On Thanksgiving Day, 1986, at the impressionable but cognizant age of 10, I saw Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home at the Cinema I-II-III at Eastland Mall in Bloomington, Illinois (is there such thing as a cineplex with only three screens anymore?). It was my first Star Trek movie as a sentient human being (my parents had apparently dragged me along as a very young observer to either — and possibly both, but I'm not sure — Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but I certainly hadn't by that point approached an intellectual stage of awareness that I can recall).
I still clearly remember standing in line for that movie. I remember thinking how odd it was standing in a mall where every store was closed and the lights were off, except for the movie theater. (Movie theaters are, of course, open every holiday of the year, since that's when people go to movies.) Funny thing how the memory works and images fade. I remember that image of a closed mall, which stands out more than anything else. I also remember a story about whales and time travel and an odd Mr. Spock, who was for whatever reason not quite himself and who also could not successfully use the word "hell" in a sentence — a word that, by the way, I was still too young to say, lest the parents give me looks of disapproval.
I guess you could call that the official day I became a follower of Star Trek, having the tradition of watching these movies and TV shows passed down to me from my Trek-watching parents, who had been teenagers back in the days of The Original Series on TV. Star Trek: The Next Generation would be on the air a little less than a year later, and I officially found myself on the Trek bandwagon. That was some 16 1/2 years ago. Eastland Cinemas is itself long gone; it was shuttered in 1993 while I was still in high school. I look back now while completely separate instances of "gee, that was a long time ago" cascade upon each other.
It's probably safe to conclude that I didn't completely "get" Star Trek at that time. I wasn't really familiar with the characters or the history, and I probably wasn't sure why these people were on the planet Vulcan in a Klingon ship that was apparently not even theirs (thank goodness for the Klingon ambassador's recap on the Federation Council floor). But I did understand the concepts and paradoxes of sci-fi and time travel. After all, Back to the Future had just been a big hit that was one of the more memorable movies from my youth.
Anyway, perhaps I can pull myself out of nostalgia long enough to actually review this movie.
I'm older and wiser now, and more cynical. I know Star Trek forward and backwards, and for some time I haven't seen Trek without also looking at it from the viewpoint of "Trek critic" (and sometimes even "jaded Trek critic"). Watching Star Trek IV is like turning back the clock to simpler times. It's the Star Trek movie that somehow brings Star Trek to its most understandable and down-to-Earth terms. It does this by bringing it to our own world, namely San Francisco, Earth, in 1986.
Of the 10 Star Trek movies, probably three count in my book as the "standouts" — all for different reasons. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best of the series and serves as the true emotional and philosophical core of the film franchise. Next comes Star Trek: First Contact, which is the best example of technical sci-fi action storytelling combined with a poignant self-reflection on Trek history and lore.
After that, ranked at No. 3, would be Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which is not a particularly deep or significant film but delivers an unforced, breezy story that works well and is simply entertaining. If Wrath is the philosophical/emotional piece and First Contact is the technical/historical piece, then Voyage Home is the character/charisma piece. No Trek movie feels less forced and more natural than The Voyage Home. Everything about the movie feels like it was achieved effortlessly — an effect which requires great effort, care, and insight to achieve.
The Voyage Home might also be appropriately labeled The Mainstream Trek. It's the one movie in the series that achieved unexpected popular commercial success and existed more or less on its own terms. It did this, quite simply, by existing in a more recognizable world. It's a broader, lighter, and perhaps safer picture. There are no villains, there is no violence. But there is a threat in the form of Earth's own past. The concept is simple: Earth's future is to be destroyed by something that happened centuries earlier. The story is a parable for the unseen consequences any given action could have.
The massive probe at the story's outset comes looking to talk to humpback whales. There are none for it to talk to. Notable is how this mysterious probe is one of Trek's larger-than-life sci-fi elements, an object of seemingly infinite power and holding mysteries that are not to be solved by the story — permissible in the 1980s but not anymore, it would seem. Modern Star Trek deals more comfortably with at least vaguely tangible and limited objects rather than all-powerful forces hiding grand mysteries.
In order to save Earth from the probe, our crew must retrieve humpback whales from Earth's past. As the object in the movie, the whales work well. On the new DVD commentary track, Leonard Nimoy talks about the difficulty of coming up with an object that was adequate for our crew to retrieve through time. There was discussion during the script-development stages, for example, of making the object an extinct plant that would cure a disease in the 23rd century. But the problem with that idea was the lack of theatrical scale. What would seem grand enough to center the adventure on? The concept of whales, with their size and scope and mysterious songs, proved to be a good choice.
The movie should not be seen as a polemic. There are no politics in the film, and it does not excessively preach about the evils of the whaling industry but simply looks at it from a standpoint of humanity: Why kill intelligent and wonderful creatures merely because you can? It is an interesting human trait that we do many things because we can, rather than because it's good for us or anyone else.
The main guest character is a whale expert named Gillian Taylor, played by Catherine Hicks in a performance that at times has a little too much insistence and perk for my tastes but works in the context of the story. For Kirk and Spock's mission to find humpback whales, she represents their entry point to the 20th century, as well as an obstacle who must be convinced of what must be done to save the future.
Always evident here is an effortless flow to the characterization and dialog. Broad humor in the Trek universe has sometimes come across as an unnatural foray, but not here. When you consider how Star Trek: Insurrection tried with all its might to make detours to the lighter side, but could not get there — or look at Star Trek V's sorry attempts at humor — you can see just how well-oiled The Voyage Home manages to come off. The movie's best laugh comes not by its words but in its notes, after Gillian asks, "You guys like Italian?" — which sets off a priceless verbal collision between Kirk and Spock that is pointless to explain and must instead be witnessed.
Of course, Spock's incompetent attempts to fit in by swearing is good for some chuckles, as he inserts "hell" where it does not belong. Later, the use of "colorful metaphors" (a great term) has turned into a running gag, delivered deadpan style: "Spock, where the hell's the power you promised me?" "One damn minute, admiral." It is a measure of our affection for these characters that they can get so much mileage from such cheerful goofiness.
Plot details? I don't think I need to go much into it. There's the construction of the whale tank, the trespass into the nuclear "wessel," etc. The key here is to give everyone a small mission, which they carry out with relative ease and often with some sort of comic payoff. There's of course Scotty's encounter with a 1980s Macintosh, and the story's wink-wink attitude toward time travel when he gives away the formula to "transparent aluminum" (Kirk's earlier bit of selling his antique glasses from Star Trek II to an antique dealer is an even better gag because it's also an in-joke). And, of course, there's Chekov being captured by the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Enterprise — which is fish-out-of-water plotting at simultaneously its most obvious and most fun. It goes without saying that in the course of the plot there will be some light jeopardy, a successful rescue of the whales, and a triumphant return to the 23rd century where Earth will be saved by whale song.
The tech aspects are limited and the film does not dwell upon them, all the better for playing to the mainstream audience. Beyond the plot itself involving time travel and warp speed, this movie steers as clear as possible of tech and stays the course for character interaction. Special effects are more restrained and earthy, particularly (and for obvious reasons) in the 20th century.
I've never been a big fan of the Leonard Rosenman score for the film. It's adequate but not memorable, apart from the main theme, which is memorable but doesn't quite feel like Star Trek ... which perhaps may be the point given the film's Earth-bound premise. Still, after the magnificence of James Horner for Treks II and III and Jerry Goldsmith for ST:TMP, Rosenman comes across as junior varsity.
What I especially like about the TOS feature franchise is how Treks II, III, and IV create a story arc for the crew of the Enterprise — a trilogy of chapters that coexist and belong together, despite their differences in tone and subject (most especially with Trek IV's lighter touch). Kirk and his crew face the music at the end of this film for their crimes in the previous installment. The charges are forgiven, of course, and the crew is reassigned to a new ship (Kirk's demotion to captain and the "A" tacked onto the new Enterprise are nice touches), but the way the opening and closing scenes deal with the consequences stemming from the previous film ensures that the audience knows this continues the story — even if half the movie's running time exists in its own storytelling universe.
There's a feeling of continuity to the TOS movies that's too often lacking in the TNG features. The Voyage Home accomplishes its goal of continuing story threads while at the same time being the Trek movie that most exists outside the Trek universe. It would stand as the oddest entry to the film franchise ... if it weren't the most accepted and mainstream of them all.
In taking the characters as far away from the Star Trek context as the series tends to get, it actually ends up revealing them as exactly who they are in their purest form — at their most human, most natural, most restrained, and most believable.