I shall open with a claim that is non-standard, and probably a bit daft: I think that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is the film out of all 12 Star Trek features that comes closest to the spirit of the TV show it’s based on (okay, so Star Trek: Insurrection probably comes even closer, but for a much more dubious reason. ETA: And now that there are 13 Star Trek features, I have to give some credit to Star Trek Beyond). “Are you mad? The time travel comedy with culture-shock jokes and whales? Is closest to the original series?”, I could almost imagine you sputtering, if I thought you were an insane person who challenged the sanity of a blogger by shouting at your computer screen. Or if I didn’t expect you to understand rhetorical gambits.
But yes, that’s exactly the one I’m referring to, and I think I can make it stick. Firstly: The Voyage Home is the only Star Trek movie where nobody dies (onscreen), and is the first in four tries that ends with the “hurray!” feeling that so many episodes of the show did: no dead Spocks, no exploded starships, just a big happy send-off. Secondly, comedy wasn’t as rare in the TV series as it is in the movies: there were only two outright comic episodes that I can immediately recall, but the comic byplay between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy was much more an integral part of all but the most arch, serious episodes than it is in most of the films that aren’t trying to make an active point of it; and the specific nature of the humor in this film bears quite a resemblance to the scattered moments of comedy in “The City on the Edge of Forever” (a time-travel episode that is largely not funny at all) and the overarching comedy in “A Piece of the Action” (one of the two overt comic episodes, set in a planet modeled after ’20s gangland Chicago).
Thirdly, and this is actually the most important part, The Voyage Home is a message movie unlike anything that the other eleven films even thought about touching, and that’s something that happens a lot in the TV show; it being one of the most touching elements of Gene Roddenberry’s rose-colored worldview that he could use his sci-fi adventure show not merely to comment on society (a privilege of science fiction above nearly all other genres), but to actively agitate for improving society. How many episodes of Star Trek were nothing but little morality plays in disguise! Frequently not even that much disguise; the planet of half-white, half-black people warring with the half-black, half-white people leaps to mind, what I’d refer to as an allegory about racism if the word “allegory” didn’t imply at least a surface-level attempt to hide the subtext.
So yes, The Voyage Home is the environmentalist Star Trek movie, the plea to stop and think about what we’re doing to our planet: subjecting to the wrath of an alien probe 300 years hence that will destroy us for making humpback whales go extinct. Which, in a long line of profoundly silly bits of scientific nonsense peddled by the Star Trek franchise over nearly half a century, I’m not certain if anything is quite as boldly loopy as “a race of alien whales is in communication with terrestrial whales, and that is what whalesong is for”. But the film means it so darn earnestly, and there had to be some way of getting us back to the Earth of 1986. Anyway, the film’s environmental themes are woven into the script so cleanly, and tied so tightly in with more message-neutral dramatic concerns, that even at is most overt, the film never feels like it’s giving up storytelling in order to lecture us. Take note, Stanley Kramers of the world! You can get just as much mileage and a whole lot more entertainment out of a laugh line like “Judging by the pollution content in the atmosphere, I believe we have arrived at the latter half of the 20th Century” as you can from breast-beating monologues.
Anyway, The Voyage Home: after the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the crew of the late U.S.S. Enterprise merely waits on the rehabilitation of the resurrected Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to head back to Earth and face trial for their acts of insubordination and sabotage; but as they idly cool their heels on Vulcan, Earth is under a strange kind of attack from a strange alien probe, a huge black cylinder with a small blue protuberance uttering an otherworldly noise and blanking out power in every station and ship it passes. Having set up shop above Earth’s atmosphere, the probe is now vaporising the oceans, turning the planet into a cloud-locked hell. As the Enterprise crew returns on their commandeered Klingon Bird of Prey, they’re able to determine that the probe’s message is in fact identical to the songs of humpback whales, and from there it’s easy to deduce that the probe is searching for a species that has been extinct for two hundred years. Obviously, then, the best solution is to go back to the 20th Century, when such animals were reasonably plentiful and bring a mating pair back to the 23rd Century to communicate with the alien vessel; obviously. But once arrived in Starfleet’s future hometown of San Francisco in the film’s release year of 1986, just getting around in a wholly alien culture proves to be challenge enough, to say nothing of using primitive technology to repair their horribly damaged ship (trips through time aren’t a cakewalk, you know), and to build an enclosure for the whales that, at this point, haven’t yet been found.
Given its reputation as a fish-out-of-water comedy, broadly accessible to just about anybody (a reputation that made the film the highest grossing in the series, and the only one to break $100 million in box office receipts, until 2009’s Star Trek; adjusted for inflation, it’s still the series’ third-highest grosser, and likely to remain that way), it’s a little shocking to realise how long it takes until The Voyage Home finally warps to 1986, or starts to be funny. A full quarter of the movie is dedicated just to setting things up on Earth and re-introducing the characters – poorly; this might be the first Star Trek movie that baldly requires you to have seen at least the preceding two movies if not the whole show to have even vaguest idea of what’s going on with this talk of katras, and mind-melds, and large portions of the first and third-act narrative. And this at least has the benefit of moving quickly and getting the stakes escalated fast. Almost too fast, and too escalated, perhaps, for the series’ most self-consciously comic entry. But I am not one of the movie’s five credited writers (including Nimoy, and Nicholas Meyer, the latter returning the franchise’s bosom after being offended at the mere existence of The Search for Spock), and they undoubtedly would not care about my opinion.
Frankly, the 23rd Century parts of the movie are fine, nothing more, though Nimoy’s directing is a great deal more focused than it was in the last film. It’s quite apparent that what the filmmakers cared about most, and what they expect us to care about the most, was the central time-travel comedy; time-travel comedies being big business in the mid-’80s, what with the previous year’s Back to the Future and all. And to the film’s immeasurable credit, the 1986 sequences are all pretty great. Funny as heck, with its humor rooted (like nearly all great humor is) in the truth of the characters: funny to see Spock badly mangling an attempt to swear and use slang like a human, funny to see whiz-bang engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan, easily the best he is in any of the features) being sniffy and superior about 20th Century technology; funny to see Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) being the same way about medicine. Some of the jokes are lost to the Cold War; the bit about Chekhov (Walter Koenig) asking in battered English, “Where are the nooklear wessels” isn’t nearly as clever when you have to remind yourself that a Russian asking about nukes in ’86 would have a much different connotation than in the 2010s.
The other, much less predictable reason that the 1986 material works is that it finally solves – for the only time in the film series – the consistent problem that Star Trek had with its ensemble: giving them all something to do. It’s still, unquestionably, driven by Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock, hunting for whales and getting entangled with a local marine biologist (Catherine Hicks) – whom Kirk, in best Kirk fashion, promptly starts to hit on (the only time that happened in the movies, really, until the younger, sexier Kirk of the reboot). But every single character has at least one small chance to shine, to get a little comic moment all their own, even if it’s just a few well-timed reaction shots in Uhura’s (Nichelle Nichols) case.
Nimoy, as director, is on much surer footing here: his instinct to let his castmates feel their way into the script rather than demanding they hew to it pays off substantially better than in The Search for Spock, and he’s infinitely better at shaping comic moments than tragic ones (the shape of the rest of his limited directorial career bears that out). The tender moments that are here still work, but they’re mostly Spock’s own moments, suggesting that Nimoy was better at acting that kind of emotion than bringing it out in others.
Anyway, there’s not much room for sincerity; The Voyage Home is consciously a lark, trivialising its world-threatening conflict, ending with the happiest conclusion of any of the movies that point, and cramming in broad laughs along the way. Happily, its also a completely effective and well-made lark, a bit flimsy to be legitimately counted as “great” Star Trek, but aware enough of its characters and their attachments to each other and the audience that it’s completely, undeniably “fun” Star Trek.