Forever remembered as “the one with the whales”, The Voyage Home became the first Star Trek movie to truly gain mainstream acceptance. Although time has proven The Wrath of Khan to be a more popular film, in the long run, The Voyage Home became the first to break the $100 million mark at the box office (not accounting for inflation.) There’s a really good reason for this; The Voyage Home tells a terrific ‘fish out of water’ story. You don’t even have to really be a Star Trek fan to like it; familiarity with the characters is all that is required. Anyone who has heard the phrase “Beam me up, Scotty” will have fun watching these characters make their way through 1986 San Francisco.
As with the previous film, my first impression of it began with my dad’s description over the phone. (He was still stationed at Tydall AFB in Florida. My brother and I were at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho for what would be my step-dads last assignment before retiring from the Air Force.) His description didn’t mention anything about humpback whales, only that our heroes become stranded in 1986 San Francisco in their commandeered Klingon Bird of Prey, which our heroes have dubbed the H.M.S. Bounty (a homage to our heroes’ similarities to the crew on Mutiny on the Bounty) The Bounty’s power levels are dropping and the only way our heroes can get back to their own time is to steal nuclear power photons from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise.
Sounded pretty cool to me. Of course, like everyone else, I was wondering what would become of the former Enterprise crew in the wake of The Search for Spock. Would they be exonerated somehow?
Fortunately, writers Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer (who didn’t want to be involved in Spock’s resurrection but obviously didn’t mind returning to the Star Trek fold once Spock was back) and director Leonard Nimoy were thinking not only of this, but also of providing Star Trek fans with a broader spectrum of colors and tones to the Star Trek movies in general. The last two films were filled with wonderful operatic action, drama, and themes, but Nimoy was foresighted enough to realize that to continue on with more of the same a third time would be pushing it. Fortunately, Nimoy had a much more free reign this time. Michael Eisner, Paramount’s studio head, was immensely pleased with the performance of The Search for Spock and told Nimoy, “Leonard, the training wheels are off! We want YOUR Star Trek! Give us your vision!”
Needless to say, this was music to Nimoy’s unpointed human ears. He along with Bennett and Associate Producer Ralph Winter mandated that a lighthearted adventure without a villain would be the way to go this time. Nimoy really wanted to do a theme about the earth’s ecology where the crew would return home to discover that Earth was facing a problem due to humanity’s short-sightedness in the past. For a while, he was thinking that there might be a plant that would be extinct in the 23rd Century that could be found in our present, but they could not come up with a satisfactory adventure with that.
When someone brought to Nimoy’s attention the plight of the whales, particularly humpbacks, they had found their niche. Kirk and company would travel through time utilizing the same time speed breakaway slingshot manoeuvre they had used in “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” and bring two humpback whales back with them to communicate with an alien probe whose communication would be (inadvertently) dangerous to humans but with whom the whales could communicate.
The story presented all kinds of great opportunities: humor that flowed naturally from the characters in their ‘fish out of water’ situation (Kirk’s “Double dumb ass on you” line still makes me chuckle to this day), a new love interest for Kirk in the person of Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), the entire cast once again being brilliantly utilized to where no one’s role in uncritical to the mission, and the wonderfully inspired Greenpeace scene where the whaling ship’s harpoon bounces off of the cloaked Bounty. When the ship de-cloaks (coincidentally, our heroes just happen to be flying in a green-coloured ship), the whalers tuck tail between their legs and run. It’s a wonderful climax that had audiences, fan and non-fan alike, cheering. But for those of us who are fans, it is our crew’s exoneration, Kirk’s demotion back to Captain (having realized his mistake in accepting promotion before) and the unveiling of the new U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-A that is the real payoff. Upon seeing her, Kirk then tells his smiling crew, “My friends…we’ve come home.” Just as the previous film gave us Spock back, this film gives us back the greatest spaceship of all time.
Although the studio was no longer breathing down Nimoy’s neck, making The Voyage Home would still not be an easy task. The ante had been increased both with a story that demanded weeks of location shooting in San Francisco (the first Star Trek film to have any significant outdoor location shooting) and the fact that Nimoy would have to simultaneously deal with a logistically more difficult shoot than TSFS and act full time as Spock. In the interview/documentary “Mind-Meld”, Nimoy described to William Shatner (and us) that this was a very painful time for him. Although it was quite rewarding in the end, Nimoy had apparently taken some of his frustrations during this period on both the cast and Harve Bennett, straining his relationship with Bennett to the point where Shatner would have to give him a good verbal shoulder-rub to get him to agree to line produce Star Trek V later down the road. How much this had to do with why Nimoy didn’t direct another major feature after Three Men and a Baby is anyone’s guess, but we are glad that he was able to stick it out and give us a feel-good film that brought the “Genesis Trilogy” started in The Wrath of Khan to a tremendous and uplifting conclusion.
While the mainstream appeal of The Voyage Home cannot be denied, I ironically find myself actually watching this film the least of all of them. Perhaps this is because of the lack of spaceship action, the fact that it takes place in contemporary American society (which we normally watch Star Trek escape from), or James Horner’s absence in the music (although Leonard Rosenman’s score would work just fine thanks to the addition of Alexander Courage’s fanfare). Every time I do watch it though, I always find myself smiling and remembering how good it is. It may not be the spectacle for me that The Search for Spock was, but it stands out as proof that ILM does not need the black backdrop of space to make a spaceship look real.
I give Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home an 8 on the 1-to-10 scale. It is certainly a great Star Trek film, but regardless of what the box-office numbers say, I feel that there are better ones.
Star Trek IV would be the last entry in the movie-only era of the 1980’s. Ten months later, its success would lead to the triumphant return of Star Trek to television with Star Trek: The Next Generation, boldly taking the franchise into the next 18 years.
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