This is probably my favourite film in the Star Trek series. I remember seeing it many, many times over the years. I can’t be sure, but I think it may be what drew me into the whole concept originally, and may be the reason for my preference for the original cast, and possibly the source of my youthful love of Spock.
The film is silly, there’s no way around that, but it’s knowingly silly. It’s a fish-out-of-water time travel story on one hand–which the 80s are always good for, having the right balance of accepting how ridiculous the situation is and letting the situation BE that ridiculous–and a pretty strong-handed condemnation of whaling practices and environmental ignorance in general. I grew up in an area and a climate that strongly reinforced the importance of environmental issues, endangered species and pollution being ideas that were commonplace around me, so I have always thought little of the idea of a Star Trek film being used to endorse such a viewpoint. And of course, I rather endorse such a viewpoint myself, so I’ve never had any complaints about that element, and it felt wholly natural to me.
I was surprised to note–considering how long it has been, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I probably skipped partway into the movie–that there was a specific intention behind the time travel in this movie, and that there was a plot revolving around it. I was even more surprised, though, to discover that indeed this film continues very directly after the first three films, just like each of those continued so closely after its own predecessor. Here the Klingons have tried to bring Admiral Kirk to trial for his actions in the previous films, with Kirk and the crew still stranded on Vulcan in their stolen Bird of Prey, attempting to fix it up enough to make their way back to Earth. In the meantime, a mysterious probe appears above Earth, sending a message down into the oceans, eventually threatening the destruction of the entire world. Kirk and crew manage to intercept the signal from the Federation warning people away from the planet, then intercept the probe’s signal, and Spock manages to recognize it when it is modulated to its submarine sound, now making it clear that it is the singing of the–extinct in the 23rd century–humpback whales.
Kirk, Spock, Bones, Sulu, Scotty, Chekhov, Uhura and the Bird of Prey all go back in time to bring whales forward to communicate with the probe, leading us to the awkward situation (but thankfully handled with complete lightheartedness) of Chekhov in a Cold War America, Spock hiding his alien features behind a headband and attempting to use profanity to amusing results, Kirk acting as the closest thing there is to an authority on the era, yet failing to get it exactly right. Scotty and Sulu must acquire the materials to build an aquarium within the Bird of Prey to transport the whales, and Kirk and Spock attempt to find the whales themselves, persuading Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks) to help them, using her expertise as a cetacean biologist.
Nimoy is once again occupying the director’s chair, and with the help of a good edit, makes a very, very enjoyable film. The jokes, while perhaps not all that funny, are at least honest enough in their portrayal, and the appearances by Sarek and Saavik, while technically perfunctory, do not come off as such, much like the message behind the movie does not feel hamfisted, even if the audience is most definitely beaten over the head with it. It’s nicely balanced and just a fun movie, and I cannot hold that against it.
Note: the always-awesome Michael Berryman appears in heavy makeup as a “Starfleet display operator” near the beginning of the film, which was a nice little surprise for a genre fan.