Saturday, March 27, 2004

There is the problem of money, leading to the first classic sight gag, Kirk and Spock getting on the bus, the bus door closing, a beat and a siren sounding, the bus door swishes open, Kirk and Spock get out, looking mildly shocked. "What does it mean," Spock says, who expects to not understand all human customs, "exact change?" But this is one Kirk can't fathom either. As he shrugs and pulls Spock along, the traffic gives them an "oooga" raspberries. This was an especially funny scene at the time, because the concept of buses, etc. demanding exact change was relatively new.

And of course, the problem of communication is inherent in their situation. Spock's problems with "colorful metaphors" suggests the gag of foreigners who mangle English, though this alien of space and time happens to speak perfect English, even if he's still a bit too literal. It's the natives who are mangling it.

Then there's Pavel Chekov, with the Cold War still in force, asking a police officer and random passersby where he can find "the nuclear wessels." (The scene is capped by a woman, responding to Chekov's question about the nuclear wessels in Alameda, who says, "Oh, I don't think I know the answer to that---I think it's across the bay, in Alameda." It's Walter Koenig's reaction that makes this work, but it's a funny line. Nimoy talks about this as a happy accident with an extra, but Nichelle Nichols tells a different story: of a crafty actress who spoke in several takes so she could get paid and in the union, which thanks to Nichelle's knowledge of SAG regulations, she did.)

Although the Star Trek stars had done some situational humor as well as humorous character byplay before, they had never done it so much or so well. Perhaps it was a product of being older, sure of themselves and relaxed as actors, especially with the relative luxury of time in a feature film, along with the script and Nimoy's direction. William Shatner was perhaps the key, and he may have found how to imbue the Kirk character with humor in his brief self-parody in "Airplane II," which he could then integrate in playing the "real" Kirk. In any event, he expressed how it worked for the Star Trek cast so well that it's worth quoting at length:

"We discovered something in Star Trek IV that we hadn't pinpointed in any of the other movies," Shatner said (as quoted in 'Great Birds of the Galaxy') "and it just shows how the obvious escapes you. There is a texture to the best Star Trek that verges on tongue-in-cheek, but isn't. There's a line that we all have to walk that is reality. It's as though the characters within the play have a great deal of joy about themselves, a joy of living. That energy, that 'joie de vivre' about the characters seems to be tongue-in-cheek but isn't, because you play it with the reality you would in a kitchen-sink drama written for today's life."

Precisely this approach would become central to this and the remaining two Star Trek films with this cast, and even in Shatner's performance in "Generations." In this film they discover that comedy works when it is a believable part of the relationships and even strengthens the bonds of affection we've come to expect, and that it doesn't interfere with the basic mission or situation of jeopardy. In other words, the characters can say funny things, they can mock the 20th century and even apply some irony to their own time, but they still have to get the whales, bring them back to the 23rd century, and save the earth from the alien probe's probing.

On the side of one of those buses, Kirk had seen a panel advertisement for the Cetacean Institute and their two humpback whales, George and Gracie. The crew splits into pairs to perform tasks crucial to their mission, in what Nicholas Meyer called a scavenger hunt. Oddly enough (since this is not a job skill that has been called upon since), Meyer had already explored some comedic "fish out of water" experiences of a time traveler in contemporary San Francisco in the classic"Time After Time"(1979) so he was able to use a few leftover ideas, especially one he'd tried to film but couldn't get quite right---a version of the punk with the boom box scene, which had been inspired by a personal experience.

Of course, many people had similar experiences in the boombox heyday (now, even in the Ipod era, we deal with entire cars that function as boom-boxes), and one of them was Leonard Nimoy, who once found himself wishing he actually could perform the Vulcan neck pinch. Meyer and Nimoy both claim credit for the classic scene in this film (though a key idea and the song that's blaring were contributed by Kirk Thatcher, an associate producer who has since written and directed but is still known for this scene) but it's Nimoy the actor who got the satisfaction of silencing the racket.

However, it's worth mentioning that punk music of the 1980s was a purposely abrasive response to the same critique of contemporary society as Star Trek makes in this film. Kirk Thatcher's lyric (which, he says, attempts to strip the already stripped-down punk ethos to its basics) suggests that things are so bad that it's time to push the nuclear button: "we'd be better off dead." The message to the older generations that screwed up the planet is simply: "I hate you. I berate you."

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