Re-Watching Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Illustration by Bob PeakScreenplay by: Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes and
Harve Bennett & Nicholas Meyer
Story by: Leonard Nimoy & Harve Bennett
Produced by: Harve Bennett
Directed by: Leonard Nimoy

Release date: November 26, 1986
Stardate: 8390.0 (aka 1986)

Mission Summary

The crew of the Enterprise has been court-martialed by Klingon request for the ship stolen and the lives lost in Star Trek III. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, a mysterious probe that disables just about everything is headed straight for Earth. The probe sends a signal no one can understand, and when it doesn’t get a response it begins to vaporize the Earth’s oceans and ionize its atmosphere: a recipe for disaster. Spock, newly born again, discovers that the signal is the song of the humpback whale: extinct since the 21st century. In classic Star Trek fashion, the crew go back in time to 1986 San Francisco to nab themselves some humpback whales.

Once there, Kirk and Spock seek out whales; Scotty, Sulu, and McCoy look for materials to build a whale tank; and Chekov and Uhura look for replacement energy for their spent dilithium crystals.  Scotty, Sulu, and McCoy trade a formula for transparent aluminum to get the tank materials, while Uhura and Chekov find a nuclear wessel for fuel. Kirk and Spock meet a Dr. Taylor, a whale biologist whose two whales are set to be released into the wild, endangering them both. Though she initially refuses to let Kirk and Spock have their tracking codes. when the whales are released early without her knowledge she agrees, hopping aboard the starship and ultimately deciding to return with her whales and the crew to the future.

Safely home, the whales shake off the probe, all charges against Kirk’s crew are dropped, and Kirk accepts a demotion to captain.


The Voyage Home is the first Star Trek I can remember, and though it’s not my absolute favorite of the films (or the series) it remains the closest to my heart. The “Cetacean Institute” (the Monterey Bay Aquarium) was about half hour from where I grew up and a frequent destination for my younger self. There were no whales, but there was plenty of giant kelp and many playful sea otters, a lovely touch pool, and more information about the salty deep than you could shake a phaser at. At the time I desperately wanted to be a marine biologist, so you can imagine my fondness for Dr. Gillian Taylor, the environmental message, and the bittersweet ending of George and Gracie getting a whole ocean to themselves. It wasn’t until much later that I came to appreciate the Star Trek aspect and since then I’ve seen it many, many times.

It’s easy to point out what makes this movie so different from all other Star Trek movies: comedy. I can’t help but admire the brilliance of applying the usual fish-out-of-water* shtick that our heroes usually go through any time they visit a planet and have it be our planet in our time.  Some fans believed the tone shift decision to be a crass (if savvy) attempt to attract a larger audience, but I think it remains as true to Star Trek as any other film. The Motion Picture, Wrath of Khan, and The Search for Spock are dark, dark films. Death is everywhere. The first has a doomsday machine, a transporter accident, and the deaths of two bridge officers. The second kills Spock, and the third kills Kirk’s son. Good comedy can highlight all the same tensions and fears as drama, and yet be a release from them. They say laughter heals all wounds; the moment for something life-affirming had definitely come.

A great example of this happens very early on in the film. When McCoy approaches Spock on their way back to Earth, and they have this exchange:

McCOY: Umm. Well, I just wanted to say it sure is nice to have your katra back in your head, not mine. What I mean is I may have carried your soul, but I sure couldn’t fill your shoes.
SPOCK: My shoes.
McCOY: Forget it! Perhaps we could cover a little philosophical ground? Life, death, life. Things of that nature?
SPOCK: I did not have time on Vulcan to review the philosophical disciplines.
McCOY: Come on Spock, it’s me, McCoy! You really have gone where no man has gone before. Can’t you tell me what it felt like?
SPOCK: It would be impossible to discuss the subject without a common frame of reference.
McCOY: You’re joking!
SPOCK: A joke is a story with a humorous climax.
McCOY: You mean I have to die to discuss your insights on death?
SPOCK: Forgive me, doctor, I am receiving a number of distress calls.
McCOY: I don’t doubt it!

This is one of my all-time favorite little character moments. It’s funny, yes, but it reveals so much about where these characters have come from and how much they’ve changed. McCoy feels closer to Spock having not just carried his soul but fully appreciated his absence. He missed the guy. His line about never filling his shoes is such a sweet thing to say, and yet there’s a hint of tragedy in that Spock can’t (yet) appreciate the emotion or sincerity of it.

Spock is back from the edge of the abyss, in many ways like a child learning how to walk and talk and think all over again. Uncertain steps mark his curiosity toward humans, and yet by the end, Spock is laughing it up and having a great time as they all splash around in the water. The strength of the film is evident by how natural that scene seems, and how well the movie gets us from Point A to Point B without the transition feeling forced or insincere. I’ve always really liked the frame story of Amanda encouraging him to be in touch with his human side because it makes his efforts to fit in on Earth that much more endearing. He really means every ill-fated attempt to be one of the guys, and I especially respect and admire that Spock’s absolute commitment to the truth is never really the butt of the joke. Rather, Kirk’s attempts to “cover” for Spock, to reframe, rephrase, and reinterpret his speech and behavior, are where the humor finds fertile ground. Shatner soaks up the attention, playing the smooth, canny, and yet utterly overwhelmed funny man to Nimoy’s pitch-perfect straight man. The two make a golden comedy duo, and bless Catherine Hicks for holding her own in all those scenes.

They’re not the only ones, of course. I’ve seen this movie at least a dozen times, but the jokes never seem to get old and I laughed just as loudly this time around as I did the first time. Finally everyone gets to have a little fun with their characters. The banter here is perfectly on point and you get such a fantastic sense of the actors bringing to the surface a lot of what had always been alluded to, yet never shown, in the original series. Chekov finally get to take the clash of cultures jokes to the next level; Scotty relishes the chance to play an active role. Sulu is completely in love with his city no matter the time period, and McCoy, for once, gets to play the straight man (with a dash of crankiness). The one who gets short shrift is Uhura, who just seems along for the ride. (A waste of talent, if you ask me. She makes a great comedienne in Star Trek VI, trying to learn Klingon.)

For a time travel story, The Voyage Home makes the most sense of any similar stories I’ve seen. (The exception is how they actually get there. I still laugh every time Kirk suggests going back in time as the obvious solution, as if it were as simple as reversing the polarity, but what can you do.) The way that information unfolds and the characters make discoveries is eminently plausible and intuitive. Kirk makes money the first order of business. The aquarium would advertise on a bus. The yellow pages ad is a stroke of genius. Most of the characters walk to get where they’re going, and they do their best based on a hodgepodge of historical trivia to fit in. Sure they conflate a few centuries, but they’re actually pretty good at it. I love the sense that these characters have done this all before, and even with all their gaffes they’re pretty systematic and professional about it. All those “just like Earth!” planets have come in handy.

It should be obvious that I adore this film. I use it as a gateway drug to get others into the franchise because of its accessibility.  It’s a great introduction to each of the characters, unabashedly silly and entertaining, and yet quintessentially Star Trek. The now-dated world of 1986 just adds to the charm.

One note, though: even on my billionth re-watch there’s something I don’t quite get. Is the implication that the whales have been actively communicating with aliens (or their probes, whatever) for millions of years? Or just that the aliens/their probes pick up the phone once or twice every geologic age and check in?

*How could I resist?

Torie’s Rating: Warp 6

Eugene Myers: This movie is kind of awesome.

I’m tempted to leave it at that. I wrote that comment in my notes (I do take notes while re-watching these, the better to analyze the material) pretty early in the film, sometime during the first scene at Starfleet headquarters—incidentally, the first scene ever at Starfleet headquarters, as we know it, which may have accounted for some of my enthusiasm.

It wasn’t a surprise that Star Trek IV is good—it’s always been one of my favorites—but I was surprised at how much fun it is, and excited at all the rest of the film to come. “Awesome” was, in fact, the running commentary at the back of my mind through the entire film. Either I’ve seen this movie many more times than I thought, or it’s simply incredibly memorable, because I remembered most of the dialogue just before it was spoken and reveled in hearing it again. I commented to Torie later that this film is like two hours of “best lines,” but that isn’t only a testament to the script, but to the actors. Their relationships and dialogue completely fit the characters we’ve known and loved, spring-boarding from what came before in the television show.

Before beginning this re-watch, I couldn’t recall the theme music at all. But as soon as the opening titles began, it all came back to me. (This is my favorite opening, by the way, simply because the title of the film beams in. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to please me.) The music may not be as sophisticated as Goldsmith’s and Horner’s symphonic scores–which were integrated as motifs through TMP, TWoK, and TSFS–but the score from (to me, unknown) Leonard Rosenman is very good. And it’s entirely appropriate to the more lighthearted tone and adventurous spirit of this film. The music seems more classical to my untrained ears than those that came before, and oddly evokes more of the high-seas capers than the Hornblower-inspired TWoK—though even this seems fitting for a film that features a ship named the H.M.S. Bounty, which actually visits the open sea. This is the most nautical Star Trek gets, until Star Trek Generations brings us aboard a 19th century Enterprise on the holodeck, or Data sings from H.M.S. Pinafore (Insurrection).

Awesome and fun as this movie is, I struggled to find something deeper to say about it. It isn’t as weighty as those that preceded it, by design, but it does serve an important function to the characters and films. I talked earlier about how TMP is a return to the status quo, getting the principals back where they belong so they could continue the voyages we remember them for. In some sense, TVH does the same thing, but I look at it more as the antithesis of TMP.

Both TMP and TVH concern an alien probe that approaches Earth, wreaking havoc in its wake and posing a seemingly impossible problem for humans to solve. In fact, both films feature rather similar dialogue assessing the situation.


DECKER: Jim, V’Ger expects an answer.
KIRK: An answer? I don’t know the question.

And in TVH:

FEDERATION PRESIDENT: There seems to be no way we can answer this Probe.
SAREK: It is difficult to answer when one does not understand the question.

Now, Sarek could have lifted that from Kirk’s mind during their mind-meld in the previous film, but it does set up an interesting contrast between the two films, which is broadened by the difference in the ultimate solution.

Spock says, “There are other forms of intelligence on Earth, Doctor. Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man.” Not only is this an incredibly insightful and time-saving leap of logic from the only resident non-human onboard, but it could be a criticism of TMP, in which the message was meant for man. Sometimes it’s better not to know everything, and I’ve always loved that the Probe is never really explained (at least, not in canon). It just is.

I was especially struck at the difference in Kirk’s responses to the threats to Earth. In TMP, Kirk acts as though he is the only person who can save the planet, and uses the threat as an opportunity to get back his command. (He’s also indecisive and incompetent.) In TVH, Kirk is only concerned with finding a way to save lives; he leaps into action, trying to solve the problem and try anything to make contact with the probe. When he decides to attempt to destroy it, it is reluctantly, only after it seems there is no other way. He is completely assured and back at the top of his game, and he basically wins everything based on his cleverness and charm. This is the Kirk we want to see.

Nearly all of TMP is devoted to answering the question, but in TVH they know the answer at the beginning and have to find a way of delivering it. Star Trek IV is about communication, learning how to connect with the probe—and especially with each other. Like his father, Spock faces a question he does not understand: “How do you feel?”

When TMP begins, Spock has devoted his studies to purging his mind of all emotion and abandoning his human heritage. Spock is in a similar place at the start of TVH: he has lost his connection to his human half, nor does he particularly want it back, except because his mother wishes it. (And mother knows best.) Spock essentially resets to the person he was in the original series, struggling with his human half and trying to understand his alien crewmates, which leads to some of the same kind of humor that was so successful on Star Trek, particularly between him and Dr. McCoy. He has lost the comfortable balance and maturity that he had achieved when we see him in TWoK, and regaining it forms his character arc.

At first I didn’t entirely understand why this film is considered part of a “trilogy” with II and III, other than the fact that it picks up where the events of the previous films left off, since it has such a distinct storyline. But as with the Probe, the plot is merely incidental since this film continues Spock’s story and brings him full circle back to where he was.

At the beginning of TVH, Spock tells his mother that he has decided to accompany Kirk and the others back to Earth not out of friendship but because, as he says, “I was there.” By the end of the film, Spock finally understands the question and has discovered the answer. He tells the President: “I stand with my shipmates.”

I initially criticized the shots of Spock laughing and smiling in the water at the end of the film, before deciding that this is the only moment he truly demonstrates and acknowledges his human half, without the influence of spores or alien intervention. His human friends provide a “safe space” in which Spock can show emotion—and this is such a joyful moment, one of the purest in the entire franchise. How often are they allowed to celebrate the fact that they’ve just beaten incredible odds and saved the world?

The plot on the whole succeeds, largely because a) the goals are clearly established and b) it all moves too quickly for us to think about it much. But objectively speaking, it’s kind of silly. It also works because it draws, once again, on a standard plot element from the original series, time travel, even using the same “slingshot” technique that was employed in “The Naked Time,” “Assignment: Earth,” and “Tomorrow is Yesterday.”

In fact, it’s rather remarkable that there isn’t any attempt to catch up viewers at all. It’s as if they have decided only to cater to those who have already seen the original series and the previous films (aside from another montage of video clips from TSFS)—“look, we can travel in time by flying around the sun, just deal with it.” It’s a kind of “damn the consequences” approach that the characters seem to share in the film, and somehow it works.

I think this film has more in common with road trip/buddy movies than with a traditional Star Trek story, with an emphasis on Kirk’s and Spock’s wacky antics together. If the events of this film hadn’t happened, and the crew had been able to proceed to Earth without interruption, Spock would not end where he does, with the understanding that he needs in order to embrace his human half and strengthen the bonds with his friends. Time travel gives them a few more days to get to know each other that they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Despite my love for TVH, it is not perfect. It may not hold under too much scrutiny, and I am not partial to the bizarre animation that runs during the trip back in time, though it’s better than a shot of the chronometer running backwards. (And it’s interesting in itself, as it foreshadows later events in the film.) The movie contains not one, but two wild chase scenes involving Chekov, which is at least one too many. And it also evokes Moby Dick, more literally in this case than usual.

How is it that in three months on Vulcan, Saavik hasn’t yet told Kirk how his son died? (If you really want to be nitpicky, she did tell him… in the previous movie.) And what is up with the Vulcan Smurf hats?

But there were also several nuances that I had never noticed before. I was delighted when I realized that the Probe was mimicking the position of the whales as they communicated. I also had forgotten this was the first time we saw a woman captain commanding a starship.

Most startling of all was the early plot point about the Klingon-Starfleet peace negotiations, which are briefly referenced in Star Trek III and lay the groundwork for Star Trek VI. I noticed a script credit to Nicholas Meyer in TVH, which I didn’t remember, and I wondered if this was some of his influence, since he picks the Klingon thread up again in his script for the last movie. These tiny nuggets in the background enhance and enrich the overall Star Trek universe, implying an ongoing story beyond the events of the films that improve upon the loose continuity and more standalone nature of the original series.

As at the end of television episodes, this film resets everything to the beginning: Spock is back to being comic relief; Kirk is a Captain again, in rank and practice; and there’s even the Enterprise-A (whose bridge oddly reminded me of the bridge from the Abrams movie—it’s brighter than the refit 1701 anyway). But unlike in the series, the characters have learned something. Because of the events of II, III, and IV, they have grown up and grown closer.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 6

Background Information

Even before the release of  Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Paramount asked Leonard Nimoy to direct this installment. He and producer Harve Bennett wanted to take a break from the moody, dark themes of the three previous films and do a comedy with no villain and a clear environmental message.  However, Shatner held out for more money (and a directing gig) so Nimoy and Bennett began pre-planning with the assumption Shatner would not be appearing in the film. For at least eight months Bennett and Nimoy contemplated a Starflett Academy prequel. Eventually Shatner got his ransom and signed on for the film. (He and Nimoy each earned over $2 million, which was part of the reason that TNG was cast with unknowns.) Many ideas were tossed around: oil drilling, a disease whose cure was only available pre-rainforest depletion, etc. but all that material seemed too depressing for a comedy. Eventually humpback whales were chosen because of their unique songs and their enormous (and as such, hijinks-inducing) size.

The script went through many iterations. At first, the Dr. Taylor character was a man–a kooky UFO-obsessed nutty professor type, with Eddie Murphy in mind for the role. Though an enormous fan of Star Trek, he turned it down and chose to make The Golden Child instead. (Conflicting stories say either that he wanted to play a Starfleet officer or an alien, or that the studio nixed the idea, not wanting to mix their two biggest franchises, the other being Beverly Hills Cop.) Paramount hated this script and hired Nicholas Meyer to fix it.

Meyer and Bennett wrote a new one (not even reading the first one) in 12 days, with Bennett writing the beginning and end, and Meyer writing the San Francisco portions. Meyer got the idea for Taylor’s character from a profile in National Geographic about another whale biologist. The studio loved it, though some scenes ended up nixed. One such scene involved Takei running into a distant ancestor of his, a young boy. They went so far as to hire an actor and try to film it, but the boy was not a professional actor and they had to scrap the scene (though it survives in the novelization). Chapel had many scenes (some of which were significant), and all were cut aside from a single line of dialogue and a reaction shot, a sad showing for her final appearance ever as Christine Chapel. Saavik had originally remained on Vulcan, pregnant with Spock’s child (thank you, pon farr), and Dr. Taylor remained on earth to renew her commitment to humpback whale preservation, or something.

With a final script in hand, filming began in February 1986. Unlike any other Star Trek film before or since, it was filmed mostly on location in San Francisco. The aircraft carrier scenes were filmed about the USS Ranger, not, alas, the USS Enterprise, which was out to sea and filled to the gills with classified, unfilmable things. Most notably to my own history, Dr. Taylor’s “Cetacean Institute” is actually the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which had opened just two years earlier in my neck of the woods. (Fun fact! It was funded largely by David Packard, of Hewlett-Packard. More interestingly, his daughter Julie Packard, a real life marine biologist, is the current executive director). Monterey is nowhere near San Francisco, so they digitally added a skyline in the background.

The film was released on November 26, 1986. Until AbramsTrek, it was the highest grossing Trek film ever made, earning $109.1 million dollars in the U.S. alone. Its astounding success prompted the studio to greenlight The Next Generation. Internationally, the movie’s association with the Star Trek brand was de-emphasized because ST III had fared so poorly overseas. It didn’t really work, though: the film only made $24 million abroad.

Best Line: KIRK: Well a double dumbass on you!

Other Favorite Quotes: MCCOY (on Spock): I don’t know if you’ve got the whole picture, but he isn’t exactly working on all thrusters.

McCOY (to Spock): Well, I just wanted to say it sure is nice to have your katra back in your head, not mine. What I mean is I may have carried your soul, but I sure couldn’t fill your shoes.

McCOY: Come on Spock, it’s me, McCoy! You really have gone where no man has gone before!

McCOY: You mean I have to die to discuss your insights on death?
SPOCK: Forgive me, Doctor, I am receiving a number of distress calls.
McCOY: I don’t doubt it!

KIRK: The rest of you, break up! You look like a cadet review.

SPOCK: What does it mean, “exact change”?

SPOCK: Are you sure it isn’t time for a colorful metaphor?

SCOTTY: Hello, computer?

SPOCK: They like you very much, but they are not the hell your whales.
TAYLOR: I … I suppose they told you that, huh?
SPOCK: The hell they did.

KIRK: Pavel, talk to me! Name! Rank!
CHEKOV: Chekov, Pavel. Rank, admiral.

SAREK: Do you have a message for your mother?
SPOCK: Yes. Tell her I feel fine.

Trivia: On January 28, 1986, Challenger broke apart shortly after liftoff killing everyone aboard. The film is dedicated “to the men and women of the spaceship Challenger whose courageous spirit shall live to the 23rd century and beyond. . . .”

The Voyage Home marks the first involvement of Michael Okuda, who went on to two more decades of design work in the franchise. Here, he created the touchscreen panels (that became de rigeur for all Trek that followed) and the various computer displays.

The punk rocker on the bus who gets nerve-pinched is actually an associate producer, and he wrote the “I Hate You” song playing on the radio himself. The scene was inspired by an an actual experience Nimoy had in New York City. As a New Yorker, I can’t say I’m surprised.

The woman who answers Chekov and Uhura’s question about where to find the nuclear vessels has an interesting story. She had refused to move her car for filming, and so her car was impounded. Angry and somewhat desperate, she approached the producers about being an extra to earn back enough money to get her car out of impound. They agreed but instructed her not to answer any of the actors’ questions–an instruction she obviously ignored. In the end they thought her line was funny enough to include in the final cut, but they wound up having to get her a Screen Actors Guild card in order for her to have a speaking role.

The movie earned four Academy Award nominations, mostly in technical categories: Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Original Score.

The whale scenes were filmed with four-foot-long animatronic puppets. The puppets were so lifelike that U.S. fishing authorities reportedly criticized the film for getting too close to whales in the wild.

Madge Sinclair cameos here as the captain of the Saratoga.

The whale hunters are speaking Finnish–which is a little odd since Finland, unlike its sisters Norway and Sweden, has had no real whale industry basically ever.

This is where the reference of Kirk being “from” Iowa originates.

Previous post: Re-watching Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

Next post: Re-watching Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. God help us all.

About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.