Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (United States, 1986)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Poster

I remember the first time someone told me about the premise for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home -- that the crew of the former Enterprise would travel back in time to retrieve a pair of humpback whales. Described thus, it sounds abysmally bad, so I was pleasantly surprised that the actual film turned out to be rather entertaining. Star Trek IV, released the day before Thanksgiving in 1986, proved to be the most popular entry of the long-running movie series to date, scoring big with fans, conventional movie-goers, and critics alike. It was one of the season's most successful releases, and paved the way for Star Trek's return to television with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Star Trek IV picks up where Star Trek III: The Search for Spock left off, and forms the final segment of the motion picture trilogy begun in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The crew of the destroyed starship Enterprise has been in exile on Vulcan while their resurrected shipmate, Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), is re-trained in the ways of logic. Once Spock has recovered sufficiently to travel, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and his fellow officers must go back to Earth to answer a battery of charges leveled against them for stealing the Enterprise and nearly provoking a war with the Klingon Empire.

However, before Kirk and company can return home, a mysterious probe enters orbit around Earth and wreaks havoc on the planet's climate. Nothing seems capable of stopping the probe, and a planetary distress call is issued. Spock, analyzing the probe's transmissions, determines that they match the songs of humpback whales, an extinct species of ocean-dwelling life. For Earth to survive, the crew of the former Enterprise must travel back in time to 20th Century Earth, capture a humpback whale, confine it in their stolen Klingon spaceship, then return to the future. Soon, Kirk and his friends are wandering around 1986 San Francisco, every bit out-of-place as Crocodile Dundee was in New York City.

The tone of The Voyage Home is considerably lighter than that of its predecessors; in fact, this is as close as Star Trek gets to being a straight comedy. At times, the proceedings become overly silly to garner cheap laughs, and the characters suffer as a result. Kirk, McCoy, and especially Spock, flicker back and forth between resembling the heroic figures we know and acting like caricatures of themselves. There's a running gag about Spock's inability to master profanity that, while undeniably amusing, is a little too cute.

The film's general sense of levity also handicaps the supposedly-suspenseful moments. A great deal more energy is evident in a comic chase sequence through the corridors of a modern-day hospital than when the Klingon ship plunges headlong towards the Golden Gate Bridge. As was true in Star Trek III, which Leonard Nimoy also directed, the best parts of this film occur in the middle (during the fish-out-of-water story); the beginning and end are basically throw-aways.

The movie's ecologically-correct message is more obvious than most Star Trek themes, but The Voyage Home avoids excessive preaching. Also, with the exception of a small group of grizzled whale hunters who are on-screen for about three minutes, there isn't a clearly-defined villain. There is, on the other hand, a love interest for Kirk, although his relationship with a 20th century marine biologist (Catherine Hicks) remains playful, not serious.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home marked the end of the "golden age" of Star Trek movies, such as it was (three straight quality outings). From this point on, the films were marred by stale writing, predictability, and questionable production values. Star Trek IV, while not a superior effort, is an effective and enjoyable sample of entertainment -- not good science fiction, but a lightweight piece of comic fantasy utilizing characters so familiar that they feel like old friends.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (United States, 1986)