Released in 1986, coinciding with the franchise’s twentieth anniversary, The Voyage Home remains the most successful of the Star Trek feature films. It is also the most lighthearted of the series, despite its lofty themes. Director Leonard Nimoy was responsible for both attributes.

Early in the planning stage with Producer Harve Bennett, Nimoy had decided, “no dying, no fist fighting, no shooting, no photon torpedoes, no phaser blasts, no stereotypical ‘bad guy’.”

I wanted people to really have a great time watching this film, to really sit back, lose themselves and enjoy it. That was the main goal. And if somewhere in the mix we lobbed a couple of bigger ideas at them, well, then that would be even better.

Meyer to the rescue

The first scripts weren’t very convincing, however. Nicholas Meyer — who had cobbled together the best parts of the various scripts for Star Trek II — was called in to once again put the story together.

In an interview with the official Star Trek website in 2014, Meyer recalled Paramount even told him not to read the scripts at all, but talk to Bennett and Nimoy.

In the end, Bennett wrote the first and last part of the movie, which were set in the twenty-fourth century, and Meyer wrote all the scenes set in the twentieth.

Sharing the spotlight

The setting made it possible to give the supporting cast — James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei — bigger parts.

Nimoy told Starlog (January 1987, My Star Trek Scrapbook has the full interview) that it is difficult to keep everybody happy all the time. “They know that, and I know that.”

We have tried from picture to picture to see that there was a balance from one film to the next. A person who perhaps had a little bit less to do in one would hopefully have a little bit more next time.

Humor

It was also the first Star Trek film to use time travel as a plot device. In terms of the story, it set the stage for humor as the twenty-third century crew of the Enterprise collided with contemporary life on Earth.

In terms of costs, it freed the production to shoot on location without the need to create an expensive illusion of the future in every frame. With half the movie set in the present, The Voyage Home contained the least amount of science-fiction design of any of the Star Trek films, which, ironically, accounted for its wide general appeal.

Nimoy had fond memories of shooting on location in San Francisco. “I loved being there. I loved the whole idea of bringing Star Trek home to today.”

Visual effects

For the half of the film that was set in the future, Bennett and Nimoy wisely retained the winning team that had contributed to the success of the previous two films. Once again, Industrial Light and Magic provided spectacular visual effects.

Indeed, one of the most convincing effects in the film was so realistic that few people noticed it wasn’t real: the humpback whales were either miniatures shot at ILM or life-sized robotic replicas filmed in the Paramount parking lot.

The Voyage Home set
Star Trek IV set on the Paramount parking lot (Trekcore)

Critical response

Another first: the critics’ response to the film mirrored its fortunes at the box office.

Understanding its appeal, USA Today wrote that the film would “delight those who don’t know a tribble from a Romulan” and that the funny script “turns Kirk and his followers into the most uproarious out-of-towners to hit the Bay area since the Democrats in 1984.” Referring to the film’s reduced use of visual effects, the review went on to note that without the usual special-effects camouflage, “the performers prove themselves more capable actors than ever before.”

Janet Maslin of The New York Times summed up the film’s impact best when she noted that The Voyage Home “has done a great deal to ensure the series’ longevity.” That there would be a fifth film was a near certainty.

Text adapted from Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens, The Art of Star Trek (1995)

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July 1, 2007

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