Yep, it’s time to talk about the one with the whales. Welcome to our latest installment of the Nostalgia series.
I was a big Star Trek fan throughout my teens, and I saw all the movies, but Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was the only one I watched over and over. Knowing this, I picked it up for a recent re-watch with some hesitation. Would Leonard Nimoy’s clunky directing from Star Trek III carry over? Would the comedy hold up? Would the mid-1980s just be too dated as a time-travel destination?
Star Trek IV is a silly movie, no doubt about it. The premise is cheesy, they’re not even trying to make the science sound plausible (did Spock just invent time travel on the spot?), and the environmental message is heavy-handed for today’s audience. You know you can’t take it seriously when a life-or-death hospital chase is set to dramatic Russian music. And yet…it all works.
Sticking the crew of the Enterprise into 1980s America provides no end of lighthearted culture-clash situations, especially with Spock being unusually literal-minded (even for him) after his near-death experience in the last movie. The premise lets the film point out how liberal and enlightened the twenty-third century is in comparison to ours, which it does with glee, from the anti-whale hunting message to Chekov’s run-in with the twentieth-century military and Bones’s subsequent run-in with twentieth-century medicine. It’s one long exercise in dramatic irony, pulled off with panache.
At the same time, the culture clashes are handled with humour and impeccable comedic timing, completely unlike Star Trek III. The film turns into a sequence of short sketch comedies, from the “nuclear wessels” sequence to Scotty trying to communicate with the computer by speaking to it. This in turn allows each member of the ensemble cast to shine, in a way they often don’t get to.
All of the above is built on the framework of a serious story — rescuing the humpback whales to save Earth — which gives the film an emotional weight that anchors it. The whales’ caretaker, Dr. Gillian Taylor, is more than just Kirk’s love interest du jour — she’s the foil for our time-travelling crew and the protector of the whales’ interests, acting as both an antagonist for the crew’s efforts and a representative of twentieth-century culture. In a way, she’s the stand-in for the audience, even though she’s the unfamiliar character here. And wouldn’t we all want to be whisked away with the Enterprise at the end?
Your turn. What did you think of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home? If you’ve re-watched it recently, how does it hold up?