Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Review

This is the one with the whales. That’s right. The Romulans and Klingons are put aside for one episode in order to create an enemy from a faraway world, suggesting that humpback whales are not native to earth — that they’re an alien species that communicates with the whales of earth through some unknown method. When the space whales haven’t heard from their earthbound pals (we’re told they were driven to extinction centuries in the movie’s past), they decide to pay a visit. The unintended consequence is the destruction of the power systems of everything in its path.

Solution: The Enterprise crew takes a trip back through time (in the stolen Klingon bird-of-prey from Star Trek III) to the 1980s (conveniently coinciding with the production time fram of the film) in order to snag a couple of whales and repopulate the future.

The plot is totally cornball but amazingly it works extremely well, showing that Star Trek need not rely on kooky alien species and special effects to tell a good story. When Captain Kirk (or Admiral Kirk, as he is here) are trapped in the past they have all manner of fun misadventures — dealing with a totally unfamiliar culture, adapting primitive technology to their mission, and swimming around with whales. The film has no real villains, no phaser exchanges (in fact, weapons are not really ever fired in the film at all), and more commentary on social issues (the environment) than any of the other films. It’s even funny from time to time (intentionally, unlike, say, the gut-splitting awfulness of Nemesis).

This does of course make The Voyage Home a much different viewing experience than its brethren. Instead of a lot of rotten and random bad guys we have a clever man vs. nature (and himself) story structure. Instead of spaceship miniatures, we’re given some amazing miniature, animatronic whales. A relatively low budget is apparent, but even this is turned to advantage when, for example, the stolen ship is kept cloaked (and parked in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park).

In the end, this is probably the least ‘typical’ sci-fi film ever made. But it remains one of the standouts of the genre, for that very reason.

The two-disc DVD release has the features we’ve come to expect from Paramount’s Trek series: a commentary from star William Shatner and director Leonard Nimoy, text commentary from the Okudas (focusing a lot on the movie’s gaffes), and a second disc full of topic-oriented featurettes (time travel, whalesong, Vulcans, and the women of Trek), interviews, and all sorts of production scraps. Recommended.