There’s a rule of thumb concerning the earlier, pre-JJ Abrams Star Trek movies that you probably have heard of – it’s the one that states that generally the even numbered movies are cracking examples of the franchise whereas the odd numbered ones are as uneven as a Klingon forehead. No movie in the series probably proves this more than the fourth round of Kirk & co. boldly going because on paper is should have been an utter fucking calamity. Returning to the director’s chair was Spock himself Leonard Nimoy, whose previous entry – the aggressively “ok” Search For Spock – was decent, but hardly amazing and this new movie still had to contend with the rather sizable fallout that noticeably affected the status quo. Above all, the movie was saddled with potentially goofy time travel plot where the crew of the former U.S.S. Enterprise (now in more pieces than adult lego kit after its self detonation) had to rub shoulders with the people of 1986 in order to save their future.
How could something that’s essentially “Spock To The Future” possibly be any good..?
The events of their previous adventure has taken it’s toll on Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the gang – after breaking protocol and defying orders in order to save a resurrected Spock from the decaying planet Genesis, Kirk lost both his son to a Klingon blade and his beloved starship after he blew it up in order to squeak out yet another fighting chance – and after everything they’ve been through the call has gone out from the Federation that the Klingons are pissed and the crew are to be court martialed for their crimes. Kicking their heels on Vulcan in exile while they await a still confused Spock to get his shit together and retain his full memories, the crew decide to return home and face their punishment, but on the way they find out that a mysterious alien probe is making a beeline for earth with potentially catastrophic results.
Discovering that the sound it enimates is remarkable similar to that of the humpback whale (unfortunately extinct in 2286), the crew cook up a plan involving going back in time by sling shoting at warp around the sun in their rusting, captured Klingon warship; bopping back to 1986; nabbing some whales and bouncing back before teatime in order to save the world.
Of course, things aren’t exactly that easy and not only do they have to find and obtain a couple of whales and a way to re-power their knackered ship, but they have to negotiate their way around things primitive things from the past such as money, public transport and casual swearing…
As I already said at the top of the review, Star Trek IV simply shouldn’t work. Not only does it technically has no villains to speak of except for a probe that looks like a giant space dildo twirling a cosmic beach ball, but despite its rather original appearance, the thing isn’t actually that dissimilar from the quizzical, self aware V’ger satellite from the first film. There’s no space battles, no fist fights, no real personal drama and not even that much future stuff thanks to the jaunt back in time – and yet The Voyage home arguably stands as possibly the second best Trek movie that contained the original crew. Maybe it’s because of the lack of all those things I mentioned earlier, but when director Nimoy actually had those things to play with he handled it with a leaden pace and distinct lack of tension; here however, he’s stripped of all of that and has a plot that’s essentially a men on a mission movie that has everyone scampering around San Francisco like their on some kind of intergalactic scavenger hunt and proves to be exactly the sort of thing the franchise needed.
Taking the crew out of their usual places – usually being hurled across the bridge of a spaceship – and dumping them somewhere new turns out to be somewhat of a masterstroke as, for once, the rest of the crew finally get to stretch their legs and actually have some use apart from from stabbing buttons an repeating the captain’s commands. Watching Sulu, Scotty, Chekhov and Uhura get whole scenes to themselves that not only don’t involve Kirk, Spock and McCoy, but actually involve a chance to show off some comedy skills too is massively welcome and proves to be the funniest Trek of them all.
Not only does this massively relaxed plot have a rejuvenating effect on the cast (no one seems to feel overly pressured that the world will end and Kirk even has time enough to chat up pretty whale expert, Child’s Play’s Catherine Ross, and even go on a date) but it seems to inspired Nimoy to create a warm atmosphere in order to put some personal touches on The Voyage Home that extends beyond the opening tribute to the ill fated crew of the space shuttle Challenger. In fact it’s one of the rare times I can think of during the 80’s where a socially conscious director has imposed an obvious globally aware agenda that doesn’t flip the whole thing like a table by a rageaholic at a checkers tournament. In fact Star Trek IV’s “save the whales” plot arguably makes it the entry that adheres to the Star Trek ethos the most and if you don’t believe me, please refer to Superman IV for a worst case scenario.
In the face of an unbearably tense space battle with Kahn or fending off an invasion by the Borg, a good natured romp back in time hardly seems like an adventure to voyage home about, but it’s precisely this breezy attitude that make things so much fun. Watching Spock vainly try to get his pointy eared head around profanity and form an delightful comedy rapport with Kirk is adorable, especially their uncertainty when reacting to the question if the Vulcan science officer likes italian food or dealing with an obnoxious unknown the bus. Similarly Chekhov gets to epically mangle the word “vessels”, McCoy nonchalantly helps an old woman on dialysis grow a new kidney and we get to find out that despite all of his ingenuity, Scotty’s a one-finger-typer…
Essentially a rare instance where an installment of a long running franchise allows the series as a whole to take a nice relaxing breath, darkness simply has no place here – the matters of the murder of Kirk’s son are swiftly covered and then discarded – and as a result The Voyage Home instantly feels as snug and cozy as a pair of slippers with an abundance of killer one liners. What other Trek movie could get away with Kirk casually annoucing “No, I’m from Iowa, I only work in outer space.” and still be as utterly disarming as the swaggering Admiral himself?
A disarming slice of entertaining, sci-fi, time travelling hokum, Star Trek IV blasts in from the future to do not much more than tickle the funny bone and suggest that maybe we should stop annihilating the world’s creatures, but it does it so well that you, like our heroes, will have a whale of a time (travel).