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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


    May 18, 2014 @ 10:35 pm

    I'm a big fan of The Search for Spock for many of the reasons you state here. It's a gleefully silly pulpy action film. Even the obvious Genesis soundstage and the questionable special effects during the Kirk/Kruge fight scene acknowledge that. As you noted, the serialised storytelling is also a dead giveaway. It's hilarious that so much of televised Star Trek (barring DS9 and the third season of ENT) is episodic when the big three original series movies are so heavily serialised.

    (And, if you are looking at movie-era comics, the DC line is a brilliant example of this. It tries to fit in crazy adventures between II and III and III and IV with a variety of eccentric explanations for how years-worth of comic book stories can unfold in what seems like a matter of hours at least (II and III) or weeks at most (III and IV).)

    I also love that it is – as you alluded – the first real ensemble Star Trek movie/episode. It's the first point where Uhura and Sulu seem like characters who might do things that don't involve pressing buttons and saying "yessir." Oddly enough for a movie about bringing Spock back, it demonstrates that Star Trek can work without Spock by keeping him off-screen for so long and focusing the love around.

    That said, my biggest problem with Star Trek III is the lionisation of Kirk. The movie essentially exists to rollback all the criticisms of Kirk made in The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan. Kill off the young ones! (Or, based on original ideas for Star Trek IV, get them pregnant so they're at least away from the later action sequences!) Kirk goes out and steals a Bird of Prey, gets a new Enterprise! This is what a futuristic mid-life crisis looks like. The movie contrasts him with Esteban and Styles, as if to assure viewers that Kirk is the best possible captain. He's not stuffy and hesitant like Esteban, but he's not an arrogant blowhard like Styles. Giving us the two extremes – and portraying "by-the-book-ish-ness" as a negative, the movie works hard to present Kirk as the platonic ideal of Starship captaining. Which is a very shallow take on the character, and one that does him a disservice.



  2. Ross
    May 19, 2014 @ 10:51 am

    The thing that intrigued me years later when I came back to Star Trek 3 (Well, other than that bit where the ground under Kirk and Kruge splits open in a way that makes it really shockingly obvious that this alien planet is a soundstage) is that there was an alternate, entirely valid reading of the character to the one I'd subconsciously taken all my life (Like, the dawn of my memory; this is the first movie I ever remember seeing in the theater. Well, either this or Bambi.)

    I'd always read Kruge as an atypically dishonorable, nasty piece of work among Klingons, that he'd willfully, even gleefully disregarded the Klingon Way in his pursuit of glory, in order to acquire this ultimate weapon — he'd wanted to take prisoners ("Klingons don't take prisoners"), he'd ordered the death of an unarmed civilian, he'd murdered his own wife.

    But years later, something or other prompted me to realize that you could equally well interpret his actions as an almost Worf-style noble Klingon who sees the Genesis device as an existential threat to the empire (I note: it turns planets into a very explicitly human sort of paradise. Here's another of those narrative collapse things: Genesis is a device that seeks out Strange New Worlds and turns them into Comforting and Familiar Worlds) , and is willing to sacrifice anything — even his own personal honor — to put an end to that threat.

    I don't really know if one interpretation or the other is objectively better.


  3. Josh Marsfelder
    May 19, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

    Well, obviously I'm not a fan of objectivity, especially when it comes to readings, but I will toss my lot in with the secondary reading you posit here. Not only because it's similar to the one I give, but because, a few offhand comments in "Day of the Dove aside, the Klingons don't actually have an established culture yet as most of that comes from "Heart of Glory", "A Matter of Honor" and "Sins of the Father", which have not been made yet.

    (Though worthy of note is that IIRC I think this movie marks the debut of Mark Okrand's Klingon language and the costumes that will be used through the rest of 1980s and 1990s Star Trek.)


  4. Andrew Hickey
    May 19, 2014 @ 10:27 pm

    Pretty much agreed with all of this, and even more so with the post about Wrath of Khan. While, unlike you, "my" Star Trek is the original series, and when I was young I thought that Wrath of Khan was clearly the best of the films, I recently rewatched most of them for the first time in about fifteen years, and came to the conclusion that Khan was bloated, pretentious, and not really about anything. Nicholas Meyer's contributions to the films are, to my mind, pretty much entirely negative and seem to consist almost entirely of people pompously saying "I have read Moby Dick and also Shakespeare, and this situation is similar to those Great Western Classics".
    (That said, I believe he wrote the San Francisco stuff in Star Trek IV, which has its own problems but has a far lighter touch than the other films he was involved in.)


  5. K. Jones
    May 27, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    I'd never known that they meant it to be the Romulans. Is it then acceptable to say that this was where the full switcheroo took place between the characterization and iconography of the Romulans and the Klingons? Because by the time of TNG, it's clear that their roles have been entirely reversed. And honestly, without the "Vulcan-connection", the role of "like us, but with a different (but not too different) code of honor and a more imperialistic mind" is gutted. Which isn't to say that good stories weren't produced either way, because they were … but the premise is definitely splintered and loses all agency. The Klingons of TOS were no more memorable than the Romulans – and as we've long discussed now, the Romulans were a far, far superior bit of storytelling device while the Klingons were caricatures, because of A. Spock, B. Not "Generic Eastern/Mysterious Oriental/Other/Yellow Menace/Brown-Face" Pulp cutouts and C. NOT cartoonishly devious.

    The budget of the films obviously allowed the idea of improving the effects of the alien races – and a salvage job is thus begun on the Klingons. At the expense of the Romulans, who were later described by fannish TNG writers in-canon as "predictably treacherous". I'd like to know why.

    Anyway, to get back onto the subject of Star Trek III, I really like it a lot. Now I can agree to your points about "Khan", going right back to "Space Seed", and still enjoy the movie – but when I watch it now I find I'm enjoying it for the same reasons I enjoy ANY given episode of TOS. Shatner. Nimoy. Kelley. And Doohan. Wrath of Khan creates some new characters but like a huge swath of classic Trek, it's basically just a piece designed to let those four act their pants off. Shatner gets to add wistful, wiser, mournful and retrospective to his camp Kirk. Nimoy gets to go full-bore Spock compensating for the years of stifled emotion. Kelley's fervor basically doesn't change, but gets better with age. Doohan gets full on family tragedy, to say nothing of his being the level head during the Spock death scene; the hard slap in the face of reason. And I mean Montalban eats scenery.

    For those reasons I like it. But Star Trek III has all of those (minus Khan), but not at the expense of Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, or even David Marcus. I can live with the Four Musketeers, passing themselves as "White-American enough for network TV" (thankfully we're talking about combination Canadian/Jewish men, and one southern gent). But as with the TOS episodes, the ones that work in spite of themselves, it's so rare to get a proper ensemble episode, and Star Trek III maximizes that. Everyone has their thing. Scotty with the sabotage. Spock as McGuffin. Uhura during the theft. Sulu with "Tiny". But the part that gets me every time is in the beginning. While I find the repetition of the end scenes of the last movie poignant enough (at least until they replay it on Kirk's TV), is Kelley doing his Spock impression / freakout.

    The TOS episodes had actually done body-switching and all that … but nothing ever said "something is terribly wrong" quite like the buildup to that – the alarm on Spock's door as Kirk ruminates, and Bones answering with Spock's voice. Kelley really, really nailed it. He nailed it there, he nailed it trying to hitch a ride at that funky space bar, and he nailed it when he learned about the meld during the hospital break. He gives Shatner a run for his money in this one.


  6. Josh Marsfelder
    May 28, 2014 @ 9:35 am

    "I'd never known that they meant it to be the Romulans. Is it then acceptable to say that this was where the full switcheroo took place between the characterization and iconography of the Romulans and the Klingons?"

    I think the full switch happens in "The Neutral Zone" when the Next Generation Romulans get permanently stunted by being placeholder villains in a first draft spec script. But certainly this movie can be seen as where the groundwork starts to be laid, yes.

    "The budget of the films obviously allowed the idea of improving the effects of the alien races – and a salvage job is thus begun on the Klingons. At the expense of the Romulans, who were later described by fannish TNG writers in-canon as "predictably treacherous". I'd like to know why."

    I mean, this wasn't always the case. Naren Shankar was a big proponent of making the Romulans a rounded, multifaceted people, hence the comments he made about his teleplay for René Echevarria's treatment for "Face of the Enemy". Remember, the line you're quoting is from a script by Ira Behr, who has his own suite of problems.

    Completely agreed with you in regards to Star Trek III itself, especially the acting. Kelley really is magnificent here.


  7. Daru
    June 19, 2014 @ 7:09 pm

    taking all your points as valid Josh, I think the two things that really sold the movie for me was Christopher Lloyd's acting and James Horner's music. Both awesome, especially when they come together.


  8. Daru
    June 20, 2014 @ 8:45 pm

    Whilst still it is sad that it does not all add up completely and moves the whole shebang away from reworking the franchise and just moving back to the status quo again. Thank golly for TNG when that arrives!


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