In 2286, an enormous cylindrical probe appears in the galaxy, sending out a powerful but indecipherable signal which disables every ship it passes. It takes up orbit around Earth, disabling the power-grid and generating storms and sunlight-blocking cloud cover as it beams its signal into the world’s oceans.
On the planet Vulcan, the officers of the Enterprise are in exile following the search for Spock, in which they disobeyed orders, stole the ship, disabled another, went to a quarantined planet, and then destroyed the ship they stole. Except for Saavik (Robin Curtis) who stays on Vulcan, they take their captured Klingon Bird-of-Prey, renamed Bounty, and return to Earth to face trial. They are warned about the dangerous probe, and Spock determines that the signal matches the song of the Humpback Whale. Since the whales are extinct, no-one can answer the probe. They use a slingshot around the sun at warp speed to travel back in time to when Humpbacks existed, in a desperate hope of capturing one and bringing it to the future to answer the probe. Who knew?
In 1986, they find their ship’s power drained by the maneuver. Hiding the ship with it’s cloaking device, they land in Golden Gate Park and split up. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) set out to find humpback whales. Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) construct a tank to hold the whales. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) search for a nuclear reactor, so they can power the ship. Piece of cake.
Kirk and Spock discover a pair of whales in the care of Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks) at the Sausalito Aquarium, which are just about to be released into the wild. Their names are George and Gracie. Spock dives into the tank, to Kirk’s chagrin, and mind-melds with Gracie, whom he declares pregnant. Kirk explains that Spock has taken too much LDS back in the Free Speech days and may seem a little strange. Eventually, he takes Gillian into his confidence, explaining that he is not from outer space, he’s from Iowa, he just works in outer space. But she refuses to co-operate.
Meanwhile, Scott, McCoy, and Sulu present a company with the formula for transparent aluminum in exchange for enough paneling for a tank so long and so wide, and Uhura and Chekov locate a nuclear wessell—the carrier Enterprise. They collect the nuclear fuel they need, but though Uhura is beamed out, Chekov is captured. His Russian accent does not go down well with his captors, and he is injured in an escape attempt. Doctor McCoy finds him in the hospital and fixes him up, complaining about the Medieval medical practices of 1986.
Gillian agrees to help because the whales have secretly been released early and headed for Alaskan waters already. Everyone returns to the recharged and refit Bird of Prey, including Gillian, who insinuates herself into the team. They confront a ship of astonished whale-poachers with the demonic-looking Bird of Prey, beam up the whales and a whole lot of water, and go back to the future. They crash into San Francisco Bay, release the whales before the ship sinks, and the whales sing to the probe. Satisfied, it leaves orbit and returns to space.
Having saved the planet and re-introduced whales to the ecosystem, all charges are dropped, except for Admiral Kirk, who is demoted to Captain and given the Enterprise A to command. Gillian finds lots of science work to do and happily stays in the future. The new Enterprise leaves on a shakedown cruise.
The role of Catherine Hick’s Doctor Gillian Taylor was originally written for Eddie Murphy. He decided to do The Golden Child instead. After the success of Search for Spock, Nimoy was given pretty much everything he wanted to direct. Shatner got a raise and a promise to direct the next Star Trek film. These guys were getting so expensive that Paramount picked lesser-known actors for the Next Generation series. Nicholas Meyer was hired to work on the script, with producer Harve Bennett. The film received eleven nominations for Saturn Awards, tying with Aliens. Much of it was filmed on location in the streets of San Francisco. A few shots of whales were used, but mostly animatronics filled the bill. Whale rights activists were angry until they found this out. Because of the success of this film, Shatner hosted Saturday Night Live and did the “Get a life!” skit.
The punk on the bus was played by Kirk Thatcher, an associate producer on the film. He got a Mohawk haircut and bought the clothes and wrote and recorded the song “I hate you.” The punk later appeared in Spider-Man Homecoming (2017). A similar scene had been cut from Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time. The passersby on the street were extras filmed with a hidden camera. One of them took the part to pay for the fine she incurred for not moving her car from the film-scene. She was not supposed to speak, but Nimoy liked her speech and she got more money. Composer Leonard Rosenman wrote the score based on the Alexander Courage TV theme. Transparent aluminum was actually invented in 2009. Kirk says, “Scotty, beam me up.” only in this film. Catherine Hicks knew nothing about Star Trek and kept it that way, the better to play an outsider.
The whale poachers speak Finnish. The alien probe was modeled after Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama. When Humpbacks sing (males only), they take a head-down vertical position; the probe does the same. The sound of the probe’s drive was an altered version of Leonard Nimoy saying, “wub-wub-wub.” Kirk sells his antique glasses to get money. There is speculation that McCoy bought them back in the future to give to Kirk. The movie was released in 1986, the 20th anniversary of the original series. Nobody dies in the film. This was the first Star Trek film to be shown in the Soviet Union, because that country had stopped hunting whales. The audience’s favorite line was McCoy’s “The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe.” They laughed for ten minutes. This cheerful film was dedicated to the crew of the disastrous Space Shuttle Challenger.