Continuing from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and The Wrath of Khan, is The Search for Spock. Originally, Khan was intended to be the final film, however, Paramount Pictures commissioned The Search for Spock after Khan performed well. According to Den of Geek‘s article, “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock isn’t “Trek-lite”“:
The recent passing of Leonard Nimoy demonstrates exactly why Star Trek’s relentless optimism pulled in so many fans. In sci-fi, death is generally cheap, undone by the stealing of a starship and a healthy dose of improbable science. In Trek, Spock was never really dead. In reality, Leonard Nimoy has died, it sucks, and the only thing left to do is mourn. I know which reality I prefer.
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock might seem like the inevitable sequel, but at the time Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan was supposed to be the end of the franchise. Yet the renewed interest by not only fans, but the cast, meant that once Star Trek II was successful, the future of the franchise was guaranteed. And it was in this situation Leonard Nimoy did something incredibly bold – he walked into Paramount and said he’d only return as Spock if he could direct Star Trek III. Instead of being laughed out of the place, he instead won executives over with his knowledge, gained from studying his art in an appropriately Spock-like way.
Nimoy’s task was to not only come up with a story that could plausibly bring Spock back from the dead, but to continue the expansion of the series and bring more elements from the TV series into the movie continuity. The original script, however, differed wildly from the finished version. For a start, Genesis would be stable, and become Spock’s home. He would be discovered by a Romulan mining party, who would die at his hand. At the same time, there would be a civil war with Vulcan, in the aftermath of the Genesis device.
Some of these elements survived, but the focus gradually shifted from Vulcans and Romulans to Klingons, who would take on both the antagonistic roles. But the key idea of the struggle between life and death remained. The ultimate death would therefore be of the franchise’s icon, the Enterprise. Originally supposed to be a secret, Paramount instead decided to make it the focus of the trailers, which drummed up interest but ruined the most dramatic twist. See also: the latest Terminator Genisys trailer.
Producer Harve Bennett claimed that Star Trek III was the easiest script he had ever written, simply starting with Spock’s resurrection, then working backwards. But for a film which should become lighter, instead this sequel would naturally follow a darker, more introspective path. What ultimately followed was very dark, perhaps darker than people give it credit for.
Simply, if The Wrath Of Khan was about life, and how one chooses to live it, Star Trek III was about death, and how one chooses to accept it. It’s clear that after building up such a friendship with Spock, Kirk wouldn’t deal with it too well. Despite ending The Wrath Of Khan on a relatively upbeat note with Kirk finding newfound purpose (“I feel… young”), by the time of Star Trek III he clearly has nothing left to live for. The entire crew is in the process of being reassigned (including Saavik), his son David is too no longer around, and the Enterprise is deemed unsalvageable. The grim reality of his (and the Enterprise’s) age has finally caught up with him. It might as well not be the Enterprise being decommissioned but Kirk himself.
Then there’s the small matter of Dr McCoy, who by this point has gone quite mad, taking to breaking into Spock’s quarters and mumbling to himself in the dark. The reason was that Spock’s katra, his soul, was now living in McCoy’s brain, thanks to a mind meld just before Spock’s death. While the mind meld was actually a case of throwing in a hope spot, the reason given in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock ties in quite nicely with some of the Vulcan mysticism shown in the series. It also provided the perfect set up – Kirk can either lose McCoy as well, or he can risk everything to try and save both his friends. As McCoy puts it “you do what you always do – turn death into a fighting chance to live.”
The final ingredient is the fallout from Genesis, both literal and political. The planet created during the Reliant’s destruction is a place of scientific interest, but also a weapon of mass destruction detonated near the Klingon border. They are naturally all kinds of pissed off, wanting to harness the 1.21 gigawatts of power for their flux capacitors. Wait, sorry, that was the other Christopher Lloyd movie from the mid ’80s. They still want the secrets though, and are keen on tracking down any scientists involved, and of course, Kirk himself.
I’m torn as to whether the plot of this film provides a companion piece for The Wrath Of Khan, or instead provides Trek’s first reset-button plot. By the end of the film all the characters are in different places from where they started, but they’re far closer to the status quo than they were at the start of the movie. As much as I know I shouldn’t, I come down on the side of the faithful companion piece. Certainly, The Wrath Of Khan was more expertly put together, had fewer problems, and had a far more important role in revitalising the franchise.
But it also missed that crucial Trek philosophy so prevalent in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Some have said that Wrath of Khan was a submarine movie, not a Star Trek movie, and they’re right. The Search For Spock attempted to combine the two – musings on the meaning of life, death and friendship, but with explosions.
It was here that the franchise accidentally set itself a template that led to the odd numbered curse, yet also ensured the series would be at the cinema for decades to follow. Every even numbered film sought to undo the previous entry’s eccentricities by returning to simpler, more cinematic themes. Then, after the success of the film (and accusations of being “Trek-lite”) the producers introduced more heavy themes in the odd numbered sequel, with mixed results. The poor reaction of these ‘misguided’ films led to the follow up to be more simplified and streamlined. Each iteration trimmed the chaff of the previous cycle, distilling the franchise into its most cinematic form, allowing it to constantly reinvent itself while staying true to the ideals of Star Trek. The Search For Spock is possibly the the most successful at mixing the philosophy and the action – the best of both worlds.
In fact, I’m going to risk my licence as an internet writer and say that I actually think Star Trek III: The Search For Spock is a better film than The Wrath Of Khan.
According to the Den of Geek retrospective review:
Two years after the release of The Wrath Of Khan, the crew of the Enterprise returns and they’re looking for someone. Maybe you’ve seen him? With Star Trek II being another success, Paramount now knew that this Trek film thing was not some flash in the pan. This was a franchise that could be virtually guaranteed to rake it in every few years.
Spock’s death in the previous film meant there was plenty of meat for the next chapter, so here it is, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. Directed by Leonard Nimoy, The Search For Spock serves as the middle act of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Genesis Trilogy’ and opens with a flashback to the decisive events of the previous film, the Enterprise winding its way wearily home after the events of TWOK.
Kirk is still struggling to come to terms with Spock’s passing, and remarks that with his newfound son transferred to another ship (along with Saavik) the Enterprise feels like ‘a house with all the children gone.’ McCoy, too is not himself, and is found by Kirk in Spock’s quarters, doing what I guess, in Star Trek terms, would be a Spock Tribute act. Sadly, we don’t get a Vulcan rendition of Suspicious Minds or The Wonder Of You.
Meanwhile, we learn that a Klingon agent has stolen the Genesis proposal (although William Shatner is now explaining what’s what, presumably to save giving Bibi Besch a second pay-cheque for playing Carol Marcus) and passed it to a renegade commander, Kruge (played by Christopher Lloyd), who is intent to make the Genesis secrets his own.
The Enterprise arrives back to Earth to the shock of the assembled onlookers (and a nice little cameo from Grace Lee Whitney) and the crew is informed the Enterprise will not be refitted and Scotty will be transferred to the new USS Excelsior; seems like the crew will be split up.
Gathering to discuss their future, and the health of Dr. McCoy, they are interrupted by Spock’s father, Sarek, who believes Kirk is carrying his son’s ‘katra’, the Vulcan equivalent of a soul, which at times of near death, a Vulcan may pass to a member of their family, or somebody they consider to be as good as.
After Kirk pops on the DVD of the Wrath Of Khan (although from the numbers on screen, I think it may be a hooky copy, or maybe a screener) it becomes apparent that Spock was unable to pass his Katra to Kirk, but instead passed it to the good Doctor.
We then join Saavik and David aboard the USS Gutless, sorry, USS Grissom, where they are busy surveying the Genesis planet. The ship’s sensors detect a life-form, which they beam down to investigate. McCoy meanwhile, is being driven to find Spock’s body, and like some intergalactic salmon, tries to charter a ship.
Sadly, he finds no trace of Han Solo, or anyone else willing to take him to the restricted sector, and is quickly arrested and after a failed attempted at a Vulcan nerve pinch, sectioned.
Over drinks with Admiral Morrow, Kirk is told there is no way he can return to Genesis, so with the help of his senior officers, rescues McCoy from the hospital and sets about stealing the Enterprise. Thanks to some extra help from Scotty, the USS Excelsior is unable to pursue, and with Chekov ditching the oddest wardrobe choice in the 23rd century, the Enterprise is on her way, to rescue Spock’s body, and save Dr McCoy’s mind.
A pity then, that the Captain of the Grissom wasn’t quite as canny as old JTK, and failed to notice the Klingons watching under cloak, because before you can say ‘The Trouble With Tribbles‘ the Grissom is little more than space debris, leaving Saavik and Marcus at the mercy of the Klingons.
The Klingons quickly track down Spock, Saavik and David and with the Enterprise nearing Genesis, Kruge returns to the Bird-of-Prey, keen to face the legendary Kirk in battle. gets the upper hand, but with Scotty’s computer bypass system overloaded, Kirk tries to bluff the Klingon into surrender. But it seems Kirk has met his match, and is one of the few people to see though the Captain’s poker face and reveals he holds three prisoners on the planet.
David informs Kirk that Genesis doesn’t work, and that the planet is destroying itself. Kruge orders one of the prisoners killed as a show of his strength, and as the Kilngon moves to kill Saavik, David intervenes, eventually being killed. Kirk is a broken man, and with no way out, orders the destruction of the Enterprise, whilst luring the Klingons onto the doomed ship.
Thankfully, Kirk’s kung-fu is much better than Kruge’s and after dispatching the Klingon to a lava-based death, the Enterprise crew successfully steal the Bird-of-Prey and make their way to Vulcan.
After returning to his home world, the Vulcans are able to reinstall Spock’s katra and after rebooting him, he’s good as new and Kirk has once again cheated death. Kirk 2 – Death nil…
The best thing about SFS has to be DeForest Kelley. He finally gets a decent portion of screen time, and his performance shines. The scene in the bar is brilliant, and it really shows how gifted an actor he was. The pitch and timing is perfect, you really do believe this man has Spock’s soul inside him.
Christopher Lloyd also deserves credit for his performance as Kruge (Nimoy originally wanted to cast Edward James Olmos, thankfully Paramount said ‘no’, you can’t have a Klingon in command of the Colonial Fleet and the Battlestar Galactica!)
Like his counterpart on TWOK, Nimoy’s direction succeeds in getting another good performance from Shatner; the scene where he learns of David’s death and the loss of the Enterprise is particularly touching, as is his ultimate reunion with Spock as the film concludes.
As usual for a Star Trek film, the special effects are great, the stand-out scenes being Kirk stealing the Enterprise (again, accompanied by some superb music from James Horner) and the destruction of the ship, Industrial Light and Magic underline their excellent work on the previous film and the introductions of the various new ships and starbases work well.
Where the film falls down, however, is with the Genesis planet itself. To be blunt, it looks cheap. TV show cheap. Paramount once again tightened the purse strings and plans to shoot Genesis scenes in Hawaii were deemed too expensive, and in my opinion, it hurts the film.
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock is a good film, certainly not on a par with Khan, but a fine entry in the franchise, and certainly good enough to break the rule that ‘every odd numbered Star Trek film is crap’.