Released in 1986, coinciding with the franchise’s twentieth anniversary, Star Trek IV: 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.
It was also the first Star Trek film to use time travel as a key 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 twentieth-century life
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.
For the half of the film that was set in the future, Nimoy and Bennett 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.
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)