Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

It's Thursday, so another Fishing in the Discount Bin!  And my first blog entry of 2014!  Of course, we're in the middle of a series here on Fishing in the Discount Bin.  Back in the spring, I wanted to watch every Star Trek movie before Into Darkness came out, and today, we're up to movie #4, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  This entry is originally dated in my notes at April 7, 2013.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home movie poster

Back to my drive to watch every Star Trek film before Into Darkness hits theatres in...1 month, 8 days, 8 hours, and 49 minutes, according to the countdown clock on my computer. On this lazy Sunday afternoon, with a spring snow falling from the sky, we get to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, affectionately known as "the one with the whales."

So if The Wrath of Khan is generally considered the best one, then where does The Voyage Home rank? It's an even-numbered one, so folks automatically assume it's one the good ones. It was the highest-grossing Star Trek film until the reboot came out in 2009, so if we're going simply by the box office numbers, that would consider it the best. In fact, whenever Paramount starts talking about 3D re-releases and stuff like that, The Voyage Home is always at the top of the list. Truly, if The Wrath of Khan is regarded as the best, then The Voyage Home is considered the most popular. Why is that?

Well, I think they summed it up best in the classic guide to Trek, The Star Trek Compendium, which was one of my handbooks in junior high and high school. The authors point out that The Voyage Home had two things going for it that gave it mass appeal outside the usual sci-fi audience. Its contemporary setting and comedic overtones gave it that rare thing that many sci-fi franchises covet: accessibility. In fact, many Trekkies have pointed to this film as their entry point. It made a great gateway film, and launched a whole new generation of Trekkies, which is why it was the catalyst for Paramount to create The Next Generation, which launched on TV a year after this hit theatres.

And the film's comedic overtones were quite intentional. Pleased with how The Search for Spock turned out, Paramount asked Leonard Nimoy to return to the director's chair, and he happily agreed. Nimoy was also given a lot more creative freedom, and able to develop the story. One thing that Nimoy and producer Harve Bennett agreed on was that it was time to lighten things up. Both Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock end on such down notes, what with the death of Spock in one, and the death of Kirk's son and the destruction of the Enterprise in the other. They finally wanted a happy ending for our favourite crew. Nimoy said his vision for the film was, "no dying, no fighting, no shooting, no stereotypical bad guy. I just wanted people to have a great time watching the film, and if somewhere in there, we lobbed a few big ideas at them, even better."

Nimoy and Bennett began spitballing ideas, and they eventually hit on the idea of a time travel story: some kind of crisis in the present (the future that Star Trek takes place in) that can only be solved with something in the past (our present). Having recently been listening to a lot of whale songs, Nimoy decided on whales. And that idea to lighten things up resulted in one of the craziest Star Trek movies that we never got.

Star Trek IV...starring Eddie Murphy.

As the legend goes, Eddie Murphy revealed himself to be a huge Trekkie, and wanted to be in the film. So, the concept was, Eddie Murphy was going to play a physicist with theories about life on other planets. When the Enterprise crew arrives in 1986, they were going to accidentally de-cloak their Klingon Bird-of-Prey over the Super Bowl. While the whole world writes this off as half-time show special effects, Murphy's physicist was going to be convinced that it truly was an alien vessel. He goes on a search to find the Bird-of-Prey, meets the Enterprise crew, and helps them find the whales. Paramount started having doubts. With Star Trek being their biggest franchise and Murphy being their biggest star at the time, they felt it would be an "all our eggs in one basket" situation. And Eddie Murphy eventually lost interest and chose to make The Golden Child instead. Several rewrites of the script later, and Eddie Murphy's character became Dr. Gillian Taylor, the marine biologist specializing in humpback whales.

But who was going to rewrite the script? With deadlines drawing near, Nimoy and Bennett knew there was one guy they could call upon to finish the screenplay to meet their deadlines: the director of Star Trek II himself, Nicholas Meyer. Meyer was intrigued. After all, he made his mark on cinema with the beloved time travel tale Time After Time, and when he learned it was going to be set in his beloved city of San Fransisco, well, he was back on board with Star Trek. As they say on the DVD's bonus materials, when it came to the film's final script, Bennett wrote pretty much everything that takes place in the 23rd Century, and Meyer wrote everything that takes place in the present day. Meyer says that it officially switches over to all his stuff when Kirk asks when they are, and Spock says, "Judging by the pollution content in the atmosphere, the late 20th Century." ("Which I feel is one of the cleverest lines I ever wrote," says Meyer on the DVD.)

New characters that we meet in this film are the aforementioned Dr. Gillian Taylor, marine biologist and primary caregiver to George and Gracie, the only two humpback whales in captivity. As we see quite early on, she is very passionate about her work and very protective of George and Gracie. Maybe a little too passionate, because in many scenes, when she starts talking about whaling and whales going extinct, she always seems on the verge of tears. C'mon, Doc, a little more professional detachment, please.

I can't remember when I first saw this one. It was either the Sunday night movie, watching it with Mom and the family, much like Star Trek III, or it was on VHS over at a friend's house. Both happened at around the same time, so I can't remember what came first. I remember it being the first Star Trek movie that I was widely aware of, as I do remember TV commercials and movie posters in theatres when my family took us kids to see the latest animated film that Christmas. I remember seeing a theatre standee for it in the lobby of the old theatre in the Westmount Mall in Edmonton...it was massive to my 9 year old self. I remember seeing legendary Edmonton film critic Colin MacLean reviewing it on the CBC Edmonton news.

Colin MacLean...I've been reading some of his movie reviews in Edmonton for as long as I can remember. When I got my press pass to the advance screening of The Avengers, I actually sat next to him. Tried not to geek out.

So the film opens with a mysterious probe emerging from deep space. And most of the audience goes, "This is Star Trek IV, right? Why am I watching The Motion Picture again?" It's emitting power of an unknown type that disables any starship that gets too close...and it's heading straight for Earth. (Seriously, are you sure this isn't The Motion Picture?) Back on Earth, we see that Kirk's actions in the last film have created an international incident and the Klingon Empire is screaming for Kirk's head, what between killing Captain Kruge and his crew and Kirk's son developing the Genesis Project. Sarek shows up to defend Kirk and his crew, and the President of the Federation assures all that Kirk will be brought to justice.

We finally catch up with our heroes. It's established that it's 3 months after The Search for Spock, and our heroes have been living in exile on Vulcan since then. But now, with their captured Bird-of-Prey back up and running, it's time to go back to Earth and turn themselves in. Given the mutiny they did in the last film, McCoy jokingly re-christened the Bird-of-Prey the HMS Bounty. Spock still isn't quite back up and running after being dead and all, but he's coming along anyway to offer testimony. Saavik puts in a quick cameo to give Kirk some reassuring words about the death of his son, and then she leaves.

Why does she leave? Why doesn't she go back, too, to offer testimony like Spock? Her ship, the Grissom, got destroyed...surely she has to participate in some hearing about its loss? No? OK, then. Fun trivia fact: in early drafts of the script, it was revealed that, when Saavik *ahem* offered herself to young Spock to get him through his pon farr in the last film, she actually got pregnant with Spock's child. So, she was staying behind on Vulcan to go on maternity leave. But in rewrites, Nimoy and Bennett went, "Uh...no," and wrote it out.

The mysterious probe arrives in Earth orbit and starts vaporizing Earth's oceans. Its mysterious power emanations pretty much disable the entire planet and all starships in orbit. On the way back to Earth, our heroes pick up Earth's distress signal. They manage to hear the probe's transmissions and start doing their analysis. They re-modulate the probe's transmissions to sound like they would underwater, and discover that they're transmitting whale songs. Upon further analysis, Spock determines that it's humpback whale songs, and they can't answer the probe, because, in Star Trek time, humpback whales were hunted to extinction in the 21st Century. Unable to respond to the probe, and unable to get close enough to destroy it, they come up with a daring plan: go back in time, collect some humpback whales, and bring them back to the future to talk to the probe.

How a starship can time travel was established in a few episodes of the original series. What you do is approach a star at maximum warp. Using the star's gravity to pick up excess speed, it'll throw you into a timewarp and allow you to time travel. But can the rusty ol' HMS Bounty do it? Well, they go into the time warp, and with it, we're treated to some mid-80s computer animation that'll make you think the animators at ILM were trippin' when they made it.

(Darn it, wanted to post that clip, but Paramount's lawyers seem to have kept it off of YouTube.)

They arrive in 1986 and find humpback whale song coming from the city of San Fransisco. Other complications arise. The time travel has depleted the dilithium crystals, but they figure they can recharge them with photons from a nuclear reactor. So everyone is given their mission: Kirk and Spock will find the whales, Chekov and Uhura will find the photons, and Scotty, McCoy, and Sulu will start converting the cargo hold into a whale tank.

Again, much like the escape sequence in the Search for Spock, this movie shines here because everybody gets something to do. Everybody has a nice little character moment. And let's not forget that Chekov and Uhura's quest for a nuclear-powered naval vessel leads to one of Chekov's most famous moments.

Lots of comedy to be had as they stumble and bumble around 1986 Earth, a very primitive culture by Star Trek standards.  Of course, we also have the classic scene with the punk rocker on the bus, whom Spock convinces to turn off his music by giving him the Vulcan neck pinch.  I love the stories about the little details that go into making a film.  I got the complete uncut Star Trek IV soundtrack a few  years ago, and in the liner notes, they tell the tale of the punk rock song, I Hate  You, playing during that scene.  Even though the script called for a punk rock song, someone wrote in the script next to it "i.e. Duran Duran," and co-producer Kirk Thatcher thought that would never do.  So he asked Leonard Nimoy if he could write and contribute a song for that scene.  Nimoy gave them the go ahead, and Thatcher got to work.  He teamed up with some of the film's sound designers, and they figured that all punk rock could be summed with the theme "I hate you."  The wrote a song about that, trying to make it sound as generically punk as possible.  When it came time to record it, they dragged everything out into the recording studio's hallway and used the crappiest microphones available, so they could properly capture that "crappy demo recorded in somebody's garage" sound.  They played it for Nimoy, he loved it, and it got into the film. 

Anyway, Kirk and Spock's quest takes them to San Fransisco's Cetacean Institute, played by the Monterey Aquarium, where they meet Dr. Taylor.  They find it boasts the world's largest saltwater tank, and is home to the only two humpback whales in captivity.  While giving her tour of the facility, Taylor reveals that the whales are about to be released back into the wild.  Kirk and Spock figures that it's perfect.  Two whales, right there, they just beam them up, go back to the future, and bob's  your uncle.  And then, Spock goes swimming with the whales so he can mind meld with them and let them know what's going on.  Of course, Taylor throws them out for swimming with the whales.

Taylor eventually finds them, though, and takes in interest in them and as to why they're doing what they're doing and acting so strangely.  Over dinner, Kirk reveals that they're from the future, and they need to take George and Gracie (the two whales' names) to the future to save the planet.  Not believing him, she goes along with, and reveals that the whales are due to be returned to the wild at noon the next day.  Knowing that time is now running out, Kirk once again implores Gillian to help them, but not believing their tale, she refuses to divulge more information.

How are the other teams doing?  Well, McCoy and Scotty bluff their way into a plastics company to procure the plexiglass they'll need to build their whale tanks.  Scotty pays for it by giving the president of the company the chemical formula for the 23rd Century's answer to plexiglass:  transparent aluminum.  Leads to a cute bit....McCoy pulls Scotty aside and asks if giving this man the formula would alter the timeline.  Scotty just shrugs and says, "Why?  For all we know he invented the stuff."  McCoy just goes along with this.

Chekov and Uhura beam into the nuclear vessel (the aircraft carrier Enterprise, of course) to get their photons from the nuclear reactor.  Uhura makes it out, but the transporter malfunctions and Chekov gets left behind.  Russian on an American aircraft carrier during the cold war...not good.  Chekov attempts an escape, but it ends badly and he's critically injured and sent to the hospital.

Gillian returns to the Cetacean Institute and finds the whales gone.  Turns out they decided to ship them off early to avoid the media circus.  Gillian, who really loves those whales, gets really pissed off about how her bosses betrayed her like this, and goes to find Kirk.  She finds the hidden Bird-of-Prey, they beam her inside, and she finally realizes that Kirk is telling the truth.  She explains to Kirk what's going on, but they can't go get the whales yet, because they can't leave Chekov behind.  With Gillian's help, Kirk, McCoy, and Gillian sneak into the hospital to rescue Chekov.  McCoy gets some good digs in as he writes off the current state of heathcare as "medievalism" and easily cures Chekov with one of his futuristic medical gadgets. 

With the crew back together, they fire up the Bird-of-Prey's engines to go get the whales.  Gillian sneaks aboard to go with them, citing there's nothing left for her in the 20th Century, so she may as well go with her whales.  Using Gillian's knowledge of the whales' tracking devices, they quickly track them down, but oh no!  A whaling ship is closing in.  The ship fires off its harpoon, but it's easily deflected by the Bird-of-Prey.  I always loved the scene of the Bird-of-Prey decloaking over the whaling vessel, and everyone on the ship panicking.  The visual of that Bird-of-Prey hovering over the ocean...just some classic 1980s special effects.

They're able to beam up the whales, and Scotty's newly-built tank holds them quite nicely.  I remember seeing James Doohan at a Star Trek convention many years ago.  He said that his line, "Admiral!  There be whales here!" was one of his favourite lines in the entire film series. 

So they go back to the future, but the probe's transmissions disable the Bird-of-Prey and they crash land in San Fransisco Bay.  They free the whales from the Bird-of-Prey, they swim out into wild, and the whales and the probe have a chat.  Satisfied with what the whales tell it, the probe warps back into deep space.  Power is restored to Earth, and everything is good.

Except for our heroes, of course, because they still have to go to trial.  At their trial, thanks to extenuating circumstances (i.e. having just literally saved the world), all charges are dropped except for one:  disobeying orders, which is leveled solely at Admiral Kirk.  Pleading guilty, Kirk's punishment is that he's demoted to captain and put back in command of a starship. 

I'll never forget reading the MAD Magazine spoof when I was a kid.  "Too bad they didn't demote him to private, he could have gotten the whole fleet." 

Kirk and Gillian share one last moment.  She's been drafted into Starfleet and assigned to a science vessel to help monitor the whales.  Spock and Sarek have a father/son moment where Sarek admits, as much as a Vulcan can, that he's proud of his son.  And our favourite crew is escorted to their new ship.

Fun trivia fact:  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was the first Star Trek film shown behind the Iron Curtain.  Because of its anti-whaling message, it was shown in Moscow as part of a WWF fundraiser.  When our crew is speculating what ship they're going to get, McCoy cracks the joke, "The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe.  We'll get a freighter."  Says producer Bennett, that line got a massive laugh in the Soviet Union, and Bennett felt it was a "harbinger of things to come." 

And again, I wonder what the Trekkie's reaction was back in 1986.  Going into the theatre, knowing very little about the film, how much did they geek out when it's revealed that their new ship is the Enterprise-A?  To see the Enterprise again, with composer Leonard Rosenman slipping the original series theme into the score, and Kirk's line, "My friends...we've come home."  I tell you, back in 1986, that must have been a real stand-up and cheer moment for the Trekkies.

The Enterprise takes flight.  Sulu asks for a heading, and Kirk just grins and says, "Let's see what she's got."  Great ending, and finally we had the happy ending after all those downers. 

Some other random thoughts:  Leonard Roseman's score.  I know it's always gotten flak from the Trekkies from being the most un-Star Trek-like, but I've always been fond of it.  I like when these Star Trek scores attempt something different.  Probably my second-favourite, after the most different one, which is coming up.

And the special effects.  Oscar nominated special effects.  (It lost to Aliens.)  All of the whale stuff was done with 4-foot animatronics floating in a swimming pool.  So realistic were those special effects, that Paramount got several letters of protest from whale organizations about how dangerously close they got to whales in the wild.  Paramount showed them the behind the scenes footage of how they did the special effects, to which those organizations went, "Oh.  Good job, then." 

Since this was the #1 Star Trek movie of all time (before the reboot), I wonder why the desire was always to emulate The Wrath of Khan and not this one?  I mean, Nimoy's vision seems perfectly suited for a Star Trek film, and very much in keeping with Roddenberry's vision:  "no dying, no fighting, no shooting, no stereotypical bad guy. I just wanted people to have a great time watching the film, and if somewhere in there, we lobbed a few big ideas at them, even better."  Well, I think they're scared to try and emulate it, because they did try, with the next one, The Final Frontier.  And of course, they failed miserably.  We'll get into that next time.

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