Movie Trek 4: There Be Whales Here!
It's back to the Eighties with The Voyage Home
Star Trek IV is the most atypical of the Trek films, and yet, easily the most popular, at least until its crown was challenged by the 2009 Abrams movie. Completing the “Spock trilogy,” it continues the ongoing storyline of the films. The film opens on Vulcan, a few months after the end of The Search for Spock, with our gallant crew still on the run from Starfleet (who can't have been looking for them particularly hard, given that they've been hiding out on what is practically the Federation's second capital world). We have some time with Spock, his family and civilisation; it's wonderful for the fans to see Jane Wyatt back as Spock's mum Amanda Grayson.The newly resurrected Spock is still learning to be himself, having the relearn not only his everyday skills but the emotional epiphany he achieved way back in The Motion Picture. The film references its two immediate predecessors heavily in its opening scene, although it does commit a major sin by parking Saavik, robbing us of the trilogy's strongest new character. (Fan lore and allegedly the early drafts have it that Saavik remains on Vulcan because she is pregnant with Spock's child, a fascinating avenue for storytelling which unfortunately is nowhere on screen.) Saavik is unceremoniously dropped from the crew, staying behind on Vulcan without any consideration of how the previous film's events may have affected her.
In spite of all this, The Voyage Home is the most comfortably standalone of all the Trek films. It's easily the least Trekky of them all too. This, alone, accounts for much of its popularity. The Original Series' great strength was its characters – why else would they have been recreated and recast for the Abramsverse? - and The Voyage Home ditches almost everything else about Trek for much of its runtime, focusing on the characters alone. It puts them down in (then) present day America, and leaves them to it, in a gentle fish-out-of-water comedy. It's hardly going to stand up to the great cinema comedies of the era, but it's a sweet, comforting light humour, with a band of geriatric space adventurers pottering about the place unsure as to how to act among all these modern (read: young) people.
It's also the only one of thirteen Star Trek films that doesn't feature the Enterprise as the primary starship. Although the absence of the Enterprise hangs heavy over the crew, and a replacement is introduced in the final scene, the ship that carries the characters through space and time is the so-called HMS Bounty. The Klingon Bird-of-Prey, introduced in the previous film and taken over by Kirk and his band of merry mutineers, is an iconic visual to rival the Enterprise, and handily comes equipped with a cloaking device so that the crew can park it in a San Fran park without calling undue attention. (Admittedly, they could have achieved the same thing with the Enterprise simply by keeping it in orbit, but it's still effective.) Nonetheless, one iteration of the Enterprise does have a prominent role: the USS Enterprise CVN-65, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that was part of the inspiration for the naming of the starship. (Although in actuality, it's the USS Ranger CVA-61, as the Enterprise was unavailable for use, actually out doing naval things).
In spite of being based primarily on contemporary Earth, The Voyage Home gives some of the best glimpses of the alien civilisations that make up the Federation. Starting on Vulcan with its beautiful ruddy vistas, the film is also bookended by scenes in which the Federation Council debate Kirk and co's actions, where we see alien races both new and familiar (including the catlike Caitians, a rare instance of an element from the animated series making its way to the live action franchise). With the main part of the story set in the mundane world, the film's designers and make-up artists go all out on creating some fantastic new alien races that will never be seen again (until some unexpected cameos in Discovery and Lower Decks). There are also intriguing hints of the political fallout of Kirk's actions and the existence of the Genesis Device, which are sadly underexplored, while the angry Klingon legal advocate is a great character and demands more screentime.
While this is the most earthly and human of the Trek films, the threat of the alien probe is quite unlike the recognisable villains of the previous two. Instead, it brings to mind the V'Ger probe from the first film, a totally alien and technological threat that is impossible to communicate with. For all the focus on the recognisable and human, the script is at pains to remind us that human beings are not the only intelligent life on the Earth, and that the generally human-like aliens of Trek are not likely to be the rule. The Probe, which initially seems to be attacking Earth, is merely trying to communicate with the extinct humpback whale species, on behalf of its creators, who visited Earth perhaps millions of years ago. These unknown, inscrutable intelligences – who I will forever refer to as the Whaliens – are never found, identified or explained, adding a powerful air of mystery to the film.
The ecological message of The Voyage Home is both very of its time and highly relevant today. Human civilisations continue to hunt whales today, in spite of international law banning most (but not all) such hunting, and while cetacean populations have started to pick up, it's unlikely they'll ever fully recover while we remain active in their habitats. While the humpback (perhaps chosen for the film because the complex and melodic nature of their whalesong) has recovered a great deal since its hunting was banned, it was at the brink of extinction in 1966 and not much better off by the time of the film, and is still at risk from fishing nets and aural disruption from ships. Many cetacean species are still considered high risk, and the Yangtze river dolphin or baiji was considered critically endangered in 1986, and declared functionally extinct in 2006. If the Whaliens did visit the Earth, it is unlikely they would be happy with what they saw.
One thing that largely absent from the original cast films is a love interest for Kirk, something that became almost obligatory for episodes by the end of the series itself. While there's Dr. Carol Marcus in The Wrath of Khan and Antonia in Star Trek Generations, these are both old, ended relationships. There's Marta in The Undiscovered Country of course, but she's an outright villain and scarcely a romantic character. In The Voyage Home, though, we get Dr. Gillian Taylor, played brilliantly by Catherine Hicks. While a remarkable person in her own right, Taylor is the everyman in the film, faced with this bunch of peculiar military types from the future. She's charming, intelligent and the authority in her field, making her the equal of Kirk in a film where he is, if you'll excuse the pun, at sea. While there's never anything overtly sexual in their relationship, Kirk and Taylor share great chemistry, and while it's sad to see them part at the film's end, it's quite right that she goes off and becomes the ultimate authority in cetacean biology in the Federation's era. How they're going to repopulate the humpback population with just two whales is anyone's guess though. I hope Taylor knows how to circumvent inbreeding...
There's a huge amount hidden in here for the fans, of course. Majel Barrett and Grace Lee Whitney cameo as their TV characters Christine Chapel and Janice Rand, respectively. Brock Peters – later Joseph Sisko on Deep Space Nine – makes his first appearance as Admiral Cartright, who will become a significant character in the sixth film. There's a blink-and-you'll-miss-her cameo by Jane Wiedlin, a few years before her great sci-fi appearance in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Yet the most successful elements are all those which are new and unrestricted to fans: a recognisable enviroment to contrast with the futuristic; solid, unpretentious humour; the bizarre, trippy visuals of the trip through time; a strong female guest character; and the powerful, timeless ecological message. No wonder “the one with the whales” leads directly to this film's entry on Wikipedia – it's the only film to fully enter the public consciousness.
STAR TREK IV : THE VOYAGE HOME
Directed by Leonard Nimoy
Written by Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes and Nicholas Meyer, from a story by Harve Bennett and Leonard Nimoy
Released: 26th November, 1986
Starships featured: "HMS Bounty," USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A
Planets visited: Earth, Vulcan