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MMYIF: Star Trek IV: The One With The Whales

 My Misspent Youth In Films...

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Directed by: Leonard Nimoy
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley
Released: November 26, 1986

To save Earth from an alien probe, Admiral James T. Kirk and his fugitive crew go back in time to San Francisco in 1986 to retrieve the only beings who can communicate with it: humpback whales.

What I Thought Then

I grew up on Star Trek, mostly early TNG and reruns of TAS. Not TOS, mind you, but TASThe Animated Series. For a long time, this was the most watchable Star Trek movie to me, since 1 is boring, 2 was a little too intense for me, and 3 was confusing and also not good. And don't even get me started on 5. This one was fun and had a great message, so it got a lot of play, especially on long car trips.

What I Think Now

This movie holds up surprisingly well. It functions as a capper to the arc that started with Wrath Of Khan. After defeating Khan, Kirk--now an Admiral--had disobeyed orders and gone back to Genesis to retrieve the newly regenerated Spock, and then a bunch of other business happened that fleshed out the third film, ending with the crew of the Enterprise on Vulcan in a stolen Klingon Bird of Prey, having destroyed their own ship. Voyage Home picks up there, with the crew preparing to return to Earth to face court-martial (or whatever the Starfleet equivalent is) for their actions. They are joined by Spock, who is now completely rehabilitated, basically undoing whatever his sacrifice was two movies prior.

Before they can get there, however, an alien space probe appears and starts pummeling Earth with some kind of sonic attack that's vaporizing the oceans and putting the entire planet out of commission. Spock determines that the probe is trying to establish contact with humpback whales, which have been extinct for centuries. No, really. Apparently the aliens and the whales had kept a running dialog, but when the whales disappeared, the aliens came to investigate. Kirk, et al, rationalize that the best possible solution is to go back in time to retrieve some whales and bring them to the future. Hijinks ensue.

When you think about it, this film hews fairly close to the classic Star Trek formula. The crew visit some strange planet, get in over their heads, have to navigate an unfamiliar culture and situation so they can save the day and escape. Only this time, the script is flipped and the strange planet is San Francisco in the 1980s. Now the audience knows more than the crew. When they arrive, the crew divides up to accomplish their mission tasks. Kirk and Spock go off to find some whales; Scotty, Bones, and Sulu work on building an enclosure to transport them; Chekhov and Uhura are looking for a nuclear reactor so they can recharge the ship's engine, which got drained after their time warp. Given the aforementioned flipped script, the film goes hard on fish-out-of-water humor, which results in some memorable lines like Kirk's "Oh yeah? Well double-dumbass on you!" or Scotty's "Hello, computer" or Chekhov asking people on the street about where to find the nuclear vessels (and doing so in a thick Russian accent--a joke that was completely lost on me as a child).

The film also leans on its own history to allow for some efficient storytelling. Oh, we're doing time-travel? How do we manage that? Oh, don't worry about it, we did it before once in TOS. The characters and their relationships are well-established, so we don't need to spend a lot of time establishing them. Which is not to say that it doesn't take time for the odd character moment. There's a great scene early on of Bones trying to discuss death with Spock and failing pretty spectacularly. And because the cast settle into these roles so effortlessly, their on-screen chemistry is charming and undeniable, and it allows for some great little moments. To give an example, Spock has a mini-arc where he learns how to cuss--itself an inside joke since the characters couldn't use adult language on television in the seventies but can now in movies. This gets played for a laughs a few times, but has a payoff during the climax when Kirk says "Spock, where the hell's the power you promised me?" and he replies "One damn minute, Admiral." It's a throwaway joke in the middle of a very busy scene, but Kirk's reaction had me in stitches.

Nothing about the film has aged particularly badly, but it's definitely dated. The optical effects are very of-their-time. The time-travel sequence is played as kind of a visual hallucination that includes some early CG work to morph people's heads into each other. Some of the matte paintings look a lot worse on DVD than they did on VHS. Low resolution covereth a multitude of sins. Thematically, it's a story about saving the whales, and at one point there's a reference made to humanity's brief flirtation with nuclear fission. So yeah, very 80s, on the whole.

That said, I really enjoyed it on rewatch. It's light-hearted and fun and, honestly, feels a lot more like Trek than almost any other film in the Star Trek oeuvre.

Recommendation?

If you're already familiar with the characters, definitely catch this one. If not... it may not be the best insertion point for Star Trek, but what the hell, I had fun with it.

Tune in next week to hear Drew Berrymore and Keanu Reeves sing...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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