Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – revisiting the movie

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy lead the Star Trek crew on a quest to rescue some whales. Yep, it's Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home...

Star Trek IV remains the oddity of the Trek films. There’s no real villain for large swathes of the film, there’s no Enterprise, and the emphasis is squarely on comedy. Yes, a Star Trek comedy. Three words that ordinarily send shivers down the spine of any Trek fan and conjure up images of Ferengis in drag and sodding Neelix getting everyone killed. But let us not forget that this is William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy we’re talking about here. Nimoy in particular played Spock as deadpan, rather than stoic, so perhaps a fish out of water comedy is the right way to go.

That’s not why everyone remembers it though. No, The Voyage Home will forever be the one where they go to the 80s to get some whales.

The story conception began in the same vein as all the even numbered films – the producers, writers and director (in this case a returning Leonard Nimoy) gathered around a table and decided to distill the successful elements of the previous films and shed the baggage.

See also:Looking back at Star Trek: The Motion PictureLooking back at Star Trek II: The Wrath Of KhanLooking back at Star Trek III: The Search For Spock

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In a remarkable display of movie making common sense, Paramount not only asked Nimoy back for another crack of the megaphone, but even said to him ‘we want your vision’, and allowed him to oversee this distillation free of meddling. This meant that the pervading gloom of Star Trek III was out the window immediately, but the focus on character from Star Trek II and Star Trek III remained. The heavy sci-fi themes of life, death and revenge across time were gone, to be replaced with a gentle environmental theme that was considered to be ‘on message’.

Naturally, this resulted in a story where the Enterprise has to travel back in time because everyone in the 23rd Century is dying of an ebola like disease. It’s a light-hearted movie that effectively begins with trillions of people coughing up their own pancreas.

Eventual rewrites steered the story towards something more familiar, with modern day (well, 80s) San Francisco being the main hub of the film, and a pair of humpback whales being the target. Nimoy felt their song added mystery, which remained in the final film as the whales’ way of telling a cylinder to stop boiling the oceans in the future. I realise that by putting it that way I’m making the film sound weirder than it actually is. Although since the moral of this story happens to be ‘don’t needlessly kill animals because one day it might turn out angry aliens put them here deliberately and they’ll make it rain on you’, maybe I’m not giving the writers enough credit. 

With Nicholas Meyer on board to actually make something saleable, Nimoy on board to get the best from the characters, and even Paramount on board to not needlessly meddle, the only thing left was the cast.

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William Shatner in particular had pay demands that made some at Paramount consider continuing Trek as a TV show again rather than a film series. In the end Shatner (and Nimoy) agreed a new deal worth a comparatively low $2.5 million, but that figure was enough for Paramount to go for the cheap option, and so work began on a new series featuring new and cheaper actors. Thus, The Voyage Home accidentally created Star Trek: The Next Generation. The other bridge crew were of course on board, but the 1986 San Francisco setting meant there was an opportunity to bring on board a big star name to promote the film to a wider audience. This tied nicely in with Shatner’s (alleged) demands that he be given a love interest to seduce and “teach about this Earth thing you call making love”, like in [insert any original Trek episode here].

Paramount’s first choice for Kirk’s love interest was Eddie Murphy. However, Murphy wasn’t interested in playing an expy of himself and wanted to play a starfleet officer or an alien, and turned down the role. And to think that in 1986 we could have seen Trek’s first interracial gay time travelling sex scene. Ah well, we can only hope. Interesting note: Eddie Murphy also turned down Ghostbusters. Just think, we could have had a Ghostbusters/Trek crossover. Anyway, the part was rewritten for Catherine Hicks, meaning her two most famous roles have been alongside captains of the Enterprise.

The last step was to bridge the film to the wider Star Trek storyline. After III the crew were trapped on Vulcan, fugitives for stealing (and then blowing up) the Enterprise, but going back to Earth would require facing punishment. Harve Bennett wrote the first and final sections dealing with this to form something of a trilogy, and also to provide a framing device for the time travel story which makes up the meat of the film. It’s actually quite surprising how quickly the dangling threads from Wrath and Search are dealt with, yet it never comes across as a cheat. The Klingons want Kirk because of Genesis, Starfleet wants him to stand trial for stealing the Enterprise, and Kirk is quite willing to hand himself in and face the music. Starfleet tells the Klingons to Klingoff (setting up the events of Star Trek VI), and then give Kirk a slap on the wrist demotion and issue him with another Enterprise. This is the civilised 23rd century after all, no eye for an eye here.

Of course, if I were in charge of starfleet I would have ordered him to be burned at the stake, but this is The Voyage Home we’re talking about, where there the rule was ‘no dying, no fighting, no shooting, no photon torpedoes, no phaser blasts, no stereotypical bad guy’.

There is one oft-cited criticism in all this though, and it is one that would be levelled at other even numbered films – The Voyage Home is Trek-lite. This was deliberate, and even played up in the marketing – in this country, the official title is The Voyage Home: Star Trek IV, designed to give a wider audience. As such, much of the philosophy that defines Trek is absent. The one big question posed, when McCoy asks Spock to describe death, is brushed off with a glib (although unnervingly deep) remark that there is no frame of reference that could make the conversation make sense. I have to admit, this lack of a big idea is what put me off the film for a long time, although my opinion has softened over the years. I’m as conflicted as the film is about its message.

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I get that the theme is supposed to be ‘be careful with nature because you won’t know how valuable it is until it’s gone’, but by having the whole time travelling whale probe thing, you could easily interpret the theme as ‘don’t worry about the environment, because sufficiently advanced technology can overcome anything’. After all, the probe didn’t seem to particularly care about keeping the whales alive, just in making sure it had enough technology to punish anyone who killed them. And in the end it didn’t even matter, because a bunch of criminals in a stolen spaceship just used that technology to make everything better. Is that really the message we’re supposed to take away? No. The fact that I do take this away means that, as philosophical Trek goes, this one has problems. There’s only so far you can water down a message.

I do have another beef with this film, and much bigger than any philosophical worries (after all, no one watches an 80s time travel comedy because the library was out of Kant) – I think a lot of 80s comedies were crap. Not all comedies, but the broad appeal, PG rated comedies generally starring Steve Guttenberg. The kind that didn’t really have any jokes in but were somehow supposed to be funny.

Star Trek IV is a film that pretty much has no jokes. There’s setup, there’s characters playing off each other, but there’s no payoff. Just situations that might make you smile, and the occasional Spock one liner. Nimoy would go on to direct Three Men And A Baby, a film I’m certainly ambivalent about. It’s funny because they don’t know how to take care of a baby! I think there was a moustache involved. The point is, I can’t remember much about it, because it’s so insubstantial. And I don’t enjoy those films. Unless there’s some sort of edge, some interesting hook, I can’t get excited.

Take Short Circuit. First film, Steve Guttenberg teaches a robot to tell bad jokes. Hmmm. The second? Childlike robot gets involved with a criminal gang and a con artist, and then gets brutally hacked to death. That kind of stuff gets my interest. I think I might need help.

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Point is, I was never the biggest fan of Star Trek IV – a favourite amongst the series for many – but that’s mostly because I don’t like this sub genre. Yet if this weren’t a Trek film, I’d probably think much better of it. I need to explain that otherwise you’ll wonder why I’m being such a double dumbass.

Onto the film in more detail, then.

It begins with a bombastic transporter effect as the title beams in, and then descends into quite possibly Trek’s worst theme tune (and I’m including Faith Of The Heart in that). To be fair, it does sound like a rejected score for a 70s sitcom. It also sounds like someone’s getting married. Stop toying with me, film, I already know that Shatner and Murphy don’t get it on. It doesn’t even sound like any of the other films, even in a series with little musical continuity. It also liberally borrows from Rosenman’s other works, including Ralph Bakshi’s Lord Of The Rings. And to think, only two films ago people were borrowing Star Trek music, not the other way around. Probably should say something nice. Okay, I like the font.

The opening itself, however, is much more effective. For all I’m not the fan many are of the comedy bits, the sci-fi stuff is great. The Cetacean probe is a damn odd piece of design – a giant, screaming pipe armed with a testicle that turns the lights off. There are also the Klingons. While the whole trial thing is a way of tying up Star Trek III’s loose ends, it also provides a neat backdrop for non-fans. Klingons hate Kirk because of stealing their ship, Kirk hates Klingons because they murdered his son, Vulcans are emotionless, and there’s no Enterprise because that maniac Kirk blew it up (as shown by Star Trek III itself being played to the jury).

Finally, there’s Spock. He doesn’t feel emotions, but he’s half human so he should. We are told this at great length, presumably because otherwise the non-Trekkies would get confused about the pointy eared dude in a dressing gown. 

So there’s the setup. Bad things are happening on Earth, Kirk et al are conveniently the only ones who can help because they start the film on Vulcan, and Spock isn’t quite right in the head yet having spent much of the last few months stuck in the head of a guy who hates him. It’s good: the setup is quite clever in bringing all the pieces together. The meat of the film though? Let’s see…

Good: That time travel sequence makes me wonder if Nimoy really did do a little too much LDS. It makes the stargate sequence from 2001 seem accessible.

Bad: Learning to swear like only a Trekkie can. Don’t try and fool me into thinking Kirk doesn’t know how to use colourful metaphors. Get him in bed and I bet he swears like a ginned up 50 year old dock worker.

Good: The crew are endearingly awkward.

Bad: The heavy handed ‘killing whales is bad’ bit. Look, I know killing whales is bad, which is why I have only eaten whale a few times. Tastes like rabbit.

Good: Kirk creates a time paradox to make money. Screw you universe.

Bad: Kirk is still dressed as a bad lampshade

Good: Spock is the hell mentally ill.

Bad: Chekov doesn’t realise he nearly starts World War III, idiot. I don’t care if he can’t say ‘nuclear vessels’, he can’t even say ‘diplomatic incident’. The whole subplot is daft. They need to rekerfooble the dilithium crystals and the solution is “high energy photons”. In other words, x-rays and gamma rays. Just hold the thing up to the sun!

Good: The glue on Shatner’s toupee is incredible. Just look at it ‘naturally’ blowing in the wind.

Bad: Transparent aluminium can hold a whale tank but can’t withstand rain? The future is an idiot. And if Scotty can make the tank with acrylic, why doesn’t he just use that? Why does he take the formula for transparent aluminium to a plastics manufacturer? Surely somewhere that actually deals with aluminium would be better? 80s comedies – sacrificing plausibility for laughs, then not bothering with the laughs.

Good: Sulu seduces a pilot. No one can resist that man.

After these hijinks, it’s time to go back to the future. Whales released, everyone a bit damp, probe sods off (and is never mentioned ever again), Kirk is given a slap on the wrist demotion and he gets another Enterprise to blow up. Which is a bit of a shame, because as a trilogy, the end is a let down. After all the crew have been through, you’d expect they’d be in a different place at the end. That there would be some sort of growth. But no, by the end they’re back on the Enterprise, back exploring the galaxy, and not a single one has changed. In fact the only character development in The Voyage Home is Spock, and all that serves is to turn him back into the Spock we know. Ultimately, it’s a bit of fluff, where nothing really matters and nothing really changes.

Entertaining fluff? Sure. But fluff? Yes.

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