Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was, box-office-wise, the apex of the Star Trek film franchise (although The Motion Picture sold more tickets). It’s amazing to think that this is the only Trek film to have grossed more than $100M at the box office. This is particularly notable today, when just having a Happy Meal toy practically guaranteed $100M.
At the time, I was quite happy with Star Trek IV and it was pleasant to recognize that it’s mostly still true. I have become a bit less accepting of the “foolish humanity” aspect that runs throughout the film and has only become more prevalent in popular sci-fi in the years since. Fortunately, although it is ever present, it is not particularly hard pressed in Voyage Home.
The biggest difference between this film and all other Star Trek films is that Voyage Home was intentionally produced, fundamentally, as a comedy. Yes, there’s drama. Yes, there’s action. But most of the situations and interactions that the Enterprise crew find themselves in are structured to maximize the humorous nature of there “fish out of water” condition.
The story is rather slight. It revolves around a gigantic, powerful “Probe” that comes to Earth, casuing massive destruction along the way. (Yes, another one.) This time, it appears to be trying to contact someone on the planet, without the slightest recognition of humanity’s presence. * In a desperate attempt to save mankind, Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise crew (now on board the commandeered Klingon ship dubbed the “Bounty”) travel back in time to find humpback whales, the species, extinct in the future, that Spock has determined is the one the Probe is seeking. But it’s in the details of how they accomplish their goals that the humor is found.
Mostly, the humor still works today. Much of it is that aforementioned “fish out of water” stuff, and that’s always solid. But there is a good bit of gentle fun poked at the Star Trek franchise, as well as normal, light comedy. The mix is strong and credit for that goes to Leonard Nimoy (who co-created the story), Harve Bennet and Nicholas Meyer (who did virtually all of the work on the screenplay despite not getting full credit).
Due to William Shatner’s television commitments, Leonard Nimoy again stepped into the director’s shoes for Voyage Home and it’s a much stronger entry than his first. Nimoy worked best with light comedy, as evidenced by his strong work on 3 Men and a Baby and he plays to his strengths here.
The cast is on target, but I don’t feel they were all used to their best advantage. Shatner gets a lot to do as Kirk and Nimoy gets some good scenes as Spock (particularly in his interaction with his parents), but I feel that DeForest Kelley is shortchanged, as his contributions as McCoy are not nearly as significant or noticable as his position in the cast warrants. James Doohan gets better stuff as Scotty, making this one of his most notable performances in the role. Everyone else just has dribs and drabs. They’re all quite good, they just don’t get much to do. As usual, Mark Lenard and Jane Wyatt as Spock’s parents Sarek and Amanda make the most of their screen time, really highlighting their significance within Star Trek lore. (Although it’s unfortunate they couldn’t find a way to present them together. It’s amazing to me that they only appeared on screen together in their first appearances, the episode “Journey to Babel”.)
There is only one significant new character, Dr. Gillian Taylor, a marine biologist who has taken care of the two whales that Kirk & Co. are trying to rescue. As played by Catherine Hicks, she proves to be a strong addition to the cast, moreso than many others who have filled similar roles. She seems a viable love interest for Kirk, the only one, frankly, besides Carol Marcus.
Overall, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home deserves its reputation as one of the strongest of the Star Trek films. The balance of excitement, drama and comedy is a rare example of truly pushing the boundaries of sci-fi. Far too often, filmmakers and show runners today feel the only way they can entertain an audience or get a point across is to hammer the audience over the head with it or drape it in as much pathos as possible. The Voyage Home (and the best of Star Trek) succeeded because they looked beyond the boundaries of their small, built-in audience and made something that can be enjoyed by anyone.
* This is yet another example of my biggest sci-fi pet peeve: the superintelligent race that can’t figure out that they should talk to us.