Monday, June 16, 2014

Character Insight No. 101: The Whale Probe

This is the latest installment in a series of "Character Insight" articles regarding the rich history of characters in the Star Trek universe.  An audio version will appear on the This Week in Trek podcast, available for direct download here.

Welcome back to Character Insight!  This week, we profile The Whale Probe from The Voyage Home, who comes in at number 10 on our best Trek movie villains countdown.
Whale Probe
(When forehead of the week becomes facelift of the week)

Although one of the cooler ideas presented by Star Trek movies is a menacing machine as a primary villain, the whale probe just breaks into the top 10 because it ends up servicing one of the strangest plots devised for a Trek movie. 

I personally love the camp of Star Trek IV, but many fans hate it because it made Star Trek into a comedy, it focused on present-day 1980's Earth, and it slammed a cheesy "Save The Whales" story line down the consumers' throats. This movie is basically Free Willy, before Free Willy was cool. 

"Free Willy Theme"

Nevertheless, the whale probe is a large cylindrical member with a ball-shaped antenna that emerges to amplify a signal the cylinder makes trying to communicate with whales. However, that species had been extinct for quite some time in the 23rd Century, so the whale probe disables all ships and technologies and begins to vaporize Earth's oceans in an attempt to search for the missing whales. 

That leads Kirk and crew in the stolen Klingon Bird of Prey from Star Trek III to slingshot around the sun and go back in time to bring whales back from the 1980's. Hilarity ensues. 

"Nuclear Wessels!"

Of course Kirk saves the day and brings the whales back to save Earth. At which point the whale probe stops this noise (Quote of the Week: Insert probe noise) and goes back to wherever it came from. That'll teach those pesky human hunters a lesson!

The more interesting stories about the whale probe come from those at Industrial Light and Magic, the crew tasked with making this probe come to life on the silver screen. The probe was initially blue and white to look a bit like a whale, but the crew could not get the cylinder to shoot correctly in such a form, so the textured black surface was used. The ball-shaped probe was also originally orange, but that looked too much like a basketball so it was washed out to the blue from the final movie. Now it looks like a volleyball instead. 


ILM made three different models of the whale probe, one of which is just a large section used for flying over the screen like similar shots used in Star Wars movies. The self-illuminating glow was provided by a long tube lamp as well as a number of halogen bulbs at the hole where the antenna comes out. This was high-level incredible visual engineering, even if it ends up wasted on a relatively simple popcorn version of Star Trek.

The Whale Probe makes what could've been a disastrous dumb premise for a Trek movie into something pretty interesting. Plus, the visuals are pretty cool, so this villain turns out to be one of the best the movies had to offer.

Until next time, live long and prosper...

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