He’s not really dead. As long as we find a way to remember him.
by Thom Yee
Particularly with our most cherished film franchises, it’s easy to (over) analyze the choices made and the possibilities of our favourite series’ continuing adventures. Should Harrison Ford return for one more Indiana Jones or should Chris Pratt reboot the series? Should George Lucas have invited constructive criticism and handed the directorial reins off for the prequels the way he did on the original trilogy? Should we learn about the Enterprise crew’s academy days or do we need to see Shatner again?
These are all enduring questions, debatable even years after the producers have made their final decisions and the finished products have hit the screen. Fans don’t want to see their beloved stories ruined, retroactively or otherwise, and producers don’t want to lose their cash cows. Faced with questions like “Did the the last installment ruin everything?” (Rocky V) or “Did the reboot do more harm than good?” (Burton’s Planet of the Apes) or “Is renewing our claims to the movie rights reason enough to reboot so soon after?” (Amazing Spider-Man), these are all tough calls to make, not just because so much lies in the intangibles that are hard to grasp before setting off on production, but also because sometimes it seems like fans are bent on being unhappy no matter what (Star Wars). And sometimes even more importantly, in some cases your original cast is just getting too old to continue carrying the torch.
An odd exception to that last bit has been the Star Trek movies. For the first six installments (and a bit into the seventh), we set off with a cast whose ages initially ranged from 59 (DeForest Kelley’s McCoy) down to 43 years old (Walter Koenig’s Chekhov) back in 1979 and the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and as important as it may have been to reassemble the original cast in the first major step of the series’ latter-day revival, that’s still a pretty old cast for a series to relaunch with in a youth-obsessed industry and culture.
Perhaps one of the most unfortunate parts of being a film fan, particularly right now, is that many of our biggest stars and icons are getting well on in years. It’s true that 80 may be the new 70, but it’s also true that, right now, not that many people live into their 90’s. I still remember the first time I looked up William Shatner’s age, probably a good five years ago and sometime soon after the 2009 Star Trek reboot, and being shocked to see that he was well into his 70’s, a number, in my mind, far removed from the type of vitality that I naturally attached to his public persona. Of course, I soon after learned of Leonard Nimoy’s age, at the time having a starring role in said reboot and an intriguing part to play in J.J. Abrams’ Fringe, and discovered the two were born a mere four days apart. As much as I don’t usually consider or contemplate the ages of the stars, those two in particular have worried me just a little ever since. This past week, unfortunately, that worry was merited.
I’ve gone on record in the past as being far from the biggest Star Trek fan, even out of the two of us regularly writing on this website, but I still woke up that morning last Friday, February 27th, with a bit of a heavy heart at the news that Leonard Nimoy had passed away. I don’t think you need to be a Star Trek fan to have been moved by his passing, and I’m not just talking about his turns in the director’s chair or his famous ballads. While his time as Spock may have made him an obvious role model for many of the disenchanted, disillusioned and disenfranchised geeks and nerds among us, there’s also a level of humanity in his performance that went far beyond any television show or subculture, and though Spock was defined by cold, clinical logic (plus the pon farr every seven years), Nimoy’s natural warmth was an important part of Star Trek’s enduring legacy.
In memory of Leonard Nimoy, here’s our review of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, directed by Mr. Nimoy himself.
When a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad cigar-floating-through-space-with-a-lit-up-volleyball-at-one-end-looking probe thing threatens the Earth with environmental terror (y’know, stock footage of quickly rolling clouds and like that), the remaining crew of the now-destroyed starship Enterprise crack the code of the probe’s terrible, horrible repeated message: some environmental message about whales. Determining that the probe’s [incidentally destructive?] communications can only be answered by a humpback whale, a species long extinct on 23rd-century Earth, our heroes hatch a [seemingly daring, but primarily whimsical] plan to travel to Earth’s late 20th century and return with a humpback whale even as they adjust to crew member Spock’s recent revival.
Probably the greatest strength of Star Treks II through IV is how well they work in sequential lock-step, each released a brisk two years after the last, beginning with 1982’s The Wrath of Khan (the less said about the preceding The Motion Picture the better) and all together forming easily the strongest stretch of Star Trek films thus far. Even though many consider The Wrath of Khan the pinnacle of the series, The Voyage Home is often considered a close second and a sentimental favourite. Having said that, I’ve never seen Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and, based on critical reception and my own personal level of interest, I plan on continuing that trend. Of the original cast’s Star Trek movies, I’ve only actually seen I, II and IV, and I just don’t think I have it in me to push any further than that, even considering that The Wrath of Khan ends with Spock’s death (spoiler alert?) and The Voyage Home begins with potentially confusing carry-over elements from Search for Spock like Spock being alive (though not entirely well) ,the previous destruction of the Enterprise, and our crew being on the run and manning a Klingon ship, even if it did mark Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek directorial debut. I think I’d just miss ‘80s-era Kirstie Alley too much.
Considering The Voyage Home’s premise of travelling back to what was then present-day Earth, the whole thing really kind of represents a fantasy “What if…?” for the franchise, and for its part, the movie definitely takes the concept and runs with it. When I called The Voyage Home a sentimental favourite, it’s because the movie is so endearing as a comedy that winds up being genuinely heartwarming and hugely satisfying. Though there’s a potential case to be made for the original Star Trek being a comedy in and of itself, that’s mostly on a kitsch ‘60s level, and though those original shows certainly weren’t very hard-edged, they were generally pretty serious. When it comes to The Voyage Home, it’s absolutely a comedy, and it’s easy to see how Nimoy’s directorial style would lead to a straight-up comedy like Three Men and a Baby (or at least I imagine it is; I also haven’t seen that movie, but it seems to be well regarded… for an ‘80s comedy).
The first thing I want to get out of the way is that I have a huge problem with the movie’s basic premise. Given the task at hand, the crew decides that the best course of action is, “… Ah, let’s just go back in time,” but when you think about it, that’s a great answer for most every problem. I gather that it had been long-established in Star Trek lore that performing a slingshot maneuver around the sun allowed the Enterprise crew to travel back in time (once, apparently, entirely at will), but it’s a dangerous precedent to set as a normal course of action. The Earth’s safety may have been at stake and our crew’s backs may have been against the wall, but it felt like too much of an open and accessible choice, and from there it’s a slippery slope. Klingon bastards killed your son? Gotta get back in time. Accidentally visit Ceti Alpha V thinking it’s Ceti Alpha VI and got yourself captured and ear-wormed? Don’t bet your future on one roll of the dice. Need a long-extinct animal to get some destructive probe off your back? Tell me doctor, where are we going this time? Is this the ‘50s or 1999? Clipped a finger nail too short and now it’s starting to bother you? Take me away, I don’t mind. But you better promise me, I’ll be back in time. It’s an answer our heroes arrive at all too easily, and it’s conceptually problematic if misapplied. And if you really want to get into it, our heroes were pretty sloppy about the whole thing. Scotty just gives away the formula for transparent aluminum, they kidnap people back to the 23rd century, they openly steal whales in front of hunters, Chekov left a phaser behind.
But that’s just about my only problem with The Voyage Home, a necessary evil, and once you get passed it, it’s a remarkably strong movie. What surprised me the most about The Voyage Home is how well it holds up. It’s not nearly as cheesy or beset in ‘80s culture as I assumed it would be, and other than the save-the-whales sentiment of the film and some of the technology and fashions, it doesn’t feel out of place or like something you have to be of a particular mind or mentality to watch. Besides the recent reboot of the series, it’s probably one of the first things I’d show to the average person in attempting to convince them of Star Trek’s appeal.
Once arriving in the 20th century, the crew splits up, with Kirk and Spock looking in on some possible whales to abduct (abduction being probably the most negative way to put it), Scotty, McCoy and Sulu head off in search of materials to build a whale tank (something they could’ve easily done back in the 23rd, because, to paraphrase the words of another franchise’s time-travelling protagonist, they’ve got all the time they could want, they’ve got a time machine [even if he should’ve given himself more than ten minutes]), and Uhura and Chekov go looking for some nuclear wessels to re-energize their ship’s dilithium crystals (which are… de-crystallizing?). And to be honest, it all goes terribly wrong (but oh, so right). For a lot of us with only vague memories of The Voyage Home, the part where Spock applies the Vulcan death grip to that punk on the bus is probably our strongest memory, and it’s a moment that informs the spirit of the entire movie. Scotty speaks to the ‘80s-era computer expecting it to respond (a technology that remains elusive to this day, Siri, you worthless piece of garbage), Kirk and Spock struggle with the concept of exact bus fare, Chekov looks like a bigger (or at least more eccentric) idiot than usual. It’s all laugh-out-loud in the most family-friendly way, but it’s also not corny and is extremely self aware.
Through various machinations, chiefly that Kirk always finds a girl, Dr. Gillian Taylor, caretaker of two humpback whales about to be released at sea despite the pervasive threat of whale hunters, becomes embroiled in the no-longer-Enterprise crew’s struggles, and it’s a bit difficult to pin her character down. Part of that for me is that it’s hard to take any character that so earnestly believes in a cause (save the whales) seriously, but it’s also because her portrayal comes a little too close to air-headed. For a scientist, I never once got the sense that she was particularly intelligent, and even though scientists in real life may not necessarily project intelligence, it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity in the grand portrayal-of-women-in-media scheme of things. Though she challenges Kirk, she winds up being less his equal and more another girl who finds Kirk’s natural, corn-fed, Iowan charms irresistible. And if we’re getting right down to the feminism of it all, of all the original cast members, Uhura didn’t really get much to do either. At the least, given her skill set, it would’ve been reasonable for her to be the one who recognized the probe’s communications as whale songs.
As much as two of the four previous paragraphs may have focused on the negative, make no mistake, The Voyage Home is a startlingly good movie for people who like to watch movies. It’s not at all reliant on any predispositions in terms of Star Trek, ‘80s movies or comedies, it’s entertaining and fun and airy and really just a worthwhile use of your time in a way that almost every other Star Trek movie isn’t, and it’s a testament to just how much charm and charisma the original cast had, even if they weren’t as uniformly good-looking as the reboot cast is and even if they were getting pretty old.
Along with Leonard Nimoy last Friday, Harve Bennett, producer of Star Treks II, III and IV, passed away on the following Thursday in March, the 5th, and so yet another piece of the three greatest Star Trek movies has left us. It’s a somber feeling even for those of us with only the loosest interests in the property, but as with all life, it would have no meaning without the eventual death that awaits us all. This weekend, I encourage you to watch the movies, particularly The Voyage Home, and (re)live some of the finest examples of what made the series so special. Who knows, I might even find time to finally watch The Search for Spock.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home final score: 9.5
On the Edge
- It’s weird how the opening credits depict an entirely still star field. Usually opening credit scenes are a lot more active.
- Why bother sending a message to Earth that they’re going to attempt time travel when, if you’re travelling through time, you can just come back before the whole thing becomes a big problem anyways?
- So I gather the Enterprise blew up. Is it just dumb luck that all of and only the important original Enterprise crew survived? Did everybody else on the crew die?
- I know the point is culture shock, but wouldn’t they have portable tech (i.e., 23rd century iPhones) to look stuff up? Even without the necessary cellular lines that we enjoy today, they could just patch into their ship’s computers.
- Having Chekov wipe out and taken to the hospital was just an excuse for more hijinks, wasn’t it?
- That orderly seemed pretty put out when Kirk and McCoy took his gurney.
- What if the whales said something bad back to the space probe? I don’t know where we are, I think we’ve been kidnapped. We can’t find any other whales, I think these people wiped out the entire population. They don’t deserve to live!
- I love how out of it Spock is for the whole damn movie.
- “Don’t worry, I’ll find you.” And they never saw Dr. Gillian Taylor again.
You Might Also Like…