A large object is flying through space, making a strange noise that seems to reverberate through the cosmos. A Federation light cruiser, named the Saratoga, has come across the object and tries to contact it.
On Earth, a recording of the final moments of the Enterprise is being played in the chambers of the Federation council. A Klingon ambassador calls for the arrest of Admiral Kirk for the murder of a Klingon crew and the creation of the Genesis Device. Sarek intervenes, countering that the Klingons murdered David Marcus and destroyed the USS Grissom. Rebuffed, the Klingon ambassador vows that conflict between the Federation and the Klingons will continue as long as Kirk is free.
On Vulcan, the crew refurbishes the Klingon Bird-of-Prey, and Spock attempts to reclaim his Vulcan heritage and memory. Acing his tests on history, philosophy, and quantum mechanics, he stumbles when the computer asks him how he feels. His mother, Amanda, points out that he must embrace his human side as well. The rest of the crew readies for departure, and Saavik has chosen to remain on Vulcan. The Klingon ship takes off for Earth.
The object has been disabling Federation and Klingon ships left and right. Eventually, the object reaches Earth and disables Spacedock. Settling into Earth orbit, the object, now named The Probe, has begun causing environmental calamities on the planet, causing torrential rainstorms. Even as Starfleet Admiral Cartwright directs efforts to shore up the Earth’s defenses for the human population, the President of the Federation sends a distress signal to warn all of the galaxy not to approach Earth.
Aboard the Bird of Prey, Uhura and Spock manage to filter the Probe’s voice and find that it resembles that of Humpback Whales, a species that is extinct in the 23rd Century. Kirk and Spock decide to head back to the 20th Century to find some, and sends a message to the Federation President. Sulu pilots the ship back to 20th Century using the Solar orbit breakaway method.
Upon arriving in the 20th Century, they cloak the ship and land in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the trip drained the dilithium crystals aboard the Klingon ship. Spock mentions that they can use photons from a nuclear fission reactor to recharge the ship. Uhura finds a set of humpback whales in the San Francisco Bay Area. The crew sets out from the ship, and find themselves in the middle of chaos.
The two get to the Cetacean Institute, which happens to house 2 very famous whales. While the lead researcher, Dr. Gillian Taylor, talks about the dangers that whales face at the hands of Man, Spock dives into the pool and mind melds with Gracie, the female whale. When discovered, Spock explains his intentions, and Dr. Taylor has the two of them thrown out. When they meet Dr. Taylor outside the Institute, she decides to talk more with them, because of something Spock said that she remembered. In the meantime, Chekov and Uhura find the reactor that can help them, and it happens to be aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise.
Later that night, Kirk and Gillian have dinner, and Dr. Taylor tells them that the whales will be released back into the wild, where they could be killed despite their best efforts. Kirk is trying his charm on Gillian, but is interrupted by a call from Scotty. Kirk tells Gillian the truth, and they eventually leave the pizza place. On the Enterprise, Chekov and Uhura beam in and make it to the reactor undetected. As they fill the collector, a radar operator notices that the power output is going down. The collector is filled, but the radiation has jammed the communications, and the transporter can only collect one person at a time.
Uhura beams out with the collector, and the communicator fails completely. Chekov is captured by the Marines and taken to the brig. He is then brought before the FBI, who is convinced that he is a Russian spy, but somehow mentally challenged. Chekov grabs the phaser and attempts to stun them, but the phaser malfunctions. Chekov escapes his captivity, but fell off of the ship at the edge after losing his balance.
The next morning, Gillian makes her way to the institute to begin another day at work, but finds that the whales had been taken during the night. She despairs for a moment, and then remembers her conversation with Kirk last night. She speeds towards the park.
Meanwhile, Sulu, having scammed a helicopter rental, takes a batch of materials from a company that Scotty had visited (and offered a new product to), and gets them to the landed bird of prey. Gillian arrives and starts yelling for Admiral Kirk. Kirk beams her aboard the ship, and she is given a tour. As Scotty and Sulu finish up the tank, Uhura calls Kirk and tells him that she has ascertained Chekov’s location. He had been taken to a hospital and his prognosis is dire. McCoy and Spock insist that they rescue Chekov.
Kirk, McCoy, and Gillian go to the hospital, and while they make their way to Chekov’s room, McCoy finds himself appalled at the lack of medical knowledge on display. He gives an old woman a cure for her kidney dialysis, and Gillian fakes major pain to gain access to the Operating Room that Chekov is in. McCoy argues with the attending physician on how to save Chekov, and Kirk uses his phaser to usher everyone out of the room. McCoy uses one of his devices on Chekov and they get him out of the room. When the police realize that something is wrong, they chase the four inside the hospital until they get to the elevator. The police make their way to the ground floor, but the elevator is empty. The crew had been beamed to the outside of the ship, where Kirk says goodbye to Gillian. Gillian, however, decides to stay with him and grabs him as he beams aboard the ship.
The bird of prey takes off and heads for the Alaskan coast. They track the whales and find a whaling ship hunting them down. After a just-in-time rescue, Scotty beams the whales into the tank, and the bird of prey goes to warp. Gillian talks about how useful she’ll be in a century that has no one with her expertise, but Kirk and Scotty wonder if they will even make it back. As the ship gets closer to the sun, the added weight has slowed the Klingon ship down considerably. Spock makes some changes to the equation, and they manage to get back to the 23rd Century.
The crew recovers just in time to find their ship disabled by the Probe, and the ship crash lands in San Francisco Bay. The crew abandons ship and Kirk rescues Scotty and Gillian and frees the whales. Soon the whales begin singing, and the Probe begins to talk with them. The conversation seems to be agreeable, as the Probe leaves on a reciprocating course. It passes Spacedock, and power is restored. The systems on Earth soon restore to working order and the crew enjoys some time swimming in the bay.
Hours later, in the Federation council, Kirk and the bridge crew are on trial for their earlier crimes. The Council has decided that because they saved the planet, the case was all but dismissed. The only person facing charges would be Kirk, and that would be for disobeying orders of the Starfleet Commander. For this, he is reduced in rank to Captain, and that he would be given command of a starship. The trial is adjourned, and Sarek reconciles with Spock over his choice of career.
In spacedock, the crew wonders what kind of ship they will be assigned to, when they are treated to something special: An Enterprise-class…Enterprise. Starfleet commissions NCC-1701-A for the crew as Kirk welcomes them home. Enterprise-A leaves spacedock, and Kirk orders the ship to warp speed.
Review and Analysis:
This is a story that seems to have it all. A feel-good plot and background (save the whales), likeable characters, comedy, and a happy ending. The music is light-hearted and plays like a standard dramatic score from a Hollywood movie. And audiences responded by making this movie the highest grossing Star Trek movie until J.J. Abrams’ reboot in 2009.
The problem, however, is that for all of its strengths and success, this is not really a Star Trek movie. Or, rather, this Star Trek movie is not a very good one.
Let’s Recycle the Plot, Shall We:
An alien object of unbelievable destructive power is on its way toward Earth.
OR is it:
On the planet Vulcan, Spock is attempting to embrace his Vulcan heritage at the expense of his human half. Unable to do so, he joins the crew of the Enterprise when he gets his clarion call.
OR is it:
Admiral Kirk, in the meantime, must gather his crew for an important mission.
OR is it:
Kirk’s ship launches, and the threat continues toward Earth, disabling Federation assets along the way.
OR is it:
A discovery is made along the way that links the Alien ship with something in Earth’s past.
OR is it:
Along the way, Kirk and Spock meet a woman who will have a connection with the key to their mission.
OR is it:
Having found the key and using the discovery to their advantage, the crew will communicate with the alien object. Having been satisfied with the answer given, the object will go along its merry way.
OR is it:
After a brief coda, Spock will embrace both his human and Vulcan sides, and Kirk will order the Enterprise to Warp Speed.
OR is it:
And then, one of the guest stars will show up again on Seventh Heaven:
If you hadn’t guessed by now, the plot and most of the structure of this movie is simply Star Trek: The Motion Picture, only with more time travel and more slapstick.
Speaking of Slapstick:
The most painful comedy comes at the expense of Chekov. I’m sure the pitch for the scene was, “Let’s have the Russian get caught aboard an American aircraft carrier, then have a hilarious interrogation scene that makes him look like a fool. It will be wonderful!”
Then, there is the whole hospital scene. DeForest Kelly manages to salvage this scene, giving an old woman a pill that regenerates her kidney. He also uses a device that repairs Chekov’s subdermal hematoma.
Note that this is only one of two scenes in all of the Star Trek movies that McCoy is able to use his medical knowledge to actually save a life. Both times, it was for Chekov. Usually, the person on Dr. McCoy’s normally expert care dies, but it’s mostly to advance a darker plot (Preston’s death in TWOK, Gorkon in TUC).
The Moral of Story?
Don’t kill off a species for sport or greed. You never know when its more powerful friends will show up and drown your planet in water.
And the Franchise Takes a Turn for the Worse:
Because of the box office success of The Voyage Home, the suits at Paramount Pictures all but decreed that every Star Trek movie will have intentional comedy from this point forward. David Loughran took this literally, and his script for The Final Frontier nearly wrecked the Star Trek franchise for good.
It would not, however, be the end of humor in Star Trek. There were the painful moments with Uhura, Chekov, and Kirk in The Undiscovered Country, every scene with Brent Spiner in Generations, the James Cromwell scenes in First Contact, again with Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn in Insurrection and coming to final reckoning, courtesy of Spiner, in Nemesis.
Uhura, the Glorified Extra:
Star Trek, despite its attempts to look forward into a more egalitarian future, has had numerous problems in trying to spotlight the only black woman on the show, Uhura. In the series, she was rarely seen off of the ship as part of a landing party, and most of her scenes either featured her as the ship’s telephone operator or singing in the recreation room. Of all of the cast members, Uhura’s expertise was the least needed when everything was on the line. In fact, the only time that Uhura gets a moment in the spotlight was during the Animated Series, and that was probably more from Lou Scheimer being at the helm of the series as opposed to anyone else.
The movies, however, return Uhura to the role of telephone operator. She gets consistently sidelined in the first three movies, and never really does much of anything but man the phones. It doesn’t change at all during The Voyage Home. She never gets a moment where she takes any initiative to do much of anything – and is the only main cast member in this predicament. While everyone else is given a moment where they use their main skills or periphery abilities to repair the ship or complete the mission, Uhura does not get such a moment. In fact, Nichelle does not get a scene where she takes the forefront in this movie…at all.
It becomes hard to like a franchise when you see a particular character, especially one that is not featured in science fiction very often, sidelined and ignored on a consistent basis. It is why a trope list like this one exists. It is also why this list of shows that have never featured Black Women is so very long. It is also why any faith in science fiction/space fantasy creators and fanbases dries up rather quickly when it comes to addressing this situation.
The Voyage Home is supposed to be the final part of the trilogy of Star Trek. Although it looked like there was going to be a new direction after The Wrath of Khan (DC Comics had a comic series that featured Kirk as the commander of Excelsior, Saavik as the new navigator, and Spock still dead), the status quo was restored halfway with The Search for Spock and completely re-established by the end this movie. Kirk is now a Captain, the crew is back together for duty, and the starship Enterprise (well, Enterprise-A) is back to the stars once more.
The plot itself was recycled from the first movie, and many of the situations are simply ported over. And, like the first movie, you’re left wondering not only what happened in the film, but what changed for the characters at the end of the film. Other than Spock, who else got to grow?
This movie could be considered Star Trek if it was in the hands of the Disney production staff circa 2006.