I missed the actual anniversary date this weekend (stupid new house with no Internet) but Star Trek IV just turned 25 years old. You know, the one the whales. I love Star Trek as a whole and even though IV isn’t my favorite (KHAAAAN, motherfuckers, now and forever), this one means a lot to me for a number of reasons.
First, I remember visiting the Paramount lot back in the eighties thanks to my father’s friendship with Leonard Maltin (more specifically, Dad knew Leonard’s wife from college). On this occasion we were going to see the set of Entertainment Tonight, and I remember when we parked our car we were told to leave the keys on the floor because they might need to move it to make room in the lot for filming. As we walked towards the sound stages I saw a giant model which was unmistakably a Bird-of-Prey. Even at that age I was a total Trekkie, so I asked what that was for. The escort told us “Oh that, they’re filming Star Trek IV.”
This blew my mind. I fired back with a fast “They’re making another one?” Not out of anger, but (pleasantly surprised) disbelief. Don’t forget, Star Trek III featured the destruction of the USS Enterprise and, while it did bring Spock back to life, it wasn’t the kind of movie that screamed “Wait ‘till you see what happens next, you guys!” Plus, it wasn’t nearly as well-received as Star Trek II.
IV turned all that around and presumably laid the groundwork for the infamous even/odd perception of the quality of Star Trek films. IV was incredibly fun, a romp that felt nothing like any previous Star Trek adventure on either the big or small screen. There’s no real villain. Nobody dies, and while there is a threat (a very large one, in fact) Kirk and crew spend most of the film solving smaller, less dangerous problems before actually saving the Earth in the final act.
More than anything in the film itself, though, Star Trek IV is the reason we’re still talking about Star Trek today. One year after IV was a smash box-office hit, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted on television. Granted, I’m sure the wheels were already turning before IV premiered, but if that film flops there’s no way we get an entirely new series starring six unknown actors plus Wil Wheaton and LeVar Burton. And as good as the original series and its films were, without The Next Generation there’s a lot fewer people who grow up watching Star Trek and falling in love with its vision of the future.
Finally, on a personal note, IV was far and away my father’s favorite Star Trek movie. I’m sure he brought it up every time we found ourselves in San Francisco, and with only the tiniest of justification he would happily imitate Chekov’s clueless interrogation of passing pedestrians “Can you direct us to the naval base in Alameda? It’s where they keep the nuclear wessels.” Personally, I was much more drawn to Kirk’s retort to the notion that he is from outer space: “No, I’m from Iowa. I only work in outer space.”
So thank you, Star Trek IV, for being so wildly goofy and light-hearted that the entire franchise got a second jolt. It’s not the best sci-fi film around but dammit, it’s the best fourth movie in any film series, ever.