Movie Microscope: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

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“Hello, Alice. Welcome to Wonderland.”

Star Trek IV was the first Star Trek movie I ever saw. In fact, I had probably seen only a few episodes of the original series when I first saw it. Since then I’ve seen most of the original series, a lot of The Next Generation, some of Deep Space Nine and just enough of Voyager to get the highlights — or lowlights, as it were (“Threshold”; those who’ve seen it know what I mean.) My Star Trek movie viewing continued to be sporadic and inconsistent; there’s some continuity between films, but not so much that they can’t be tackled episodically. I saw the original motion picture, part of V, Generations, First Contact, and the 2009 reboot. This year, I’ve been watching the original-generation Star Trek films I’ve missed, through a boxed set I obtained thanks to winning a contest at Fogs Movie Reviews. And though I had already seen Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, I wanted to watch it again in its “proper place” in the series.

I also wanted to say a few words about it, but I didn’t feel a regular review was quite the right approach; it is, after all, a movie I’ve seen before and knew reasonably well. But though I enjoy it a lot, it’s not quite “Favorite Films” status for me. Then it occurred to me that it would be a good film to inaugurate my new Movie Microscope category. After all, what makes Star Trek IV worth discussing is that it’s a bit of an odd duck in the series.

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“Your use of language has altered since our arrival. It is currently laced with, shall we say, more colorful metaphors, ‘double dumbass on you’ and so forth.”

Continuing the plot threads from Star Trek II and Star Trek III, The Voyage Home has Kirk, Spock, and company returning back to Starfleet Command to face the consequences of their actions in the previous film. However, that plot is quickly sidelined by the arrival of an alien probe that disrupts electronics and even the Earth’s atmosphere itself. Spock is able to determine that the probe is attempting to communicate with humpback whales, long since extinct by the time of the Federation. In order to save the Earth, the crew has to take their hijacked Klingon battlecruiser on a trip through time, back to the mid 1980s, to retrieve some whales to communicate with the probe.

And so Star Trek IV ends up taking an approach that is in many ways different from typical Star Trek films. First, while most Star Trek films have broad philosophical themes (the question of revenge in The Wrath of Khan, the relative importance of individuals over the group in The Search For Spock), The Voyage Home has — similar to some episodes of the original series — a more direct moral message (that message being “save the whales in case we need them to talk to aliens someday”). Second, while it’s a Star Trek movie, it’s not a “Star” Trek, it’s a “Time” Trek. Although this was used in an episode of the original series, and the basic concept would be revisited in First Contact, it’s still a bit unusual. Even First Contact was a while into our future. The Voyage Home was set in the present day of the time, a setting which is familiar and utterly mundane to all the viewers. The sense of wonder that permeates most Star Trek films would, by the very setting, be essentially impossible in this film.

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“Hello, computer.”

But where the film differs most from the rest of the series is in its tone. While the tone varies in other films (Star Trek: The Motion Picture is philosophical, The Wrath of Khan is dark, and The Search for Spock is almost wistful), it’s a subtle shading on the general sense of adventure. There’s no such subtlety in how The Voyage Home is toned; from the moment the crew arrives on 1980s Earth, Star Trek IV is an unabashed comedy. Spock and Kirk pepper their speech with poorly-executed profanity. McCoy and Scotty alter the timeline with casual disregard. Uhura is accompanied by the worst possible choice to find a nuclear engine during the Cold War.

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“Excuse me, sir! Can you direct us to the naval base in Alameda? It’s where they keep the nuclear wessels. Nuclear wessels.”

The question that comes to mind is why is The Voyage Home so comedic in nature? Star Trek usually has flashes of humor in it, but it’s only here that it’s such a large part of the film. What made the writers and director Leonard Nimoy decide this film had to be so funny?

I think it comes down to two major factors, and both of them are suggested by the fact that the comedy starts the moment Kirk and company land in San Francisco. The first is that, as mentioned above, the sense of wonder is gone for the audience. San Francisco isn’t a new sight in movies and contemporary American life is not novel. Further, there are no epic battles during this stretch of the film, and very little action of any sort. Special effects that might awe the audience are absent, as there is nothing to have a special effect for. It is my opinion that the major reason The Voyage Home falls back on comedy is because there is very little else that it could do to ensure the audience would remain interested. Without the comedy, the whale-quest segment would be dry and dull; if it lasted more than a short duration, it would make for a poor movie. But with the comedy, it becomes entertaining and can support the bulk of the film.

The other factor is that just because the sense of wonder is gone for the audience doesn’t mean it’s gone for the characters. Indeed, they are used to most of the things they encounter in their regular voyages. But San Francisco, 1986, is foreign territory to them. They don’t know how to behave, they don’t know how things work. It’s a neat reversal on the role of the audience. Normally we’re staring in wonder at the marvels of the future; here, we’re witness to Starfleet’s brightest wondering at things we take for granted (not always positively, of course). By positioning the entire cast of heroes as “the funny foreigner”, the writers not only get to poke some fun at the heroes, they poke some gentle fun at the audience as well. We get to see what it looks like when somebody of average or greater intelligence is baffled by something that is commonplace. Which is to say, by showing us Scotty, Chekhov, and McCoy in the 1980s, the writers show us how we would look if suddenly transported to the 23rd century.

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“The doctor gave me a pill and I grew a new kidney!”

Perhaps what’s most peculiar about the comedic tone of The Voyage Home, though, is that it works. It’s one of the more highly regarded Star Trek films, and established the “even-odd” guideline that fans say, that the even-numbered films in the franchise are better than the odd-numbered ones. And yet, on the face of it, it shouldn’t work. A sharp turn into comedy, especially after a few very serious films, would often signify a downturn in quality, or at least in fan reception. That didn’t happen here. Somehow it fits, and I think it’s because the comedy has its origins in the same roots as the adventure and grandeur of the other films. It’s an inversion of the sense of wonder, but it’s still derived from it; it isn’t truly a departure from it, but merely a different perspective on it. And this becomes clear with the final sequence, which puts the audience and the characters alike back into that sense of wonder as the whales meet the probe. It counters any possible waning of the awe by, ironically, playing into it and then turning it back around.

Rating: 4 Stars

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“My friends… we’ve come home.”

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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6 Responses to Movie Microscope: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

  1. I’ve been re-watching a lot of Trek lately in the company of Martian Lad, for whom it’s all new. Watched this a couple weeks ago.

    I recall liking this quite a bit when I was a teenager, then soured on it as I drifted on into adulthood. Quite frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to watching it again, but it was necessary to get Martian Lad closure on the plotlines from Wrath and Search.

    To my surprise, I found myself enjoying it a good bit. A lot of that goes to William Shatner, of all people, who did not play “big” in the comedy. In fact, it was the rest of the cast (minus Nimoy who was characteristicly brilliant and nuanced) who played it broad. A sub-theme of the movie was Kirk trying to recapture his old friendship with Spock, and those parts came across very well. Catherine Hicks unfortunately was just as bad as I remembered.

    • Yeah, it was surprising how unhammy Shatner’s performance was in this one, especially compared to the two before it. And I agree about both Nimoy and Hicks. Hicks and her role, unfortunately, could easily have been replaced by a bland actress and role from any number of 1980s sci-fi “fish out of water” films.

  2. Dan Heaton says:

    It’s funny that Star Trek IV is the most tied to a specific time period and should feel dated, yet it’s one of the most easily re-watchable Star Trek films. I think that has to do with the comedic tone like you mention. It’s such a great time, and we like the characters so much. Spending time with them is fun even if they aren’t flying through space.

    • Yes, it helps a lot that the audience has a long-established fondness for the characters by this point. And I suspect what is keeping it from feeling dated is that although it’s tied to the 1980s, very little of what’s shown has actually changed all that much. Computers still predominantly use mice and keyboards, we still have nuclear vessels, whales are still endangered, and we still can’t regrow a kidney. Really, the only thing that screams “1980s” about the film is Chekhov being suspected of being a Soviet, and considering the Russian spies caught just a few years ago, he’d still wind up in much the same situation today.

  3. I have not seen this one in a long time Morgan. However, your review makes me want to check it out. I actually just started streaming the original series on Netflix and watching them with my boy. I thought I had seen all the episodes but at least half of the first twenty episodes we watched I didn’t recall at all. Also so far no Chekov in season one, I guess he is not on the show till season 2.

    • Yeah, if I remember right, Chekhov didn’t make his debut until the second season. Anyway, once you’re done with TOS, maybe you should do like K2 above and watch the movies with your kid. 🙂

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