The second in a series of film reviews originally published in the Genesis Sci-Fi club magazine. I write a column reviewing older movies as well as recent releases in a semi-coherent fashion. This is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The rating system is plutos, a gold standard our book group made up because a Pluto is neither one thing nor the other, as were a lot of the books were were reading. Enjoy.
What does it mean, ‘exact change’? – Spock
The title to this excellent slice of the Star Trek pie is a little misleading. The crew, still effectively renegade at the end of The Search for Spock, take a detour in time to save Earth from a sinister probe ionising the atmosphere in the 23rd century, and end up in the 20th century – very conveniently in the time at which the film was made! – searching for the solution. Which is…
…whales. Humpback whales. Whose song is the only thing that can reassure the probe and get it to leave Earth alone (yeah, it’s the sort of story that sounds like it really ought to be about sharks, as in jumping sharks, but let me finish). And nuclear wessels, courtesy of Chekov. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. The problem for Earth is that these whales are extinct and so the gang must find a way of getting a specimen to the 23rd century.
This is a hilarious film, quite far removed from the erudite seriousness of much of the Trek franchise, and I enjoyed the way it played out without a major battle for ascendancy, even at the climax of the film. Instead, Kirk takes a genuinely peaceful approach to researching acquiring his maguffins, and there are opportunities for some excellent misunderstandings as the crew make their madcap way through San Francisco in 1986. Some of it is utterly predictable – the marine biologists are running out of money and George and Gracie, the humpback whales, are to be released into the wild just at the start of the whaling season.
The wild-eyed biologist, Gillian Taylor, is up against the evil bean-counters, and Kirk has to convince her to trust him as to his intentions, largely through schmoozing her at a nice restaurant. But there are a lot of light touches that stops the film being Star Trek: Free Willy. Spock’s swimming with the whales is a neat touch; his communion with them through telepathy is heartwarming; despite his often cold demeanour, he really cares about the future – in his first scene, we see him doing some idle research, possibly on the 23rd century’s version of Wikipedia, and he drops the hint that ‘humpback whales are extinct’, showing us that the law of conservation of detail is alive and kicking. (Anton Chekhov – the Russian playwright – once said: ‘If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’) I guess this is when ‘Save the Whales’ could be played unironically, but obviously the deeper message of the film continues to be one of grave importance.
The film progresses in a haze of bon mots, cheesy subplots such as the adventures of Chekov looking for a new power source for their vessel, and other mayhem caused directly by the clash of cultures. The point at which one expects Chekov to be booked as a spy is brushed aside with a laugh – even they think he’s somewhat … mentally deficient. I get the impression they wanted to make something cheaply and cheerfully, and it certainly works well to keep the viewer’s attention.
I’m going to give it four out of five plutos; it is a little cheesy and contrived, but it doesn’t suffer overly much for it and it delivers a few moments of classic comedy to keep it from becoming far too ponderous a story. The really nice thing is that, like when Marty McFly in Back to the Future was quite happy to swap his initially crappy existence in the wastelands of small-town America for a better life where his father was a famous sci-fi author, so is Gillian Taylor not overly bothered about going forward to the future with Kirk. The thing that had me thinking was ‘did they violate the Prime Directive by interfering with a culture without FTL travel?’, but that’s a bit pedantic of me.
Go watch this film again. I doubt we will get a remake of it, so it’s a moment of Trek history that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is all the better for it.
But don’t forget — exact change only.