34 years ago this November, I went to see “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” with my Trekkie sister over Thanksgiving weekend. I was a month shy of my 20th birthday, and still filled with much of the optimism for the years ahead that is often reflected in the Star Trek universe. Star Trek III was terrific; a strong outing for first time feature director Leonard Nimoy, so I was hopeful. But all I knew in that pre-internet, spoiler-lite age was that the new story involved humpback whales and time travel. Since some of the better Trek episodes also involved time travel, this could be icing on the cake.
1986 was a good time to be a Star Trek fan. The original series was rerun almost nonstop in syndication, and the episodes were also being released to video (VHS, Beta and laserdisc), including the original pilot, “The Cage” (1965). There was also announcement of a new syndicated Star Trek series coming the following year (which, of course, became “Star Trek: The Next Generation”). There were also many terrific original Star Trek novels from writers such as the late Vonda McIntyre and Ann Crispin. While not quite the ‘golden age’ of Star Trek that was the mid-1990s, the 1980s weren’t half-bad either. Less content, yes, but a few real gems to be found.
Star Trek IV would be the end of an unofficial trilogy (tying off loose plot threads from Star Treks II & III) while also offering something new in the Star Trek franchise–bona fide mainstream success, which made other avenues of Star Trek possible. This would be the Trek movie that non-Trekkies enjoyed as well.
******CETACEAN PROBE-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!******
For this retrospective, I decided to take yet another look at this old favorite of mine through my newly acquired digital projector (my COVID-quarantine sanity machine). Pulling the collapsible screen out to its full diagonal width (80”/203 cm), this would be the first time in 34 years that I’d watched this movie on a big(gish) screen, in the dark, with my undivided attention…
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
The movie opens with Alexander Courage’s original TOS theme before it segues into a new main title track by Leonard Rosenman. We see an incandescent nebula warming and then cooling, followed by what looks like a giant scanning electron micrograph of a hair follicle out in space…
On the soundtrack we hear unearthly sounds blasting over the comms that have an oddly familiar resonance. We then cut to the bridge of the Federation starship USS Saratoga under the command of Star Trek’s first onscreen unnamed female captain (Madge Sinclair), who asks her science officer to analyze these strange sounds, but to no avail.
The Saratoga captain calls Starfleet command to advise them that the large probe is on a trajectory into the Terran solar system (aka the Sol system…us). At Starfleet Headquarters, the absentia trial of James T. Kirk and his officers is underway. The president of the Federation Council (Robert Ellenstein) is personally presiding. A visiting Klingon ambassador (John Schuck) shows footage of the last moments of the starship USS Enterprise right before its self-destruction over the Genesis planet, which killed several Klingons who commandeered the ship. The Klingon wants Kirk to answer not only for the deaths of that Klingon crew, but also the theft of their Bird of Prey as well as his part in creating the terraforming Genesis device; which the Klingon government sees as a threat to galactic peace.
Note: Could someone explain how a civilian Federation president can legally preside over a Starfleet court-martial? Shouldn’t it be a military court-martial? Isn’t the Federation civilian? So many potentially disturbing questions on that one…
Interrupting the Klingon’s rhetorical ranting about “Klingon justice” is the cool-headed Vulcan ambassador to Earth, Sarek (Mark Lenard), father of the resurrected Mr. Spock. Sarek reminds the Federation Council that Genesis was created as a terraforming device, not a weapon. Speaking on behalf of Kirk and his exiled officers, Sarek also reiterates that the Klingons shed first blood when they attempted to steal Genesis for themselves. The Klingon ambassador denies nothing, arguing it was an act of racial preservation. Angered that the Council isn’t adding his grievances to the official list of charges, the Klingon warns, “There will be NO peace as long as Kirk lives!” An anonymous voice in the observers’ gallery calls the Klingon a “pompous ass” as he leaves (‘colorful metaphors’ are indeed alive & well in the 23rd century…).
In the third month of their exile to the planet Vulcan, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and his comrades, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Mr. Scott (James Doohan), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) make a unanimous decision to return to Earth in their stolen Klingon ship (renamed the HMS Bounty, of course) to face the charges for their mutinous actions in Star Trek III. They have spent the last three months repairing their recently acquired Klingon ‘rust bucket,’ and are ready to go home, whatever the cost…
The recently rejuvenated Spock is elsewhere, undergoing rigorous computerized testing to ensure that his vast scientific knowledge survived the “Fal Tor Pan” ritual, which restored his memory from McCoy’s mind back into his body. Essentially Dr. McCoy served as Spock’s backup hard drive, following the Vulcan’s ‘death’ in STII. Now, Spock is his old self (more or less), and his scientific knowledge is intact, but the emotional growth and wisdom he was beginning to show in the recent films appears to have wiped clean. Spock stumbles when the computer asks him a very simple question; “How do you feel?” Unable to answer, Spock’s mother Amanda (Jane Wyatt) enters, and tells her restored son that the computer is aware of his half-human lineage, and is testing his emotions. Spock dismisses the question of emotion as irrelevant, as Amanda then makes the case for their value. Making the decision to return to Earth with his colleagues, Amanda still seems confident that her son will eventually come to realize the importance of his human heritage…
In deep space, the USS Saratoga is now immobilized by the loud cries of the unknown alien probe, which wrecks havoc on electrical power systems as it passes. As the ship begins to drift and life-support systems fail, the Saratoga issues a distress call to Starfleet Command.
Back on Vulcan, Kirk and his officers prepare to liftoff for Earth. It’s here that we say goodbye to the character of Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis), who is choosing to remain behind, under the apparent care of Amanda. Both watch as the Klingon vessel ascends into the sky and flies off into the sunset…
Note: In a (wisely) deleted scene, there was supposed to mention of Saavik being pregnant with Spock’s child, as she ‘eased his suffering’ during his bout with the Vulcan mating urge of ‘pon farr’ back on the Genesis planet. Last time I watched STIII, that ‘fingers’ scene became very difficult to watch, as it now feels (post-MeToo) like statutory rape when viewed out of context. Spock was supposed to be, physically at least, a teenaged boy in that scene, so her being pregnant with his child from that act just feels genuinely wrongheaded.
Aboard the Klingon ship, Uhura is getting multiple distress calls that are “almost a gibberish” as multiple ships are hit with massive power failures. Uhura attempts to sort them out. Speaking of sorting things out, a worried McCoy checks in on Spock. McCoy is worried that Spock isn’t exactly “firing on all thrusters” following the ritual which separated Spock’s essence from his own mind. The good doctor also prods the Vulcan for insight into the experience of death and rebirth, trying to understand for himself what it must’ve been like to have gone “where no man has gone before.” Spock offers no insights however, as his newly literal manner doesn’t seem to grasp what McCoy asks of him. He waves the doctor’s questioning off, telling him he’s receiving “a number of distress calls,” to which McCoy sarcastically adds, “I don’t doubt it.” Their exchanges together are some of my favorite moments in the movie, as they capture the essence of the loving but prickly Spock/McCoy relationship to a tee. So help me, DeForest Kelley gets the best lines in all of the original cast’s Star Trek movies (going all the way back to The Motion Picture) and he delivers them with his unique, wild-eyed charm.
The probe reaches Earth orbit, immediately immobilizing Earth’s massive orbiting spacedock complex. Once directing its shrieks towards the planet’s oceans, they immediately begin to vaporize, causing severe weather storms and electrical blackouts all over the planet. If allowed to continue, the probe’s call to Earth could lead to the planet’s destruction. The Federation president, on Sarek’s urging, issues a planetary distress call which effectively warns all space vessels to avoid the doomed planet and save themselves. The message is met by the stunned silence of Kirk and his officers, as their home planet faces imminent extinction. Kirk sullenly asks Uhura if she can replay the probe’s message for them.
The vaguely familiar wailing noises fill the Klingon ship’s bridge. Spock appears to recognize the sound, which he later confirms to be the songs sung by humpback whales, a species extinct on Earth since the 21st century (though I certainly hope not). Since the species doesn’t exist on any other planet in the galaxy, Kirk decides their is but one course of action left; time-travel into Earth’s past, retrieve some humpback whales, and take them into the 23rd century to communicate with the probe. McCoy raises an objection (“Now wait, just a damn minute!”), but Kirk and the crew are adamant; it’s the only solution left to save their home planet. He orders Spock to start calculations for ‘time warp’ using the same dangerously unpredictable time-travel technique seen in TOS’ “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” and “Assignment Earth”; slingshot around the sun at high warp speed, create a time warp, and hope to hell that they wind up in the right era…
Calculating the complex variables for time travel from Spock’s patchy memory, and flying toward the sun in their creaky Klingon craft, it’s a dangerous move. The ship nearly shakes apart as Sulu shouts their warp speeds (“Nine point three! Nine point five…”). It’s a moment that conveys the danger of time travel in a way the old TV show never really could. The crew, pressured by increasing heat and g-forces, lose consciousness as their time-travel drive program continues automatically.
Kirk’s dream sequence is, as an old review in CFQ magazine once put it, “like something out of Russian science fiction.” Early, crude computer graphics show rough forms of the crew’s faces, as well as an abstraction of a humpback whale. We hear spoken dialogue from both earlier and later in the film, giving the impression that the dream is precognitive. There is a weird image of a clay doll flying over the Earth which is more suitable for “The Twilight Zone” than Star Trek. Despite the hit-and-miss graphics, there’s a surreal oddness to the dream sequence that is daringly experimental. Nimoy’s directorial ambition clearly exceeded the available technology, but the result was intriguing. Kirk wakes up to discover that the braking rockets fired on time, and they are indeed over Earth. Spock scans the planet and with almost undetectable sarcasm, tells the crew, “Judging by the pollution content in the atmosphere, I believe we have arrived at the latter half of the 20th century.”
Note: According to the commentary on the DVD, that last line of Spock’s was Nicholas Meyer’s entry point in the screenplay. Writer/producer Harve Bennett wrote all the 23rd century stuff, and Meyer did all of the 20th. There were some legal issues regarding the creative input of credited co-writers Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes, but Nimoy had dismissed their ‘contributions’ as largely irrelevant. Ouch!
Spock advises Kirk to engage the cloaking device of their ship, noting that they may already be visible to radar and satellite tracking of the era. Once cloaked, Kirk arranges for Sulu to set their ship down in Golden Gate Park (really inconspicuous, guys). The admiral then divides his crew into teams. Uhura and Chekov will collect high energy photons from the nuclear reactor of a nearby naval vessel to reconstitute their ship’s drained dilithium crystals; McCoy, Scotty and Sulu will convert one of the ship’s storage bays into a massive aquarium, while the admiral and Spock track the humpback whale songs to their source–somewhere inside the city. Spock takes a moment to disguise his Vulcan ears and eyebrows with a strip of cloth torn from his robe (!). Landing at night, the crew’s eerie arrival from an invisible spaceship causes a bit of UFO trauma for a pair of early morning garbagemen cleaning up at the park (and into the trash goes Starfleet’s ‘non-interference directive’ apparently… ).
We then cut to a bright sunny day in 1986 San Francisco with a blast of ‘hip’ contemporary music to remind us we’re not in the mild-mannered 23rd century anymore. Noticing a newspaper dispenser with a coin box, Kirk remembers that “they’re still using money” in the 20th century. Kirk then decides to pawn his 18th century antique reading glasses (a birthday gift from McCoy in “The Wrath of Khan”) for $100, which he divides among the teams.
Note: Excellent use is made of Union Square, the cable cars, the Golden Gate, and other downtown Frisco locales. Product placements abound as well, with signs for Winchell’s Donuts, Junior Mints, Yellow Pages, etc. Hey, a movie’s gotta eat, right? Product placement, however vilified, is a ‘logical’ means to get extra financing bucks for one’s film.
This following scenes are some of the loosest and most comical in the entire movie, as we see Uhura and heavily Russian-accented Chekov asking locals if they can help them find “nuclear wessels” (according to the commentary, this scene was largely improvised using real locals as extras). We also see Sulu, McCoy and Scotty roaming the back alleys, trying to find a 20th century equivalent for ’transparent aluminum’ (there was a never-completed scene where San Franciscan native Sulu was to have met his own great-great grandfather, but an uncooperative child actor dashed the scene before it could be finished). Meanwhile, Spock quietly disables an obnoxious punk rocker on a local bus with his famed Vulcan nerve pinch, much to Kirk’s satisfaction. The bus takes the two time travelers to the source of the whale songs, which are coming from the fictional “Cetacean Institute” (nee: Monterey Bay Aquarium). A pair of stray humpback whales named George and Gracie wandered into the bay as calves, and have since taken up residence in a massive outdoor aquarium at the facility. Once there, Spock and Kirk go on a guided tour led by Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks; don’t ask me why a whale biologist at the Institute would be conducting visitor tours; that’s usually an exhibit worker’s job, but oh well).
Note: If there’s one weak link in this otherwise crowd-pleasing Star Trek film, it would have to be Leonard Rosenman’s score. While generally competent, it’s a significant downgrade from the lush scores of Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner in the previous movies. The punk song “I Hate You” is very generic (though the lyrics are hilarious), and the music used for the later hospital escape sequence sounds dangerously close to something one might use for a gaggle of clowns exiting a Volkswagen. Even the orchestral main title track sounds dangerously close to Rosenman’s own music for the 1978 animated version of “Lord of the Rings”; so much so that when I first heard the 1978 “Rings” theme years later, I thought it was the same track. While not a bad score per se, it calls attention to itself largely in contrast to the previous three films’ objectively superior music.
During the tour, Gillian wears her passion for her subjects on her sleeve, as she brings up disturbing videos and statistics regarding humanity’s cruel and heinous slaughter of whales over past centuries. Composing herself, she then takes the tour group over to an underwater observation window of George and Gracie’s giant tank. Kirk looks around to find that Spock has gone missing. As he looks for his errant Vulcan friend, a woman notices a man swimming in the tank with the whales… Spock. The Vulcan is mind-melding with Gracie in order to communicate their intention to save their species. Gillian, of course, is enraged, and she temporarily leaves the tour, rushing to the upper deck of the aquarium, where she (and Kirk) confront a soaked Spock, who is putting on his robe after his little swim with the fishies.
Spock is dismayed to find Kirk seemingly taking Gillian’s side (the admiral is trying to keep his ‘cover’ as a native). As Gillian angrily shouts and hurls a few curses at Spock, the Vulcan calmly retorts that neither Gillian nor the rest of humanity ‘owns’ the whales, and that such arrogance is what will lead to the creatures’ extinction in the future. Kirk steps in as peacemaker, and assures Gillian he and Spock will leave peacefully if she promises not to escalate the situation. Gillian, a self-professed “sucker for hard-luck cases” agrees to let the two middle-aged pranksters go.
Meanwhile, at San Francisco Naval Bay, Uhura and Chekov discover a rich source of high-energy photons, ripe for collection–inside of the US aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVA-65); an earlier namesake of their own lost starship. The two plan to beam aboard the carrier later that evening, collect their photons, and beam out. Easy-peasy. What could go wrong?
Note: The now decommissioned USS Enterprise’s near-identical twin, the USS Ranger, doubled for the USS Enterprise in the exterior and interior sequences. In the spring of 1985, my late father and I got to go aboard a tour of the USS Constellation, which is of the same Nimitz-class as Ranger and Enterprise. It was a huge ship; more like a small city on the inside. The view from the bridge, overlooking the flight deck, was amazing as well. I even took a seat at the navigation table. I’ll never forget that tour. The carrier’s appearance in the movie was the only way I could get my father, who hated Star Trek, to watch this movie (after we bought it on laserdisc a year later). He grudgingly admitted to enjoying “the one with the whales.”
Leaving the Cetacean Institute on foot, Kirk and Spock run into Gillian once again, who is heading home herself in her old blue Chevy pickup truck. Feeling sorry for the two sad sacks, she graciously offers them a lift, but warns that if they try anything, she’s got a tire iron right where she can get at it. During their ride out of the parking lot, Kirk tries to pass Spock off as some wild ex-professor hippie from Berkeley who did “a little too much LDS.” She’s also very curious about Spock’s past-tense usage when referring to the whales. Not wanting to blow their cover completely, Kirk nevertheless assures Gillian that he and Spock intend no harm or other “dipshit” for the whales, and in fact, they’re all equally motivated to help the creatures. Their cover is nearly blown for good when Spock blurts out, “Gracie is pregnant.” This fact is known only to Gillian…and, of course, to Gracie. Kirk offers to smooth things out over dinner. Asking if the two guys “like Italian”, Spock immediately answers Gillian with a brutally honest and repeated “no” until Kirk tells him that they both like Italian food. Dropping Spock off at Golden Gate Park instead (actually Will Rogers Park in L.A), Gillian and Kirk drive away…. just as Spock is beamed aboard the ship, barely out of sight.
Note: Gillian’s beat-up old pickup truck, which is more function over form, says a lot about a woman whose life is more clearly about her work rather than personal luxuries or indulgences.
We then catch up with McCoy and Scotty, who manage to locate a business called PlexiCorp, which specializes in large, thick, clear plexiglass panels–perfect for use in a giant aquarium. Mr. Scott pretends to be an indignant professor who has come “millions–er, thousands of miles” from Edinburgh Scotland for a tour of the facility, along with his ‘assistant’ (McCoy). After a tour to sooth the ‘professor’s’ feigned indignity, plant manager Dr. Nichols (Alex Henteloff) takes the pair of tourists back to his office, where Scott piques Nichols’ curiosity by asking what thickness of material would be required to construct a large (theoretical) aquarium. Nichols mentions the six inch-thick material they carry in stock. “Burying himself in the part”, Scotty proposes a material that could do the same job–but with one inch thickness. After Nichols laughs him off, Scotty offers to show him by using his vintage 1980s Mac computer. Unsuccessfully trying to voice-activate the device (hehe), Scotty then uses the ‘quaint’ keyboard to create the formula for “transparent aluminum.” He offers to give Nichols the formula in exchange for several sheets of six-inch plexiglass. McCoy whispers to Scotty that giving Nichols the formula for transparent aluminum in 1986 might ‘alter the future’ until Scotty reminds him that for all they know, Nichols himself might be the future ‘inventor’ of the stuff. Outside of the plant, helmsman Sulu makes casual conversation with a Plexicorp helicopter pilot, asking the young pilot “a few questions” about flying such a “old” vehicle.
Note: According to a 2009 article from Science Daily, ‘transparent aluminum’ is, in fact, possible, and can be made by bombarding aluminum with powerful soft x-ray lasers. Google it!
Over dinner at a high-end pizzeria, Kirk and Gillian chill over Michelob beers while they wait for their food. Gillian is deeply and insatiably curious as to who Kirk really is (much as Edith Keeler was in TOS’ “City on the Edge of Forever”). Their conversation is interrupted by a chirp from Kirk’s communicator. He grabs the device, chiding Scotty for the needless interruption. Gillian’s curiosity is fully aflame now; she begins to wonder if Kirk is some kind of secret agent or if he’s working for the military somehow. Coming clean, Kirk tells Gillian he is from the late 23rd century and has come backward in time to retrieve two humpback whales in an attempt to “repopulate the species.” Kirk tries to get information out of Gillian as well–specifically, the radio transmitter frequency the Cetacean Institute will use to track the humpback whales after their return to the open sea. Gillian refuses to answer that (classified) question until the evasive Kirk gives her a reason to trust him. After paying for their pizza (Kirk has no money), Gillian assumes the admiral’s story is a crock and disappointedly drives him back to Golden Gate Park. With a rapidly running clock until the humpbacks are released into the open sea (noon, the following day), Kirk tells Gillian he will go out into the open sea to get those humpback whales if necessary, but that both of their interests could be better served by cooperation. Kirk reminds her that if she changes her mind, he’ll be “right here” in the park.
Note: The scene when Kirk tries to answer his communicator discreetly may get chuckles today, but one has to remember that tiny mobile/cell/smartphones weren’t yet a thing in 1986. The closest we had to such devices in those days were “pocket pagers” as Gillian assumed Kirk had. Mobile phones were available, but they were the size of bricks. Pocket pagers were much smaller, but they only let you know if someone called; they were incapable of making or receiving calls themselves (let alone send/receive texts). These devices were the preferred emergency contact means of doctors, lawyers and even drug dealers of that time.
Chekov and Uhura’s mission of high-energy photon collection aboard the nuclear reactor room of the USS Enterprise doesn’t quite go as planned. Radiation around the reactor room makes communications and transporters dodgy, so only Uhura is able to be safely beamed back with the photon collector, while Chekov has to wait for a second transport window…which never comes. Chekov is then captured as a suspected Russian agent, interrogated by the FBI, and later chased by armed marines until he falls from the carrier’s flight deck and suffers a head injury after hitting the asphalt below. The suspected saboteur is then taken to Mercy Hospital in San Francisco’s Mission District, where he is listed in critical condition. It’s a really bad day to be Pavel Chekov…
As Sulu gets the hang of flying a 20th century Bell-Huey helicopter to facilitate transport of the heavy plexiglass panels to Scotty aboard the waiting cloaked Klingon ship at Golden Gate Park, Gillian arrives at the Cetacean Institute to find George and Gracie gone! Their giant outdoor tank has been drained. Gillian’s supervisor Bob Briggs (Scott DeVenney) released the whales into the ocean ahead of schedule to spare Gillian the pain of their separation. Understandably, Gillian is super-pissed that Bob denied her a chance to say goodbye, and she delivers a thunderous slap across his chops. With nothing left to lose, the angry, heartbroken Gillian goes back to her truck and makes a spontaneous decision to trust that weird “admiral” and that “ditzy guy” he hangs around with at the park…
Note: The smarmy character of Bob Briggs is the closest thing this atypical movie has to a villain; a welcome relief after the various revenge-seeking Khan-imitators that would plague the rest of the Star Trek movies (including a rebooted Khan in the Kelvinverse movies).
Arriving at the park, Gillian begins shouting for Admiral Kirk. Running into one of the park’s open spaces, she slams right into the invisible Bird of Prey starship, which is given away only by the crushed grass beneath its landing struts (and the sight of Sulu’s helicopter delivering plexiglass panels into open sky). Just as Gillian begins to realize she might be in over her head, she feels the tingle of a transporter beam and begins to scream… only to finish her scream aboard the Klingon ship. Kirk meets her in the transporter bay, and shows her the progress they’re making in building the tanks for the whales. Jolted out of her awe by mention of her beloved whales, Gillian tells Kirk that the whales were taken out to sea ahead of schedule. She figures the whales might be out near the Bering Sea by now, where they are at risk from whale hunters in that region. Kirk tells her that they can’t leave yet, because their comrade Chekov has been captured. Monitoring phone calls, Uhura tells Kirk and Gillian that Chekov is being prepared for emergency brain surgery at Mercy Hospital. Gillian offers to help them get their man back.
Stealing hospital scrubs, Kirk, McCoy and Gillian disguise themselves as doctors and infiltrate the hospital. Gillian lies on a gurney, pretending to be in agony (“cramps”) in order to get into the operating room where Chekov is being readied. Locking Chekov’s would-be surgeons into a supply room, McCoy uses his advanced, non-invasive 23rd century medical tools to heal Chekov’s brain hemorrhage without drills or other ‘medieval’ 20th century medical tools. With a recovered Chekov, the four of them make for a broadly comical escape from the hospital (as mentioned earlier, Rosenman’s music bludgeons the humor instead of punctuating it). Along the way, McCoy casually slips an elderly dialysis patient a pill, which allows her to grow a new kidney within minutes (forget that whole ‘non-inference directive’ thing, right?). Once inside a hospital elevator, the four are beamed back to Golden Gate Park, where Kirk offers Gillian his thanks in exchange for the whales’ radio frequency. She tells him it’s 401 megahertz, and just as the admiral calls to be beamed up, she grabs him in a bearhug (“Surprise!”), allowing herself to be beamed aboard as well (good thing the Klingon transporter didn’t splice their DNA together... just saying).
Lifting off from the park, the still-cloaked Bird of Prey makes course for the Bering Sea, between Alaska and Russia. Kirk confronts Gillian for tricking him, but she irrefutably reminds him that he will need her whale expertise in the 23rd century. Point taken. As they close in on the whales’ transmitters, they see a Scandinavian whaling vessel in hot pursuit! Closing the distance between them, Sulu hovers over the whaling ship—and turns off the cloaking device! The shock of the massive UFO causes the whalers to abort their hunt and get the hell out of there. With the whalers no longer a threat, Scotty beams George and Gracie (and the water that surrounds them) aboard their “little aquarium.”
Taking Gillian down to have a look at the whales, Gillian is delighted to see her whales again, safe and sound…for the moment. Scotty then reports a power drop, and Kirk rushes to the bridge, where he learns Sulu is unable to achieve the necessary escape velocity from the sun’s powerful gravity well. Spock takes control of the craft’s acceleration thrusters, giving the ship the necessary oomph to make ‘breakaway speed’ in order to achieve time warp. They enter time warp, and again, lose consciousness…
Note: There are major continuity issues with warp speeds in the film. At warp 9 point whatever it was, the journey around the sun should’ve happened in the blink of an eye, not several minutes. Furthermore, Sulu takes the ship to warp speed within Earth’s atmosphere after they rescue George and Gracie… really? Warp drive within a planetary atmosphere? In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Kirk was reluctant to engage warp drive while still “within the Solar system.” Oh, and did I mention their cloaking shields were off, meaning that anyone on the ground or in the air could’ve seen that little trick? Moving on…
Safely ‘back to the future’, the Klingon ship is rendered powerless by the orbiting cetacean probe, which causes it to splash down into San Francisco Bay. As their spaceship begins to sink, Kirk orders the crew to abandon ship. Gillian tells Kirk they have to free the air-breathing whales from the cargo hold before they drown; humpback whales can only hold their breath for about a half hour before they need to surface. Holding his own breath, Kirk swims below and opens a manual release to the bay doors, which frees the whales into the Bay. As rain pours outside, Kirk, Gillian and the crew gather along the still-buoyant uppermost hull of their sinking vessel. Curiously the freed whales remain silent, not yet answering the thunderous calls from the orbiting probe…
The whales hear the call of the probe, and angle their bodies into a downward bearing. A conversation between the whales and the probe ensues (much like the musical ‘conversation’ in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). Suddenly, the conversation ceases, and the probe moves away from Earth orbit.
Note: I love that the writers/filmmakers refused to subtitle the conversation between the whales and the probe. Like the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, their conversation should remain enigmatic; it’s between them, not us. It’s also never explained exactly why the probe wreaked havoc with Earth’s weather systems when it failed to contact the whales. Was this a natural side-effect of its signal, or was it deliberately vaporizing the oceans in response to a lack of response? And if only seeking out humpback whales, why was its devastating signal activated so far away from the Sol system? I wonder if Spock could mind-meld with the whales and learn exactly what they said to each other, and if it will ever return again? Perhaps that’s a potential subject for a future Star Trek novel (unless someone’s tackled it already).
As the probe exits our solar system, the weather, as well as Earth’s artificial power systems, both begin to function normally again. Storm clouds break and sunlight hits the Bay. The crew are overjoyed, and they begin playing in the water like kids in a swimming pool. Kirk even yanks Spock off of the Bird of Prey’s exterior ladder right into the drink, forcing the Vulcan to break out with an uncharacteristic grimace of indignation (you can hear Nimoy make an audible “Aaaagh!”). The aquatic frivolities soon come to an end, as we see a rescue shuttle from Starfleet Command close in on the sinking Bird of Prey…
The action then returns to the business of Kirk and his crew’s court-martials over the charges stemming from their actions in Star Trek III. Spock, back in Starfleet uniform, leaves the gallery to stand with his shipmates. Due to the “certain mitigating circumstances” (saving the world and such), the Federation president informs them that all the charges have been dropped, save one; the charge of disobeying a senior officer, which is directed solely at Admiral Kirk. For his ‘punishment’, Kirk is reduced in rank to captain, and as a consequence of his new rank, he’s being given what he’s best suited for–command of a starship. The court martial is dismissed as the gallery breaks into applause, hugs, handshakes and smiles (we even see a pair of smiling Vulcan delegates… oops!). Gillian meets up with Kirk to tell him she’s been assigned to a science vessel (300 years of catch-up learning). Before she leaves a near-speechless Kirk, she gives him a kiss on the cheek, promising to “see ya around the galaxy” (that line still sounds positively Buck Rogers). This is one of the rare times Kirk didn’t get the girl, though she did pay for their dinner date.
There is also a nice, understated reconciliation of sorts between ambassador Sarek and his resurrected son Spock. After years of disapproving of his son’s military career, Sarek tells his son that his associates are people of good character. “They are my friends,” replies Spock. Asked if he has a message for his human mother back on Vulcan, Spock says with the slightest of smiles, “Yes, tell her… I feel fine.” Father and son then give their customary “live long and prosper” farewells to each other, as Spock joins his captain.
Aboard a travel pod within the massive orbital spacedock complex, the former mutineers-turned-heroes are off to their next assignment, which remains a subject of mystery and speculation. Cynic McCoy assumes they’ll get a freighter. Sulu pines for the USS Excelsior (his future command in Star Trek VI), but Kirk doesn’t really care, simply saying, “a ship is a ship.” Their tiny pod travels towards the giant saucer section of the USS Excelsior…
… only to glide over it, to the ship beyond–another refit-Constitution class starship. This new ship bears the name the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-A (in the movie’s novelization, it was a rechristened USS Yorktown). Overjoyed at a second chance, Kirk speaks for his shipmates, and perhaps the audience, when he says, “My friends? We’ve come home.”
On a gleaming white bridge, Kirk tells helmsman Sulu, “Let’s see what she’s got!” The ship then streaks off at warp speeds into ‘the final frontier’ (both figuratively and literally, as that would be the title of the William Shatner-directed next feature film, released three years later in 1989).
Note: The graphics on the new bridge, as well as the Klingon bird of prey, were inexpensive backlit transparencies called “Okudagrams,” named after graphic artists (and future Star Trek historians) Michael and Denise Okuda, who would also work together on The Next Generation, and every subsequent Star Trek movie and TV series through 2005.
Spock in Command.
Star Trek IV was director Leonard Nimoy’s second feature film, and when contrasted with his work in Star Trek III, it’s clear that, as Nimoy put it, “the training wheels came off.” Star Trek III was a fine entry in the canon, but it’s often maligned for its shortcomings (lack of scope, predictable story, a television-look) rather than its strengths (emphasis on character, humor). With Star Trek IV, Nimoy’s style had matured dramatically.
Even the cinematography (under new director of photography Don Peterman) was much more natural, and less harshly lit. Actual locations around San Francisco (as well as Monterey and Los Angeles) gave the film tremendous scope that the somewhat claustrophobic, all-indoor sets of STIII lacked. Even the widescreen images are better composed this time, as Nimoy’s confidence clearly grew.
Even the humorous interplay between the actors, who were already a longtime troupe of 20 years at this point, feels more natural as well. Nimoy had already directed theater and television (“T.J. Hooker”, “The Night Gallery”), but he was clearly coming into his own as a feature film director as well. He would find even greater mainstream success a year later with the hit comedy “Three Men and a Baby” (1987).
I was privileged to have met Leonard Nimoy in the summer of 2009, at San Diego Comic Con, when he was enjoying mainstream success with JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek” movie. When I met him, we spoke only briefly, but he was very kind and was very forgiving of starstruck fans like myself. In fact, meeting Nimoy was one of only a handful of times I recall being genuinely starstruck, and I freely admit this. This was a man whose talents I’ve idolized since I was a little kid– not to mention that my kid sister had a huge crush on him as well (hehe).
My sister and I were also big fans of Nimoy’s admittedly cheesy but fun syndicated investigative series “In Search Of” (the name of which was jokingly referenced for “The Search For Spock”). I also enjoyed his role in 1978’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (where he played an ‘emotionless’ pod person who’s snatched the body of a renowned pop psychologist). The actor-director was also known for his somewhat controversial nude photography of plus-sized women, which was quite innovative and arguably ahead of its time, now that acceptance of different body images has permeated the mainstream, including the covers of Sports Illustrated and various glamour magazines. Nimoy also shot fascinating photos of abstract Jewish iconography as well, which were his way of recognizing and honoring his lifetime faith. Nimoy’s passing was the lost of an innovative artist in so many fields. Despite the actors who’ve played the Spock character since (Zachary Quinto, Ethan Peck), there was only one Leonard Nimoy. Others can certainly assume the Spock role, but Nimoy’s interpretation was both iconic and unique. Sadly, Leonard Nimoy, actor, director and photographer, passed away in 2015 at age 83.
I also had a chance to meet the delightful Catherine Hicks at a convention in Burbank back in 2013. Sweet lady with a beaming smile. We talked a bit about her playing Marilyn Monroe in theTV movie “Marilyn: The Untold Story” (1980). In the film, Hicks captured both the innocence and sadness of the late movie star, and she seemed to really enjoy talking about the role. She told me she didn’t do many conventions and wasn’t even sure how largely to sign her autograph. It was all very new to her, and she was somewhat taken aback by the enduring popularity of her role as Dr. Gillian Taylor (still can’t imagine Eddie Murphy in that role, however differently written…). I really enjoyed talking with her.
I’ve met other stars of Star Trek, including Nichelle Nichols, whom I’ve met several times, in San Diego, Las Vegas and in Los Angeles. Such a grand lady. While I’m saddened that she’s retired from doing conventions (due to various health issues), I’m just grateful that I’ve had opportunities to meet this lovely woman, and that I can share those encounters here on this site. A friend of mine recently met her last summer at the annual Star Trek Vegas convention, and I loved seeing him geek out over meeting her as well.
STIV would be the first Star Trek movie that managed to break out into the mainstream (a feat not repeated until 2009’s “Star Trek”). Suddenly even non-Trekkies talked around water coolers about “the one with the whales.” In a decade full of popular movies about various fish-out-of-water (“Beverly Hills Cop,” “Crocodile Dundee,” “Red Heat,” “Twins,” “Moscow on the Hudson”), “Star Trek IV” fit right in. Despite its mainstream popularity, the film was no less Star Trek, either. STIV managed to steer away from the heavier, black-hat sagas of the previous two (and subsequent) Star Trek movies and told a genuine science fiction story.
Screenwriters Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer (both of whom were longtime good luck charms for the Trek franchise) crafted a deft screenplay about contemporary species extinction and its possible effect on future ecological balance, which was precisely the kind of story Star Trek might’ve done back in the 1960s (time & money permitting, of course). Key to the movie’s success was that it also brought back much of the humor we saw in the original series as well. The humor sold the heavier ecological message, and the result was a popular sci-fi crowd pleaser that works just as well as a mainstream comedy, but without compromising its integrity. “The Voyage Home” was, and is Star Trek “firing on all thrusters.”
“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” is available for streaming on CBS All Access & Tubi TV in the United States, and for rental on Prime Video, YouTube ($2.99 US). It can, of course, also be purchased on Blu Ray/DVD via contact-free shipping through Amazon.com, among other retailers.
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic as well. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is nearing 182, 000 as of this writing (that number is increasing daily). So, for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid crowded outings as much as possible.
Live long and prosper!
27 Comments Add yours
Star Trek IV is one of my favourites in the whole series. Its such a fun, feel good sci-fi adventure, and a wonderful story as well. So great you got to meet so many of the stars at conventions, must have been awesome to see them in person. Glad to hear you are well. The COVID 19 situation is far from over, here in the UK our government continues to bumble their way through things, and the information / guidelines seems to change every day at the moment. Take care and be safe.
Glad you’re okay as well, Paul. 🙏
And yes, things haven’t exactly been rosy under our current government, either (no secret that I’m not a Trump fan).
And yes, I’d almost forgotten what an unbridled joy this movie was, especially in times such as these!
Live long and prosper Paul! 🖖🏼
Very nice write-up. ST IV is not my favorite movie installment, but it’s still a good movie.
I don’t know, I always thought that “See you around the galaxy” line fit Catherine Hicks’ character perfectly.
By the way, I’ve always been confused about the precise relationship between Starfleet and the Federation myself. Sometimes I think the people in charge of the TV show / movies are *also* a bit uncertain about it!
Great article in remembrance of a great movie. What do you think the point of the transparent aluminum guy saying “Not now, Madeline!!!” was? I’ve seen the movie so many times and it always sticks out to me.
It’s such a throwaway moment, but I always assumed they were having a workplace affair.
And thanks so much for reading. 🙏
That’s what I thought, but if you read the novelization, she’s bringing news that the research team has just discovered how to make transparent aluminum … meaning Dr. Marcus Nichols didn’t have to make his deal with Scotty.
I have the novelization, but it’s been a good 30-odd years since I’ve read it (it’s in my garage…somewhere). Thanks for the refresher (and the context)!
Thanks for this! It makes sense that Madeline would be of course telling him that they have just discovered transparent aluminum, so Scotty wouldn’t end up robbing the ACTUAL person who came up with the idea already in the past. A little TOO snug a tie of a loose end if you ask me, but ok. Good to finally know.
Also, you know what doesn’t hold up for me, is when Kirk says, the novels of Jacquelin Susann, and Spock says, “The greats”. That seemed like an easy laugh and a wink to the audience that Spock was being sarcastic. Maybe next century those books become revered, but it was a little bit if a stretch as well.
Actually Spock referred to them as “the giants” as in, giants of literature.
I assume Spock was being literal, which I took as a wry comment on how often mediocre art/books/movies + time = classics.
I remember being in college when this movie came out, and a friend told me he had tickets to a club in NYC where the cast members would be appearing. We made the 4 hour drive to NYC, worked out how to gain entrance to a bar as under-aged students, and patiently waited for our chance to meet the cast. Few people were there, and a projector showed stills from the movie on the back wall. We asked the manager when the cast would be appearing, and he said, “There they are.”, pointing to the images on the back wall. My head nodded slowly as I understood what he was saying, and a gullible, naive side of me died forever.
My friend DID say helpfully and optimistically on the way back to school, “Well, the ticket didn’t say in what FORM they would be appearing.”
Thanks again for your well written homage. I have your nostalgia, I’m glad your dad liked the whale movie, and it was a great time to be a Star Trek fan,
Love that story! Thanks for sharing it! 😊🖖🏼
They did write a post ST IV book about the probe and the civilization that sent it. It was called “Probe.” Worth reading. One of the better TOS books.
Thanks for that heads up! I’m going to take a look.
I’ve only read about a dozen or so Star Trek novels but I will seek that one out.
ST:IV isn’t my favorite Star Trek movie, but it certainly is special to me, as I played the Plexicorp helicopter pilot. The company had rented the helicopter and painted it with temporary paint. But when the shoot day came, it rained, so the production company had me stay overnight at a hotel close to the location. I was invited to have dinner with the crew and had the honor of eating Mexican food at a table for four with James Doohan, DeForest Kelley and George Takei. The next day, I was directed by Leonard Nimoy in the scene. So, yeah, pretty special.
Oh my goodness!
I’m very pleased to hear from someone who worked on the film. That is an amazing and very special story and I sincerely thank you for sharing it!
Surprised you did not reference Kirk “tasting beer” for (obviously) the first time at the pizza joint. Pretty much what MY face looked like at age 12 when I first sampled it. Classic facial expression for what is an “acquired taste”. I assume beer is neither available nor replicated in the future.
We’ve seen Kirk drink alcohol (including “powerful” Romulan ale). For me, that moment was lost among dozens of other great moments; the movie is an embarrassment of riches.