REVIEW: In the far reaches of space, up near the Neutral Zone, the United Space Ship Saratoga encounters something unlike anything previously known. Massive in size, cylindrical in shape, with a small orb suspended near one end, the probe emits a high frequency signal that is completely unfamiliar. They inform Starfleet and await instructions. Meanwhile, back on Earth, a Federation counsel watches the Star Trek III Blu-Ray DVD on their big screen, replaying that cool part where the Enterprise get all blowed up. Okay, it’s not the DVD, but it is actual footage from the film. I always wonder, how did they get camera footage of the Klingon’s inside the Enterprise, let alone the ship itself exploding? Not important. Moving on.
On the planet Vulcan, Kirk and his crew are in exile after stealing the Enterprise (and destroying it). Spock has acclimated to his former self, testing and meditating and doing Vulcan things that Vulcans do. And after a few months, everyone decide it’s time to head back to Earth and answer for their actions, so they climb aboard the Klingon Bird of Prey they stole after blowing up the Enterprise and say their farewells, mostly to Lt. Saavik, the Vulcan commander who played a significant role in the previous two films but who stays behind in this one.
Meanwhile, the probe knocks out power to the Saratoga, then some Klingon vessels, a space station and then heads over to Earth, neutralizing everything in its path. It seems to be communicating, but its language is unknown and worse, causing major atmospheric disturbances, power outages and a catastrophic cloud cover so bad, the Federation has no choice but send a planetary distress signal and warn everyone to just stay away while the probe continues to broadcast its unanswerable message.
Kirk and crew intercept the distress call and the alien probe signal, and quickly manage to figure out what absolutely no one Earth was able to. The message isn’t for people to respond to, it’s for an entirely different species: Whales. Humpback’s to be precise. But why aren’t they replying to their space-faring friends? Because it’s the future. Humans hunted the humpbacks to extinction. Spock has an idea. Why not time travel and bring a few back to the present. They plot there course and other and shoot themselves around the sun with a slingshot time warp. Amazingly enough, the plan works and they emerge from other side of the Sun in San Francisco, 1986. They drop their cloaked Klingon warship in Golden Gate Park and decide they need to split up in order to accomplish their short to-do list. McCoy, Sulu and Scotty set out to build a tank that can carry whales, Chekov and Uhura investigate some nuclear power they can steal to make the Kilngon ship go again after it burned up all its power swoosh around the Sun and Kirk and Spock head to the Cetacean Institute in Sausalito where a few humpbacks just happen to be living. Of course, the comedy stems from thire attempts to figure out how to do anything in a world they know almost nothing about. But things get complicated when Kirk and Spock get to the museum and meet Dr. Gillian Taylor, caretaker of two whales named George and Gracie, especially when Spock jumps into the tank and does a mind meld, learning some valuable information.
Directed by Leonard Nimoy (Spock himself), the fourth installment of the Star Trek film series goes in a decidedly different direction than its predecessors, taking a hard right turn into humor. Surprisingly, it works mostly very well, as it doesn’t go for gags but rather social commentary. Until this movie, the characters we’ve come to love so well have always occupied a time and space far removed from reality, existing in a universe bereft of most of the norm we take for granted, such as wealth, poverty, gender and race inequality and more. By plopping them in a place we know all too well, it lends a significant depth to them we have yet to explore (though arguably a few original TV episodes came close). But aside from the familiar locales, language and themes of our own modern times, The Voyage Home uses comedy to make it even more approachable. Hearing Spock curse is almost worth the price of admission and listening to Chekov, in his thick Russian accent, ask people on the street where the nuclear “wessels” are (in a time of rampant cold war animosity) is priceless. Star Trek has always had good humor (look at Kirk and his glasses in Star Trek II) but never straight up comedy (again, one might argue the series did with episodes like The Trouble with Tribbles and even characters like Harcourt Fenton Mudd). Here, there are scenes clearly written to get a laugh, such as the the escape from the hospital and aircraft carrier and the punk rocker on the bus.
So how should we judge this film? It is not nearly in line with the far more dramatic and adventure-themed movies that come before it; the new Enterprise starship (as the older model was destroyed in Wrath of Khan) is relegated to, or rather introduced in the final scenes. The entire story is devoid of the very vessel that has carried our intrepid heroes since its inception. What’s more, Kirk doesn’t fight anyone. Spock in is a robe from start to finish. And there’s no bad guy with a funny prosthetic forehead. In fact, there is no bad guy, unless you count the director of the institute who releases the whales early. And yet, until J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2009, this was the most financially successful film in the series, including the Next Generation films. Furthermore, both audiences and critics raved, making it the highest rated as well. Why? Trek fans hold Wrath of Khan as their favorite (including me), but general audiences wanted something lighter and the move to bring these star-hopping heroes into our own backyard was just the thing. Immediately, we had something to identify with and for once, they were among “us” people who were literally on the streets we recognized. It had profound effect, and it brought Star Trek much closer to home. The cast seemed equally happy, with no villain to fight, no deaths to contend with, no metaphysical themes on humanity or spiritualism–all which defined the earlier works–and just gleefully kept the story going, ending with a dip in the ocean and even a laughing Mr. Spock. Watching it in theaters on its first release, it was a surprise and once the tone was set, felt right for the characters, as the series, if it had kept on its current track, might have gone too dark, something the Next Gen films eventually did. The Voyage Home is something different and while it hardly represents the franchise as a whole, it is a great time for more than only Trek fans.
That Moment In: The Voyage Home
Scene Setup: Kirk and his crew have traveled back to 1986 and have begun making plans to steal two humpback whales to bring to the future. Kirk has caught the interest of Dr. Gillian Taylor, a marine biologist in charge of two captive whales soon to be released back in the sea. While giving a tour of the institute where she works, Spock caused a scene by jumping into the whale tank, and Kirk’s story about them being from the future to save the world is a bit far-fetched at best. There is something curious about the two men that intrigues the doctor, but she isn’t willing to believe they are time travelers, no matter how bizarre they seem. After a dinner with Kirk, in which she explains the plans for releasing the whales, Kirk bails and asks for a ride back to his ship out in Golden Gate Park, which she obliges, thinking he is a kook. The next morning however, she goes to work and discovers the whales have already been released, a move met to avoid a media circus. Distressed, and worried for the whale’s safety, as illegal whaling boats are nearby, she has no choice but to return to the park and find Kirk.
The Scene: (Time stamp 1:19:25) Gillian arrives in desperation, and to her amazement, sees the unbelievable. A helicopter is loading crates into an invisible space ship! Of course it is just Sulu in a stolen chopper delivering transparent aluminum (yes, that’s a thing in the future that Scotty makes available in the past) panels for the whale tanks being built inside the Klingon Bird of Prey, which is currently cloaked. She comes aboard and sees for the first time that it truly is real and the men she has been thinking of as off their rockers are actually the time travelers they say they are.
In every great story about something fantastical, there needs to be something or someone that the audience can identify with, a person or things that carries us through it, asks or answers the questions we have as viewers while still allowing us to keep our imagination. The Matrix works because Neo begins as one of us, discovering as we do the new world he is in. Gus in Lars in the Real Girl doesn’t immediately accept the fantasy of his brother, posing all the doubts we ourselves have. Even in more grounded films like Gone Girl, Nick Dunne keeps our interests because our mystery is also his. With Dr. Gillian Taylor, she bridges the two timelines, playing the skeptic so that it creates the initial conflict, something that satisfies our critical mind and sets up some natural humor, and also expresses our wonder, even though we’ve been party to the time traveling since the beginning. She is also the conduit for which we readily accept what is happening, following her as she makes the discoveries and decisions we might make as well.
There’s a touching and interesting moment when she is “beamed” aboard (If you don’t know what that means and you’re this far into the post, it is probably only one of six different things you’re making notes about to follow up afterwards). For anyone who has watched Star Trek before, the act of transporting from one place to another is second nature, though it’s had its ups and down, such as the poor Vulcan first assigned to the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He got turned to mush. But here we learn something unexpected. Apparently you can “feel” the transportation as Gillian recognizes something is happening to her even before the process is visible. It’s amusing and enticing and answers so many questions many of us have had for years. When she arrives on the ship, she stumbles, naturally, and Kirk steadies her. It isn’t sexual in any way, and in fact, feels organic, something unscripted and completely real.
Gillian’s discovery of and boarding of the Klingon Bird of Prey has something unexpected for us as well. Watching it, we feel a strange dichotomy about her presence not only on board the spaceship but even among Kirk and company. While it is amusing to watch the Star Trek regulars fumble their way through 20th century San Francisco, there is something oddly unsettling about a 20th century person on the 23rd century vessel. She seems far more out of place here than Kirk and Spock on a bus. But that is also why the scene works so well, and why we are so drawn to it. Catherine Hick (Taylor) is perfectly cast as the woman in charge of the whales who is lucky enough to get this far. Wholesome, wonderfully average and age-appropriate (I can only image the buxom blonde early twenty-something flighty model-type who would be cast in the role if it were remade for today) she is immediately magnetic, charming and most importantly, believable.
There’s a lot to like about nearly all of the film, though it doesn’t stand up to the test of time as well as Wrath of Khan, most assuredly because the time period forever keeps it in the 1980s. Sensibilities change and so too does humor, but there is something eternal in the message and the conviction of this adventure. The underlying theme of wildlife conservation is about as subtle as a harpoon to the face, but at least it is done with some cleverness and fun. That’s what makes Gillian’s welcoming among the Star Trekkers so effective and ultimately so memorable.
It’s why when we talk movies, we love That Moment In . . . Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.