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‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’ (PG)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 26, 1986

There is something automatically comical about a floppo TV series generating one of the most successful strings of movies in history, and the makers of "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" have chosen to join in the fun. The result is a loose, jovial, immensely pleasurable Christmas entertainment that promises to be the biggest hit of the season.

In "Star Trek IV," the crew of the starship Enterprise travels from the 23rd century to our own time, in search of (I kid you not) humpback whales. It seems that an alien probe has approached the Earth looking for the whales, which, we're told, became extinct in the 21st century; in the process, the probe is destroying the Earth. So Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) figures the only way to save the Earth is to save the whales.

What follows is a comedy along "fish out of water" lines, as the voyagers learn their way around pizza and beer, money and what we call modern technology. Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly) wouldn't be "Bones" if he weren't steamed up about something, and here, it's the medical practices thatseem positively medieval to a 23rd-century eye. And there's a hilarious running gag in which Admiral Kirk tries to teach Captain Spock (director Leonard Nimoy) how to swear like a sailor.

Shatner and Nimoy develop a delicious rhythm together, with the emotionless Spock providing the straightest of straight men, a sounding board for Kirk's sardonic arpeggios. Having begun his career on the Shakespearean stage, Shatner presumably feels superior to the silly stuff that has made him a rich man, but he makes that feeling work for him. He builds Kirk out of smarmy aplomb, the aggrieved unctuousness of a foppish king in exile -- delivering his lines with mock portentousness, moving with a dainty swagger. And the fish out of water formula suits the rest of the "Star Trek" cast perfectly. In heavy makeup and futuristic pajamas, they look like a chorus line of drag queens -- they'd look out of place anywhere, in any time.

The problem with sequels in this genre ("Return of the Jedi" springs to mind) is that the filmmakers feel the burden of making each movie more spectacular than the last, with predictably bloated results. The great virtue of director Nimoy's approach is that comedy automatically keeps things human. "Star Trek" was born in the days before sophisticated special effects were possible, and "Star Trek IV" returns it to the TV series' roots in character-based comedy -- low camp then, high camp now, infused with the inventive dialogue of a quartet of screen writers (Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer).

And who'd have thought they'd make a "Star Trek" movie into a save the whales pamphlet? "Star Trek" has always carried a message -- too often, a message so heavy it required an elephant, and an elephant it got. But the save the whales message is so off the wall that it only enhances the quirky thrust of the script. So often satirized, saving the whales itself becomes, by design or otherwise, a way of satirizing the propagandistic purport of the entire series.

Good carpenters that they are, the screenwriters have added a theme about Spock getting in touch with his feelings, which has about the same impact as the stuff about the whales. On the other hand, the movie is impeccably scored (by composer Leonard Rosenman) with playful music that inventively uses musical instruments to create sound effects. The visual gimmickry (by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic) is similarly polished. "Star Trek IV" doesn't come close to cinema's final frontier, nor does it try to. But here's a science fiction movie where the special effects are in the background. And the effect is, well, rather special. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG and contains some profanity.

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