Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home

Is there any point in putting anything here other than “it’s the one with the whales!”?

Spock’s alive again! Well he was at the end of the last movie at any rate. After the surprisingly strong third entry into the series can The Voyage Home keep up the momentum?

Pre-Existing Prejudices: The One With The Whales. Come on, it’s the one with the whales! Everyone knows the one with the whales! I am, of course, aware of the pro-environmental message – though not how well it’s aged since the mid-80’s – and of course it’s “the funny one”. You know, “nuclear wessels”, “Computer!”, “double dumb ass on you!”, “I think he did a little too much LDS” and so on. As with the last entry though its been simply ages since I saw anything but the usual clip reel, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it.

What’s It All About, JG?

After three months on Vulcan, apparently unmolested by a Starfleet who might be rather cross at the destruction of one of their ships, Kirk and the crew head back to Earth in their euphemistically-acquired Klingon Bird Of Prey to finally face the music. Meanwhile, however, a mysterious probe (nothing like the mysterious probe from a couple of movies ago) knocks out ships and starbases on its way to Earth as it broadcasts a signal.

Turns out it’s whale song! But don’t linger too long on the why or what, because we’re off back in time for some prototypical 80’s culture-clash comedy as the crew try and steal a couple of humpbacks to bring back to the 23rd century. Which they do, along with a marine biologist who will never be seen again. And Kirk is, after four films, finally returned to the rank of Captain so the captain can get on with some Captain-ing, which is apparently what he’s good at (despite what The Wrath Of Khan might suggest). And lo – the very first time an Enterprise is a dash-letter, in this case NCC-1701-A. Aww.

Any Other Business:

  • The very start of the film is a dedication to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded just after take-off the year this film was released. I’m old enough to remember the Challenger disaster and it was a massive gut-punch at the time – not quite 9/11, but of that ilk at least, a vast national tragedy that seemed to defy reason or logic and huge scar on the collective psyche. The dedication is meaningful and heartfelt (what with one of the shuttles having its named changed to Enterprise and all) and it still brings a little lump to the throat.
  • We start the actual film on Vulcan. Three months after the last film ended. I mean, I get that this is meant to be the compassionate, understanding 23rd century but did Starfleet really just let them hang out on Vulcan while the crew’s bestie recovered? Apparently so.
  • It’s woefully obvious that the Klingon Bird Of Prey on Vulcan is, in fact, a painting. It looks a bit better in flight, mercifully, and there’s some attempt to merge live footage (of the crew emerging) with the static image, but there’s no getting away from it. It’s a painting.
  • Here comes the casual racism! The Klingons eat funny food! They smell! Their ship is crappy and old! It’s exactly the attitude that The Undiscovered Country will lay into but here it’s simply presented as is for comedy. Not the movie’s finest moment.
  • Sarek’s stranded on Earth but that’s OK because we get to spend some time watching Mark Leonard gamely up the stand-about-the-place-expositing material he’s been given. Honestly, he just amazing.
  • Look, it’s Starfleet’s first female captain! And she’s black! I mean, she’s only on screen for a minute or two, but points scored for sure. For the mid-80’s that’s pretty progressive.

  • The probe – which we get absolutely no explanation for, nor understanding of – is absolutely terrific. It’s genuinely alien, not even a spaceship of any kind from what we can tell, and the signal is genuinely unnerving until Uhura works out how to make it sound like whales. It’s abstract in a way that TOS very rarely is, and is it absolutely to the benefit of the movie.
  • Speaking of abstract… what is going on with that time warp? Morphing heads, weird sound effects, a falling body, then rain falling on some rushes, before we fade back to the bridge. It’s an absolutely captivating sequence, again exceedingly abstract, and worthy of considerable praise.
  • Then we get to Earth and… well. If you don’t like culture-clash comedy and Our Heroes hamming it up for all their worth them this is probably the point to bail out.
  • Gillian is.. not the most riveting presence. Catherine Hicks isn’t an especially striking screen presence, and she’s not got a lot of rapport with William Shatner. Their relationship seems, at best, functional, and there’s no sense of a friendship, never mind romance. Kirk might as well be trying to persuade her to buy a used car, never mind persuade her about all that guff involving whales and spaceships.
  • Two movies ago, Carol Marcus was asking for funding for the Genesis Project. Here Kirk calmly declares that they don’t use money in the future. Does that give us a time-frame for its abolition and the arrival of the Federation’s economy of plenty? Weeeeell, not really, because Shatner delivers the line as if that’s always been the case and it would be silly to think that money was still a thing. Cock up etc, let’s all move on.
  • Speaking of Kirk, what’s happened to his infamous way with the ladies? Of all the times he needs to bust out the charm and really win someone over this is it, yet he blows it spectacularly with clumsy small-talk, smarminess rather than dialling up the charisma, and nearly loses Gillian’s support in the progress.
  • At least everyone gets something to do – McCoy helps some random old lady grow a new kidney, Sulu gets to chat up a chopper pilot (that’s definitely what he’s doing, and I remember thinking that back in the 80’s), Scotty gets to invest transparent aluminium, and Chekov and Uhura have comedy adventures aboard a nuclear wes… I mean vessel.
  • The culture blindness of the crew is played fairly well here, for the most part. The obliviousness of why sending Chekov and Uhura on the naval mission when Kirk (or even Scotty) would have been a better choice lands well. And Kirk just very slightly getting things wrong, but credibly so, works effectively too, so the fact he identifies Berkley as the free-speech movement but gets LSD the wrong way round feels like an easy-to-imagine mistake as well as a funny line.
  • The stock-footage/animatronic whales work about as well as can be expected, which is to say not very, but it’s fine – the slightly cheesy effects and green-screen fit with the overall loose feel of the film.
  • So fine, they beam up the whales, jump back to the 23rd century and the whales do indeed tell the stone cigar alien ball probe thing to go away. Cool. Cool. But it all ends in a scene of the crew frolicking around in what must have been punishingly cold water. And Spock, the ever-stoic Vulcan, appears to have a massive grin all over his face. Guess he’s really pleased they saved the day, huh?
  • The book-end of the film – Amanda asking Spock how he feels, then by the end Spock feeling ready to admit he feels fine – is sweet, but just look how excellent Mark Lenoard is in that final scene again. He’s softer and noticeably more paternal when admitting that he was wrong to oppose Spock joining Starfleet and that his friends are people of good character, then just very slightly pulls back in to himself when Spock tells him he feels fine, with just the tiniest hint of disappointment and disapproval. Such a class act. And it all ends with Kirk’s demotion and the NCC-1701-A getting its moment in the limelight. It’s all very touching.
  • Except… it’s taken four films to basically re-establish the premise of the show. Four films! Maybe next time we’ll actually get to boldly go somewhere on an actual mission then? * checks schedule * Ah. Erm. Well, moving on…

In Conclusion:

In the world of Star Trek there is something that’s lost with the passing of the TOS films. As soon as we get propelled into the world of TNG and the Abramsverse movies, all these films have to be any number of things, playing to multiple different styles, demographics, approaches and so forth. But that’s broadly not true of the TOS movies. They can exist in one genre, and one genre only. And there’s no film that demonstrates this more clearly than The Voyage Home. Because The Voyage Home is a comedy, pure and simple. There’s a bit of threat at the beginning to get the plot under way, and there’s a bit of a message with the environmental angle, but what The Voyage Home is, and is content to be, is a comedy film. The last film was, for the most part, straightforward space opera. The Wrath Of Khan was a naval epic (well, “epic”) in sci-fi drag. The Motion Picture was a hangover from the earnest-but-slow 70’s sci-fi movies that wanted to make Big Points about Important Things. They are all one thing.

But look what happens once we spill over into TNG. Generations wants to say Important Things. It also wants to be a character piece, for both Kirk and Picard. And have a big sci-fi epic feel about it. First Contact is a big action-adventure space piece, but it’s also got Big Character Moments, there’s at least a noticeable percentage of comedy in it’s DNA, and it wants to be a thorough exploration of its principal monster. And so on. The singular genre focus of The Voyage Home is, ultimately, both its strength and weakness. If you dig slightly cornball humour, 80’s culture-clash comedy (think Coming To America as the most prominent example), and shaggy-dog plotting then this is a triumph of that genre. If you find any or most of those things unbearable then there’s going to be absolutely nothing here for you. That’s the danger of the singular approach – if you don’t land it, there’s nothing else.

Fortunately, The Voyage Home does mostly land it. Which is just as well, because if that balance had been off this could have been absolutely insufferable but instead is fondly remembered by, it sometimes seems, virtually everyone. Because the other most obvious thing about The Voyage Home is how geared it is towards the general public rather than Star Trek fans as a subset of the general public. This is almost always a good thing – when Star Trek gets written “for the fans” it usually ends in tears, and when it hews towards a broader, more inclusive approach the results are usually better (that “usually” is covering an awful lot of territory occupied by Insurrection, which is the exception that proves this rule). Much of the humour is broad here, but you don’t need to know who Scotty is to find him talking into a mouse funny. Or to get the joke about Uhura and Chekov looking for nuclear wessels. They’re just two people who are conspicuously the wrong people for the job, it doesn’t matter that they’re a communications officer or a navigator.

This is essentially why The Voyage Home is the last time that TOS brushes up against cultural relevance – it’s a good film, sure, but the broad, inclusive approach makes it easy for non-fans to watch and its placement in the genre of 80’s culture-clash comedies makes it an easy watch alongside Coming To America, Trading Places, Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure and so forth. The genre trappings of The Voyage Home ultimately become more important than the Star Trek trappings, but that also allows the film to have that broad cultural reach that, functionally, no Star Trek movie has had since. Oh sure, people will mock, “what does God want with a starship”, vaguely remember “the one with the Borg”, or question why Benedict Cumberbatch is a suitable swap-out for Ricardo Montalban, but no future film will quite have the cultural impact of The Voyage Home.

Just as well, then, that it’s having that impact for all the right reasons. This is a knockabout film that absolutely (and in many ways, finally) has it’s roots in the TV show. The Search For Spock was a strong showing, but there’s no episode of the TV show that really looks like that, and the same is true of The Wrath Of Khan, despite the fact it’s a sequel. “The Changeling” is an obvious episode to compare The Motion Picture to – because it’s the same plot – but it’s not really like “The Changeling” either. This, however, aligns perfectly with the sort of comedy episodes TOS could pull off. Think “Shore Leave”, which is funny but has an underlying threat (just like the destruction of Earth is here – never seriously in peril, as such, but there as the motivation to get things going). Or “The Trouble With Tribbles”, which theoretically could result in starvation and a potential war with the Klingons but in fact is mostly just an excuse to be endearingly silly for forty-five minutes. Well, that’s what we have here. Something endearingly silly.

This is, again, an ensemble piece, and once again we see just how great Star Trek is when it keeps this broad focus on its characters and actually remembers to include all the core cast members. Everyone, for the second film in a row, gets something to that actually contributes towards the resolution of the plot rather than just “Bones heals someone” or “Uhura fiddles about with a communications board” or whatever. I mean, they get to do that as well, but it’s not all they get to do. And everyone here is clearly having (here comes the terrible pun) a whale of time messing about in a light comedy, and the genial, unbelievably likeable nature of the cast absolutely radiates off the screen. Because these are likeable characters and people. McCoy’s down-home charm is wonderfully appealing when Kelley gets the chance to play it, as he does here. Koenig’s got some great sly humour going on during his interrogation scene. Doohan – for the last time, really – actually acts rather than simply reciting lines. And Takei, given the least to do here, still has time to win over a chopper pilot with charm and nice off-the-shoulder leather jacket. They’re all great, and that warmth and affection becomes positively entrancing at times. Not every joke lands, but the sheer momentum and good will the characters build up means that even the occasional dud – and they are only occasional – never undermines the film.

Kirk and Spock, however, are the principal focus – no surprise – but this feels like a justifiable choice within the narrative of both the plot and characters. Kirk is Kirk, so of course he’s in the middle of things, but equally he’s just saved his friend’s life at the potential cost of everything else he holds dear. And Spock is back from the grave. It makes perfect sense that we’re going to spend time with them. Spock, in particular, is interesting here. Kirk’s doing his Kirk thing – solving problems, flirting with This Movie’s Leading Lady etc – but Spock… well, this isn’t the same Spock that stepped into the Enterprise’s engineering section during The Wrath Of Khan. This Spock has changed. Nimoy continues to improve his performance – each outing, as far as the movies are concerned, has been better than the one before it – but he’s now conspicuously changed the way he plays Spock. Some of the underlying humour is back (“that much is certain”), and Spock himself seems finally at ease with himself. This isn’t the uptight bore of The Motion Picture, but nor is it the reflexively defensive and mostly distant version from the TV show. This Spock seems… well “happier” probably isn’t quite the right word for a Vulcan, but the self-confidence and ease that emerges over the course of this film shows a genuine development of the character that leaves him in a much better place. The final scene he has with Sarek is the key here – Spock is satisfied, proud even, when Sarek admits his error in opposing Spock’s entry to Starfleet, but as Sarek looks disappointed when Spock tells him to relay the message that he “feels fine” Spock simply accepts it as Sarek’s problem, not his (both Nimoy and Leonard are simply amazing during this scene, one of the very best in all TOS). This Spock has confidence in where he stands, and is better for it – by embracing both his humanity and his Vulcan side the son can, arguably, finally be said to have eclipsed his father.

Compare and contrast to the way Spock reacts to Sarek in “Journey To Babel”, when Spock is defensive and unbending and Sarek is condemning and belittling. There’s some emotional journey there too, but nothing like what happens here. Both of them change and grow and those developments have some real character stakes to them – which is pretty good going in a silly film about rescuing some whales. All this will lead to one of Spock’s best lines in The Undiscovered Country which does, indeed, confirm that he’s changed and found wisdom within that change, but that’s for the future. Here, both he and Nimoy are a compelling presence at the centre of the film.

Which isn’t, let’s be clear, to write of William Shatner. We’re right on the border of Shatner’s performance – from hereon out we’re mostly going to be watching Ageing Character Actor William Shatner Going Through A Series Of Performance Ticks rather than essaying the character of Starfleet’s best Captain, James T Kirk. His performance here is, mostly, self-parody, but in this movie at least that works, because this is a silly light comedy, so Shatner going Full Shatner can be accommodated. This isn’t a film that demands great emotional maturity from Kirk, but Shatner still gets some fine moments, and one of the other great strengths of The Voyage Home is that it bothers to actually give us some proper, classic Kirk/Spock moments. They’re shockingly rare in the films we’ve covered so far (one of which is understandable, of course) and while I guess most people would site the scene on the bus with the punk as one of the highlights – it certainly is of the film – the best scene the two have together is them in Gillian’s pick-up truck while Kirk tries, with limited success, to persuade her to their cause and ask her out to dinner. It’s a fantastically funny scene, it’s absolutely rooted in the characters, and Nimoy and (especially) Shatner make for a phenomenal comedy pairing (“I love Italian… and so do you”). By taking the time to show these two characters interacting the film gives us an actual reason to care about the relationship between two men who would, and have, sacrificed everything for each other. There’s no abstractions, and little in the way of big speeches – we’re simply shown how much they mean to each other. Spock standing with the crew at the end of the film despite not having to is the culmination of this but it only works because the rest of the film has shown us what that one moment actually means.

Which isn’t to say that everything is perfect – there are a few problems here. Nothing excessive, nothing derailing, but it’s telling that four films into the series there’s already such a dearth of imagination that the major plot beat from the first film – weird-ass probe wants to wipe out life on Earth for… reasons – is already been recycled. Sure, The Voyage Home does a better job of handling this, what with actually bothering to show us the environmental impact of what’s happening on Earth and people who are trapped there making it all rather less hypothetical, but it’s still functionally the same thing. There is here – as has been true of every film so far and which will remain true for one of the two left to cover – no attempt to “go where no man has gone before”, boldly or otherwise. For the second time out of four, and with the whole of space to explore, we’re piddling about in a minor story set almost exclusively in Earth’s solar system, where the threat is to Earth, it’s Earth’s people that matter, and Earth that needs to be saved. There’s no sense of a wider universe (a few minutes on Vulcan and a fleeting cameo scene with Saavik is not enough), no sense of anything else, and everything is frustratingly small scale. It’s perfectly fine that the probe isn’t explained – it’s an abstract, almost existential threat, as is extinction when it related to both the whales and humanity – but Star Trek needs to be more.

This is the best film we’ve covered so far, so as a standalone this is fine, great even, but as part of a spectrum of films it’s another movie that can’t look beyond its own nose. That’s exasperating. Of course, some of the jokes don’t quite make it, but it’s a comedy and there’s no comedy where every joke lands (Airplane! excepted, maybe). It’s a thin line to walk between making your characters be culturally blind and simply having them come across as stupid – the confusion over how money functions when Kirk pawns his glasses makes sense for a society that doesn’t have money (except two movies ago when they did), and Kirk’s basic understanding of “colourful metaphor” set against Spock’s lack of understanding all seems fine. Yet it’s tough to buy Kirk – someone with a noted knowledge of history even with this series of films – not getting that Chekov might be the wrong person to send to a warship undermines Kirk’s otherwise rather sharp intelligence in this film. Surely, of all people, Kirk would get why sending a Russian on that mission during the Cold War might be a mistake? *. Scotty talking to the mouse is a funny bit, but it does make him seem very dim (and in line with almost all characters in TV or movies, Doohan can’t operate a keyboard convincingly). All these flaws are true, yet none of them stop this being a great film.

Why? Well because all of this matters. For the first time in the TOS movies, this is a film that feels like its important, not just for the the characters but for the audience watching as well. It’s an inclusive film, a great big hug of a movie, that isn’t hung up on making grandiose gestures or trying to deliver important statements. This is a film that wants to take its audience along with it, that wants them to like the characters and enjoy the time spent with them. When I said earlier this is the first film that feels like it’s part of the same spectrum as the TV show, it’s meant as a compliment. It’s not an argument for stasis, for things remaining the same, rather it’s an argument for understanding where it is you’ve come from and working with that to produce something good – ideally, as in this case, something better.

Star Trek travelled to the past during the series, and indeed had comedy during their time travel stories, but they never did it as well as it’s done here. This movie is the TV show, but done bigger, better, funnier and more engagingly than they ever managed on the small screen. That’s why this film is such a great success. More than whales, more than jokes, more than inclusivity, in the end this film works because it draws on what everyone’s collective memory of Star Trek is, but does it in a way that actually lives up to that memory, and in almost all instances, actually supersedes it. This is a fantastic film, endlessly enjoyable and re-watchable, and for the first time actually feels like its living up to the potential of the series that spawned it.

Also, whales.

* A small aside, based on the fact that I’m very old – this joke played better when we were actually in the Cold War. Now it’s a cute little scene that seems funny, but at the time it was much more sharp and pointed, genuinely satirical even. And though he gets the funny “nuclear wessels” line that everyone remembers, the emphasis on the scene isn’t Chekov – it’s Uhura. A black woman, speaking with a clear and distinctive American accent, is being given the same status as someone who is is visibly and conspicuously The Enemy (and is later treated as thus during his interrogation scene). That’s what matters during that scene – not that a comedy Russian gets a pronunciation wrong, but that a black woman is treated with the same level of dismissal. It’s a brilliant scene – funny, inventive, with a pointed comment on race and discrimination, all wrapped in a couple of memorable performances. Exactly what old-school Star Trek should be.

What Percentage Of This Film Could Be Cut?

I appreciate the time taken to show the probe approaching, I really do. But it maybe approaches a little too long? And I appreciate the time taken to show Earth being properly threatened, as opposed to the slightly distant threat from The Motion Picture, I really do. But maybe there’s one too many scenes of people looking a bit worried in a bunker while Mark Leonard looks serene? I appreciate most of the culture-clash comedy, I really do. But maybe they could have gotten to the point fractionally quicker? The trims that are needed for this film aren’t extensive, and the lax pacing is fine in what is a straightforward comedy movie, but I’d also be fine with shaving about ten minutes off the running time. Nothing major, just a few “get on with it” moments. So I’m gonna go with around 5%. Not a lot to complain about really.

How Shatner-y Is Shatner?

Very. Very, very very. When we think of “a Shatner performance” this is it. It would be unfair to say that Shatner has completely given up on acting – see the rest of James Doohan’s career for what that looks like – but that acting has been narrowed down to a series of affectations which are what we think Shatner has always been like. It’s not true – and it will be continuing to be not true up until the end of The Undiscovered Country, though not Generations – but it is the stereotype. They’re all here, the raised eyebrow, the…. strange… pauses between… sentences, everything we imagine when we think of a hammy old actor strapping on the girdle for one more go-around. As mentioned in the review, this film gets away with it by the simple dint of being funny, so it’s not like the Shatner ticks look out of place when placed beside baffled marine biologists or confused looking cops. Shatner gets to land the character moments here at least, though one slightly gets the impression that because we’re watching Shatner and Nimoy’s friendship on screen more than Kirk and Spock’s, but in the end that doesn’t really matter. Along with the rest of the cast Shatner is a warm, engaging presence here, perfectly aware he’s hamming his way through a series of slightly, and intentionally, corny jokes in service of a daft plot that amounts to “get whales to tell this Space Cigar to piss off” and being perfectly fine with this. While The Voyage Home will represent the outer limits of how effective this approach can be, it’s absolutely fine here.

How Achingly 1986 Is This Movie?

It’s a film whose central message is “save the whales”. How much more 1986 could it to be?

Fanwankometer Reading, Captain

Well, Rand is in it again – is it just me or are appearances getting shorter and shorter? – as is Sarek. Sarek mentions opposing Spock’s entry to the academy, which is A Thing as well. I guess the biggest one on display here is the slingshot round the sun as a method of time travel, treated so casually these days even McCoy seems clued up on it and mostly only perturbed because they’re doing it in an ailing Klingon vessel rather than shiny Starfleet one. Interesting how this has never, ever been referred to in a post-TOS show, isn’t it? It’s almost as if they realised just how ridiculous it is and decided to quietly drop it… (not that using a Mystical Orb is any more convincing or credible, you understand (lookin’ at you DS9), nor using floods of bafflegab or All-Powerful Ailen Beings (lookin’ at you, TNG and Voyager)). Since most of the film is set in the part there aren’t that many chances to reference the show as it exists, and I’ve droned on long enough about the Spock/Sarek material that it doesn’t need repeating here.

MVP:

Shatner this time out. Next film he’s going to be in full control, and that’s going to be a whole thing, but really, it’s him. Now, some are going to argue this should be Nimoy again. And fine, Nimoy directs here and is partly responsible for the story. But… that’s also the demerit. The story is warmed-over environmentalism that has its heart in the right place but its brain not so much, and has to re-use plot points from very recent memory to get its story underway. And the direction here isn’t a patch on what he managed last time out – not bad, but basic and functional in a way that The Search For Spock wasn’t. So this time – yes, it’s Our William. He’s just so on point in this movie. Even when he isn’t, he kind of is. The “getting pizza” scene should be cringe-inducing, and to an extent it is, but honestly Shatner pitches his performance perfectly. Kirk knows Gillian isn’t going to fall for his charms or buy his story, but he gives it a go anyway. And right enough she doesn’t – it takes a slew of other events for her to be won round – but that scene is the start of the process and it works. Kirk gets a flippant line – “I’m from Iowa, I only work in outer space” – but Shatner completely lands the offhanded truth of it, and that begins the process of winning Gillian round. Sometimes it’s a big hammy moment – “everybody remember where we parked” – but Shatner very clearly understands the script, understands his place within it, and pitches himself perfectly towards it. This is his best performance in the whole of the TOS movies (spoilers, but he wont be troubling this section again) and he deserves all the praise for it.

Rankings:

  1. The Voyage Home
  2. The Search For Spock
  3. The Wrath Of Khan
  4. The Motion Picture

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