Wednesday 6 May 2009

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Wednesday 6 May 2009
Having a whale of a time...

[SPOILERS] While not as well-received as Wrath Of Khan, The Search For Spock was successful enough for Paramount to plough ahead with a fourth movie, once again securing Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett as director and writer, respectively. William Shatner threatened to leave the franchise shortly before shooting (prompting studio conversations about a prequel without him), but later agreed to return following a pay increase of $2 million and a deal to direct Star Trek V...

During a pre-production period on Voyage Home that saw Eddie Murphy circle the project, Khan director Nicholas Meyer returned to help Bennet craft a story based on a popular ingredient of many of the old television episodes: time-travel. Nimoy also insisted that Star Trek IV have "no dying, no fighting, no shooting, no photon torpedoes, no phaser blasts, [and] no stereotypical bad guy." His somewhat diluted vision resulted in one of the Trek franchise's biggest moneyspinners, and even today it remains the most accessible movie in the Trek oeuvre for non-fans. The reason is very simple: Trek IV is, at heart, a lighthearted fish-out-of-water movie, tethered to a laudable ecological message.

Set three months after the events of Star Trek III, the crew of the USS Enterprise are returning to Earth from Vulcan (with the recently-resurrected Spock) in their commandeered Klingon Bird Of Prey. Their return coincides with the arrival of a mysterious, cigar-shaped alien probe that is unintentionally causing global destruction in an attempt to communicate with humpbacked whales. Said mammals are sadly extinct in the 23rd-century, meaning Kirk and his crew decide to attempt a dangerous faster-than-light "sling-shot" maneuver around the Sun, to travel back in time and retrieve a whale from the 20th-century to transport back to the present to satisfy this alien craft.

Temporal displacement achieved, the Trekkers find themselves in San Francisco circa 1986, where Kirk quickly locates two humpback whales at the city's Cetacean Institute (named "George" and "Gracie".) To facilitate access to them, he strikes up a friendship with sassy marine biologist Dr. Gillian Taylor (a weak Catherine Hicks) -- intending to steal the whales once their Bird Of Prey (parked and "cloaked" in a local park) is recharged using nuclear power, and Scotty (James Doohan) has built a tank strong enough to store George and Gracie in their cargo hold.

It's easy to see why Voyage Home struck a chord with big audiences, whose attendance catapulted Trek IV to box-office success far above its niche-market predecessors. Indeed, this was the first Trek movie I myself was taken to see in the cinema by my parents. It's primarily a comedy with scant sci-fi, devoid of many Trek tropes to alienate newcomers.

That it works is down to the chemistry of the cast, which will never date like some elements of the film. Nimoy's direction is a little bland, mostly content to steer a course through to the various gags (Spock incapacitating a noisy punk commuter with a Vulcan neck-pinch, Chekov's search for "noocler wessels", Scotty communicating with a computer by talking into the mouse, etc.) They even manage to throw in an element of farce, with a mad rush around a hospital towards the end!

Overall, I can quite understand why The Voyage Home remains a popular movie, despite the fact it essentially reduces Star Trek into little more than a silly romp. After the navel-gazing Trek I, angry Trek II and meandering Trek III, a bit of levity was just what the franchise needed at this point in its history. Some jokes and situations feel dated 23 years later, but Voyage Home is certainly an entertaining way to bring the issue of whaling to commercial audiences, and the cast definitely seem to enjoy its change of pace and temperament...

Paramount Pictures
Budget: $27 million
119 minutes

Director: Leonard Nimoy
Writers: Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Nicholas Meyer & Harve Bennett (story by Leonard Nimoy & Harve Bennett)

Cast: William Shatner (Admiral James T. Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelly (Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy), George Takei (Hikaru Sulu), Walter Koenig (Pavel Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), James Doohan (Montgomery "Scotty" Scott), Catherine Hicks (Dr. Gillian Taylor), Majel Barrett (Dr. Christine Chapel), Mark Lenard (Ambassador Spock), Robin Curtis (Lt. Saavik), Grace Lee Whitney (Amanda Grayson), John Schuck (Klingon Amassador), Robert Ellenstein (Federation President) & Brock Peters (Fleet Admiral Cartwright)