[box cover]

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: Special Collector's Edition

Paramount Home Video

Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Catherine Hicks,
DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Walter Koenig, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols

Written by Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer
Directed by Leonard Nimoy


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


Kirk: "You're not exactly catching us at our best."
Spock: "That much is certain."

— from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home


 

Part 1:  "Whoever said the human race was logical?"

(To jump down directly to the DVD details, click here.)

Who says you can't argue with success?

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home sure did what Paramount wanted it to do. It made money. Lots and lots of money. Of all the big-screen adventures of Kirk, Spock, and our other favorite space heroes, this 1986 entry was the most lucrative at the box office, and remained so all the way up through the tired and played-out tenth film, 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis.

Voyage Home was engineered to deliver a frothy comedy capping a loose trilogy after the swashbuckling Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the broody Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. This time-travel escapade appealed to more than just the Trek fans, and there's no argument that Voyage Home found its success by being a lighthearted, humorous romp with beloved characters who got to have some fun for a change. It's a lightweight, entertaining, relentlessly mainstream action-farce. A high old time, no question.

Too bad it's such lousy Star Trek. Here's where the series "jumped the shark" ... and found that it was a whale. By aiming at the broadest possible audience with an easy, light-as-lint script filmed like a sweeps-month TV special, everyone behind the movie fulfilled their chief responsibility to Paramount admirably. But in not trying to do more than that, Voyage Home watered the wine that had come before, and the cost was — to cop James T. Kirk's line from the previous movie — Star Trek's very soul.

Dissing this fan fave is like walking through a lightning storm on stilts with forks in my teeth. It's certainly not a pleasurable position for a long-time Star Trek devotee. Nonetheless, the first time someone said "Hey, let's lighten up, it's only a Star Trek movie," that's when the series became more "only" and less Star Trek. As in the Roger Moore era of the James Bond films, here's where we feel the self-parody and self-consciousness taking over. Maybe that's inevitable in any series. Still, it might have been nice if Star Trek had had a few more films under its belt first. Early in the movie, a nameless Starfleet officer announces, "We have lost all internal power!" Then I nod and sigh and think, You got that right, brother.

Plot coupons

Voyage Home opens by front-loading exposition from the previous movies. At a galactic council meeting on Earth, the Klingon ambassador to the Federation proclaims that the Genesis Planet is a weapon created to launch an attack on enemy territory. (He illustrates his rant on a huge viewscreen that displays impossible views of events from Search for Spock, shot for shot as if he'd just loaded up that DVD.) Meanwhile, the "quintessential devil in these matters," Admiral Kirk, is right where we left him, on Spock's home planet Vulcan. After three months in "exile," the crew votes to return home and face trial for the events of Search for Spock. Their transportation is not a Federation ship, or even a Vulcan taxi cab. It's the "Klingon fleatrap" commandeered after the immolation of the late, great starship Enterprise.

It's at this point that the most generic bogie from Cosmic Threats-R-Us gets pencilled in as an excuse for the rest of the movie. An alien "probe" of "unbelievable power" is on a (yawn) direct heading for Earth, a situation so frequent throughout the franchise that we wonder why the planet's inhabitants don't pack up and get the hell out of this dangerous neighborhood. The probe's "forms of energy our best scientists don't understand" start vaporizing the oceans and threatening All Life On The Planet, and no one can figure out why. It's Spock, of course, who lickety-split determines that the probe is trying to communicate with humpback whales, a species slaughtered to extinction way back in the 21st Century. Kirk notes that if they whip their rickety Klingon ship around the sun they'll enter time-warp and, in the distant past, can scoop up a couple of whales and bring them forward in time to tell the probe "what to go do with itself."

So whip they do and back they go, and Voyage Home spends most of its time in 1987 San Francisco. Once there, humor (some breezy, some forced) is wrung from the trusty crew fending its way through our "primitive and paranoid culture." They split up to collect plot coupons — transparent aluminum for a whale tank, photons for the dilithium chamber, pretty cetacean biologist Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks in a grating performance) for Kirk, and of course two whales already happily mated — that are then redeemed at check-out.

Whale blubber

In the old TV days, Star Trek often took a position on social or political causes of the 1960s. The Cold War, Vietnam, and racial intolerance inspired some fine episodes. In 1986, the "Save the Whales" premise wasn't an unworthy springboard, and if Voyage Home raised public consciousness on the issue (something this DVD's commentary track and supplements trumpet repeatedly), then my hat's off to good intentions. Unfortunately, the message is a bucket hammered by the most obvious and remedial of all Star Trek scripts. And instead of emerging naturally from the drama, the Whales theme is plainly the raison d'être for everything going on. What would work better as subtext is instead brought front and center like orphaned puppies in an SPCA ad. Hurting the matter further is that nowadays this maguffin has passed its sell-by date, so Voyage Home isn't graying as gracefully as its siblings.

But that's a piddling nit when compared to the lazy scriptwriting used to hang the whale stuff on. Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson said. Well then, time travel is the easy out of a screenwriter who's not working hard enough. Voyage Home is built on so many easy outs and plot contrivances that we wonder if the final draft took the entire weekend to conceive, develop, and type.

Where the probe came from, why it vaporizes the oceans, and why it needs to communicate with Earth whales are conundrums the script never even bothers to explain badly. They're just there to get the time-travel plot going, and we're supposed to just accept it all and not ask such awkward questions. That also goes for wondering how pinpoint time-travel became so routine in the Star Trek universe that you can do it on-the-fly in Christopher Lloyd's fleatrap (although, granted, by the Next Generation era the space-time continuum is worn so thin you can't sneeze hard without being hurdled back to some crucial spot in history). Or how Uhura's console — or the probe, for that matter — can hear "whale song" from deep space (a curiosity that this DVD's text commentary track also questions). Or why "recrystallizing the dilithium matrix" — a crucial subplot — is impossible to achieve in the 23rd Century yet so conveniently doable in the 20th. Would an invisible starship sitting in Golden Gate Park really go unnoticed by everybody except one luckless jogger who smacks into it (nyuk nyuk nyuk)? If Genesis is such a galactic flashpoint, why did Starfleet strand "the accused" on Vulcan for three months? (Never mind that in ST: The Motion Picture Scotty tells us that Earth is only four days away.) Can two whales locked in a makeshift sealed tank breathe like the mammals they are? Does Dr. McCoy always carry a bottle of instant-acting new-kidney pills with him? Isn't Kirk awfully chipper for a man whose newfound son was recently brutally murdered? Or what about....?

I know, I know. "It's only a Star Trek movie."

What's more, every member of the familiar cast is on cruise control. Perhaps that was unavoidable under these circumstances. After all, in the commentary track director/actor Leonard Nimoy describes this outing as "time to lighten up and try to have some fun." So no one's working hard, though they do seem to be enjoying their stint at comedy. There's Kirk's "double dumb-ass on you" and "too much LDS." We get Spock's bumbling attempts at 20th Century "colorful metaphor" patois. Scotty's interaction with an apparently magical '80s-vintage Macintosh is up there with Chekov's "noo-clee-ur wessels." Yes, those moments are smile-inducing. Shatner and Nimoy's improvisational response to "Do either of you like Italian?" is a jewel of a moment.

But as This Is Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnell says, "There's a very thin line between clever and stupid." It's a line that's too often smudged by the director and the four credited screenwriters. Once you rely on such devices as cutesy gags, any prior contract made with the audience crumples. Is it really Kirk and Spock and Chekov and Scotty we enjoy saying these lines, or the actors having a lark and relaxing for their paychecks, their characters be damned? Does it matter that Scotty looks like a blithering idiot, or that Chekov affirms another character's summation of him as "a retard or somethin'"? Apparently not — as long as they get a laugh. The thing is, we're not exactly laughing with them.

Poor Nichelle Nichols undoes her lovely "Mr. Adventure" scene in Search for Spock by uttering this movie's horribly delivered (and written) line, "I should never have left him, Captain!" Star Trek's bare-chested center, William Shatner, plays down to his strengths. Once in San Francisco he twinkles affably at Gillian, and in relaxed, small scenes he's a charmer. But when the bombast is back he mugs and gesticulates like Oliver Hardy pushing a piano upstairs. He isn't given a chance to be the Captain Kirk we look for. As both director and actor, Nimoy is doubly culpable for letting Mr. Spock — the noblest leg of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy three-legged stool — be reduced to indulgent straight-lines and all the Spockish cool of a home trepanation experiment. Only DeForest Kelley (how we miss him so) comes through with his charisma and dignity intact.

Not encumbered by having to convey any actual suspense, Nimoy's directing is efficient and keeps things moving forward. It displays all the flair of a bowl of Cheerios, though that means it doesn't distract our attention by aspiring to do more than getting the job done without fuss or fat. It serves the attractive Oscar-nominated cinematography by Don Peterman, who had previously shot Flashdance and Splash before Voyage Home and other glossy biggies such as Men in Black, Get Shorty, Addams Family Values, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. On the other hand, Leonard Rosenman's TV movie score is as trite and vapid as they come.

Premature climax

Voyage Home's ditzy bonhomie would sit better if it didn't arrive as the climax of the Genesis Trilogy. What an odd turn for the power position of such a vast, soul-searching cosmic adventure. Now that we can watch all three movies back-to-back in one delirious DVD marathon, it's painfully apparent that after Wrath of Khan's Melvillesque brio and Search for Spock's life-and-death gravitas, this final movement is flat and unimaginative. Imagine Peter Jackson's third Lord of the Rings film, the climax of his three-part sturm und drang epic. Now imagine it becoming a sitcom wherein Frodo and Sam and company must take a magical madcap trip to modern Manhattan, where "wackiness ensues" in a fish-out-of-water chucklefest scripted by the staff of Charmed. For all its giddy whimsy and some genuinely funny moments, Voyage Home is a Star Trek Blond Joke and a missed opportunity to build on the higher-reaching virtues of its predecessors.

The final cop-out is the very last scene. With Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock — one is tempted to sing the Gilligan's Island theme song, "and the rest" — suddenly back on the bridge of a brand new starship Enterprise, the whole universe gets rebooted back to zero, rendering the events of the previous two movies moot as if they had never occurred. Later, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country waves a quick hand at the death of Kirk's son, but that's not enough to wave away the feeling that we (and the characters) have been cheated.

Voyage Home wasn't an intrinsically bad idea for a Star Trek movie. But maybe the space-time continuum would be a slightly better place if it had been Star Trek V — after a proper close to the Genesis storylines. Alas, if only we had a ratty old Klingon ship we could travel back in time with....

Still and all, with Voyage Home Paramount struck the genre equivalent of Charles Foster Kane's Colorado Lode. Its financial bounty guaranteed further movies. After the punch-drunk body-blows inflicted by Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the series regained its wobbly footing with the last cruise of the Original Series cast, The Undiscovered Country (penned by Nicholas Meyer back in his Literary Allusion mode). Whether or not any of the following Next Generation features rise above the level of test-group-approved Domino's Delivery fare is a topic for barroom brawls. Certainly the probing nature and character-centric dynamics of Gene Roddenberry's much-vaunted vision seem to have ground to a halt after Search for Spock, replaced with comic-book storylines and effortless reliance on repetitive, committee-filtered formulas.

Of course, this is show business, so if the other movies bring in the bucks Voyage Home did, then that's why there's no business like it, no business I know. But given the lackluster humdrummery of ST: Insurrection and the day-old toast appeal of Nemesis, we're forgiven for wondering if it's time the producers relied less on rote formula and more on what made Star Trek something worth growing up with.

So, what's an earnest, perhaps too serious-minded Trekker to do? Yeah, I hear you. Lighten up, it's only a Star Trek movie.

 

Part 2:  About the DVD

At last Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home has received Paramount's full-speed-ahead Special Collector's Edition DVD treatment. Fans who purchased the previous bare-bone 1999 DVD edition of Voyage Home won't notice any upgrades from that disc's image/audio presentation of the movie itself. It's this new two-disc edition, though, that pours on more extras than any Trek DVD so far, including a commentary track that brings together the two personalities who embody more than thirty years of popcult godhood.

The basics

The image (2.35:1 anamorphic) is the same good print transfer found on the previous edition. Color and definition are vivid and sharp. No restorative touch-ups were applied, although some minor grain and the typical blemishes don't mar what is overall a thoroughly good-looking presentation.

The audio options are also carried over from the earlier edition. Both the DD 2.0 Surround and the DD 5.1 remix are strong, clear, and clean. The 5.1 is robust with just enough ambiance-enhancing spread. The audio engineers in the remix studio obviously recognized that this isn't a Space Opera brimming with wraparound five-point-oneness, so this track has a subtly active rear-channel presence without gratuitous directional add-ons. A shuttlecraft whizzes to Starfleet HQ from back to front quite pleasurably, yet the alien probe doesn't throb-throb-throb from all channels as if it's sitting on your head. The Dolby 2.0 Surround mix isn't as full-bodied, of course, but it's certainly up to the job. Both mixes are comfortable and warm with plenty of dynamic range and definition.

The extras

Disc One's commentary track brings no less than Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner to the mikes. Their joint commentary is pleasant enough, and it's nice to hear them together again after years of reported (rather, gossiped-about) acrimony. Nimoy chats about the early thinking that led to this fourth movie. DeForest Kelley is remembered fondly. Shatner is more wistfully reflective on, for instance, the celluloid immortality actors achieve through film, or his wish that more movies with the Original Series cast had been made (no argument here; it could have been interesting to see how the loss of Kelley impacted further stories). There's some cordial joshing and Nimoy's hearty laugh might rattle your flower pots.

A lot of it, however, is of the "Now watch us walking through a door" variety. Insights like Shatner's on Catherine Hicks, "She was short," are not often enough spiked by something that really yanks our attention — such as Nimoy's notion that Robin Curtis's Vulcan gal Saavik stays behind on Spock's home planet because she's pregnant with his child following the adolescent Spock's "pon farr" scene in the previous movie. (Now that could have been spun into an interesting sequel.)

Of the two speakers, Nimoy brings more to the table thanks to his memories of being the film's director as well as a featured actor, and by simply being a more garrulous personality. Shatner doesn't sound as comfortable being here. They both allow long stretches of dead air to dull the commentary, more so as the film moves through its second hour.

Fans looking for sprightly dialogues that dish up stirring new revelations about these two icons and their history with each other and the series are likely to come away disappointed. The fact that both Star Trek heroes came together for a recording session ultimately doesn't amount to much. What they provide is certainly an okay track, adequately informative and self-congratulatory, but it's no more or less engaging than 90% of other DVD commentaries on the shelves, and it's far away from what many fans might be hoping for.

Disc One comes with another text commentary track by long-time Star Trek designer and encyclopedic facts master Michael Okuda, with his wife Denise sharing the byline. This caption commentary annotates production details, wry observations, and behind-the-scenes info. A staple of all the special-edition Trek DVDs so far, this remains one of their most welcome extras.

Disc Two's new and archival supplements are so plentiful they have to be categorized into separate click-to areas:

The Star Trek Universe

    In the mini-documentary Time Travel: The Art of the Possible (11:14), three physicists, taped separately, provide their thoughts on the real-world hypotheses behind the concept of time travel. Physics 201 topics are discussed and playfully illustrated, from basic Einsteinian relativity to Carl Sagan's "wormhole" devised for the novel (and film) Contact. It's an interesting, if only superficially relevant, addition that would be right at home on the Science or Discovery channels. Anyone wishing to purchase a new TARDIS or George Pal Time Machine transport will have to wait a few more centuries at least.

    Another brief docu is The Language of Whales (5:46), with marine biologist Ree Brennin giving modern insights into the various whale species and their current population, plus the (inconclusive) possibility that "whale song" is a mode of communication.

    Fan wankery arrives in A Vulcan Primer (7:49). Trek novelist Margaret Wander Bonanno gives a rather dry one-camera crash course in the Vulcan people. (By the way, one of Bonanno's novels, Star Trek: Probe, is a sequel to Voyage Home. There she "explains" a number of the movie's unfilled holes, such as what the probe thingy is all about. It's a shame this DVD piece doesn't take advantage of that to talk about the movie and how her novel ran with what it set up.)

    Kirk's Women (8:19): Oh, please. It's Catherine Hicks and three actresses who played one-shot space babes in the Original Series. Like cheerleaders with a stack of Teen Beat magazines, they gush over what neato guys Bill Shatner and Capt. Kirk were, with some confusion about which is which. Too bad these four Kirk's Women were taped separately because some back-and-forth between them would liven up this exercise is fanzine fluff.

Production

    Things pick up splendidly with Future's Past: A Look Back (27:30), a new documentary summary of Voyage Home's production. Nimoy, Shatner, Meyer, Bennett, and Hicks trace the movie from its earliest concepts to its screen treatment by a small parade of writers, then up through Hicks' screen test and some revealing behind-the-scenes production footage. Also here is associate producer Kirk Thatcher, who played the obnoxious bus punk who gets The Pinch from Spock. Informative and fun.

    On Location (7:25): Nimoy, Thatcher, and executive producer Ralph Winter on the San Francisco and San Diego location shooting, plus ILM's impressive contributions to the Oceanographic Institute scenes.

    Dailies Deconstruction (4:13): A quick film-school peek at the "A" and "B" camera footage shot in San Francisco, namely the "double dumb-ass on you" scene.

    Below-the-Line: Sound Design (11:44): Sound effects editor Mark Mangini on the creation of the film's audio design, including its made-to-order sound effects. Mangini is quite good at this sort of thing, making this one of the better featurettes.

Visual Effects

    In 1986, the artist-technicians behind Voyage Home's special effects got their own spotlight in From Outer Space to the Ocean (14:22). Focus is on the mechanical whales, with good stuff on the probe models, how to fly a Klingon ship under the Golden Gate Bridge, and early rough footage of the time travel sequence that employed some of the first CGI work in a feature film.

    Nimoy himself gives us the low-down on the Klingon ship's design in Bird of Prey (2:48).

The Original Interviews are three simple, low-gloss bits shot during production.

    Leonard Nimoy (15:39): The man himself in the editing room chatting amiably about directing the film and working with co-stars Shatner and Kelley.

    William Shatner (14:32): Coming across like he'd just spent a bad three hours on the L.A. freeway, Shatner talks about the plot and his character while thinking he'd rather be anywhere else.

    DeForest Kelley (13:02): The Star Trek "family" is lauded by the warmest, most genial man on camera.

Tributes

    Roddenberry Scrapbook (8:17): Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's son Eugene was 17 when his father died in '91. Here he talks about his father's life and work.

    Featured Artist: Mark Lenard (12:44): The actor who played Spock's father Sarek in the Original Series, two feature films, and Next Generation is remembered by his wife and daughters.

Archives

    Almost 200 click-through Storyboards illustrate the conceptualization of eight scenes: "Encounter with the Saratoga," "The Probe Approaches Earth," "Time Warp," "Mind Meld," "The Whaling Ship," "Return to the 23rd Century," "Communicator," and "NCC 1701-A."

    Rather than the typical click-through collection of stills, the Production Gallery (3:54) is a well-made video montage of behind-the-scenes photos and film footage set to Rosenman's score.

And of course there's Voyage Home's Theatrical Trailer.

All extras come with English and French subtitles.

—Mark Bourne

  • Color
  • Anamorphic widescreen (2.35.1)
  • Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (SS-DL)
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (English, French)
  • English subtitles
  • Commentary track with Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner
  • Textual commentary track (captions format) by Michael and Denise Okuda
  • Featurette: Time Travel: The Art of the Possible
  • Featurette: The Language of Whales
  • Featurette: Kirk's Women
  • Featurette: A Vulcan Primer
  • Featurette: Future's Past: A Look Back
  • Featurette: On Location
  • Featurette: Dailies Deconstruction
  • Featurette: Below-the-Line: Sound Design
  • Featurette: From Outer Space to the Ocean
  • Featurette: Bird of Prey
  • Original Interviews with Nimoy, Shatner, and Kelley
  • Tributes to Gene Roddenberry and Mark Lenard
  • Storyboards
  • Production Gallery
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Dual-DVD keep-case



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