Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Star Trek Does A Science Fiction Comedy With An Environmentalist Edge: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

The Good: Amusing, Good character development, Good story, Decent acting
The Bad: Does not hold up over multiple viewings well, Some awkward special effects
The Basics: With a strong environmental message and a lot of humor, Kirk and crew journey back to 1986 to save the future in a very accessible Star Trek movie.

Remember when environmentalists were not considered a fringe group and society at large had respect for art that challenged humanity to take responsibility for the environment and creatures on Earth other than just humans? I do, because it was not that long ago. The Star Trek franchise has a long history of understanding the role of animals in an environment. Sure, in the first episode aired, "The Man Trap" (click here for that review!), the crew kills an endangered species, but Kirk goes to extraordinary lengths to save the Horta a few episodes later in "Devil In The Dark." Star Trek continued that tradition in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, one of the most commercially successful films in the franchise and one of the films that reached the broadest (most mainstream) audience.

Following on the heels of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III : The Search For Spock, which were very dark, personal and dangerous films, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home takes a lighter tone. After all, in this flick, all that is at stake is the planet Earth.

While the former crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is stranded on Vulcan while Spock recovers from being dead, Kirk and company await the repercussions of violating numerous Federation laws and StarFleet orders for their actions in the prior outing. They vote to take their hijacked Klingon Bird of Prey back to Earth and be judged. While Kirk and crew are en route to Earth, a massive probe arrives there first and begins shut down the planet's power and boil off the oceans. Kirk and his crew arrive to witness this and Spock realizes why the probe is doing what it is doing: the probe is trying to communicate with humpback whales, which are extinct in the 23rd century.

So, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the Fab Four go back to 1986 to rescue some humpback whales and bring them back to the future. In the past, Kirk finds whales, a love interest and adventure that makes it difficult to return right away to the menaced future.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a film that is entirely misnamed. Sure The Voyage Home works for fans who have followed the previous two movies (these films are strongly serialized!), but it does nothing for those who are picking up just this movie. Nine out of ten people I've met and talked Trek with refer to this as "The One With The Whales." Too bad Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett (who came up with the story) did not think to just name it that. Star Trek IV: The One With The Whales pretty much sums up the attention span of the average viewer of this movie.

Fortunately, The Voyage Home is smarter than that, though the title is still a lame one. This is not so much about the voyage back to Earth as rescuing Earth. And for a series that had titles like The Wrath Of Khan and "For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky," you'd think they could come up with something more dramatic or explanatory than The Voyage Home. But being more than simply a story about returning home or about whales, Star Trek IV succeeds admirably at doing two things: entertaining and exploring consequences.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home rightly follows up on two films that deal with obsession and death with something lighter. All right, the themes of The Voyage Home are not lighter, but the approach most certainly is. This movie is a science fiction comedy that is smart and clever. As well, it is funny. Throughout the tale of saving Earth, there are little jokes thrown in: Kirk explaining where he works to a person in 1986, McCoy treating a woman with renal failure who regrows her kidneys from pills he gives her, the names of the whales and the Klingon ship. There is wonderful banter between Kirk and Spock as they try to keep information from Dr. Gillian Taylor. And there's the simple humor of Spock swearing. Spock swears a lot in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and it's funny for those who are familiar with the character.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home expands the cinematic repertoire of Star Trek to include comedy. While casual viewers of the series might not have known the number of humorous episodes Star Trek did, from "The Trouble With Tribbles" to "A Piece of the Action," the sense of humor in Star Trek was always there. Science fiction comedies are rare on the big screen, but the popular success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which successfully integrated science fiction messages and humor could arguably have paved the way for such later science fiction comedies like Galaxy Quest and even Dude, Where's My Car? Seeing that there is a market for humor while employing science fiction elements like time travel is something that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home did very well.

But more than that, The Voyage Home is about dealing with consequences. Kirk is returning to Earth to own up to the consequences of his actions in resurrecting Spock. The whole point of the story with the whales in the past is dealing with the consequences of humans wiping the species out. Everything in The Voyage Home is built on prior actions that have resonated through to where this movie begins.

And what is most effective about the dealing with repercussions in The Voyage Home is that the answers are not simple. Kirk receives real consequences for his actions. The actions of whalers in the late 80s puts Admiral Kirk's crew in serious jeopardy (time travel isn't harmless, after all!) and it threatens to destroy Earth entirely. But even the consequences of things that the average viewer will be rooting for are present in The Voyage Home; Kirk's actions in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock have caused a diplomatic incident with the Klingon Empire. As a result, the Klingon Ambassador wants Kirk extradited to the Empire to stand trial, though Spock's father, Sarek, eloquently argues that Klingon captain Kruge got what was coming to him when he attempted to steal the Genesis Project's secrets. The whole idea that even the Klingon villain from the previous movie has consequences for his actions is clever and unifying in this film.

More subtly, Spock's lifelong struggle between his Vulcan and human halves reaches the point where the consequences for him choosing a Vulcan lifestyle are dealt with. This is a wonderful gift to fans of the series, but will likely pass over the heads of those who are simply sitting down to watch Star Trek IV on its own. On its own, The Voyage Home" is accessible to non-fans of the franchise, but it does contain a number of references to the events in Star Trek II and Star Trek III.

But the strong environmental message reaches out well beyond the Star Trek fan base and the humor level of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is very accessible to all audiences. In short, the humor is not terrible self-referential or so specific only science fiction fans will enjoy it.

What makes Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home cinematically worthy on the grander scale, i.e. not just among science fiction fans or environmentalists, are the characters. More than any of the previous Star Trek outings, The Voyage Home effectively uses the entire ensemble and it establishes the characters as vital and well-rounded on a number of levels. So, for example, Sulu's love of hobby's serves him well as he illustrates he can helm both a Klingon Bird of Prey and as Huey helicopter. Scotty's engineering knowledge leads to the construction of a tank to hold whales aboard the starship. McCoy's humanism causes him to soften some toward Spock, while at the same time expressing very real doubts about the recently deceased science officer's abilities.

Even newcomer Dr. Taylor is intriguing and well-rounded. Instead of simply being a generic love interest for Admiral Kirk, Taylor is plucky, determined, educated and very much her own woman. She defies Kirk, holds her own to keep what she sees as her whales safe, and is willing to do what it takes to see her wishes are met. At the same time, she has compassion for humans and is still trying to get the whole dating thing down.

Kirk and Spock are each played with a strange alternating depth and shallowness in The Voyage Home that somehow comes together perfectly to work. Kirk is dealing with serious consequences for killing people and destroying important technology and he is potentially trapped in the past on his homeworld that is essentially doomed, yet he makes jokes about remembering where the invisible ship is and educates Spock on how to swear in the 20th century.

Similarly, Spock is an unnerving combination of highly educated - quickly deducing that the destructive alien probe is looking for humpback whales - and the perfect straightman to play off Kirk with. So, there's an odd dichotomy between Spock as calculating wonder who figures out the time travel calculations for the slingshot maneuver in his head and the simple banter he goes through with Kirk about dining out.

What sells it is the interaction of actors that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy have. Nimoy and Shatner have a chemistry and sense of one another's timing that is wonderful and perfectly executed. Long before William Shatner became publicly recognized for his comic abilities on Boston Legal, director Leonard Nimoy recognized it and actor Leonard Nimoy knew how to play off it. The result is that Shatner and Nimoy as Kirk and Spock recreate (there were moments on Star Trek that alluded to this level of interplay) a comic performance that is unabashedly funny and perfectly executed.

The 2-disc DVD of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is packed with extras, including an enjoyable commentary track featuring Shatner and Nimoy talking about the making of the movie. The text commentary is fine, but very much designed for fans of Star Trek. The second disc is a treat more for fans of Star Trek than for those drawn to The Voyage Home by how it defies the expectations of the cinematic franchise. None of the bonuses genuinely explore the environmental impact or messages of the movie. Instead, there are featurettes on Kirk's various women, the language of whales, a number of special effects sequences and how the film was made with a minimal special effects budget. The real treat is to see the interviews done at the time by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley. Not only are they younger and talking with humor about a lot of the film, they are articulate and, as a fan of the series, it's always nice to see DeForest Kelley alive and happy, talking. It's a treat for fans, especially those of us who did not get to meet him while he was alive.

But, again, the special features are very much tailored to the fans of Star Trek, as opposed to those who watch Star Trek IV for its environmental message. That's not to say they're bad, just that they are very biased for that audience. All in all, this set is a steal for fans of the series and it remains as poignant and on-message today as when it was originally released.

For the rest of the Star Trek films, please click here to read the movie series review!

For other science fiction comedies, please check out my reviews of:
Land Of The Lost
Year One


For other Star Trek episode or film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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