I am not a Trekkie, I am not a sci-fi guy at all, and yet, long before I became a cinephile scanning the Turner Classic Movies menu daily, sci-fi was helping me form motion picture taste. Like “Star Wars” instilled in me upon further review a love of Warner Bros.-ish 1930s B movies, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” instilled in me upon further review a love of screwball comedies. That’s what the movie is, or, more accurately, that’s what the movie becomes, after an opening act we will discuss momentarily, when an enormous space probe threatens 23rd century Earth by evaporating its oceans and enclosing the planet in darkness by blocking the sun all in a futile attempt to re-open communication with humpback whales that have, alas, long ago gone extinct. With the present sans humpback whales, the only way to find a few is for the crew of the Starship Enterprise to go back in time, to the late 20th century, 1986 to be exact, necessarily coinciding with the release date, which becomes as much a portal from spacey seriousness to earthbound comedy, underlined by the conversation in which the complications and absurdity of time travel are joyously breached with a casual kinda hey, why not, whatever.
McCoy: “You're going to try time traveling in this rust bucket?”
Kirk: “We’ve done it before.”
If Spock gifted Kirk a copy of “A Tale of Two Cities” in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” then he might have opened the fourth film by gifting his old friend a copy of The Howard Hawks Collection, given how “The Voyage Home’s” second act, in which our principal gang becomes fish out of water in 80s San Francisco, is rendered with an immaculate blend of knowing, self-effacing and vintage hammy comedy. The film was directed by Leonard Nimoy and he graciously divvies up comic moments to most everyone, even if he saves the majority of them, as is necessary, for Kirk and Spock. So comfortable in one another’s presence on screen, Shatner’s inherent pompousness is nimbly employed as Kirk becomes a self-appointed know-nothing tour guide of a strange world while Nimoy plays the bumfuzzled straight man to the hilarious hilt. Why they even skillfully make room, briefly, for a third member of their comic team in the person of Catherine Hicks, who plays the semi-love interest of Kirk, a heroic marine biologist who leads the two time-travelers to the needed whales, and whose incredulousness at Kirk and Spock is sidesplitting, evinced most ably in the stellar sequence in the front seat of Gillian’s truck where she humors these “the hard luck cases” and Nimoy the director simply allows the byplay, behavior and reaction shots to do all the heavy lifting.
“Star Trek IV” took its crew back to the present day, of course, because it would be humorous for audiences to see the crew of the Starship Enterprise in a modern context, communicating in a language where swearing is not only commonplace but imperative, compelled to lean on Reaganomics rather than Trekonomics. The film, however, was just as driven by one of our more noble isms. 1986 was still very much in the midst of Morning in America™, which meant consumerism superseded environmentalism, and the makers of “Star Trek IV” had seen enough. Tying the 23rd century’s potential doom explicitly back to the 20th, where mankind, as the film’s dialogue tell us, had hunted the humpback whales to extinction, was an eco-friendly invocation to its audience. And as funny as the rest of the movie might be, Nimoy treats this plotline with impressive earnestness, delivering laughs and thoughtfulness in equal measure, transforming entertainment into a statement.
I keep thinking about “Star Trek IV”, not just because its 30 year anniversary was recently observed, but because my new American government is hell bent on teleporting us back to the 1980s, where consumerism trumps (ha!) environmentalism, as if every lesson Nimoy sought to impart in his film has been blithely dismissed. I keep thinking about how the kids of our kids of our kids will be left to fit the bill, potentially leaving them like the those in “Star Trek IV”, unknowingly at the mercy of their anti-environmentalist forefathers. I keep thinking about how future earthlings may not have the benefit of time travel or cutesy hijinks to save them.
I keep thinking about this scene in the underratedly ominous opening act of “Star Trek IV”, in which the blotting out of this blue planet for its past sins is imminent, where Sarek (Mark Lenard), Spock’s father, who is always around to be wise, enters Starfleet headquarters, to converse with President of the United Federation of the Planets (Robert Ellenstein). I keep thinking about how Nimoy sets the shot with Sarek and the President in front of this window being pounded by rain, shrouded in gray darkness, underlining how there is no way out, fatalistically trying to reason with a probe whose language to their ears is gibberish. I keep thinking of the melancholy in their movements and the pessismism in their voices. I keep thinking about Sarek’s faint plea to the Federation President. I cannot, try as I might, prevent that plea from echoing in my mind.
“Perhaps you should transmit a planetary distress signal...while we still have time.”