On November 26, 1986 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home debuted on movie screens across the United States. The film’s lighthearted tone and environmental message struck a chord with moviegoers, and became the first Star Trek film to have crossover appeal with mainstream audiences who normally wouldn’t be interested in the adventures of the Enterprise crew. The movie often referred to as “the one with the whales” continues to charm audiences today, and we wanted to mark its 30th anniversary with a remembrance not only of the film, but of the time it was made in. We hope you enjoy it.
“It’s going to have whales.”
Sitting in a dimly lit Knights of Columbus hall in Mineola, N.Y., sometime in 1985 I heard those words from Adam Malin, the co-founder of Creation Entertainment, during a slide presentation about the following year’s highly anticipated Star Trek IV.
“Whales and Eddie Murphy.”
My Star Trek fever had reached its apex after devouring Star Trek II and III, as well as all 79 episodes of the Original Series in very rapid succession between 1983-85. After years of denying how awesome Star Trek was, now I couldn’t get enough.
But whales and Eddie Murphy? Are you guys high? Try to picture a time with no Internet, no YouTube, when fandom was held together by conventions, fanzines, and genre magazines like Starlog and Cinefantastique. Creation Entertainment were the purveyors of said conventions since the early 70s, and as luck would have it, they decided to open a comic shop mere blocks from my home.
I had yet to attend one of their bigger shows in New York City, but they would host local “mini-cons,” that were bare bones affairs (no celebs, no dealers, etc.) but they were fun nonetheless, and there they would share morsels of information they had gleaned from their contacts in fandom and I imagine, at Paramount.
I was less concerned about the whale thing as I was the presence of Eddie Murphy. Don’t get me wrong: I loved him. Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours are still favorites of mine. But with his name attached, Star Trek IV became akin to Superman III, a disaster that shoehorned Richard Pryor together with the Man of Steel. The wounds were still fresh.
In this information stone age that was as much as we got. We knew Leonard Nimoy would direct, having earned his stripes on Trek III. I remember seeing William Shatner on Merv Griffin saying he wanted “a little” more money. Salary negotiations and his T.J. Hooker schedule were holding up production.
Fast forward to fall of 1986. I was feeling better about Trek IV. Eddie Murphy dropped out, and made The Golden Child. His character morphed into Gillian Taylor, the cetacean biologist played with pluck and zest by Catherine Hicks. Everything I saw and read made me confident this would be a winner.
More than anything, I was confident Leonard Nimoy would deliver. And deliver he did.
Star Trek IV could’ve been an unmitigated disaster. In lesser hands, it would’ve been.
Nimoy and producer Harve Bennett felt as though a lighter touch was in order. After all the death, destruction (and resurrection) of the prior two films, it was time to lighten the mood. With a script assist from Trek II director Nicholas Meyer they balanced the lighter tone with a grand sense of adventure and excitement, with no moustache twirling villain in sight (if there was a villain it was the human race hunting a noble species to extinction).
The story, that of an alien probe reigning destruction upon earth in a vain attempt to contact humpback whales, was a cautionary tale about our short sighted tendencies as a race, one that was never preachy or overbearing. The light moments sprouted organically from our intrepid 23rd century crew’s desperate attempts to fit into 1986 San Francisco while fighting a ticking clock in their attempt to bring two humpbacks forward in time to answer the probe.
Nimoy had proven his worth as a director with Trek III. As he often said, the training wheels came off with Trek IV. He was allowed to make his movie. He delivered a film that pleased fans and the general public in equal measure, and the crossover appeal led to huge box office returns, making The Voyage Home easily the most successful of the TOS films to date. My Mom saw it.
Leonard was particularly sensitive to the needs of his castmates, all of whom railed against the perfunctory dialogue they were often given, as well as their marginalized roles. Already well respected by his colleagues, Nimoy made sure each of them had their moment in the sun. Taking them out of their familiar roles on the bridge (or the engine room), each had an integral part to play in completing this most critical mission, and it was wonderful to see them stretch acting muscles left to atrophy. What a talented group of performers!
Nimoy elicited wonderful performances from his actors (and himself!) and got the best from his talented crew. Not enough can be said about the man’s professionalism, ravenous intellectual curiosity, and human decency. In all my years as a fan, I have never heard anyone criticize him, and one need only seek out his son Adam’s recent documentary, “For the Love of Spock,” to understand the esteem with which he was held by all who knew him. Seriously, seek it out!
As much as I loved James Horner’s previous scores for Trek II and III, Nimoy hired his friend Leonard Rosenman to write the music for The Voyage Home, and he delivered a buoyant, joyful soundtrack that perfectly matched the film’s tonal shift from heavy and operatic to light and fun. It remains one of my favorite Trek scores.
The Voyage Home represents perhaps the apex of my Star Trek fandom. That isn’t to say it ever waned or wavered, but we were in the midst of an era when we still had new TOS movies on the horizon, and as much as I loved certain further iterations, nothing has ever eclipsed my love for the original crew. I was immersing myself in fandom, and meeting people who shared my love for Trek. I was devouring books and ancillary material like mad.
It took almost a year for Trek IV to be released on VHS (let that sink in). Repeating their prior strategy with Trek III, Paramount shrewdly released Trek IV at the sell through price of $29.99 and it was well within my 17-year old grasp. I watched it twice the day I bought it and daily for weeks afterward. In the thirty subsequent years, I have upgraded to laserdisc, DVD, and blu ray, from standard to special editions, from pan and scan to widescreen.
It’s a film that richly rewards repeated viewings, and hasn’t lost a step. It’s the film that made the mainstream sit up and take notice. It is proof positive you don’t need a scenery chewing villain for our intrepid crew to oppose, merely a heroic quest for the good of all mankind.
At the end of the day, it’s a love letter to the fans from Leonard Nimoy, executed with technical brilliance, but more importantly, with great reverence and intimate understanding of that which we all love so much.
Thanks, Leonard. We love you too.