TrekMovie.com returns to our look back at past Trek films and what can be learned from them.
Paramount monitored Leonard Nimoy’s every move as director of Star Trek III, but when it came time for IV, studio president Jeff Katzenberg told him, “the training wheels are off. Give us your vision of Star Trek.” Years later, when I interviewed him in 2004, Nimoy said that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was his “Star Trek statement.” So now that Nimoy is conspicuously associated with the next Star Trek movie, as well as being Trek’s most active elder statesman, what did he mean? What makes this movie his Star Trek statement?
Together with producer Harve Bennett, Nimoy made two immediate decisions about “Voyage”. First, it would complete the accidental trilogy that began when story elements of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and its box office success) provided the perfect set-up for a sequel. And second, and after multiple character and starship deaths in the first three movies, it was time to lighten up. (More on that decision later.)
From its theatrical release in 1986, Star Trek IV became the most popular film in the series, and remains the best known, particularly with the “crossover” general audience. Fans generally rate it among their top three favorites. It also has an instant identity—it’s “the one about the whales.”
The Whales Tale
The next decision was to tell a time travel story that brings Captain Kirk and companions back to the 1980s. But to do what? Nimoy looked for the answer in a book by biologist Edward O. Wilson called "Biophilia" a word that Wilson defines as the innate "emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms." During a conversation with a friend about the book, the near-extinction of several species of whales came up, and Nimoy had his answer. The Trek crew would need to bring a pair of whales, extinct in the 23rd century, back from the 20th, to save the planet Earth.
In the 1980s, the plight of whales was becoming known to the general public from the “Save the Whales” campaign begun by the activist organization, Greenpeace. For years Greenpeace boats had been confronting whaling ships at sea, and Greenpeace volunteers placed themselves between the harpoons and the target whales. Those activities became the specific inspiration for one of Star Trek IV’s key scenes: the whaling trawler’s harpoon bouncing off the Klingon Bird of Prey.
The Humpback whale caught the public imagination when its mysterious songs were first recorded in the 1960s. The songs were complex, changing, and were audible over large distances, but scientists couldn’t figure out their purpose. They weren’t even sure how they were sung: these whales have no vocal chords.
Ecological concerns were clearly on Nimoy’s minds, but he wasn’t alone. William Shatner didn’t particularly like the time travel device, but he loved the whale theme. Inspired by Greenpeace, he had already toured with a program to benefit the ecology cause that featured recorded whale songs and his reading of D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “Whales Weep Not,” which he would eventually quote as Captain Kirk in “The Voyage Home."
The ecological concept that the future can be threatened by heedless destruction of the web of life today would be the underlying theme, symbolized by the whales’ extinction. But what would bring them into this story?
Nimoy thought of a favorite old Ray Bradbury story (“The Foghorn”) and came up with the answer: what if whale songs were calling to interstellar travelers, who came around to find out why they weren’t hearing the songs anymore?
Greenpeace influenced Star Trek IV
Failure to Communicate
This idea gave Nimoy his theme: communication, and the failure to communicate. It’s everywhere in this movie, beginning with the Klingon ambassador making his case for Kirk’s villainy before the Federation President and Council by giving a Klingon spin to the facts of what happened in Star Trek III. On Vulcan, while Scotty and crew struggle to translate Klingon symbols and technology on their captured Bird of Prey the reborn Spock discovers his memory is sharp but his understanding is lagging. In his top-speed computer review, he is stopped cold by the question, “How do you feel?” His mother, Amanda, enters to explain that his Vulcan education may be insufficient to communicate with his human crewmates.
This is our first moment with Spock since his rebirth, and Nimoy plays him with a new color: a childlike innocence, befitting the fact that in a way he’s only a few months old.
As the ship heads for home, they learn that Earth is besieged by a whale of a big probe sending a signal no one can understand. Spock (with actually very little evidence) decides the probe is not hostile, and is unaware of the havoc it is causing on the planet below. It is merely trying to communicate. "Oh, really?" McCoy the skeptic says. "You think this is its way of saying ‘hi, there’ to the people of the earth?" "There are other intelligent forms of life on earth, doctor," Spock replies with Vulcan acidity. "Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man."
A basic Star Trek premise has been restated, and the terms of the adventure are about to be set, but with this exchange we also come up to the controversy of this movie’s “tone,” that tends to divide those who love it from those who loathe it.
Probe: Hello? Helloooooo?
To Laugh or Not To Laugh
Some people like the humor in “Voyage,” others see it as violating what a Trek movie should be. Some think the jokes are funny, others find some or all of them cheesy and embarrassing. I usually find myself on the side that laughs. So allow me to present the case, not of why the jokes are funny (that’s a matter of taste) but why the humor is there.
The failure to communicate is often tragic, but in many instances it’s the basis of a lot of humor. We see it here first in its most familiar Trek form, the Spock-McCoy confrontations: the Vulcan and the Doctor Show. This time the characters are in slightly different places. McCoy, both suspicious of Spock’s grip on reality and solicitous because of what Spock’s been through, is more gently probing than usual. Except for the above exchange, Spock’s usual self-possession is lacking—he’s uncharacteristically vulnerable, and clearly a little lost. So their banter has a different comic quality (Spock interrupts McCoy’s interrogation on what it’s like to be dead by noting that he’s receiving a number of distress calls. “I don’t doubt it,” McCoy replies.)
The basic situation of the crew is very dislocated: they are on an enemy vessel that’s now their ship, returning voluntarily to face charges on Earth, with a first officer who was quite recently dead, and, in McCoy’s old fashioned space movie phrase, “not exactly working on all thrusters.”
But the biggest dislocation is the device of time travel, which all by itself creates a basic condition of movie humor: the so-called “fish out of water.” For Nimoy, one of the appeals of time-traveling back to the 1980s was to permit Trek-like social comment on the present. For Bennett, I suspect, it was for the comic potential. If so, they both got what they wanted.
The humor gets ratcheted up when time travel is achieved, beginning with Spock’s line, “Judging from the pollution content of the air, I believe we have arrived in the latter part of the twentieth century.” This is also the first line of the script written by Nicholas Meyer. There had been the usual crises and false starts of almost every Trek movie before he was hired to write a quick final script with Harve Bennett. Bennett took the beginning and end, Meyer took the scenes on Earth in the middle.
Kirk tries out some 1980s colorful metaphors
Some fans that criticize the humor, contrast this movie with “Khan,” and praise Meyer’s direction of it. So it’s worth mentioning that the parts of “Voyage” with most of the humor were written by Nick Meyer. Some of the San Francisco scenes in fact were bits that Meyer wanted to include in his own time travel movie, Time After Time, also set in that city, but didn’t get to do.
The comment continues with Kirk warning that they are entering “a primitive, paranoid culture,” and McCoy’s observation that "It’s a miracle these people ever got out of the twentieth century." Spock’s problems with "colorful metaphors" suggests another communication problem and a classic displacement gag– foreigners who mangle English, though in this case it’s given a satirical spin: Spock speaks perfect English, even if he’s still a bit too literal. It’s the natives who are mangling it.
Beginning with the sight gags of the “exact change” scene and the punk with the boom box who gets the Vulcan neck pinch, the movie riffs on classic film comedy influences. The tip-off is in the name of the whales: George and Gracie. I’m not sure who today knows that these names refer to George Burns and Gracie Allen, a classic movie and early TV comedy team. Leonard Nimoy has said that for the Spock-McCoy verbal confrontations in the series, he patterned his performance after George Burns responding to Gracie Allen.
Kirk and Spock, on the other hand, do an Abbott and Costello-type "Who’s on first?" routine to the tune of "Do You Guys Like Italian?" (No, yes, yes, no, no, yes, no, yes, I love Italian, and so do you. Yes.) Scotty and McCoy do a Laurel and Hardy turn, with the help of a straight man and a quaint computer that lacks voice recognition. Off to collect some fresh photons from the nuclear wessel they found ("And kepten, it is the Enterprise"), Uhura and Chekhov do a kind of Martin and Lewis, with Uhura playing the good-looking “straight man,” and Walter Koenig getting to do physical comedy, as well as some verbal miscommunication with a no-nonsense naval officer. (This is his best movie until “Generations,” even if it’s meant that he has to repeat “nuclear wessels” at every convention he attends.)
Take my Vulcan…please
There is even a romantic comedy pairing, a Tracy and Hepburn moment at a pizza restaurant between Kirk and the young cetacean biologist, Gillian Taylor, played by Catherine Hicks. The hospital rescue of Chekhov suggests the Marx Brothers with McCoy as Groucho, or at least Grouchy, with his view of 20th century medicine: "it’s the goddamn Spanish inquisition!"
Shatner’s Captain Kirk perhaps shows the most difference. "We discovered something in Star Trek IV that we hadn’t pinpointed in any of the other movies," Shatner said (as quoted in ‘Great Birds of the Galaxy’) "and it just shows how the obvious escapes you. There is a texture to the best Star Trek that verges on tongue-in-cheek, but isn’t… It’s as though the characters within the play have a great deal of joy about themselves, a joy of living. That energy, that ‘joie de vivre’ about the characters seems to be tongue-in-cheek but isn’t, because you play it with the reality you would in a kitchen-sink drama written for today’s life."
I personally believe that Shatner sensed this potential when he parodied a Kirk-like character in the 1982 comedy, Airplane II: The Sequel. Though he may have hammed it up a bit too much in his reactions to Spock swimming in the tank with the whales (though that always reminded me of George C. Scott mugging as General Buck Turgidson in Doctor Strangelove), I think he was onto something that gave another dimension to the Trek movies and the Kirk character, and for my money really paid off in how he played Kirk in Generations.
As DeForest Kelley once wisely said, Star Trek movies are all about Moments, and this one has moments that are still powerful, and they’re spread around: all the regulars get at least one. There are too many to mention, but the ones that stood out in my latest viewing were McCoy explaining the Captain’s confidence in Spock’s guesses, and Spock’s response; the Spock and Sarek exchange at the end, and especially Scotty’s “ Captain, there be whales here!”
a classic DeForest Kelley ‘moment’
Legacy for new ‘Star Trek’
So the time has come to suggest what might be profitably learned from this movie for making the next one—especially for its crossover appeal– as well as why Leonard Nimoy considers this his Star Trek statement.
It remains a point of pride for Nimoy (and Harve Bennett) that this movie had very little violence, and no villain (except human unconsciousness.) It’s often repeated that a successful Trek movie needs a larger than life villain, like Khan. In fact, Star Trek II was the only successful Trek movie that had a single such villain. The second most popular Trek film to this one, “First Contact”, had the Borg, but the real battle in that movie was inside Picard—between his conscious judgments and his unconscious need for revenge.
This movie shows that even without battles, the stakes can still be high and the subject can be important. In the second and third movies, the stakes were mostly personal, but this comedy concerned the fate of the earth. Now that the Us vs. Them Cold War is over, and despite the warfare in our time, we’ve got headlines about hurricanes, heat waves, droughts and the melting of the Arctic. These may represent our greatest challenges to the real future, and our greatest enemies are unconsciousness, denial and cynicism. “When man was killing these creatures, he was destroying his own future,” Kirk says. The whales represent what we’re still doing—presiding over the greatest era of extinction since the dinosaurs. (Even the humpback whale population has not appreciably increased since 1986.) If a new Star Trek movie is going to deal with a current issue, it may well be time to revisit this one.
I asked Leonard Nimoy this question: What makes Star Trek Star Trek? "It’s all about story," he said. "It’s all about ideas." Perhaps it was because he’d just talked about this movie, but he referred to Star Trek in 2004 as “like a beached whale.” Some of it, he felt, had to do with storytelling. Many recent movies have been “driven by the enormously successful development of special effects…We were an entirely different ilk, we didn’t have that. The dependence was on the story, story, story. Not image, image, image.”
Nimoy’s Spock standing with his crew
Most of the other original cast movies, but Star Trek IV in particular, represent a kind of storytelling that worked extremely well for Star Trek. The story progresses logically, stating and solving problems. In terms of structure, it has great symmetry. It begins with the charges against Kirk and ends with the trial. Spock hears a question with his mother at the start, and answers it to his father at the end. And so on.
Particularly important in an ongoing saga with mythic proportions like Star Trek is the ritual aspect of it: it begins with the ship getting ready. Then the voyage, and the return. But there’s one more very important part of the Star Trek ending.
In Star Trek IV it ends the trilogy as well as the movie: the crew is on the shuttle to their new ship, and—in another Trek Moment—it’s revealed as the new Enterprise. “My friends,” Captain Kirk says, “we’ve come home.” This is the voyage home—not to Earth exactly, but to the Enterprise, and the Trek adventure. But the Star Trek movie is not over until the Enterprise warps into unknown space, and the next voyage begins, in our imaginations. It’s the nature of the Star Trek myth—and most of the time, the only way audiences are going to leave a Star Trek movie happy is if they see this ending.
The voyage continues
In our 2004 interview, which was basically about the future of Star Trek, Nimoy noted all the terrible things that were going on in the world during the original series. "There was a lot of negative stuff happening. Against that background, there was this very positive idea, to boldly go and solve problems–a group of people solving problems on a large, almost operatic scale. Which was very desirable for an audience, and I think we may see that again. There may come a time when films that are positive are again welcomed."
More on Star Trek IV at Soul of Star Trek.
Bill Kowinski (aka Captain Future, William S. Kowinski) is an author and freelance writer living in Arcata, CA. Thanks to his Soul of Star Trek blog, he chaired a panel on that subject at the Trek 40th anniversary gala in Seattle last year. He’s been published in the New York Times, L.A. Times, San Francisco Chronicle and other international, national and regional publications, as well as Internet sites.
Star Trek IV products at Amazon
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures, screencaps by TrekCore.com