Saturday, November 26, 2011

 

"It's a miracle these people ever got out of the 20th century"


By Edward Copeland
Conventional wisdom about the Star Trek films considers Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the movie franchise's best offering. While Wrath of Khan certainly remains a very good film (and what wouldn't have looked great following that bore called Star Trek: The Motion Picture?), I've long held that finest film featuring the original crew happens to be Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which was released 25 years ago today. It may be my general bias toward genre series: I gravitate toward the installments packed with humor and Star Trek IV is damn funny. If you disagree, well — double dumb ass on you!


By no means could you ever call me a Trekkie (or Trekker, if you prefer). When I was in my earliest years of grade school, I would watch reruns of the original Star Trek, but I doubt I've seen every episode. I do remember standing in a line with my parents at a Toys 'R' Us when I was in first grade, waiting to briefly shake hands with "Captain Kirk" William Shatner. I think I watched two complete episodes of the Next Generation series and none of its spinoffs. (Though, to be truthful, of all the Star Trek movies I've seen — and I skipped Insurrection and Nemesis — I think the best of the films actually is Star Trek: First Contact with the Next Generation cast.) On the commentary track for the Star Trek IV DVD, Leonard Nimoy, who directed the film and helped come up with its story in addition to playing Spock, says, "The idea going in was to do an adventure film that was funny. We had just finished a couple of films where a lot of people died…there was a lot of pain and suffering. We decided it was time to lighten up…There was to be no heavy in this movie…" For some reason, when sci-fi, horror or fantasy series go the humor route, those end up being my favorite episodes or seasons. That's why season six was my favorite of The X-Files and I loved seasons three and six of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer the most. That's also why Star Trek IV, which starts firing one-liners and gags almost from the first frame, still cracks me up today. Actually, The Voyage Home doesn't immediately start out on a farcical level and while it doesn't present a villain per se, the story still requires a conflict to resolve. First, and unintentionally, the movie ended up being the final chapter in a trilogy they never set out to make. Nimoy talks on the commentary, which he shares with Shatner, that it had never been planned that way, but had developed naturally. In fact, sets that were destroyed after Star Trek III had to be rebuilt but, as Nimoy says, "We were used to being canceled." Wrath of Khan developed the Genesis Project story that leads to Spock's resurrection in Part III as well as the destruction of the Enterprise, whose crew takes over a Klingon bird of prey vessel, killing a Klingon crew that beams over to the Enterprise as it self-destructs. Part IV picks up with a new plot — a mysterious probe that sends out signals no one can translate and saps all the power from any ship in its path. Meanwhile, a Klingon ambassador (John Schuck) goes before the Federation Council and, standing before an enlarged photo of Kirk, demands his head for "war crimes" related to those events in Star Trek III. Spock's father, Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lester), arrives to defend Kirk's actions. "Vulcans are well known as the intellectual puppets of the Federation," the Klingon ambassador insists. Sarek reminds the Klingon that one of his vessels destroyed a Federation starship and his men killed Kirk's son. "Do you deny this?" Sarek asks. "We deny nothing. We have the right to preserve our race," the Klingon replies. Later, the Klingon ambassador threatens the body, telling them, "Remember this well — there shall be no peace as long as Kirk lives."

Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise has been exiled on the planet Vulcan for three months, trying to repair the Klingon ship so they can return to Earth to face court-martial charges and to get Spock re-energized back to his old self. It's really once we get to Vulcan and meet up with the regulars, that the comedy takes over. Even the Oscar-nominated score by Leonard Rosenman, with its bouncy, vibrant rhythm, seems to have been composed for a screwball farce. As most episodes of the series began, we get Kirk recording a captain's log, catching us up, including the fact that McCoy (the late, great De Forest Kelley, who always managed to get laughs whether they were embarking on a comic story or not) had given the Klingon ship an "appropriate name" and we see spray-painted on its side the words "H.M.S. Bounty." Kirk, who has been promoted to an admiral by now in the movie series, assembles his crew, which consists only of the regulars since they stole the Enterprise in the last film (one of the Federation's main charges against them for which they are facing court-martial) to find Spock's physical essence and restore his mind which he conveniently implanted in McCoy's brain before he sacrificed his life (for a little while at least) in Wrath of Khan. The only extra character along for the ride was the Star Trek movies' creation — the Vulcan Lt. Saavik (played by Robin Curtis here and in Part III but created by Kirstie Alley in Wrath of Khan). Kirk quizzes Scotty (the late James Doohan) on how much long it will be until the Klingon ship can fly again. When he tells Kirk that it shouldn't take more than another day or so, the admiral wants to know why it is taking so long. Scotty replies, "Damage control is easy — reading Klingon, that's hard." As everyone gets to work, McCoy takes Kirk aside and starts bitching that they have to return to Earth in the Klingon ship — he thinks the Federation should have sent a ship for them. "It's bad enough to be court-martialed and spend the rest of our lives mining borite, but to have to go home in this Klingon flea trap," Bones complains. "We could learn a thing or two from this flea trap. It's got a cloaking device that cost us a lot," Jim argues. "Just wish we could cloak the stench," McCoy replies.

Spock isn't pitching in with his crewmates yet, as he still is getting up to speed, wearing Vulcan robes and spending time with a computer that's testing his brain. He has no difficulty answering questions relating to history or scientific knowledge. (As an example, the computer asks, "What was Kiri-Kin-Tha's first law of metaphysics?" to which Spock answers, "Nothing unreal exists.") Where Spock runs into trouble is when his human side gets tested and the computer asks, "How do you feel?" and Spock can't conceive of a possible response. As Spock puzzles over the question, he's surprised by his human mother Amanda (the late veteran actress Jane Wyatt), who tries to explain that the half of him comes from her will return as well. Since only the all-logical Vulcan side has developed at this point, both the question and his mother's words remain incomprehensible. (I know the recent Star Trek movie starts with the fabled original characters at younger ages, but it still boggles my mind to see poor Winona Ryder, who just turned 40 a month or so ago, cast as Amanda and then knocked off in a muddled resolution that destroys the planet Vulcan.) Echoing the question that was asked repeatedly both ways in Wrath of Khan, his mother inquires, "Spock, does the good of the many outweigh the good of the one?" He tells her that he "would accept that as an axiom." His mother tries to break through by explaining, "Then you stand here alive because of a mistake made by your flawed, feeling, human friends. They have sacrificed their futures because they believed that the good of the one — you — was more important to them." Spock replies, "Humans make illogical decisions." "They do indeed," Amanda says. (I've always wondered, not being a serious Star Trek aficionado how an all-logic, emotionless Vulcan such as Sarek and a human such as Amanda would have hooked up in the first place.) That scene really is about as serious as Star Trek IV gets. Thankfully, Spock doesn't instantly find his human side because the fact that he isn't all there provides a great many of the laughs in the film. In the DVD commentary, Nimoy shares an interesting fact about the making of the film and Wyatt's longevity in Hollywood. One of her earliest films was Frank Capra's 1937 movie Lost Horizon. Working on the set as a second assistant director the day Wyatt's scenes were shot was his grandson, Frank Capra III.

The Klingon ship finally has been restored to a condition that allows the crew to leave Vulcan and fly back to Earth for their trial. Spock rejoins them but since there aren't any extra uniforms lying around, he remains cloaked in Vulcan robes. One person who doesn't come along is Lt. Saavik, who stays behind on Vulcan. On the commentary, Nimoy says there had been plans that, since Saavik had helped Spock through the rapid aging process of his regeneration, she would turn up pregnant with Spock's child from his second adolescence, but that plot never was pursued. Even if you're not an obsessive fan of Star Trek, it's always nice to see the entire cast when they're assembled on the bridge, even if it's a Klingon bridge as in this case, which might as well be the stage of a comedy club. "Cloaking device available on all flight modes," Chekov (Walter Koenig) reports to Kirk. "I'm impressed. That's a lot of work for a short journey," Kirk compliments him. "We are in an enemy wessel. I did not wish to be shot down on our way to our own funeral," Chekov replies. It would be a funny line, even if it didn't have the added laugh that comes from Chekov's supposed Russian accent that makes vessel come out as "wessel," a running gag throughout the film. McCoy tries to engage Spock in conversation and immediately notices that the Spock they knew literally is not all there. He tries to warn Kirk. "I don't know if you've got the whole picture, but he's not exactly working on all thrusters," Bones tells him, but Kirk isn't concerned since the scientific side of Spock seems to be functional. Of course, they have no idea about the probe that has claimed more ships and now threatens Earth. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) gets the first clue about the problem as she hears overlapping distress calls and the probe's strange signals. The crew gets a message from the Federation Council president (Robert Ellenstein) urging all ships to avoid Earth and informing those listening that the mystery probe has ionized almost all of Earth's atmosphere and vaporized two-thirds of its oceans. Spock shows that his mind definitely fires on all thrusters, having Uhura isolate the signal from the probe. From his memory, he believes it is making the sound of the humpback whale, a species native to Earth that went extinct in the 21st century. Kirk hits upon an idea: They will take the ship back in time when the sea mammals did exist, bring two back to the 23rd century so they can speak with the probe and begin to repopulate. Admittedly, the mission would be a long shot, but it might be the only hope Earth has for survival. McCoy thinks Kirk has gone bonkers.
McCOY: You're going to try time traveling in this rust bucket?
KIRK: Well, we've done it before.
McCOY: Sure, you slingshot around the sun, pick up enough speed — you're in time warp. If you don't, you're fried.
KIRK:I prefer it to nothing.
McCOY: I prefer a dose of common sense. You're proposing that we go backwards in time, find humpback whales, then bring them forward in time, drop 'em off and hope to hell they tell this probe what to do with itself.
KIRK: That's the general idea.
McCOY: Well, that's crazy!
KIRK: You've got a better idea? Now's the time.

Kirk sends a garbled signal to the Federation about their plan and they set a course for the late 20th century — and that's when the fun really begins. Parts of the DVD back-and-forth between Shatner and Nimoy comes off nearly as funny as the scenes set in "the past," particularly the exchange where Shatner tells how he hated the idea for Star Trek IV when Nimoy and producer Harve Bennett, who shared the story credit with Nimoy and was one of the film's four credited screenwriters, brought it to him. "I never abided time travel — it was too easy to solve things by time travel. You could get out of the deus ex machina by saying, 'Oh well, we corrected that,'" Shatner says on the DVD. "The alarm clock rings and the hero wakes up and it's all been a bad dream. So I said to Leonard and to Harve that I didn't think time travel was a good idea and was quite adamant in my opinion. Luckily, they paid no attention to me whatsoever." That prompts Nimoy to interject, "We actually said that to each other, 'Let's not pay him any attention whatsoever.'" Shatner reminds Nimoy, "And add the word 'again.' Let's not pay him any attention whatsoever again." Nimoy then explains a general principle, "If Bill says, 'Don't do it,' you just do it." Given how Star Trek V: The Final Frontier turned out when they allowed Shatner to direct, you can't help feeling that Nimoy wasn't necessarily joking. With two people credited with the story on Star Trek IV and four with the screenplay, the movie provides a rare example of a film with multiple names credited with its script that doesn't turn out to be a disaster.

After the disorientation that comes with a time warp, Kirk awaits confirmation as to whether or not they arrived in the past. "Judging by the pollution content of the atmosphere, I believe we have arrived at the late 20th century," Spock reports. Almost immediately, Uhura picks up whale songs. Once they enter the 20th century atmosphere, Spock suggests tracking devices might detect them so, thanks to Klingon technology, they turn on the cloaking device. When they hone in on where the whale songs are strongest, it leads them to San Francisco, which puzzles them at first wondering why whales would be in a city, speculating that the whales could be in captivity. Scotty calls to the bridge with a bigger problem — those damn dilithium crystals! They're breaking up and Scotty doesn't think they can keep the ship cloaked for more than a day and certainly won't have enough power left to get them out of orbit, let alone back to the 23rd century. Kirk asks if there is any way to recrystallize dilithium crystals, but Scotty doesn't know any, but Spock has a suggestion available in the 20th century. "If memory serves, there was a dubious flirtation with nuclear fission reactors resulting in toxic side effects. By the beginning of the fusion era, these reactors had been replaced, but at this time, we should be able to find some," Spock suggests, theorizing they could rig a device to collect the high energy protons safely and inject them into the dilithium chamber, hopefully causing recrystallization. Kirk asks where they would find them and Spock recalls nuclear-powered Naval vessels. As they descend into San Francisco, Sulu (George Takei) mentions that he was born there. That's the last remnant of a story they had to scratch because they ran out of time shooting in San Francisco. Nimoy says on the DVD that originally Sulu was to aid a young Japanese boy in trouble only to discover that the kid was his own great great grandfather. That might explain why of all the crew members, Sulu seems to have the least San Francisco story of the 23rd century visitors. Kirk gives his crew what amounts to a coach's halftime speech, warning them about what they'll encounter in 1986. "Many of their customs will doubtless take us by surprise," Kirk tells the crew. "This is an extremely primitive and paranoid culture." When Star Trek was on TV, Gene Roddenberry incorporated topical issues but framed them within the sci-fi format. The movies had avoided this approach so far, but not only was The Voyage Home funny, it was satirical, taking pot shots at the year it came out without being specific, and adding an environmental message as well. Kirk also realizes that no one in 1986 would have encountered an extra-terrestrial before so Spock tears off part of his robe, fashions it into a headband and wraps it around his skull to mask those distinctive ears. "We talked endlessly about should these people change clothes when they get out on the streets of San Francisco," Nimoy says on the commentary. "After a couple of location scouting trips, I saw people wearing such outlandish things I said, 'Forget it — they'll go as they are.'" When they venture out of the ship for the first time, Kirk says, "Everybody remember where we parked." They are divided into three teams: Uhura and Chekov will try to find the uranium, Sulu, McCoy and Scotty will construct a whale tank and Kirk and Spock will find those humpbacks.

When daytime comes and they hit the streets, The Voyage Home practically becomes bedroom farce without the bedroom, even with horndog Kirk leading the way. The crew assembles in busy downtown San Francisco to discuss their plans of action. Kirk notes a newspaper machine where the headline reads Nuclear Arms Talks Stalled, which prompts Kirk to speak the title of this post, "It's a miracle these people ever got out of the 20th century." He also sees a man inserting coins to get the paper out and realizes that they still use money. He tells the rest to wait when he spots an antique store with a sign that says it buys and sells. It starts the movie's premier running gag on profanity as Kirk darts in front of a cab (Spock tagging along), nearly getting run over and the driver yells, "Watch where you're going, you dumb ass!" A flustered Kirk responds with "And double dumb ass on you!" Kirk gets to the antique shop and sells a pair of 18th century spectacles for $200. Spock asks Kirk if those weren't a present from Dr. McCoy. "And they will be again, Spock. That's the beauty of it," Kirk tells him. They return to their shipmates, divide the money and go on their separate adventures. While Spock tries to use his logical mind and massive internal warehouse of information to transfer the coordinates for those whale signs to a street map they find at a bus stop, Kirk stumps the Vulcan by finding the answer when the bus shows up bearing an ad for humpback whales named George and Gracie on display at the Cetacean Institute in Sausalito (once they conquer the problem of exact change). A sign helps McCoy and Scotty as well as they see one for yellow pages to find a manufacturer to help construct the 20th century equivalent of transparent aluminum, which won't exist for 150 years. The biggest comedy comes from Uhura and Chekov, who also use a phone book to find the location of a Naval station, but have less luck getting people to explain to them where it is. The funniest encounter comes when they ask a stoic motorcycle cop how to get to the Naval base in Alameda. "Where they keep the nuclear wessels," Chekov adds, forgetting he's in a time where Russians looking for nuclear anything don't go over well. The sequence goes on as everyone they ask tell them the same information they asked.


Perhaps the funniest extended sequence of the film comes once Kirk and Spock get that exact change for the bus and take it out to Sausalito to meet George and Gracie. First, they try to talk on the bus but an obnoxious teen (Kirk Thatcher) blasting his punk rock makes it impossible. Kirk tries being polite, asking him to please turn it down, but the kid ignores him. Kirk tries a second time and the punk turns it up, Finally, Kirk yells, "Excuse me! Would you mind stopping that damn noise?" The punk flips Kirk off. Without much fanfare, Spock leans across and gives him the Vulcan nerve-pinch, rendering him unconscious to the applause of the entire bus. Now that they can talk, Spock seeks permission to ask Admiral Kirk a question, which annoys him. "Spock, don't call me Admiral. You used to call me Jim. Don't you remember?" The blank look convinces Kirk this isn't worth going into so he let's Spock proceed with his question. "Your use of language has altered since our arrival. It is currently laced with, shall we say, more colorful metaphors, 'double dumb ass on you' and so forth," Spock says. "Oh, you mean the profanity…Well that's simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you unless you swear every other word. You'll find it in all the literature of the period," Kirk explains. Spock seeks examples. "Oh, the collected works of Jacqueline Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins," Kirk cites. Then Spock brings it home for the final punchline: "Ah, the giants." In a way, Star Trek IV reminds me of Airplane!, not that it tosses something that might earn a laugh against the wall every second just to see if it sticks, but that you never know where it will veer off for a joke next. It could have simply limited itself to the fish (or, more accurately, whale)-out-of-water style of comedy, but it's ready to go everywhere. It has jokes at the expense of the 20th century and with the Star Trek characters as the targets. The film may not have a villain, but Earth's future is at stake, yet the light tone in which most everything is played makes the whole probe-may-wipe-out-the-human-race backstory seem as if it's merely a MacGuffin. They never bother to explain where the probe comes from or what it needed to hear from the whales. In its simpler, less mysterious, more accessible way, it almost can be viewed like the monolith in 2001, though we get that the monolith shows up at significant moments in man's history. Why the probe shows up — who knows? If it's merely to save the whales, it sure took its sweet time (two centuries) to do it.

As tempting as it is to detail the entire film or give away every gag or joke (what Spock would call "a story with a humorous climax"), it would eat up too much space and perhaps some haven't seen it. Not that it will come as a shock that they succeed in their mission — after all, this is a series that subtitled Star Trek III: The Search for Spock as if they weren't going to find him. Nimoy succeeds at every role he attempts in this film. His direction proves sharp and clever as does his new take on Spock, especially when Spock tries to start integrating those "colorful metaphors" into his language and doesn't quite have a handle on them yet. The one major character introduced in the film is Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), the whale expert at the aquarium who doesn't understand what these strange men are up to and eventually helps them in their plan to take George and Gracie to the future. She first meets up with Kirk and Spock when they come see her show and she delivers all the sad facts about the species' fight for survival against whalers and how they are being hunted to extinction. "To hunt a species to extinction is illogical," Spock says. "Who ever said the human race is logical?" Gillian responds. Later, Spock dives into their tank to talk to George and Gracie personally. When he gets back out, she wants to know what he's doing with "her whales." Spock replies, "They like you very much, but they are not the hell 'your' whales." Kirk, excited being near a female, tries to assure her that Spock is no one to fear, but he can't get his words quite right either. "He's harmless. Part of the free speech movement at Berkeley in the '60s. I think he did a little too much LDS." When Kirk and Gillian have dinner, she jokingly says to him, "Don't tell me, you're from outer space." Kirk answers, "No, I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space."

Of the other crew members, Scotty, Chekov and especially McCoy all get their moments. McCoy and Scotty go to a plastics manufacturer and Scotty describes to the boss there what he would think of a substance with the attributes of his transparent aluminum. The man thinks it would be impossible, but Scotty asks for a computer so he could show him. "Computer! Computer?" Scotty talks at it. Trying to be helpful, McCoy hands him the mouse and Scotty speaks into it, "Hello, computer." The man suggests that Scotty just use the keyboard. "Keyboard? How quaint," he responds, but for not using one, he types out a three-dimensional diagram for the formula pretty damn fast, astounding the man. Bones takes Scotty aside while the man looks at his work. "You realize that by giving him the formula you're altering the future," McCoy warns. "Why? How do we know he didn't invent the thing?" Scotty says. Uhura and Chekov find the nuclear "wessel" (appropriately, the Enterprise) and beam aboard and grab their protons, but Scotty's losing power fast, so he only can beam back one at a time. They decide to let Uhura go back with the protons. Unfortunately, before they can get power restored and get a read on Chekov, he's captured, leading to some hysterical interrogation scenes by officials wanting to know how a Russian breached security and a man from the 23rd century completely puzzled by their inquiries. When Chekov finally gets a clue that he might be in real trouble, he tries to use his phaser, but the radiation affects it and he makese a run for it, taking a huge fall that leaves him seriously injured. When word gets back to the crew, McCoy yells, "Don't leave him in the hands of 20th century medicine!" That leads to a wild set piece where they disguise themselves as doctors to get into the hospital and save him.

Having endured 21st century medicine myself, McCoy's prejudices hit home to me even more now. The entire sequence showcases Kelley's finesse at playing the grumpy doc. As he walks down the hall and notices an elderly woman (Eve Smith) groaning on a gurney, he stops to ask what's wrong. "Kidney. Dialysis," she answers weakly. "Dialysis? What is this, the Dark Ages?" he asks and starts to move along, but he turns back and gives her a big pill. "Here. You swallow that, and if you have any more problems, just call me!" he tells her, giving her a pat on the cheek. As subterfuge, he and Kirk put Gillian on a gurney to try to get to Chekov. On the way, he overhears doctors joking about treatments such as chemotherapy, horrifying McCoy. When they get to where Chekov is, he's being guarded. Kirk tries to force their way in and Gillian moans, but the guard insists he has orders. Finally, Bones tells him, "My God, man. Do you want an acute case on your hands? This woman has immediate postprandial, upper-abdominal distention. Now, out of the way! Get out of the way!" and the guard lets them pass. Kirk asks what he said she had. "Cramps." Inside, he has to fight with the doctor who wants to relieve the cranial pressure on Chekov's brain by drilling holes. "My God, man. Drilling holes in his head isn't the answer," McCoy insists. Kirk takes the medical team aside, pretending he's on their side and needs to talk with them, but instead uses his phaser to lock them in an adjoining room until McCoy can work his magic. As they wheel Chekov out, the guard asks how the patient is doing. "He's gonna make it," Kirk tells him. "He? You came in with a she," the guard says, sounding the alarm. "One little mistake," Kirk quips as the chase begins. As they flee, they pass the elderly woman who is telling everyone, "The doctor gave me a pill, and I grew a new kidney!"

When I decided at the beginning of the year what anniversary tributes I wanted to write, I hesitated about Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I had not seen the film almost since its original release and this was the fourth film in a series, after all, based on a TV show. Could it possibly hold up? I was prepared to chunk this piece if once I re-watched it, my memories turned out to be more glowing than the reality. (It also glows literally thanks to Donald Peterman's luscious cinematography which managed to snag an Oscar nomination.) Thankfully, that wasn't the case and it even included an entertaining and informative commentary track as well. If anything, I appreciate Star Trek IV more now than I did then. I remembered how funny it was, but I'd forgotten how many levels it played on. There are two parts I haven't squeezed in that I must. The classic Scotty line when he successfully beams George and Gracie onto the Klingon ship, "Admiral, there be whales here!" Also, the resolution of the court-martial where pretty much all is forgiven except that no one likes calling him Admiral Kirk, so they demote him to Captain Kirk again and then they get that moment when the crew sees their new starship for the first time. So, I end with two photos: George and Gracie free in the 23rd century and the sight of the crew's new starship.


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Comments:
Wonderful post celebrating one of my favorite movies! I am a huge Trekkie, have seen every episode of every TV show. And while Star Trek 6 is my personal favorite film, 4 definitely is the most "fun" and one of few Star Trek movies, like the new JJ Abrams one, that I think anyone can enjoy. You don't need to know anything about Klingons or the Federation to enjoy Star Trek 4 and yet its undeniably Star Trek.

I think more of the Trek films should follow the example of this movie and make the plots revolve less around a bad guy (this is not the Bond franchise after all!) and more about social and political issues.
 
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