Dr. Gillian Taylor: “Don’t tell me. You’re from outer space.”
Admiral James T. Kirk: “No I’m from Iowa, I only work in outer space.”
Dinner conversation during a date at an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, circa 1980s
“Well, a double dumbass on you!”
Admiral James T. Kirk to a taxi driver on the streets of San Francisco, same time period
Usually when the fourth film in a franchise comes around the franchise itself starts to show signs of fatigue. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Unbelievably, the fourth Star Trek film reaffirmed the Star Trek franchise after its moribund predecessor. A lot of the credit goes to writers Nicholas Meyer, Harve Bennett (who was also the producer), Peter Krikes and Steve Meerson, and primarily, director Leonard Nimoy, who co-stars in the film as Spock. Nimoy found his footing with his second directorial gig and it shows in a big way.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home begins with a dedication to the lost crew of the space shuttle Challenger, which was appropriate and sincere being that the tragedy happened earlier in the year that the film premiered. After the credits, the story begins with a Reliant-class starship encountering a humongous, shiny, black cylindrical alien probe that drains the starship of its power. Before anyone can say V’Ger, the story jumps back to Earth at the council chambers of the United Federation of Planets where audiences are brought up to date with what happened in the previous film. A Klingon ambassador (John Schuck) wants Admiral James T. Kirk’s (William Shatner) head for killing a Klingon crew and stealing their bird-of-prey ship and accuses the Federation of wanting to wage war on the Klingons with the failed Genesis terraforming process.
Kirk has violated nine Starfleet regulations, such as disobeying orders and stealing the starship Enterprise . He is on exile with his former crewmembers on the planet Vulcan. They include Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scottie” Scott (James Doohan), and Commanders Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). After being on Vulcan for three months, they choose to return to Earth and face trial. Spock, who they risked their lives and careers for in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, is recuperating from his resurrection and regaining his mental acuity. He is still confused about the nature of feelings, but elects to accompany his friends back to Earth.
Meanwhile, the alien probe approaches Earth and creates havoc as it drains away the energy of anything that it approaches. Starfleet is effectively crippled and Earth defenseless. The probe also emits a series of ear-piercing inhuman screeches and wails that no one can decipher. The probe arrives in Earth orbit and begins transmitting into the oceans. This creates a severe superstorm that covers the planet and the endangers all life.
Kirk and his crew leave Vulcan with the stolen Klingon ship (rechristened the Bounty) and on their way to Earth pick up a distress call from the Federation President (Robert Ellenstein), who is on Earth, warning away visitors because of the probe. Spock is able to decipher the probe’s transmissions and we learn that it is trying to contact humpback whales. Unfortunately, the species is extinct in the 23rd century, which forces Kirk to take the Bounty and time travel to Earth’s past and find whales to bring back to their time period.
After Kirk informs Starfleet Command of his intentions, the Bounty makes a slingshot maneuver around Earth’s sun. It’s a time travel procedure first done in the classic original episode “The Naked Time” but more ethereal with dream-like sequences showing morphing busts of the crew and whales. After that sequence the ship winds up in the latter half of the 20th century. After picking up whale songs transmitting from the San Francisco area, the ship lands cloaked in Golden Gate Park in the middle of the night. Scotty informs Kirk that in addition to refitting the ship’s interior to accommodate a whale tank, the ship’s dilithium crystals that power the warp core drive are drained and need recharging or else they’re stranded. With that, the now-Bounty crew disembark their ship and head off into the wild frontier of the 20th century.
Then the fun begins.
I could tell that the film was taking a lighter, slightly carefree approach when this upbeat jazz tempo started playing on the soundtrack in the very next scene as Kirk and his crew are seen walking along the streets of San Francisco in broad daylight. Anyone can’t help but laugh at how outrageous they looked in their futuristic clothing and seeing their reactions to 20th century life. For co-writer Nicholas Meyer this was old territory revisited. One of his earlier films was the underrated and unappreciated time travel gem Time After Time where H.G. Wells goes to the same city in 1979 to track down Jack the Ripper.
Our heroes basically stand around a street corner looking befuddled before splitting up to carry out their separate missions. But not before Kirk yells at them to try to blend in because they look so out of place (“you look like a cadet review!” he barks). One of the funniest moments was when they were trying to cross a street and Kirk almost gets hit by a taxi. The driver in a typical ornery manner calls Kirk a dumbass, and the admiral curses back at him. It was shockingly hysterical to see a renowned space hero stooping down to our barbaric levels just to fit in and not quite get the cursing down right.
Scotty and McCoy need to find material to construct a whale tank for the Bounty. The chief engineer’s attempt at interfacing with a “quaint” Apple desktop is probably funnier today, because although the model used was contemporary in the time the film was made is an outdated relic, so we can identify better with Scottie. Meanwhile, Sulu has to procure a helicopter to transport the material to the ship–even though the supporting cast had much more to do in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Sulu’s role was underutilized compared to the others. Uhura and Chekov need to get to Alameda to find “nu…cle…ar wessels” to siphon nuclear energy in order to recharge the Bounty’s dilithium crystals. If only they can find someone who can provide directions to Alameda! This film properly used the supporting cast. Almost all of the main cast had significant lines, things to do and moments in the sun.
The main focus is on Kirk and Spock who track down a pair of humpback whales at the Cetacean Institute aquarium in Sausalito. They meet the Institute’s assistant director Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), who is in charge of the whales called George and Gracie. From that point on, Kirk tries to apply his charms on Dr. Taylor to procure the whales as he and the other Starfleet officers try to blend in with the maddening lifestyle of the late 20th century. But all are dedicated to their goal of repairing their ship, refitting it for the whales and transporting the cetaceans back to the 23rd century to save the planet.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home works on so many levels that a genuine argument can be made that it’s the best Star Trek film. Sure, many people will say that Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is the best film of the franchise but for me it’s difficult to choose between the two. This film is a quintessential Star Trek story and has most of its trademarks. It’s witty and pokes fun at our culture and the fish-out-of-water moments are masterful. Just watch when our heroes are first observing their surroundings in San Francisco. Their scrutiny ranges from the overuse of curse words in everyday language to McCoy’s outrage and disgust over 20th century medicine to popular literature (after the mention of the so-called neglected works of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, Spock stoically replied, “Ahh, the giants.”). Don’t be offset by the use of humor, after all, comedy was used often in the original series as with the episodes “I, Mudd” and “The Trouble With The Tribbles”.
Then there is the sight of seeing Kirk on a date drinking beer and being his usual charming self. It was the closest moment in the film series that the original Kirk acted like the ladies man that he was in the classic show. William Shatner got to showcase a genuine comedic gift with this film, which was later seen in TV shows like 3rd Rock From The Sun. One of his funniest moments was when he spots Spock swimming in the aquarium’s tank in order to mind meld with one of the whales. Not only was the spectacle of a hippyish Spock so hilarious in a gut busting level, but Kirk’s befuddled and horrified reactions add to the laughs.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home makes terrific use of the often-used time travel plot device. A staple of all the Star Trek shows and films, this one captured perfectly the main characters out of their time period and comfort zone. Clearly, many will agree with Kirk’s assessment that they were in “an extremely primitive and paranoid culture.”
But even without the time travel element, the film was quite an adventure. As the conclusion of a trilogy that began with the second film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home successfully addresses the dilemmas that plague our characters such as Spock’s evolutionary understanding about emotions, Kirk’s career path and how their society perceives them. In the previous film, people at times were practically disrespectful to our heroes. Kirk was ignored by his superiors, his ship was seen as a relic and he himself felt like life was passing him by. Here he is treated with more reverence. A great scene that illustrates this point is right before the Bounty begins its time travel maneuver. Kirk sends a message to Starfleet Command on Earth about the probe’s message and their attempt at time travel. In the previous film, his call would’ve been lost in that hectic control room with that cacophony of distress calls coming from everywhere. This time, the personnel marshal all their power to receive his call. At the conclusion of this film, everything comes to an emotionally satisfying full circle as Kirk and his colleagues undertake what it is they were born to do.
The fourth Star Trek film is a synergetic blend of the best parts of the original show and the film series. It’s never pompous, yet it’s respectful of its legacy and character are at the heart of the story. The production values were excellent with outstanding special effects, makeup and the score by Leonard Rosenman was quite good. Loud, prideful and full of pomp. This film proved that a great Star Trek film doesn’t need a scene-chewing villain and lots of explosions to tell a rousing adventure. At the same time, underlying the fun-filled romp is a solid message about environmental conservation that isn’t over the top, and such messages and themes were part of the show’s makeup. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home exceeded expectations and helped cement Star Trek as a mainstay of popular culture.