Friday, September 20, 2019

Squid Flicks: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Title: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Original Release: 1986
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image result for star trek iv the voyage home
via Wikipedia
Admiral James T. Kirk and his usual motley crew are heading back to Earth, ready to face the music for the transgressions committed in The Search for Spock (see here).  Getting back is not as straightforward as they expected.  Earth appears to be under attack by a mysterious space probe.  The offending object is projecting whale songs, apparently hoping for a response from the planet's humpback whale population.  Sadly, by the 23rd century, the magnificent creatures are long extinct.

The solution is obvious: travel back in time, grab two whales out of the ocean and bring them back.  The Enterprise crew visits San Francisco of the 1980s, because obviously the Bay Area is the best place to find whales.  A costume drama in reverse ensues.

As written previously, I am not a fan of how Star Trek generally handles time travel and let's be honest, the premise for Voyage Home is even more contrived than usual.  That is not to say, however, that the time travel stories aren't still enjoyable.  Indeed, "The City on the Edge of Forever," arguably TOS's best episode, is a time travel narrative and its sequel "Yesteryear" is undeniably the best TAS episode.  Voyage Home's closest link to the legacy of the originals is "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" which also chronicles a visit to 20th-century Earth.  My post for that episode also includes my most thorough rant regarding Trek's time travel issues.

My basic problem: the writers tend to be careless about the contradictions that are the inherent peril with time travel.  If you're going to engage in time travel narrative, there have to be rules and you have to follow them.  I have no idea what the rules of time travel are for Trek.   My guess is there aren't any.  Thus my problem.

A specific offense from The Voyage Home: Scotty shares the secret of transparent aluminum technology with an engineer so it can be produced to transport the whales.  Scotty's justification: the engineer may well have been the man who invented it.  Convenient but careless.  Sure, one could argue that without this bending of the rules, the 23rd-century world could not be saved.  But at what cost?  None, apparently.  Lucky.

As a side note, the first patent for the process for producing polycrystalline cubic aluminum oxynitride was issued in 1980, before Scotty's visit.  This is the very stuff that has come to be called "transparent aluminum," because of the movie, naturally.  Whether it's actually the same substance used by Scotty for the whales, we may never know.

With all of my kvetching, I imagine you've assumed I don't like the movie.  Actually, I think it's pretty good.  In fact, if you'd asked me when I first saw it back in the day, I'd have claimed it as my favorite of the franchise so far.  I was an awfully romantic teenager and I found the whale story touching.  Now, I can see Khan is definitely the better film but Voyage Home is plenty good, even with my issues.

Is it better than Search for Spock?  The long-held conventional wisdom surrounding Star Trek films is that the even-numbered ones are superior to the odd-numbered ones before them.  2 is certainly better than 1 and I would say 4 is better than 3, though that's not as clear a choice for me as it once would have been.  Spock is better than I remember, Voyage Home hokier.  Voyage Home probably has the most appeal of the early movies for the general audience.  Good as Khan is - and it is the best - it's most meaningful for those who already know Star Trek.  I was not the only casual (at the time) Trek fan who was charmed by Voyage Home.

In addition to whale compassion, the writing offers genuine comedy:
Shore Patrolman: How's the patient, doctor?
Kirk: He's gonna make it.
Shore Patrolman: He? You came in with a she.
Kirk: One little mistake... 
That's almost Groucho-worthy!

While the comedy is a bit off-Trek (pun fully intended), it is a big part of the general appeal.  In fact, the comic plans were originally more ambitious.  The part of whale expert Dr. Taylor was initially written for... wait for it... Eddie Murphy!  Murphy was eager to be involved with a Trek movie and almost signed on for Voyage Home.  He chose The Golden Child instead - much to his own admitted long-term regret.  That might have been a bridge too far on the slapstick for me but it certainly wouldn't have hurt box office receipts.  Eddie Murphy was just about the closest thing there was to a sure thing at the time. 
Image result for eddie murphy golden child
via Wikipedia

Also, Dr. Taylor works well as a female character, especially since her relationship with Kirk never crosses past the line of platonic friendship.  Perhaps that's a carry over from the Murphy plan - the change too late to overhaul the story for romance.  So much the better, I think.  Love would have been predictable.

Trekkie treats
  • The big reveal of the new Enterprise ship at the end was genuinely goosebump-inducing for me.

Real world connections
  • The film opens with a dedication to the fallen crew of the Challenger space shuttle.  The shuttle exploded in January of 1986, killing all seven aboard.
  • In the movie, Chekov and Uhura sneak onto an aircraft carrier identified within the story as the USS Enterprise.  In truth, the USS Ranger was the vessel ("wessel" per Chekov) used in filming.  The Enterprise was at sea at the time and wouldn't have been available anyway as access to nuclear carriers was severely restricted.

Food notes
  • Kirk's reaction to beer is precious.  I would have suggested something other than Michelob.
Image result for star trek kirk drinks beer gif
via Tenor, mislabeled as McCoy on the site
 Literary notes
  • I am now curious about The Mutiny on the Bounty after Kirk renamed their stolen Klingon ship HMS Bounty.

Music notes
  • The score was composed by Leonard Rosenman, a friend of Leonard Nimoy's, after James Horner declined to return.  Rosenman had already won two Oscars and two Emmys.  The Voyage Home brought his fourth Oscar nomination.  

  • While on a city bus, Spock Vulcan-pinches a punk rocker when he refuses to turn down his music, much to the delight of the other bus occupants.  The song is called "I Hate You."  It was written overnight by Associate Producer Kirk Thatcher.  He formed a one-off punk band with a few production crew members called The Edge of Etiquette.

My ranking of the movies so far:
  1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  3. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  4. Star Trek: The Motion Picture


  1. Yeah, I agree with your assessment and yet, I love this film even though the ending made me laugh...Spock was smiling while all were in some tank in LA. The scenes of the in some storm then cutting to the whales in open water with bright skies made me laugh. The whales seemed to have swum very fast to the open ocean away from SAN Francisco Bay. Oh well, who cares, it was very funny and I loved the hospital scene and the dinner scene. I would flip Star Trek 3 to the bottom and the first to 3rd position

    1. I would entertain a discussion of #1 over #3. My main issue with the first movie, story aside, is that it doesn't quite feel like Star Trek. The high-budget production is TOO slick. I just want my boxy show on the big screen. #2 is perfect. #3 feels closer.

  2. When this one came out, it was my least favorite. Probably due to the time travel, thought I don't remember. I just remember thinking it was dumb. Which is how I usually react to time travel in Trek.

    1. I get it. Suspension of disbelief is an unusually big leap with this movie.

  3. Delightful post! Excellent synopsis! The film stands out in my mind and parts get associated with life since its mid-'80s appearance. Whenever I'm asked for directions in San Francisco, I always think of Uhura and Chekov appealing to a policeman and passersby for directions to the Alameda Naval Shipyard, where the "Nuclear WESSELS" are kept.

  4. Honestly, I almost forget the Star Trek stories, except time travel.
    If I have time, I'll revisit all of them.

    Thank you for well written synopsis.

    1. Thanks. I grew up on Star Wars. Star Trek has become my middle age obsession. There is time in life for all sorts of things.

  5. In Deep Space Nine (the Department of Temporal Investigations), Voyager (Captain Braxton), and Enterprise (Daniels and the Temporal Cold War), time travel is...a headache, and later in Starfleet lore, actually a part of its mandate. Generally, you can assume that if someone screwed up the timeline, someone else (as Kirk does in "City on the Edge of Forever") undoes the damage. So, in the current logic of time travel, if it happened, and time travel becomes involved, time travel was always involved. So Scotty helped the dude discover it, and George & Gracie were always destined to go "back to the future." (Enterprise all but implies that if Picard didn't intervene on Cochrane's behalf in First Contact, that was basically the secret origin of the Mirror Universe.)

    Yeah, I try to connect the dots.

    But I don't worry too much about plot logic when the story itself is sound. And Voyage Home is basically sound, with a thoroughly Roddenberryesque interest in humanity's ability to understand its best interests. Interestingly, this time humanity is actually supplanted by the whales in terms of importance. The technical schematics of Picard's Enterprise actually had a whale somewhere aboard. Just imagine a revamp featuring it prominently! Could be something like Pilot in Farscape (I wonder if that's where the series got the idea?)

    I think Voyage Home was more or less an excellent excuse to spotlight what made these characters so memorable. A similar attempt was made in Final Frontier, but focusing more squarely on the familiar lead trio, which is how it's best understood.

    1. Sure, later in the life of the franchise, efforts were made to clean all of this up. But if anything, it's a solution that reveals the problem: this is a well which, especially later, Trek went to way too often and without much consideration for continuity or narrative integrity. As I recall, there's even a tongue-in-cheek joke made by Braxton in a Voyager episode about the characters engaging in too many of these shenanigans.

      That said, all of the temporal clean up business is worthy of a spinoff series in its own right. But if they were to do it, I'd want them to do it right, following more of a Doctor Who or Quantum Leap pattern rather than the all-too-typical Trek free form: hope for the best, someone else will clean up the mess if we screw up. It could even be a fun way to revisit a lot of the old stories AND create new ones.

      I disagree with you on this movie bringing Trek back to Trek but perhaps that is because it exemplifies my gripes with the series. And I disagree with you that the story is sound. But... it's fun. The movie works because it's fun. It was a better vehicle than any of its predecessors for reaching beyond the faithful. It served that purpose most effectively.

  6. I always thought this was a movie where they took lots of leftover ideas and threw them at a board what stuck they made a movie from. I didn't follow the movie series so I really can't say how good the serie is as a whole or strange the whole stealing of whales so aliens can talk to them is.
    You look like you are having fun with this posts.

    1. Oh, I'm definitely having fun! Even with the hiatus, I feel I've been building up to a return to Trek for a long time. I am finding I have quite a lot to say.

  7. Wow, I like this post with all the interesting information on the series.

  8. I've been thinking about this film lately, probably because I've been hearing a lot about the Right Whale and how few are left. I can't quite imagine Eddie Murphy in a Star Trek movie.

    1. Weird, right? I can see later-career Eddie Murphy making it work, though.

  9. I never looked at Voyage Home so well. I loved the whalers being taken aback. McCoy popping a magic pill into the old lady whose kidneys were failing made me happy. But a giant invisible starship sitting in the middle of a park? One of those ??s. Oh, come one.

    1. Exactly. This story, in particular, definitely stretches the limits of believability. Some would say that's the job of speculative fiction but I disagree. Even an invented world must operate within its own rules to be believed.