Re-Watching Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Written by: Harve Bennett
Produced by: Harve Bennett
Directed by: Leonard Nimoy

Release date: June 1, 1984
Stardate: 8210.3

Mission Summary

Enterprise returns to Earth to be decommissioned, with Kirk and the crew still mourning Spock. A visit from the Vulcan’s father, Sarek, offers some hope that their friend is only mostly dead–just before Spock gave his life to save the ship, he mind-melded with Dr. McCoy to implant his living spirit, or katra, in the doctor’s head. Kirk decides to go to the Genesis Planet to retrieve Spock’s body and take him to Vulcan, but there are two problems: Starfleet has classified Genesis as off-limits, and they don’t have a ship to get them there.

It takes a team effort from the old gang to steal the Enterprise from spacedock, but soon they’re on their way to Genesis, where Dr. David Marcus and Lt. Saavik have discovered a young Vulcan boy. The life-forming matrix of the planet has regenerated Spock’s dead body, but the planet is unstable, causing him to age at an accelerated rate. To make matters worse, the Klingons arrive on the scene to learn the secrets of Starfleet’s powerful new weapon.

Kirk arrives to find his son, Saavik, and a rejuvenated Spock held hostage by the Klingons. The enemy captain, Kruge, has David killed to force Kirk to surrender. To protect the lives of the others, Kirk agrees to give up his ship, but he has one more trick up his sleeve. He engages the self-destruct and beams down with his crew to Genesis, leaving Enterprise to blow up along with most of Kruge’s boarding crew. Kruge joins them on the rapidly deteriorating planet to demand information about Genesis from Kirk. The Klingon commander orders the other prisoners beamed up to the Bird of Prey, and he and Kirk tussle while the planet tears itself up around them. Kruge falls into a river of molten lava, and Kirk tricks the remaining Klingon aboard the Bird of Prey into beaming him to safety.

Now in control of the Klingon ship, Kirk and the human crew rendezvous with Sarek and Uhura on Vulcan. The difficult and risky fal-tor-pan ritual succeeds in reuniting Spock’s katra with his restored body. He slowly begins to remember his final moments and recognize his old friends. Spock lives!

Analysis

It’s a commonly accepted truth that the odd-numbered Star Trek films are bad and the even-numbered ones are good, which generally seems to hold true even through the Next Generation era–until we reach the disappointing Nemesis. But in my opinion, that isn’t the only exception to the “rule.” On this re-watch, I realized that Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is largely undeserving of its bad rap.

I’m as guilty as anyone for not liking it as much as the others, but you certainly can’t lump it in with The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier. Rather, I think the main problem with TSFS–and there are a few problems–is that it followed Star Trek II. It would be difficult for any Star Trek film to match the high quality of The Wrath of Khan, not to mention meet the inflated expectations of fans.

It doesn’t entirely fall into the “middle movie syndrome” that plagues many film trilogies. Though II, III, and IV do complete an overall character arc, The Voyage Home has a distinct plot that simply follows the events of TSFS, while TSFS cannot exist independently of TWoK. They even open TSFS with the final moments of TWoK, making it a kind of coda to the preceding movie.

Though TWoK is considered a true adventure movie, in the vein of the high seas exploits of Captain Horatio Hornblower, TSFS is even more of an adventure. It features a lot more swashbuckling, for one thing, and it can even be considered to be an action movie. There are two incredible sequences that I absolutely love in this film, which really make the movie for me: the theft of Enterprise, and her destruction.

It’s no surprise that those two key plot elements are so focused on the ship, arguably the real star of Star Trek. The opening narration of the series is, “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise…” Not, “I’m Captain James T. Kirk, and these are my tales.” As important as her captain and crew is, they aren’t indispensable; It doesn’t matter if your commander is Christopher Pike or James Kirk, but you couldn’t have had the show without Enterprise. I mentioned in my last review that seeing her so badly damaged in battle with Reliant provoked an emotional response; well, seeing the ship destroyed has as much impact, if not more impact, as seeing Spock die.

Enterprise is the common link among the crew on Star Trek. We saw in TMP how Kirk, Spock, and McCoy drifted apart when they were no longer serving together on the same ship. Learning that the ship is going to be decommissioned drew them all together in this movie for that toast at Kirk’s apartment, and stealing it from spacedock required all of their unique skills and connections. Sure, Kirk inspires loyalty in Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, and Uhura–just as the desire to help their friends Spock and McCoy does–but I think it’s Enterprise that commands the most loyalty. She brings them together once again for one final adventure, and she goes out in a blaze of glory befitting her storied past. Even though she looks different post-refit, this is the Enterprise we all watched on television and through two films, and it’s hard to say good-bye.

Even Kirk is stunned by what he has done as they watch the broken Enterprise burn up in Genesis’s atmosphere. He reacts with a quiet horror and regret that we rarely see once he has made a decision. I would argue that this is the first time Kirk has faced death, because he was directly responsible for it. He has learned that the only way to win the no-win scenario is to give up the thing he holds dearest–not just the son he barely knew, but his ship. It’s also poetic that as Spock gave up his life to get the ship “out of danger,” she has repaid that sacrifice with her own in order to save his life.

We’ve seen Kirk threaten the self-destruct before, with almost this exact same sequence, but this time it’s no bluff. It’s an act of desperation, and one we thrill at because of its tactical genius. But until we see the ship go down, we’re hoping that somehow she will survive, largely because Kirk has set up this expectation. He has cheated and won before, and we can’t believe he would actually go through with it. I can’t speak for other fans, but the destruction of Enterprise was one of the most affecting things I’ve seen in any of the films, particularly the explosion of the Bridge and saucer section. I was surprised by how quickly it’s over, because I remember it vividly, in slow motion, the way we remember so many awful moments. Though I imagine we’ll compare it more thoroughly to the loss of the Enterprise-D in Generations in a later re-watch, there really is no comparison: This sacrifice is much more powerful and the loss has more meaning, partially because the original Enterprise has so much more history behind her, and partially because the crash in Generations was pointless and stupid.

In fact, nothing drives the idea of the crew growing older more than the announcement that Enterprise is being mothballed, and the prospect of her ending up as a museum piece. It’s cutting when Morrow tells Kirk, “Jim, the Enterprise is twenty years old. We feel her day is over.” Never mind the fact that she was just refit and defeated a much newer ship in battle. He may as well be telling Kirk that he’s too old, confirming the Admiral’s worst fears. Stealing Enterprise is more than finding a way to get to Genesis–there were easier ways to do it–it’s a big “screw you” to Starfleet, and a chance to thumb their nose at the next generation that’s meant to replace them, Excelsior and her stuffy captain. If the future of Starfleet and the universe rests in the hands of captains like Styles, then they want no part of it, and they’re going to rescue Enterprise from her own terrible fate too.

I guess some other things happen in this movie, but they’re less interesting and goofy at times. Genesis ends up being a kind of fountain of youth, but as is always the case, it comes with too high a price. The Klingons are threatening enough, and even Christopher Lloyd is passable as a Klingon commander, but they really need to stop putting Kirk into hand-to-hand combat. That’s no way to settle a fight, especially at his age. The most surprising thing for me, which I realized years after seeing this for the first time, is that Saavik and Spock have sex right on screen, and the movie still had a PG rating!

The only other flaws in this movie is that it’s a little dated, even more so than its sequel, which takes advantage of that dating for comedic effect. In just the last ten years or so, which is probably when I last saw TSFS, the idea that Kirk is reviewing video tape footage, complete with static, is laughable. Similarly, as funny as it is for the Excelsior to stall out, the sputtering engine sounds are a little jarring and pushes the film’s humor closer to campy than it should be.

One other observation that gave me pause: when Kirk, McCoy, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura all gather to commiserate about Enterprise, they’re all wearing clothing that vaguely aligns with their cultures, which seems strange to me, if only because Kirk is wearing something that looks like a track suit. Their casual clothing later isn’t much better, and taught me a valuable lesson: choose your wardrobe carefully, because you might be stuck wearing the same clothes in the next movie.

Overall, TSFS was not as bad as I was expecting, based on my own recollection and the lowered appreciation that most fans have for it. Most of the dialogue is terrific, and as tense and action-packed as the film is, it’s also damn funny–maybe as funny as TVH. Plus, any Star Trek movie where the crew steals a starship from under Starfleet’s nose and then blow it up, and Spock gets some action, earns a spot near the top of my list.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 4

Torie Atkinson: In some ways, Star Trek III doesn’t fit the mold of anything else in Star Trek. It’s deeply sentimental, a paean to friendship and loyalty. The crew discovers no new planets or life forms and they flat-out mutiny against their sworn agency, the Federation. Morality and a personal sense of right and wrong trump intergalactic peace and the greater good. No one really saves the day, and by the time the credits roll the casualty list includes an entire ship’s complement of innocent bystanders as well as Kirk’s son. The spiritual and mystical aren’t supremely advanced computers or space douches or even rogue Nazi sympathizers, but observable and real. Basically, it’s just weird.

Even on re-watch I love the first hour of the film. It feels like a requiem, solemn and contemplative, yet somehow not depressing. The replay of the death scene (in blue, for some  reason) is a mistake–without the rest of Khan building up to it loses most of its emotional impact–but from there, the story flows beautifully. All of the characters feel haunted by Spock’s ghost, Kirk and Bones especially (and somewhat literally). Kirk’s response to the cadet’s request for a party, that they have paid for a celebration in dearest blood, still gives me shivers. Saavik and David’s discovery of a life form on Genesis and their pursuit of the mystery remains exciting. I still thrill at the appearance of Sarek, and the mind-meld between him and Kirk is one of the most moving scenes in Trek.

DeForest Kelley absolutely shines in this movie. It’s a delight to see him playing Spock, and just playing generally. I hadn’t realized until his scenes how underutilized he was throughout the series and how much he comes into his own in the movies from here on out. He has such talent, yet even in III he’s second fiddle to a largely absent Leonard Nimoy. When Kirk finds him in Spock’s room I get genuinely spooked, and his comedy scenes, including an otherwise silly Mos Eisley take-off, elevate the movie beyond camp. A bittersweetness permeates each of his appearances, too. When McCoy isn’t losing his mind, he finally admits how much he cared for Spock, and how sorry he is to have lost him. He gets a jibe in here or there (I love the line about the mind meld being a perverse kind of vengeance), but he and Kirk might have bonded over the loss. I felt the McCoy-Kirk friendship overall was artificially downplayed in order to make the Kirk-Spock one true pairing work. It’s a real shame. Nevertheless, his scenes are true highlights.

The Enterprise herself also looms largely in the film, and it’s high time she did. When they pull her into spacedock all battered and bruised, she reminded me of Kirk. Everyone else believes her days are over. Admiral Morrow says as much, and encourages her crew to move on to bigger and better things. Enterprise has been the crew’s (and the audience’s) constant companion for twenty years, though, and that’s something worth holding onto even in an ever-changing world. The scene where our heroes hijack the ship to go after Spock is one of my absolute favorites in all the movies. Scotty’s sabotage always felt a little off, but I love Uhura giving that jerk a taste of adventure, and Kirk and Sulu’s dramatic rescue of poor McCoy. The air escapes from that tense balloon when their major obstacle is a set of doors (seriously?!?!), but it was fun while it lasted.

I am still so disappointed by how the movie handles the destruction of the ship itself. The self-destruct sequence is actually pretty awesome as an idea, but none of the characters have a chance to say goodbye to the ship, even in some small way. It would have been a great opportunity to include a delicate touch here or there, or show some of the emotion that these people would be experiencing. After all, they’re destroying not just their ride home but their home. Instead it’s all over in the blink of an eye, with no response from anyone whatsoever. By hour two of the film, the threads have begun to unravel.

The weakest link here is Christopher Lloyd, and it will always be Christopher Lloyd. I’m a devoted Back to the Future fan, but his presence as Kruge is a terrible piece of miscasting. Kruge is probably the lamest villain in Star Trek. (Yes, lamer than the rock monster.)  Lloyd lacks the menace to be a convincing adversary while Kruge has absolutely zero motivation for his actions. He’s a plot coupon because the story needed some obstacles. The way he murders his girlfriend is supposed to be chilly and unsettling, but it just strikes me as short-sighted. Why send anyone but a dolt to retrieve this data if it’s so secret that no one can look upon it and live? The destruction of the Grissom is, again, necessary for plot purposes, but entirely senseless. If one well-placed torpedo can obliterate an entire Federation vessel, they had better go back to the engineering drawing board. (Also, how does Kirk not see the wreckage when he arrives?) The most ridiculous scene is David’s death, though. Why would Kruge murder the only scientist who can tell him something about Genesis?

I always wonder how the story would have panned out without Kruge. With a better villain, or simply Esteban as the by-the-book counterpoint to Kirk’s recklessness, the film would have been stronger. There’s no reason for Kirk to fear Kruge, but there’s every reason for him to fear Esteban and the Federation. Admiral Morrow tells Kirk that his emotional behavior will cause him to lose everything, and he’s right: Kirk loses his son, his ship, and his rank (though we don’t know that until the next film). I know the movie wanted to end on a high note, with the return of Spock, but it really needs some kind of denouement on Kirk’s part as he tries to put together the pieces of his broken life. We don’t get to see him grieve for David in any meaningful, personal way, which oddly makes sense since we don’t see him interact with David at all in a meaningful, personal way. His death feels like an arbitrary new source of angst for Kirk. Perhaps they felt they had to re-up the stakes after killing Spock in the last movie, but by hour two Search for Spock just feels emotionless all around.

The B-plot, with Saavik and David and baby Spock on Genesis, never lives up to the A-plot. Robin Curtis is absolutely awful as Saavik. She’s as blank as baby Spock. Kirstie Alley always had that hint of mischief, the curiosity and emotion broiling beneath the surface. Curtis is just dead; she has the robotic delivery of a customer service representative. Things only get worse when Kirk and Kruge show up on the surface of the Genesis planet. Their planetary fistfight is ridiculous, and yet doesn’t manage to be as cringe-worthy as some of the dialogue. “I…have had…enough… of you!” should go down in history as one of the worst villain send-offs.

David Marcus, on the other hand, isn’t remotely interesting enough to hold his own. Any meaningful message to be cleaned from his amoral use of protomatter just seems like a kid doing something stupid rather than an actual warning about rushing scientific progress. Where’s his mother in all this? Shouldn’t the other Doctor Marcus be interested in what her invention created? And wouldn’t she like to know what happened to her son? What’s protomatter, anyway, and why is it so ethically dubious? Shortcuts, shortcuts, shortcuts.

Industrial Light and Magic did the effects this time, but you would never guess these were the folks who worked on Star Wars. The effects here are atrocious. You can see lines around the Enterprise in the space shots (it looks like they stickered it over a film cell), and the phaser blasts and planetary backdrops look cheap and fake (though they’re outstanding compared to the animatronic space pooch, which the less said about the better). The only thing worse is the sound effects, which jolt you right out of the movie with their absurdity. At least they saved the costumes from the last time around.

Is it flawed? Yes. Is it terrible? Absolutely not. At heart, The Search for Spock is about friendship and the lengths we go for the people we love. Loving someone means allowing him or her the chance to wound you, deeply. Sarek forces Kirk to relive that moment in Engineering, the most painful moment of his life, while at the same time implying that their friendship was not, as Kirk believed, fully reciprocated. If it had been, wouldn’t he have chosen Kirk for his katra and not McCoy? Kirk loses his friend over and over again: not just in his mind’s eye reliving that day, but each time he believes he hears him in McCoy’s voice, or has a creeping doubt that Sarek may have been right about their friendship.

Losing Spock meant losing a part of himself–“the noblest part of me.” I love the line at the end that the cost of finding his friend pales in comparison to the cost of not finding him: his soul. It’s beautiful. They are Gilgamesh and Enkidu; Sam and Frodo. Friendships like that are rare, but timeless and transcendent.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 4

Background Information

Star Trek III was greenlit the day after Star Trek II opened, and was always intended to conclude the events of TWoK and bring Spock back from the dead. Though Spock’s name is included in the title, Leonard Nimoy was only heard but not seen for most of the film. Instead, this time around he was active behind the camera as the film’s director, after Nicholas Meyer turned it down because he thought Spock should remain dead.

Nimoy nearly didn’t get the job, because studio chief Michael Eisner was under the mistaken impression that he hated Star Trek. However, along with producer Harve Bennett, who also wrote the screenplay, Nimoy was, of course, uniquely suited to maintaining the tone and themes of Star Trek and directing the Vulcan’s anticipated return.

Bennett wrote the script in six weeks, working his way backward from the final scene to the ending of TWoK. Nimoy wanted the film to be “operatic” in scope, and helped develop the screenplay using the original series episode “Amok Time” as a source of inspiration. Because he considered the outcome of the film to be somewhat predictable, Bennett decided to shock audiences by destroying the Enterprise. To catch new theatergoers up on the events of the prequel, he drew on his television background and began the film with a “Previously, on Star Trek…” that replayed the final moments of TWoK.

The film nearly made back its entire budget of $17 million in its opening weekend, a slight improvement over TWoK, and it ultimately grossed $87 million worldwide; though it falls short of the runaway success of its prequel, it was nonetheless a success.

Best Line: SAREK: My logic is uncertain where my son is concerned.

Other Favorite Quotes: MCCOY: How can you be deaf with ears like that?

KIRK: Yes, poor friend. I hear he’s fruity as a nutcake.

KIRK: Gentlemen, your work today has been outstanding. I intend to recommend you all for promotion … in whatever fleet we end up serving.

KIRK: My God, Bones. What have I done?
MCCOY: What you had to do. What you always do. Turn death into a fighting chance to live.

MALTZ: I do not deserve to live.
KIRK: Fine, I’ll kill you later.

KIRK: Because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many.

Trivia: There is an extended pause in the opening credits between William Shatner’s credit and DeForest Kelley’s—where Leonard Nimoy’s name would have appeared.

The original outline for the film was titled “Return to Genesis.”

Romulans were intended to be the villains of this film, but the studio preferred the more recognizable Klingons and Nimoy thought they would be more “theatrical,” thus an early draft of the script identified the Klingon Bird of Prey as a stolen Romulan vessel, since the model had already been built—according to Nimoy’s design suggestions. You can still see the feather detailing under its wings.

The self-destruct sequence is copied word for word from the same sequence in the original series episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.”

Edward James Olmos was Nimoy’s first choice for the role of Kruge, but Paramount wouldn’t allow it. Olmos later went on to play Commander Adama in the Battlestar Galactica revival by Trek veteran, Ron Moore. Christopher Lloyd was Bennett’s preferred choice.

During production, a fire on the Paramount lot caused minor damage to the Genesis set. William Shatner, in full Kirk costume, helped put the fire out, so they wouldn’t miss a shooting day that would delay his commitment to returning to film T.J. Hooker.

The U.S.S. Grissom was named for Virgil “Gus” Grissom, who died in a pre-launch test for Apollo I on January 27, 1967.

Chekov speaks Russian for the first time in the series, when he detects a life form reading in Spock’s sealed quarters. His line to Scotty translates as “I’m not crazy. Well, look!”

The toast in Kirk’s apartment to “absent friends” is a traditional toast of the Royal Navy.

Judi Durand, who provided the voice of the spacedock computer in this film, later played the voice of Cardassian computers on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as well as the Starfleet computer voice for the Star Trek Scene It? DVD game.

Leonard Nimoy provided the voice of the Excelcior’s turbolift, but it was credited to his pseudonym “Frank Force.” This name was also used to disguise the fact that Nimoy would appear in the film, with the adult Spock listed as the character “Nacluv” in the script and call sheets.

The destruction of Enterprise was also meant to be a surprise, but Paramount’s promotional campaign teased the “death of the Enterprise.”

Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Rand on the original series, has a cameo in the spacedock scene when Enterprise arrives, shaking her head when she sees the damage to the hull. Tribbles also make a cameo appearance in Mos Eisley the bar.

The Excelsior was supposed to appear in TWoK as Captain Sulu’s first command, but the plotline was dropped.

Marc Okrand had to rewrite the Klingon language to compensate for actors flubbing their lines.

An early draft of the screenplay indicated that the engine core was destroyed in the self-destruct, resulting in a matter/antimatter explosion. This was later changed to having the primary and secondary hulls explode, but ILM delivered effects according to the original script, which were still partially used in the final film.


Previous post: Re-Watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Next post: Re-Watching Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr.

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.