Spock is dead (although he got better); Kirk’s son is dead and the Enterprise has been destroyed. So far, the “Star Trek” films have been heavy with drama and conflict but for the fourth installment, it’s time for a change: a time to return to the “Star Trek” of ideas and challenges.
Returning from Vulcan to face the consequences of their actions in rescuing Spock, the former crew of the Enterprise, now in a commandeered and renamed Klingon Bird Of Prey HMS Bounty, head to Earth. Meanwhile, a vast alien probe is also heading for Earth, repeatedly signalling the planet and disabling all starships and outposts it encounters. When Kirk and his crew receive a planetary distress call, they discover the probe is attempting to communicate with humpback whales in Earth’s oceans – only humpback whales have been extinct for over 200 years. Kirk decides their only option is to go back in time and bring two humpback whales into the future.
Once again, we’re in the hands of Nicholas Meyer, who shares the scriptwriting duties with producer Harve Bennett while second time director LEaonard Nimoy handles the task with more confidence and comfort than the previous chapter. The result is a warm and witty adventure with a subtle moral and a fitting resolution to the story arcs started in “The Wrath Of Khan” and “The Search For Spock”.
The script is superb, and the cast have a great time with the ‘fish out of water’ comedy. By cleverly layering the challenges the crew have to solve to accomplish their aims, the script splits them up into teams and giving every character plenty to do. With the additional screen time, the supporting cast shine. Whether it’s Scotty, Sulu and McCoy retrofitting the Klingon ship to accommodate the whales or Uhura and Chekov’s attempts to gather radiation particles from nuclear-powered navy vessels, the plot is moved along at a jolly pace, the humour natural and easy. One of the main aims was to tell a story where there was no specific villain, although those who have seen “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” will know that technically, there is at least one villain seen in “The Voyage Home”. The lighter tone and gentle nature of the story are a little bit of a jarring gear-change after its predecessors and the tone of the film does undercut what’s at stake a little. After all, as Kirk points out, the threat could mean ‘the end of every life on Earth’ but the film still manages to succeed in keeping the drama in play and the ending is satisfyingly dramatic. At the film’s heart is a strong environmental message but its careful not to ram it down the viewers’ throats, preferring to let the story and its resolution point out the short-sightedness of our actions here in the present day.
Production-wise, the film looks great thanks to the extensive location shooting in and around the city of San Francisco and the effects work is solid, especially in relation to the model shots of the whales. The cast are by this point so comfortable in their roles that they can send themselves up without undermining the characters; although unusually James Doohan’s usually reliable Scottish accent takes a brief sojourn to Ireland for a few scenes.
There are some nice scenes at Starfleet Headquarters showing the president and this time the ‘previously on Star Trek’ recap is cleverly woven into the story itself as the Klingon Ambassador presses his case against Kirk. As the Probe’s effects worsen and the crisis deepens, there are nice cameos from Majel Barrett and Grace Lee Whitney in the control room and a slick cliff-hanger involving a storm-shattered window which bookends Kirk’s transmission and his return to his own time. Of course, given one of the major plots in the film, it does beg the question of why Scotty can provide a formula for transparent aluminium which has the equivalent strength of six inch thick Plexiglas but Starfleet Headquarters has windows which can’t stand up to a little wind and rain.
Time travel stories are always fraught with the potential for plot holes however time-travel wise “Star Trek IV” holds together pretty well. It’s actually in a couple of other areas it strains credibility. At the very start of the film, Kirk records a Captain’s Log confirming they have been on Vulcan for three months or so yet just as they’re about to leave, Saavik says she hasn’t had time to speak with Kirk about his son’s death. The implication is, I suppose, that Kirk has been avoiding her but seriously, what else has Kirk been doing for three months that kept him too busy for Saavik to say two sentences? Not clothes shopping, that’s for sure. Most of them are still wearing the exact same outfits they were in at the end of “Star Trek III” except for Chekov who has sensibly disposed of his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit in favour of a less conspicuous leather jacket/ turtleneck combo.
As well as restoring the crew to the bridge of a starship, the final act of the trilogy covering Spock’s death and resurrection sees him at his most Sheldon-esque as he struggles with the computer’s question of ‘How Do You Feel?’ and is constantly startled by the culture and contradictions of 20th Century Earth. Oddly, this is the sweariest of all the Trek films, thanks to its peppering of ‘colourful metaphors’ but the most surprising line is one where a naval interrogator uses the word ‘retard’ pejoratively to describe Chekov’s potential mental disability. It’s a small thing, but a big indicator of how the world has moved on in the 28 years since the film was made. I don’t condone any form of censorship or attempts to ban words but I doubt you’d hear the term in a mainstream family movie these days without there being a bit of a fuss.
One of the few problems this film has is its score. The music is terrible – more suited to a regency wedding farce than a sci-fi adventure. I get they were trying for a lighter tone, and the composer (Leonard Rosenman) was a friend of Leonard Nimoy’s but it’s hands down the worst score of all the Star Trek movies by a long way.
By the end of this film, everything has finally been restored to its proper place. Kirk has been demoted to Captain and given command of a starship. You’re teased that it’s going to be the Excelsior and then it’s revealed to be a new Enterprise, with the registration number NCC1701-A, a lettering convention which opens the door to future models of the Enterprise, most notably the Enterprise-D which would make its syndicated TV debut less than a year after “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” premiered. The film ends on an open-ended note as our heroes warp off to new adventures, bringing this happy, crowd-pleasing adventure to a close. One of the most accessible and popular Star Trek adventures ever, “The Voyage Home” was a refreshing departure from previous films and possibly the only Star Trek film to break out beyond its usual audience, as reflected in its box office receipts. It also manages two remarkable feats: not only is it the fourth installment of a franchise which is pretty damn good, it’s also that rarest of commodities: the third chapter of a trilogy which is not the weakest of the three.