For a number of years, the knock on the Star Trek films was that the even numbered ones were the only ones that were any good. Looking at the pedigree, you can see why people might feel that way. “The Wrath of Khan” got Trek so much more effectively than “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. The public ate up “the Voyage Home” with it’s time travel,whale rescue, fish out of water story, and compared to the underfunded and somewhat awkward “Final Frontier”, it looks like maybe there is a trend. The problem with that theory however is that you would have to dismiss this crackerjack third entry in the series for your generalization to be true, and that would be a huge mistake.
“Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” had a number of things going against it from the start but it also had several strong elements in it’s favor. In the long run, I believe that the positives far outweigh the negatives and that the film can stand on it’s own proudly as an example of of the resilience of the franchise and the talents of the cast and crew. I try to avoid spoilers in my posts, but all of the elements of this movie can potentially spoil a plot point, so read on only if you have already seen this film.
Let’s start with one of the biggest obstacles the movie had to face, the death of a key figure in the Star Trek Universe in the film before it. This movie was a direct serial follow-up to what most would consider the best of the Trek films. In that film, Spock, the most fetishisized character in the original series, sacrifices himself for the needs of the many. It was a glorious sacrifice and deserving of the tears and emotional payoff that it presented. It also painted the story into a corner. How are we going to fix this so that the story can continue with Spock as a central figure?
A party invitation we sent out in late 1982, asked a series of questions to prompt our potential guests to be ready for a spirited holiday conversation. Two of those questions were “Who is the other hope that Yoda referred to in Empire?” and “What is Dr. McCoy supposed to remember?” In 1983 we got the answer to that first question, Yoda spoke of a second Skywalker, Luke’s twin sister Leia. We had to wait until June 1984 for the answer to the second. McCoy is supposed to remember “everything”, because he carries Spock’s katra, or his soul/essence in his brain. A convenient tool that is not new to science fiction, the idea of a transferred spirit is one of the precepts of the Bene Gesserit in the “Dune” series. In this case it will prove quite useful if there is a regenerated body to fill with it.
The screenwriters created three antagonists that the crew of the Enterprise will have to overcome in the course of the story. The first of these is the eternal nature of bureaucracy. Star Fleet has put the Genesis planet on political quarantine. Which means that the crew cannot simply go back and recover Spock’s body, they have to escape from home, hijack their own decommissioned vessel and race to the planet. Should they arrive at Genesis, they will then be confronted by a renegade Klingon who desires the secrets of the planet to use as a weapon. Finally, the planet itself is a barrier, because of an unstable matrix, the new garden of Eden that is the Genesis planet is collapsing on itself. This threatens the mission and the crew and the Klingons and makes the climax of the story more suspenseful.
The film ended up in the hands of Leonard Nimoy as director. There are several stories concerning how this came about, but the key point is that it was a person closely affiliated with the franchise who would be responsible for this delicate transition back to the foundations of the series. It was Nimoy’s first film as a director, although he had directed some episodic television in the past. He went on to have big hits with the next Star Trek movie and the film “Three Men and a Baby”. A string of success that made the mid eighties the highlight of his directing career. He made some important choices along the way that influenced the look of the films and the story lines that would be possible. His input created the look of the Klingon Bird of Prey. David Marcus vanishes from the story line based on discussions of which character would be sacrificed in the last section of the film.
There are two distinct tones that the movie plays with. There is a suspenseful adventure story that is highlighted by the confrontation with the Klingons and the rebellious hijacking of the Enterprise. This material is to be expected, it’s the kind of thing that Star Trek always managed to do well. Another thing that they did well and that made up the other important element of this film is the humor. While having Spock’s katra in his head, Dr. McCoy gets a chance to do an out of body comedy comedy bit. Sometimes he takes on the Spock qualities and they just seem so incongruent with McCoy’s persona, we can’t help but laugh. That it is the Dr. who ends up with the katra plays with the long running mock conflict they have had over the years. It was quite clever to bend the story this way and it gives the opening of the film some stronger interest factors than it otherwise would have had.
Kirk: You’re suffering from a Vulcan mind-meld, doctor.
McCoy: That green-blooded son of a bitch! It’s his revenge for all the arguments he lost.
The plot to escape from Earth and return Spock to his body requires that the crew steal their own ship. This gives Mr. Scott an opportunity to tweak a rival captain and his claims of superiority over the Enterprise. There is a brief chase out of space dock that ends with a joke. The look of the film miniatures and opticals make this picture look bigger and more impressive than the budget would have suggested. As the plot on Earth is revealing it’s secrets, there is a parallel story that involves Kirk’s recently discovered son David and Lt Saavk. They are exploring the unstable Genesis planet. While on the surface of the planet, their own ship, The U.S.S. Grissom, is destroyed by the mad renegade Klingon commander Kruge. This is the situation that awaits the original crew of the Enterprise when they arrive on scene. All of this was set up economically and quickly without detracting from the main story about Spock and his disembodied consciousness.
The Enterprise is disabled by a sneak attack from the Klingon Bird of Prey. The explorers on the planet, now in possession of the rapidly growing shell of Mr. Spock, have been taken hostage and are being used to barter for the secrets of Genesis by the Klingon commander. Captain Kirk is faced with another one of his difficult choices. In the TV series, there was usually an exit, a way Kirk could get out of the situation without a major loss. In the films, we are discovering that there are consequences to the choices that get made. Even though David Marcus is a new character, he is an important one to Kirk and the decision to sacrifice him means that future plot lines will be dominated by a vengeance seeking Kirk and no chance for a father son dynamic to become part of the on-going story. These are some of the reasons that the film is important but also why it is dramatically valid. Having been bested by the Klingon twice in these early confrontations, you know that Captain (Admiral) Kirk is going to stage a comeback. To manage this however, Kirk has to make an even bigger sacrifice, at least from the audience point of view.
I was saddened by the death of David Marcus, but I shed tears for the next casualty in this battle. In an echo from a TV episode, the self destruct sequence for the Enterprise is activated, only this time it is not a bluff. Kirk uses this sacrifice to even the odds between his crew and the Klingons. It was just heart wrenching to sit in a theater and watch what happens next. Having boarded the Enterprise, the invaders learn too late what the countdown of numbers means. While their destruction is a reversal that stirs our hopes for the heros, it comes at a price that takes the breath away from the audience and the crew who have jumped from the frying pan into the fire by transporting down to the unstable planet. As the crew watches the end of their beloved ship, they also contemplate the choices that they are faced with. It is the emotional Dr. McCoy who tries to offer Kirk words of encouragement for the actions he has taken. It is also a reassurance to the audience that things can always look up if Kirk is involved, so don’t despair. Sentimentalist that I am, I could not help but cry at the destruction of the fictional starship that had carried me on so many adventures through my childhood and now adult status.
[Witnessing the destruction of the Enterprise]
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.
The confrontation between Kruge and Kirk on the planet is staged on a set, and sometimes it looks a little set bound. When I watched it in High Definition however, the whole thing still looks quite spectacular and the colors of the dying planet are vivid and striking. Christopher Lloyd is an actor who reached the apex of his career in the mid 1980s. After this film, he played the wacky but lovable Doc Brown in the “Back to the Future” movies. He is the evil Judge Doom in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” This was a villainous part that he sunk his teeth into. He plays Kruge as if he were a Shakespearean character, outsized, ambitious, and with a touch of dramatic flair. He mourns briefly over the death of a pet, but thinks nothing killing one of his own men. He uses his bare hands to strangle and destroy a creature on the planet, and he wants to do the same thing to Kirk for having outwitted him in their chess match in space. Kirk has sacrificed a pawn and a knight to get to the king, and now Lloyd and William Shatner will go head to head in a throwdown between scenery chewing characters in this story. With the loss of his son and ship behind him, there is no doubt how it will all turn out but it is played out on a grand scale with the planet imploding around them.
The adventure part of the story ends here but there is still the main drama concerning the restoration of Spock. The crew returns Spock and McCoy to Vulcan, where a ritual will be overseen my the high priestess played by Dame Judith Anderson. Forty-four years earlier, she played the treacherous Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca”. In her last big screen role she wears an outrageous costume, pointed ears and speaks some Vulcan metaphysical mumbo jumbo. She adds a bit of exotic class the the proceedings and helps leave us with the sense that something we have witnesses is profound. I don’t know that it is true, but I do know at the time I thought it was.
“Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” was a financial success and quite popular with fans but over the years it has been relegated to the limbo of the “odd” numbered movies. It ranked number nine at the box office in 1984, right between “Romancing the Stone” and “Splash”. It played from the first of June until the end of July, and it mixed it up well with all the competing summer films of 1984. It was the main feature that a sneak preview of “The Last Starfighter” played with, and I know i saw it at least one other time that summer. When I watched it for this project I was again impressed with the work that they did in the early eighties to make this a franchise that fans could love, non fans would enjoy and the studio would be happy to keep spending money on.