Star Trek IV The Voyage Home is the most pivotal installment in the entire Star Trek franchise. Let’s step back in 1986 for a moment. At this point, Star Trek simply a cult phenomenon that sprouted a couple moderately successful movies. The first three Star Trek movies were hits, but they weren’t HITS like Indiana Jones, or Ghostbusters or Star Wars, at least financially speaking. Despite having been in the mainstream public for 20 years, Star Trek was still struggling to attract mainstream movie-goers. That of course changed with Star Trek IV, which won over mainstream audiences.
Why is any of that important? Because the next phase of Star Trek starting with The Next Generation stemmed from the financial success of Star Trek IV. Paramount CBS Television pushed forward with their new Star Trek show because Star Trek IV’s financial success gave them the confidence to finance what would become The Next Generation. Had TNG never materialized, there wouldn’t have been Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise or any of the TNG movies. I know, I know. A lot of that was really bad, but it kept the franchise alive and in the public eye. If the 24th Century Rick Berman Star Trek never happened, the franchise would’ve likely petered out when The Original Series movies ended.
Another franchise-altering thing to come out of Star Trek IV was William Shatner’s clause to direct Star Trek V. That clause was negotiated when he signed on to star in Star Trek IV. That means, during the entire production and the period following the film’s release, Shatner already knew he going to run the show for the next movie. When Star Trek IV became a massive financial success, Shatner and the rest of the production team had to have been cognizant that Star Trek V could attract even larger crowds.
This is a subjective thing, but Star Trek IV is the best looking Star Trek movie in terms of image quality. The lighting is natural, there’s texture and depth to the cinematography that wasn’t there in Star Trek II and III. Star Trek II was shot on a relatively small budget and while the sets and effects were fine, the overall image quality was about what you’d expect from a made-for-TV movie in the early 80s. For Star Trek III, the producers experimented with a new film stock. They quickly discovered they’d have to over expose in low-light settings. This resulted in a lot of washed out color and depth. Take a look at these two shots of the Enterprise bridge. Notice how the Star Trek III screen grab looks blown out and the colors are off.
So for Star Trek IV, Leonard Nimoy returned to using traditional film stock for shooting. He also used a new cinematographer. The end result was a movie that looked like a movie. The irony to all of this is that even though Star Trek relied on special effects and futuristic sets, it looked its best in a movie that was set in present day 1986.
The movie itself is still a joy to watch. The humor and charm still holds up extremely well. More importantly, the story is based on a situational conflict. There’s no main villain. By simply writing the central conflict around a situation, the story opened itself up to so many possibilities. Consider how movies generally run for 120 minutes. That means the main characters need to be introduced. The main villain needs to be introduced. A conflict needs to be established. Then with the remaining time, they need to cram in a few action sequences and character moments. By snipping out a main villain, the movie easily had an extra 20 to 40 minutes they could devote to the actual story or character moments. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it really raised the quality of the overall movie.
Consider Back to the Future. There’s Biff, but he’s only in a few scenes to supply some dramatic tension. For the most part, Back to the Future’s central conflict is time itself. Marty and Doc’s primary goal isn’t to stop Biff. Their primary goal is to capture that 1.21 gigawats needed to return to 1985. By not having a main villain, there was more screen time left for character moments between Marty, Doc, George McFly and Lorrain.
Anyway, those are just a handful of things that go through my head when watching Star Trek IV. It’s my personal favorite in the series. My introduction to Star Trek was with a VHS copy of Star Trek III. I loved it. So when Star Trek IV hit theaters, I was really eager to see it. As fate might have it, I saw it on a plane ride to San Francisco. Even as a kid, it didn’t matter that it didn’t have fancy special effects or the Enterprise. I have to admit, that most of my love for Star Trek starts and ends with the NCC-1701. Anyway, it didn’t matter that Star Trek IV didn’t have all that eye candy. I still loved it as a 5 year old because it was and still is a good movie.