STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME: Save the Whales, Save the World

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – Directed by Leonard Nimoy – Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Catherine Hicks.

STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME is a cool little gem of a movie. It really shouldn’t work – the idea to send the crew of the Enterprise back to the late 20th century, where they walk around the world we inhabit outside the movie theater, in an attempt to kidnap two whales to bring them back to the 23rd century to talk to alien space probe that’s robbing the Earth of energy is all sorts of hokey. And yet, the movie won me over with its humor and charm.

I’m not really sure why.

TREK IV is basically a 1980s dramedy stuck between two bookends of a Star Trek movie, where the comedy is derived largely from a difference in language usage. Chekov says, “Nuclear wessels” a lot and we inwardly grin at his silly second-language skills. Kirk says, “Double dumb ass” and we chuckle because they come so easily from his mouth. Bones does a bit of doctor humor when he says, “Immediate postprandial upper abdominal distention!” instead of saying, “Cramps!”  and it gets an actual laugh. Summing up all this fun with words, Spock asks Kirk in a moment of crisis: “Are you sure it isn’t the time for a colorful metaphor?”

There are moments that should make you cringe at their lameness. When a punk rocker fan is blasting his boombox on a public bus, Kirk asks him to turn it down. The kid refuses, snarls, and turns it up. Spock reaches across to him and renders him unconscious with some fancy Vulcan pressure grip. As Spock clicks the radio off, everybody on the bus cheers.

That’s a lie.

Spock doesn’t turn the radio off. When the punk rocker’s face falls unconscious onto his boombox, he lands just right for the music to shut off.

Did you just groan at the stupidity of that? I did, but when I watched it play out in the film, I didn’t mind. It’s stupid, but it works, and I owe that to the charm of these characters being placed in a situation that’s familiar to us and disorienting to the film’s heroes.

It’s really a pretty genius move on the parts of the writers and production team to merge these characters with our world and reveal them to be momentarily befuddled and confused, but always adaptable and always willing to do what it takes to get the job done. Kirk is still completely confident in his own abilities when selling a set of historical reading glasses at a pawn shop. Spock asks if they are the glasses that McCoy gave him as a gift. Smiling at the shop owner, Kirk says to Spock, “And they will be again. That’s the beauty of it.” When the shopkeeper tells them he’ll pay $100 for the glasses, Kirk asks, full of charm, “Is that a lot?”

This is Shatner’s finest performance through the first four films, with only the opening sequence of The Motion Picture, coming close. In that sequence, it was Kirk the Conquering King, flush with confidence and pride at getting command of the Enterprise, while here he’s all kinds of boyish charm. You can tell that Kirk loves this mission, that as serious as it is, he’s having a blast at the absurdity of it all. My take on Shatner’s acting abilities is that when he has to play it straight, he’s at his worst. He’s not a very deep dramatic actor, but when he can play it loose, with a knowing wink and a bluster of ego, he’s absolutely brilliant.

His performance as Kirk in TREK IV is a clear forerunner of his performance as Denny Crane in Boston Legal nearly two decades later. Crane is certainly an exaggeration, but certain aspects of that lawyer are on display here: the smiling bluster, the reliance on charm, the ability to be comfortable and confident in nearly every situation, the refusal to acknowledge the absurdity as absurdity … they’re all here and Shatner plays it brilliantly. (And I mean that sincerely, not ironically.)

He’s much less convincing as the captain standing before the tribunal at the end of the film, where he just kinda blankly stands there.

I think what helps the movie tremendously, too, is that these characters finally get off the ship and down onto a planet and start doing things on their own, without total reliance on the computers. That they do this and are so unsettled by this trip into humanity’s past allows us to both laugh at them and with them.

As I said earlier, it shouldn’t work. There should be something wrong with seeing Kirk and Spock kicked off a public transit bus and asking, “What does it mean, ‘exact change’?” like they’re rubes off the bus from a hippie commune, but it made me smile.

Shatner and Nimoy, especially, but the other characters, too, for the most part, stay in their personas. It really does feel like Kirk and Spock have landed in 1986 – although admittedly they’re placed in situations designed for comedic effect.

Catherine Hicks shows up to play a whale expert at an incredibly poorly run whale institute, confirming that 7th Heaven is to Star Trek movies what Benson is to Star Trek television. If this means Jessica Biel and Happy the Dog show up in ABRAMS TREK 2 or 3, I won’t complain.

Especially if they’re both in bathing suits.

The plot of VOYAGE HOME is functional more than it is strong. Like many comedies, it exists just to get the characters either in humorous situations or situations where they can be humorous. They’ve got to find some humpback whales to bring back to the future, because whales have been eradicated and an alien probe has come for a chat with whales and is destroying the planet as a by-product of their search for conversation; Kirk breaks them up into comedic duos. Kirk and Spock go for the whales. Chekov and Uhura go looking for nuclear wessels. Scotty and McCoy have to build a whale cage in the Klingon ship they’re still in. Sulu has to find a helicopter.

Yeah, that sorta sucks for Sulu. I guess there was supposed to be a scene between Sulu and his grandfather, but they either cut it or didn’t film it, and since no one calls him Tiny in the past, he can’t kick anyone’s ass for insulting him.

I love that everyone gets something to do, though, and that makes this my favorite of all the first four Trek films, so far, narrowly beating out Trek III. In fact, I think each film has gotten progressively better than the film that came before it, and that’s an incredible rarity in the life of a movie franchise. In fact, I can’t think of a single other franchise where this is the case except for maybe the Harry Potter franchise, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen those films and the middle years sorta blend together. (Maybe I’ll review the Potter films next …) I do distinctly remember the Potter films getting continually better, though. Still, it’s a rarity, and primary credit for that has to go to Harve Bennett and Leonard Nimoy, who’ve been the creative directors of the past two movies.

In a sense, VOYAGE HOME harkens back to TMP, where there is no actual villain. There’s no one to punch or confront or engage in dialogue, but it works much better here because unlike TMP, the plot doesn’t focus on the overall threat but on the smaller mission.

The decision to keep the crew in the Klingon bird-of-prey they stole from Kruge in the last film (and now re-christened by McCoy as the Bounty)  is a wise choice, too, forcing the crew to show off their ingenuity in getting this different kind of ship working. It allows you to see that the crew of the Enterprise isn’t just a bunch of button pushers, but intelligent, creative people.

Using the Bounty also provides two of the most dramatic shots of a spaceship in the first four films, too, with the Klingon craft swooping by the Golden Gate Bridge and stopping a whaleship from taking out the two whales they’re going to steal to save the future. The latter is a fitting scene given the reworking of the starfleet’s visual style to that of the nautical days gone by, giving them an actual nautical vessel to square off against.

There are things that don’t work. Spock gets regressed back to a non-emotional state and that sorta grates because I never even watched Star Trek and I’m tired of that angle. I can see why the filmmakers do this, however, as the Non-Emotional Spock works much better as a straight man for the 20th century routine, but Spock in the bookend scenes is rather punchable.

Lieutenant Saavik gets left behind on Vulcan, and that’s a shame because I thought she’d become a very likable character in Trek III after the acting change from Kirstie Alley to Robin Curtis. Apparently there’s scenes that were either not filmed or cut that establishes she stays behind on Vulcan because she’s got a Spock Baby in her tummy (or wherever Vulcan fetuses develop) after she slept with him during his pon farr last film. Without that info, why she gets left behind feels more like a “we don’t want you in this film” that any kind of interior, narrative logic.

The worst part of the movie is how all of the charges (excepting a rank demotion for Kirk) against Kirk and Crew get dropped just because they save the world with their time traveling whales. It comes off as, “Ah, we know you stole a starship, destroyed it, disobeyed all kinds of orders, but we can’t help but love you, you rascals, so here’s a brand new starship for you to run around in.” Even the demotion of Kirk from Admiral to Captain is a win because it allows him to get command of a starship, again. It’s stupid but as I stated last time, the Trek movies really aren’t interested in examining moral ambiguity, though I am glad that actions have consequences that follow the crew from film-to-film.

Of all the Trek films, VOYAGE HOME was the one I watched most as a kid and so I was worried that it would be dated (which it is) and cringe-inducing (which it isn’t). It’s a charming movie; far from the grandiose space adventure that we almost always see in a spaceship movie, VOYAGE HOME plays it small, concentrating on the cast of the Enterprise solving a problem instead of figuring out the best way to blast someone else’s spaceship.

It’s a good choice, executed winningly.

Plus, you know, whales.

And whales are awesome.

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