James Doohan would have been ninety-three years old today. So in honour of the man who seemed to enjoy us fans so much, was a great actor, and a genuinely nice guy it is my pleasure to review my favourite of all the Star Trek movies on his birthday.
The first thing that makes this movie my favourite is that it’s a comedy, which is my favourite film genre. But it’s not a mean spirited comedy. The characters aren’t being treated badly in this fish out of water story, they are just being challenged by a time period they don’t know or understand and the results are hilarious. Also I really like that this film took a different approach to the story than its predecessors. Nicholas Meyer showed how an outsider could bring in fresh ideas and a different outlook to the franchise. In this film Leonard Nimoy shows how someone familiar with the franchise could bring in older concepts and expand them into movie form. The first concept was the idea of not having a villain in the story, something no other film in the franchise has done before or since, but something that the show often did. The second was to make this a comedy as I said, putting humour to the forefront instead of just taking the edge off of darker moments as the humour did in the other films, and to have a discussion about social issues in modern society. The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock focused more on personal issues and humanity’s struggles with them rather than a big social problem as the defining point on which the whole story turned. Also the commentary on the film where Nimoy talks about all of this with William Shatner is great. Those two are wonderful when they’re together and the commentary is no exception.
Speaking of people being great together character interactions are great here because they mix everybody up with all the teams having to do different things to complete the mission; McCoy and Scotty getting the tank materials, Chekov and Uhura getting the photons. Kirk and Spock together are nothing new, but even they manage to be different here by having Spock not totally back to himself after the re-fusion. Spock isn’t informal with Kirk anymore they don’t mesh quite like the team we remember and that is frustrating to Kirk. And seeing them kind of butt heads is fun to watch because it is so different. Spock not really being his old self yet is also interesting in what it reveals about the Spock McCoy relationship. Spock and McCoy of course have always represented opposite view points. Spock is the logical one McCoy is the emotional one and they often butt heads about it, much to the enjoyment of us watching the show. Here though McCoy is quite gentle with Spock. He doesn’t yell he doesn’t really get angry. Instead he kind of seems to prod Spock into trying to get him to remember how things used to be. Would series McCoy ever be like that with Spock? No, and that speaks to the development of the characters over time even very subtle changes like this. McCoy seems to really get Spock now. He understands how Spock thinks. In a way he and Kirk have kind of reversed roles in this film. Kirk is the one getting angry and frustrated with Spock and McCoy is the one getting all up in Spock’s personal space. The only disappointment I have here character wise is that I wish Sulu would have had more to do. I know he was to have a scene about meeting his great grandfather that had to be cut because of time and child actor issues, but I wish something had been put in its place. Instead he just kind of disappears for almost all of the middle of the movie.
One more thing with the characters is Gillian Taylor. Gillian is a great character because she’s not the typical scientist with glasses and her hair up in a bun that’s all stiff and formal. She’s bubbly and fun and a bit flaky. She and Kirk don’t have a romance either and I thought that was very refreshing. There’s some subtle flirting on both sides, but it’s not about starting a relationship it’s about flattering the other person so they’ll reveal what they know. Gillian wants to know the truth about Kirk and Kirk needs to find out when the whales are leaving and how to track them. I like that Kirk even explains that he could go to the open ocean and find other humpbacked whales, but he’d rather have hers, and that makes sense. George and Gracie are a bonded pair that are fertile, two things that make them an excellent choice for a breeding program. Rather than grabbing two random whales and hoping they’ll like each other. Also they are used to human contact which is great for a breeding program too.
As usual for the franchise the music is good. I like that it’s fun and kind of whimsical in a way. Especially the hospital escape music and Chekov’s scene when he’s trying to get off the aircraft carrier. The contrast of it with silence when the whales are communicating with the probe is also very effective. And I totally agree with Nimoy and Meyer when they said it was important not to translate the conversation. Leaving mysteries like that for an audience is great and taking all that away at the end would no doubt have made the whole film fall flat. The whole sub-theme of the movie was communication. Kirk and Spock trying to communicate as a team again; the crew trying to communicate with the people of 20th century Earth; the probe trying to communicate with the whales. Spelling out all the conversations would make it cheesy and I’m glad Nimoy stuck to his guns about not putting in subtitles for the probe.
Now the main environmental message of the film can get a little bit heavy handed like the overflowing garbage cans in the park, but we also get a funny exchange from the garbage men when the Bird of Prey lands so I can roll with it. Also “double dumbass on you!” will never get old and neither will Spock nerve pinching the ‘I hate you’ punk on the bus, or his failed attempts at using profanity. McCoy ranting about modern medicine in the hospital is one long howl of laughter, and the woman who grows a new kidney. I also love all the visual humour like when Chekov is trying to getting off the nuclear vessel and there’s a sign that reads escape route with an arrow on the wall. Or when Scotty’s group needs to find something to make the tank out of and there’s a giant advertisement for Yellow Pages painted on a wall, and then we cut to Uhura and Chekov who just finished using the Yellow Pages to find the nuclear vessel.
Like in Wrath of Khan we have everyone on the production really working hard and enjoying making the film. The cast is having fun, Bennett and Meyer turn in a great script, people like Kirk Thatcher getting to make a fun character and an awesome song to go with him. People actually get to go shoot on location for once, and the effects in the film hold up great too. I didn’t even realize half the whale shots were miniatures until I watched the behind the scenes footage. The only thing that doesn’t real hold up is the whole traveling back in time scene. The idea is neat of the water and words from future parts of the film, kind of a blending of past, present, and future which the whole time travel idea is, but I don’t get what the transforming crew heads in the clouds have to do with that. It doesn’t really distract from the movie all that much, but I don’t think it adds anything either. I honestly have no idea what that scene was trying to accomplish.
So despite a couple of bumps in the road I still love this film. It showcases the camaraderie of the crew by having different people working together for their goal. It presents a social message in a funny, fun, and light-hearted way. It adds a great character in Gillian. It pulls the Spock story from the last film to a nice close, and it wraps up the crew's actions from the third film and this one in a way that lets them go off to have new adventures on the Enterprise A. It’s just too bad one of those adventures turns out far less than stellar.