Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, or ‘the one with the whales’ as it’s sometimes, called was Leonard Nimoy’s second stint behind the camera on a Trek film and became the most popular with non-fans. So much so that it’s the only one my wife has seen. But where does it stand with the rest of the franchise?
Following on from the Search For Spock, The Voyage Home begins with a mysterious alien probe on its way to Earth, sending out a mysterious signal that no one can understand, disabling starships as it goes. Meanwhile, back at the Starfleet HQ in San Francisco, an impassioned speech from the Klingon ambassador shows the destruction of the Enterprise (again, like in The Motion Picture, I’m not sure who was there to film it) and we learn that Kirk has a hefty court martial awaiting him.
With the exile on Vulcan drawing to a close, Spock’s re-education is near complete when he decides he must return with his comrades to give testimony at their trial. The probe continues toward Earth, causing mass disruption as it goes, disabling the ships and then Space Dock, before entering Earth’s orbit, and vaporising all the water from the planet’s surface. With the Earth yet again in mortal danger, a planet wide distress call is issued, and thanks to Spock, our crew figure that the probe is looking for humpback whales, which in Trek‘s alternate history, have been extinct since the 21st Century.
Spock decides the only logical solution is to travel back in time, rescue a pair of whales and return, so that, in the words of Dr McCo: “Find humpback whales, then bring them forward in time. Drop them off and hope to hell they tell this probe what to go do with itself?!'”
Thanks to the slingshot effect (established in The Original Series episode) the crew arrive back in late 20th Century Earth, to San Francisco. Landing in Golden Gate Park they are soon ready to find their whales and get home, provided that, as Kirk implores, “Everyone remember where we parked.” Kirk and Spock are charged with that task, McCoy, Sulu and Scotty have to get the Bird of Prey watertight, while Chekov and Uhura need a nuclear reactor to re-energise the ship’s depleted Dilithium crystals.
After an encounter with a punk on a bus, Kirk and Spock find Dr. Gillian Taylor, and the humpback whales, George and Gracie. Spock mind-melds with Gracie, and learns she is pregnant, and that they are willing to help the crew. Uhura and Chekov find the real Enterprise, just the nuclear wessel they need.
Unable to say ‘no’ to the good Admiral, Gillian is keen to learn more about Kirk and Spock, and after Spock’s revelation that Gracie is pregnant, she agrees to have dinner with the pair. Scotty and McCoy, meanwhile, need materials for their whale tank, and have bluffed their way into the Plexiglas factory. Giving away the secrets of Transparent Aluminium (I’m not American), they’ve got their whale tank and Sulu’s managed to blag himself a Huey chopper to move it.
Over dinner, Kirk confesses to Gillian the truth, while Uhura and Chekov beam aboard the Enterprise to collect the photons needed to juice up the Bird of Prey. Uhura escapes, but Chekov is not so lucky and is caught; there ain’t nothing worse than a Russkie on board a US ship! Chekov’s escape attempt, involving a novel ‘falling from high place’ technique, fails and he is critically injured.
Gillian is then shocked to discover that George and Gracie have already been moved and rushes to find Admiral Kirk. She spots Sulu’s chopper loading the tank sections into the cloaked Bird of Prey and is beamed aboard, begging for help. Uhura manages to track down the injured Chekov, who is near death. Beaming to the hospital, Kirk, Bones and Gillian quickly located our favourite Russian (with the good doctor even finding time to give a patient a new kidney) and thanks to some decidedly 24th Century tech, Pavel’s life is saved.
Things are not going quite so well for George and Gracie whoever, and as the Bird Of Prey finds them, they are under attack from a whaling ship. Luckily, the whaler is no match for the Klingon ship and Scotty is soon able to beam the whales aboard.
Upon their return to the future, the ship suffers a similar fate to its counterparts, losing all power and crash landing in San Francisco Bay. With the whales in danger of drowning, Kirk is able to open the bay doors (not even HAL in 2001 could do that) and thankfully they do indeed tell the probe ‘what the hell to go do with itself’.
Their heroic mission complete, Kirk and his cohorts still have the small matter of a court martial. Kirk is demoted to Captain, but in the light of the recent actions all but one charge is dropped and Kirk is again given command of a Starship. Dr Taylor meanwhile, has a few years of catching up to do. With Kirk and co. aboard an all new Enterprise, the film ends with them ‘boldly going where no man has gone before’.
The Voyage Home is, to my mind, a great Trek film; it opened up the franchise to its widest audience yet, and (probably til Friday) stands as the biggest grossing film in the series. It succeeds by bringing the characters to the fore.
With little or no special effects, and no battles, we really get to focus on what a talented bunch of actors Gene Roddenberry assembled back in 1966 and it’s refreshing to see them in an ensemble piece, rather than the story being squarely aimed at Kirk and Spock.
It also succeeds by being genuinely funny; too often Trek‘s attempts at humour are cringeworthy, but Nimoy’s script and direction has a warmth and deft comic touch to it that is enjoyable by all.
Catherine Hicks is a great foil for Kirk as Dr Taylor (the role was originally written for Eddie Murphy) and the two have a great on screen chemistry.
There’s really very little to pick at in the film. You could argue it’s not Trek enough, but it’s still a great story, it’s an enormous amount of fun, and it nicely ties up all the loose ends from the previous two films.
The only thing that does bug me, putting my Trekkie hat on, is the fact that bridge on the Bird of Prey is totally different to the one seen in Search For Spock. It’s meant to be the same ship, so who changed everything? Thankfully, the new sets look much better, so it’s a minor complaint at best. So ignore the naysayers, The Voyage Home is a great film, with a message behind it, without ramming it down your throat.