“…through death and life together”: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Let’s be perfectly honest here. This movie exists for only one reason, and it’s obviously well aware of this itself as well.
So, right away we have a situation that’s manifestly different than last time. To the point where Star Trek III: The Search for Spock isn’t really even a film it’s possible to critique: It’s quite clearly not trying to be anything other than what it self-evidently is: Episode two of what’s become an unfolding serial. I’ll return to this theme a bit later, but first of all, there’s a curious observation I’d like to make here: If Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a B-movie that didn’t want to admit it was a B-movie, this film, by contrast and inversely, is a B-movie that doesn’t actively try to punch above its weight class, but somehow succeeds in doing so anyway. Yes, against all odds, I’d have to say this is the best Star Trek movie we’ve looked at to date.
Part of this is that, unlike the previous two efforts, this movie actually feels like Star Trek. From Kirk’s opening Captain’s Log recap of the events of the last film’s climax and aftermath, there’s a heart to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock utterly absent in either of its predecessors. Kirk isn’t just blatantly stating emotions and themes like he’s reading from the SparkNotes version of the script, he actually seems like he’s experiencing those emotions and attempting to deal with them. Kirk, and everyone else in this movie, feels like an actual character this time instead of a mouthpiece spouting Big Important Themes. It helps that the dialogue is considerably more naturalistic this time around, but I think what really salvages the show here are the actors themselves, who seem visibly energized in a way I don’t really think I’ve ever seen this cast behave before. Sure, they’ve conveyed loyalty, friendship and camaraderie and all those Important Star Trek Buzzwords in the past, but this is the first time they seem to openly embody and embrace them (or at least the first time since Star Trek: The New Voyages) and this gets written back into their performances: There’s a genuine, heartfelt sense that they finally understand why what they’re doing is so important.
Which is only fitting considering this movie is ultimately about the fact Star Trek is a beloved thing important to many people. The reaction to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan supposedly was what convinced Leonard Nimoy to come out of retirement again, and request the directorial gig on this film to boot (Nimoy, by the way, is a thoroughly capable director, makes an utterly more visually interesting film than young Nicholas Meyer did and paves the way for future Star Trek actors to make the switch to behind-the-camera work too). This translates to a genuine sense of fun in front of the camera, with each of the principle characters getting plenty of moments to be funny or do something cool (Uhura’s scene in the transporter room is an absolute moment of triumph: Seriously, you want to just cheer for Nichelle Nichols). For the first time in twenty years (or at the very least least since “Beyond the Farthest Star”) this cast actually feels like a true ensemble and the Enterprise crew finally feels like the family and community Star Trek always wanted us to think it was: Quite fitting for the themes this movie is working with elsewhere.
It also helps a lot that this movie actually looks like a movie: The special effects are all very good and both they and the general cinematography feel suitably cinematic in scope. The new designs are fantastic: Spacedock is a truly breathtaking thing to behold (though I actually prefer it when Star Trek: The Next Generation lifts the footage of it for use as Starbase 74 in “11001001” four years later) and the Klingon Bird-of-Prey is a really slick-looking ship that’s shot to look menacing and cool. There is far, far less obvious CSO hackery than there was in the previous efforts and though it reuses just as many sets as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan did (most of the Spacedock interiors are redresses of Enterprise sets, as are, obviously, the bridges of the Excelsior and the Grissom) it’s not so blatantly phoned in this time and that, combined with the new sets that actually were built, allow Star Trek III: The Search for Spock to do a very good job conveying the feeling of a large, expansive Star Trek universe without resorting to demanding a hideously overblown budget.
However, that said, and granting that I really actually did enjoy watching this movie, there’s a lot of things about it I found annoying. Saavik is an obvious causality (so is David, literally so, but he’s part and parcel of the same problem). Yes, it’s a shame Kirstie Alley couldn’t come back (there are conflicting stories as to why: Either she was afraid of being typecast or her agent demanded more money than Paramount could afford to pay, without Alley’s knowledge) but Robin Curtis makes a perfectly serviceable Vulcan and she goes on to become one of Star Trek’s most admirably workmanlike go-to guest actors. Though in a way I’m glad Alley didn’t come back, because this movie is the beginning of a systematic process to take Saavik, once clearly marked as the new leading lady of Star Trek, and shunt her to the margins of the Original Series story. She doesn’t have much more of a role here than to get stranded on the Genesis planet, kidnapped by Klingons and to take care of Baby Spock.
(And, it should be noted, take part in what has got to be the least erotic sex scene in the entire history of cinema. The ramifications of this will prove absolutely dire, but we’ll deal with that when we revisit the Original Series story in a couple years.)
The sad reality is that making an entire movie about “getting the band back together” does nothing but contribute further to the ossification of the Original Series status quo as “the way things are supposed to be”. As good as the original cast is here, the guest cast is positively shafted, with two major exceptions: The first is James B. Sikking as Captain Styles of the Excelsior, who does a delightfully tongue-in-cheek sketch comedy version of a military commander, strutting up and down his bridge with a baton and just generally looking stuffy and pompous. Seriously, were this movie a Monty Python sketch you could totally imagine John Cleese or Graham Chapman playing him. The other is, of course, Christopher Lloyd as Lord Commander Kruge, who is amazing. OK, so for people who haven’t seen this movie…Imagine Doc Brown from Back to the Future as a Klingon warlord…And that’s exactly how Lloyd plays Kruge here. But what makes his turn really genius is that Lloyd is a good enough actor that he can switch between campy, overblown manic gurning and deathly serious emotional gravity.
Which is precisely what the character of Kruge needs, because there’s a secret story to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock that both hints at a much greater film this could have been and is further evidence of the increasingly narrow channels at least this version of Star Trek is being forced into. See, if you strip away all the maniacal, B-movie scheming, explosions and fisticuffs, the fact is that Kruge is actually *right* here: He doesn’t want to use the Genesis device to conquer new worlds for the Klingon Empire, he wants to steal it so the Federation doesn’t have it anymore, rightly recognising it as the Doomsday device it really is. Think about it: This is a bomb that can level entire planets…and then reshape them any way the Federation wants. It’s the ultimate wet dream of the Federation’s darkest, most imperialistic unspoken desires. Kruge immediately, and correctly, recognises this as evidence the Federation has become the most dangerous threat in the galaxy and takes it upon himself to put a stop to it for the safety and sovereignty of the other non-aligned cultures. With a few minor dialogue edits, Kruge could have been an utterly sympathetic tragic hero, and, to his credit, Lloyd almost gets there all by himself just working with the material he’s given.
And this is exactly what Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was supposed to be about. Kruge was originally going to be a Romulan character on par with the commander from “Balance of Terror” (hence why he has a Bird-of-Prey) and he and Kirk were going to have an actually serious, intelligent and mature debate about the ethics of the Federation developing this kind of weapon. And remember, this is also the story where the crew basically commits high treason, stealing the Enterprise and violating every single regulation to save Spock’s life, finally placing friendship and morality above their careers and Federation interest. No wonder this is pegged as “The Final Voyage of the Starship Enterprise”: Not only is the ship itself destroyed (in what is admittedly a rather hollow and transparently obvious attempt to drum up drama in a similar way to Spock’s death in the last movie), but this film finally marks the point where Star Trek rejects its own ethics to try and become something different. Sarek is right: Kirk and crew have saved Spock, but at the cost of the Enterprise, their careers and David’s life. It’s possible this movie too could have served as the ultimate capstone to the Original Series story had it wanted to.
(There is also, of course, the inherent Pop Christianity implicit in stating Spock has an “immortal soul”, which is worth a brief mention. So I’ll mention it. This makes a curious contrast with the Hollywood faux-Eastern trappings the Vulcans exhibit elsewhere in this movie.)
But of course, as is maddeningly so often the case with Star Trek, that’s not quite the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock actually is. It comes very close, and the actors put in a Herculean effort here (especially the main cast and Christopher Lloyd), but this still ultimately remains a fun space action B-movie about how wonderful Star Trek is, and not just Star Trek, but a very *specific* kind of Star Trek. The Original Series was never going to end here any more than it was going to end with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: As the end credits state, “And The Adventure Continues”. Star Trek is back (and not just Star Trek, but Star Trek) and is blasting off to a new set of adventures that will be just like the old ones (or rather, how you remember the old ones to be) except now they’re on the big screen. You can almost imagine seeing a bunch of text scrolling onscreen after the ending saying things like “How will Admiral Kirk and his friends escape Vulcan? Tune in next time for more exciting adventures in Outer Space!”.
Along those lines, it’s interesting to note that Star Trek III: The Search for Spock marks the point where Star Trek swings so far back to its Pulp sci-fi roots it actually manages to resurrect the film serial style of storytelling, which is oddly fitting coming in the wake of Indiana Jones and Star Wars. As much as Star Trek fans may not like to admit it, this franchise really was playing catch-up and follow-the-leader for pretty much the entire decade between 1977 and 1987. But this just further reaffirms my belief that the Original Series is becoming more and more of an intellectual dead end: At this point, it seems to exist primarily as comfort food for a specific subset of Trekkers who both adamantly refuse to move on and who are for whatever reason unwilling to take the series into their own hands, despite repeated pleas to do precisely that.
(Speaking of reification and ossification, this also, of course, marks the point where that begins to happen to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Even though this film ultimately undoes everything that movie tried to do, it still holds it in a kind of reverence: The reused soundtrack, the stock footage of the climax that opens this movie and the constant invocation of it as arc words speak quite clearly to that. Flatly, Star Trek had finally done something massively popular, and now the franchise was never going to let anyone forget that ever again.)
There’s a lot to love about Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: Truly, there is. But, yet again, it’s a bunch of good ideas and successful parts taken individually that never quite add up to a great whole, and it still continuously manages to fall short of its potential. And honestly, I’m kind of tired of constantly having to say that.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!