February 27 2024


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Retro Review: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

8 min read

The Enterprise picks up a distress call from Earth and travels back in time to recover some extinct humpback whales to save the planet.

Plot Summary: While Admiral Kirk and his crew prepare to return to Earth in their commandeered Klingon ship to stand trial for stealing the Enterprise, a probe approaches the planet, sending out transmissions that no one can decode. The probe drains power and vaporizes the oceans in apparent fury at the lack of a proper response. Because the complete lack of sunlight threatens all life on Earth, Starfleet sends out a general distress call warning ships to avoid the planet. A shocked Kirk receives the message and sets to work deciphering the alien message, which Spock identifies as the songs sung by now-extinct humpback whales. Because they have no other way to answer the probe, Kirk decides that the ship must risk traveling through time to obtain a breeding pair of whales in the hope that they can persuade the probe to stop its attack. When the Bird of Prey emerges from its slingshot around the sun, Uhura picks up whale song from downtown San Francisco of the 20th century, and Sulu lands the ship in Golden Gate Park so the crew can track down the animals. The time travel has damaged the Klingon dilithium crystals, so while Kirk and Spock go in search of the whales, and McCoy, Scotty, and Sulu seek materials to build a tank for them, Uhura and Chekov are sent to track down an atomic reactor to recharge the engines.

At the Cetacean Institute, Kirk and Spock find a pair of humpback whales but fail to impress their primary caretaker, Dr. Gillian Taylor, when Spock dives into their tank to mind-meld with the whales in hope of getting their permission to take them into the future. The whales are scheduled to be released into the wild because the female is pregnant, and Taylor is terrified that they’ll be targets for hunters. Kirk tells her that the whales will be safe in the future, but she thinks he’s either a liar, unstable, or both. Meanwhile, Scotty obtains enough plexiglas to build a tank for the whales in exchange for the formula for transparent aluminum – not yet invented in the late 20th century – and Sulu befriends a helicopter pilot to transport it to the cloaked Bird of Prey. Aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise, Chekov and Uhura obtain the nuclear material needed to repair the dilithium crystals, but when Uhura returns to the ship so Scotty can do so, Chekov is captured and injured by military officers who think he’s a Russian spy. Upon learning that the whales have been released prematurely, Taylor seeks help from Kirk, who asks in turn if she’ll help them rescue Chekov from a hospital. McCoy treats Chekov’s brain injury and the ship – along with the stowaway Taylor – locates the whales at sea, rescuing them from a whaling vessel. The ship returns to the 23rd century at nearly the same moment it left, carrying the whales, which Kirk releases into San Francisco Bay after a crash landing there. Having saved Earth, the Enterprise crew is brought to trial, but the Federation Council dismisses all charges except the one against Kirk for disobeying an order. He is demoted to captain, and as consequence of this rank, ordered to take on the duty for which he has repeatedly demonstrated unswerving ability: the command of a starship, specifically the new USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-A.

Analysis: I’ve never met a Star Trek fan who disliked The Voyage Home, though it’s admittedly pretty fluffy stuff after the two films that came before it in terms of both character development and scientific ambition. You’ll never hear me fault this franchise for a sensible environmental message – Next Gen‘s “Force of Nature” doesn’t count, it’s too badly written – and I love the idea that whales were communicating with aliens long before humans encountered them, given how little respect Star Trek often shows to non-humanoid intelligences. Plus it’s just plain fun watching the crew bumble around San Francisco, where their futuristic technical expertise is useless and even Kirk’s traditional charm with the ladies doesn’t quite work its magic. We know nearly from the moment of their awkward arrival (“Double dumb-ass on you!”) that things are not going to go according to plan, but that will be half the fun, while a few hundred years in the future, humans are about to pay for the arrogance and stupidity we never completely outgrow. I’ll admit that the first time I saw it, Spock made me nervous – he was so little recognizable, and at times seemed a parody of his old self – but he slowly settled into someone I absolutely believed was the person he’d become after the encounter with V’ger, then dying, then coming back. The fretful moment when he observes that Kirk is a man of deep feelings, after Kirk has thrown a bit of a tantrum, is one of the finest in the films.

The ensemble work in the trilogy – as the producers often refer to Star Trek II, III, and IV – gets better with each film, so that in this one, Uhura not only has communications expertise but gets sent on the dangerous task of retrieving nuclear material when she could easily have played Scotty’s companion while McCoy went onto the ship with Chekov. It’s nice that Chekov finally gets to take his Russian pride to its logical conclusion, too, though he seems a bit too clueless about how to try to play the Marines against each other to his own ends. In an odd way, some of the slapstick seems as dated as the old Macintosh computer and the Yellow Pages that appear in the film – the garbage collectors denying they saw the flying saucer in the park, the punk on the bus silenced with a Vulcan neck pinch – and I read other scenes through different lenses now than I did when I was much younger and first saw it…do I want to know what Sulu did to get that pilot to let him fly his helicopter? Ironically, Kirk is the only one who seems to feel the full weight of the world on his shoulders; for someone who equated Genesis with Armageddon, McCoy seems to be having a pretty good time in the past, even while he’s ranting about the horrors of the medical profession and passing out magical kidney pills, and Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov all seem to consider even the dangers an entertaining diversion after the darkness of Khan and Kruge, while Spock is still trying to piece together who he is (though he knows where he belongs – to quote Edith Keeler, “At his side, as if you’ve always been there and always will,” even if he’s having trouble keeping straight when it is or is not appropriate to call Kirk “Jim”).

If there’s a weak point for me in The Voyage Home, it’s not the heavy-handedness of the environmental message nor the fact that the characters at time seem to be caricatures of themselves (McCoy’s warning to Scotty, “Don’t get lost in the part,” could be applied to each of the rest, particularly Chekov while being questioned aboard the “nuclear wessel”). It’s Gillian Taylor. Here’s a woman who’s a PhD and possibly a DVM, a competent professional when we first meet her, seemingly Dr. McCoy’s dream woman since she balances medical and scientific expertise with compassion and emotional connection. She’s a bit of a tree-hugger, but compared to the jerk she works for, who’s in charge of the whales yet doesn’t believe they deserve rights, that’s forgivable. It’s adorable when she stops to offer Kirk and Spock a ride after having them kicked out of the Cetacean Institute, and she hits just the right note at dinner with Kirk…amused, affectionate, willing to play along, though she clearly thinks he’s either nutty or involved in a scheme that is. Then she has a complete nervous breakdown – a break from reality – which the film and the characters completely ignore because it’s necessary to further the plot. When her jerk boss condescendingly announces that the whales have been released without her knowledge to spare her feelings, she hits him, jumps into her truck, and races to Golden Gate Park in search of someone she knows in her heart of hearts to be a con man. The fact that we know she’s wrong doesn’t change the fact that this is completely irrational, frightening behavior.

In addition to the cameo roles – Chapel now a doctor at Federation HQ (before Majel Barrett will become Deanna Troi’s mother), Admiral Cartwright (who will appear again in later films before Brock Peters will become Benjamin Sisko’s father) – I particularly like watching Spock’s interaction with his old friends who have become strangers despite all they’ve gone through for him. McCoy, for obvious reasons, is the one having the hardest time settling back into their old roles; he wants to talk about what it was like for Spock really having gone where no one has gone before, whereas Spock refuses on the grounds that they don’t have common points of reference, then ducks the conversation claiming he’s receiving distress calls, to which McCoy retorts that he doesn’t doubt it. Would the old Spock have been so quick to realize that the probe might be looking for intelligent life in Earth’s oceans? He fails at colorful metaphors even more than Kirk – “They like you very much, but they are not the hell your whales” – and he lacks the subtlety he would once have had, at least waiting till evening to dive in with the whales. But there’s nice evolution, McCoy explaining to Spock that Kirk feels safer about his guesses than other people’s facts, and he finally makes true peace with his father, who admits that Spock’s associates are people of good character, to which Spock replies, “They are my friends.” It’s closure on an arc that began during the television series, though it isn’t the end of either character’s story.

I’ve never known what to make of the overlong sequence in which the whales sing to the probe and tell it what to do with itself, in the immortal words of Dr. McCoy. We get no translation, and shots of the whales that are unbelievable even within the context of a movie with time travel – they float in a sunlit, calm sea when they’re supposed to be in the dark, turbulent water churned up by the probe’s interference. Is it courage or cowardice to leave this contact to the minds of the audience? I appreciate that the producers didn’t take yet another opportunity to hit us over the head with the environmental issue, yet it’s as if they can’t fathom what two non-humanoid intelligences might want to communicate to each other, and what could be the most profound moment of the film dissolves into a big splash party. Of course the happy ending is delightful – now Kirk has his ship back as well as Spock – so I’m not really complaining.

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