The Behind-the-Scenes Battle Over Subtitles for ‘The Voyage Home’

The Probe from “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”

Paramount The Probe from “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”

According to most sources, the very first science fiction novel was Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” which debuted in 1819. This story became the basis for so much modern storytelling — “The Incredible Hulk,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and countless others can trace the main themes back to Shelly’s masterpiece. 

Shelley’s book is beloved to this day. Many agree that it continues to be relevant today because it did not try to explain the science behind the fiction. Meaning, Shelley did not over-explain why Frankenstein’s monster was able to come to life. It just did.

According to Iwan Morus, a professor of Victorian science at the University of Aberystwyth, those details were not necessary to tell the story. 

“She didn’t need to spell it out since her readers would know already how it would be done,” said Morus


From ‘Frankenstein’ to ‘2001’

In a way, Shelley’s writing allowed the reader’s imagination to fill in some gaps. This has been a successful way of hooking the reader (or watcher) into the story. Much like Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 – A Space Odyssey” made filmgoers think of what might be happening to Dave Bowman and the astronauts, rather than spelling it out. 

As the New Yorker’s Dan Chiasson reported, Kubrick said that “you cannot imagine the unimaginable.” This is why the aliens in “2001” were never seen, and the only evidence of their existence was the black monolith. This appeared both on the Earth in prehistory and on a human settlement on the moon. Perhaps thanks to the mystery surrounding it, the monolith is one of the items from the film which is still debated to this day.

Interestingly, a similar debate broke out before opening “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” According to the behind-the-scenes making-of documentary on the Voyage Home Blu-ray disc, fans learn what happened back in 1986.


To Translate the Probe…


Star Trek Voyage Home: Whale songA very moving (to me) clip from this Star Trek movie. An alien ship arrives at Earth and is sending out a sound probe that no one can understand or recognize. In this scene the raw sound gets adjusted to what they imagine would be under water. Suddenly the whale call is heard and it…2013-12-26T18:55:24Z

According to Leonard Nimoy, who was both Mr. Spock and the film’s director, Paramount Pictures studio executives requested a change to the opening.

“The movie, when it was eventually shot and edited… and the studio first saw it, opens as it eventually did with a scene of this probe traveling through space, making this sound,” said Nimoy in the documentary.

“When the studio people saw it, I got a memo, asking me if I would please create a subtitle to put on the screen to translate that sound,” said Nimoy. “What is the probe saying?”

Nicholas Meyer is known by some as the “Trek Movie God,” thanks to his involvement in the “even” Trek films, which were “The Wrath of Khan,” “The Undiscovered Country,” and “Voyage Home.” Meyer helped pen the script for “Voyage Home” with producer Harv Bennett, and he was entirely against this idea.

“I was fighting any explanation of what the probe wanted or what the whales were saying,” said Meyer in the documentary. “That was ridiculous.”

“Answering the question is redundant,” said Meyer. “Letting the gas out of the balloon. So [the probe] wanted to know what [the whales] wanted for dinner. Really? That was it? No. Nobody wants that.”

“You want to have some sense of mystery, romance, and magic of things unseen and unknown and left out,” said Meyer. “Things that you can lie awake and think about or open the refrigerator later and go ‘Well, what did they want anyway?’ Why was that so important? Is it so important that you know it, or is it more important that you wonder about it?”


Nimoy Won the Subtitle Argument


The Whale Probe in Star Trek IV: Voyage Home (1986)Dwarfing the Earth Spacedock, this unknown cigar-shaped probe came to Earth in order to contact members of the long-extinct humpback whale species in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Everything in its proximity is drained of power and the sheer amount of energy contained in the broadcast began to vaporize Earth's oceans and…2019-02-04T17:02:12Z

Nimoy and Meyer won the battle, and there were no subtitles to explain what the probe and the whales were saying to each other. This decision, like so many others by Nimoy, Meyer, and Bennett, helped make “Star Trek IV” a surprise hit in 1986. 

Film reviewer Roger Ebert wrote that the movie “might seem to have an unlikely and ungainly plot, is actually the most elegant and satisfying ‘Star Trek’ film so far.”

Contrast the decision to keep the mystery in “Star Trek” with George Lucas’s choice to scientifically explain what caused The Force. In his first “Star Wars” prequel, Lucas created the midichlorians to note which character was more powerful. That decision to spell out what had been mystical in origin certainly angered fans and continues to be a subject of much debate.

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