Whales of Star Trek

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The time, it must be traveled. Little side note: Because Star Trek is so well-known, I won’t be including the names of the principal cast. Supporting actors are a different story, though.


Although I like Star Trek, I’m not a Trekkie by any stretch of the imagination. Or maybe I am–I’ve seen most of the movies, and have been known to binge on The Next Generation. I will say, however, that I won’t be learning Klingon or going to conventions, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is my favorite of the original six films, and maybe of any Trek movie. It’s a departure from the others, not only because of the time travel angle, but because it captures familiar places from my childhood, just the way I remember them.

The film opens with a Starfleet patrol ship, and they come upon what appears to be a cylindrical probe, with some kind of ball suspended from it and emitting otherworldly sounds.

Then we cut to Starfleet Headquarters, where one Admiral Kirk is on trial for his actions in The Search For Spock. The Klingon prosecutor is trying to make Kirk out as a murderer, when Spock’s dad, Sarek (Mark Lenard) steps forward and all but accuses the Klingons of committing murder themselves.

Putting Spock through his paces.

While this is happening, the crew of the erstwhile Starship Enterprise are with Spock on the planet Vulcan, where Spock is recouping after his ordeal in the last film. He’s trying to recover his memory, so he stands in front of a computer that shoots rapid-fire questions at him from different monitors all at once, covering science, literature, philosophy, math, and so on. Spock answers all the questions easily, but when the computer asks him, “How do you feel?” he’s stumped. Feelings are not Vulcan, but since Spock is half human, he has to come to terms with that side of himself.

The crew of the Enterprise has to head back home in the Klingon Bird-of-Prey vessel they acquired in the last film (and which Mr. Scott has christened the HMS Bounty). They know there’s probably not a warm welcome waiting for them, but it’s time to face the music. Even though he doesn’t have to, Spock rejoins the crew because he feels it’s his duty.

Take us home, Mr. Sulu.

All this is put on the back burner, however, when they find out about the mysterious probe, which is getting closer to Earth. Computers are going haywire, the waters of San Francisco Bay are going nuts, and power is bottoming out. The President of the United Federation of Planets decides to send out a distress call to all Starfleet ships to stay away from Earth.

The crew of the Enterprise being who they are, though, they go into problem-solving mode. Spock notes that the probe doesn’t appear to be hostile. Its signals were being sent to Earth’s oceans, so he has Uhura change the pitch of the sounds from the probe to how they would sound underwater. What she comes up with is what we know as being humpback whale song, and Spock quickly confirms it by going through the ship’s ocean life database. It tells him they’ve been extinct since the twenty-first century (!).

DOS is still a thing, even in the 23rd century. 😉

So the conclusion to be drawn from this is that the probe is looking for humpback whales, and since it’s not finding them, its signals are vaporizing Earth’s oceans and atmosphere. The only plan that the Enterprise crew can see is to go back in time when there were still humpback whales, and transport them into the present day. The whales answer the probe, which will then presumably leave.


So what time will the Enterprise travel to? Why 1986, of course, and in a rickety Klingon vessel this is no easy feat. They have to use the sun’s trajectory to propel them back to their desired year. Don’t ask how, because the film doesn’t really say. The point is that they get it done, and set the Bounty down in Golden Gate Park. Cloaking device enabled, of course. As the crew disembarks, Kirk whimsically tells them, “Everybody remember where we parked!”

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in the 23rd century anymore.

Twentieth-century San Francisco is a strange place, even to those who aren’t from the twenty-third century. There are cussing cab drivers, buses that only take exact change, and punk rockers who blast their boom boxes. Even so, the Enterprise crew feels like they stick out. “Break up,” Kirk says when he sees them standing in a clump on the sidewalk. “You look like a cadet revue.”

After pawning his antique glasses for some cash, everyone gets twenty dollars and splits up to do various tasks. Now, it’s not only a matter of finding two humpbacks, but Mr. Scott and Dr. McCoy have to build a tank for them. Plus, time traveling was a little hard on the Klingon Khyber crystals, so Uhura and Chekov have to obtain some nuclear power with which to repair them. Meanwhile, Mr. Sulu has to find a way to get the tank into the Bounty.

Um, Mr. Scott?

Luckily, these tasks don’t require a lot of derring-do. Mr. Scott and Dr. McCoy find a company called Plexicorp, which not only has the type of materials they need, but after a little hustle, they agree to supply them for free in exchange for some twenty-third century construction secrets. Uhura and Chekov find out there nuclear ships in Alameda, or “nuclear wessels” in Chekov’s words, and start asking people on the street how to get there. Mr. Sulu makes friends with a helicopter pilot and they exchange trade secrets.

Meanwhile, Kirk and Spock wonder how they’ll ever find humpback whales until they see a bus billboard advertising the Cetacean Institute in Sausalito. Okeydokey. Our intrepid heroes take a bus out there and join a tour, where a pretty scientist, Gillian (Catherine Hicks) goes into great detail about the whaling industry, and then she introduces the group to two humpbacks, George and Gracie. The aquarium has built a special tank at the rear of the Institute, and Spock being Spock, he dives in to do a mind meld with them.

Thar she blows.

Gillian isn’t thrilled about a strange guy swimming with her whales, though, and she makes them leave. However, she takes sympathy on them later and gives them a ride back to San Francisco. When she presses them about why Spock was swimming with the whales, Spock remarks dryly that he was attempting to communicate, and then he drops the real bomb: Gracie is pregnant.

Kirk tries to pass Spock off as being a holdover from UC Berkeley’s Free Speech movement. Too much LDS (Snicker). Kirk doesn’t leave poor Gillian hanging, though, and long story short, he lets her in on the plan over dinner. She’s skeptical, of course, but one of the things that sways her is when she hears that George and Gracie would be safe from whalers.

Ah, yes–nothing like the good old days.

This movie makes so much subtle commentary about the eighties and Bay Area culture, and it’s got a ton of howlers, especially thirty years on. The day’s newspaper headline reads, “Nuclear Talks Stalled.” A few of the characters stop to look at a giant Yellow Pages billboard in Chinatown. And just in case we’ve missed the very subtle product placement, Chekov and Uhura check the Yellow Pages at a phone booth when they start looking for nuclear vessels. And when they do finally get to Alameda, the first carrier they come upon is called the Enterprise. Heh. Nice bit of navel-gazing, guys. Then there’s Kirk’s sudden use of profanity, called “colorful metaphors,” by Spock, who tries and fails to work them into his own vocabulary. Dr. McCoy, who shudders at 1986 medical procedures, sums it up best: “It’s a miracle these people got out of the twentieth century.”

Watching The Voyage Home again as an adult, I do see a few howlers of a different kind as well. First of all, it’s not possible to walk from Sausalito to San Francisco. Well, it is, but it’s pretty far. Second, the scenario of making the whales unextinct is a nice idea and all, but in order to successfully repopulate a species, there need to be more than two animals involved. Who knows, maybe the filmmakers didn’t take the plight of the cheetah into account. Thirdly, why didn’t anyone report Chekov to the FBI? It’s the tail end of the Cold War, and he’s a Russian who’s asking directions to Alameda and the “nuclear wessels.” You would think at least the cop who was standing there while they were talking to people would have his antennae up.

Kirk and Spock on Kearney Street.

Then again, it’s Just A Movie.

In the interest of full disclosure, the shooting locations weren’t all in San Francisco, Sausalito, and Alameda. The scene where the Bounty lands was actually filmed at Will Rogers State Park, which looks nothing like Golden Gate. It’s too flat, for one thing. And the nuclear “wessels” weren’t in Alameda, but in Coronado. My guess is that since Alameda still had a very active Naval presence in 1986, it’s likely that the filmmakers weren’t allowed to use it as a location. Nowadays, they certainly could (Mythbusters did it all the time), but it might be a little too post-apocalyptic looking.

This is what the back of the Monteray Bay Aquarium really looks like. (TripAdvisor)

Also, the Cetacean Institute was Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was only two years old at the time the film was made. My husband and I asked a volunteer there several years ago about the filming of Star Trek and whether or not they built a whale tank, and she rather testily replied that she didn’t know. I’ve since figured out that the shots of the tank were composites, so no thanks to Testy Volunteer Woman, the mystery has been solved.

In a way, this film really is time travel. It shows the East Bay and Monterey exactly as they were in the late-eighties, and that part of it makes me feel ten again. It’s also a great out-of-the-box take on the Star Trek franchise.

For more time travel, please visit Ruth and Rich. Hope you enjoyed reading, and see you tomorrow!

This film is available on DVD from Amazon.

17 thoughts on “Whales of Star Trek

  1. Don’t think I’ve ever read about this from the perspective of a SF native before, and as a Trekkie, I’ve seen and read much about VOYAGE, so thanks for choosing this.

    I’ve only been to SF once, and that was for three days, so I’ll take your word about the distance from Sausalito to SF. I always figured they cloned the whales once they got back; they have that technology. As for no one making a bigger deal about Chekov, I admit that’s a good point.

    I was gonna say since this is a Trek post, you probably got me confused with VOYAGER’s Tim Russ, but since you said you’re not a Trekkie you probably wouldn’t get it, so I’ll just hope you correct my name as soon as you can. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, I apologize, Rich! I’ve been writing so much lately my brain is a wee bit fried. Sorry.

      And thank you–glad you enjoyed it. Glad to give a new angle on something familiar, too. Nice to meet you. 🙂


  2. This “out of the box” choice stands out among the Trek movies in a very good way. I enjoyed reading about your city in connection to Voyage Home. The first time I saw it, I kept expecting some Cold War stuff with Chekov as well. In my mind, it must have been planned, but dropped. And we want outtakes!

    PS: Love your title!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Patricia! Well, I never lived in SF, but I went there a lot as a kid because we lived right outside of it. It’s one of those places Bay Area people call their city, but most people don’t want to live there, lol. And I agree with you about outtakes–I’m sure they were hilarious!


  3. Rebecca, you had me laughing all the way through your fab review. (I nearly spewed my tea at “nuclear wessels”.) It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this film, but your witty insights brought it all back.

    It’s interesting to read your take on this film, especially since you’re so familiar with the San Francisco area.

    Thanks for joining us, and for the reminder of how much fun this film can be – intentional or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am a fan of the original Star Trek and watched every movie when it came to thew theater. I understand that this one is generally ranked as the best TOS movie on many Trek fans lists. However, I rank it quite a bit lower. And it is all because of that subtext of “Save the Whales”. I imagine Roddenbury actual loved it, knowing his ideological outlook, and although I am not pro kill the whales or anything of the sort, I just found the “in your face” subtext to be a little annoying. But at least I like it better than Star Trek:The Final Frontier… Still, I enjoyed reading your take on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, and I hear you, Quiggy. The environmental thing was my only beef with the movie, too–it had all the subtlety of the Vegas Strip. After a while it’s like, ‘Okay, guys, we get it.” And I’m not pro-whaling, either. Oh well. 🙂


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