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Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home by Vonda N. McIntyre (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

Comedy doesn’t always translate well between different media. That’s not to suggest that comedy works better in one medium as compared to others, merely to contend that certain forms of comedy don’t translate perfectly between different media. It works any number of ways. Something that is funny in sound and vision is not necessarily hilarious in prose. Gags relying on delivery might play better with a seasoned performer than in the mind’s eye of a reader. Witty prose doesn’t always lend itself to narration or articulation on film.

Much of Star Trek IV: The Voyager Home plays as broad farce, following a bunch of time-travelers from the future (and refugees from television land) as they try to interact with the real world. The movie does have some wonderful character moments – notably Spock’s character arc that beautifully brings him a full circle and Kirk’s relationship with Spock – but it also plays the Star Trek ensemble in a highly caricatured manner, more as archetypes than fully-realised three-dimensional characters.

This is grand. After all, these are fictional characters rather than real people. After all stories are more than just excerpts from the biographies of fictional characters. While it’s nice to have consistent characterisation, suggesting that you can’t have Kirk and Spock acting in an exaggerated fashion for the sake of comedy is a very narrow and restrictive view of what Star Trek is or should be.

The Voyage Home gets the big character beats right – Spock’s insistence that the crew rescue Chekov, Kirk convincing Gillian to trust him, Spock “guessing” – that we can excuse the crew’s lack of awareness about a time period they have visited before and the general flippancy of the movie itself. The novelisation, however, is another matter. Vonda N. McIntyre clearly cares a great deal about the characters. That was one of the strengths of her work on the novelisations of the last two films. Here, however, McIntyre struggles to balance that with the tone of the story.

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McIntyre’s characterisation is one of the highlights of her trilogy of movie adaptations. Taking advantage of the space afforded by a prose adaptation, McIntyre was able to develop characters in ways that simply weren’t possible in major blockbuster motion pictures. Some of these scenes had been included in the original scripts, but cut from the finished motion picture. Some of them McIntyre invented wholesale.

In her novelisation of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we get to spend more time on board Regula I, so the staff aren’t just a bunch of random people murdered to demonstrate Khan is a pretty big deal. In her novelisation of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, we get to know David a bit better before he is killed off unceremoniously, and we get to hear Carol Marcus put Kirk in his place after a wake for all the people lost during Khan’s rampage.

These are nice additions, scenes that add a bit of depth and nuance to the films. While the three Star Trek films have a relatively tight continuity – each film picking up from where the last left off and all three forming an arc about reuniting the crew and putting them on the Enterprise – McIntyre worked hard to reconcile the little thematic inconsistencies that existed between them. Her novelisation of The Search for Spock isn’t a reversal of the criticisms that The Wrath of Khan makes about Kirk as much as a slight tempering of them.

However, McIntyre runs into bigger problems with The Voyage Home. These problems are largely down to the fact that McIntyre seems to be writing a trilogy of interconnected character-driven novels, rather than simply translating three blockbuster sequels into prose. For example, Carol Marcus only appeared on screen in The Wrath of Khan, but McIntyre features her rather heavily in The Search for Spock and gives her an appearance at the start of The Voyage Home.

McIntyre’s decision to carry the funeral and wake from the end of The Wrath of Khan into the start of The Search for Spock works quite well. It does a lot to remind the reader that Spock wasn’t the only casualty of Khan’s rampage and to suggest that some of the criticisms that The Wrath of Khan made of James T. Kirk are as valid as ever. He is somewhat self-centred and short-sighted. However, the decision to open The Voyage Home with Carol Marcus receiving the news about the death of David Marcus sets an awkward tone for the novel.

From a character perspective, the scene can be justified quite readily. Kirk’s actions have indirectly resulted in the murder of his own son. While The Voyage Home is an even more triumphant film than The Search for Spock – in that it ends with Kirk getting an Enterprise and getting sent back into the field – it’s perfectly reasonable to remind the reader that Kirk’s happy ending came at a pretty high cost. While Kirk barely knew David, his mother is never seen or mentioned again over the rest of the film franchise.

Focusing on Carol’s grief is a nice way of underscoring that Kirk’s pulpy space hero adventures don’t just affect his own life – there are people caught inadvertently in the crossfire, something that The Voyage Home takes pains to play down so that the Enterprise crew can return home as heroes who saved Spock, the Federation and Earth itself. It’s a very valid scene – a very important scene. However, it feels rather out of place at the start of what is designed as a light-hearted comedy adventure.

Indeed, McIntyre seems to take The Voyage Home much more seriously than the film itself does. While the movie has its ecological subtext, McIntyre pushes things even further. She doesn’t suggest that the Enterprise crew have arrived in contemporary America so much as some grim dystopian world:

The oily smoke of the ground cars’ exhaust hung close. Trash littered the path and the meadow. Someone had turned over a row of garbage cans and spread their contents around the park. Jim worried about how he and his people would be able to get along within a culture that took so little care of its world, the world that would be theirs. In Jim’s time, earth still bore scars from wounds inflicted during the twentieth century.

To be fair, environmentalism is not necessarily a cause that lends itself to subtlety – given the disputes over the existence of climate change, it’s perfectly justifiable to shout about it at the top of your voice – but it does feel like McIntyre’s adaptation has a radically different tone than the feature film.

There’s a strange earnestness here that seems much more sombre than the film’s endearing sincerity. There are several points where McIntyre seeks to soften a joke or two, as if wary of how such a scene might make a character appear. For example, Spock only knocks out the punk on the bus after he takes a swing at Kirk – acknowledging that Spock’s decision to incapacitate somebody should probably be provoked by something more than idle rudeness.

Similarly, McCoy and Scotty don’t just shrug their shoulders at the prospect of altering the timeline, hoping that it will all eventually work itself out. McCoy doesn’t just rationalise the decision to give away the formula for transparent aluminum by suggesting that Nichols may have invented it. Instead, Scotty knows that Marcus Nichols invented transparent aluminum. It makes their temporal meddling a lot less reckless, but it also undermines the comedy of the scene.

Perhaps the strangest attempt to re-characterise the actions of a member of the ensemble is McIntyre’s revelation that Vulcans react adversely to sucrose. She uses this reaction as an attempt to justify why Spock would climb into a whale tank in front of witnesses. When Kirk questions his judgement, he replies, “It is perhaps not at its peak at the moment, admiral. Sucrose has been known the hell to have this effect on Vulcans. I do not usually indulge.”

It is an odd scene, not just because it seeks to justify a joke that works quite well on its own terms. After all, surely any vaguely out-of-character behaviour from Spock could be justified by McCoy’s observation that “he isn’t exactly working on all thrusters.” Given that Spock has just been resurrected from the dead using an ancient Vulcan ritual. It’s perfectly understandable that his decision-making faculties may not be entirely up to scratch yet.

McIntyre is also rather conscious of continuity. She draws attention, for example, to the inconsistency between Spock’s almost emotional reaction to seeing Kirk at the end of The Search for Spock as compared to his formality in The Voyage Home. (“It startled Jim to have Spock revert to titles. ‘Your name is Jim,’ Spock had said to him, after the refusion.”) Similarly, the decision to use time-travel to save the planet isn’t made glibly, but contextualised in the show’s own continuity:

“Don’t talk to me about the old days on the Enterprise!” Jim shouted. “Don’t talk to me about the Guardian of Forever! I went back in time to save your life – and I had to stand by and watch someone else I loved die! I had to stand by while Edith died – and do nothing!”

It’s an exchange that obviously isn’t entirely appropriate for a big budget studio blockbuster courting as wide an audience as possible, but it’s an argument that feels true to the characters and the adventures that they have shared together. Again, though, it’s hard to reconcile the tone of the conversation with the tone of the film. The Voyage Home treats time-travel rather glibly, so drawing attention – with specific examples – to how it is typically a big deal feels like it undermines the gag. (And also ignores the glibness of the use of time travel in Assignment: Earth.)

To be fair, this doesn’t feel like McIntyre is being overly critical of the film. There’s nothing quite as aggressive as J.M. Dillard’s adaptation of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which seems to bask in the perceived inconsistencies and logical fallacies of the script. Indeed, reading The Voyage Home, it’s quite clear that McIntyre appreciates quite a lot of the script and the story. She just struggles a bit with the idea of Star Trek as a laugh-out-loud goofy comedy.

After all, her version of Gillian Taylor seems much richer than the version who appeared in the feature film. Acknowledging that The Voyage Home is more about fantasy figures escaping into the real world as it is about travelers from another time, McIntyre makes reference to how Taylor is facing a situation where the rules that govern reality must give way to rules of narrative:

One of her professors in graduate school preferred another theory over Occam’s Razor for sorting out competing hypotheses. “Gillie,” she always said, “if you’ve got two possibilities, go with the beautiful one, the aesthetically pleasing one.”

…..

Gillian ate pizza and listened to Kirk James’s wild story. He had invented all sorts of details that sounded great. If they had been in a novel, she would have suspended her disbelief willingly.

Similarly, Gillian’s trip through the transporter – which was treated as a magical transformation in the film (“hello, Alice; welcome to wonderland”) becomes even more explicitly magical:

This time Gillian paid attention to the transporter beam. The sensation of being lifted, stirred around, and placed somewhere else entirely filled her with astonishment and joy.

Maybe it’s just an adrenaline reaction, she thought, but early trials suggest it as a sure cure for depression.

The experience will seem quite familiar to anybody who has ever been transported somewhere by a great story or an exciting narrative.

In a way, Gillian herself is getting swept up in the narrative of Star Trek. The way that Gillian responds to the characters feels quite in keeping with how many fans react to the ensemble. Gillian seizes on the utopian vision at the heart of the franchise:

Gillian stared around in wonder. She was in a spaceship that could travel from star to star, among a group of people who lived and worked together without being concerned about race or gender, among people from earth and a person from another planet. Gillian broke into a grin. Probably a silly grin, she thought, and she did not care.

Whatever other issues that McIntyre’s adaptation may have with tone or comedy, it’s hard to argue with the romance of it.

After all, The Voyage Home remains (unadjusted for inflation) the most successful Star Trek movie produced prior to JJ Abrams’ Star Trek. Rotten Tomatoes describes it as the “most purely enjoyable entry of the long-running series.” The movie was largely responsible for the return of Star Trek to television, and the decision to produce Star Trek: The Next Generation. With its social consciousness moral and charming ensemble, The Voyage Home is very much the distillation of Star Trek – and McIntyre’s handling of Gillian Taylor underscores this.

As written by McIntyre, Gillian Taylor isn’t just a supporting character who gets drawn up in Kirk’s plot to steal some whales. Instead, she is a regular person who gets caught up in the giddy romance of Star Trek. She is, appropriately enough, a stand-in for all those mainstream audience members who were drawn into Star Trek by The Voyage Home. She is a fan who is only encountering the franchise at this point in her life. It’s endearing and clever and beautiful, and it offsets a lot of the tonal oddities with McIntyre’s adaptation.

The Voyage Home is the last of Vonda N. McIntyre’s three Star Trek feature film adaptations. As with The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, she offers a unique and distinct narrative – one that feels quite different from the version presented on screen, one perhaps better suited to a novel. While the broad comedy of The Voyage Home makes it a tougher subject than either of the two earlier films, McIntyre still finds the story’s heart in Gillian Taylor.

McIntyre occasionally struggles a bit too hard to reconcile the movie’s strength of humour with her grasp on the franchise’s characters, straining the gags a bit too hard to make them fit existing characterisation, but her novelisation of The Voyage Home is still a tribute to the romance and the magic of Star Trek. It’s a fitting close to her trilogy of adaptations.

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