Jammer's Review: "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986)
- Warning: Spoilers follow for 1986's "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home."
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
1986, PG, 118 minutes
DVD 2-disc release: 3/4/2003 (USA)
Screenplay by Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes
and Harve Bennett & Nicholas Meyer
Story by Leonard Nimoy & Harve Bennett
Produced by Harve Bennett
Directed by Leonard Nimoy
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Rating out of 4: ***1/2
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
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
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
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.
Copyright 2003 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...