Star Trek 4 - The Voyage Home (1986)

Director: Leonard Nimoy

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Catherine Hicks

“Star Trek” made an animal rights infomercial! You know the ones… Sappy music accompanied by pictures of dogs/cats/etc. staring up at the camera with sad looks on their faces. It’s all an annoying ploy to make you feel guilty about how these creatures are being treated by some other assholes somewhere else in the world as though it were your fault. Where “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” differs is that it sprinkles bits of comedy and science fiction in with its main message. Still taking risks at this point, it would be a while before the series settled down into producing “Wrath of Khan” remakes.

A couple of months after the events of “Star Trek III,” Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and crew are still in exhile on Vulcan while Spock (Leonard Nimoy) completes the retraining of his mind. Having destroyed their beloved Enterprise to foil the plans of the Klingons, Starfleet’s best and bravest are preparing to use their vanquished enemies’ spacecraft to return home to Earth where a court martial awaits them, when suddenly they intercept a distress signal sent by the Federation President himself. An alien probe has entered Federation space, neutralizing the power systems of every starship within its path and wreaking havoc on Earth’s atmosphere. The probe is directing some sort of signal towards Earth’s oceans and, deeming this to be of great significance, Spock determines that the alien is trying to communicate with the species we know as humpback whales. Unfortunately, by the 23rd century, the humpback whale has been extinct for some time. He therefore devises a plan by which the crew can travel back to the late 20th century to acquire some whales.

“Star Trek” has come up with many different methods of time travel, but the one presented in “The Voyage Home” may stand as one of the more fantastical. All they have to do here is to stretch the maximum warp capabilities of their hijacked Klingon Bird-of-Prey to perform a slingshot around the Sun. One could go on and on about how completely absurd and impossible this is, but then so is faster-than-light propulsion… and transporters… and biped humanoids from planets other than Earth (to say nothing of whether or not it would be physically possible for said species to mate with humans). The truly puzzling part of this sequence comes just as the Bird-of-Prey begins its dangerous solar U-turn. Out of nowhere, a very trippy dream sequence plays out, ultimately including sound bytes from scenes that haven’t taken place yet. It all moves so quickly that I’m not entirely sure what any of it is supposed to mean. The only thing I’m fairly confident of is that it’s Kirk’s dream we’re witnessing.

Once we’re in 1986 San Francisco, the movie takes a sharp left turn towards comedy. The crew seems utterly lost as to the lingo of the period, how much $100 will get you, and whether or not it’s a good idea to send the Russian in your team onto the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to harvest some of that ship’s nuclear power as fuel for the depleted Bird-of-Prey. Kirk and Spock find two humpback whales in captivity at the Cetacean Institiute in Sausalito, California. There, they encounter Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), quickly getting off on the wrong foot when Spock jumps into the whale tank to perform a mind meld with the female whale, learning that she is pregnant. Unfortunately, the whales are due very soon to be released back into the wild, where they will very likely be hunted and killed.

Anyone who knows anything about “Star Trek” will guess correctly that the story cannot end with our crew failing in their mission and 23rd Century Earth being destroyed by the alien probe. “The Voyage Home”‘s storyline, similar to that of the sentient Earth satellite returning to make contact with its creator in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” neatly avoids the feeling of déjà vu by setting the majority of its two hours in 1986, giving this movie a light-hearted approach that might have endeared viewers to “The Motion Picture” more greatly. Another connection between “The Motion Picture” and “The Voyage Home” is within the casting. Catherine Hicks, who played Annie Cambden on TV’s “7th Heaven,” was the second member of that show’s cast to appear in a “Star Trek” film, following Stephen Collins (who played Annie’s husband, Reverend Eric Cambden).

With comedy largely taking the place of action, there are some amusing highlights. In one scene, Kirk, McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Gillian have to weasel their way past security and into a hospital emergency room where the doctors are about to use 20th Century medical techniques to revive a critically injured Chekov. Also great for laughs is the moment where Spock receives appreciation from a busload of passengers for his handling of a situation involving an inconsiderate punk (associate producer Kirk Thatcher, who also wrote the loud song the punk is listening to). Not so great are, as Spock puts it, the “colorful metaphors.” I’m hardly opposed to the “four-letter words,” but they don’t seem to flow naturally even when Kirk tries them out. I acknowledge that this probably was the point of it all, but it just doesn’t do anything for me.

“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” marked another turning point for the film series. It was clear that the producers looked at the revenue this one generated, and naturally assumed that what worked here could work again no matter what story they came up with. After three very serious movies, this and most of the sequels that would follow would have varying degrees of comedy thrown in, and not always with positive results. Out of the six films featuring the original series’ cast, it’s probably the one that is showing its age the most. An overwhelming favorite among most film critics, I’m not as hot for this entry. It doesn’t encourage me to come back to it as often as the others. Despite that fact, it’s entertaining, nicely paced, everyone obviously had a blast making it, and I like that it’s not just another big space battle/revenge story. If you prefer those kinds of movies, not to worry. There would be plenty more of those that would follow.

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