This article contains numerous Trek spoilers…
Film trilogies come in different flavors. Some are written and filmed with the intention of making a trilogy right from the start, like The Lord of the Rings. Many were hoped-for on the condition the first film did well, like Star Wars or The Matrix. And perhaps the majority are created when a first film is well received and, over the years, two sequels are made creating an overall arc across the three, from Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy to the Godfather films to Toy Story.
Star Trek II – IV don’t tend to come up in conversations about trilogies because they’re not really any of the above. The second, third, and fourth films in a series of six (original cast only films), ten (original verse films), or twelve going on thirteen (all Star Trek films to date) depending on how you count it, these films certainly weren’t planned out as a trilogy. But the decision to bring back Spock after he was killed off in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan sparked the development of a movie trilogy just as neatly constructed and emotionally satisfying as its counterparts, and bearing more than a little resemblance to its immediate, phenomenally successful forebear (Star Wars Episodes IV – VI were released in 1977, 1980 and 1983; Star Treks II – IV came out in 1982, 1984 and 1986).
The Wrath of Khan is frequently lauded as the best of the Star Trek films, and it stands alone as a beautifully constructed meditation on ageing and re-birth, on life and death. The film opens and closes with Spock’s death, and finds time in between to kill off a branch of poor Scotty’s family (Peter Preston is revealed in a deleted scene and in the novelization to be Scotty’s nephew) while revealing a hitherto unseen branch of Kirk’s in the form of his son David, all while telling a story about a device that produces “life from lifelessness” while killing anything already-alive in the vicinity. The ageing Admiral Kirk finds his past mistakes coming back to haunt him and is forced through a rite of passage as he fails to cheat death for his closest friends for the first time (all the armies of dead redshirts from the original series are presumably laughing gleefully from the afterlife by this point).
However, when filming Spock’s final sacrificial march into the Engineering Room of Death, Nimoy and director Nicholas Meyer quickly threw in a bit of business that could, if they wanted it to, set up a sequel (they didn’t tell Shatner, as he is keen to point out on the DVD commentary). Immobilizing Dr. McCoy with a Vulcan neck pinch so he won’t try to stop him, Spock briefly mind-melds with the doctor and says, “Remember.” It doesn’t get in the way of the story. If there had been no sequel, this could have been a simple goodbye from Spock to his best frenemy, one he could not replicate for his buddy Kirk due to the glass between them later. But it opened up the possibility for a sequel – and the fact the planet at the heart of the plot was designed to “create life from lifelessness” didn’t do any harm either, especially when a final shot of Spock’s miraculously preserved coffin was used to close off the movie.
And so came the sequel, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a film which encapsulates all the things you might expect from the middle volume of a trilogy. There was a risk that bringing Spock back would completely nullify the entire point of The Wrath of Khan, that Kirk makes mistakes, that some situations are unwinnable, that death is (eventually) inevitable.
In order to bring Spock back and make it feel properly earned, and maintain the sense of sacrifice and loss from the previous movie, someone else had to go. Two someones in fact: the son Kirk was only just getting to know and the Enterprise itself. The result is a sequel that embraces all the expected clichés of the middle volume of a trilogy – it is darker and edgier even than the fairly bloody Wrath of Khan, and it contains the emotional low point of the whole series as Kirk, Bones, Scotty, Chekov, and Sulu stand alone on a planet that is destroying itself, just after Kirk’s son has been murdered by Klingons, exiles from Starfleet and criminals on the run, uncertain of what’s happening with Spock and staring up at the burning remains of their ship, for many years their home.
It’s no wonder Kirk’s response is “My god, Bones, what have I done?” (The reply, “Turn death into a fighting chance to live,” is of course equally thematically important).
By the end of the film, our heroes have started to claw their way back up from this pit of despair – they’ve made it to Vulcan in one piece and they have Spock back. But Spock’s mind is clearly affected by having been inside Dr. McCoy while his body was elsewhere (fill in your own dubious joke about Saavik here), his friends are all still fugitives and outlaws and they’re on an alien, if friendly, planet with a Klingon Bird of Prey they acquired under (from Starfleet’s point of view) mysterious circumstances. The emotional high of seeing Spock alive again is the right moment to end the film following its heart-wrenching middle act, but it’s clear that there are a lot of unanswered questions here. It’s not quite a cliff-hanger, but it’s hardly a resolution either.
After two films of death and tragedy, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was deliberately designed to be a lighter, more fun film. It has no real bad guy (only a probe, which may or may not be sentient), nobody dies (assuming the early victims on other starships survived) and the film uses a broadly comic tone to tell a story largely based on fish out of water comedy with an underlying environmental message (it is, in case you haven’t already realized, The One with the Whales).
It worked. The film was the most financially successful Star Trek film until J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot. Having said that, its theme is not a million light years from the other two. Like them, it deals with life and death, birth and re-birth, but this time for the planet Earth and the other creatures on it, as two humpback whales are brought to the 23rd century to give their species a second chance at life where once they had been wiped out.
Although most of the plot is unrelated to the wider story, bookend sequences wrap up the remaining plot threads from the previous two films and Spock’s character arc throughout the story follows him slowly regaining himself and rediscovering his more human half. The film opens with our heroes still on Vulcan and facing courts-martial if they return home, but ends with Kirk’s demotion back to Captain and the rather lovely introduction of the Enterprise A, rising into view beyond the Excelsior, leaving the crew back in more or less the position they were in back in the original series, a status quo that hadn’t been seen since the 1970s animated version finished. In every way, the story had come full circle.
The parallels between these films and the original Star Wars trilogy are no doubt obvious. We start with a largely standalone plot, with a story of familial angst in the background. The second instalment is much more downbeat, the odds against the heroes appear to be stacked higher, and the ending leaves them facing an uncertain future. The third film is much lighter in tone and adds new elements to the fictional universe, ending with a joyous celebration and resolution of the characters’ emotional arcs.
But Star Trek II – IV don’t make a great trilogy merely because they resemble other trilogies. There’s a reason so many trilogies have a particularly dark middle section – they are three act plays, albeit unusual examples in which each act must also have a resolution of its own. Star Trek II is a great movie by itself, but it also leaves the audience with questions – will Kirk be able to get to know his son? Will he ever find satisfaction in the duties of an Admiral? What did Spock do to McCoy and what will the Genesis planet do to his body?
Star Trek III answers most of those questions while upping the ante and complicating the problem – Spock is back but will he ever be himself again? Can our heroes ever go home after what they did? Star Trek IV resolves all these dangling plot threads and, in contrast to the tragedy of Wrath of Khan and the cautious hope of Search for Spock, the climax is a note of unabashed pure joy, everyone splashing around in San Francisco Bay watching the whales, followed by the resurrection of the other main cast member of the series, the Enterprise itself.
And ultimately that’s what makes this a great trilogy. The emotional experience of watching these three films together takes the viewer from the melodramatic, cathartic heartbreak of Star Trek II, through the rather more depressing and disconcerting tragedy followed by cautious optimism of Star Trek III, to the laughter and euphoria of Star Trek IV, ending on a literal homecoming. Perhaps it’s a little too cheesy, a little too neat for some tastes, but Star Trek was always a show about optimism and the belief that tomorrow will be better, and this is the perfect trilogy to encapsulate that, taking the audience from ageing and death through utter despair and back to a second chance at life. For our money, that puts this trilogy up there with the greats.