Welcome to “Friday Favorites” which highlight some of my favorite movie-related things.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a bit of an oddity. It’s the third film in a trilogy of sorts, one that started with The Wrath of Khan and continued with The Search for Spock. It has none of the hallmarks of any other Star Trek movie: there are no space battles, no action to speak of, no Enterprise, and almost none of the film takes place among the stars at all. The Voyage Home is half fish-out-of-water comedy and half environmental sermon, and it’s the latter half that’s so remarkable. In fact, it can be summed up by just one shot, my favorite in the film:
The Voyage Home was a bold move for Star Trek. It had the highest budget of any film since Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and it would go on to become the 2nd highest grossing Star Trek film featuring the original cast (after ST:TMP). But what really sets it apart is its strong environmental message. Star Trek, the TV series, had many episodes confronting the issues of the day. It dealt with things like racism in a way that had a sci-fi spin but were still completely obvious to viewers. You need look no farther than “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” to see Star Trek’s history of delivering messages that some would call “heavy handed.”
It was part of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek that its semi-utopian future setting would provide a vehicle for dealing with issues of the day. This continued through all of the series, but it was never felt in the movies until The Voyage Home. It makes sense that the films had been focused on action and effects, as those tended to be the most crowd pleasingly generic (even if spectacularly done, like in The Wrath of Khan). The Voyage Home screams “Save the whales!” in a way that’s both charming and completely lacking in subtlety.
In the future, Earth is attacked by a probe of unknown origins, targeting the seas while refusing to acknowledge any communications. Spock discovers that the probe’s signal is the song of the extinct humpback whale, and the crew pilots their captured Bird of Prey back in time in order to find some. They discover a pair in an aquarium, but the whales are returned to the ocean before the crew can beam them up, so they head out to the ocean to find the whales. As they approach, they see that a ship of whalers are in chase, and they move their cloaked vessel in between just in time to stop the harpoon. They decloak the Bird of Prey above the whaling ship and that’s when we get the shot that I love.
This shot has been criticized a lot, and it does have some funky things going on with the shadow cast on the sea and the whaler, but the message and the impact of the shot remain. If you could sum up the film with one image, it would be this one. The entire film is filled with moments of the 23rd century Enterprise crew criticizing modern culture (or at least 1986 culture). Some of them are funny, like the guy on the bus with the obnoxious music, while others have a more serious undercurrent, like the fear instilled by Chekhov’s Russian accent. The movie takes time to critique the use of nuclear power, pollution, economics, literature, even the language people use.
Can you imagine this film being made today? In some ways it hardly feels like Star Trek at all, yet in its message and its boldness it embodies the very essence of Star Trek. Unfortunately those days are long past, and producers are not likely to invest millions of dollars for their sucessfully reinvigorated franchise to spend 2 hours lecturing people on how their actions in the present will affect the future. That’s, after all, what my favorite shot is all about, it’s the future warning the present to change their ways. It may be heavy-handed, it may be silly or oversimplified, but that doesn’t automatically make it wrong.
What do you think? How would today’s Fox News react to classic Star Trek’s sermons? Do you prefer your Star Trek to be about space adventures and not ethical issues? Let me know in the comments!