Star Trek III: The Search for Spock Isn’t “Trek-lite”

Is Star Trek III: The Search For Spock actually a better movie than The Wrath of Khan? Maybe...

The passing of Leonard Nimoy demonstrated 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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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 hopeful element, 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 revitalizing the franchise.

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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.

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In fact, I’m going to risk my license 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.

Okay, the three of you still reading shall learn why.

The best scene in the franchise

No Star Trek film before or since has produced such a joyous, thrilling sequence as “Stealing The Enterprise.” In fact, if there is one perfect moment of Star Trek, it is this. A true ensemble moment, with each character providing pivotal moments. Consider some of these snippets of dialogue:

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Kirk: The word is “no.” I am therefore going anyway.

Uhura: You wanted adventure, how’s this? The old adrenaline going, huh? Good boy. Now get in the closet.

Sulu: Don’t call me tiny.

The Wrath Of Khan director Nicolas Meyer may have understood the setting and the character archetypes, but Nimoy truly understood these characters, and it really shined through here. But it’s not just the characters, everything comes together in this scene. The journey itself is fundamentally one of discovery, to understand the boundary between life and death, yet it is tragic, tinged with the knowledge that this will be the last voyage of Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise – Star Trek to its core. And after the budget special effects of The Wrath Of Khan, ILM here does outstanding work. To see models like this fly through each other, to move and to chase… there are few finer examples of model work.

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If that weren’t enough, James Horner’s returning score deserves special mention too, the perfect mix of bombast and grace.

A better villain

For me, Kruge is a better villain than Khan too. It’s easy to overlook, as Kruge is neither as important to the story as Khan was, nor as cold and calculating. But Kruge’s character is made all the more fascinating as Kruge isn’t really the villain at all.

Look at it from his point of view. He’s seen Starfleet not only secretly develop a WMD, but seen it stolen by terrorists and detonated on the edge of Klingon space. And he has been largely ignored by his own government in his attempts to stop it. Yes, his methods may be brutal, but it’s all perfectly normal for a Klingon, and he should be judged as such.

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His story is tragic, as throughout the film he is surrounded by incompetence. It claims the life of his girlfriend when she steals his intelligence. It claims the life of his gunner when he displays fatal incompetence at carrying out orders. It claims the life of innocent scientists (and potential prisoners) in the same incident. And the worst of all, he has to watch helplessly as his entire crew is murdered in Star Trek’s closest thing to a suicide bomb, the Enterprise self destructing. With nothing left to live for, he beams down to confront his nemesis Kirk face to face (something Khan never did), only to get booted into lava as Kirk steals his ship.

Although he did kill David, so I guess he’s not all good.

The tragedy

The Wrath Of Khan had the death of Spock, but even that was played as almost hopeful. There is no such levity in The Search For Spock – practically the only thing that doesn’t die is Spock, and that’s only because he was already dead to begin with. It is the supreme irony that Genesis, the life from lifelessness, is responsible for all of this death. The Grissom and all hands die in orbit. David is brutally stabbed to death on it. The Enterprise makes its final journey, crashing into the planet itself. Kirk’s career, and by extension everyone else’s, ends with the journey to it. Kruge and most of his men die on it. And Robin Curtis brutally murders Saavik with her wooden performance.

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Yet it is also about life, as each of these sacrifices, no matter how great, leads Kirk to his goal of bringing his friend back from the dead. One could question the logic, but as Sarek himself put it, “At what cost? Your ship. Your son.” Kirk’s answer: “If I hadn’t tried, the cost would have been my soul.”

And that is the thing with The Search For Spock, it is very human. No logical “the needs of the many” stuff, this is out and out “the needs of the one.” A tale of human woe, sacrifice, and triumph. Even Kruge is very human, his desire seeing him lurch from one disaster to another.

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The end titles of Star Trek: The Motion Picture claimed that the human adventure was just beginning. The Search for Spock proved that the human adventure never ends, as long as we follow our hearts.