Star Trek isn’t really known as a comedy, and on its face, neither is The Voyage Home. It’s about the Earth being threatened by mysterious aliens, and Kirk discovering the only hope of communicating with them is via humpback whales, which are long since extinct. But somehow, combining the two results in a fish (whale?)-out-of-water comedy that’s one of Star Trek’s best films.
Released in 1986, the Leonard Nimoy-directed The Voyage Home is primarily focused on bringing Kirk, Spock, and the rest back to the present in order to locate the aforementioned whales. But the movie’s real mission to have the Enterprise crew interact, deal with, and basically be boggled by humanity circa 1986. There’s no real villain to speak of, as all the conflict derives from the crew’s attempts to interact with humans of the past and their “extremely primitive and paranoid culture.”
While The Voyage Home mostly sticks with Kirk and Spock, it also makes sure everyone gets a moment to shine: Scotty jovially typing out the formula for transparent aluminum on an old-timey computer keyboard (“How quaint!”); Chekhov, busted poking around a nuclear wessel, befuddling the FBI with his Russian accent and Starfleet credentials. Every scene in which a Star Trek character must interact with a contemporary Earth person offers the chance for some good-natured 23rd-century confusion. Even Kirk, who acts like he knows more than everyone else all the time, has some slip-ups, wondering if $100 is a lot of money, and confusing “LSD” and “LDS.”
One of the funniest sequences in the whole movie is when Kirk, Bones, and Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks)—a whale expert who gets caught up in their shenanigans—infiltrate a hospital to save the injured Chekhov. Naturally, this calls for disguises:
And leads to some absolutely golden Bones moments, thanks to his utter disdain for the medical techniques he sees being used. (“What is this, the Dark Ages?”)
But the crowning jewel of The Voyage Home is obviously this scene, in which Spock deploys the Vulcan nerve pinch on a rowdy young ruffian.
The cartoonishly sneering punk—a total cliche of 1980s movies—was played by a crew member named Kirk Thatcher, who also wrote the song that’s blasting from his character’s boom box. (Though he’s had an extensive career behind the show-biz scenes since then, he told Wired in a recent interview that “It’s nice to be remembered... I could win the Nobel Peace Prize, and my gravestone would still say, ‘Star Trek IV: Punk on the Bus.’”) It’s so goddamn satisfying seeing Spock, who’s even more out of step with everything than usual throughout The Voyage Home, pull his signature move at the exact right moment—and one-up Kirk in the process.
It’s scenes like that which make The Voyage Home one of Star Trek’s most loved films (and a welcome change-of-pace after the gravity of The Wrath of Khan and... whatever The Search for Spock was). But it combines its laughs with a strong environmental message, not to mention some stirring themes about loyalty and friendship. That means there’s plenty of depth to the story, too... though you’re forgiven if all you remember is Spock’s headband, or Kirk’s horrified pantomime when the Vulcan dives into a whale tank for some interspecies mind-melding.