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By Mike Rickard

When it comes to the classic Trek films, fans often say the even-numbered films are good (Star Trek II, IV, and VI) while the odd films (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, III, and V) are hit and miss. Like all things Trek, fans have a lot of opinions (and even before the Internet, they were vocal about them) on which film is the best. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is often ranked by Trekkers as their favorite while Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home has lots of supporters, both from fans and people who normally didn't watch Trek. The question is, which film best exemplifies the things that made Trek so memorable?

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
is often praised as the film that shows everything great about Trek. You have the fantastic character dynamic between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy that made the television show such a classic, some soft science-fiction elements (the Genesis Device), a number of exciting and gorgeous outer space sequences (including the battle in the Mutara Nebula), a compelling villain (Khan), a fantastic score, and an exploration of the human condition (in this case, aging and our past revisiting us, both with good and disastrous results). Factor in some terrific special effects and a wonderful score and you have an all-around great film.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
features much of the same but on a much lighter note (without reducing the characters to parodies). This film is more character driven than II because it involves the primary and secondary characters much more than II. Although there are no space battles, there is still beautiful imagery in space (and on Earth), along with an interesting science fiction story of saving the future by saving something in the past. Much of the film is set in contemporary times (circa 1986), giving new viewers some familiarity as well as both a fun of a fish out of water story, and a fish (or in this case, a mammal) in water story.

Star Trek IV
was the most successful classic Trek film at the box office (I'm not counting the new version) but that alone doesn't make it the best. What it did do was impress me with the wide demographic it brought in. IV was so popular that not only did friends want to see it, but my parents and grandparents wanted to see it. It wasn't a case of humoring me by taking me to see it, it was a real interest in the film. I noticed this with the theater's audience as there were many people I didn't normally see at Trek films. The reason? Star Trek IV  was a compelling story with lots of humor.

Time travel has produced some of the series' best episodes. There's the legendary "City on the Edge of Forever", which usually ranks at #1 on "Best of Lists" along with Tomorrow is Yesterday and Assignment: Earth. Seeing the characters from the 23rd century interact with their less civilized ancestors has produced good stories, sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant. Star Trek IV tugs at the heartstrings with its message of our duty to protect those around us (in this case, humpback whales) and incorporates humor into the story, delivering a message subtly.

You've probably heard the story that Eddie Murphy was discussed as appearing in Star Trek IV. Murphy, a huge Trek fan, was interested in appearing in Star Trek but the powers at be at Paramount Pictures didn't want to combine their two biggest franchises when they could squeeze two films out of Trek and a Murphy vehicle. Whether this was a good thing or a bad thing we'll never know. Richard Pryor appeared in Superman III and devastated that franchise. One can only imagine whether the writers have been able to incorporate Murphy without turning the film into an Eddie Murphy vehicle?

Instead, Murphy's character became Dr. Gillian Taylor and we got actress Catherine Hicks, who served as a strong female character and a love interest for Captain Kirk. Rumor has it that the Shat wanted a love interest, feeling he hadn't had one in the first three films. I'm not sure how much truth there is to this as he was reunited with Carol Marcus in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Whatever the purpose, Hicks' role as Dr. Gillian Taylor added another layer of humor and reinforced Trek's message of equality among men and women.

Director Leonard Nimoy really shines in this one. He did a good job in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock but he excels here, both in front of the camera as a scatterbrained Spock trying to get his bearings after returning from the dead in the previous film, and behind the camera as a director who brings out the best in all the parties involved. The script is one that appeals to every fan of Trek because it involves all the major and minor characters. Kirk and Spock are the main players but secondary characters Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov have meaty roles here, arguably their biggest in any of the Trek films. McCoy, one of the three major characters has great interactions with Spock as well as an amusing storyline with Mr. Scott where they try to get an experimental material without changing the timeline (Temporal Prime Directive?).

Like any good time travel story, the interactions between the time displaced characters and their time period's residents are a big part of the story. Whether it's James T. Kirk battling the menace of road rage "Double dumb-ass on you," Mr. Spock's observation of colorful metaphors, Russian Chekov trying to find nuclear vessels (or "wessels" in his words) during the Cold War, or Kirk's painfully obvious failure to blend in (painfully obvious to everyone but him), the film provides a lot of laughs and some social commentary, two of Trek's essential elements.

Was Star Trek IV a one-time success story in drawing in such a large and diverse audience or did it give the franchise a chance to draw in a new audience? Regrettably, we'll never know as director William Shatner's take on Trek, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was nowhere near as successful as IV. Shatner's film had a troubled production due to the writer's strike, casting problems, and difficulties finding a good special effects studio to work with. Still, the film deserves its brickbats for the questionable introduction of Spock's brother and comedic elements that undermined its secondary characters (do we need to mention the Uhura/Scotty romance?). Star Trek V alienated some Star Trek fans and failed to bring in the new audience that enjoyed Star Trek IV's so much. It would have been interesting to see what direction Nimoy would have taken. Obviously, the characters couldn't do another time travel story but it wasn't just the time travel story that made IV so good; it was the creative freedom Paramount gave Nimoy after Star Trek III. If Nimoy told a story that incorporated Trek's essential elements and utilized all its characters as well as he did in III and IV, I think he could have continued his success.

Barring access to the Guardian of Forever, we'll never know. Instead, we can only look back and observe what was so good about Star Trek II and IV. They're both excellent films. I'd go further and say they're both great films, not just Star Trek films. IV's ability to draw in a bigger audience and please the core audience simultaneously makes it the better film.

The Voyage Home's gave the entire crew a role in the story. It's good to see Uhura do more than say "Hailing frequencies open."
Once again, time travel makes for an engaging story.
Two fish out of water trying to save two mammals in water.
Can't picture Eddie Murphy jumping into Captain Kirk's arms. Eddie Murphy expressed interest in starring in Star Trek IV. When that fell through, his character became the female scientist.
The interaction between Scotty and Dr. McCoy was another example of how Star Trek IV utilized each character to make an entertaining story.
Star Trek IV also included fan favorite characters such as Ambassador Sarek.