Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Rated PG (for violence and language)
Released: November 26, 1986
Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Catherine Hicks, Mark Lenard
That attention-grabbing spin of the usually ambiguous star dates (branded atop the film’s posters) declared yet again that the Star Trek movie series was about to take another risk.
I have to say, it hasn’t been until this recent look back at the Original Cast Star Trek films that I’ve fully appreciated the gambles that each and every one took. Seeing the evolution, over time, of what’s considered to be a praise-worthy blockbuster (or, from my seat, how that’s devolved) helps provide a necessary perspective. When you compare the OC Star Trek movies to today’s Cinematic Universes, ones in which a “civil war” carries no more weight or stakes than a pyrotechnic game of superhero footsie (playing it predictably safe under the facade of spectacle), the creative brain trust behind the Star Trek original cast movies never gave themselves the easiest needles to thread.
In the case of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the risk was taking a sharp turn away from the successful sentimental space operas of the previous two entries (that had delivered on big risks of their own) by making a follow-up that was, in effect, the saga’s version of a contemporary action comedy.
Imminently accessible even to the Trek novice, Star Trek IV fully embraces many of the popular sensibilities of its time, including a pop jazz track by The Yellowjackets that still jams (linked at the end of this review). Yet even while doing so, Star Trek IV never loses its footing as a philosophical franchise (and, thirty years later, subtly indicts some of the rigid arrogance of today’s New Atheism. More on that later).
There was money to be had in that action comedy genre, which had become popular in the 1980s to the point of ubiquity. It was also an enticing tangent to make (according to Leonard Nimoy, who returned as director) following the heavy, raw emotions of Star Trek III. Based on early versions of Star Trek IV’s development, the end product could have been very different – like Eddie Murphy different (see trivia below). While I wouldn’t have put it past producer Harve Bennett to find a way to make that work, Star Trek didn’t reach its heights of artistic and populist success with that sort of desperate stunt casting.
As intriguing as the prospect of throwing Murphy into that mix would’ve been, I’m relieved we’ll never know the result. Instead, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home gave us the most purely entertaining adventure of the six-film series – and, I’d argue, in all fifty years of the entire franchise – not to mention the most financially successful (unmatched until J.J. Abrams‘ reboot).
And it did so entirely on the merits of its own cast. Rather than trying to make the Enterprise crew hip, which would’ve been all kinds of awkward, Nimoy’s movie wisely makes them Starfleet fish out of water.
It was also the first of the features to bring back one of the TV series’ core essentials: tackling relevant contemporary issues. In the 1980s, “Save The Whales” was as trendy a cause célèbre as they came. But rather than getting up on some dogmatic soapbox, the screenplay (which received a full “Page 1” rewrite by Bennett and Star Trek II director Nicholas Meyer, who jettisoned nearly everything from the previous drafts by another screenwriting team) was very thoughtful in considering an unintended consequence from eliminating an entire species off the face of the planet – especially one with relatively high communication skills – and how it could lead to our own demise.
But before getting into all of that, the story first had some loose ends to deal with from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, namely the fugitive status of the entire Enterprise crew (who had broken multiple orders and regulations to rescue Mr. Spock) along with Spock’s status of needing to retrain his mind now that he had his Katra back (i.e. his mental and spiritual essence). Dr. McCoy, whose psyche had been its caretaker, was now free to be a sparring crumudgeon again.
Working at this point like a well-oiled storytelling machine, the opening scenes of Star Trek IV are like a mini master class in scriptwriting exposition. Between the Federation council hearing (which recaps III’s central events) to Spock’s retraining on Vulcan to Kirk’s reflective Captain’s Log, the scenes not only distill everything we need to know but do so organically.
Then, too, are how these sequences simultaneously set up the fourth movie’s conflicts. Certainly the construct of each scene helps, but what elevates them to a sharp yet fluid naturalism is the quality of the dialogue. I don’t know how many drafts the script went through, but there’s an unforced virtue in what these initial sequences unpack and establish, particularly given the volume of information, that only comes through a disciplined commitment to rewriting.
From there, the high concept narrative is actually pretty streamlined. The premise is a clever one: extinct humpback whales may be the solution to an alien probe aggressive actions that are destroying the Earth. To find some, Kirk and crew hazard a jump back in time (apparently that’s possible with a slingshot turn around the sun). Spock’s time warp computations prove accurate, of course, landing the crew in 1986 San Francisco.
Not exactly inconspicuous, the team splits up to find whales and supplies necessary for the return trip home, and hopefully by the end of it all the humpbacks will (in the singularly cranky words of Dr. McCoy) tell “this probe what to go do with itself.” These concurrent subplots create the most equal distribution of screen time for the supporting crew ensemble, with material that allows each of them to show off their comedic skills.
Utilizing science also remains a staple in their problem solving, even as their repartee across the board has never been better (the “Yes/No” back-and-forth between Kirk and Spock in the truck scene is a highlight, and was entirely improvised). I should add, too, that composer Leonard Rosenman‘s Oscar-nominated score brought a welcome jauntiness to the nautical tone James Horner had established, providing some of the best, most enjoyable themes of the series.
Another TV staple that finally makes its first appearance in a feature is Kirk’s way with women. While not a full-on romance with passionate embraces, Kirk uses his charms on a local marine biologist who specializes in humpbacks, but it’s a connection that’s real for Kirk, not strategic. It’s played rather nicely between William Shatner and Catherine Hicks, and fits well into this film’s tone in a way that it wouldn’t have in previous installments. Suffice it to say, it’s fun to see Kirk flirt again. (Side note: given how Kirk winces at the taste of Michelob during a dinner-date scene, I now like to read that as a confirmation of how the 23rd Century has evolved past all forms of mass produced swill to embrace the superior craft beers that emerged in the 21st).
In what so easily could’ve been just a comedy of errors, Star Trek IV maintains and thrives on the nobility of its characters, their commitment to a mission and, most importantly, their loyalty to each other (especially when it appears another crew member may have lost his life). These enduring qualities not only allow their chemistry to warm our hearts and make us laugh, but it also serves to drive a poignant character arc for Spock as he begins to rediscover his human half, its value, and its virtues.
To that end, for as much as Star Trek has always been a paean to logic, science, and a humanistic atheism, it’s striking to consider how its values differ to, say, some strains of today’s New Atheism (Richard Dawkins and the like). Where the New Atheists elevate science above all else (case in point: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent proposition for #Rationalia, a nation ruled by “the weight of evidence”), this Star Trek not only still admires human flaws, it has an actual respect for human emotion and illogic, one that even posits these “flaws” as necessary for our survival.
The evolved philosophy of Star Trek‘s idealized future recognizes that imperfect humanity has a strength, virtue, wisdom, and soul that logic and science can never have, let alone foster. To “science” them out of existence would be…well, illogical.
We also see the evolved cultural mores of these 23rd Century time travelers as they express bewilderment over of the more profane instincts of our era (an observation that seems even more timely thirty years on). Again, the tone is never preachy, thankfully, and Spock’s stilted attempts at using “colorful metaphors” make for some of the film’s best laughs, but in an age where coarse profanity is not only on the increase but even valued among (and proudly employed by) cultural and media elites, it’s nice to see a vision of the future that says the coarsening of our language inevitably coarsens our culture, and that the higher ideal of humanity would evolve past that.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is, in a sense, the template of what the new cast reboots should aspire to. It shows just how flat out entertaining and accessible sci-fi can be (which Abrams has nailed) while still being more than simply a thrilling space adventure. Star Trek can (and should) still hold fast to its incorporation of science, love of philosophy, and contemplation of humanity beyond another boilerplate hero’s journey (which are increasingly coming off as vaguely narcissistic).
If Star Trek III could’ve served as a completely satisfying finale to the entire franchise (as I posited in my review), then Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – which completes an inter-saga trilogy that spans chapters II, III, and IV – feels like a jubilant curtain call.
It’s not only fun, smart, and sentimental, but by film’s end it puts everything back into its rightful place within the Star Trek universe. Everything is as it should be – and none too soon, as the cast was really starting to show its age.
But with the series’ best box office haul by a long shot (the first to cross the coveted $100 million mark, which really meant something three decades ago), they just couldn’t leave well enough alone…
Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video. (This is the only Original Cast Star Trek movie not currently free to stream for Amazon Prime members.)
“Market Street” – The Yellowjackets
- Eddie Murphy was originally supposed to be in the film instead of Catherine Hicks (who played the marine biologist/Kirk love interest). Murphy was meant to play a professor concerned with UFOs who spots the decloaking Klingon warship. Paramount ultimately declined the script for two reasons: 1) They didn’t want to combine and confuse the stars of their two most profitable franchise, Star Trek and Beverly Hills Cop, and 2) Murphy had signed to do The Golden Child.
- Initially, William Shatner never intended to return to the series after Star Trek III. Harve Bennett and Leonard Nimoy were actually developing a prequel film involving Starfleet cadets. Those plans changed when Paramount offered enough of a pay raise boost to Shatner to entice him back. He was also intended to direct, but his involvement with his TV series J. Hooker caused that to fall through, so Nimoy stepped back in to the role.
- Brock Peters, who plays Admiral Cartwright, is perhaps best known for his role as the ill-fated African-American Tom Robinson in the Southern Gothic classic To Kill A Mockingbird.
- Associate Producer Kirk R. Thatcher plays the punk rocker on the bus with the boombox; he also wrote and performed the song played in the scene, “I Hate You”.
- The time distance between the story’s present (2286) and the past they travel to (1986) is exactly 300 years apart.
- In 1986, Scotty helps a Dr. Nichols invent transparent aluminum. It would actually be invented 23 years later in 2009, by Justin Wark of Oxford University’s Department of Physics.
- Leonard Rosenman is perhaps best known to geeks as the composer of the late 70s animated version of The Lord Of The Rings.
- On a personal note: my brother Chris and I were Takei fans long before it was hip, imitating his deep tenor with classic Sulu deliveries like “San Francisco. I was born there.” or, from Star Trek III, “Don’t call me tiny.”