“I was quite the swinger back in my day”: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

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The 1980s were a good time for someone with a developing interest in oceanography. In 1984, archaeologist Barry Clifford found the wreck of the Whydah, a pirate ship captained by Black Sam Bellamy during the Golden Age of Piracy, off the coast of Wellfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, a stretch of coastline that's a notorious navigation hazard and the site of many wrecks. It's also a coastline that happens to be six hours away from me and a place I consider a second home. The discovery of the Whydah by Clifford and his team was the result of an extensive search up and down Cape Cod's Atlantic coast and marks the first, and to date only time, an authentic pirate shipwreck has been located by marine explorers. Clifford founded a museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts (just north of Wellfleet) dedicated to Bellamy and the Whydah that remains open to this day, and while he's a local hero in New England, neither him nor the story remains well known outside of the region.

In 1985, Robert Ballard and a team of oceanographers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod made world headlines by locating the much sought-after wreck of the RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic. Ballard's discovery captured the imagination of people all over the world (myself included), it remains possibly the most famous exploration and recovery mission in the history of oceanography, and the story of the Titanic would inspire director James Cameron to create one of the two highest-grossing movies of all time over a decade later. It's since been revealed Ballard's expedition was actually a front, and that throughout 1985 he had been secretly in the temporary employ of the United States Navy. The true purpose of his mission to clandestinely search for two missing US submarines, the USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, which had sunk in the same waters in the 1960s before they got to test the experimental nuclear reactors they had been outfitted with.

Also in 1985, a humpback whale nicknamed Humphrey attracted heavy media attention after he got “lost”, travelling through the Golden Gate to end up in San Francisco Bay. Marine biologists grew concerned when he further deviated from his normal migratory patterns by swimming up the freshwater Sacramento River before getting himself trapped at the other end of the Rio Vista Bridge, putting his life in danger. In order to get Humphrey to safety, humpback researcher Louis Herman and acoustical engineer Bernie Krause played recorded songs of whales feeding on high-power underwater speakers provided by the US Navy to get Humphrey to retrace his steps and return to the Pacific Ocean. My interest in whale songs and whale behaviour was fostered by the story of Humphrey (adapted into a wonderful book called Humphrey the Lost Whale) and other whales in the news at the time (including the sadly near-annual tradition of pilot whale beaching themselves on Cape Cod), helped cultivate my interest in the ocean and a living ecosystem and is but one facet of the link I share with it.

At first glance, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home looks for all the world like Star Trek finally deciding to say something about the environmentalist movement, about ten or twenty years too late. The now ex-Enterprise crew has to travel back in time to 1986 to retrieve a pair of humpback whales, the species having gone extinct in the 21st century and a probe from the outer reaches of the universe has come looking to talk to them and keeps turning up the frequency of its message to dangerous degrees because it can't understand why it can't get any kind of response. Spock's constant comments about the illogical shortsightedness of hunting a species to extinction and Gillian Taylor's fiery and impassioned dedication to her cause at least place this movie on the right side of the issue, though in truth The Voyage Home's environmentalism is pretty superficial. There's not a whole lot of actual marine science on display here, and most of the rationale behind saving the whales the characters discuss amounts to “it's mean not to”. This isn't bad in the slightest and I'm not about to drag Star Trek across the coals for delivering a positive message in a soft way in a world where the collected works of Margaret Armen exist, but this does mean we probably ought to re-examine what this movie actually is.

What it is, first off, is a Star Trek sandwich. Being Star Trek, the production history naturally resembles a patchwork quilt knitted by seventeen different seamsters, none of whom knew what anyone else was doing and one of whom lived on the Moon. The beginning and end of the movie, that is, the parts set in the Star Trek universe's “present” and deal overtly with tying up the film serial's threads, were written by Harve Bennett, while the bits in the middle, the action in 1980s San Francisco, was helmed by Nicholas Meyer, no less. That is, by the way, after the initial four or five drafts were rejected and Paramount went through a bunch of writers. What's notable about the Bennett-penned stuff is, actually, how incredibly dull it is: We spend what's got to be a half-hour watching Starfleet people look at screens, Spock playing Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! on his Vulcan Nintendo WiiU and everyone else recapping the plot of the last two movies. Special demerits have to go to the scenes in the Federation council chamber, which basically amounts to a bunch of dignitaries having a right old laugh at the silly Klingon ambassador thinking he has grievances to air at the Federation. It basically nails the coffin on any idea that Kruge from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was supposed to be a problematization of the Federation's authority and presumptuousness.

(This is not helped by Bennett writing Kirk and crew as the noblest of noble, heroically enduring suffering and sacrifice for the good of the universe. It almost feels like this isn't the work of an old Star Trek veteran, but a fan coming to the series with pre-existing notions of its gravity and importance.)

Speaking of The Search for Spock, this is also the moment where Robin Curtis' Saavik is finally unceremoniously dropped off a bridge, staying behind on Vulcan for reasons that go entirely unspecified. Well, actually that's not quite true-They do go specified in Bennett's original draft for this portion of the movie, which would have had Saavik stayed behind on Vulcan because she was pregnant after her escapade with Spock on the Genesis Planet in the last movie. I really don't think I need to elabourate on why this would have been such a catastrophically horrendous idea, so I'll just once again stress that Saavik was originally supposed to be Star Trek's new lead in Star Trek II, got demoted to a support role in Star Trek III and Spock was explicitly her teacher and at least several decades her senior. Thank goodness director Leonard Nimoy stepped in and had that scene cut. In the finished film, Saavik's exit is insulting, but at least it's not as unbelievably offensive and repugnant as it could have been I suppose.

No, it's without question the time travel story that's the real highlight here. Perhaps surprisingly, considering his work on Wrath of Khan could charitably be called “amateurish”, Nicholas Meyer's section of the film is a largely unqualified triumph. Maybe it helps him to be working with a far more skilled director and to be limited to writing contemporary dialog, but the parts of Voyage Home set in San Francisco are generally an absolute joy and rightfully considered among the best of Star Trek's film offerings. Given its emphasis on marine biology and conservation, you'd think that would elevate the movie for me and it does: I'd definitely call it my favourite of the Star Trek films we've revisited so far. And yet oceanography is not actually one of Voyage Home's central themes (indeed, it's so little of a theme that we get puzzling decisions like redressing the Monterey Bay Aquarium as the “San Francisco Cetacean Institute” when there actually is a Marine Mammal Center in Marin County). Instead, what this movie really is, conceptually, is an update of “Tomorrow is Yesterday”.

While the main impetus for the time travel is different (the original pitch amounted to “there's something the Federation needs that can only be found in the 1980s” and the story is about purposefully going back to the past to save the future instead of escaping it), the structure is broadly similar, as both “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and Voyage Home have the crew time displaced and interacting with contemporary Earth in a humorously awkward and stilted way. Voyage Home comes across as superior in this regard purely because it builds off of the groundwork laid in Search for Spock in putting all of the characters, not just Kirk and Spock, on the same level, and it does so in leaps and bounds. Not only does each and every character get a moment to shine, they each get their own subplot that's integral to the final resolution. Never before or since has this cast been depicted this way, and everyone rises to the challenge eagerly and formidably: Everyone remembers Chekov and Uhura stumbling around Alameda looking for the “Nuclear Wessels”, or Scotty and McCoy inventing transparent aluminum with a Gen. 1 Macintosh (I had that computer, by the way). In “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, by contrast, only Kirk gets to play around in 1967, with the rest of the bridge crew relegated to pushing buttons and watching viewscreens.

That's not to say the choice to make the MacGuffin humpback whales was completely arbitrary, though: Nimoy picked them because he felt whale songs would give the film an “air of mystery”, and the film does pick up on this. The probe is one of my favourite ideas in all of Star Trek: This big, mysterious thing that suddenly appears out of nowhere, returns just as quickly and remains a completely incomprehensible and unknowable enigma. Likewise, the scene of it travelling through the solar system making the Federation's science stations go all wonky is one of my favourite sequences in the franchise too. It's the first moment I can say Star Trek truly and indisputably (and successfully) hits cosmic wonder. There's also the tiniest flash of the mystical and Fortean here too: Some people might scoff at the idea of cetaceans being a highly advanced intelligence with ties to the extragalactic realm (though curiously nobody seems to mind when Douglas Adams does it), but there is at least one account I've read where eyewitnesses report seeing whales and dolphins going wild in the presence of a UFO hovering over the ocean. I remember being reminded of this account the first time I saw this film and thinking how clever it was Star Trek seemed to be acknowledging that. In hindsight it probably wasn't intentional, but it's a fun motif to graft onto the movie either way.

Though the conservation message is there, the real purpose in sending the former Enterprise crew back in time is to re-examine Star Trek's utopianism with the renewed scrutiny the perspective of the 1980s provides us. In his own terrific review of Voyage Home, Jack Graham points out how the movie tells the story of relics from the utopianism of the 1960s forced to wander through Reagan's Neoconservative United States. This ties back into the wave of nostalgia for Star Trek and other pop culture artefacts like it that must have been circulating at the time: Voyage Home is essentially about digging up Star Trek and throwing it up against the modern world to see if it's still worth hanging onto in 1986. So, how does Star Trek's flavour of idealism and vision for the future stack up in 1986?

Well, one consequence of Nicholas Meyer handling this portion of the movie is that some of his trademark top-down heavy-handedness does work its way into the film: The worst example is probably when Spock questions Kirk about profanity on the bus, and he responds by saying “That's simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you if you don't swear every other word”. The implication, of course, is that Star Trek's refined and elegant future would have no need for such vulgarities, being as they are the province of uneducated commoners. So that's pretty bourgeois and classist. Then there's the scene (also on the bus), with the punk and the boom box, which is about as bad and predictable as people have said it is. And Meyer, being Meyer, can't resist throwing in pointlessly showy name-drops to Shakespeare, Melville and D.H. Lawrence, because he wants to make it perfectly clear to us that he thinks he's more intellectual and well-read than we are.

(Speaking of Star Trek's futurism, and I don't think this has ever been commented on before, but I think The Voyage Home may be the very first time in the history of the franchise where it's stated the Original Series is supposed to take place in the 23rd Century, and that money no longer exists in that time. This makes sense not just given Meyer's perspective, but because this movie also marks Mike Okuda's Star Trek debut, and it's Okuda who created the official Star Trek Chronology for “The Neutral Zone”. On a related note, Spock's behaviour in this movie was totally the template for Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

So this isn't looking terribly good. Star Trek is coming back for its own nostalgia theme party and still seems to be clinging to its dangerously outmoded paternalistic upper class white attitudes. It still seems to think it can swoop down from On High and tell us all how to live our lives, even though the world is a vastly different place and it never even had the right to do that in the first place. But The Voyage Home's production tribulations actually bail Meyer out on this one, because the key character here is Gillian Taylor. Though her part was originally written for Eddie Murphy in what is admittedly one of the franchise's biggest missed opportunities, Catherine Hicks is absolutely phenomenal: She's defiant, commanding and sprightly and a more then effective comic performer. She immediately gels with the rest of the cast (especially William Shatner and James Doohan) and outright demands to be heard and taken seriously as an equal at every opportunity, both in and out of character. Hicks turns Taylor into a complete subversion of the girl-of-the-week role she's expected to play, making decisions out of her passion for whales and for the future-Not at all for Kirk, whom she mostly regards as a well-meaning, but washed up, guy who's past his prime.

This is why Taylor is the lynchpin to everything here. The biggest criticism leveled against her, and one Meyer himself raised, is that her decision to accompany the ex-Enterprise crew back to the future invalidates a valuable message about taking responsibility to foster material social progress in the present. In essence, an escape into a utopian dream (and indeed, given Star Trek's age and attitude, one that may well be outdated) with no commitment to work towards making it a reality. Meyer is, predictably, wrong. Remember, the whole point of Voyage Home was from the start that there's something we have in 1986 the utopian Star Trek future lacks and is in dire need of: Taylor doesn't represent an escape into fantasy or an embrace of retrograde ideals, she represents the utopian ideals of the 1980s and the reason she's so important is because she reminds Star Trek that it needs them. That Star Trek needs her. On a textual level, Taylor herself points out that nobody in the crew's time knows anything about humpback whales, and there's nobody more qualified than her to teach them. And remember, this whole mess started because there were no whales in the future for the probe to talk to and the Federation had no clue what to do. Gillian is going to work for a better future because she's going to work to make Star Trek better.

(Oh yes, Gillian absolutely belongs in the 23rd Century. Which is why I adore it when Chris Claremont brings her back for the Original Series graphic novel he wrote for DC in the 1990s. She doesn't have a huge role, but Claremont clearly writes her as the only person who can act as Kirk's true equal and foil: She's the new, improved, platonic Carol Marcus. I always felt Gillian should have gotten a position on the new Enterprise as a natural sciences officer and was beyond livid when neither Star Trek V or Star Trek VI acknowledged her existence. Especially because the heartwarming scene in San Francisco bay at the end of the movie unquestionably casts her as a member of the family.)

And that's why this is such a terrific time travel story. Star Trek's re-emergence in the 1980s has revealed it to be something of a dinosaur: It's very telling Kirk and Spock's cover story is that they're homeless and burned out Berkeley hippies from the 1960s (hell, they don't even have the Enterprise anymore). As Gillian says, they're “hard luck cases” and it's tough not to have a soft spot for them. In allowing Gillian to come back to the future with the crew, Star Trek is admitting that it's a bit faded and out of its time, but, more importantly, it's making us a promise that it knows this and is willing to learn and grow with the times. It's something Star Trek has always said, but it's vitally important that it says this again now when history has definitively moved beyond it and Star Trek has officially become retro. It's the exact message the franchise needed to convey at this point in time, and it's a true laugh riot to boot. It's no surprise that in spite of its quirks and imperfections The Voyage Home became the most popular and successful Star Trek movie ever. Gillian Taylor brought whales to Star Trek, and Will Riker will someday make an offhand comment about a “cetacean ops” on *his* USS Enterprise.

Speaking of...The Voyage Home did so unexpectedly well that Paramount thought the time was finally right to bring Star Trek back to television. But, given the actors' salaries coming off of four feature films made them prohibitively expensive for a television budget, they decided to start fresh with a new cast. And, to everyone's surprise, they announced Gene Roddenberry, D.C. Fontana, Dave Gerrold and Bob Justman would be back in the production offices.

The Next Generation is finally about to be born.

Comments

Ross 2 years, 7 months ago

Among my Star Trek IV memories:
* This is the first Star Trek movie which, so far as I know, was adapted as an audiobook, using the format of the time, which was George Takei (Or occasionally James Doohan) reading a pruning-shears abridgement of the novelization intercut with short monologues of Spock's personal reflections performed by Leonard Nemoy. The first line of the audiobook adaptation is "I fell into fire"
* The VHS release of Star Trek IV contained the (as far as I know) first trailer for TNG. All I really remember of it today is that the announcer describes Geordi as "A man of unique vision."
* I really love the title music for this movie, and was heartily disappointed that they never use it for anything else.

Things which did not occur to me untill years later:
* The basic plot of this movie is "Something humanity did thoughtlessly around the audience's time comes back to threaten 23rd century earth in the form of a giant omnipotent space probe, so the crew of the Enterprise, on a basically new ship, have to save the day by delivering a message to it. Also, one of the parents from Seventh Heaven ends up permanently transported to a new world, never to return to the world they came from." So technically, it's the same movie as The Motion Picture.
* If Gillian's argument for coming to the future is that the future is presumably short of whale biologists, why does she immediately bugger off on a science vessel? Also, how is she remotely qualified for that?

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 7 months ago

"The VHS release of Star Trek IV contained the (as far as I know) first trailer for TNG. All I really remember of it today is that the announcer describes Geordi as 'A man of unique vision.'"

Is that the one with the wonderfully cheesy bombastic 80s voiceover guy who emphasizes the end of every sentence and says "The 24th Century Begins"? Because I remember that too: It and all the other TNG promos are on the recent Blu-ray releases, if you wanna feed your nostalgia.

"If Gillian's argument for coming to the future is that the future is presumably short of whale biologists, why does she immediately bugger off on a science vessel? Also, how is she remotely qualified for that?"

I always assumed it was part of her training to get her acclimated to her new life in the 23rd Century. FWIW, Chris Claremont says it's an *ocean* research vessel (an old sailing schooner she captains and uses as a houseboat), not a starship.

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Ross 2 years, 7 months ago

A bit of googling has found me the exact trailer in question: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtmsI07AMsE

I remember thinking it seemed like a cheat to use clips from Star Trek II.

I'll buy ocean research vessel as a retcon, but I can't imagine they actually meant that when they wrote the line.

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 7 months ago

Ah, yes, I remember that one! Looks like it was filmed before they had enough footage from "Encounter at Farpoint" to make a trailer out of. Happened to DS9 too, and it was even more egregious there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLyGiShr3G0

Well, the *real* answer is that Nicholas Mayer and Harve Bennett didn't actually communicate during pre-production, so the two halves of the movie don't actually line up with or follow each other.

I dunno, maybe Gillian helps invent them a submersible starship. We know they exist as of Voyager and Star Trek Into Darkness...

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Ross 2 years, 7 months ago

Wow. I do not think I saw that DS9 trailer. The only one I remember had every sentence begin with the breathy clause, "It waits..." I do like the logo though.

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 7 months ago

I LOVE the "It waits..." trailers!

Yeah, for a temporary logo it's a good one. I've occasionally wondered if it wouldn't have been a better choice than the one they went with.

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K. Jones 2 years, 7 months ago

This was a proper ensemble. As we only saw rarely in the Original Series, even the thinnest of plots was always elevated by the talent involved in this ensemble, and that'll hold true into the next series as well. By this point, the Kirk & Spock show at least no longer exists, because at least the McCoy & Scott show happening simultaneously is equally compelling. But the rest are excellent as well, and memorable.

Plus it always felt to me like Sulu was flirting with that Huey-2 pilot, so there's that.

I'm sure I'll have more to think about later - using sci-fi as a lens to look at the contemporary world is hardly a first for this film, but this was a very finely balanced example, with only a modicum too much in the way of expository set-trappings in the framing devices and continuity nods.

I missed a chance to meet Bob Ballard at Colgate some years back. My biology teacher and he were mutual acquaintances. This was probably ... oh, right around Cameron's Titanic.

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T. Hartwell 2 years, 7 months ago

So this (specifically, the last 15 minutes of this) was what introduced me to Star Trek.

See, growing up I was always a Star Wars kid, and being the young impressionable thing I was I automatically assumed this meant I had to be 100% against this "Trek" thing. Mind you, I have no clue where that came from- my parents liked both franchises about equally, both having grown up on TOS and seeing Wars in high school/college- heck, my mom apparently much enjoyed TNG during its run. But somehow I gleaned the rivalry at a very early age and was firmly rooted on the Star Wars side of things.

So then one day when I'm like 11 or 12 or something, I go into the back room where my Dad's watching this film, and I see this woman press up against something invisible- it turns out it's a spaceship. Intrigued, I ask my dad what we're watching. "Oh, it's Star Trek". "Wait, what? I thought Star Trek was this boring thing with some old bald guy*!" "No, this is Star Trek". "Who's the guy with pointy ears?" "Oh, that's Spock. He's an alien".

From that point on I was hooked. After that my mother checked out III and II (we ended up watching the 'trilogy' in reverse order, curiously enough), then we caught a TOS episode at my grandmother's house ("Savage Curtain"), then it was collections of old VHSs from book sales and DVDs of the original series from the library. But this was the start of it, and as a kid I absolutely loved it, and even now it's one of my favorite things about the franchise.

Lovely article, btw. Totally agreed on Taylor- it's amazing just how well she works here, and a shame she didn't appear more on the show.

*incidentally, it's interesting I would've thought this (I think all my knowledge of Star Trek just came from the osmosis of posters and ads for I think what would've been Nemesis), given that in middle school I started watching some reruns of TNG with my sister, starting episode-by-episode somewhere around Season 3 (specifically "The Defector"), and that continued on for several years. When I started rewatching the show from the beginning a couple months ago, I realized I actually had way more fondness and nostalgia for this part of my experience of the show, and it was absolutely this captain and this crew that was nearest and dearest to my heart. "Old bald guy", indeed.

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 7 months ago

This is a wonderful story, thanks so much for sharing it!

Sounds like your experience with Star Trek was the complete inverse of mine (I even had the same situation IRT TNG: I remember asking my father why it was called "The Next Generation", because as far as I was concerned it *was* Star Trek, completely and totally). I'm really glad you weren't harangued by Star Trek fans the way I was by Star Wars fans though.

Voyage Home remains one of my absolute favourite parts of Star Trek today too, in case I undersold it here. It's probably the best, most definitive Original Series story to me.

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5tephe 2 years, 6 months ago

Thank you so much for this lovely reading of one of favorites of them all. While I had grown up watching Original Series with my dad as a10 year old, this was one of the earlier movies I saw in the cinema. I would have been 12 or 13.

It's amazing - I can 'feel' in your reading a lot of the things I loved so much about this film, but didn't have the words or sophistication to express or understand at the time.

So thanks for saying all that so well.

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Daru 2 years, 5 months ago

Great essay Josh. Been out of touch for ages but still reading. Been completing fours years of coursework and got it all handed in so yay!

Love this movie probably more than the other Trek movies in some ways. The lightness of touch in the humour just pitches the characters to us perfectly, leaving me feel like they have always been this fun - revealing their true heart maybe. I have such good memories of going to see this with my father (who was an absolute Trekkie) when they came out in the cinema, along with my brother and sister. Good times.

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 5 months ago

Glad to have you back-You've been missed! Sound's like you've been pretty busy though. I'm happy to hear you share some of your own Star Trek memories.

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Daru 2 years, 5 months ago

Thanks Josh - real kind to hear I've been missed! Yeah it's been a massively busy time with work and finishing my studies. Yours and Phil's blogs are cornerstones in my reading, so good to be catching up with yours again. *Really* looking forwards to the TNG journey.

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