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Star Trek IV's Kirk Rule Changes How You Look At The Voyage Home

It's well known that William Shatner saw himself as the most important cast member in "Star Trek," both the original TV series and the six films featuring the entire classic cast. And per the studio, the rest of the ensemble, along with the directors, writers, and producers, had to constantly yield to his desire to have Captain (later Admiral) James T. Kirk be the center of attention at all times.

This edict extended to the fourth film in the series, 1986's "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," which still ranks among the "Star Trek" franchise's highest earners at the box office. As "Star Trek IV" co-screenwriter Steve Meerson pointed out in Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross' book, "Captain's Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages," that so-called "Kirk rule" led to some awkwardly constructed scenes even in this acclaimed film.

In one such sequence, Meerson said that it was Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who determines that our heroes must go back in time, retrieve a humpback whale, and use its song to communicate with a destructive space probe, but that Kirk had to actually put the idea into words. "Kirk verbalizes it, and that's the way it had to be played," recalled Meerson. "We were told Bill had to be the leader at all times. In that scene, if you're reading it, you say, 'It's Spock's idea,' but on film, Spock's discovery that it's humpback whales is not as important as Kirk's idea of going to get them."

The studio brass wanted to keep William Shatner happy

Steve Meerson also noted that whether he had dialogue or not, William Shatner's Kirk had to appear in scenes even if there was no specific reason for him to be there. Meerson cited one such scene near the end of "Star Trek IV," in which Kirk watches from the sidelines while Spock and his father, Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard, who played multiple "Star Trek" characters), have a private conversation that has nothing at all to do with the captain.

Meerson said that instructions regarding Shatner's pervasive placement in any given scene came from the top echelons of Paramount Pictures. "The approach we were told to take is that Kirk really had to be the one to lead everyone," Meerson said in "Captain's Logs." "Not necessarily that he had to actually have the idea to do something, but it had to appear as if he has the idea."

Paramount's effort to placate its star was perhaps understandable; certainly, at the time, it would have been very difficult to make a "Star Trek" film without William Shatner and Captain Kirk. And despite the need to bend the story toward Shatner at all times, "Star Trek IV" director Leonard Nimoy did manage to give almost all the other crew members a moment or two in the spotlight — even if that light was eventually blocked by the shadow of their captain's massive ego.