Sunday, March 4, 2012

Don't Make a Scene: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

The Set-Up: No excuses—I just love this scene.  For all the special-effects hi-jinks of "Star Trek" (series and film), the high-points of the films (or the low-points) usually occurred with crew by-play and interaction* and by the time of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home—I'm sure co-scenarist Nicholas Meyer was tempted to call it "The Long Voyage Home"—this collection of veteran character actors had been working together off-and on for some twenty years, despite the series exposure making it difficult for them to avoid type-casting and getting work.** It lent itself to some lovely stuff (when the writers and directors gave them a chance) to show off their talents, usually submerged, for timing and playing off each other's strengths and eccentricities.

And two of the best co-conspirators for this were Nicholas Meyer and Leonard Nimoy.  Meyer, the writer-director (despite what the official credits say) of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, had a keen outsider's perspective of what made "Trek" work, and, given his interests and past work (particularly the film Time After Time) knew he could mine satirical story-gold with the time-displaced visitors' exposure to modern times.  His section of the screenplay begins once the crew has travelled back in time and ends with their return (there's a definite shift in tone from his work and co-scenarist Harve Bennett's exposition-heavy book-ending sequences).  And Nimoy was the most analytical of the Trek actors, taking the bare-bones of the emotionless (supposedly) alien concept of the character Spock, and creating bits of business and arcana that made the character a fan-favorite.  Having cut his directing teeth on the previous film, he could relax from the studio-politics and technical issues new to a first-time director, and concentrate on the nuances of Meyer's concepts and conceits...and oversee his fellow actors' handling of them.

The results were some of Trek's best moments, funny and loose and firing on all thrusters, particularly this scene, between Admiral Kirk (the energetically eccentric William Shatner), Captain Spock (Nimoy) and cetologist Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks, a fine mercurial actress—check out the suspicious look she gives Spock in this scene).  At this point in the story, having returned-from-the dead ("You really have gone where no man has gone before" says Dr. McCoy, somewhat inaccurately), and whizzed through his Vulcan training, Spock is still learning human idiosyncrasies (particularly Kirk's) and is playing "catch up" with their penchant for "winging it" (particularly Kirk's—hence the "colorful metaphor" remark, which Spock has learned humans employ to make sure their words are being swearing).  As everybody from the future is learning the ropes, he's in good company, but "ancient" Earth is particularly mystifying for the "born-again" Vulcan.  Shatner's and Nimoy's timing and interplay here are exquisite, mined for wit and sub-text.

The Story: The disgraced Enterprise crew (the top tier of them, anyway) go back to Earth to face the music for their crimes of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and—isn't this a coincidence?—they arrive just in time to see the Earth being threatened by an alien vessel bent on robbing the planet of power, and inexplicably, dehydrating the planet, as if looking for something.  Analysis reveals the vessel communicating in a language, undecipherable to humans—whale, and specifically humpback song.  Still piloting a powered Klingon war-bird,*** the intrepid Enterprise crew (with a recently returned-from-the-dead Spock, still getting his space-legs) go back in time (1980's Earth) to try and capture a member of the species extinct in their time to save Earth (present-day): fish-out-of-water trying to save fish...well, aquatic mammals.


As Kirk is about to start another call on the communicator, an approaching vehicle makes him put the device away. He turns to see:

She reacts, keeps her eyes on them, and passes them slowly enough so that they look up to see her. As she leaves them behind, she purses her lips, stops the car, considers. Then she backs up.

KIRK: It's her -- from the Institute. If we play our cards right, we may learn when those whales are really leaving.

SPOCK: How will playing cards help?

GILLIAN: Well, if it isn't Robin Hood and Friar Tuck.

GILLIAN: Where are you fellahs heading?

KIRK: Back to San Francisco.

GILLIAN: Came all the way down here to jump in and swim with the kiddies, huh?

KIRK: There's really very little point in my trying to explain.

GILLIAN: I buy that. What about him?

KIRK: He's harmless. (inspiration) Back in the sixties he was part of the Free Speech movement at Berkeley.

KIRK: I think he did too much LDS.

GILLIAN: LDS?? Come on, Lemme give you a lift. I have a notorious weakness for hard luck cases -- that's why I work with whales.

KIRK: We don't want to be any trouble.
GILLIAN: You've already been that. C'mon.

She stops, pushes open the door. They get in, Spock in the middle staring straight ahead.

KIRK: Thank you very much.
GILLIAN: Don't mention it.

GILLIAN: And don't try anything, either. I got a tire iron right where I can get at it.

Kirk has no idea what she's talking about. Silence. Then, to Spock:

GILLIAN(continuing): So you were at Berkeley.
SPOCK: I was not.

Kirk rolls his eyes.

KIRK: Memory problems, too.
GILLIAN: Uh huh. What about you? Where you from?
KIRK: Iowa.
GILLIAN: A landlubber.

GILLIAN: Come on, what the hell were you boys really trying to do back there? Was it some kinda macho thing? If that's all, I'm gonna be real disappointed. I hate that macho type.

KIRK: Can I ask you something?
GILLIAN: Go ahead.
KIRK: What's going to happen when you release the whales?

Long pause. Gillian doesn't like considering this.

GILLIAN: They're gonna hafta take their chances.

KIRK: What does that mean, exactly? Take their chances.

GILLIAN: It means that they will be at risk from whale hunters -- same as the rest of the humpbacks. (to Spock) What did you mean when you said all that stuff back at the Institute about extinction?

SPOCK: I meant --
KIRK: He meant what you were saying on the tour: that if things keep on the way they're going, humpbacks will disappear forever.

GILLIAN: That's not what he said, farm boy. "Admiral, if we were to assume these whales are ours to do with as we please, we would be as guilty as those who caused -- past tense -- their extinction."


GILLIAN: I have a photographic memory. I see words.

A silence.

SPOCK (to Kirk): Are you sure it isn't time for a colorful metaphor?

GILLIAN: You're not one of those guys from the military, are you? Trying to teach whales to retrieve torpedoes, or some dipshit stuff like that?

KIRK: No, ma'am. No dipshit.

GILLIAN: Well, that's something. I'da let you off right here.

SPOCK (suddenly): Gracie is pregnant.

Gillian stops the car with a SQUEAL OF BRAKES.

GILLIAN: All right. Who are you? And don't jerk me around any more. I want to know how you know that.

KIRK: I can't tell you everything...

(she starts to interrupt)

KIRK:  Please, just -- let me finish. I can tell you that we're not in the military and that we intend no harm to the whales.

GILLIAN: Then --

KIRK: In fact, we may be able to help -- in ways that, frankly, you couldn't possibly imagine.

GILLIAN: Or believe, I'll bet.

 KIRK (he sinks back into his seat): Very likely.

KIRK: You're not exactly catching us at our best.
SPOCK: That much is certain.


KIRK: You know I've got a hunch we'd all be a lot happier talking over dinner. What do you say?

 Gillian considers this for a moment; she's got nothing better to do. Finally:

GILLIAN: You guys like Italian?

Kirk and Spock exchange glances, mystified.

KIRK (overlapping) Yes. 

KIRK: Yes.

KIRK: I love Italian.

KIRK: And so do you.


She looks at them. What a group.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Words by Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer (and Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes)
Pictures by Donald Peterman and Leonard Nimoy
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.

* Probably why there is such rancor these days—I've learned—between fans of "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" (Really?  Must we play into the fractious stereotype?).  We'll get into this at a later date.  It gives me a headache just thinking about it.

** In my studio career, I got to work with a couple "Trek" actors.  Here's my James Doohan story.  "The actor who played Scotty" was recording a commercial for some Paramount-theme park or other, which he did in a fine, professional manner, formal, welcoming and proudly excited.  Great "take."  There was a silence on the other end of the telephone "patch," where the director/producers were listening over the line.  "Ah...Jimmy" came the voice over the phone "Uh...that was fine...fine...but...could you do it as Scotty?" (Doohan was Canadian, but specialized in accents and voices of all types).  "Ye-eah," said Doohan, hesitantly.  "But...I'm saying 'This is James Doohan' and that's not my real voice and accent."  "Ye-ah," came the voice over the phone.  "Hell, Jimmy, could you just DO it?"  I watched Doohan through the glass in the booth, considering.  "Sure," he said, finally.  "I'll do it as Scotty."  "Great!"  We passed a look, and Doohan shrugged "what the hell..."  and did it.  It was a gig, and he was a trooper, even though he was James Doohan and not some Scottish engineer from the future that he played once on TV.   Doohan died in 2005 from pneumonia and Alzheimer's . Lang may yer lum reek!

*** I know, the Romulans have war-birds, but, remember, in Season III, the Klingons and Romulans formed a pact (for budget reasons, I suspect, as, apparently did the show....) where they traded military I really have to go into this?  I sound like such a geek.

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