“Gillian going into the future was cool. She needed to, because that’s where the whales were going and she wanted to be near the whales.
“I hope the next movie is a continuation of this one. I hope to see Gillian Taylor again and I hope to see more of the Klingons. And I hope to see the Romulans again too. I haven’t seen them in a long time.
“I’m excited for the fifth movie, because I wonder what the Klingons will do. The ambassador said, ‘There will be no peace while Kirk lives,’ and Kirk is alive and has a new ship. I think the next movie will be about the Klingons, because if it’s not, if it’s about something totally different, then it would be silly for that line to be in this movie.”
COMING SOON: Uh-oh.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2011.