“Admiral, I am receiving whalesong”: Why The Voyage Home is the best Star Trek film

Originally posted to Medium on 2 May 2016. 

first thought of writing this for Earth Day, but alas — I didn’t quite make it. The moral of the story stands, though, because The Voyage Home— in which the crew of the Enterprise travel back in time to 1980s San Francisco to rescue Gracie and George, a pair of humpback whales — is perfect not only for Earth Day, but for every day, which is pretty much the moral of Earth Day in the first place.

For those unfamiliar with the film, a brief summary: Voyage is the third of a multi-film arc, following The Wrath of Kahn and The Search for Spock. At its start, with Spock found and the lot of them flying a stolen Klingon ship, the crew is headed for home. Meanwhile, an unidentifiable craft emitting an unintelligible signal is headed in the same direction, destroying every ship and space station in its path. As Earth comes under (seeming) attack, Spock is the first to identify the signal as an attempt at communication.

McCoy: Really? You think this is it’s way of saying ‘hi there’ to the people of the Earth?”

Spock: “There are other forms of intelligence on Earth. Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man.

In fact, the probe is transmitting the call of a humpback whale. The problem? There are no whales left on Earth to answer. The solution? Time travel! The back cover of my DVD reads, “Kirk and his crew bend time and space to save Earth and rediscover the meaning of friendship.” What’s not to love?

But let’s not be jokey. Let’s not say, “oh, it’s clumsy, it’s clichéd, it’s light and fluffy, but we love it anyway,” because it isn’t any of those things. It does precisely what it means to, delivering exactly what it promises and exactly what we need. In their 1986 review of Voyage, Siskel and Ebert commented,

“We’re seeing a family affair on the screen, a family with distinct characters who like each other and who we suspect at some point love each other… Because the characters are true, they can get away with saying lines that if thrown in another movie, you say‘ ‘oh that’s phoney.’”

Any compulsion we might feel to dismiss the story dwells in the fact that it is far easier to be jokey about science fiction that is gentle, kind, and hopeful. When I first read Kim Stanley Robin’s Pacific Edge, for instance, I thought it naïve: how could the worst problem facing the Californians of the future be romantic rivalry, zoning fights, and a baseball game? But as it turns out, I’m as happy to have been wrong about Kim Stanley Robinson as I am to be right about Voyage.

How many delightful moments can one movie have? Spock trespasses into an aquarium tank to mindmeld with Gracie and ask the whales’ permission to bring them forward in time (“Gracie is pregnant,” he later tells marine biologist Gillian) and nerve-pinches a music-blasting punk; Kirk befriends Gillian over pizza; Sula parks their cloaked ship, renamed the HMS Bounty, smack dab in the middle of Golden Gate Park; Scotty addresses a computer through its mouse; Uhura and Chekhov wander downtown San Francisco, politely asking where they might find any nearby nuclear vessels; McCoy supplies a hospitalized senior with a pill that grows her a new kidney. Newcomer Gillian (yes, played by the mum from Seventh Heaven) is also a delight, a committed conservationist whose first act upon reaching the 23rd century — since she insists on travelling with the rescued whales — is to enlist on a science vessel, since she has “300 years of catching up to do,” and who, in her own time, sought to protect the whales’ welfare, knowing that captivity was not automatically the best option:

Gillian: My whales? Where could you take them where they’d be safe?
Kirk: It’s not so much a matter of a place as of time.
Gillian: The time would have to be right now.
Kirk: Why right now?
Gillian: Let’s just say that no humpback born in captivity has ever survived. …The problem is that they won’t be that much safer at sea because of all the hunting this time of year.

Later, when she grills Kirk and Spock on their motivations for trespassing, she asks, “It wasn’t some kind of macho thing, was it? Because if that’s all, I’ll be real disappointed. I really hate that macho stuff.”

Me too, Gillian. Me too!

This is the beauty of Voyage — it doesn’t go in for “that macho stuff.” Unlike the recent reboot, of which I am still very fond, there is no Kirk creeping on various women as they undress, no attribution of McCoy’s nickname to a mean ex-wife instead of his profession, no dismissal of Christine Chapel as a forgettable hook-up. There is no anxious hyper-masculinity in old Star Trek, and it’s not because they have nothing to prove but because they know they don’t need to.

When Kirk and Spock first tour the aquarium where the whales are being kept, Gillian gives a brief history of whaling, much to the dismay of the two time-travellers:

Spock: To hunt a species to extinction is not logical.
Gillian: Whoever said the human race was logical?

There’s oodles of science fiction predicated on the assumption that the human race will, at some point, pass the point of no return with the planet, whether through war or resource depletion or technocracy or something else or some combination therein. Even among the most cheerful of these (for a relatively recent example, take WALL-E), the common denominator remains the abandonment of a dying planet. Humanity will survive, these stories suggest, but only as outward-seeking settlers or refugees, with varying degrees of attention paid to the people (and otherwise!) left behind. The underlying theme is one of escape and the underlying tone one of resignation, sometimes even hurriedly, as though we are too eager to get on to the next planet, the next horizon.

This planet’s already dead, why save it?

The next world will be better, so who cares about this one?

Remember Firefly’s opening monologue? “Here’s how it is: The Earth got used up, so we moved out and terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths.”

But Voyage, for all its seeming lightness, knows that this planet is the only one we’ve got. The film has no explicit villain, not even the whalers who almost stop Gracie and George’s escape — there’s only us.

Weknow that film and television impact the world we create for ourselves. That’s why Google markets devices under the Nexusbrand, why Whoopi Goldberg once attributed her interest in acting to seeing Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek (and why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked Nichols to stay on the show), why Disney pretends Tibet doesn’t exist for the sake of its Chinese box office, why the coordinators of NASA’s Twitter account converse with William Shatner, etc.— And so it should come as no surprise that, if the bulk of the media we consume are pieces where we damage the planet beyond recognition,we approach our current damaging-the-planet with a sense of laissez-faire resignation, and that even our more hopeful pieces (say, Fury Road, which remains a flawless treasure) are about surviving the worst, not preventing it.

We all read 1984, we all read The Road, we are all glued to the tube for The Walking Dead. We’re pretty sure we know how this story ends.


Stories like Voyage say no.

Even new Star Trek — of which, as I said, I am fond, despite its trampling of both Kirk’s better traits and the whole of Dr. Carol Marcus — predicates itself on magical escape from inevitable tragedy. In J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek, time travel is a do-over, a reboot, an erasure — It’s an escape hatch from the worst-case scenario. But in Voyage, time travel is not an escape: humans still drive the humpback whale to extinction. Gracie and George survive, but everything else remains the same. The crew doesn’t change their past, only their future. We still have to live with ourselves. We still have to live with the planet. We still have to care.

Wenever find out why the probe called out to humpbacks. Was it testing humanity’s ability to care for other species? Was it wondering why billions of tiny flesh lumps had taken over the whales’ planet? Was it simply looking to catch up with its whale-friends? (*turns planet upside down* *shakes it* WHERE ARE YOU WHALE-FRIENDS!?). Instead, there’s only joy: the crew soaked in rain and seawater, friends reunited, a marine biologist on the ride of her life — and whalesong.

At its best, Star Trek embodies the spirit of imagination that makes it possible for us to make ourselves better, and Voyage is some of the best of it. Whether friendship or the planet, this is all there is. Don’t mess it up.

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