Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

The crew of the Enterprise is at least 10,000 light years from home.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home provided another shot in the arm for the franchise, fueling its popularity with more than just die-hard sci-fi fans. It also again shows that audiences will respond to a great story rather than just special effects and spaceships.

First Impressions

The crew of the Enterprise is back again in this trailer for the fourth installment of the space-faring franchise. Earth appears to be under attack and Captain Kirk believes his only decision is to initiate time travel back to 1986. They have 24 hours to steal some photons and return home, all while dealing with late 20th Century customs and people. The humor is heavily present in this preview for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home title card.

The Fiction of The Film

Following the events of the previous film, a Klingon Counselor (John Schuck) demands vengeance for the death of his compatriots by Admiral Kirk (William Shatner). The tribunal finds the crew of the Enterprise guilty on 9 counts of Starfleet regulations. On the planet Vulcan, the crew of the destroyed USS Enterprise ready a captured Klingon bird-of-prey ship, renamed the HMS Bounty, to return to Earth with the recently resurrected Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy). As the ship approaches Earth, it is warned off by a planetary distress call. An alien probe is disrupting weather patterns and electronics causing massive damage.

Spock realizes that the probe is attempting to communicate with an extinct species of humpback whales. Unless the crew does something, all life on the planet will be destroyed. Kirk wants to destroy the probe, but makes the decision to enter Time Warp, slingshotting around the sun to end up somewhere in the later half of the 20th Century; 1986 to be precise. They cloaked ship lands in Golden Gate park, spooking a pair of garbage men, as Kirk begins to set up his plan.

Unfortunately, the trip back in time fried the Klingon power crystal rendering the ship unable to return. So the problems are: finding and retrieving whales, figuring out how to house them, and fixing the engines of the ship. The crew enters San Francisco and Kirk sells the glasses he was given by Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) in The Wrath of Khan in order to have spending money. Kirk sends Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) to retrieve photons from a nuclear powered ship which will help repair their engines. McCoy, Scotty (James Doohan) and Sulu (George Takei) are tasked with figuring out how to build a tank within the ship to house the whales, while Kirk and Spock are left to find some humpback whales.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Part of the time travel sequence employing cutting-edge 3D scanning and computer morphing technology.

The Admiral and his friend, who is still not quite his old self, discover a pair of whales at the Cetacean Institute in Sausalito. They are about to be returned to the ocean which makes Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), a biologist and tour guide at the aquarium, upset. Kirk uses his charms to sweet talk the woman and get more details about their release. He finally is forced to tell her the truth about his mission, forcing her to think he’s crazy. Meanwhile, Scotty and McCoy find a plexiglass manufacturer and trade the secret formula for transparent aluminum for pieces of the material to construct a tank.

Chekov and Uhura find an aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise of course, and steal the necessary amounts of photons. The radiation causes problems with communication and they are forced to beam out one at a time. Chekov, who is Russian, is captured by the naval soldiers and interrogated, believing him to be a cold war spy. He is injured in his escape and taken to a local hospital where Kirk, McCoy and Gillian (who now understand the situation) heal him and break him out.

The whales are released ahead of schedule, which changes everyone’s plans. Fixing the ship, the crew flies to Alaska, with stowaway Gillian, and saves the pair of whales from a fishing vessel. They are beamed aboard and the crew, driven by Spock’s “best guess” at calculations, returns to the 23rd Century. The whales are released into San Francisco Bay and communicate with the alien probe, sending it back where it came. The pair of humpbacks, who will soon give birth to a calf, swim off into the ocean. Kirk and his crew stand trial for the court martial, but only Kirk is punished for disobeying orders (since they did just save the planet and all). He is demoted again to Captain and given command of a brand new ship, the USS Enterprise-A.

There are other forms of intelligence on earth, doctor. Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man.” – Spock

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Kirk Thatcher’s “Punk on Bus” character is one of the most memorable characters from the film. He makes a return appearance, of sorts, in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” standing next to the hot dog vendor who asks Spider-Man to do a flip.

History in the Making

Continuing the adventures of the starship Enterprise, and completing the trilogy of storylines started with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home raised the bar on the two-decade old franchise attracting many new fans. It was the most successful film in the franchise until the release of JJ Abrams’ rebooted 2009 Star Trek film. The general appeal of the film was a great entry point into the world of Star Trek for many audiences, which used humor and contemporary settings to further entice people that may have never seen a Star Trek film before. It also garnered repeat viewing and like its two predecessors became a staple of cable broadcasts and home video.

The most notable element that audiences notice in this entry is the increased humor and lightheartedness in the story. Following two stories about the death and resurrection of Spock, The Voyage Home took a much needed break from the drama and lightened things up. It contained many laugh out loud moments, some that may have seemed too over-acted to some, generated by the characters being “fish-out-of-water” in the 20th Century. Many of the funniest moments come with the rejuvenated Spock, who appears to be back to normal from his resurrection in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, but does not recall his memories and emotional connection to Kirk. Fans of the film will surely remember the evident truths he speaks to all which often result in Kirk encouraging him to “exaggerate” rather than always being truthful, as well as his quick decision to use the Vulcan nerve pinch on the obnoxious punk rocker on the bus.

The subtitle of the film, The Voyage Home, holds true in several ways. Besides being the obvious return to Earth from their Vulcan exile, it was also a return to form for the series that had moved into unfamiliar territory in the previous two installments. The crew was all back together on one possibly final adventure that captured much of the fun of Star Trek, while still serving the core themes of the series. It was also a return home in the sci-fi sense, as the crew had to figure out a way to return to their 23rd Century “home” after travelling back in time to find the means to save the planet (as Kirk always did). And it was a return home for the trinity of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy whose often rocky friendships had been tested over the last two films and were finally able to be returned to its de facto state, as Spock stands with his fellow crew members at the court martial.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Chekov and Uhura are ecstatic that the nuclear “wessel” they find is The USS Enterprise.


Constant readers of Sci-Fi Saturdays, or fans of 80s sci-fi films, will notice the increased popularity of time travel films as the decade moves on. This is the ninth film featured here about time travel since the beginning of the decade, which started with The Final Countdown, and includes The Terminator, Back to the Future, and Somewhere in Time. For the Star Trek franchise, time travel was no stranger. Some of the best remembered and critically acclaimed episodes of the original series include storylines of the crew travelling backwards in time, twice to contemporary settings. The season one episode “Tomorrow is Yesterday” features the Enterprise in the mid-60s, having been flung back in time after escaping a black hole. Much like a prototype for this film, they must figure out a way to return home while keeping their interference in the past to a minimum. The penultimate episode in that first season was the much lauded “The City on the Edge of Forever.” The time travel impetus in this case was a time portal known as The Guardian of Forever that sends a delusional McCoy into the 1930s on Earth. Kirk and Spock follow and eventually realize that in order for the timeline to stabilize from McCoy’s interference, the woman Kirk has fallen in love with must die. The final overt time travel episode occurred as the season two finale. “Assignment: Earth,” a back door pilot for a potential spinoff, had the Enterprise voluntarily travelling to 1968 for “research” purposes. Some humor in the episode comes with the crew’s unfamiliarity with Earth customs of the time.

Another aspect that Star Trek IV uses again, is the potential danger inflicted by alien probes. It seems like the Enterprise and the planet Earth is always under the threat of attack by unknown probes, which turn out to be either harmless or completing a mission that is misunderstood by the humans. This was most recently addressed in Star Trek: The Motion Picture where Earth is threatened by V’ger, an alien probe that has merged with Voyager 6. The alien whale probe is not too dissimilar and feels like a return to familiar ground for the series. Similar themes are present in the original series episodes “The Changeling,” which features a more V’ger-like robot that serves a creator, and “The Doomsday Machine” which contains a planet killing machine wandering through the galaxy, destroying various systems in its wake. Creating unknown, alien technology that puts the crew or planet at risk is often a great device in sci-fi media to provide the impetus for the characters to have their adventures or learn to grow.

Star Trek was one of the first shows that featured a large cast (seven main and recurring characters), and especially a diverse one. However, one criticism of the original series, and subsequent films, was a lack of meaningful moments for much of the secondary cast. Much time was always spent with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, but Sulu, Uhura, Scotty and Chekov always received minimal screen time. Star Trek IV provided something for all the characters to be involved with, making some of the most fun and funniest moments. Uhura and Chekov get to retrieve the means to fix the propulsion system from the “nuclear wessels,” as Chekov plays it. They must infiltrate the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65), both the in-universe basis for the naming of the starship, but also Gene Rodenberry’s real-world inspiration. Chekov gets some other funny moments when he is captured as a possible Russian spy on board this American ship, as it was the cold war between Russia and the U.S. at the time. Scotty and McCoy get the task of convincing the owner of PlexiCorp to allow them to build transparent aluminum. Scotty tries to understand how a mouse from a 1986 Apple computer works, while continuing to live up to his name as the “miracle worker.” Sulu also gets featured time as he must take a crash course in the operation of a helicopter in order to shuttle the giant walls back to the Bird of Prey. The better utilization of characters in the entry in the franchise helped pave the way for more moments in future installments.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Dr. Gillian Taylor has a soft spot for hard luck cases, and as such is completely drawn to the out-of-time Kirk and Spock.

Societal Commentary

Thematically, the most important aspect of Star Trek IV is the idea of conservation. The film opened the public discourse, even more so, about whale hunting and the need to preserve the life forms in our oceans. The term “Save the Whales” was a popular slogan and bumper sticker from the 1970s. By 1986 most commercial whaling was banned, but the effects of the action had disastrous effects. Star Trek used these real life concerns about the possible extinction of a species to drive the plot in which a future society would have need of humpback whales to converse with an alien probe. They’re take was that 20th Century man should temper their drives to eradicate other members of the planet. To this end, the film created the role of Dr. Gillian Taylor, a marine biologist, who really wears her heart on her sleeve as a proponent for saving the whales. She makes a passionate and understandable argument for the eradication of whaling, and the unknown potential harm that hunting a species to the brink of extinction could cause. While her love story with Kirk is trite (even though it produces some funny moments), her usefulness in the story is paramount. She stows away about the HMS Bounty, because as she puts it, “who in the 23rd century knows anything about humpback whales?” For many audiences, this may have been their only exposure to the actual horrors going on in the oceans around the world. It provided a very public and wide reaching platform that many species unfortunately do not receive. Star Trek IV reminded adults, and taught children, that we should be stewards of the planet for future generations.

The other big theme from The Voyage Home involved a perennial Star Trek ideal, friendship. Spock has been returned to his body, and his mind is back to balance, but the advancement of his human emotions in his many adventures with James Kirk are gone. It’s like he was reset to factory defaults, having forgotten all his preferences for his comrade and friend. Throughout the film, his inability to lie, and his emotionless behavior towards Kirk affords humor, but also shows Kirk how much he has lost in his science officer. Spending time on this mission together shows Spock that the people around him trust and respect him for who he is, and don’t begrudge him for what he’s not. While Kirk never says “I love you” to Spock, the sentiment is definitely there by the end of the film when Kirk chides Spock when he must take a guess for the calculations to return to the future. Spock, a being of logic, does not understand the meaning of this sarcasm until McCoy explains that Kirk “feels safer about your guesses than most other people’s facts.” Spock realizes that the Captain trusts him implicitly, and of course, is correct in that trust. Most people will not find themselves in the same situation, but accepting people for both their strengths and their faults is what makes good leaders, but also good friends.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Scotty shares the formula for transparent aluminum with Dr. Nichols. “How do we know he didn’t invent it,” he replies to McCoy.

The Science in The Fiction

Star Trek IV contains some real world physics problems that audiences can try to solve at home. Imagine the following math problem: Engineer Scott must transport two humpback whales into a holding cell. The whales each weigh 40 tons, while the water they swim in weighs 320 tons. How thick would a piece of plexiglas need to be, at 60 feet by 10 feet, to withstand the pressure of 18,000 cubic feet of water? Of course the answer is six inches, but Scotty has a process that could get the same strength at only one inch thick. Transparent aluminum, which is the fictional name for this material, has actually been created. Aluminium oxynitride is actually more of a transparent ceramic, but the name of transparent aluminum has stuck mainly due to the popularity of this film. It’s unclear why they decided that the walls of the tank needed to be transparent for the short trip back to the future. Obviously it would not have been as interesting for the crewmembers to grab some plate steel and create a box with that. It would not have led to as much fun for the audience certainly. Interestingly, when watching the scene of the installation of the new plexiglass construct, the walls appear to be much thicker than the promised one inch size. Something more like six times thicker.

The film also uses the “antiquated” idea that 20th Century aircraft carriers are part of a “flirtation” with fission, and it’s toxic side effects. It creates the idea that a fusion era of safe power was on the rise. But luckily these photons emitted by the reactor on the USS Enterprise can safely be collected and used to repair the crystalline structure of the Klingon warp core. But for all the technology that the 23rd Century provides, this radiation produced by the fission reactor interferes with the normal operation of the Starfleet communicators. Wouldn’t a communication technology for use in space, near many other radiation emitting objects need to to be shielded from similar effects? Again, the limitations of the Star Trek technology are always in service to the story. The failure of key components are always there to allow for creative and heroic solutions (and sometimes sacrifices) by the crew.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

At the resumed court martial, Captain Spock stands with his comrades for their crimes, showing the power that friendship has in the relationships of this crew.

The Final Frontier

The Voyage Home was the second film directed by Leonard Nimoy, after Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and immediately preceded his next film, the immensely popular comedy Three Men and a Baby. Employing an actor of the series as a director benefited the film in many ways. Nimoy was already familiar with the majority of the cast and their characters allowing for immediate knowledge that would not have been accessible to others. Three years later William Shatner would direct the fifth entry in the franchise, only one of two directorial roles for him. The film also received four Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Original Score, the most nominations for any Trek film until the 2009 Star Trek, which also received four with one win for Best Makeup.

The film also holds a place in the technological advancement of computer generated imagery. It was the first film in which ILM digitally scanned the actors’ heads and imported them as 3D computer models. These were used in the time travel sequence as images that morphed from one character to another in a white, non-Newtonian fluid. While this seems entirely normal in movies today, this was the first on-screen morphing of objects. The different mannequin-like faces seemed to melt from one character to another, while a computer generated whale undulates in the background. And speaking of whales, all the shots of whales underwater were accomplished with four-foot radio controlled models with a flexible skin. According to lore, many whale activists were upset that the filmmakers got “so close” to real whales for these scenes, a testament to the realism of the effects.

This was the last film produced with the original cast prior to the debut of the newest Star Trek series, The Next Generation. The creation of the Enterprise-A at the end of the film was a nod to the Enterprise-D which was helmed in the 24th Century by Jean-Luc Picard and his crew. Star Trek IV continued the fan opinion that the even numbered Star Trek films were superior to the odd ones, especially after the release of 1989s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. There would be two more films focusing solely on the original cast, with the seventh film, Star Trek: Generations, being a passing of the torch to the new crew. The Voyage Home is probably the most fun and energetic Star Trek movie, and definitely one that has something to say. Its longevity is due to its relatableness, humor and timely messages from our “future selves.”

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