Saturday, January 1, 2011

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. A Review (Review #174)


A Whale Of A Tale...

I feel it important to note for the record that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was the very first time I had come into contact with anything Star Trek-related. I had never seen the television programs and had not seen any of the films until we were shown The Voyage Home in middle school.

To show you how long ago it was (and/or how poor my school was), the class saw on VHS. Some readers will ask, 'What's VHS?', and in retrospect, that question is not only a valid one, but a sign of how The Voyage Home (or as I lovingly call it, The One With The Damn Whales) is one of the worst films in the Star Trek franchise, not only looking like an embarrassing antique but also mixing the mythology of Star Trek with sheer propaganda. If there's one thing I hate in films, it's when I'm being lectured (even when I agree with the filmmaker's point of view).

The Voyage Home has as an advantage that it takes a slightly more comedic take on the Star Trek mythos, most of which emerge from the culture clash between the 23rd and 20th Centuries. While screenwriters Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Nicholas Meyer, and Harve Bennett (from a story by Bennet and Leonard Nimoy, going for a second round of directing after The Search for Spock) had their bleeding-hearts in the right place, they failed to take into account that a science-fiction film based almost entirely on indoctrination will never work. They also, curiously, had a very limited imagination as to the future, but more on that later.

The Federation ship U.S.S. Saratoga encounters a strange vessel which looked like a big tube, that emits strange noises and is sapping their power. Meanwhile, the Federation High Council has convicted the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise on various violations stemming from the results of Search for Spock. The crew, including half-human/Vulcan Spock (Nimoy) leave to face the consequences of their actions. Now, this big cylinder that has crippled the Saratoga is now menacing Earth, disrupting all power and causing hurricanes.

The Enterprise crew, still out of range, hears the S.O.S. of Earth and discovers that the big tube's mysterious noises are really whale songs. Spock theorizes the mysterious tube is attempting to, in his words, "seek(s) out another intelligent life form". Unfortunately, humpback whales have been extinct since the 21st Century (sometime I figure between 2000 and 2100). The only natural solution is go back to the 20th Century, get a humpback whale, and, to coin a phrase, "go back to the future". They achieve this, and find themselves in San Francisco, 1986.

The crew split up: Scottie (James Doohan) and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are off to get material to encase the whale(s). Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Chekov (Walter Koening) go look for nuclear material to power the Klingon Bird of Prey, and Spock and Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) go look for some whales they've tracked to the city. In an aquarium, they meet Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), who has been caring for two whales named George and Gracie. Kirk & Spock think they are perfect, especially since Gracie is with calf. However, Dr. Gillian is alarmed by these men's strange behavior. Kirk charms Gillian, though not enough for her to let him have the whales. Mute point, as they have been released into the wild without her prior knowledge.

Meanwhile, Uhura and Chekov, aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise (20th Century battleship version), which is a nuclear "wessel" (Chekov's Russian-accented pronunciation of "vessel"), get the material to power the ship but only Uhura manages to escape. For some reason, a Russian aboard an American battleship seeking nuclear technology causes alarm for the crew of that Enterprise. Chekov's companions now have to rescue him from a hospital, and after Gillian joins their cause they must now seek out and rescue George & Gracie and face the difficulty of bringing them on to the Bird of Prey, going back to the future (no pun intended) and release said whales.

Oh, and yes, that pesky and unimportant business about what happened in Search for Spock.

I applaud the efforts to make a lighter Star Trek film. I also respect the filmmaker's efforts to make a socially relevant film. My biggest problem with The Voyage Home is that it is far too heavy-handed in its efforts. One line states this clearly. "You know, it's ironic," Kirk intones near the end of the film. "When man was killing these creatures, he was destroying his own future". Not subtle at all, is it?

If that weren't bad enough, Spock informs Gillian that "(the whales) are unhappy about the way their species has been treated by man". I am surprised he didn't go on to misquote from Bambi, " in the water". It is a great Pet Peeve in Film for me: I Detest Being Lectured To. The Voyage Home doesn't have any other reason for being other than to tell me to Save The Whales.

It is a sign of how the film is really environmental propaganda that most of the film involves saving the whales, not about the trial the Enterprise crew has. Granted, I love the whales, but I don't go to non-documentary films, especially science-fiction films, to be told to take a certain position (whale hunting is bad--what would I do without cinema to tell me what to think?).

Even that I could handle, but what sinks The Voyage Home (no pun intended) is that setting a science-fiction film that starts out in the future and then goes to current day almost automatically dates the film because we can't conceive of the technological breakthroughs or twists in history that may occur a generation later.

As of this writing, twenty-five years have passed since The Voyage Home was released. In that quarter-century, we have seen the development of laptop computers, miniature devices that will hold vast amounts of music and information (iPods & MP3 players), phones that will send written messages, devices that can hold vast amounts of literature in the palm of a hand (iPads, Kindle): things that we now take for granted. Somehow, all these devices either don't exists or apparently have had much impact on the 23rd Century. Seeing Scottie and McCoy deal with a PC may strike those born when The Voyage Home premiered as downright bizarre, since most of them have never seen a PC that size unless perhaps, it was at a museum.

The biggest difficulty in taking The Voyage Home seriously is actually one of my favorite anachronisms. When that big tube was laying siege to the Earth, one of the lines was, "Leningrad has lost all electric power". I find that line endlessly hilarious: apparently in the 23rd Century, humpback whales no longer exist, but Leningrad does! A more imaginative writing team (it could not have taken four people to write this) or director would have stated, "Saint Petersburg has lost all electric power," but somehow everyone concerned thought the Soviet Union would go on forever.

Talk about no hope for the future!  It will always be a curious footnote in cinema history: in the Star Trek universe, Leningrad went on into the 23rd Century, while in the 20th Century Leningrad faded into history a mere five years after The Voyage Home premiered.

Let's leave aside bothersome things like history for the moment. The Voyage Home has the most idiotic premise so far in the Star Trek universe: aliens want to know why they've lost contact with humpback whales (which, I imagine, means all these millennia humpback whales have been in contact with aliens), and as soon as they hear the whale song, they depart.

We never got to know who was inside that big black space cylinder or what they actually wanted (other than to say 'howdy' to Earth's most intelligent creatures: the whales). Not since V-Ger from The Motion Picture has Star Trek presented us with 'villains' so pointless and downright stupid. The reason for this is simple: it doesn't matter who or what they are. It isn't important, but putting the message that we have to Save The Whales is, thus the big black space cylinder's raison d'etre.

The comedy work was uneven. In the scenes with Spock and Kirk, their efforts to deal with their confusion about 20th Century life and those "colorful metaphors" are amusing though not hilarious. The one scene with Scottie attempting to communicate with a computer did, I confess, have me laughing.

The comedy involving Chekov looking for the "nuclear wessels" I know is one many Trekkers/Trekkies find brilliant, but I found them aggravating. Finally, given that they were in San Francisco, one wonders if they'd really stand out in the city as strange. The drama about rescuing Chekov felt almost tacked on, to create drama and lengthen the film, as did the whaling ship tracking down George & Gracie.

Side Note: not knowing anything about transporting beings the Star Trek way, I now ask my Trekker/Trekkie friends how the transport beam can not only transport beings but apparently their surroundings as well, given whales need water.

Of the cast, they know their parts. It's a sign of the disinterest in character development in The Voyage Home that Sulu (George Takei) wasn't needed but was there, a bit in the background, with little to do, certainly in regards to the overall story. Only Hicks as the good Doctor had anything considered a real performance, and she did show the love and passion her character had for the whales.

I do note that Kirk was up to his old tricks, not of pausing within a line but of romancing beautiful women. We haven't seen him try to woo a beauty in any previous Star Trek film, so that's a plus. However, given the extreme nature of the Enterprise's rescue operation, it does seem strange that Kirk would be hitting on Dr. Taylor at this point.

I had problems with some of the dialogue. How do you not laugh when you hear, "Admiral, I am receiving whale song"? I did, anyway. When Kirk tells everyone, "Everybody remember where we parked," it seemed a rather 20th Century thing to say, and one of the comedy bits I did not laugh at. Yes, the "nuclear wessels" routine got old fast.

There's also what I think is an inconsistency in the plot. When we first see George and Gracie, we are told they wandered into San Francisco Bay and have been cared for at the aquarium ever since. However, when they are released we are told they were born in captivity and they need to be in the wild. I might be mistaken, but unless they were referring to Gracie's unborn calf we have two different and conflicting stories about George & Gracie.

Finally, the entire plot of The Voyage Home makes no sense if you think about it. The Voyage Home isn't about the trial of the Enterprise crew. It's about The Damn Whales. The trial really is almost an afterthought, as is the crisis, which is nothing more than a plot device to tell us to Save The Whales. Furthermore, we have to figure the crew not only managed to go back in time, but return to the future at almost the exact moment they left. How they actually did this is irrelevant: we need to Save The Damn Whales. Once the mysterious ship hears the whales, they leave, presumably never to return, unless they become extinct again.

The Voyage Home has light moments, a plus. However, the fact the film is nothing more than a vehicle to promote a certain agenda (as laudable as it is) makes this not a Star Trek film, but a Greenpeace film masquerading as a Star Trek film.

Say Goodnight, Gracie...


Next Star Trek Film: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

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