This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.
Up until the release of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek in 2009, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was the most successful of the Star Trek films. Indeed, it ranks alongside Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as the film which has most deeply dug itself into the popular consciousness. “I’m from Iowa; I only work in outer space” might not be as iconic a quote as “KHAAAAAAN!!!”, but a lot of people casually remember “the one with the whales.”
The fourth film in the series closes off an inter-connected trilogy of Star Trek films, wrapping up character development for the leads and tying up loose ends, but it’s also – somewhat paradoxically – the most accessible of the movies. If you’re looking for an introduction to Star Trek, it’s hard to think of a more welcoming entry than The Voyage Home. However, what’s really strangely charming about The Voyage Home is that it’s also probably the film truest to the franchise’s humanist values.
After all, the original Star Trek prided itself on its social commentary, to the point where some of its most memorable and best-loved episodes are metaphors for the concerns of the time. Hard-core Star Trek fans might cite the anti-war message of Balance of Terror or the Vietnam parallels of Errand of Mercy, but even casual fans can point to “that one with the guys who are half-white and half-black against those who are half-black and half-white.”
As such, doing an entire film around a social issue seems like a fairly effective way to capture the spirit of the television show. The series had already demonstrated a sympathy for the environmentalist movement. The Devil in the Dark is a beautiful piece of television concerned with the exploitation of natural resources, and it aired just over two years before UNESCO would organise the first “Earth Day.”
Of course, times had radically changed since the broadcast of The Devil in the Dark. Greenpeace had developed from its origins among the peace and anti-nuclear movements in Canada during the 1960s to a massive global organisation protesting against the exploitation of nature. While the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s might have diminished, the Reagan administration’s environmental policies had made environmental protection an issue for an increasing number of Americans:
However, other citizen environmental groups did respond to the Reagan Administration’s challenge to prove their depth and persistence. These groups mobilized and joined together in opposition to Administration policies. A 1981 Harris poll illustrates this point, finding that some eighty-percent of Americans favored either maintaining the Clean Air Act or making it stricter. Moreover, by the late 1980s, grassroots organizations emerged that were critical of mainstream environmental groups’ issue-by-issue strategy.
Massive inroads were made on issues of environmental importance. In 1987, the year following the release of The Voyage Home, the Montreal Protocol was signed by 190 countries, undertaking to eliminate or restrict the use of chemicals damaging the ozone. Although there are questions about the politics and efficiency of the agreement, July 1982 saw the International Whaling Commission agree a moratorium on whaling that would come into effect in 1986. All of which is just a way of illustrating that the environmentalism of The Voyage Home was very much of the time.
Of course, there’s another very obvious way that the movie feels like the most faithful feature film adaptation of the television show. As Leonard Nimoy notes on the film’s commentary, The Voyage Home doesn’t really have a “big bad” in the style of Khan, Kruge or even V’ger:
We decided it was time to lighten up and have some fun – go for a straightforward adventure, without a heavy. There was to be no heavy in this movie, no bad person that we had to deal with. We’d done a lot of episodes in which there was no bad person. There were circumstances – unpredictable or unacknowledged situations coming up; social issues, issue that had to do with ecology, population, racial issues. Situations where there wasn’t necessarily a perpetrator – or a heavy – who was causing the problem.
Even now, The Voyage Home stands out as the only Star Trek film without a clear antagonist. The whale probe provides the necessary threat and scale, but our protagonists never directly engage or interact with it. Indeed, Spock makes an argument that the probe is not necessarily malicious.
“An unknown form of energy of great power and intelligence,” he deduces. “Evidently unaware that its transmissions are disruptive. I find it illogical that its intentions could be hostile.” The movie doesn’t end with Kirk reasoning with the probe or the Enterprise blasting it to hell. Instead, it just wanders off into the darkness of space, presumably to continue its long-term pen pal relationship with Earth’s whales. (The shot of both the whales and the probes going vertical to demonstrate they are in contact is an inspired touch from Nimoy, conveying all that need to be said without awkward subtitles or forced exposition.)
The film doesn’t labour the point too heavily, but the whale probe works well as an effective metaphor for the movie’s environmental subtext. Like mankind’s decision to hunt whales, the probe’s attempt to communicate is not specifically or intentionally designed to damage the planet. The harm caused to Earth’s atmosphere is an accidental side-effect of a thoughtless action, rather than the carefully-plotted consequence of some malicious plot.
The Voyage Home feels designed to welcome new viewers, despite the fact that it’s half-an-hour before the crew arrive back on Earth. In Europe, the movie had its title and subtitle reversed in a bid to reel in casual movie goers – it was advertised as The Voyage Home: Star Trek IV. William Shatner recorded a three-and-a-half minute voice-over introduction hoping to bring neophytes up to speed with the events of the previous two films. “Stardate 8031 in the 23rd century,” he begins, making it clear that the snippet is intended for the most casual of viewers.
The decision to send the Enterprise back to modern-day Earth seems a nod to this accessibility, an attempt to make the characters more relatable to audiences by placing them in a contemporary setting. Let’s ignore just how contrived the time travel plot is. After all, Kirk’s trip back in time here is treated as casually as it is in Assignment: Earth. In the commentary with Nimoy, Shatner makes a compelling argument about how time travel plots undercut dramatic tension.
After all, if time travel is readily available, what’s to stop the heroes from using to resolve the latest deadly situation? If it’s appropriate to use time travel to save the Earth this one time, why isn’t it acceptable to go back in time and prevent the disastrous first contact with the Klingons? Or to prevent the loss of life from the V’Ger incident? Or even to save the life of David’s son? Nipping back in time to pick up a whale is a get out of jail free card, and one which feels like lazy plotting.
However, there are two reasons that this isn’t a bigger flaw with the adventure. Most obviously, the probe exists as a plot point to justify the trip back in time. The adventure in 1986 is the point of The Voyage Home. So it’s impossible for the idea of nipping back to the past to pick up a couple of whales to undermine dramatic tension or serve as a deus ex machina. The probe was only written into the script to provide a context for the trip back in time. Without the trip, the plot wouldn’t involve the probe.
It helps that the screenplay all but admits how convenient the situation is. McCoy, the franchise’s snarkiest lead, calls attention to how bizarre the situation is, and how weird Kirk’s response to it is. “I’d prefer a dose of common sense,” he comments. “You are proposing to head backwards in time, find humpback whales, then bring them forward in time, drop them off, and hope to hell they tell this Probe what to do with itself!”
Giving McCoy that succinct and cynical summary of the situation, the movie provides any potential critics with a handy summary of the basic problems with the movie’s narrative logic. In doing so, it does a lot to disarm that criticism, just as Kirk’s rather simple response does. Confronted with that matter-of-fact analysis of the situation, James T. Kirk glibly responds, “That’s the general idea.” That’s the moment at which the film essentially forces the audience to buy into the premise or to respond with glib cynicism. All the cards are on the table. This is what it is.
It’s a very clever and very honest little trick, and one which I’d argue pays off. The Voyage Home has gaps in its narrative logic that are on par with those featured in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. However, The Voyage Home is a lot more honest about these problems, and a lot more willing to concede them to the audience. There’s a charm to Leonard Nimoy’s film which is entirely absent from Shatner’s work on The Final Frontier.
Indeed, that difference is most apparent in the way the two directors approach humour the humour in their Star Trek films. Both The Voyage Home and The Final Frontier mock the cast, but Nimoy tends to be somewhat good-natured. Admitting that Chekov’s accent is somewhat wonky is hardly biting criticism, and Spock’s difficulty with profanity is rooted in an in-character attempt to blend in to his surroundings. In contrast, The Final Frontier has Scotty walking into a girder. On his own ship.
The Voyage Home makes much of the fish-out-of-water antics of our leads as they wander around San Francisco. It’s worth noting just how brilliant it was to root Star Trek in San Francisco. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country would make Paris the capital of the Federation, which is not a bad choice, but Gene Roddenberry (or Alan Dean Foster) made an inspired choice to base the fictional Starfleet in San Francisco back in The Motion Picture.
Rather pointedly, the show steers clear of situating Starfleet Headquarters in other major cities. Starfleet is not based out the United States seat of government in Washington D.C. Interestingly, Future’s End would reveal that California’s other major city – Los Angeles – was effectively washed into the sea at some point in the future of Star Trek. Given that Star Trek was written and produced in Los Angeles, make of that what you will.
It’s a clever choice, given San Francisco’s association with tolerance. The city also played host to 1967’s “summer of love”, and thus become associated with the idealism of the sixties, “the world capital of the hippie revolution.” As such, it makes the perfect home for Star Trek, a show very much anchored in that particular time period. Indeed, one of the joys of The Voyage Home is the way that the crew wind up so unstuck in time.
Partially because they are time travelers from the 23rd century, but also because they are relics of the sixties. When Kirk is asked to concoct a cover story for Spock, he doesn’t fall back on the “mechanical rich-picker” story from The City on the Edge of Forever. Instead, he explicitly identifies Spock as something of a hold over from an earlier period – “part of the Free Speech movement at Berkeley.”
The Voyage Home isn’t just about Kirk and his crew revisiting an older version of Earth. It’s also about a bunch of relics from a cancelled sixties television show entering the modern world. The first conversation we overhear in San Francisco in 1986 isn’t plot-driven exposition, it’s a naturalistic conversation about a failing marriage. “You don’t mean to tell me you two were fighting again,” one garbage man remarks to another. “I thought you made it up with her last night. Why are you two always fighting?”
The problems facing Kirk and his crew aren’t those of fish out of temporal water. They are out of unreal characters who have somehow wandered into the real world – admittedly a corner of the world that is so unreal nobody notices the strange outfits the crew are wearing. Tellingly, one of the first problems facing Kirk and his ensemble is the use of language – in particular, swearing.
“Your use of language has altered since our arrival,” Spock remarks. “It is currently laced with, …shall I say, …more colourful metaphors. ‘Double dumb ass on you’ …and so forth.” Kirk helpfully explains, “You mean profanity. That’s simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you if you don’t swear every other word.” Profanity isn’t an alien concept in the future. After all, The City on the Edge of Forever ended with Kirk employing the phrase “the hell.” Clearly people of the future know how to swear.
(A fact backed up by both Data in Star Trek: Generations, the run of Star Trek: Enterprise and even JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. These adventures just had the luxury of being produced in an era that was more tolerant towards harsh language in popular entertainment. Given how prone movie-era McCoy was to refer to Spock as a “green-blooded son of a bitch”, one suspects that the classic show would have done it as well, if it could get away with it.)
Indeed, history indicates that current swear words have existed for over a millennium, so it’s unlikely we’d completely eliminate them in a few centuries. The only way that the crew’s lack of comfort with swearing makes sense is as refugees from sixties televisions, perhaps the only place in the universe where swearing was unlikely to exist. Kirk even draws attention to how censored television was as compared to other media. The crew on a sixties television sci-fi show might not know swear words, but – he assures Spock – “you’ll find it in all the literature of the period.”
In a way, this feels very appropriate. The Voyage Home is the end of what has been a long journey for the crew, from a fringe science-fiction television show screwed over by a network unaware of what it had to a genuine pop culture sensation. This is about these sixties characters literally reconnecting with an audience. The Voyage Home might not have been intended as such, but it makes for a pretty compelling homecoming.
It’s strange, given how accessible the film is to casual viewers, but The Voyage Home also serves as the closing installment of the franchise’s first experiments with serialisation. The television show was entirely episodic, with the only two-parter serving as a desperate attempt to buy time by sandwiching the original unaired pilot between some hastily-written scenes in The Menagerie. Plot threads rarely dangled, guest characters seldom returned. There weren’t really any large over-arching plots and threads, and each adventure was self-contained.
In contrast, the movies were surprisingly interconnected. The Voyage Home picks up off story threads in The Wrath of Khan, bringing that movie’s themes about age and maturity a full circle. Beyond the obvious daisy chain of cause and effect linking the installment, The Voyage Home even features a small scene where Kirk pawns the reading glasses McCoy gave him. It’s an effective symbolic scene. The glasses represented Kirk’s insecurity with the fact that he was aging.
So allowing Kirk to get rid of the glasses suggests that he has made his peace with that, bringing us a full circle. Kirk receiving the glasses is feeling old and useless. Kirk giving the glasses away is dynamic and useful. It’s a touch that’s easy to miss, with the movie never really signposting the significance of the glasses, but it does bring everything around, closing off any lingering questions left by The Wrath of Khan.
It’s also one of the movie’s wryer time travel gags. When Spock points out they were a gift, Kirk responds, “And they will be again, that’s the beauty of it.” This seems to suggest that these are the same pair, and that McCoy gave Kirk the glasses that Kirk pawned in 1986. It’s a small, understated touch, and it’s the only point where the film dares to get bogged down in the mechanics of time travel. After all, The Voyage Home is the lightest of the films, but it’s still nice to know that there were at least some metaphysical thoughts going on. I’m also fond of the weird time travel sequence, which seems to owe some small debt to Diane Duane’s transwarp sequences in The Wounded Sky.
In fact, The Voyage Home is engaged with big philosophical questions. Despite the fact it’s a comedy, it’s arguably more preoccupied with the grand mysteries of the universe than either of its two direct predecessors, and in a way that is far more engaging than The Motion Picture. Spock’s return from the dead, treated as a plot point in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, becomes a character arc driven by existential questions. McCoy even raises the point that the franchise should be more preoccupied with the implications of that journey, dropping the show’s tagline into conversation.
“Perhaps we could cover a little philosophical ground?” McCoy asks, as if that’s something the franchise should get back to after all these action thrillers and chase sequences. “Life, Death, Life. Things of that nature?” When Spock hesitates, McCoy probes further. “Come on Spock, it’s me, McCoy! You really have gone where no man has gone before. Can’t you tell me what it felt like?” The Voyage Home seems to recognise that journey of these characters is as compelling as any trip to the stars.
Spock’s response to his existential dilemma is more powerful than watching Kirk wrestle a lizard man. Kirk accepting himself and growing old disgracefully is as gripping as a showdown with the Klingons. I’d argue, somewhat controversially, that the characters of the original Star Trek only truly developed on the big screen. The Wrath of Khan is the most insightful look at Kirk in the series, and even The Voyage Home is firmly anchored in Spock’s journey back to himself.
Despite the laughter and comedy, the quick wit and the wonderful timing, the audience invests in Spock’s attempts to figure out who he is. The movie’s big character moments come when Spock decides to trust his instinct (above logic) in getting the crew home (“guessing is not in my nature”) and when Spock sides with McCoy that the crew must go back for Chekov. “Is that the logical thing to do, Spock?” Kirk asks. Spock responds, “No, but is the human thing to do.”
The movie even finally pays off the relationship between Spock and Sarek, hinted at back in Journey to Babel. Sarek came pretty close to admitting his love for his son in The Search for Spock, and there’s a lovely little scene in The Voyage Home where the two meet at the end. It’s an example of how skilfully The Voyage Home builds off what came before, developing character relationships beyond what they had been in earlier installments.
“It was most kind of you to make this effort,” Spock greets his father, giving us a taste of just how dysfunctional their dynamic must be. Indeed, it’s implied this is the first long conversation the two have had since Spock’s resurrection – suggesting that despite Sarek’s confession in The Search for Spock, he’s never opened up to his son. It’s perfectly in character for the pair, and it’s easy to imagine Sarek justifying the decision to run off to Earth rather than to remain with his son in a fragile state.
However, Sarek’s response is touching, and more candid (and almost emotional) than we’d expect. “It was not an effort,” he states. “You are my son. Besides, I am most impressed with your performance in this crisis.” He adds, “As I recall, I opposed your enlistment in Starfleet. It is possible that judgment was incorrect. Your associates are people of good character.” Mark Lenard does a phenomenal job making it clear just how big a deal this admission is from Sarek.
Keeping his performance tight, he makes it clear that Sarek is practically having an emotional breakdown. This might read like a perfectly cordial conversation, but it’s a Vulcan heart-to-heart. The franchise got very lucky in casting Leonard Nimoy, but Mark Lenard was a lovely catch as well. He manages to say so much while saying so little, conveying so much while remaining poised and dignified. Even his early underplayed rebuke to the Klingon Ambassador is masterfully played, as Lenard subtly forces ground from a bombastic co-star.
The Voyage Home neatly encapsulates Spock’s character development for the films, started back with The Motion Picture. Spock’s character arc has been learning to embrace his human side, rather than burying it. While the show would use Spock’s repression as a means of generating story, the show was quite content to have Spock play the emotionless rational foil to McCoy’s raw humanity. The films charted Spock a character arc where he struggled to reconcile the humanity inside himself, with “how do you feel?” becoming a crucial question.
In many ways, he feels like a prototype of Data, although it’s worth noting that Spock surrogate Xon from the aborted Phase II was originally planned to have a similar arc, where Kirk and McCoy would educate him in the humanities. It feels like the franchise is becoming a bit less comfortable with Spock’s detached rationality, perhaps explaining the shift in the portrayal of Vulcan characters which would begin in earnest with The Undiscovered Country and continue through to Enterprise, where their cold logic was a distinctly negative attribute.
The evidence of serialised storytelling can be seen elsewhere. Although the film glosses over Saavik’s crucial role in the previous two films, she gets a small cameo here to prove that the crew haven’t completely forgotten about her. Many characters – even minor ones – recur. Brock Peters shows up as Admiral Cartwright, who would turn up again in The Undiscovered Country with a much larger role. The Klingon Ambassador foreshadows The Undiscovered Country by making reference to negotiations between the Federation and the Klingons.
“There shall be no peace as long as Kirk lives!” he vows, making it appropriate that Kirk’s final adventure, barring a postscript with the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation sees that peace finally arrive. In many ways, The Undiscovered Country feels like the successor or the coda to this middle-trilogy of Star Trek films, and I can’t help but suspect that one of the many problems with The Final Frontier is how bizarrely episodic it feels.
After spending so much time building and developing the universe, making a film where Spock suddenly has an evil brother and there are Klingons because a Star Trek film has to have Klingons. The Final Frontier feels so casual as to be throwaway, losing sight of the work don e by the previous three films to provide texture and weight to the world inhabited by the characters. Even the generic villain Kruge in The Search for Spock contextualised his actions as part of an intergalactic arms race.
Speaking of world-building, I like the few shots of the Federation Council. It seems rather cramped and small – for some reason, I remember it larger – but it’s populated by a diverse range of aliens. It calls to mind the work done in The Motion Picture to establish the Federation as a truly diverse political entity. I can’t help but wonder if the reaction shots of strange-looking aliens here might have inspired some of Abrams’ throwaway alien shots in his Star Trek reboot.
It’s also interesting how The Voyage Home cements the idea, established in The Search for Spock, that the movies are more ensemble adventures than the television show ever was. While many of the cast were glorified extras for most of the show’s run, The Voyage Home finds room to give almost every character something to do. McCoy gets to act indignant at the state of Earth medicine. Scotty gets to discover a computer. Chekov searches for “nuclear wessels” and gets captured. Even though a scene with Sulu and his great-great-grandfather was cut, he still gets to fly a helicopter.
Only Uhura is really left out, with Nichelle Nichols sidelined again. Unfortunately, there’s nothing quite as fun as her “Mr. Adventure” scene to help make up for her fairly minor role. Nichols was the performer who got the least development and exposure of the original cast. Most of her best moments are relatively small, and it’s a shame that she also feels somewhat left out of the action here. Then again, the movie works so hard to allocate time to the rest of the cast that it’s hard to fault it too much. The Final Frontier would suffer from an attempt to tighten the reins a bit too much.
The Voyage Home feels like a triumphant return for the Enterprise crew, and perhaps a triumphant return for the franchise. The movie was a massive success. Nimoy was asked to take the film to Russia with the World Wildlife Fund. He followed the film up with Three Men and a Baby, the first feature film he directed outside the franchise. The movie’s financial success encouraged Paramount to take a chance with reviving the franchise for television. Indeed, Nimoy’s success in the director’s chair inspired Shatner to try his hand at directing (and probably even encouraged the studio to let him).
It’s appropriate that the movie was released on the twentieth anniversary of the series, and that it features the crew of the Enterprise introducing themselves to modern America. The history of Star Trek had been quite rocky to this point. It had been cancelled and saved and cancelled again, all shortly before American landed on the moon. A television revival was planned and then scrapped, the pilot expanded into a feature film that made money but left the studio and critics cold.
There had been behind the scenes turmoil. Shatner had made enemies among the cast. Nimoy had repeated tried to distance himself from it. Gene Roddenberry would clash furiously with director Nicholas Meyer over the films and there’s suspicion that Roddenberry was involved in the leaks that plagued The Wrath of Khan and helped ferment fandom frustration in the lead-up to the film’s release. The behind the scenes staff had changed completely in the twenty-year history of the franchise. It’s hard to imagine that, even four years ago, Star Trek would have been able to produce something that was simultaneously as celebratory and as accessible as The Voyage Home.
And that’s the weird beauty of The Voyage Home, nestled in this wacky time travel adventure. It’s the movie which feels most obviously and most deeply like Star Trek. It’s not driven by an antagonist, but by big ideas and character dynamics and high concepts. As much as I might prefer The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home feels more firmly connected to the television show. And it does this while still remaining something that can appeal to casual movie-goers, demonstrating that the ideas of Star Trek were far from outdated.
Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture
- Supplemental: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor by John Byrne
- Supplemental: Ex Machina by Christopher L. Bennett
- Supplemental: Crucible – Spock: The Fire and the Rose by David R. George III
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
- Supplemental: Space Seed
- Supplemental: Reign in Hell: The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh by Greg Cox
- Supplemental: Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #7-8 – Saavik’s Story
- Supplemental: The Pandora Principle by Carolyn Clowes
- Supplemental: Myriad Universes – Echoes and Refractions: The Chimes at Midnight by Geoff Trowbridge
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
- Supplemental: The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual (FASA)
- Supplemental: Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #28 – The Last Word
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
- Supplemental: Star Trek Special #1 (DC Comics, 1994) – The Needs of the One
- Supplemental: Unspoken Truth by Margaret Wander Bonanno
- Supplemental: Music of the Spheres by Margaret Wander Bonanno
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
- Supplemental: The Ashes of Eden by William Shatner et al (DC Comics)
- Supplemental: Dwellers in the Crucible by Margaret Wander Bonanno
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
- Supplemental: In the Name of Honour by Dayton Ward
- Supplemental: Star Trek Special #2 (DC Comics, 1994) – A Question of Loyalty
- Supplemental: Excelsior – Forged in Fire by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels
- Supplemental: Shadows on the Sun by Michael Jan Friedman
- Supplemental: Cast no Shadow by James Swallow
- Epilogue: Star Trek: Generations
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews | Tagged: Devil in the Dark, Errand of Mercy, International Whaling Commission, Jane Wyatt, kirk, Leonard Nimoy, Montreal Protocol, Pon Farr, Saavik, Sarek, science fiction, spock, star trek, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, star trek iv the voyage home, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, star trek: the original series, United States, Voyage Home, William Shatner |