It seems strange to think of now, but there was a time and a place where and when the Star Trek brand was seen as a debit rather than an asset.
It was 1987 in Ireland, where I lived, and Star Trek IV, which had come out the previous year in the U.S., thirty years ago today, was being released simply as The Voyage Home. (“star trek iv” appeared in a somewhat embarrassed-looking smaller font beneath.) With a mixed reaction for the exposition-heavy Star Trek III: the Search for Spock, a film whose entire reason for existing was to undo the big twist at the end of Star Trek II, the reaction for IV overseas was expected to be uncertain; even Ronald Reagan had dissed the previous installment after a White House screening.
Leonard Nimoy, who directed part III but had more free reign with the story for part IV, took a bold approach in shaking up the formula: he did everything you aren’t supposed to do. In fact, it would be virtually impossible to make a science fiction blockbuster like it today. For starters, he wanted “no dying, no fighting, no shooting, no photon torpedoes, no phaser blasts, no stereotypical bad guy.” And beyond that, he wanted an environmentalist theme. Beyond-beyond that, Eddie Murphy was set to costar at one point, though he did The Golden Child instead and Catherine Hicks filled a version of the part that could have been his–which may explain why the near-romance between her character and Captain Kirk (William Shatner, as if you didn’t know) stays platonic.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home doesn’t just lack a stereotypical villain; it lacks a villain at all. A giant space probe comes to Earth sending signals that no one responds to, which cause environmental chaos when they aren’t answered. Kirk and his crew realize the probe is trying to talk to extinct whales, so they go back in time to find some that can talk back. The narrative tension is the race against time, but the probe does nothing to interfere with that, nor does it even necessarily realize these humans are ever there. In the climax, it talks to the whales, and in a bold move, this means the movie’s grand finale is two humpback whales talking to a giant metal space log in a language that isn’t translated, nor ever explained…unless you read the tie-in novel (to think, people complain nowadays that the new Star Wars movies require extra reading!). And the story never gets into the fact that this is a temporary solution at best; two whales isn’t enough to repopulate a species, and that probe might come back someday, so will they have to do it all over again then?
And then there are the politics. Political subtext and allegory certainly isn’t new for Trek; in fact, it’s arguably the main reason the original show caught on so strongly in the first place, with its vision of a post-racist, post-Cold War optimistic future where all races and nationalities work side by side for the common good. But Star Trek movies today, like most other would-be blockbusters, are hesitant to potentially alienate large chunks of the audience, and so any allegory such as there is remains hopelessly garbled. We know Star Trek Into Darkness has something to do with cowriter Bob Orci’s 9-11 skepticism, but what, exactly? Just that it exists? As for Star Trek Beyond, much as I like it, its theme was spelled out a while back (and better) by Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight: you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
In the case of Star Trek IV, the two most memorable aspects of the film–whales and “nuclear wessels”–signify right and left themes that would have to be toned down if done similarly today. Saving the whales was a common liberal mantra in the ’80s, much as solving climate change is now, but can you imagine how a vocal contingent of fans would react if a Star Trek movie in 2016 were all about going back in time to stop global warming? Meanwhile, everyone thought it was funny that Russian crewman Chekov asks the wrong questions and gets profiled as a Soviet spy; the modern equivalent would be an Arab crewman mistaken for a terrorist, and you know that would have a different segment of fandom up in arms. (It’s possible these themes could be tackled on a TV show, but not so much on a mega-budget four-quadrant film that needs every dollar from every demographic.)
The Star Trek movies deserved a lot of credit for bringing back the entire original cast (especially considering even the animated series didn’t manage that), but IV almost entirely omits the most important “character”–the Starship Enterprise. Having blown up in the last installment, the signature ship now has its former crew spend all of IV in a Klingon Bird of Prey. It’s a very cool ship design, but it’s still fairly radical for a property whose entire mission statement is “These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise” to feature a voyage of another vehicle completely. Of course, the story doesn’t really allow for the original–the crew needed to be able to land their ship on Earth, and the original Enterprise could never do that. Which brings us to yet another unorthodox choice for a big science fiction movie: setting most of it on Earth in the then-present day, allowing our favorite space heroes to act like buffoons for not understanding how the world as we know it works.
Perhaps multiple wrongs do make a right, because Star Trek IV is consistently rated as one of the top 3 Star Trek movies of all time (Wrath of Khan is most people’s favorite, with the third slot varying by writer; I’m a The Motion Picture defender, myself). In my headcanon, it’s #1, as it did what none of the others had to that point: it combined the best aspects of both the serious science fiction and the campy overacting episodes of the original show, but without ever betraying its premise. It was arguably the first Star Trek in any form to give us the self-aware, knowingly bombastic version of William Shatner we know today. A year after The Voyage Home, The Next Generation hit TV, and the expanded universe of Trek really began in earnest. It was a trick Warner Bros hoped to pull off with their Batman movies in the early ’90s when Joel Schumacher was brought in to make a movie “lighter” in tone than Tim Burton’s films, but while both franchises followed the successful funny reboot with a panned, overly campy follow-up, Trek survived the blow (while Batman reinvented again)…a testament to the characters we knew and loved staying true to themselves no matter the story.
Let us now take a moment to praise the fake punk rock song created just for the movie. It somehow feels timely again.
Finally, Star Trek IV‘s very ending is perhaps the ultimate example of lemonade from lemons: despite saving the world, Kirk is stripped of his rank, which is technically a punishment, but in being bumped down to Captain from Admiral, he gets to command a brand new Enterprise. The reboot is complete, and the story arc that comprises The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home is wrapped. (Even in creating a trilogy, they do it “wrong” by having it it be parts 2-4 rather than 1-3.)
In subsequent years, as we would all gradually discover such unearthed gems as Nimoy singing “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” and Shatner‘s “Rocket Man” performance at the Saturn Awards, Star Trek fans would become very familiar with the concept of “so wrong it’s right.” Star Trek IV nails this notion better than any of the other movies, and that’s probably why it’s my personal favorite. If you disagree, I can only say, in the manner of San Francisco Spock, that I am fond of you readers, but this is not the hell your article.
In comments below, however, you may call double dumbass on me as much as you like. Where does The Voyage Home rank in your list?