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Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’

I trust I am not revealing too many secrets of the scrivener’s craft if I briefly tweak the curtain aside and reveal that some things are easier to write than others. Give me something truly awful, misconceived, or objectionable to review, and I am as happy as can be; the thing about Hampstead practically wrote itself. Something a bit more indifferent – or, even worse, boring – and it can be quite hard work getting my thoughts in order, or even finding enough to say. Worst of all can be writing about something which seems really good, or which I really like (not always the same thing, of course) – how to avoid just a string of ‘this bit is really good… this bit is also really good… this bit is really good too’?

I mention all this because we are about to look at Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which was for quite a few years my favourite of the series (since displaced by The Wrath of Khan), and which remains to this day not just my father’s favourite Star Trek movie but almost certainly his favourite science-fiction film, full stop (his absolute favourite film of any kind may be The Muppet Christmas Carol, which he will happily sit down to watch on a broiling August afternoon). ‘The one with the whales’ is how it is known in my parents’ house, which is as good a description as any, I suppose.

Nevertheless I feel it is incumbent upon me to look at Star Trek IV with a slightly more objective eye than I have customarily done in the past, hopefully not just to be critical for its own sake, but to see what makes this film so distinctive and a bit of a landmark for the series.

This movie was released in 1986 and, like its predecessor, was directed by Leonard Nimoy. To be honest, it gets off to a slightly rattly start: the action opens a few months after the end of Star Trek III, and finds an alien probe of immense power heading directly for Earth (again), swatting aside all resistance and generally causing consternation and outright panic. On Earth, the Klingon Ambassador is demanding Kirk’s extradition for crimes against the Empire (this is a decent scene, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the movie). Kirk (William Shatner) and the rest of the gang are still holed up on Vulcan (or possibly, to judge from the hats, in Tibet) getting ready to fly home in their captured Klingon vessel, because apparently Starfleet can’t send a ship to Vulcan to collect them.

(Hmmm. I mean, hmmm. In four out of the first five Star Trek movies, the plot is driven by the fact that Starfleet ‘doesn’t have any other ships in the area’. Just how big a fleet is this? Exactly how enormous is Federation territory, if Starfleet is always spread so thin? It compares very oddly with latter episodes of Deep Space 9, admittedly set about a century later, in which dozens of Starfleet ships routinely appear.)

Oh well. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is almost back to his old self, though perhaps a little flakey (and Harve Bennett, who wrote this section of the film, appears to be under the impression that pure-blood Vulcans don’t have emotions at all, rather than exercising control over them). Nevertheless he decides to go back to Earth with everyone else. Inevitably, news of the probe’s attack on Earth causes a change of plan. (Apparently Leningrad is back on the maps in the late 23rd century – maybe all those complaints that the Federation is a communist superstate are true.) Spock figures out that the alien probe is trying to talk to humpback whales (the Klingon ship’s databanks are remarkably detailed when it comes to Terran marine biology), which were wiped out centuries earlier, and comes up with a somewhat outlandish plan.

You’re proposing that we go backwards in time, find humpback whales, then bring them foward in time, drop ’em off, and hope to Hell they tell this probe what to do with itself! That’s crazy!’ cries Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley). Nevertheless, that’s what the script has been setting up (in its own, somewhat contrived way) and so back they zap to San Francisco in the mid 1980s. Save the whales – save the planet!

The meat and heart of the film is the visit to the present day by Kirk and the gang. As you might expect, the general tone is rather comic, with various scenes of the Trek regulars being baffled by public transport, profanity, the attitudes of the locals, and so on. The 20th century portion of the film is written by Nicholas Meyer, who had form with this sort of thing, having written Time After Time, another time-travel adventure story set in contemporary San Francisco, a few years earlier.

Apparently the general intention from the start was to ‘do something nice’, and the decision to play much of the film for laughs may well have been influenced by the fact that for part of its development, this film was going to star Eddie Murphy alongside the Star Trek regulars. Quite why this never happened is a little unclear – some sources indicate Murphy wanted to play a Starfleet officer or an alien, others suggest that the studio realised that releasing a Star Trek film and an Eddie Murphy film would be more profitable than a single movie┬ácombining of the two brands. In the end the Murphy character ended up being re-gendered and played by Catherine Hicks, who does as well as anyone in the thankless role of Trek movie guest character/love interest.

Much of what goes on is genuinely funny, even today, with everyone involved clearly having a – hmmm – whale of a time (well, George Takei was apparently distraught when an uncooperative child actor meant his big scene in the movie had to be abandoned). The movie continues the trend, which began in the previous film, for Star Trek to now be specifically focused on these seven characters as a group, rather than Kirk and Spock, or the voyages of the Enterprise. And it works well, even if Meyer arguably pushes it in search of the laughs he’s clearly going for. The crew’s familiarity with 20th century idiomatic English is preposterously selective, given that’s basically what they’ve been speaking for the previous three movies and seventy-odd TV episodes – although I suppose most of the jokes are at the expense of the slightly-addled Spock (Chekov is still slightly too much of a dipstick to be credible). The problem, of course, turned out to be that the studio got the impression that cramming jokes into their Star Trek movies was a sure-fire boost for their box office, which would prove to be bad news for Star Treks V and VI.

In the end the film is so good-natured and funny, and its general message about saving the whale so unexceptionable, that it would take a titanic effort of will not to cut the film some slack and enjoy it on its own terms. (Even if the music, by Leonard Rosenman, is not even close to James Horner’s standards.) And there is a pleasing sense of the world returning to its proper state at the ending, with Captain Kirk back on the bridge, his friends around him, new adventures awaiting a new Enterprise.

Of course, new adventures were awaiting a new Enterprise, only not this one, and not for this crew. It was a few weeks before the release of Star Trek IV that Paramount announced the production of what would eventually become Star Trek: The Next Generation, the long-term popularity of the series now seemingly proven (and, apparently, a new crew of unknown actors being a more appealing prospect than the ever-more-expensive Shatner and Nimoy). The next six films in the series would all be released into a world in which Star Trek was back on TV, and perhaps it’s no surprise that they feel less cinematic, more narratively constrained, than the first three or four films in the series. I still feel that II, III, and IV are the highpoint of the Trek movie series, simply because they are Star Trek when it manages to be very true to itself, and yet also truly cinematic. The Voyage Home may be the most indulgent and soft-centred of any of them, but that doesn’t make it any less likeable.

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