Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Review
One of the main advantages the original Star Trek had over its various spin-offs was that it could do funny. Whereas the thankfully rare comedy episodes of The Next Generation or Voyager are amongst the worst hours of television you’ll ever see, TOS had a happy willingness to not always take itself terrible seriously, and a cast able to poke fun at themselves without ever managing to quite tip over the edge into self-parody. Some of the show’s best episodes are among its lightest - Shore Leave, A Piece of the Action, The Trouble With Tribbles, Spock’s Brain (well, maybe not the last) – while even the more serious stuff was nearly always enlivened by a few moments of well-judged humour (cringeworthy Oh you! fade outs at the end of episodes aside.) However, up until The Voyage Home it was notable that the big screen adventures had been remarkably free of that same tongue-in-cheek spirit. The Motion Picture wouldn’t know a joke if it fell over it, and while both Khan and, especially, The Search For Spock had moments of levity, their overriding tones were so grim that any humour was inevitably kept firmly in the background. It’s almost as though the series was proving a point, showing it was proper Sci-Fi, overly concerned that even the slightest wink at the audience would demean the whole.
The Voyage Home on the other hand doesn’t care. To hell with it, it says, enough with the downers, we’ve done that, made our mark, now let’s let loose and have some fun. After three serious films it’s a massive release of tension, an aftershow party rather than the main event, a time to pull off that too-tight tie and unbutton your collar. Emboldened by the success of the first three, the franchise finally decided to let its hair down, figuring that if you can’t do that in the fourth film in a series, when can you? This is Trek at its most relaxed, chilling out and having fun, its very own version of a Rat Pack film (the Shat Pack? Maybe not.) The instigator was Leonard Nimoy; having proved his directorial capabilities with The Search For Spock he had a lot more clout this time around, and fashioned a film far closer to his own sensibilities. From the start he made clear his desires; he wanted a movie with no heavy and no heaviness, believing that the audience had had enough of that now. He was proved right. The one with the whales, as it’s almost universally known, was until JJ Abrams’ relaunch the most profitable movie in Trek history, the one genuine breakout hit which appealed even to those who had never gone near the franchise before.
But, like the most indulgent of the Rat Pack pictures, its success with the viewer is almost entirely down to how charming you find the cast. The story is little more than a flimsy excuse to put them in a variety of amusing situations, a collection of set pieces rather than a proper narrative, which is why the film is remembered for moments rather than its whole. Everyone remembers Chekov’s search for "nuclear wessels," or Spock giving the punk on the bus the nerve pinch, or Kirk telling Gillian “No, I’m from Iowa, I only work in outer space,” but not exactly how any of them came to be doing those things. The story, in which the crew travel back in time to the then-present-day 1986 of San Francisco to retrieve a pair of humpback whales to have a chat to a probe which in their own time is destroying the planet, is daft but knows it’s daft (McCoy even says as much) and is utterly unapologetic about it. Very early on Nimoy makes clear the tone of the picture, in the scene when the Bird of Prey touches down in a central San Francisco park (to the surprise of a couple of comedy binmen) and Captain Kirk, walking out, reminds everyone to remember where they’ve parked. If we were in serious Star Trek mode, the Bird of Prey would have either remained in orbit (why, exactly, do they land?) or, if they had to touch down, would have done so in some out of the way place, not the middle of a city where it was likely someone would walk right into it. But logic doesn’t matter, and once they’ve arrived the crew split up to their respective tasks; Kirk and Spock to plan the kidnap of a pair of whales from a centre of cetacean studies in the city, McCoy and Scotty to convert the ship into an aquarium, Chekov and Uhura to finding some fuel for the ship, and Sulu to get a helicopter (poor Sulu.) This is not a film to take seriously.
The least successful of the plot strands in terms of comedy is actually the main one. Once Spock has mind-melded with the whales you’ve seen everything you want to with his and Kirk’s quest to persuade the whale’s minder, Dr Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks) to help them kidnap the whales. Gillian is the closest Kirk gets in any of the films to a romance (one of the main oddities of the movies, given his reputation in the series) but she’s not an especially interesting character, even if Hicks does her best to be bright and perky. The moment when she stops to offer Kirk and Spock a lift is the most unlikely in a movie full of unlikely moments, while her voyage into the future is oddly anticlimactic. The other characters fare better, with the exception of Sulu who is very shortchanged - not only does he get nothing funny in the film, but his one decent scene, in which Sulu would have met his own great-great grandfather, was never filmed as the child actor involved was being difficult. Both Chekov and Scotty on the other hand get rare moments in the spotlight. To his dying day Koenig will suffer from having people coming up to him in the streets and asking if he knows where the nuclear wessels are, but you can see him relishing his turn during a scene in which, having been captured on said wessel, he's interrogated. Equally Doohan, who across the six films got by far the least amount to do with his character Scotty, shows a decent aptitude for comedy in his scenes with DeForest Kelley - the two play well with each other, and it's a shame it's really the one time they get to show that. Mostly the comedy is also perfectly judged, but there is one scene when all restraint is lost, namely the sequence in the hospital where the film almost enters Frank Drebin territory, complete with sight gags – the miraculous recovery of the kidney patient, the hijacking of the operation and the madcap chase through the corridors. Intentionally over the top, it's the climax of the main body of the movie - once they get back on the ship, it's back to the future and the more serious business of saving the planet.
It is also, despite being little more than a romp, not entirely stupid. Trek was always about holding a mirror up to society and showing it how it could be better, and it's fitting that here we get that in its most literal form, our heroes from the future, supposedly more advanced and civilised, encountering our sadly less-than-perfect society today, complete with its liberal use of, as Spock calls them, colourful metaphors (even though it ignores the fact that Kirk himself was not above the odd oath.) There’s also the usually forgotten fact that the film sees Spock’s final rehabilitation; at the beginning we see him completing the recovery of the Vulcan side of his persona, but unable to answer the simplest question about his human side – how do you feel? By the film’s end, having mixed with both his friends and the wider denizens of San Francisco, he has once again come to terms with both sides of his human/Vulcan psyche, and is able to answer the question (although in the scene after the Bird of Prey has crashed into SF harbour, where Spock can be seen beaming extensively, we’re obviously seeing Nimoy himself rather than the character!) The odd thing is that the environmental point being made feels strangely peripheral; although Nimoy's entire reason for making the film was to get across the evils of whaling and his wider environmental fears (that line early on about the pollution content in the atmosphere is not accidental) ultimately it's so overshadowed by the slapstick that, even after he's taken several opportunities to focus close-up on the evils of the whaler, one can't help having the impression that in the end the movie really exists just for the fun of watching our heroes having comic adventures in San Francisco, and that really any old excuse for getting them there would have sufficed.
Taken as a whole, though, The Voyage Home marked a turning point for the franchise. It enabled the makers to realise that they didn’t need to be quite so tight-assed all the time, with the result that the two subsequent TOS films were far more light-hearted in tone, and ultimately more akin to the original series. It also gave the (ssh, don't tell them) lesser characters of Uhura, Sulu and Chekov delusions of grandeur – they’d now had a taste of the action, and they wanted more, so once again the last two films made sure they had far more to do than in the first three. It could be argued that the movie dumbed down the franchise – none of the subsequent films come close to having the intellectual weight of Khan or even The Search for Spock - and I know some people who think the whole thing so silly and incredible (in the old fashioned sense of the word) as to be beneath their contempt. But they miss the point; this movie was an indulgence, for both its crew and the audience, and is utterly unashamed of it. How one reacts to the movie should not be governed by how unlikely it is no one would walk into the Bird of Prey in the middle of San Francisco but instead by how funny you think it is when Kirk tell Gillian that Spock was like he was because “he did a little too much LDS in the Sixties.”
Above I likened it to the Rat Pack movies, but that’s not an entirely fair comparison; this is a very easy-going movie, but it is also a funny one, full of great one-liners and amusing moments, well played by a cast who you can actually see having a laugh (thank goodness, incidentally, that the original plan, to have Eddie Murphy as the main guest star, didn’t come to pass – one shivers to imagine what deadening impact his presence would have had on the film). If you're not enamoured with the characters it's easy to imagine thinking the thing rather unbearable, but really, if you don't like them, why are you watching Star Trek IV? For the rest of us, while it isn't great science-fiction, isn't a great story and ultimately isn't even a very good film, it is a guilty pleasure, a romp which wears its heart on its sleeve and doesn't want to do anymore than send its loyal Trekker audience off with the same big grin on its face as Nimoy has in those last scenes. And in those respects, it works perfectly. And if you don't like it? Well... a double dumb-ass on you!
This new Blu-ray of The Voyage Home is, like those for The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, available in two sets, the complete Original Motion Picture Collection and the Motion Picture Trilogy, the discs having identical content in both. The presentation of the film is identical to the others on the set. The film and extras are held on a single BD50, which is housed in a slim amaray case which in turn lives in the slipcase of all seven discs - it's Sulu's face to be seen on this particular one. The menus across the set are uniform, a minimalistic pan around the Starfleet logo through which space can be seen, accompanied by an extract from the film's score. As ever, the extras are divided into several categories - Production, The Star Trek Universe and so on - but to find out which are new to this release and which come from the SD Special Collectors' Edition from a few years ago you must consult the case.
The transfer for the film is one of those which has attracted the most criticism online. The first thing to make clear is that, like the other films on the set, the Video, presented in 1080p, is far, far superior to the mucky one seen on the SD release. It's rapidly becoming a cliche, but the film looks as good as I've ever seen it, and the increased resolution means one can spot all sorts of things previously invisible, such as display readouts and details on Vulcan, as well as being far cleaner - I didn't spot a single artefact on the print this time, which could not be said for the SCE. If you look at the comparison shots below, you'll see that the improvement in general image quality is far more pronounced between the SD and BD for this film than it was for The Search for Spock and for that alone the disc gets good marks. The removal of grain by DNR, which has been the focus of much of the set's criticism is varied; it's most evident in the San Francisco outdoor scenes which are quite flat now, but on others, such as the sequences on Vulcan, the levels look about right. The other slight quibble I had with the image is that some of the brightest outdoor scenes now look considerably darker than one might expect, suggesting someone toned them down a little more than was necessary. Overall, however, I found this a decent transfer and far better than a couple of others on the set.
Here are some comparison shots to illustrate the changes:
On the Audio side, as with all the other films in the set the movie comes with a crisp 7.1 Dolby True HD track. This isn't one of the films which will tax your speakers overmuch, with none of the majesty of the battles with Khan, the disintegration on the Genesis planet or the menacing, chilly atmosphere of Rura Penthe. Nevertheless, there are moments when the track springs to life: the opening sequence when the probe attacks Earth and the storm sets in make good use of all speakers, while the odd shot of the Bird of Prey swooping in and out of San Francisco is also decent. Overall, the one slight problem - and this isn't a fault of the transfer so much - is that the outdoor scenes in San Francisco have no atmosphere at all - you wouldn't really know the crew were moving around busy streets, while the scenes in the Institute, hospital and aircraft carrier are similarly lacking that extra punch. Overall, though, fine.
The film and all extras with the exception of the commentaries are subtitled, and as ever I've asterisked in the details below those extras which are presented in HD.
Once again, all of the extras from the SCE release have been carried over to this new set, and once again the new featurettes which join them are less than essential. The "fan" Commentary this time is with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers of the new Abrams film, but they don't demonstrate a huge knowledge about the making of the film nor of the events which take place within in. They do offer some small insights into movie writing, and draw comparisons between their own script and the one here, but overall it's not worth your time. (Neither, for that matter, is the original SCE's commentary, which pairs Nimoy and Shatner. It's all a bit vague, and Shatner rambles, so while it's nice to hear the two of them together, it's not as much fun as you might expect.) Again, there's a Starfleet Academy "briefing" The Whale Probe* (3:43) - if you've watched them all so far, you'll be beginning to feel sorry for the poor woman doing them as yet again she relates the film's plot in front of a green screen, her ill-fitting uniform flapping around. One really does get the impression those involved in putting the discs together were struggling to find anything new to put on them - Pavel Chekov's Screen Moments* (6:10), for example, consists entirely of Koenig describing how pleased he was to have the aircraft sequence as normally he didn't get much of a look-in. Great. The Three-Picture Saga* (10:12) is equally uninsightful - if you hadn't watched any of the other features on the disc you might just gain some knowledge from Bennett and others describing how the "Spock dies" trilogy evolved almost accidentally, but they say nothing new. Unsurprisingly given the film's theme and Nimoy's interest in the subject, there's also what amounts to a five minute advert for Greenpeace, Star Trek For a Cause* (5:40) which is fair enough. Finally for new features, there's the BD-Live Star Trek IQ feature (nope, still can't access it) and the Library Computer replacing the Okuda's text commentary from the SCE - this latter feature is somewhat amusing in that every little thing which is mentioned even in passing on screen gets a mention, to sometimes absurd lengths - during the scene where Sulu revs up the Bird of Prey for their voyage through time, in which he counts up "Warp One! Warp Two! Warp Three!" etc, every new speed he exclaims gets an entry popping up on screen.
Fortunately, the SCE's extras were once again pretty good. The major Making Of is Future’s Past: A Look Back (27:30), an enjoyable collection of reminiscences from those involved regarding the film’s creation and shoot, if not quite as good as the one for Khan. Several featurettes then go into more detail about various aspects of the film's production. On Location (7:26) is a neutral piece in which Nimoy and others briefly talk about the location shooting. It’s not very flattering to Nichols and Koenig – talking about the scene in which they went onto the streets of San Francisco and asked real people where the “nuclear wessels” were, the director says he was worried people would recognise them “but not many did.” Awww. Below the Line: Sound Design (11:44) has Sound Designer Mark Mangini talking about how he came up with the sound of the space probe amongst other things. He likes the sound of his own voice a bit, but is still interesting to listen to. From Outer Space to the Ocean (14:42) starts off feeling like it’s an archive EPK documentary, complete with growly voice over, but subsequent interviews with the effects team seem modern, so I don’t know what’s going on with it. A so-so effort, in either case, not especially revealing but worth seeing solely for the very Thunderbirds-like shot when the Klingon Bird of Prey, dangling from strings, bangs into the model Golden Gate Bridge. There are also three Original Interviews included, one each with Shatner (strangely subdued) (14:32), Nimoy (in full PR mode) (15:39) and DeForest Kelley (13:02) which are reasonably interesting, and Dailies Deconstruction (4:14), a split-screen comparison between various takes of the “Double dumb-ass on you!” scene, which is as exciting as that sounds.
There are also a couple of pieces which go into more detail regarding the film's subjects. Time-Travel: The Art of the Possible (11:14) sees a group of scientists having fun speculating on how and when we’ll all be able to travel back in time to steal our very own whales, in a featurette which manages to cram quite a lot in during its short running time. Inevitably, there’s also The Language of Whales (5:47) which sees real life Gillian Taylor Ree Brennin eulogising about the creatures – disappointingly, it’s far less informative on its subject than the time travel one is on its.
Inevitably, some of the extras are pure filler. The Bird of Prey (2:49) is a perfect example, consisting of clips of the ship intermixed with snippets of Nimoy talking about it, bits of which I’m fairly sure were also used in The Search for Spock featurettes. A Vulcan Primer (7:50) is only a little better, with a Trek author burbling on with random facts about Vulcans for eight minutes - despite their central role in Trek, the race is not one of the franchise's more interesting, and this isn't one of the disc's either. On the other hand, Kirk’s Women (8:20) is a fun bit of froth (unless you’re Captain Kirk in which case it’s your worst nightmare) in which several actresses who fought off the Captain’s advances in the series and on film recollect their close encounters with the captain’s log. There are two featurettes which profile two individuals with mixed results: Roddenberry Scrapbook (8:17) is a bland piece in which Roddenberry’s son talks about his father’s inspirations and beliefs but is neither long nor detailed enough to make for an especially definitive take on the subject, but Featured Artist: Mark Lenard (12:44) is a touching piece in which his widow and daughters talk about their father and his roles on Trek – hardly essential, but a nice nod to a significant player in the Trek universe.
Rounding things off, the Production Gallery (3:55) is a bit more jolly than the others so far, opening with film of the cast and crew lining up for a group photo, and going on to show some behind-the-scenes shots accompanied by the film's score. Eight sequences are shown in Storyboard format as well, while finally the Theatrical Trailer* (2:24) is included too.
In all aspects The Voyage Home gets one of the best discs in Paramount's new set. The new extras aren't much cop, but the original SCE material gives a good account of the film's making, while the new transfer is, despite some comments to the contrary, perfectly acceptable, and a big improvement on the SD release.
7 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10
8 out of 10