Thursday, September 16, 2010

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek is always at its best when it is deliberately crowd-pleasing, as evidenced by all the episodes in the original series that continue to be warmly remembered to this day: “The Naked Time,” “Shore Leave,” “The Trouble with Tribbles.” So it’s no surprise that the original cast met its greatest film success in the time travel romp The Voyage Home.

Released and set mostly in 1986, what is ostensibly the conclusion of a movie trilogy actually allows for many of the classic elements of the TV run to return in full prominence, from the social awareness of the plot to an adventure plot that allows viewers to enjoy themselves unabashedly as they come along for the ride. Star Trek had and would bury itself in heavy narratives thick with pathos and solemn proceedings, but this crowd-pleaser was content to swim with whales named after two Hollywood legends (no, not “Kirk and Spock”).

Another of the great ironies in the film series is that the basic plot of The Voyage Home is another rehash of The Motion Picture, just as Wrath of Khan had been in other ways: a deadly probe threatens all life on Earth, and only Kirk can stop it. This time, however, none of the drama is wrung from the characters, instead coming from their reactions as events unfold, allowing them to enjoy themselves for the first time on the big screen, completely without reservation.

Kirk has no personal stakes in this one, for a change. He does have to answer for the controversial decisions he’s been making, and is flying around in a Klingon ship, but he never seems troubled by any of it. He’s light-hearted enough to engage in a playful (read: platonic) relationship with contemporary marine biologist Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks, who would one day join Motion Picture alum Stephen Collins on TV with 7th Heaven), and shoot a bunch of witty banter with Spock (“did a little too much LDS”) around her. It’s the first time he’s truly been able to have fun in decades!

Spock, meanwhile, who has been suffering for one reason or another through his human/Vulcan dichotomy throughout each of the previous films, finally seems to find an appropriate balance, learning all about “colorful metaphors” (and inappropriately using them) and even mind-melding with lumpy, non-humanoid creature for the first time since “Devil in the Dark” for a little conversation that reveals new perspectives. He actually seems at home walking around in a ceremonial robe (and improvised headband) in San Francisco. He is not a fish out of water.

Scotty and Chekov make some lasting impressions during the movie as well, whether seeking transparent aluminum or “nuclear wessels,” which is hardly a surprise, given that the inner circle of three usually maintained in this crew regularly opened to admit these two. Sulu even gets to foreshadow the command George Takei had been anticipating since Wrath of Khan (even though the timing he got seemed completely reasonable to me, since the character hardly ever actually distinguished himself) when the Excelsior they sabotaged in Search for Spock is referenced as the crew’s possible replacement ship after they all get back home. I’m sure Uhura does something memorable as well, but I’m not really recalling it at this time.

None of this would matter a whole lot if there was a dramatic culture clash that made our characters the object of deliberate jokes rather than seamless visitors occasionally stumbling into jams. But none of it turns out to be things they can’t handle, whether an unruly bus passenger playing his boom box too loud (nothing a Vulcan Nerve Pinch can’t handle) or a trip to the hospital (which turns out to be a piece of cake). Even Gillian’s involvement and dawning awareness of the scope of this escapade progresses naturally, without a lot of needless fuss. Kirk’s charm can be thanked for that.

This was introduced to me as the big success of the films, and I became aware of it shortly after it was released. (Being six at the time of its release was still too soon to have been a natural first-hand impression.) Sometimes, having a positive opinion before an actual experience isn’t so bad (while conversely, I suspect a lot of Trek, as well as other things, has suffered from negative opinions floating around for no good reason). It allows you to sit back and enjoy what is unerringly an entertaining experience, following beat by beat the things you were already aware of (which is a little of how I first saw Star Trek: First Contact, having already heard a breathless account from a friend at school). In that sense, I don’t really put much stock in the idea of spoilers. You can read a novelization and still not anticipate the full impact of the same events brought vividly to life. There’s a certain thrill seeing a Bird of Prey flying about our familiar skies, whether scooping beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, or setting down in a park, even while cloaked.

(Just as an aside, Voyage Home did a lot of great work with cloaking technology, too.)

We get the debut of Admiral Cartwright (Brock Peters, who would later portray Sisko’s dad in Deep Space Nine), a comparatively minor and undeveloped character, but who would help serve as some of the backbone of the conspiracy in The Undiscovered Country, as well as the Klingon played by John Schuck, who helps to link the events of Search for Spock with the aforementioned sixth film, in which he also appears. We get the first appearance of a Federation president, another appearance from Sarek, even cameos from Saavik and Amanda, Spock’s mom, plus the debut of a new Enterprise.

Either as a fan or a general filmgoer, The Voyage Home is a pleasure, a welcome diversion from the kind of story just about every other Star Trek movie has explored, in mood and scope. It doesn’t hurt to have seen the two previous films (and serves as a definite reward if you do), but you can easily enjoy it on its own, and in that sense serves as another satisfyingly complete experience, though in a far different way than Search for Spock.

If you want to experience the best possible representation of the original series in film form, you can’t possibly top Voyage Home.

It’s not really hard to see how the success of this one prompted Paramount to finally launch a second TV series, about a decade after it gave up on the idea originally. What’s a little more difficult to understand, though certainly beneficial to Gene Roddenberry and his last chance to run a Star Trek, is that this new show shared nothing in common with this audience pleaser.

Now, just imagine…A Star Trek series that transports a crew from the future to our present, for the entire duration of the show. Talk about a concept…

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