You can’t keep a good Vulcan down. Farewell, Leonard.
Who made it?: Leonard Nimoy (Director), Harve Bennett (Writer/Producer), Paramount Pictures.
Who’s in it?: William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Robin Curtis, Merritt Butrick, Christopher Lloyd, Leonard Nimoy.
Tagline: “The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”
IMDb rating: 6.5/10.
Trekkers were bowled over by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Not only is it generally regarded as the best film featuring the original crew, but many call it the greatest Trek production of all time. It hit home due to a darker script, an iconic villain, and a certain Vulcan’s demise. That isn’t really a spoiler, of course, as the title of the third film gives away his resurrection.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock could never hope to live up to Nicholas Meyer’s cracking sequel, but it did mark a couple of firsts for the franchise. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, would become the lead actor in the saga to direct a feature, and it would also follow on from the film that preceded it, setting in motion a trilogy of sorts concluded in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). No-one should see The Search for Spock without having Khan and Voyage to hand, making it entirely worthy in retrospect. I’m also happy to report that III invalidates the unwritten rule that odd-numbered Trek films are crap, because this is potentially the most underrated entry in the film continuum to date.
The Search for Spock picks-up not long after II ended, even beginning with a reprieve of that film’s sacrifice. The Enterprise struggles to get back to Earth after Khan’s attack over the Genesis device; an experimental terraforming contraption that created an entire world. After saying their tearful goodbyes to Spock, whose remains have been launched into orbit around the Genesis planetoid, the crew prepare to move on. But it isn’t going to be easy. Kirk (William Shatmer) is clearly affected by the loss of his friend, and even “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is taking it badly. It turns out that Spock was able to transfer his spirit – or “katra” – into the doctor before taking his final breath. This leads Kirk to steal the Enterprise from space dock and return to the Genesis world, which has given life to a fresh Spock body from his remains. If they can get him back to the Vulcan homeworld, his father Sarek (Mark Lenard) might be able to transfer Spock’s consciousness into his new form.
Making matters more difficult is a dastardly Klingon crew, led by Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), who want the Genesis device by any means necessary…
The Search is Spock is very much a celebration of the show’s most enduing figure. The future Vulcan Ambassador is absent for much of the running time, but his memory very much powers the film. It’s almost a deconstruction of the character’s importance to early Star Trek. The other crewmembers, as well as the audience, are adrift without his sage wisdom and stern logicality. The film is all the more poignant because it is directed by the title character himself. It’s no secret that Nimoy wasn’t keen on continuing to play the Enterprise’s science officer, and it was largely his directorial status that convinced him to return. His two autobiographies, I Am Not Spock (1975) and I Am Spock (1995), reveal the evolving mindset of a man whose entire life has been split between the pointy-eared alien and himself. There was clearly no-one better to make this particular story, and while he is the catalyst for the plot, his fellow stars lead the way. Nimoy, ever gracious, even omits his name from the opening cast credits.
Star Trek III has been classed as a talky, sometimes direction-less affair, but the truth of the matter is that it develops the characters wonderfully. Nimoy’s steady pacing gives off the impression that very little of consequence happens, but there are some sizeable ramifications on the continuity in this film. Not to get too spoiler-y, but The Search for Spock features Kirk throwing away his career on a personal crusade, a particularly destructive space battle, and another unexpected loss that gives weight to the frivolous sci-fi trappings. There is real drama here for the characters to wrestle with, showing new sides to both Kirk and McCoy that make it a necessary entry. In fact, the familiar faces give some of their better turns, with special mention made to Kelley for successfully conveying a man with a unique identity crisis. To Nimoy’s credit, no-one is merely content to just go through the motions, and when Spock inevitably reappears, it feels like an actual victory.
Not that the film is pretentious or pre-occupied with its weighty ideas. The action enabled by the Klingons leads to some thrilling moments, and also allows for the memorable Lloyd (one year before Back to the Future) to sink his teeth into a despicable villain. Kruge is no Khan, but he is merciless and willing to go down in a blaze of glory, making him one of the more entertaining antagonists across the twelve pictures. He even gets a climactic tussle with Shatner that would have felt right at home in The Original Series. The Search for Spock is not an action film, but it does incorporate the pyrotechnics you expect to see.
The film ultimately works, however, due to Nimoy’s fine craftsmanship. Visually, this is one of the better entries in the franchise, with cinematographer Charles Correll employing beautiful lighting which has been given a new lease of life in HD. The effects have dated well, too, rarely taking you out of the carefully controlled mood and maintaining the majestic sweep of its predecessors. Nimoy also had the common sense to bring back composer James Horner, who updates his themes from Khan and successfully ties the films together. There is so much competence here that I can forgive Spock‘s slow spots and the bland environments where much of the plot plays out. Such things are mere quibbles when the story is told with such intelligence and care.
Over thirty years later, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is looking more and more like the franchise’s most undervalued chapter and one that certainly gets better the older you are. Like the previous film, the themes of ageing, duty, self-sacrifice, and loss really strike a chord, resulting in a final reel that brings new life to a character too good to rest peacefully. Emotions may not run deep in Vulcans, but they do in The Search for Spock.
How to steal a Federation starship.
- The villains of the film were originally intended to be Romulans, but upper studio management wanted Klingons to be used since they were better-known enemies. By the time the decision was made, the Romulan ship was already built and they did not want the expense of replacing it. However, since the original Star Trek series had already established that the Klingons and Romulans had shared technologies and ships in the past (for exactly the same real-world cost-cutting reasons), the idea of Klingons using a Romulan-style vessel was not a problem.
- Production was endangered by the great fire at Paramount. William Shatner helped fight the fire and rescue a crewmember before firefighter reinforcements arrived. Shatner said that his motivation for doing so was purely to save a day on the shooting schedule, as he had a make a deadline to be available for shooting on a new season of T.J. Hooker.
- When the Enterprise enters space dock at the beginning of the movie, just before Uhura comments on the Excelsior’s appearance (“Would you look at that!”), another docked ship can be seen, in shadow, at the upper left corner of the screen. This ship is one of the alternative models that was considered for use as the Excelsior. This alternate model also makes several appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation, usually as a wrecked ship or piece of space junk.
- Tribbles, a popular creature from the episode “The Trouble with Tribbles”, make a cameo appearance during the bar sequence where McCoy tries to hire a ship.
- Future star of Battlestar Galactica, Edward James Olmos, was Nimoy’s original choice for the role of Kruge. However, executive producer Harve Bennett preferred Christopher Lloyd.
- The few Klingon phrases that Mark Lenard introduced in Star Trek: The Motion Picture was used by Marc Okrand as the basis for the Klingon language in this film. Okrand’s Klingon language became a fully realized fictional language, and would be the basis for all future Klingon dialogue in future movies and television series (as well as an obsession to become fluent in for hardcore Star Trek fans).