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Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (DC Comics, 1984) (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.

In 1984, DC secured the license to print Star Trek comics. They retained the license into the nineties, allowing the publisher to release their own comic book adaptations of each of the four remaining classic Star Trek movies. They even got to publish an adaptation of Star Trek: Generations before the rights transferred to Marvel. Mike W. Barr and Tom Sutton got to produce 64-page adaptations of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, lending some consistency to the last two instalments in the trilogy that began with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

While its impressive visuals and relaxed pacing meant that Star Trek: The Motion Picture leant itself to a comic book adaptation, The Search for Spock is not quite as nice a fit for the medium. The movie’s plot is quite complicated, with lots of things going on at different times with different characters in different locations. One of the joys of the film is the way that it tries to turn Star Trek into an ensemble piece in Spock’s absence, with each of the main characters getting a moment in the sun during the Enterprise jailbreak. The comic simply doesn’t have the space to do this, and the result is an adaptation feels a little compressed.

At the same time, though, writer Mike W. Barr does get to showcase his love of the franchise, and his deft technical skill.

Let's see what's out there...

Let’s see what’s out there…

There’s a lot of material to cover in the space afforded, and Barr manages to include just about everything in the comic. In particular, the opening exchange between Saavik and David Marcus is clearly structured to bring readers up to speed. (The film does the same thing, to a lesser extent.) This leads to awkward moments where Saavik says things like “you must be very proud of what you and your mother have created”, in order to make sure that the audience is up to speed on everything.

Similarly, we get a bit more foreshadowing of what is happening with McCoy. In the film, McCoy first appears in Spock’s quarters. Here, there’s a short scene between Kirk and McCoy before that which spells out – quite clearly – what is going on. Indeed, Kirk actually warns McCoy, “Damn it, Bones, don’t quote Spock to me!” It’s a nice character moment that effectively underscores the fact that one member of this iconic trio is missing.

Snakes in the garden...

Snakes in the garden…

The Search for Spock is very much the first ensemble Star Trek story. Without Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, there’s more room for focus on the supporting characters. Sulu, Uhura and Scotty all get their moments in the sun. While the comic preserves these moments, there isn’t enough space to relish them. Here, Sulu only retroactively refers to the guard calling him “Tiny” and gets a more efficient karate chop rather than a judo flip. The sequence with Uhura begins after she has locked “Mr. Adventure” in the closet.

Instead, Barr more tightly focuses The Search for Spock around Kirk and McCoy. In addition to that early turbolift conversation, there’s more emphasis on McCoy trying to fill Spock’s niche. After the crew hijack the Enterprise, there’s more focus on McCoy acting as a stand-in science officer than there is in the film. While most of the rest of the cast had their scenes cut and shortened, a lot of the McCoy-centric sequences are retained in the comic book adaptation.



Even Kirk gets a bit more room to breath here. The death of David Marcus is somewhat glossed over in the film – Kirk sees the body, is devastated by the loss; and pretty much immediately gets his groove back. Here, Kirk is allowed a moment to grieve, quoting a brief eulogy from The Two Noble Kinsmen over his son’s dead body.There’s a sense that Barr is writing a more traditionalist adaptation of The Search for Spock, keeping a tighter focus on the leading trio.

The Search for Spock is structured remarkably well. Reading the comic, there’s a sense that Mike W. Barr is very familiar with how best to construct a comic book story. Even with the all the demands of the plot, the 64-page special is structured remarkably well. These demands – the sheer volume of ground to be covered – mean that Barr has to switch locations and subplots in the middle of pages, and means that the destruction of the Enterprise cannot have its own splash. However, he keeps the story flowing well throughout.

Two minds, as one...

Two minds, as one…

There are a number of lovely transitions and juxtapositions throughout the comic, with Barr understanding how best to use the medium for dramatic pacing and building suspense. One of the nicer smaller touches comes as Barr places Kirk’s appeal to Admiral Morrow on a right-hand page. As Kirk leaves the meeting, his fellow officers ask how the meeting went. In the final panel on the page, Kirk concedes, “The word is no.”

Barr leaves the inevitable follow-up (“I am therefore going anyway”) until the first panel of the following page. It’s a deft touch that allows the story to pace itself, inserting a beat where the reader has to turn to the page to continue the story. Most readers turn a page in a second or so, but Barr cleverly turns that into a pregnant pause – creating a sense of anticipation for what might be waiting on the next page of the comic. (He does the same thing with the destruction of the Enterprise – the countdown is on the right-hand page, the explosion on the next left hand page; forcing the reader to turn the page to see what happens.)

Talk about a cliffhanger...

Talk about a cliffhanger…

Barr is also quite mindful of continuity and the larger Star Trek mythos. His opening arc of DC’s on-going Star Trek comic, Errand of War!, was quite Klingon-centric. He devotes a little effort in his adaptation of The Search for Spock to flesh out the Klingon antagonists. “By Kahless–!” one random Klingon declares at the comic’s climax, a nice shout-out to Barr’s familiarity with the franchise’s lore. Writing a comic book adaptation gives the author a bit more freedom to engage with esoteric Star Trek than a multi-million dollar blockbuster. (He even quotes The City on the Edge of Forever.)

It’s well-known that The Search for Spock had originally been intended to feature the Romulans, and that is likely why the portrayal of the Klingons in the film differs so dramatically from what came before. Barr can’t entirely reconcile the two without changing the story, but he does try to smooth over some of the rougher edges. Barr gives Kruge a bit more personality than he had in the film, trying to present the character as something of a worthy adversary for Kirk.

We salute you, Vulcan mystics!

We salute you, Vulcan mystics!

“He destroyed himself,” Kruge reflects as the Enterprise explodes, “the one thing I didn’t anticipate… a human has been bolder, more ruthless than I… that is the real dishonour!” Indeed, Barr seems to suggest that this sense of honour and pride is what leads Kruge to remain on Genesis with Kirk and Spock as the planet burns up around him. The movie never provides an explicit justification for why Kruge – who has the upper hand – would risk it all in a fist-fight with Kirk. (Particularly when he could probably just beam Kirk and Spock up and torture them for information, as he planned to do with Saavik.)

Barr tries to paper over this possible plot hole. He seems to suggest that Kruge is focused on regaining his personal honour, avenging the humiliation of being outwitted by a quick-thinking human. It’s hardly the most water-tight of justifications, but it fits with what we know about Kruge. After all, Kruge is a character who would kill his own lover to meet the demands of his personal honour.

Together again, naturally...

Together again, naturally…

Tom Sutton does great work here. The actor likenesses are generally very good – particularly in close-up. Sutton is also very good at ship-to-ship combat. In a nice touch, the Bird of Prey appears to materialise upside down when it confronts the smugglers, a nice acknowledgement that space is a 3D plane. There are some endearingly “comic book” visuals and concepts; in particular, the fact that the Vulcan temple seems to have a giant monument built in the shape of the iconic “live long and prosper” salute.

The Search for Spock might not lend itself to adaptation as smoothly as The Motion Picture did. However, it is a nice glimpse of how Mike W. Barr sees the Star Trek universe, and an interesting translation of some fascinating source material.

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