Making Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Leonard Nimoy
Leonard Nimoy on set

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.

Back in time

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.

Nimoy told Cinefantastique in 1987 that the first idea was to return the Enterprise crew to the Stone Age. The next idea was traveling back in time to 1890s. But the team quickly decided that the then-present day (1986) provided the greatest opportunities for fun, as the twenty-third-century characters would collide with contemporary life on Earth.

The next question was why the crew should travel back in time in the first place?

“There were several possibilities,” Nimoy said.

One, it could be an accident because they’re driving a ship they don’t know well. We decided not to do that. Then we thought, maybe they’re chasing somebody. We had done that before in Star Trek. Then we thought, what if there’s a problem in the twenty-third century and the solution lies in the twentieth century?

An epidemic? “We didn’t want to make a movie about people dying of diseases all over the place.”

The answer came when Nimoy was talking with a friend about endangered species “and up came the subject of the humpback whales and the mysterious song they sing.”

We don’t know exactly what it is or what it means. I thought, that’s it! If we can pull that off, sending humpback whales 300 years through space, that would be exciting.

Nimoy gave the story to screenwriters Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes. They drafted a 140-page script, which went through two rewrites. But the result still wasn’t very convincing.

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.

Meyer to the rescue

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

They told me the story. Harve said, “Can you write the parts on Earth and I’ll do the bookends? I’ll do the beginning and the end.” I said, “Okay. Do they have to go to San Francisco in a time travel movie, because I’ve already done that? Can’t we go to Paris?” They said, “No, we can’t go to Paris.” So, I wrote all the stuff on Earth, beginning from when someone says, “When are we?” And Spock says, “Judging by the pollution content of the atmosphere, we’ve reached the late twentieth century.” And from there until they go back into outer space, was all my stuff.

William Shatner was involved toward the end. Meyer told Cinefantastique in 1987 that Shatner came back “with a whole bunch of notes,” which they incorporated.

He credited Bennett with keeping the process on track through numerous rewrites:

At times, when I would have long before thrown my hands up and told somebody to start suing, Harve would always go the extra mile, one more meeting, one more conversation, patiently holding everybody’s hand, and in the meantime also writing.

Acting and directing

Leonard Nimoy and Walter Koening
Leonard Nimoy directs Walter Koening

Meyer had no desire to direct. “I was directing another movie.” Nimoy, who had successfully directed Star Trek III, was the obvious choice.

Nimoy told Cinefantastique he was lucky to be surrounded by people whose tastes he could trust:

I established very good contact with my cinematographer, so that he was watching carefully and he knew what I wanted to see. I’m very meticulous about the camera. I look through the camera on every shot and help line up the shot. I like my own compositions. If the cameraman shows me a composition I like, I say, “Great, that’s it.” Once I knew I could trust him, I knew I was technically covered.

The real challenge was balancing acting and directing.

You’re in the scene playing with one or two other performers and you’re giving your own performance, but you’re making mental notes like, “On the next take, I want to tell her to do something different here.” That gets complicated. But we managed to get through it.

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 in 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.

Filming in San Francisco

The twentieth-century also 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

Bennett and Nimoy wisely retained the winning visual-effects team that had contributed to the success of the previous two movies. Industrial Light and Magic was excited about the opportunity.

Star Trek has been in space so long,” Ken Ralston, the film’s consulting effects supervisor, told Cinefantastique.

You’ve seen it all before, many times. But to see those ships that you’ve become accustomed to put into a more terrestial environment is refreshing. When I have a ship in front of a starfield, I have no opportunity to be creative. Sure, I could put another nebula out there, but we’re really locked into things. When we come down to a more interesting environment, boy, the possibilities are endless.

One of the most memorable images of the film was the Klingon Bird of Prey swooping under the Golden Gate Bridge. Ralston also remembered it as one of the most difficult shots to get right.

ILM built an almost 5 meter-long model of a section of the bridge. Because it had a forced perspective, the foreground roadway measured about 16 inches [40 centimeters] wide while at the very end, on the other side of the tower, it was 2 inches [5 centimeters] wide.

Klingon Bird of Prey
Publicity photo (Trekcore)

Originally, ILM model shop supervisor Jeff Mann had hoped that by photographing storms in San Francisco, they would be able to save themselves the trouble of creating one artificially. No such luck.

Even though it was storming, on film it looked pretty tame. We wanted the storm in the film to be wild.

So they built a tank, “and then we tried everything to create rain and wind and smoke levels and clouds, using wind machines and water sprayers.”

Mann remembered the end result as “quite a thing to see”.

We had the Golden Gate Bridge sitting in the water tank, wind machines, foggers and sprayers, and the wire rig with the Bird of Prey flying past as it crashed into the water. That was fun.

Another effect was so realistic that few viewers noticed it wasn’t real: the humpback whales themselves were either miniatures shot at ILM or life-sized robotic replicas filmed in the Paramount parking lot.

The studio had hoped to use stock footage of humpback whales, but there wasn’t much available and the movie needed them to behave in certain ways. That also meant miniatures weren’t always sufficient.

To make sure both the miniatures and the life-sized mechanical whales looked accurate, they were built under the watchful eye of Peter Falken of the Oceanic Society.

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

Critical response

For the first time, the critical response to a Star Trek 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.