“There’ll Be Whales Here!”: Star Trek IV-The Voyage Home-30 Years Later


     Star Trek IV-The Voyage Home was the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed of the first six Star Trek movies upon its November 26, 1986 release. It grossed $36,000,000 within the first five days of release, almost as much as the combined first week totals of Star Trek II-The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek III-The Search for Spock (1984). The Voyage Home would bring in about $111,000,000 in North America, making it the only one of the original Star Trek movies to top $100,000,000. (Taking into account inflation, with the exception of Star Trek V-The Final Frontier, all the films grossed over $100,000,000, if not $200,000,000, with Star Trek-The Motion Picture making more than The Voyage Home.)

      Only a short time following the release of Star Trek III-The Search for Spock on June 2, 1984, Paramount Pictures approached the film’s director, Leonard Nimoy, and writer/producer, Harve Bennett, about Star Trek IV. The studio promised Nimoy more creative freedom, since the actor/director had often felt that his hands were tied by Bennett and the studio while making the third film.

     After the death of Spock in The Wrath of Khan and the destruction of the Enterprise in The Search for Spock, Leonard Nimoy wanted his new film to be lighter in tone with no obvious villain like V’ger (Was V’ger really a villain?), Khan, or Klingon Commander Kruge. He also wanted all the characters to play a vital role in the story—not just Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Uhura, especially, had little to do in the first three films. Nimoy and Bennett also wanted to tackle a social problem that had become all too obvious by the mid-eighties: extinction.

    The director and producer developed a story in which the planet Earth was facing unintentional destruction by an alien probe sent by some unknown civilization to communicate with humpback whales, a species extinct by the 23rd Century. To save their home, the crew of the late starship Enterprise travelled back to 1986 Earth in their captured Klingon Bird of Prey to find humpback whales. The crew had many amusing experiences while dealing with mankind in the 20th Century.

     While developing the story, Nimoy spoke with author Howard Weinstein, among others. “At the time I met with Leonard in New York City in October 1984,” recalled Howard, “he was already developing the Star Trek IV story, and consulting writers and scientists around the country to ‘stir the pot’ of ideas, as he put it.”

Howard Weinstein became the youngest person to ever write for Star Trek when he penned “The Pirates of Orion” episode of animated Star Trek in 1974 at age 19. When he was called in to discuss Star Trek IV, Howard had already written The Covenant of the Crown, one of the best of the Trek novels published by Pocket Books during the early eighties, as well as some really good novels based upon the V mini-series.

     Howard had been suggested to Nimoy by people he knew at Starlog magazine as a young writer and Star Trek fan who could be helpful to the creative process. “As a big Trek fan long before I became a writer, you can imagine I was pretty nervous when I walked into the Starlog conference room. But Leonard put me at ease and we just bounced ideas around for a couple of hours.” Howard remembered the meeting as “one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.” The author came away with a very favorable impression of the director. “I was impressed with how well Leonard knew Star Trek—it became clear that he had a fan’s deep knowledge of the series, which can’t be said of all actors.” Also attending the meeting was Damon Santostefano, an assistant at Starlog magazine and future filmmaker.

     Howard had recently been on a “New England whale-watch cruise”, and he and Nimoy discussed “thoughts about whales or whale-like creatures on another planet. I know that Leonard spoke to marine biologists about whales, and I don’t know in what order he spoke to whom. So I’ll never know how much I contributed to whales being the key to The Voyage Home.” (Though Howard Weinstein was not asked to contribute to Star Trek IV, he did receive a “thank you” in the end credits. He also used some of his story ideas in an excellent 1987 Star Trek novel called Deep Domain, one of my personal favorites!)

     Having spoken to Howard Weinstein, as well as other writers and scientists, Leonard Nimoy knew he and Harve Bennett had found a compelling and topical story in the subject of whales. One of the strengths of Star Trek is its ability to explore contemporary issues within a science fiction framework. That had been one of Gene Roddenberry’s major reasons behind creating Star Trek in the first place.

     For the second half of 1984 and the first half of 1985, William Shatner refused to return as Admiral James Kirk in a fourth movie. Based on the recommendation of executive producer Ralph Winter, Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett decided to make Star Trek IV a prequel film. A story that would take place when Kirk and Spock were cadets at Starfleet Academy. However, Shatner agreed to return when Paramount offered him $3,000,000. This finally allowed Nimoy and Bennett to bring back the original cast and conclude the story left hanging at the end of Star Trek III.

     In an attempt to attract viewers who did not normally go see a Star Trek movie, and thinking it might go well with the film’s lighter tone, Paramount executives suggested casting Eddie Murphy as a whale expert in 20th Century Earth who assisted the Enterprise crew.

     This may seem like an odd bit of casting now, but in 1986 Eddie Murphy was Paramount’s biggest star. It seemed only logical that by combining their two biggest properties—Star Trek and Eddie Murphy—Paramount was laying the groundwork for a major hit. And to be fair to Eddie, 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop is a great film and one of the most memorable of the 1980’s. So casting Eddie Murphy in a Star Trek movie was not such a crazy idea. Okay, maybe it was a little.

     Writers Steve Meerson and Peter Kirkes were hired to turn the time travel story into a full screenplay, despite doubts from star William Shatner and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, the film’s executive consultant. However, the finished script was found unacceptable. Eddie Murphy also decided not to do the film. Paramount hired Star Trek II co-writer/director Nicholas Meyer to help with the new script. Harve Bennett wrote the bookends, the first and third acts that take place in the 23rd Century, while Meyer tackled the third act, the part of the story that takes place in the 20th Century. Murphy’s character turned into a female named Dr. Gillian Taylor (Played by Catherine Hicks in the film.).

     Meyer also wrote an amusing scene where Kirk and Spock are on a San Francisco bus with a punk rocker (Played by Kirk Thatcher, the film’s associate producer and the son of then British Prime Minister Margaret.). When the punk refused Admiral Kirk’s pleas to turn down his “music”, Spock silenced him with the famous Vulcan nerve pinch. In his 1979 film Time After Time, Meyer wrote a scene where H.G. Wells is riding on a bus with a punk rocker but was unhappy with how the part played out and cut it from the finished film. (If you have not seen Time After Time, go and watch it right now. Okay, finish reading this article first!).

     Star Trek IV-The Voyage Home was the hit Paramount had hoped. It also proved that Leonard Nimoy was not a fluke as a director. “A Leonard Nimoy Film” appeared along with “A Harve Bennett Production” in the opening credits whereas only Bennett’s appeared in the opening credits of Star Trek III. While Nimoy had basically been a director-for-hire on The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home was his vison and one that he brought to the screen successfully (Unlike William Shatner would do three years later with the much mangled Star Trek V.) Leonard Nimoy would go on to make several more films as director, including 1987’s highest grossing movie—Three Men and a Baby with Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson.

     The Star Trek films have never been popular with film critics. The Motion Picture had received mixed reviews, with many critics feeling the movie was slow-moving and pretentious. Critics had given The Search for Spock generally favorable but unenthusiastic reviews, claiming the movie lacked suspense and that Christopher Lloyd’s Commander Kruge was a one-dimensional villain. Even the much-loved The Wrath of Khan was not as popular with critics—though most liked it—as it had been with general audiences and Star Trek fans.

     I think most Star Trek fans regard The Voyage Home as one of the best in the series, but not the best. Though there are exceptions. Author Howard Weinstein considers the film his personal favorite among the Star Trek movies.

     “I think it brilliantly balanced the things I love best about Star Trek—characters and relationships, humor, adventure, and compelling commentary on important issues of our time. It’s the kind of Trek story that I always tried to write. And it’s such a fun movie to watch!”

     Along with Star Trek III-The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home perfectly captured the feeling of the television series whereas Star Trek-The Motion Picture attempted to be more like 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the characters taking a backseat to V’ger’s cosmic journey. While Star Trek II-The Wrath of Khan—my personal favorite of the Trek movies—put the characters back in the forefront of the story, director Nicholas Meyer’s unfamiliarity with the series resulted in a movie that was more Run Silent, Run Deep set in space than Star Trek.

     Star Trek IV may be the most visually stylish of the first six Star Trek films. Leonard Nimoy and cinematographer Don Peterman—nominated for an Oscar three years earlier for his impressive work on Flashdance—created a look for the film that was warm and rich in color. They were aided a great deal by the excellent whale footage and stunning special effects by Industrial, Light and Magic.

     The aspect of Star Trek IV that has never worked for me is a weak musical score by Leonard Rosenman. When James Horner, the man who had created the classic scores for The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, decided not to return for a third film, Leonard Nimoy approached his friend Rosenman to write the music for the film. The result is a score that is lightweight, unmemorable, and at times annoying.  

     Star Trek IV-The Voyage Home proved popular with fans and non-fans alike because the crew of the Enterprise spent much of the film in the present, allowing us as the viewers to see ourselves though the eyes of the Enterprise crew. And as Dr. McCoy states in the movie, it is something of a miracle that we did survive the 20th Century!

     This article is dedicated to the memory of Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett.

     Special thanks to Howard Weinstein!

By Michael Goth