Captain's Blog pt. 24: The Voyage Home

Ah, 1986. Year of Top Gun, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Golden Child, Big Trouble in Little China, Platoon, Aliens, Stand By Me, Cobra, One Crazy Summer, Blue Velvet, and so many others. By this point in the 80s, a film's opening weekend gross was being printed in the newspapers and increasingly determined its perception as a success or failure. (Quite a change for the industry.) And while Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home came in 5th overall for highest-grossing films of the year, its opening weekend take of 17 million was the most of any film released that year.

At the time, I was re-settling into life in the States. To a 12-year-old kid who spent the last six years watching the same 5 or 6 VHS tapes of recorded American TV, this meant I was gorging myself on reruns, McDonalds, malls, and comic books. And I was finally freed from the terrible oppression of only having the TOS episodes on my parents' VHS tapes to watch and was finally able to catch the rest of the series courtesy of nightly re-runs from 6 to 7 on good ol' Channel 56. This pop culture/ Trek blitz accounted for a heightened state of excitement for the release of The Voyage Home that was bigger than for any other film then-or-since (with the possible exception of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a few years later.)

Before I get to the film itself, one quick anecdote. The friend with whom I watched most of my Trek in those days was this guy named Chris.

(He had a black-and-white TV on which I first caught "A Private Little War," which is neither here nor there, but man, later in life when I saw this episode in color, it was like a jump to hyperspace for me.)

I was sleeping over Chris' the night this came out, and his older brother, both his and my idea of the "epitome of cool" in 1986, came home around one in the morning while Chris and I were watching some horror movie on TV and reading comics. (He immediately picked up one of the comics, rubbed it on his crotch, and said incredulously "X-Men?" pronouncing it as if he was reading some primitive, hopelessly-uncool affront to his sensibilities.) He then proceeded to harangue us with how big of a piece of shit The Voyage Home was. I remember him returning to "Whales! FUCKING WHALES" again and again in his tirade. (A few weekends later, he told us about going to NYC and getting into a cab with a Russian driver and telling him to take him to the nuclear wessels. This was about the funniest thing I ever heard at the time.)

I mention this not to inflict details of my junior high years on you, but because over the years I've noticed something about the demographics of people's reaction to this film. Kids my or Chris' age loved it, as did our parents (if our parents were into such things.) But those in the 20-25 year old range when this came out didn't like it. I have no theory for this, just something I've observed. It was an huge hit, critically and financially, but there was definitely a contingent of "this was so freaking lame" reactions that I well remember.

Consequently, Chris and I pretended we weren't into it while secretly watching it over and over on VHS once it came out. But in public, the rule was (as far as rules governing mention of Trek in public go anyway) Pretend you think it's lame. This perception more or less evaporated over the years, and now it's rightly regarded as pretty much the last time the original cast was clearly represented on screen.

As mentioned in the blog for TSFS, TVH tidily rounds out the thematic arc of the trilogy: here instead of the needs of the one or the few, we have the needs of the All, and humanity is poised to pay a heavy price for its species-narcissism. A probe of immense power and unknown origin ...

Chris's older brother again: "Then this giant tootsie roll comes along, with a testicle hanging from it..."
...approaches Earth. It immediately disables any ship in its proximity, aims a signal at Earth's oceans, and begins effing stuff up.

The crew of the Enterprise leaves Vulcan in the Bird of Prey it commandeered in TSFS, bound for Earth and a court martial for its actions in that film. (McCoy mentions it, but seriously, Vulcan doesn't have one ship it could lend to them? It's a good decision for the production, though; a cloaking device means no expensive shots of the ship in Golden Gate Park.)
Kirk and the gang figure out the message is meant for the extinct species of humpback whales and get a message through to Starfleet that they're heading back to 1986 to grab some. (Why they don't head even further back in time to do this (say, to the 12th century) is not mentioned. The Borg must have used this as a decisonmaking model for their scheme in First Contact, when they decide to go back to right-at-the-eleventh-hour of warp driver rather than just 10,000 BC and wipe out humanity from orbit.)
When Nimoy and Bennett first started kicking around ideas for the film, Nimoy said "No dying, no fistfighting, no photon torpedoes, no phaser blasts, no stereotypical 'bad guy.'" He wanted something that was lighthearted (and this is definitely reflected in the score for this movie, which is unlike any other Trek film) that also carried a powerful environmental message. Having just read Edmund Wilson's Biophilia, Nimoy was particularly interested in the plight of endangered species, and when Humphrey the Whale entered San Francisco Bay and swam up Sacramento River to become trapped 69 miles from the ocean, both the event and the media coverage of it convinced him to choose whales as the delivery mechanism for this theme. (A crew was dispatched to try and get usable footage of Humphrey for the movie, but no luck. The whale survived, by the way, and returned to the ocean, last seen near the Farallon Islands in 1991. Godspeed, Humphrey.)

No actual whales were used for this film, actually; they were created by Industrial Light and Magic. Humanity, by the by, is lucky the whales were such good sports, i.e. "You did what to us in the future? And you want us to save you???" The Needs of the All, indeed.
Nimoy was adamant on not subtitling the probe's message, nor the whales' response once they got to the twenty-fourth century. His reasoning was pretty sound: the film is about communication, or specifically communication not meant for man, so the entire point is not to translate it/ understand it. The suits at Paramount (in 1986, everyone at Paramount who had been involved with the previous trek films - Charlie Bluhdorn, Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Jeffrey Katzenberg - were gone, so this was a new era) kept insisting the audience would be too confused. But Nimoy stood firm and eventually talked the suits down. Unknown to him, though, Bennett sided with the studio and went around Nimoy and distributed a memo that stated there would be subtitles and what they would consist of: Where are you? Hello? and such. Nimoy went a little ballistic:

"Suddenly I have to rejustify my position, because my producer writes a memo making it clear he sides with the management. That gives them ammunition. I knew they'd come back and say, "Look, Harve Bennett agrees with us. read his memo." I was going to have to argue this thing through all over again, having thought it well settled." (A considerable problem to have land in one's lap while simultaneously directing and acting as co-lead.) "So, I really raked him over the coals."

Nimoy's dressing down of Bennett on set effectively torpedoed their working relationship. "Only later," says Nimoy, "was I able to rationalize that because he worked for the studio, Harve was really just doing his job."

Nimoy's decision was undoubtedly the correct one, as the suits realized and admitted after the first few test screenings. (By the way, if you've ever wanted to hear what whalesong actually sounds like underwater, you can hear it here; it's pretty wild. But the technology for realizing these sort of underwater acoustics wasn't far along enough in 1986, so what we hear in the film is the more New-Age-y acoustics probably familiar to most people.)

One further pre-production wrinkle came in the form of Eddie Murphy, then the hottest commodity in Hollywood. In that capacity, he could dictate what he wanted, and what Eddie wanted was to be on Star Trek. An entire script was developed that would have had him be a UFO-believing professor who no one takes seriously, and in that script, the Bounty (what McCoy names the captured Bird of Prey) materialized over Candlestick Park during the Super Bowl, witnessed (somehow) only by Eddie Murphy's character. Just as that script was coming together, though, Eddie went to do The Golden Child, probably as a result of the Paramount brass not wanting to cannibalize their two most profitable franchises.

His character was rewritten and recast. Enter Catherine Hicks as "Gillian."

Probably best known as the Mom from 7th Heaven, which also starred Commander Decker.
Also of concern was the tremendous cost of shooting at sea, which was solved in a novel way. Shatner recalls: "Underneath what was now the Paramount Studios visitors' parking lot there lay an absolutely enormous water tank, used primarily throughout the thirties and forties for pirate movies, water-follies-style musicals, WW2 epics and the like. When those films went the way of the Edsel, the tank was covered over, blacktopped, parked upon and forgotten about. (They) calculated that unearthing the old tank, repairing and refilling it would ultimately prove far cheaper than actually trying to shoot our whales in the sea."

This decision resulted in saving roughly a million dollars in production costs.

Anyone else ever try and hold their breath for the duration of Kirk's underwater sequence? Also - always impressed by the functionality of Shatner's hairpiece in this scene.

The production value all around is pretty impressive on TVH.

Great fall.
Filmmaking 101: If it has a helicopter, it means "production value."

The slingshot around the sun method of time travel we first saw in TOS "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" is re-utilized here, with some bizarre - even for the 80s - additional fx:


The film was noted for its humor. The fish-out-of-water attempts of everyone trying to fit in still hold up pretty well.

The Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship, while not the focus of TVH, is in fine form here, perhaps best exemplified in the scene where they figure out what the probe wants. Says Nimoy: "Kirk asks some leading questions, trying to figure out if it'd be possible to recreate the whale sounds. Spock replies that while we could reproduce the noise, we'd have no ability to recreate the actual language. Kirk then asks "Can we find these whales elsewhere... perhaps on another planet?" Spock replies, "No, the species is indigenous only to Earth of the past." Kirk takes a thoughtful pause, lets out a "Hmmm... right," and at that point you can practically hear the wheels turning inside his head. At the same time, McCoy's brow is beginning to furrow, it's obvious that he too knows Kirk's probable reply and almost immediately starts in with "Now wait a damn minute..." (...) Physically and intellectually, Kirk is now in motion. He's gotten the information he needs, he's made his decision, and he's now going to put it into action. (...) That kind of back-and-forth dialogue created great opportunities for all of us. Kirk could assert himself as the classic leading man, whose decisions drive the action of any given scene, Spock could play reflective, and McCoy could be the anguished, argumentative hand-wringer."

Giving the rest of the cast a more integral part of the proceedings is even more pronounced in TVH than it was in TSFS. Scotty probably gets to do his best work in this movie.

The scene where he gives Nichols (the guy at Plexi-Cor, not Nichelle) the formula for transparent aluminum was supposed to recall of one of the questions from Spock's testing set-up at the film's beginning, where if you pay attention, you'll catch some other foreshadowing.

 I've always wanted one of these set-ups.

Nichols was supposed to have been mentioned as the inventor of the technology, thus justifying Scotty's rather cavalier attitude re: changing the timestream. (Speaking of, I've never understood why Kirk thinks the spectacles he received from Dr. McCoy in TWOK are going to magically re-materialize once they return to the future, re: that "They will be again, that's the beauty of it" line. You'd think a Starfleet Captain who knows how to slingshot around the sun to create a time warp would understand temporal mechanics better than that, or that Spock would correct him.) Of course, no one bothers themselves worrying about taking Gillian to the 23rd century; I guess none of her descendants captained anything like the first Earth-Saturn mission, so she's good to go.

NOT NOW, MADELINE! I was hoping for a little extra info on this bit on the commentary track or in one of the books but no luck. It's a fun little moment, I just always wondered if there was more to it. Was it a personal joke? Is this lady a friend of the cast/ someone Trek-related?
Chekov and Uhura get several great sequences together:

This scene was all improvised; the young lady with whom they speak was Layla Sarakalo, who while not an actor had to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild for having a speaking part.
And McCoy's scenes at the rescuing-Chekov at the hospital are great fun all around.

The audience broke into applause at this beaming-in cutaway each of the 3 times I saw it in the theater.
While Sulu certainly is a solid presence in the story,

he was supposed to have a scene where he meets his great-great-grandfather on the streets of San Francisco. Unfortunately, the child actor hired for that part was unable to perform the lines, and the scene was never able to be shot. Too bad, that would've been cool.

Some other fun cameos/ bit parts: that guy from Octopussy (Vijay Amritaj, a well-known tennis pro of yesteryear) as the captain of the Yorktown,

Jane Wiedlin as Trillya,

Majel Barrett-Roddenberry's last appearance as (now Commander) Chapel:
and Markie Post as this clapping lady on the right:

Okay, I'm kidding, that's Grace Lee Whitney
aka Janice Rand.
Night Court will have to wait until TNG until one of its own breaks into the Trekverse.
Spock's reconciliation with his emotional / human half is a sealed deal as a result of The Motion Picture, and that (and his resurrection) lends this scene at the end with Sarek its power.

A real nice moment for Mark Lenard and Nimoy.
And the Enterprise, like Spock in the last film, is resurrected:

The World Wildlife Foundation sponsored a trip to the then-Soviet-Union on the occasion of that nation's banning whaling, and Nimoy traveled to Moscow to screen it for Communist leaders. (Of that screening, he mentions that the line about "the bureaucratic mentality being the one constant in the universe" got the biggest laugh from the party faithful; small wonder.) He used the occasion to track down that side of his family still in Russia, but that trip was less successful. The Russian Nimoys had never heard of Star Trek and suspected Leonard and his entourage were government agents sent to spy on them. (Again, ahhh, the 80s.)

Shatner and Nimoy had a "favored nations" clause in their contracts, as drawn up by their lawyers many years prior to TVH. This basically meant whatever one got, the other one got. This enabled them to alternate playing good cop/ bad cop to get whatever they wanted, i.e. while one held firm for a raise or whatever, the other would pretend to be irritated at the hold-up but privately urged the brass "You'd better just give him what he wants so we can get on with this." One day during production, Nimoy mentioned to Shatner that because of this arrangement, he could demand to direct the next one...

Thanks for that, Nimoy.
Where was Roddenberry during all of this, you ask?

As with TWOK and TSFS, his input was mainly ceremonial, and his objections sidelined. (Harve Bennett mentions, "Gene's first memo was highly supportive: Well, this is more like it! But instead of 1986, a far better story to tell would be..." You guessed it.) The massive success of TVH, however, led to Paramount green-lighting production of a brand new Trek for TV, for which Gene would be the showrunner. He turned his attention fully towards what would become Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

Which we'll get to next. (Well, after the Gold Keys.) See you then.


  1. This was the absolute best of all the Star Trek films! It captured the character of the original series better than anything before or since.

    It had humor which was a staple of Star Trek. It had an in your face agenda as the original series did. It relied on character interaction to carry the film.

    I fear the new franchise is caught up in thrills, spills, chills, and kills. This is precisely what Star Trek was not.

  2. I was twelve when "The Voyage Home" came out, and what I mainly remember about it was that for maybe a year or so thereafter, it seemed like everyone loved Star Trek. Before, it had been this kinda uncool thing that a few people knew about and loved; after, it was this thing that people's grandparents knew about and enjoyed.

    In other words, "The Voyage Home" was massively successful.

    Those are merely the perceptions of a kid from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but that's definitely what it was like for me. It was years and years and years later before I ever heard anyone talk negatively about the movie, and my reaction was an indignant "Huh?!?"

    I still love the movie today. There are little bits here and there that don't entirely work, but most of it is just terrific fun.

    I'd also like to give a shout-out to Admiral Cartwright, played wonderfully by the awesome Brock Peters. I loved that character as a kid, probably because of how cool Peters' voice is, and always wanted him to show up again. I think the fact that he's turned into a traitor for "The Undiscovered Country" is a big part of the reason why I dislike that movie so much.

    1. I can only assume there's a deleted scene that was lost on the cutting room floor in the pre-DVD age explaining Admiral Cartwright had been replaced by his mirror universe evil alternate for the duration of "TUC."

      I love the movie, as well.

    2. (Voyage Home, that is. Undiscovered Country is a pizza burn on the mouth of the Trek franchise.)

  3. I was 20 when this movie was released. I saw it in the theater. I didn't dislike it then; in fact, I remember liking it. I had a nagging feeling that something seemed off to me, though, and eventually I ended up taking a dimmer view of this movie. Not because I thought it was bad. Even now, I acknowledge it's definitely one of the better films in the series. I don't even dislike it, really. It's just that later viewings made some of my initial misgivings come more to the forefront for me. The thing is, there isn't anything majorly wrong, as far as I'm concerned. It's just a lot of little things that added up and began to grate on me later on. Here are a few:

    * "Double dumbass" - OK, so, we've seen it firmly established that English is still spoken largely like it's spoken now. We've even heard modern curse words used. Somehow, though, when confronted by "dumbass," Kirk acts as if he was just spoken to in Aramaic, replying "double dumbass on you!" Out of all the colloquialisms and idioms that have clearly survived into the 23rd century, "dumbass" has been so thoroughly forgotten that it doesn't even ping a universal translator, and being called a dumbass rates "double dumbass" as the proper reply. Seriously, this is the first thing that leaps to mind that bugs me when I think about this movie. Plus, what the hell is up with the music in that scene? It must be a leftover from when Eddie Murphy was going to be attached.

    * "Com-puter?" - Scotty acting as if computers three hundred years in his past would still work as they do in his time is like me going back to 1713, hopping in a hay wagon, and looking for the mp3 player as I try to chirp the wheels shifting into 2nd.

    * It never occurred to anyone in charge on Earth in the 23rd century to try to clone animals that went extinct as the result of man's predation? That kind of thing had been talked about seriously even before the movie was made, let alone just as a scifi plot point. But, I'll give it a pass, and assume they use 23rd cloning techniques on George and Gracie to make two whales a viable breeding stock. And then tried to resurrect every other such species, just in case. I mean, a sentient hippo drop ship could ruin your day.

    * On the big screen, Catherine Hicks' being obviously braless was distracting as hell to my 20-year-old self.

    * Why is it such a big deal for Spock to have pointed ears, to the point that he hides them, when body modification is something he'd see everywhere in San Fran of '86? Look at JUST the ears of who he nerve pinches on the bus, for God's sake!

    * That point about Vulcan not being able to scrounge up one single Federation ship is amusing. What bugged me was the absence of the (well, AN) Enterprise for most of the movie, with a Klingon ship taking center stage. Boooo. Even the supposed necessity of a cloaking device could have been obviated by putting a Fed ship in geosynchronous orbit and cobbling some humor out of it maybe being picked up on modern sensors. But even then, aren't Fed ships stealthy AT ALL? I mean, we have pretty decent stealth tech now; Romulan/Klingon cloaks are made to fool modern, 23rd century Fed sensors. I didn't know it implied that Fed tech had forgotten how to be stealthy even to 300-year-old technology.

    Anyway, that's the kind of stuff that, taken all together, bugged me. It doesn't mean it's a bad movie, or that I didn't even like it. There are tons of things I like about the movie - McCoy's gruff-yet-reassuring bedside manner in the hospital is one of my favorite Bones moments in all of Trek. The set-up for the high-tech whale attack was suspenseful and well-done. "I'm from Iowa; I work in space" - very cool.