“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”
Star Trek Film Series
Directed by: Leonard Nimoy
Story by: Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett
Screenplay by: Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer
Original release date: 26th November 1986
At last we’ve come to the first Star Trek movie to feature time travel, widely considered the best of the Original Series films, or at least second-best, after The Wrath of Khan.
It’s a good film. Despite the time travel, though, it’s not one of my favourites. One of the reasons is that there’s no villain. It was a deliberate move by the filmmakers to create a Star Trek movie with no villains, no fighting, no phasers and photo torpedoes, and no dying—and see if it worked. And, to be honest, it does. Everything’s very happy and jolly and fun. But for me, everything’s a little less interesting, too. The lack of a villain (unless you count the mostly off-screen whalers) means The Voyage Home suffers from a distinct lack of drama. Personally, I think villains are essential for any story to truly engage. Villains provide conflict, and stories need conflict. Sure, you can have conflict among your heroes, and that’s interesting for a while, but it’s not enough to sustain a story for very long.
And that’s why, for me, The Voyage Home is pleasantly diverting without ever being truly engaging.
While there’s no villain, there are still some pretty big (and classic) stakes. At the beginning of the movie, Earth’s in danger of being destroyed by an alien probe that the Federation can’t communicate with. And the crew of the USS Enterprise (now aboard a Klingon bird-of-prey after the Enterprise’s destruction in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) have to come and save the day.
I do like that The Voyage Home is the closing chapter of a loose three-film arc that began with The Wrath of Khan. I love arcs and continuing stories, which is why I’m happy with the move away from episodic television towards more serialised storytelling, which began in the 00s. For me it makes the viewing experience as a whole more rewarding. The beginning of The Voyage Home picks up right where The Search for Spock left off, with Spock adjusting to having been resurrected by the Genesis planet and the Klingons and Starfleet demanding that Kirk and crew answer for their actions. I also think it’s a great idea to keep the main cast on the Klingon ship for the whole of the film.
The premise is an interesting and unusual one; the probe is trying to make contact with Earth’s humpback whales, which in the 23rd century are extinct, so Spock suggests taking the Enterprise back in time to the 20th century to recover some.
It is, however, an almighty stretch to suggest that no one in Starfleet is clever enough to work out what the Enterprise crew does in about five minutes—that the aliens are trying to talk to the whales. All Kirk and crew do is figure that, because the messages are being directed at the oceans, they should find out what the messages sound like underwater. Voila—it’s whale-song. Meanwhile, everyone back on Earth is standing around baffled and clueless while the probe causes a planet-wide catastrophe. That’s just dumb.
But hey, Kirk and co are the heroes, so let’s go with it. In order to go pinch some whales, Kirk orders Spock to start computations for ‘time warp’. This is essentially the slingshot maneuver they used in The Naked Time, Tomorrow is Yesterday and Assignment: Earth, which was always a bit of a silly concept. In Assignment: Earth, it was made out to be as easy as going to normal warp and it’s exactly the same here. We also don’t get any technobabble to describe what they’re actually doing (I guess because they were deliberately trying to make this film appeal to a more general audience—and it worked).
Time travel definitely shouldn’t be this easy.
Anyway, the method of time travel is clearly not the point here and it is easy, so let’s go with that too. After a very weird scene of Kirk and crew as plaster heads and a humanoid mannequin tumbling through space (not sure what on earth any of that was supposed to represent), the Enterprise crew come to (not sure why they fell unconscious either—perhaps to at least try and suggest that time travel is not like warping to a starbase).
They’re in 1986, in orbit around Earth, so they quickly engage their Klingon cloaking device. Admittedly, that’s about it for their concern about the impact they may have on the timeline. They land in a park in San Francisco and we get that famous moment of the rubbish bin being crushed. My girlfriend pointed out when we were watching it—“Why didn’t they scan for lifesigns?”—after a bunch of bin men see the ship doors open. Very good point. But like I said, the timeline doesn’t really matter to these folks right now. Later, McCoy and Scotty briefly contemplate not giving Plexicorp manager Dr. Nichols the formula for transparent aluminium for fear of damaging the timeline—then they just decide that he was probably always supposed to invent it! Er, guys, you can’t just assume a predestination paradox. But again, these guys aren’t bothered about the timeline—and neither are the film’s writers.
Plot holes and enormous space-time continuum implications aside, this film really is fun. The first third presents an interesting dilemma, then the middle is where the comedy really sets in. Once the crew are in San Francisco and have to adapt to life in the 80s, we get a string of fish-out-of-water scenes that are exactly what makes time travel such a fantastic plot device. And the fish-out-of-water trope is never going to get old either. Because time’s always changing, there’s always going to be new opportunities to play with it.
Nowadays, a lot of time travel stories (including my own—don’t mind me while I get an oh-so-subtle plug in there) deal with changing the future by tweaking something in the past. The Voyage Home isn’t concerned with that. Kirk and co have no intention of changing (or restoring/fixing) the timeline. The past has something that the future doesn’t, so they have to go back and get it. It’s a delightfully simple yet logical reason for travelling in time. (Having said that, it would’ve been interesting to see some unintended adverse effects of casually snatching those whales from history.)
Once in San Francisco, we also meet Dr. Gillian Taylor, brilliantly played by Catherine Hicks. This is the only original Star Trek film where we have an audience surrogate—a character viewers can relate to in the context of a fantastical situation, same as the companion characters in Doctor Who. Taylor is another reason why The Voyage Home was more popular with general audiences. She’s smart and savvy and doesn’t fall for any of Kirk and Spock’s BS, and her love for her whales, George and Gracie, is palpable in every scene. I love that she goes with them to the future at the end—although I couldn’t help but feel sad when she said, “I’ve got nothing here,” as her reason for wanting to go with the whales—what, no one? No family? No friends?
After a funny scene where Kirk, McCoy and Taylor rescue Chekov from a hospital and we get lots of lovely lines from McCoy about the state of 20th-century medicine (“My god, what is this, the Dark Ages?”), the film’s climax is pretty exciting. Kirk and co fly to the sea where the whales have been released early and save them from poachers, by decloaking their bird-of-prey right above their ship—a cool moment. Then they return to the 23rd century, lose power and crash-land in San Francisco Bay. Kirk swims down to release the whales and we get a few minutes of the probe and the whales having a nice chat (I’d love to know what they say to each other). Finally, the probe does an about-turn and goes on its merry way and the Enterprise crew chuck each other in the water like kids to a very jolly and, er, Christmassy bit of score.
The final scenes, where the Enterprise crew are (not really) reprimanded and Kirk is demoted from admiral to captain but given the command of a new ship, are wonderful. In particular, the moment when they’re all flying towards their new ship in a travel pod, expecting it to be a freighter or the Excelsior, and a brand-new USS Enterprise—NCC 1701 A— comes into view, is a real lump-in-the-throat crowd-pleaser for Trek fans.
Many probably think it’s a shame that the first we see of this new ship is the mission to find God in the shoddily-made Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but hey, I rather liked that one. 🙂