Trekking With Tim, Day Four: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Editor Tim Ryan has a whale of a time with this wacky message movie.

by Tim Ryan | Tuesday, Apr. 28 2009

Day Four: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is the goofiest Trek film I've seen so far. It's also the most overtly political. However, by embracing the camp elements that lurk in the margins of Trek (and without succumbing to self-parody), The Voyage Home manages to be warmly entertaining -- funny even -- but with enough good humor to keep the message from being overbearing.

Science fiction has long been a bastion for political observation and satire, and Star Trek was always a platform for commentary. Even if the white guy (and the Vulcan) did the bulk of the heavy dramatic lifting, the fact that the show featured an interracial cast that operated on an equal playing field was pretty forward-thinking for 1960s television (in the immortal words of Futurama's Philip J. Fry, "It taught me so much. Like, how you should accept people, whether they be black, white, Klingon, or even female"). And Gene Roddenberry knew he could get away with subtle observations on subjects like the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War -- topics that got the Smothers Brothers in hot water -- because his show was set in outer space. Of course, the times change, and so do the issues. In The Voyage Home, the Trek franchise tackles our fragile ecology, which was a big bumper-sticker issue in the mid-1980s and continues to be relevant today.

As the film begins, a giant mass of an alien probe is moving slowly through space, neutralizing the power of everything in its path while sending out a perplexing communication signal. At first, the mass simply turns off the lights, but soon, it's kicking up violent weather patterns and draining the oceans. But what does it want?

The crew of the Enterprise (who, incidentally, are still aboard Kruge's Klingon Bird of Prey, having not yet returned to earth) intercepts the message as well, and Spock has a pretty good idea what it sounds like: the eerie songs of humpback whales. It appears the strange craft is attempting to communicate with its baleen friends; trouble is, they've been extinct for several hundred years. Realizing the only chance to save humanity is to bring back one of the ancient beasts, the crew flies around the sun and time-travels back to 1986.

Once our heroes find themselves in 1980s San Francisco, they experience some of the wackiest time-travel misunderstandings this side of Napoleon at the water park in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Much of the humor is derived from the crew's fundamental belief that their new environs are primitive and unsophisticated ("It's a miracle these people ever got out of the 23rd century," Bones grumbles derisively). But they have plenty of learning to do; for example, when Uhura and Chekov are tasked with finding a nuclear power source to recharge their flailing craft, they proceed to hysterically ask virtually every passerby where they can find the nuclear vessels (or "wessels," in Chekov's case). And Kirk, alarmed that the bus requires exact change, realizes he needs capital, so he sells his pair of antique spectacles for $100. "Is that a lot?" he asks bewilderedly. At the same time, Bones, Scotty, and Sulu must create a containment unit in order to bring the whales back to earth, and after bluffing their way into a local manufacturer, they're able to create a tank using transparent aluminum. (Their engineering feat is no less exceptional given that Scotty finds the company's Macs lacking ("Keyboard. How quaint!").

The movie really gets humming when Spock and Kirk find the whales at the fictional Cetacean Institute across the bay in Sausalito. First of all, Spock just looks hilarious; wearing a white robe and a headband to cover his ears, he still maintains an air of absolute seriousness. Kirk doesn't look much less silly in his Starfleet admiral's uniform. Anyway, they join a tour group of the institute led by Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), where they observe the Cetacean's two prized whales, George and Gracie, and speculate that the pair could be just what they're looking for. Of course, Spock has to go and blow the whole thing by jumping into the tank and mind melding with the whales, which enrages Dr. Taylor and gets Kirk and Spock kicked off the premises. On the subsequent bus ride, Spock applies a neck pinch to a surly, boombox-wielding punk rocker -- take that, primitive 1980s dwellers!

However, she's intrigued enough by these strange men to track them down and learn more about their mission, and an uneasy trust ensues. She's alarmed when Spock seems to know remarkable things about the whales - for example, that Gracie is pregnant -- but Kirk initially tries to play it cool ("He's harmless. Part of the free speech movement at Berkeley in the 1960s. I think he did a little too much LDS.") Kirk and Taylor go out to dinner and talk shop, and there's a priceless moment when Kirk subtly recoils after tasting beer for the first time. However, he soon learns that the whales are about to be released back into the wild, and realizes that he may have to lay his cards on the table with this 20th century-inhabitant in order to save humanity.

It's easy to see how this save-the-whales narrative could devolve into ham-fisted sloganeering (and unfortunately, Hicks' tightly-wound performance is the weakest in the movie; she doesn't fully mix with the loopy proceedings). But time-travel aspect allows the film to make some loopy social observations, and the cast is looser than in previous installments; each member gets a chance to riff on his or her character traits to a greater degree, which in this series is always a good thing. And it is important to reflect on what is lost when species become extinct; obviously, future generations bear the brunt of contemporary error, and can see the past through a clearer lens.

Anyway, Uhura and Chekov somehow manage to get to Alameda in the East Bay, where the nuclear wessel (that never gets old) is docked. They manage to get enough energy for the ship, but while Uhura escapes, Chekov is captured. After being awkwardly interrogated, he flees the ship's authorities, only to plunge off the side of the ship and sustain critical injuries. Kirk, Bones, and Taylor devise a plan to spring him from the hospital, which gives Bones the opportunity to observe -- and be appalled by -- 20th century medicine ("Put away your butcher knives and let me save the patient!" he yells at Chekov's doctors). After a madcap, Three Stooges-esque escape from the hospital, the crew discovers the whales have been released early. After Taylor convinces them to bring her along, the ship heads north, where the humpbacks are immediately targeted by whalers (this struck me as contrived). Naturally, the crew is able to beam George and Gracie up, head back to the future (with no help from Kruge -- sorry, bad joke), and get the whales and the alien probe talking. Humanity is saved! The crew of the Enterprise has to answer for its illegal run to the Genesis planet, but thankfully, Starfleet is in a forgiving mood, given that they saved the planet and all.

The Voyage Home was my first direct contact with the Trek franchise. I saw it in the theater when I was nine, but remembered almost none of it, aside from the whales and the fact that I found Spock's brief bout with swearing amusing. Twenty three years later, I understand why I was so confused (aside from the fact that I was nine, of course): The Voyage Home, while certainly more of a self-contained picture than The Search for Spock, is funnier and more deeply felt if you have some familiarity with the characters. This is the best showcase yet for the peripheral players; Chekov, Sulu, and Uhura carry more of the weight in The Voyage Home than they had in previous films. And its moments of visual invention (the giant mass is properly foreboding, and the sight of the whales secured inside the ship is strangely soothing and filled with wonder) make this the most purely enjoyable Trek movie so far.

Tomorrow, I tackle the alleged Hindenburg of the Trek franchise: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (I've been told that I'll need to pound some Raktajinos to make it to the end. I have no idea what that means). Is it as bad as the fanboys and girls say?