There is an alternate universe somewhere, where in addition to all the nice people glowering from behind their dark goatee beards, the principle guest star in Star Trek IV was Eddie Murphy.


It seems insane, but after the dour Search for Spock, Paramount was keen to make the fourth instalment a little lighter in tone and a little easier for newbies to get on board with. Murphy had made a boat-load of money for Paramount in Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places and Superman III had done well with comedian Richard Pryor only a couple of years before. With the contemporary San Francisco setting which Nimoy and Harve Bennett were considering, Murphy would work well. No?

Eddie Murphy turned them down.

Who can say how much money the Star Trek IV: The Eddie Murphy Show would have made, or how well-received it might have been by fans? In our universe, despite (or maybe because of) sitting very oddly in the rest of the canon, it was the highest regarded since Khan, and remained so probably until First Contact, or possibly forever. It also made more money than Khan, in fact its box office haul wasn’t bettered until First Contact, ten years later.

And yet, it isn’t really a Star Trek film at all.

It kinda-sorta looks like a Star Trek film for the first twenty minutes or so, picking up where III left off (again, for no particular reason, except that that seems to be the form now), with the ramshackle crew of the Enterprise limping home in their stolen Klingon ship to face the music. But – whaddyaknow! – another Mysterious Alien Probe is attacking Earth and playing whale song at it. Whales having long gone extinct in the 23rd century, Kirk announces that this beaten up and very unfamiliar ship is capable of time travel (who knew it was so easy?) and they nip back to 1986 to scoop some up.

When they arrive in then-contemporary San Francisco, the movie’s tone changes completely. The epic space opera of the previous two movies gives way to a breezy, eighties whale-out-of-water comedy, with the Eddie Murphy role blandly but ably fulfilled by Catherine Hicks as whale-ologist Gillian Taylor. The huge success of this very enjoyable movie is to avoid the baggage of Treks past, and to treat the ensemble cast as an ensemble, instead of three lead guys and a bunch of red shirts.

Kirk splits his crew up so he and Spock go find the whales; Scottie, McCoy and Sulu build a tank to put them in; and Uhuru and Chekhov go and find a nuclear reactor so… so Chekhov can say “nook-ular wessels” I think. Everyone seizes the opportunity to have fun with these parts, and William Shatner seems far more comfortable playing this easy going time traveller, even with his rival Nimoy behind the camera once more. Their crackerjack timing in this little exchange is just delightful.

If I have a criticism, it’s when all the other characters are getting such good scenes to play, Spock seems a little absent. Possibly this is due to Nimoy’s duties behind the camera, possibly it’s that dying and being resurrected just takes it out of even the hardiest half-Vulcan, but he seems a shadow of his former self for much of the movie.

Needless to say, in its cheerful what-the-hell way, returning to the future presents no new problems and the whales are presented to the space probe which obediently buggers off and leaves our heroes to it. They are rewarded with a spanking new Enterprise-A, Kirk is demoted back to Captain where he belongs and we have come full circle.

What a perfect place to stop.

Facts and figures

Released: 26 November 1986
Budget: $21m
Box office: $133m
Writers: Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer (plus Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes who mainly worked on the Eddie Murphy version)
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Producer: Harve Bennett