By the time of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, I was neck-deep in Star Trek fandom, devouring every rerun of the original series, every novel and comic book, and attending every New York City convention that had an admission price I could afford. They were all fun diversions during the long wait to find out what would happen in the wake of The Wrath of Khan. As I recall, the first bit of news was that the next film would be directed by Leonard Nimoy, the recently departed Mr. Spock himself—fascinating!
I saw Star Trek III on opening night, June 1, 1984, not with my older sister, who had taken me to see the previous two movies, but with two pals from junior high school: Nick Guarracino, with whom I would see several of the other films in the series (including the most recent one, released in 2009), and Craig Chamides, who I remember literally hauled himself out of a sickbed to join us that night. I also recall that just before the movie began, Craig, who back then had a tendency to, shall we say, overdramatize situations, tried to hand me a big spoon and told me to use it in case he swallowed his tongue. I looked at him incredulously and replied, “What are you, crazy? I’ve been waiting two years for this movie—I’m not taking my eyes off the screen.” (Cut me some slack—I was 14 at the time.) Fortunately, Craig’s tongue remained in its proper place throughout the screening and we—well, Nick and I, at least—were able to sit back, relax, and experience the next adventure of the crew of the Enterprise.
And it was a very good experience. I can’t say I was as blown away by The Search for Spock as I was by The Wrath of Khan. They’re two very different films, even though they’re tightly interconnected. The Wrath of Khan is more fast-paced, more intense, with a story driven primarily by anger, hatred, and a quest for revenge. The Search for Spock is more intimate, more subdued, with an emphasis on friendship, loyalty, devotion, and sacrifice. It does its job and does it extremely well, though it doesn’t have quite the power of its immediate predecessor.
Also, part of what made The Wrath of Khan so exciting and intriguing is the fact that it presented Star Trek with a new sensibility, as it was directed by an outsider with a totally fresh perspective. The Search for Spock, however, was directed by an insider, someone who had been involved with the series since the first pilot, and it went a long way toward taking Star Trek back to its roots.
Still, The Search for Spock is a bit of a departure, in that it’s the first film in the series in which the story springs forth from members of the crew instead of an outside element. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was driven primarily by V’ger and its quest to find its identity and its purpose in the universe. As noted above, the driving force of Star Trek II was Khan and his obsession with getting revenge on Admiral Kirk. But here, the main events are set in motion by the regular Star Trek “family”—particularly Dr. McCoy, who’s finally an integral part of the plot.
Considering how shocked and upset my eight-year-old daughter Maddie was by the death of Spock in Star Trek II, and how McCoy is probably her favorite character in the series, I was anxious to see how she would react to what happens to both of them in this next installment.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Following the death of Captain Spock, the battle-damaged Enterprise returns to Earth, where it is to be decommissioned. Dr. Leonard McCoy is behaving very erratically, breaking into Spock’s quarters and speaking with Spock’s voice. Meanwhile, the Federation science vessel U.S.S. Grissom begins to study the newly created Genesis Planet, an expedition led by Dr. David Marcus—the son of Admiral James T. Kirk—and Spock’s protégé, Lieutenant Saavik. They discover that the photon torpedo tube containing Spock’s body soft-landed on the planet—and a life-form is detected nearby. Elsewhere, Commander Kruge, an ambitious and power-hungry Klingon officer, obtains the top-secret information on Genesis and decides to claim it in the name of the Klingon Empire. He orders his bird-of-prey, equipped with a cloaking device, into Federation space to see the new planet for himself. On Earth, Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek, visits Kirk and together they discover that Spock left his living spirit in McCoy just before he died. The only way to put Spock’s soul to rest and restore McCoy to normal is for both to be brought to Vulcan for a special ritual. But Kirk is forbidden from returning to the Genesis Planet to retrieve Spock’s body—Genesis has become a galactic controversy and travel to the planet is forbidden to any vessel but the Grissom. Kirk is determined to go anyway, even if he has to steal a starship to do it. And he has some friends who are willing to help him…
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock has a very simple, straightforward plot—some might argue too simple and straightforward. The film’s screenwriter/producer, Harve Bennett, has even acknowledged, “Seventeen other people could have written [it].” I read at least one article that declared that it’s basically a retelling of the resurrection of Jesus, right down to having Spock’s protégé—his disciple—Saavik returning to his resting place to discover that his body is missing and his shroud has been left behind.
Regardless, the film works very well as a sequel, in that it successfully follows up on the events of its predecessor and moves things forward. And it works very well as Star Trek, in that it fully embraces the television series that started it all. Overall, Star Trek III is a highly enjoyable film, one of my favorites in the series, and a strong argument against the notion that all of the odd-numbered movies suck and all of the even-numbered ones are winners. (Another argument: Star Trek: Nemesis was the tenth in the series, and not only was it awful, it was a bona fide box-office bomb. So there!)
But The Search for Spock is hardly perfect. For one thing, there are a number of plot holes and some areas of disjointedness in the storytelling, many of which were created in post-production as the film was being edited. In most cases, these problems were not present in Bennett’s screenplay.
For example, to this day, I’ll read the occasional retro-review in which the writer wonders how Kirk and Sarek knew that Spock’s body was intact on the Genesis Planet when, at that point in the film, only the crew of the Grissom should have known that Spock’s coffin had soft-landed instead of burning up in the atmosphere. Well, in the screenplay, Scene One is the Grissom arriving at Genesis, locating Spock’s tube on the surface, and transmitting this news to Starfleet Command. In Scene Two, the battle-scarred Enterprise is heading back to Earth, with Kirk mentioning in his personal log entry that he feels uneasy. The main reason? “The news of Spock’s tube has shaken me,” he says. So clearly, Starfleet Command informed Kirk about the message from the Grissom.
But during the editing stage, it was decided to begin the film with the Enterprise. So Scene Two became Scene One, and the Grissom’s arrival at Genesis was moved to a later point. Kirk’s log entry was revised to reflect this change—in the finished film, the line is, “The death of Spock is like an open wound.”
As a result of the editing, the scene that introduces the Grissom and shows its discovery of Spock’s tube is immediately followed by Sarek’s first appearance, in which he shows up at Kirk’s apartment. It’s never specified in the film how much time passes between these two scenes. The implication is, not much. But since it’s clear that both Sarek and Kirk now know that Spock’s body is intact on Genesis, it’s safe to assume that enough time has passed that each of them was informed about it by Starfleet Command. But that’s the problem—it’s never made clear. So the folks in the audience have to assume, have to do more reasoning and more connecting of the dots than they should. It’s a bit of a distraction.
Then there’s the question of what exactly will be done with Spock’s consciousness—his katra—once it’s removed from McCoy’s mind. In the film, it’s never addressed. It’s important to note that neither Kirk nor Sarek know until much later in the film that Spock is alive again. When Sarek explains to Kirk that he must bring McCoy and Spock’s body to Vulcan, both are under the impression that Spock is still dead. Which means the goal could not have been to place Spock’s katra back into his body.
So what was the goal, then? Well, in Bennett’s screenplay, it’s established that the plan is for Spock’s consciousness to be deposited in a special place on Vulcan called the Hall of Ancient Thought. But the unexpected regeneration of Spock’s body means the Vulcans have to shift gears and attempt to reunite Spock’s consciousness with his now-living physical form. For some reason, all references to the Hall of Ancient Thought were cut from the finished film.
Finally, why exactly was it necessary to retrieve Spock’s body from Genesis? As noted above, as far as Sarek and Kirk knew at the time, Spock was dead. If the goal was to help McCoy and put Spock’s katra to rest, it would seem that the only thing necessary would be to bring McCoy, who was carrying Spock’s katra, to Vulcan. For what purpose was Spock’s thought-to-be-dead body needed? Actually, neither the film nor the screenplay answers this question.
So yeah, there are flaws. But the film’s strengths far exceed its weaknesses. For one thing, the regular cast is in top form, especially William Shatner and DeForest Kelley.
Shatner turns in probably his most vulnerable, most sympathetic, most stripped-down performance as James T. Kirk, rivaling his spectacular work in The Wrath of Khan. Kirk is pushed to the absolute limit in this story, and Shatner rises to the challenge every step of the way. There’s one particularly daring acting choice he makes during a key dramatic scene—it’s the moment when he learns of the death of his son—that elicited gasps of surprise from the audience back in 1984, and is still talked about today.
Once again, Doctor McCoy gets most of the best lines, and Kelley is a master at delivering them. It’s a terrific performance, and it’s great to see McCoy with an expanded role, one that’s absolutely essential to the story.
The other regulars all get their moments to shine, though Walter Koenig’s Commander Pavel Chekov ends up with less to do this time—a bit of a comedown after the fairly meaty role he had in Star Trek II. James Doohan’s Scotty and George Takei’s Sulu each end up with some of the film’s most memorable bits.
Since director Nimoy knows these characters—and the actors who play them—so well, he makes some excellent storytelling choices. Whenever the focus is on Kirk grieving for his son, Nimoy throws in sympathetic reaction shots of McCoy and Scotty, which is totally appropriate, since they, aside from Spock, are his closest friends and confidants. Little touches like that are much appreciated by longtime fans and help convey to newcomers the bonds between these characters.
As Commander Kruge, Christopher Lloyd gives us the last truly big, bad Klingon that we’d ever see in Star Trek. Three years after this movie came out, Star Trek: The Next Generation would premiere and establish that the Federation and the Klingon Empire had become allies.
Kruge is one of my favorite Klingons—right up there with John Colicos as Kor, from the first-season TV episode “Errand of Mercy.” He’s ruthless, clever, and nihilistic, yet he clearly cares about his crew (well, the ones who don’t make mistakes, at least) and he even appears to be capable of love. Lloyd seems to relish the role, giving Kruge all sorts of interesting mannerisms and quirks. Apparently, a lot of people haven’t been able to separate Kruge from Reverend Jim, the memorable character that Lloyd played on Taxi. That’s their loss. When I’m watching Kruge, I’m not thinking of Reverend Jim, the same way I’m not thinking about Mister Roarke from Fantasy Island when I’m watching Khan.
(By the way—Kruge’s underling Maltz is played by John Larroquette, who would go on to win millions of fans and four Emmys for his work on Night Court.)
I mentioned above that the film embraces the original television series, and nowhere is that more evident than in the welcome return of Ambassador Sarek, who made his debut in Season Two’s “Journey to Babel.” It’s wonderful to see Mark Lenard in the role again, and his performance is both powerful and moving.
There are other flourishes: Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Janice Rand during the first season of the TV series, has a brief cameo. And if you look closely during one scene, you’ll catch a glimpse of a tribble or two.
After his memorable debut in The Wrath of Khan, it’s nice to see Merritt Butrick back as Kirk’s son, Dr. David Marcus, who seems to have mellowed a little between films. I have to say that it was surprising, and a little disappointing, that Harve Bennett decided to do away with the character after setting him up so nicely in the previous film, but clearly, Bennett felt the story called for it. It was also disappointing that Bennett and Nimoy did not bring back Bibi Besch as Dr. Carol Marcus, David’s mother. Considering the events of this film, an encounter between her and Kirk in the aftermath would have made for one hell of a scene.
And then there’s Saavik—one of the most controversial elements of the movie. Long story short: Paramount couldn’t make a deal with Kirstie Alley to return. There are conflicting accounts as to why, some more salacious than others. Bennett and Nimoy wanted Saavik in the film, as she was a crucial part of the story. Apparently, they felt that introducing a totally new character wouldn’t work. So they decided to keep the character and simply recast. Enter Robin Curtis.
In addition to the recasting, Nimoy seemed to have a significantly different take on Saavik than Nicholas Meyer, who created the character and hired Alley. Nimoy apparently wanted to deemphasize Saavik’s innate, exotic sexiness and the strong emotions within her that lurked just under the surface in The Wrath of Khan. Curtis is certainly very attractive—I met her in person and she’s also very warm and friendly. But her Saavik wasn’t nearly as curvaceous or as alluring as Alley’s. Also, it’s well known that Nimoy took Curtis under his wing and personally instructed her on how to portray a Vulcan—and it’s clear that he didn’t want a lot of what Alley brought to the role to carry over, particularly that memorable mixture of innocence and “come hitherness.”
Then there’s the overall look of the character. On Star Trek III, the makeup artist was apparently told to really play up Saavik’s Vulcan features, far more so than was done with Alley. So Curtis’s Saavik has the slanted upswept eyebrows whereas Alley’s did not. Plus, Curtis was given a less than flattering hairstyle. The end result is a more elfin-looking Saavik. Presumably, this is exactly what Nimoy wanted. To this day, fans debate which Saavik is better. Personally, I would have preferred Kirstie Alley remaining in the role, but I don’t think Robin Curtis did a bad job. There are hints of emotion in her eyes during key dramatic moments, and when David Marcus is killed, you get a sense that she’s barely containing her anger. Still, I wish Nimoy had been more faithful to the previous interpretation of Saavik, and allowed Curtis to base her performance more on Alley’s.
As for the movie’s other most controversial element, namely the destruction of the Enterprise, it’s an undeniably powerful scene, expertly executed. I love the fact that the ship’s self-destruct sequence from the third-season episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is used again here, word for word—another great callback to the original TV series. It’s tough to watch that beautiful vessel go down in flames—it saddens me every time. But it’s not quite as much of an emotional blow as the death of Spock.
Which brings me to the whole matter of Spock coming back from the dead. Many felt that it cheapened his sacrifice at the end of Star Trek II. My argument: No it didn’t. It didn’t change or undo the fact that Spock willingly gave up his life to save the Enterprise, with no expectation that his body would be regenerated. His sacrifice was very real.
Others said that bringing characters back from the dead stretches believability past the breaking point, even in science fiction. Dead should mean dead, just like in real life. Otherwise, you’re dealing in fantasy—and death becomes meaningless. Okay, those points are harder for me to argue against. And to be honest, by the time Star Trek III came out, I had accepted Spock’s death and had decided that if he stayed dead, I’d be okay with it. But that didn’t stop me from being absolutely thrilled that he was back. And let’s face it—once Nimoy said he was willing to bring Spock back to life and keep on playing him, the folks at Paramount would have been utterly insane not to take him up on it.
Another thing the movie has going for it is a great musical score. Thankfully and appropriately, composer James Horner returns, providing tight continuity by revisiting and expanding upon many of his pieces from Star Trek II while introducing several new themes, including one for the Klingons that’s not quite as memorable as Jerry Goldsmith’s, but effective nonetheless. Horner also continues to utilize Alexander Courage’s iconic “Star Trek Fanfare” from the original TV series, weaving it in and out of his own compositions seamlessly.
Finally, The Search for Spock ends on a somewhat uncertain note—much like The Empire Strikes Back, another movie that served as the second part of a cinematic trilogy. The Enterprise is gone. Spock is clearly not himself, though he’s at least starting to remember his past life. Can he ever be fully restored? What will become of our heroes now that they’ve disobeyed direct orders from Starfleet, gone AWOL, and broken several laws? Apparently, the folks at Paramount knew even before Star Trek III was released that they had a hit on their hands and would be able to wrap up these dangling story threads in another movie—the film confidently proclaims just before the end credits roll, “… And the adventure continues…” And just like with The Empire Strikes Back, you’re left satisfied, but eager to see what happens next.
Okay, enough from me. Now I’ll turn things over to Maddie…
MADDIE: “I liked it, it was good. But I liked The Wrath of Khan more, because I felt like it had more to it—I liked seeing Khan again, I liked how we got to meet Kirk’s son and Carol Marcus, and we learned about Genesis. But I liked how this one picked up a short time after the second movie.
“I thought Spock wasn’t going to be in this movie because Leonard Nimoy’s name was not in the cast at the beginning. I thought, ‘Oh no, this is going to be a terrible movie!’ I was very surprised when I saw that Leonard Nimoy directed the movie—I thought, ‘Okay, this is going to be a good movie because Leonard Nimoy does such a good job as an actor that I bet he’ll do a good job as a director.’ And he did—he did a very good job!
“I was happy that the Klingons came back again in this movie, and I liked how they had a new ship. I really liked the look of that ship—the bird-of-prey. It was cool that they were using a cloaking device. The special effects were really good showing the bird-of-prey turning invisible and then back to visible.
“The Klingons were really good—I liked how they were speaking in their language. The actor who played Kruge was very good. Kruge was a mean guy and he really wanted Genesis. I liked how he killed his gunner for accidentally destroying the Grissom.
“I was really sad when Kirk was told that the Enterprise was going to be decommissioned. The Enterprise is a main character in Star Trek, and it’s like saying that a main character is going to die and never come back.
“I liked how Kirk and the other guys stole the Enterprise to get Spock’s body. It was the only thing they could do. They had to get Spock’s body back from Genesis and Starfleet wouldn’t let them. I thought it was very funny that the Excelsior was going to chase the Enterprise and stop it from going, but it broke down when it tried to go to warp speed!
“I liked that we got to see Spock’s father Sarek again. And I thought it was very cool to see the tribbles again—I thought, ‘Oh no, is there gonna be more trouble with the tribbles in this movie?!?’
“I was surprised that Saavik was played by another actress. The new Saavik was a lot like Kirstie Alley, but Kirstie Alley’s Saavik showed emotions more. I thought Kirstie Alley was prettier, but I thought the new Saavik was good at not showing her emotions. I’d want to see Robin Curtis as Saavik again, because I thought that Robin Curtis was more like a Vulcan and she really seemed to get into the character more. If Spock hadn’t come back in this movie and Saavik took over for him, I’d want her to be more like Spock and not show her emotions so much.
“I really liked seeing David again. I liked him in Star Trek II. I thought it was nice of him to risk his life for Saavik. It was very sad that he died—I thought he and Saavik would make a really good couple!
“The way Kirk reacted when David was killed was how any father would react when hearing that his son had died. He was moving back to sit in his chair but he was so stunned that he missed the chair and he fell down.
“I was really sad when they blew up the Enterprise, but it was the right thing to do. If they didn’t blow it up, the Klingons would’ve taken it over and Kirk and everybody would be prisoners. But ever since the first episode of Star Trek, the Enterprise was there and now she’s gone and will never come back. What ship are they going to fly now? That was their personal ship! Who knows if they’re even going to get another ship—they’re criminals now because they stole the Enterprise!
“McCoy was great in this movie. Even though he had Spock’s soul, he did not change at all! He was so funny. ‘Where’s the logic in offering me a ride home, you idiot?’ ‘How can you be deaf with ears like that?’ ‘That green-blooded son of a—’ I can’t repeat that word. ‘It’s his revenge for all those arguments he lost!’ I thought that at the end, when McCoy tells Spock that he missed him and couldn’t stand to lose him again, it showed that even though they fought a lot, they had a very strong friendship.
“It was brilliant—very, very clever—when McCoy tried to do the Vulcan nerve pinch on the Federation security officer in the bar!
“I was very happy to find out that of all the people that Spock could leave his soul with, it turned out to be McCoy! Because McCoy would be the last person who’d want to mind-meld with Spock and carry his soul around!
“It was so funny when Kirk visited McCoy in his cell and did the Vulcan hand salute and he asked McCoy, ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’ and McCoy said, ‘That’s not very damn funny.’
“I thought it was very weird that Genesis made Spock come back as a child—I thought it meant that something was wrong with Genesis. It was a surprise that Spock was a little boy when he was found—but then again, it was a surprise to me that Spock was alive at all! I didn’t think he’d be coming back. I was happy he was alive again.
“I felt like clapping when Spock turned around and took his hood off and we could see that it was Leonard Nimoy as Spock again. And it was nice how Spock remembered Jim. But it was kind of weird when Spock first went over to Kirk and said, ‘My father said you came back for me.’ He seemed like an 8-year-old boy!
“Everybody was having a bad hair day in this movie—
Sulu’s hair was greased down.
Uhura’s hair was long, down, and curly.
Kirk’s hair was up and puffy and curly, as usual in these movies.
Scotty’s hair looked greased down on top.
McCoy’s hair was too wavy.
Saavik’s hair was puffy and curly—she looked like a toy poodle or something!
Chekov was okay, though.
“I hope the next movie picks up where this one left off. I hope they teach Spock everything he needs to know and that he can go back to being Science Officer. And I hope Admiral Kirk can negotiate with Starfleet to get another ship. If they got the Excelsior, I’d be happy that they got another ship, but I’d be sad because it wouldn’t be the Enterprise.”
COMING SOON: … And the adventure continues …
© All content copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2011.