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Non-Review Review: Star Trek III – The Search for Spock

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

I have a soft spot for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. It’s a weird thing to admit, but it was really my first encounter with the crew of the original Star Trek television show. I was only eight or nine at the time, and I’d grown up watching and loving Star Trek: The Next Generation. Of course, this was in an era before DVD and blu ray made it feasible (and affordable) to collect the whole thing. So I branched out by trying the movies.

Being a young child in the era before the internet, I didn’t know that the second through fourth films formed a loose thematic trilogy. I just picked the film with the title that jumped out at me. Since “Spock” was an iconic part of Star Trek, and I knew him from his guest appearance on The Next Generation, The Search for Spock seemed the logical choice.

And it retains a special place in my heart.

"I have been, and always shall be, your friend..."

“I have been, and always shall be, your friend…”

I really like The Search for Spock. In fact, along with JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, I consider it the exception to the infamous “odd-even” Star Trek movie rule, which argues that the even-numbered Star Trek films are far superior to the odd-numbered instalments. It’s amazing to think, knowing how it all fits together as part of a larger story, but I had no difficulty following The Search for Spock watching it on my first viewing.

It’s a remarkable thing, given how heavily the film relies on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. After all, the entire movie is about dealing with the fallout from the death of Spock at the climax of Kirk’s confrontation with Khan. When I first watched the film, I had no idea who Khan was. And, to be fair, the film doesn’t get bogged down in provided excess exposition, so I didn’t know who Khan was until I eventually rented The Wrath of Khan a week or two later.

A fateful Enterprise...

A fateful Enterprise…

It’s to the credit of writer Harve Bennett, who really doesn’t get enough credit for his role in shaping these feature films, that the film doesn’t lock out casual viewers. The exposition isn’t always entirely fluid and graceful, but the film fills the audience in on everything they need to know almost immediately. The structure of the film, which seems like it picks up only hours after Spock’s death, helps a great deal.

I’ll concede that the film has flaws. I don’t tend to get as upset about special effects as some viewers do. I can forgive a cheesy optical effect if a story is strong enough. However, the effects in The Search for Spock are somewhat less impressive than those rendered in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. After the muted critical response to The Motion Picture, the budget for the sequels was reigned in by the studio. The Wrath of Khan found a way to work that to its advantage. Most of its sequences are on in-door sets and on space ships, with protracted battle sequences between two models.

Again with the Klingons!

Again with the Klingons!

In contrast, The Search for Spock is far more ambitious. There’s a wealth of new models designed – many of which would be carried over (along with the Miranda-class from The Wrath of Khan) for use on The Next Generation. There’s a rich variety of sets, many of which are alien in design. The Genesis Planet itself is lush and massive, one of those grand old-style studio sets. It’s very clear that this is a much bigger and more epic science fantasy than The Wrath of Khan.

However, the budget hasn’t quite stretched proportionally. In particular, some of the digital effects haven’t aged too well – including the fires on Genesis or even the space combat sequences. There’s a reason that The Wrath of Khan is remembered more fondly than The Search for Spock, despite the fact it’s a bit less visually ambitious. The Search for Spock over-extends itself, and you can see that strain on the screen.

Oh, eye see...

Oh, eye see…

At the same time, there’s also a sense that the movie is plotted in a manner just a little too pedestrian. Everything here moves in a straight arrow, from the start to the end. There’s no real complexity to any of the characters or motivations, no major dramatic obstacles. Even when Kirk has to destroy the Enterprise (in the most iconic image of the film), it seems more that the ship has outlived its usefulness than an unnecessary hiccup in Kirk’s plan. Kruge’s presence never knocks Kirk out of step.

Even Kirk’s reaction to the death of David Marcus is minimised. There’s that wonderful little sequence where Kirk staggers backwards and loses his footing, and a nice moment with the body on the planet surface, but there’s no indication that Kirk is damaged by this. There’s no notion that Kirk is pushing his anger and his guilt to one side to help his crew survive. There’s no indication that he’s compartmentalising the loss in able to remain functional.

Kruge match!

Kruge match!

Even Kruge is grasping on to the edge of the cliff for his life, Kirk pleads “give me your hand!” It’s only when Kruge foolishly tries to kill him that he finally kicks the guy off the edge of the rock and into the dodgy special effect below. Oddly enough, the wound feels much more raw when Kirk talks about it in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It could be that Kirk is on auto-pilot and waiting for a better time to deal with his loss, but it feels as if the death doesn’t register.

And Kruge doesn’t really work that well as a villain. He certainly can’t measure up to either Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, Christopher Plummer’s Chang or even Benedict Cumberbatch’s “John Harrison.” There’s the bones of a good character here. There are glimpses of personality to be seen, if you look closely enough. His regret at having to kill a lover because she read the wrong files. His anger over the loss of his pet. The fact that the death of his crew honestly seems to hurt him.

Well, to be fair, he probably shouldn't have chained it next to that explosive console...

Well, to be fair, he probably shouldn’t have chained it next to that explosive console…

And Christopher Lloyd is great in the role. He brings a welcome sense of experience to Kruge, despite what the script describes of his “relative youth.” Lloyd does wonders with that scene where the Enterprise and the Bird of Prey prepare to meet one another, which is remarkable given that it’s just close-ups of the actor’s face. Similarly, I like that Kruge is savvy enough to recognise the self-destruct on the Enterprise.

He also cannily avoids playing too directly into Kirk’s hands at the climax of the film. “You should take the Vulcan, too,” Kirk insists. Kruge refuses. When Kirk asks why, Kruge responds, “Because you wish it.” He is a little over-cautious here, and his decision doesn’t affect the outcome whatsoever, but more Star Trek villains would live longer if they followed Kruge’s example.

"I don't think I'll be getting an Abrams reboot."

“I don’t think I’ll be getting an Abrams reboot.”

However, despite these flaws, I think there’s a lot to like about The Search for Spock, especially as a companion piece to The Wrath of Khan. As director Leonard Nimoy notes in the commentary, this is the middle instalment of a loose trilogy:

There was a conscious design to make these two films fit together as a continuation of story. And as a matter of fact, after this, the same was done for Star Trek IV. So we realised at some point that we’d created a trilogy unintentionally. Nobody said ‘let’s do a three-part story here with three films.’ It just worked out that way, and I think it worked out very well.

Indeed, The Search for Spock is much more dependent on the two films either side of it than either of those two are dependent upon it.

Second star on the right...

Second star on the right…

For one thing, The Search for Spock serves to mellow out some of the harsher themes and subtext of The Wrath of Khan. That film was a meditation on ageing. Kirk was growing old disgracefully and had to come to terms with his ego and the consequences of various poor decisions he had made during his life. He didn’t exactly emerge from the film as a hero, with his best friend having to sacrifice his life in order to clean up the mess that Kirk had made.

The Search for Spock serves to soften the blow a bit. It builds upon many of the same themes and ideas. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the head of Starfleet Command is identified as “Morrow.”  He shows up after the death of Spock, one of the ship’s family, to inform the crew that the dream is effectively finished. “Jim, the Enterprise is twenty years old. We feel her day is over.” The Wrath of Khan had suggested the Enterprise was past her sell-by date, serving as a training ship for cadets, but The Search for Spock takes it further. The Enterprise is dead long before Kruge sets sights on her.

Old friends...

Old friends…

The crew are confronted by members of Starfleet who argue that they’ve had their time. It is time to retire gracefully. Scotty is offended by the notion of the new sleeker Excelsior, which claims to have “transwarp capability.” Kirk rebukes him his cynicism. “Tut tut, Mister Scott. Young minds. Fresh ideas… Be tolerant.” When Uhura finds herself serving on transporter detail with a fresh-faced young go getter (credited as “Mr. Adventure”), he rather bluntly dismisses her attempts to assure him that this could be an exciting assignment. “Well, maybe that’s okay for someone like you whose career is winding down.”

And yet, with all that, The Search for Spock is still sentimental. The Enterprise dies, but it isn’t allowed to rust away – it dies so that Kirk and his crew might live. The Enterprise crew aren’t quite the old broken-down war horses that Starfleet would like to think they are. They still have some life in them yet. Kirk is able to do much better against Kruge with a crew of skilled veterans than he was against Khan with a crew of young eager recruits. When the price is paid for Spock’s resurrection, it’s paid by the young David Marcus.

Sounding general quarters...

Sounding general quarters…

The Search for Spock reverses a lot of the harsher commentary and criticism of The Wrath of Khan. It’s appropriate, then, that it closes on a conversation between Kirk and Spock which rejects Spock’s harsh utilitarian logic for Kirk’s human compassion. “Why would you do this?” Spock asks, reflecting on the terrible price of his second life. Kirk replies, “Because the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many.” I adore The Wrath of Khan, but there’s something more comforting in the relative optimism of The Search for Spock.

Then again, it also helps that The Search for Spock is the first time that the original Star Trek cast feels like an ensemble. The spin-off shows are all (to a greater or lesser degree) ensemble pieces, even if Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise only grudgingly admit it. However, the original Star Trek was more tightly focused. Characters beyond Kirk, Spock and McCoy never got too much development and what little they got tended to be incidental.

"While we're increasing my lines, I think 'Captain Sulu' has a nice ring to it..."

“While we’re increasing my lines, I think ‘Captain Sulu’ has a nice ring to it…”

With the absence of Spock, it seems like the movie compensates by giving the crew something to do. Sulu, Scotty and Uhura get as much to do here as they ever did on the show itself, and there’s a much stronger sense that Kirk is dependent on more than just Spock and McCoy. Everybody gets a nice little moment, if not several.

Scotty finally admits that he pads his estimates (“how else can I keep my reputation as a miracle worker?”) and gets to sabotage the Excelsior to show those whipper-snappers what’s what (“up your shaft”). Sulu gets to pull off a nice judo flip (“don’t call me tiny”). Uhura, who doesn’t even get to go on the mission, gets her finest moment when she shoves a young officer in a closet (“this isn’t reality, it’s fantasy”).

Nice try, Scotty, but you're not getting bumped up that far...

Nice try, Scotty, but you’re not getting bumped up that far…

Okay, this isn’t much when you compare it to the character development on The Next Generation or even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but it more than these characters have received before. It’s nice of Bennett’s script to try to expand the action hero roles so that everybody in the film gets at least one little moment. It’s something that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home would build upon even further. (Although I’d argue the final two films regressed a bit to focusing on the core trio.)

There’s also the sense that The Search for Spock feels somewhat broader in scope than The Wrath of Khan. The Wrath of Khan is an intimate little film – the story of two men locked in mortal combat. However, in The Search for Spock, the canvas broadens a bit. It feels more like an epic world-building space opera than an intimate character study. In The Wrath of Khan, Starfleet might as well ahve been composed of two ships and research station. Here, Bennett gives us a sense of a scale.

Homecoming...

Homecoming…

Nimoy frequently uses the word “operatic” to describe is approach to the film, and it bleeds through. The Search for Spock feels a lot less anchored than The Wrath of the Khan, a lot less personal. It also feels somewhat grander in scale. For example, the film gives us two separate Starfleet captains to serve briefly as foils to Kirk.

The most memorable is Styles, the commander of the Excelsior. He’s just as grand-standing as Kirk, just as driven by ego and bluster. There’s something rather delightful about the way James B. Sikking plays Styles, complete with swagger stick. He seems almost like Shatner without the charm. Naturally, Styles lacks the skill to back up his posturing. He is completely ineffective, sabotaged by his own engineering officer.

As was the Styles at the time...

As was the Styles at the time…

On the other extreme, we’re offered Captain Esteban, who is the perfect by-the-book officer, but lacks Kirk’s ego or ability to make decisions. He clearly second-guessed his decision to allow an away team to Genesis. “Exercise caution, Lieutenant,” he advises Saavik. “This landing is Captain’s discretion and I’m the one who’s out on a limb.” There’s a sense that he’s more worried about how this might look on his record than the risk to Saavik and Marcus.

Later on, he even asks for command advice from a subordinate. “Ah… Saavik, that’s, ah, that’s extraordinary. What would you like to do next?” He seems chronically incapable of making command decisions. When Saavik finds Spock, Estaban refuses to beam them up, even in quarantine. “Well, all the same, I’m going to advise Starfleet and get instructions.” When Saavik (of all people) points out that it’s quite likely Starfleet would approve, Esteban still hesitates. “Probably true, but let’s do it by the book.” He’s even more by-the-book than Saavik. I guess all that Kirk rubbed off on her.

They'll have Kirk in the dock over this...

They’ll have Kirk in the dock over this…

There’s also the fact that this is the first time that the Klingons have been used as major antagonists in a Star Trek film. They appeared briefly at the start of The Motion Picture, but The Search for Spock reaffirms that Earth isn’t the only inhabited planet in the cosmos. Indeed, Kruge is motivated by the discovery of the top-secret Genesis experiment, raising all manner of questions about the ethics of the Federation’s research. As Bennett notes, this is a bit moment for the Klingons:

It was only as I was writing it that I realised the Klingons were as dastardly a group of heavies and that I had made them so. I’d resurrected them from the series where they were ill-defined… they were non-defined. I could have chosen the Romulans, but from my experience, seeing all the episodes, I’d never got that sense of determinism and absolutism that the Klingon episodes had revealed.

To be fair, the Klingons appeared far more often (and were much better defined) than the Romulans. However, this is the first time that we’ve really seen the Klingons responding to what could legitimately be described as an act of aggression on the part of Starfleet. It underscores the arrogance McCoy pointed out as inherent in Genesis. The Federation builds a device capable of wiping out all life on a planet and rendering it suitable for human colonisation. What did the Federation think would happen if anybody found out about it?

Oh, shoot...

Oh, shoot…

As Kruge notes, the Genesis Device is effectively the ultimate colonisation tool. “Oh yes… new cities, homes in the country… your woman at your side, children playing at your feet. And overhead, fluttering in the breeze, the flag of the Federation. Charming.” Bennett’s script for The Wrath of Khan was implicitly critical of the Federation’s attitude. Allowing the Klingons to discover the plan only broadens the scope of the galactic drama.

As an aside, it’s interesting that Bennett goes out of his way to contextualise Kruge’s behaviour here. He isn’t just a random bad guy, or even the representative of a race of bad guys. Instead, Bennett establishes the idea that the Klingons are beginning to sue for peace with the Federation, although it isn’t something broadly supported. “We are going to this planet,” Kruge informs his officers. “Even as our emissaries negotiate for peace with the Federation, we will act for the preservation of our race!” It’s a surprisingly efficient set-up for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It’s not too hard to believe that Kruge and Chang might have been colleagues.

Excelsior!

Excelsior!

At the same time, The Search for Spock also delves into Vulcan mysticism for the first time since Amok Time. It really seems like this is the first time that the films have embrace a multi-cultural universe, revelling in the trappings of space opera. In particular, the lavish Vulcan sets give the whole thing a suitably epic feel, as if out of one classic studio film or another. We continue to get the sense of Vulcans as a people torn between their logic and their dependence on ritual.

For a society that has devoted themselves to reason above all else, their world seems steeped in mysticism. When Sarek talks about Spock’s katra, he doesn’t do so in terms of brainwaves or thought patterns. He uses words like “spirit” and “essence.” When Kirk asks why he should have come to Vulcan, Sarek explains, “Because he asked you to! He entrusted you with his very essence, with everything that was not of the body. He asked you to bring him to us …and bring that which he gave you, his katra, his living spirit.”

A Lenard gentleman...

A Lenard gentleman…

Later on, asking for an illogical ritual to be performed, Sarek finally concedes that he can only bury emotion so far. “My logic is uncertain where my son is concerned.” It’s an astonishing sweet moment, and Mark Lenard does a wonderful job with it. It reaffirms the idea that Vulcans never entirely purge their emotions, they merely learn to control them. Lenard is one of the franchise’s best guest actors, and his work as Sarek stands as one of the best performances in the franchise’s history.

I think that’s something The Search for Spock does very well, giving a sense that all of this is unfolding against an incredibly rich and diverse universe. It does lose quite a bit in moving away from the intimacy of the conflict between Kirk and Khan, but it gives everything a sense of scale. The original Star Trek television show never put that much effort into defining its alien cultures as their own entities.

It all comes apart...

It all comes apart…

The Search for Spock was the first time that Klingon was spoken as an actual language, rather than a bunch of foreign-sounding dialogue. In the same year that the film was released, writer John M. Ford would define Klingon culture in the novel The Final Reflection. Diane Duane would do something similar for the Romulans in My Enemy, My Ally. I’d argue that 1984 was the year where Star Trek really broadened its perspective on the cultures inhabiting this fictional universe.

Indeed, you could make a case that it foreshadows that element of world-building which would become a major part of the franchise with The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Obviously, there’s nothing here as sophisticated as Sins of the Father or some of the later episodes. Still, The Search for Spock defines that Star Trek universe as one populated with viewpoints more diverse than simply that of Starfleet and humanity.

I am Spock...

I am Spock…

On the commentary, director Leonard Nimoy noted that the studio initially had some trouble with the glimpses the film offered into Vulcan culture:

But we’ve never seen this ceremony before, this mating ritual. These hands stroking… it’s foreplay. We’re watching foreplay here! Studio was very nervous about this scene. They said, “People will probably be laughing!” I said, “no, they won’t – they’ll be very curious about what this is all about and where it’s going…”

The film is much stronger for Nimoy’s defence of the film’s Vulcan mysticism.

"You do prefer it this way, as it was meant to be?"

“You do prefer it this way, as it was meant to be?”

The Search for Spock is not be perfect. On top of the more serious problems listed above, it does seem like Nimoy has some difficulty with the actors. In particular, it seems like the director had a bit of trouble reigning in Shatner’s scenery-chewing. Shatner is more gloriously hammy here than he was in either of the first two films. (Although I do like his “who? me?” coy turn when he hails Kruge.) Robin Curtis is also a bit of a step down from Kirsty Alley, reading her lines with these weird dramatic pauses as a way of trying to seem emotionless.

Still, it’s a solid film and fitting follow-up to The Wrath of Khan, one offering a far broader view of the Star Trek universe.

Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:

7 Responses

  1. I’m glad to see you defending this movie: I think it was the first Star Trek thing I’ve seen, and I liked it immediately. It’s not perfect, but it’s a ton of fun.

  2. Nice review, glad there are others out there who are fans of The Search for Spock. For me, it’s up there toe to toe with Wrath of Khan – these two films carry the earliest memories of Star Trek that I can recall.

    It’s exciting and emotional in equal turns and despite the lack of Nimoy’s Spock (and to an extent, Uhura) is a great ensemble piece for the original cast…not to mention James Horner’s wonderful score!

    Have to disagree with you a tad though, I feel that the effects are comparable to most science fiction films of the time and arguably hold up better than Wrath of Khan.

    I’d also have to say that I think Christopher Lloyd was excellent (truly threatening and appropriately maniacal without becoming pantomime) and I would even – controversially – rank him a close second behind Montalben.

    • No worries! Life would be boring if everybody agreed on everything!

      While the effects are far superior to – say – The Final Frontier, I still think they look a bit ropey, particularly at the climax. That said, the model work is fantastic and that image of Kruge wrestling a worm has become shorthand for the movie for a reason.

      I like Lloyd a lot, but I’d place him behind Montalban and Plummer. Chang is just absolutely wonderful, swirling in his chair to chew more scenery.

  3. Am I the only one who notices, that while this is a good(ish) film, it looks way cornier than Wrath of Khan? Wrath of Khan looks like a totally serious Sci-Fi film, and just overall looks cool. This film looks and feels far goofier and far more “80s” for lack of a better term.

    • Oh it does. Nimoy is not as efficient with the budget as Meyer had been. And Shatner would be even worse. But it also has more ambition than The Wrath of Khan and tries to tell a story with a wider scope.

      Its eighties-ness is a large part of the charm to me. And the fact that it is really the first Star Trek ensemble piece. And really the point at which the Star Trek universe really galvinises into something that exists with a life beyond what appears on screen. (The Klingon language! Vulcan tourist sites! A direct sequel to the preceding story! Politics within Starfleet!)

  4. I find it interesting that the best scene of the movie, when Kirk falls to the floor in shock and grief, the lowest moment for the character in the entire franchise, happened by accident. According the Shatner, the script called for him to slump into his chair, but he missed and hit the floor, but choose to continue acting. There was some debate about it, but it seems like this is the case because when the camera follows Kirk to the floor, Scotty’s shoulder is distractedly in the shot, which causes a continuity error since the scene cuts to Scotty looking at Kirk, which he clearly facing forward in the Kirk shot.

    Still, I point this is the quintessential moment that Search for Spock was better than Into Darkness. In STID, magic blood brought back Kirk with no consequences, and when Khan killed hundreds of thousands people by spitefully crashed his starship into those buildings, he was crammed into a freezer instead of being prosecuted for his crimes. Things happened in STID that resembled TWOK, but with seemingly no consequences. Compare to the Search for Spock where Kirk seemingly sacrifices everything, his career, his son, the Enterprise, just for the chance to bring back Spock. One of the greatest action climaxes of Search for Spock is when they “have cleared spacedoors”, essentially backing out the garage, but the moment feel epic and exciting. It was the story that was driving the scene, and it still exciting to watch today. At no point did Nimoy feel the need to spice things up by having the Enterprise fire phasers at the Excelsior or have Kirk punch McCoy repeatedly in the face during the sequence.

    Search for Spock did wonders for world building, and laying the foundations of the future Franchise, and most of the scenes, while not flashy, were important and iconic. I’m afraid the reboot movies aren’t building anything at all. Cartoon villains keep popping up with ridiculous motivations because the reboot universe isn’t properly built up yet, and it all falls flat. TWOK and TSFS all worked well because there were years of history behind everything, when the Enterprise blew up, you felt the blow as the pop culture icon slowly ripped apart. But the reboot series is so impatient and lazy, that it’ll continue to rip off the old series without understanding it. The “new” Enterprise has only been on screen for a few hours, and they destroy it before we’ve even gotten to know it. It took the TOS case an entire movie to get another Enterprise, in Beyond, it just took a few minutes. The ship, much like the reboot series, is entirely disposable it seems. The new series is so lacking in imagination, I would not be surprised at all if the forth movie involved humpback whales or time travel.

    It’s also strange to think that these early Star Trek movies seem to be far more topical today. It’s the Federation that’s developed the doomsday weapon, and we see the political ramifications play out. The reason we see Kruge acting the way he does is purely a reaction to the Genesis device, even as thin of a character as he is, he’s still got a legitimate motivation which makes him more interesting. In the reboot series, the villains always have a doomsday weapon because their the villain. At least the doomsday weapon in Insurrection was related to medical technology that would have saved an entire race from extinction, and they worked to avoid any casualties, adding dimension to the villain race, all of which is absent in the reboots. Villains are bad and you don’t need to think about it.

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