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Whales, Heaven, and the Cold War

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | April 8, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | April 8, 2009 |

“Everybody remember where we parked.” — Kirk

Star Trek IV continues the story of Star Trek II and Star Trek III, rounding out what amounts to a loosely defined trilogy of films. It is less grounded in a philosophical theme than the previous two, although it does touch on themes of environmentalism and the concept of home. It also introduces the world to that second irascible “7th Heaven” parent, Catherine Hicks.

The film begins by cutting back and forth between three narrative strands: the approach of an immense and unidentified probe, the Federation council, and the main crew of the Enterprise, still on Vulcan three months after the events of Star Trek III. The plot moves quickly as the probe disables any ship that comes near it before finally taking up orbit around Earth and systematically vaporizing the planet’s oceans. The crew of the Enterprise departs for Earth aboard their stolen Klingon Bird of Prey to face the consequences of their mutiny. The Federation president sends out a distress signal warning ships not to approach, and Spock cleverly deduces that the probe’s transmissions are whale songs, or more specifically, the long extinct humpback whale. Time travel is attempted, and hilarity ensues!

The time travel elements are well handled. The idea and method flow from an original series episode, in which the Enterprise accidentally traveled through time in a similar manner. The crew attempts to recreate the accident, only half expecting even to survive the attempt. Rather than throw special effects at the experience, the crew is rendered unconscious and a surreal bit of Altered States effect transitions them into the past. Time travel as a nearly impossible miracle keeps the film well-grounded: if it was easy, everybody would do it. Additionally, the method of time travel has a tangibility that feels better than the techno-babble that dominates “Next Generation.” There’s a physical sense to what they’re doing; “slingshot around the sun so fast we go backwards in time” has a sort of film logic to it that “adjust the warp core’s tachyon emission field to match phase with our timeline” or some such, just doesn’t have.

The bulk of the film takes place in the past, during the 1980s, as the crew attempts to find humpback whales, and retrofit their ship with old technology so that it can carry the whales and get back to the future in one piece. One might expect this part of the film to age very badly, Star Trek meets the Wedding Singer to our eyes. It works though, because it treats the inevitable comedy of manners at a higher level than just making fun of contemporaries: it’s not just mullet and Wall Street jokes. Its humor actually gets at broader parts of our culture that hold true today, in addition to focusing on the fish out of water elements of strangers in a strange land. The past is a foreign country.

The environmental themes are also well played. The best thing about the original series was that it took philosophical and often idealist stances without necessarily being irritating and goodie-two-shoed about it. One of Kirk’s first reactions to the probe’s assault on Earth is to figure out a way to destroy it. The idea is discarded as impractical, not as immoral. The film’s environmentalism is not geared so much towards “oh no we’re ruining the planet” alarmism as to the more thoughtful point that we do not know what we are doing. It is a more mature environmentalism that reflects on the dangers of our ignorance as opposed to our malicious irresponsibility. It is reinforced by the point that the whales are actually intelligent and have been communicating with extraterrestrials for millions of years without our knowledge. It is a return of sorts to the original series’ spirit that the universe is infinitely large and complex, that there is mystery still even in the most familiar elements of our world. It’s a humbling ideology.

There is a second more subtle theme running throughout the film: home. What is home? To the crew, it is each other, it is the adventure, it is the Enterprise itself. The titular voyage home is only nominally to Earth, it’s really about returning back to where they belong: together, on the Enterprise.

Overall, the film has aged well and still retains a light-hearted but fundamentally thoughtful core.

“James T. Kirk, it is the judgment of this council that you be reduced in rank to captain. And that as a consequence of your new rank, you be given the duties for which you have demonstrated unswerving ability, the command of a starship. Captain Kirk, you and your crew have saved this planet from its own short-sightedness and we are forever in your debt.” — President of the Federation

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

“What does God need with a starship?” — Kirk

Like Rocky V, which came out a year later, I prefer to think that Star Trek V never actually happened. I forced myself to watch it again, hoping that maybe the memory was just unfavorable because the very good Star Trek IV and Star Trek VI bookended this entry.

This is a very bad film.

It plays like a very long and very forgettable episode of the series. It’s the only original series movie that feels like an overlong episode, which is significant because that problem plagues all of the Next Generation films.

William Shatner directed the film, the only film he has directed other than 2002’s Groom Lake (Aside: Groom Lake was written by, directed by, and starred the Shat, in addition to starring Amy Acker of “Angel” and “Dollhouse” fame. Straight to DVD, it does not appear to even have an entry on Rotten Tomatoes. The comments on IMDB assure us that Groom Lake is the worst movie ever made. I am so Netflixing this). To his credit though, the cast and crew emphasized that the shooting of the film was smooth and relaxed, in comparison to the problems going on behind the scenes in production.

The film had the usual clichéd problems in production: repeated studio re-writes to add humor, previous writers of the series absent from the process, script re-written again when the actors didn’t like it, etc. Gene Roddenberry stated that he considered many of the events of Star Trek V apocryphal as far as canon was concerned. The film grossed less than half that of Star Trek IV’s receipts.

The film is much worse than Star Trek: The Motion Picture because — while that film was essentially a decent idea and story that were badly directed and weighed down by baggage, characters and plot points from an aborted second “Star Trek” television series — this film puts on a clinic of how not to write a plot. The plot holes are so huge and omnipresent that they develop sentience and start writing scripts of their own with plot holes.

There is no real antagonist in the film, instead there’s Sybok, a retconned half brother of Spock who telepathically makes people face their most painful memories. This for some reason makes them zen and peaceful and willing to do whatever he says. Which is logical because people are always most willing to hijack navy vessels (or wessels) following a really good session with a shrink. Sybok has decided that heaven is at the center of the Milky Way galaxy behind an impassable energy field called the Great Barrier, because of visions sent to him by god. It is never explained why heaven (or Eden, or the half-dozen made up alien names he gives for it) would be there, or whether the other 200 billion galaxies in the known universe each have their own version of heaven at their centers, like creamy spiritual nougat. There’s not even a hand wave of techno-babble to explain why no one has gone through the barrier before. It just ends up being an elaborate illusion. Seriously. Could we at least get a “the shield frequencies have been modulated to correlate with Jesus”?

Since Sybok basically can brainwash people at will, and the Federation is dedicated to exploring the unknown, it would make more sense that he just walked right in to Starfleet command and said, “Dude I’ve got it on good authority that the Great Barrier is just a laser light show, can I bum a ride on a ship, and we can go check out this legendary unexplored area?” He probably wouldn’t even need to brainwash anybody. Checking out unexplored space is in the fleet’s mission statement. Of course, then there wouldn’t be much of a movie, but what is there only manages to pad out the running time because naturally there’s a random Klingon ship (again) wanting to blow them all up. Wouldn’t it have been hilarious if they’d actually plugged Christopher Lloyd in to the part with the same lines as last time? And naturally the new Enterprise is a lemon and nothing works so that squeezes out at least another few minutes.

The characters are morons and consistently act out of character. The actors do alright with what they’re given, but while Nichelle Nichols has aged very elegantly, there is something extraordinarily uncomfortable about watching a 60-year-old woman do a seductive fan dance. The humor doesn’t work all that well for the most part, although the famous “What does god need with a starship?” line is hilariously meta since if any of the characters had asked that in the first place they wouldn’t have bothered taking their little road trip to heaven.

To sum up: I refuse to acknowledge that this film was ever made.

“Pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain.” — Kirk

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

“They’re animals.” — Kirk
“Jim…there is an historic opportunity here.” — Spock
“Don’t believe them. Don’t trust them.” — Kirk
“They are dying.” — Spock
“Let them die.” — Kirk

After the near disaster of Star Trek V, the film franchise almost died entirely. Indeed, Star Trek VI was only greenlit because of the upcoming 25th anniversary of the original series. The studio did exactly what it had done the last time a Star Trek film bombed: it slashed the budget for the next film and brought in Nicholas Meyer to write and direct. The result is arguably the best film of the series, alongside Wrath of Khan.

“The Undiscovered Country” of the title (this was actually the original title of Wrath of Khan, but the studio changed it without Nicholas Meyer’s knowledge during editing) is a Shakespearean reference to death, but as noted in the film, works equally well in reference to an uncertain future.

The film basically pretends that Star Trek V never took place, picking up an indeterminate amount of time after the events of Star Trek IV, with Kirk still in command of the Enterprise, but with the ship and its crew scheduled for decommissioning. The words of the Klingon ambassador in Star Trek IV set the tone for this film: “There shall be no peace as long as Kirk lives.” It works both ways. The Klingons cannot accept peace as long as Kirk is the symbol of the Federation, but likewise the Federation cannot accept peace as long as Starfleet’s mentality is that of Kirk.

Described essentially as, “What if the wall came down in space?”, Star Trek VI begins with the explosion of the Klingon homeworld’s moon in a mining catastrophe reminiscent of the Chernobyl meltdown. Negotiations are opened with the reformist chancellor of the Klingon empire. In short: after nearly a century of conflict with the Federation, the Klingon empire is bankrupt, their homeworld will soon be rendered uninhabitable, and they are now asking for an honorable peace and disarmament. Kirk, the most celebrated commander of Starfleet, and legendary opponent of the Klingons, is sent against his will to escort the Klingon chancellor to Earth. After a disastrous dinner between the command crew of the Enterprise and the Klingon representatives, the Enterprise appears to attack the chancellors’ ship, soldiers beam aboard and massacre much of the crew, including the chancellor himself. Kirk and McCoy are taken prisoner in disgrace and summarily dispatched to a merciless gulag, leaving the rest of the crew to figure out what happened.

The success of the film is in its nuanced portrayal of accepting peace after generations of war. It is darkly lit throughout, to match a dark story in which most of the main characters only grudgingly even take on the role of protagonist. That moral gray area is beautifully rendered: is peace even possible when good men cannot imagine anything but war? The antagonists do not simply desire a state of war to continue, they have real concerns and valid arguments as to why peace is undesirable. The Klingons are terrified of a future without the empire, they see that with peace will come an inevitable disintegration, their race and culture scattered and destroyed. They would prefer to die on their feet. Federation opponents cannot forgive a century of Klingon atrocities. “Let them die.” Kirk says simply. The story flows from reconciling that hatred on both sides of the fence.

The film lacks the emotional punch of Star Trek II and Star Trek III, and does lose its way a bit with the scenes of Kirk and McCoy in the gulag, which distract from the overall theme and mystery of the plot. However, the film succeeds in allegorizing the fall of the Soviet Union, capturing the complexities of both the West and the East of that period, and arriving in theatres a scant 19 days before Gorbachev’s resignation and the final dissolution of the Soviet regime.

It’s a good film, and it ends well as a coda to the original series, to the original crew.

“Captain, I have orders from Starfleet Command. We’re to put back to space dock immediately. To be decommissioned.” — Uhura
“If I were human, I believe my response would be…Go to Hell. If I were human.” — Spock
“Course heading, Captain?” — Chekov
“Second star to the right… and straight on till morning.” — Kirk

Time for the updated scorecard:

Star Trek IV: Holds up well, I’d put it a notch below both Star Trek II and VI if only because it doesn’t have quite the same thematic weight.

Star Trek V: This film was never made. There was simply a numbering glitch. Six comes after four in the Star Trek universe.

Star Trek VI: A notch below Star Trek II, but definitely worth seeing.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.