I had already been planning this blog-post when I heard Friday of Leonard Nimoy’s passing. Yet another excuse to watch this great film!
While technically Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a time travel film, primarily it’s just a great film. It’s the end of trilogy of films which started with the death of Captain Spock, and was followed by his resurrection on the Genesis planet. But you don’t have to know any of that to enjoy this film, that we subtitle in my house, “Save the Whales!”
This was Leonard Nimoy’s 2nd major film that he directed (after 1984’s Star Trek III: the Search for Spock) and is arguable his best piece of direction. There’s no villain in this film, which is strange for normal science fiction fare, but as a Star Trek film, not so out of the ordinary. You see, the crew of the Enterprise is used to exploring new worlds and new civilizations. It’s not always about confronting a megalomanic or a blood-thirsty alien race.
What I see as allowing this film to hold up for the last 30 years is it’s optimistic view of the future. Here we have a world (the late 23rd Century of Earth) that no longer has any humpback whales, when a probe of unknown origin comes calling. It’s communications are disrupting the planet’s atmosphere, and bring wide spread damage to the Earth. Spock correctly deduces that there is no way for anyone to answer this probe, as the species it is attempting to contact has been extinct for nearly 200 years. Thus, Captain Kirk and his crew must travel back to the latter-half of the 20th Century and attempt to return with a specimen.
The beloved crew of the Enterprise, make great fishes-out-of-water as they wander around 1986 San Francisco looking for two humpback whales (George and Gracie). From Scotty attempting to talk to a computer rather than use it’s “quaint” keyboard, to Dr. McCoy lambasting the surgeons for trying to drill a hole in the unconscious Chekov’s head to reduce the swelling of a head injury; these moments give the characters many chances to show their humor in this lighthearted Star Trek film, especially considering the dramatic nature of the previous two installments.
But the lasting gift from this film, is hope and awe that Nimoy and the filmmakers imbue upon the characters as they attempt to rescue a 200 year dead species to their future. The use of footage from whaling vessels showing the killing the species, to Gillian Taylor’s (Catherine Hicks) impassioned pleas about stopping the harvesting that is decimating the population, really hit home as the viewer realizes she’s not just some whale-loving scientist, but a prophet. Given the current attitudes, whales will be deceased with 50 years.
It should be no surprise that the Enterprise crew succeeds in their mission. They manage to return two whales to the 23rd Century along with a cetacean biologist (a nice catch that Kirk hauled in!) and save the entire planet from freezing to death (long story-watch the film!). The time travel effect plays little in this story, as the premise is just a way to get them to a time with whales and return them home. But there are some interesting time travel tropes along the way. Kirk pawns a pair of 18th-Century glasses given to him by McCoy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. When questioned by Spock that they were a gift, Kirk says “and they will be again.” Scotty may have used his future-knowledge to provide the inventor of transparent aluminum with the formula, creating a nice paradox. And in a cut scene (but one that’s in the novelization) Sulu meets a young boy in San Francisco that turn out to be his great-great-grandfather. These elements are not proposed as a way of creating tension in this story, as some others might use, but for humorous nods. Time Travel has been a long-used trope in Star Trek lore for storytelling but not for creating problems (unless you count JJ Abrams Star Trek film).
In closing, I can think of no better tribute to Leonard Nimoy than to celebrate his career, as both actor and director. This film may have been the pinnacle of both. He had come to a point of maturity in his life where he had accepted the Spock character as something he would be identified with forever, and he decided to direct a film that lived up to the core beliefs of the Star Trek franchise dealing with hope, exploration and respect for all life forms. I’m sure he’d be proud to know that even in the 21st Century this film still stands strong. The human race can still learn a lot about conservation, our environment and the interconnectedness of the planet. May we all Live Long and Prosper!
NOTE: This entry is the fourth part of a six-part Time Travel grouping of non-sequential sequels that are time travel related. Think of this as a mini-marathon thru several franchises, showing the diversity of time travel in genre film!