Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

(Dir. Leonard Nimoy, USA, 1986)

[part of a BFI essays collection]

In 1977, George Lucas released Star Wars. In 1978, Paramount Pictures announced that Star Trek would be emerging from its own ever-lengthening TV shadow to become a motion picture. Released in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a critical flop; but it did make money - lots of money. The show was still on the road. For the second film, the producers famously, and shrewdly, turned back to the original television series for inspiration, returning to the big screen in 1982 with The Wrath of Khan. That film was a hit, and the franchise was safe. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), as a direct follow-on from number 2, was fairly easy, but number 3 presented a problem: how to keep the momentum going with a completely new story. Once again, the producers turned to the original TV series for inspiration, namely its most popular episode: science fiction writer Harlan Ellison's City on the Edge of Forever - a time travel story.

In Star Trek III: The Voyage Home, 23rd century Earth is threatened with destruction by a giant space-probe, which communicates only in the language of the now extinct humpback whale. The Enterprise crew travels to 1986, collects two whales, with the help of Dr Gillian Taylor, and returns to when it came. Back in the 23rd century, the whales speak to the probe and Earth is spared her destruction. The story is simple, but of course the potential for time-travel based drama and comedy is huge.

Whilst the film is in danger at times of over-moralising about whales (with further sly digs at pollution and nuclear energy) the witty dialogue and Leonard Nimoy's sensitive direction make this a thoroughly engaging romp into uncharted Trek territory. In his autobiography, I am Spock, Nimoy reports that he objected when the producers originally proposed that subtitles be used to explain the conversation between the whales and the probe. Thankfully Nimoy prevailed and was able to make the film he wanted. The result is a light-hearted comedy, at its best when the familiar characters go through familiar routines in what are really just standard time travel scenarios. There is a certain whimsical lunacy to Scotty's argument for divulging the formula for transparent aluminium to a 1986 engineer: "How do we know he didn't invent the thing?", and Chekov's mission to steal photons from a US nuclear "wessel" borders on farce; however, Dr McCoy's commentary on 20th century medicine is well worth the visit to the hospital.

For the producers, a Trek film set largely in contemporary San Francisco had further appeal. For a start, it was relatively cheap. It also had the potential, in the words of screenwriter Harve Bennett, to "lure a lot more non-Star Trek fans into the theaters". This was justified by the film's success at the box office, as Nimoy's film recouped its $25million budget many times over; "the one with the whales" has since become a favourite with fans and non-fans alike. It is fitting, therefore, that the film is dedicated to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, which was destroyed during its launch in 1986.

The successful concept of mining the past has been used to great effect for J.J. Abrams 2009 homage, Star Trek, the 11th movie in the seemingly unstoppable series. Back in 1986, Leonard Nimoy's triumph paved the way for William Shatner to direct what would be worst film of the sequence: the lamentable Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). But every franchise has its low points; look what happened to Star Wars.

USA; Paramount; 119 minutes; UK cert. PG
Producer: Harve Benett; Writers: Harve Bennett, Peter Krikes, Steve Meerson, Nicholas Meyer; Cinematography: Donald Peterman; Editor: Peter E. Berger; Musis: Leonard Rosenman.
Cast. Kirk: William Shatner; Spock: Leonard Nimoy; Dr McCoy: DeForest Kelley; Scotty: James Doohan; Sulu: George Takei; Chekov: Walter Koenig; Uhura: Nichelle Nichols; Sarek: Mark Lenard; Amanda: Jane Wyatt: Saavik: Robin Curtis; Dr Gillian Taylor: Catherine Hicks.

Trek Navigator: The Ultimate Guide to the Entire "Star Trek" Saga, Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross, 1998, London: Boxtree.
Beyond Uhura: "Star Trek" and Other Memories, Nichelle Nichols, 1994, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
I am Spock, Leonard Nimoy, 1996, London: Arrow Books. Original edition, UK: Century, 1995.
NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America, Constance Penley, 1997, London: Verso.
"Star Trek" Movie Memories: The Inside Story of the Classic Movies, William Shatner with Chris Kreski, 1994, London: HarperCollins.

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