I don’t really have a sense of whether people are or are not excited for the upcoming Star Trek Beyond movie. The trailer didn’t really do it for me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Star Trek is Star Trek because it can, when it’s at its best, be about anything if the story and characters are strong enough. There’s no tried and true formula for a Star Trek movie, because if there was, there’s no way something as whack-a-doo as 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home would have been successful, but prior to 2009, it was the most profitable film in the franchise.
There’s an unofficial rule-of-thumb that the even-numbered Star Trek movies are good and the odd ones suck. That’s not entirely fair; I love Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and The Search for Spock is interesting if nothing else. The Final Frontier I won’t try to defend. But I don’t think it’s just as simple as odds and evens — I think it’s the presence of Nicholas Meyer, who directed and co-wrote The Wrath of Khan, co-wrote The Voyage Home, and wrote and directed The Undiscovered Country. He just understood the characters and what made them special. He was able to infuse humor – good humor – in the ones he worked on, The Voyage Home especially. And it maybe didn’t hurt that Leonard Nimoy, after directing the third film, was given greater freedom in directing the fourth.
After the events of The Search for Spock, Spock is back, but the Enterprise was destroyed and the crew are living in exile on Vulcan with the captured Klingon Bird of Prey as their only form of transportation. They decide it’s finally time to go face the music and take the Klingon ship to Earth, only to discover a strange alien probe hovering over it, which has already destroyed one space station. The probe appears to be sending out some kind of signal but there’s nothing alive on Earth that can understand it. In the 23rd Century, there are no humpback whales, which the crew discovers is the only being able to understand and respond. Using the Klingon ship’s perfect cloak, the crew figure out a way to use warp and the gravity of the sun to slingshot them back in time, to 1986, where there are humpback whales.
Naturally, the present day seems especially strange to the group of people from the future, especially the already-pretty-weird Spock. Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock go off to find two whales under the care of Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), who seems dubious at best of these men from the future.
McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Scotty (James Doohan), and Sulu (George Takei) go off to track down a means of transporting and carrying the whales into the cargo hold of the Klingon ship. And Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Chekhov (Walter Keonig) have the unenviable job of getting nuclear energy from a military sub in order to resupply the Klingon vessel with power for the return journey. Of course, there are scrapes and hiccups along the way.
What I love the most about this movie is that it perfectly captures the essence of Star Trek – seeking new life, boldly going and all that – without needing a silly action movie premise. That’s why I like the first movie so much: the drama comes from the discovery of new things and of using science and brain-power to solve problems. As great as Wrath of Khan is, it’s an action movie at heart, and every movie in the series that thinks it needs to do that without any of the pathos behind it gets into trouble. Aside from the alien probe, which is really just misunderstood, there are no villains in the story, except for maybe people not worrying about whales.
There’s also a brilliant comedic clothesline running through the whole movie. These crew members seem to get along really well (even if we later learned that several of them were not on great terms) and all of the actors seem to relish a script that lets them be fishes out of water. Scotty attempting to talk to a 1986 computer, and then into the mouse like a communicator, is hysterical any way you slice it. And Scotty offering the formula for transparent aluminum to an engineer in exchange for materials — the argument is “We don’t know he’s not the guy who invents transparent aluminum.” I love that kind of time travel logic.
The movie was also proved to be culturally significant. There are parts of the movie where we just learn about the plight facing humpback whales and urging people to help out, and it directly led to tangible conservation efforts. There’s a whole feature on the Blu-ray about all the funds and groups that popped up as a result of this movie, and how many young kids became marine biologists because of how much impact the movie had on them.
Now, 30 years later, it’d be great if a Star Trek movie could have that kind of power again. But everything has to be an action movie.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is still one of the very best films in the whole series, which is a miracle considering how many risks were taken. Transplanting the crew to modern day could easily have backfired if the story and dialogue hadn’t been as spot-on as it was. And that’s Meyer’s doing; producer Harve Bennett wrote the first and third acts – all the 23rd Century stuff – and Meyer wrote everything on modern day Earth. But more than anything, it’s just a fun movie that makes you feel good. Science fiction doesn’t always have to be dour dystopias.
Images: Paramount Pictures