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Star Trek III: The Search for Spock by Vonda N. McIntyre (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home form a loose trilogy following the death and resurrection of the franchise’s most iconic character. The events of each leads into the next, and there’s a very clear pattern of cause and effect that brings you from Saavik’s Kobayashi Maru test through to Kirk’s assignment to the Enterprise-A. The start of each of the three films picks up from the end of the last one. It brings the characters involved on a full arc.

However, despite this, there is a bit of a disconnect between the feature films – perhaps inevitable for three movies conceived separately one-after-another. The Wrath of Khan is a story about how Kirk is perhaps broken, too old and too reckless to keep doing the stuff that he does; The Search for Spock shrugs that off by having Kirk joyride on the Enterprise. The Wrath of Khan introduces a next generation of characters in the form of Kirk’s son David Marcus and Spock’s protégé Saavik; The Search for Spock kills David and The Voyage Home dismisses Saavik.

While The Search for Spock might begin with the Enterprise limping back to Earth following the confrontation with Khan, it seems to gloss over every part of The Wrath of Khan that isn’t directly related to the death of Spock. Genesis is carried over as Spock’s final resting place, but Khan isn’t mentioned, nor is the Reliant; Carol Marcus doesn’t appear; the deaths of the cadets on the cruise and the staff of Regula I are somewhat glossed over.

The most interesting aspect of Vonda McIntyre’s adaptation of The Search for Spock is the way that it makes a point to carry over elements from The Wrath of Khan into the story. Indeed, McIntyre is almost a third of the way into the book before reaching the actual plot. The result is an interesting novel that feels more like a sequel to The Wrath of Khan than a direct rebuttal, as the film had been.


In many ways, The Wrath of Khan is a story that condemns Kirk as a character. Even if the final version of the film confirms that Kirk knew about his illegitimate son, it still paints a less-than-flattering picture of our hero. It suggests that he is reckless and arrogant glory hound whose poor decisions just keep coming back to haunt him and the people that he loves. Boasting about he doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario, his best friend and dutiful second-in-command winds up sacrificing his life so that the crew may survive.

In contrast, the feature film version of The Search for Spock rejects this idea. Kirk and his friends reverse Spock’s sacrifice while rocketing around the galaxy and proving that they are not too old for space-adventuring. The movie kills of Kirk’s son, a character introduced in the previous film, and features Kirk allowing the Enterprise to go out in a blaze of glory. The Search for Spock is firm reversal of the deconstruction present in The Wrath of Khan. The Wrath of Khan feels almost mournful and funereal, while The Search for Spock is a joyous and vibrant.

In contrast, McIntyre’s novelisation is a bit more skeptical of Kirk. The opening third of the novel emphasises the consequences of The Wrath of Khan, the high price that is glossed over during the opening of The Search for Spock. There is a wake for all those lost during the last adventure, not just Spock. Carol Marcus reflects on the loss of the staff on Regula I. Scotty visits his sister with news about Peter Preston. It feels a lot more connected the consequences of The Wrath of Khan than the film itself.

In many ways, McIntyre is capitalising on the differences between a novel and a major feature film. The theatrical release of The Search for Spock could not afford to spend forty minutes dwelling on the legacy of the last film. After all, the cast had a crewmate to rescue. In contrast, the novelisation has a bit more freedom to get inside the head of various characters, a bit more room to expand on these ideas and the luxury of different expectations of pacing.

As with McIntyre’s work on The Wrath of Khan, this very much feels like an established science-fiction novelist working in a medium she understands. The best adaptations appreciate that a direct translation is not always ideal. Film and books (and even comics) tell stories in different ways and with different strengths. McIntyre approaches The Search for Spock as a novel, rather than as a film translated into prose.

Still, there is very much a shift in emphasis here. Opening with the wake (and spending considerable time meditating on losses that aren’t reversed before the end of the novel) means that McIntyre’s novelisation feels a lot heavier and meditative than the source material. Indeed, the version of Kirk presented here is not a rebuttal to the flawed iteration presented in The Wrath of Khan, but an expansion.

Kirk is still self-centred and disconnected. Much like he seized the opportunity to command the Enterprise to assuage his fear of growing old, here he tries to seduce Carol to drown out his guilt. Far from indulging him, Carol calls him out on his lack of awareness or interest in anything she has been saying:

“Carol, I don’t understand.”

“Vance Madison and I were lovers!”

“I didn’t realise,” he said lamely.

“You would have, if you’d listened. I’ve been trying to talk about him. I just wanted to talk about him to somebody. Even to you.”

As such, Kirk’s mission to rescue Spock seems a little less like the heroic arrival of the cavalry and more like another indulgence on his part.

McIntyre is somewhat restricted in her deconstruction of Kirk by the script itself. The narrative of The Search for Spock makes Kirk a much less ambiguous protagonist than he was in The Wrath of Khan. There, his unilateral decision to stand a genocidal madman on a random planet without telling anybody caused untold destruction, exacerbated by Kirk’s decision to lead a cadet crew on a dangerous mission. Here, Kirk gets to save Spock, save Saavik and prevent the Klingons from getting ahold of Genesis. While there are costs, it’s still a much more clear-cut victory.

That said, McIntyre compensates by making David a much more significant character and by stressing his connections to Kirk. For example, the two get to properly converse at the start of the novel, and Kirk sits in on David’s assignment to Genesis. McIntyre’s decision to emphasis the relationship between David and Saavik is an even more explicit mirroring of Kirk and Spock than the version presented in the film, and the decision to involve the two romantically seems like an affectionate nod towards a certain segment of Star Trek fandom.

This decision to emphasise the similarities between James T. Kirk and David Marcus has a number of interesting consequences.  Most obviously, it means that David’s death carries a bit more weight than it does in the film. However, it also makes a stronger connection between David’s reckless behaviour and that of Kirk. “And how many have paid the price for your impatience?” Saavik demands at one point, leading the reader to wonder if the same could be asked of his father. “How many have died? How much damage have you caused and what is yet to come”

(Indeed, while The Search for Spock largely reduces David Marcus and Saavik to a plot thread responsible for recovering Spock, McIntyre’s novel keeps the two heavily foregrounded. It’s clear that McIntyre is quite interested in these two new characters. Most notably, she even comments on the poetic symmetry of the relationship between Saavik and Spock here. Confronting his regenerated body, Saavik observes,“He is not so different from what I was when… when he found me a scavenger, illiterate certainly, almost completely inarticulate…” A full circle.)

McIntyre’s novel is packed with lots of other touches that clearly mark it as her own vision of Star Trek, little elements that distinguish this as a novel by Vonda N. McIntyre rather than a generic adaptation. Most obviously, her interest in Sulu bleeds through into the manuscript. The film version of The Search for Spock casually glossed over the suggestion that Sulu might command the Excelsior, helpfully assisted by William Shatner’s insistence that the released version of The Wrath of Khan cut any reference to Sulu’s promotion to captain.

McIntyre has a fondness for Sulu, and so heavily emphasised the line in her adaptation. Rather than letting the potential continuity issue slide, she takes the time to justify Stiles’ command of the Excelsior in The Search for Spock. Keeping with the film’s general presentation of Starfleet, McIntyre suggests that it is simply politics. Morrow assures Sulu, “Captain, after all the turmoil has died down, I promise you Starfleet will make this up to you. Even if things don’t turn out quite as we expect, you’ll find your cooperation well rewarded.”

As with her novelisation of The Wrath of Khan, there’s a sense that McIntyre isn’t completely on board with the socialist new age utopia that Roddenberry had crafted in his novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (Then again, Harve Bennett and Nicolas Meyer had also moved away from that depiction of Starfleet, playing up the body’s militarism.) McIntyre’s vision of Starfleet is one a lot more grounded in contemporary realities than the version presented in the films or television shows.

McIntyre suggests a Federation economy that isn’t entirely post-scarcity. Unlike the version on film or in television, Starfleet does seem concerned about resource management and costs. In the film, justifying the decision to scrap the Enterprise, Morrow simply offers, “We feel her day is over.” Here, Morrow offers a more fiscal reason, “But it simply isn’t cost-effective to bring it back to optimum.” We’re also told that transporters are “too expensive to use very often for personal business.”

It’s worth noting that McIntyre is far the only writer to suggest that the Federation would have to operate like a functioning economy, rather than existing as a post-scarcity fantasy. After all, the fact that the senior staff on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine spend time at Quark’s indicates that there must be some money changing hands. Even in the final version of The Search for Spock, McCoy tries to buy passage to Genesis with a smuggler.

Obviously things like ship production and ship repair cost resources and time, even in an economy that may or may not have a unit of currency. The fact that the Federation cannot replicate dilithium suggests that there will always be some measure of commerce in anything it does. However, it is interesting that McIntyre repeatedly stresses the idea both here and her adaptation of The Wrath of Khan, underscoring that economics must be a pressing concern for any society, even a futuristic one. The economics of the future are not quite that different.

McIntyre also works quite hard with the Klingon characters. Although The Search for Spock invented the Klingon language and really expanded the sense of a larger “Star Trek universe” where events have political consequences, it doesn’t do too much with Klingon culture. Kruge is an interesting character, but largely for what the movie doesn’t say about him. The Klingons seem to exist as a hurdle for Kirk to face to win back his friend.

McIntyre’s novelisation of The Search for Spock was the seventeenth book in the Star Trek line that McIntyre had launched with The Entropy Effect. The novel published directly prior was The Final Reflection, John M. Ford’s in-depth exploration of Klingon culture. The novel published directly after was My Enemy, My Ally, Diane Duane’s in-depth exploration of Romulan culture. It was clear that the Star Trek universe was radically expanding, and that the franchise was becoming more interested in cultures outside the Federation.

While McIntyre’s exploration of Klingon culture is not as in-depth as The Final Reflection, but that’s understandable. Still, McIntyre does take the time to stress that the Klingons are not just a generic assortment of bad guys. She suggests various subdivisions of Klingon society, and alludes to the Klingon concept of honour. These are elements that never made it into the finished version of The Search for Spock, where the Klingons feel like a convenient foil elevated by fantastic production design and a wonderful central performance.

McIntyre’s Star Trek movie novelisations are well worth a read, providing adaptations of three well-loved films that are thoughtful and insightful in their own way. McIntyre doesn’t offer a simple translation of the script into prose, instead building a novel around the source material. The results are intriguing and unique, to the point where it’s no surprise that the three novelisations were eventually packaged as an anthology under the title Duty, Honour, Redemption.

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