It was the the English writer G.K. Chesterton, I think, who discovered the word ``mooreeffoc.'' He found it one day while sitting inside a caf'e, looking outward through a glass door on which the word ``coffeeroom'' was lettered. ``Mooreeffoc,'' it said. He used the word to describe the sensation of suddenly seeing the commonplace from an unaccustomed perspective. I suspect Chesterton would have liked ``Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.'' The newest in a string of sci-fi outer-space movies to grow out of an old TV series, it has plenty of delightful mooreeffoc in the tale of Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Starship Enterprise crew. Watching their time-warped return from 23rd-century space to the streets of present-day San Francisco, the 20th-century audience is compelled to take a long-lens perspective on itself.
Taking that perspective should be an easy enough task. For centuries, after all, philosophers have urged us to know ourselves, get a distance on our lives, walk a mile in another's shoes, and so forth. In fact, however, that very task is one of self-absorbed humanity's toughest challenges. Just as fish would have trouble defining water - never having lived in anything else - so a populace immersed in the present is ill-equipped to assess its own context.
That's why films like this are salutary. Early in the story, ``Star Trek IV'' gets the viewer comfortably situated in the 23rd century. It establishes so clearly the coordinates of the future - the sense of order, light, and civility - that present-day California, when it finally comes to the screen, seems by contrast a pretty slimy place. Nor does the camera need to do much distorting: It simply plunks down in the middle of San Francisco - which is by no means the worst of this century's cities - and takes a mooreeffocian look at its cabs and cops, papers and punks, buses and bistros, and the whole way of life we 20th-century types so proudly hail.
Salutary, too, is the way in which the film's writers cut through centuries of literary rubbish about the need for evil as a foil for good. Dramatic storytelling, after all, would seem to require plots that pit white hats against black hats and turn on murder, licentiousness, greed, or sundry other human sins. This film, by contrast, has no sexual innuendo, no violence, no sinister force at all. There aren't even any bad guys - which, to a 20th-century world bent on seeing villains under every bush, is quite a jolt. Instead, there's simply an imbalance. Nature, through man's folly, has gotten out of whack. What sets the plot rolling is the presence of an alien probe approaching 23rd-century Earth from outer space. Apparently unaware that the side effects of its immense energy are about to destroy life on the planet, it comes without malevolence on a mission of its own. It's simply trying to make contact with intelligent life on Earth.
But what kind of life? Here, too, the plot is carefully mooreeffocked. As it happens, the probe is searching for humpback whales - highly intelligent mammals whose complex underwater songs feature strongly on the soundtrack. It couldn't care less, apparently, about humans - another pride-shattering blow to poor humanity, which has always assumed that Homo sapiens cornered the intelligence market on Earth.
And why does the probe hang around so long? Because it can't leave until it hears, in the 23rd-century ocean, a humpback whale responding to its signals. Problem: There aren't any humpbacks left on Earth, since whaling has by now entirely destroyed the species. Mission: Fly back in time, capture a couple of humpbacks from the 20th century, and bring them into the 23rd-century ocean to satisfy the probe - just the job for the Starship Enterprise crew.
Sound ridiculous? Of course it does - to 20th-century ears. Like all science fiction, it's meant not as realism but as allegory. But like the rest of the future-oriented materials that are pouring forth as this century closes, it has a two-fold purpose: to expand the limits of the possible, and to hold up a mirror to the present. We'll never be able to progress, after all, unless we believe progress is possible. And we'll never want to progress unless we can glimpse a future that's better than the present.
On both counts, ``Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home'' nudges us another notch forward.
A Monday column