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Summer of ‘84—Odd Man Out: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

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Summer of ‘84—Odd Man Out: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

It’s conventional wisdom in fan circles that of the six “original cast” Star Trek films the even numbered outings (2, 4, and 6) are the best. I can understand why Treks 1 and 5 are generally held in low esteem. But I am perhaps the ONLY person who actually found 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock to be the most faithful (and therefore the most enjoyable) of the first half dozen excursions.

I’ve never felt that the transition of Star Trek from television to film was particularly well handled. An excellent House piece by Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard, “The Conversations: Star Trek,” takes an in-depth look at all of the six OC movies. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to all the opinions expressed within, it’s a worthwhile read.

My take on the films is that they suffered from Paramount’s post-Star Wars desire to turn Star Trek into a big budget, pyrotechnics laden sci-fi property. While the Enterprise herself didn’t have a traditional galley (except for the one that mysteriously appears in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), the franchise possessed an overabundance of cooks. The result was something called “Star Trek” that had a lot more flash but, for me, lacked the essence of what made the more austerely produced television version work.

Not that this makes me cool or cutting edge (quite the contrary perhaps), but I’m one of those baby boomer “Trekkies” (not “Trekkers”) who jumped onto the Star Trek bandwagon during its wilderness years of syndication when the prospect of any new adventures either on television or film seemed pretty grim. To give some perspective, the premiere of the Saturday morning animated series in 1973 was a major event in my life (sad, isn’t it?). By the way, if you want to have fun at a Star Trek convention, go up to a crowd of people (especially if they’re in costume) and innocently ask if the Star Trek cartoons are “canonical” (I’m animiconoclastic).

When it was announced in the late ’70s that Star Trek would finally return in movie form, I was beside myself with anticipation. Alas, the batteries of my Trek fandom started to drain about halfway into 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. My first impression was that they had changed too much of the Trek universe. In interviews leading up to the film’s release, Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenbery, identified two camps of fans: those who didn’t want ANYTHING about the original series altered and those who were excited that ST: TMP’s 35-million-dollar budget would allow for a fully realized Trek experience that had never been possible on the small screen.

I fell into the former camp. I liked the original color-coded uniforms: gold, blue and, red (yikes). The first movie totally revamped this with ’70s era pastels that no longer made organizational or aesthetic sense. I’ll grant that they probably needed to adjust the look of the original costumes to conceal the effects of time and gravity on the more mature cast members. But did the uniforms have to resemble 23rd-century leisure suits?

On the outside, the Enterprise, thankfully, wasn’t given SO drastic a refit. However, they did do a lot of redecorating inside. An extra turbo lift door was added to the bridge because fans had complained that it was illogical to only have one point of egress. Fine. Automatic restraints were added to all of the chairs to keep the crew from tumbling around when encountering rough space turbulence (which really shouldn’t happen inside a ship equipped with an artificial gravity environment, but okay). They also revamped the classic original Enterprise bridge set by pivoting some of the workstations ninety degrees, thus disrupting the feng shui of the familiar circular pattern Trekkies had grown up with. Worst of all, however, was the bland grey color scheme that dominated everything. Maybe, as in Operation Petticoat, it was just primer and the arrival of V’Ger interrupted the final paint job. Nonetheless, I could totally sympathize when Admiral Kirk got lost in one of the corridors.

While I sound like a nitpicker (and I am, but that’s beside the point), there’s a vast collection of Star Trek fans (trust me on this) for whom the production design was an important part of the original series.

To prove this isn’t an overstatement, I submit the fact that subsequent Star Trek television incarnations, including The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise, each aired heavily hyped episodes which worked a justification for revisiting the original 1960’s Enterprise ship, uniform design, or both into their storylines (“Relics,” “Trials and Tribble-ations,” and “In a Mirror Darkly” respectively). Then there’s the surprisingly successful fan-created Star Trek: Phase II. This web series set in the original Star Trek universe contains all of the 1960’s accouterments. I’m not a fan myself, but I understand that it has a huge following.

Production design wasn’t ST:TMP’s only problem. Instead of picking up where the television show had left off and getting right into the plot, ST: TMP played up the reunion aspect of the story too much for my taste. As a result, there’s a lot of wasted time watching Kirk “getting the band back together.” That along with the lingering love affair it had for its own expensive special effects slowed the movie to a wormhole’s pace. By the time the Enterprise finished a ridiculously long journey through V’Ger, I had already started to fade like Charlie Evans being reclaimed by Thasians at the end of “Charlie X.”

The general consensus seems to be that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best of the bunch. But the drama struck me as a tad forced. This is epitomized by the scene where, in spite of a tactical error, Kirk withstands Khan’s first attack. Afterward the captain comforts a dying crew member. The mortally wounded midshipman leaves a bloody hand print of guilt on Kirk’s redesigned ST2 uniform (they’re wearing jackets now). It would have been a more emotional moment but for the fact that Kirk encounters the doomed lad only because Scotty, for reasons unknown, decides to carry him up to the bridge instead of straight to sickbay.

As with ST:TMP, the producers of ST:TWOK had to work hard to convince Leonard “I Am Not Spock” Nimoy to reprise the role of Mr. Spock. Without the lynch pin of the Trek franchise in place, it was felt that many Trekkies would stay home. Nimoy was lured to participate in TWOK by the promise of a juicy death scene. Fairly or not, because news of Spock’s impending death was so well publicized, the drama of the scene was lost on me. Unlike the final teary-eyed shot of Lt. Saavik, a Vulcan officer played by Kirstie Alley, my eyes were as dry as her home planet at the end.

Legend has it that while attending the wrap party for TWOK, jaws dropped like red-shirts on a landing party when Nimoy declared how excited he was to get started on the next Trek adventure.

Whether that’s a true story or not, Nimoy’s involvement in The Search for Spock probably has a lot to do with my enjoyment of it. He directed and helped to develop the storyline for this third installment. TSFS is not without its flaws and I can understand why many fail to embrace it. But, for me, it has none of the stiffness of the first film nor the banal sentimentality of the second. TWOK’s success had ensured that subsequent Trek films would be oriented to adventure and pyrotechnics as opposed to the more contained morality lessons played out on the small screen. I credit Nimoy for infusing the established Star Trek “action film” template with a number of little moments that, taken as a whole, capture the essence of the series more than any of the other cinematic efforts.

On paper, TSFS’s only purpose is to resolve the seemingly insurmountable plot element of Spock’s death in TWOK. Sure, Star Trek has brought deceased characters back to life before. But generally only seconds after McCoy has declared, “He’s dead Jim.” And never weeks after the funeral. To its credit, given the heavy lifting that TSFS faced story-wise, it doesn’t allow itself to get too too bogged down in technobabble or overplay the mystic elements of the plot. The “Genesis effect” solution the writers came up with to resurrect Spock is very much grounded in the Trek tradition of pseudo-science. I mean, they could have had a translucent Spock floating around the Enterprise like Obi Wan Kenobi scaring people. Come to think of it, they did kind of do that with Kirk in “The Tholian Web.” But I digress.

TSFS opens with a damaged Enterprise returning to space dock after the battle with Khan from ST2. Not counted among the casualties, but equally damaged, is a very unstable Dr. McCoy. We find out later that just before entering the enclosed dilithium chamber in TWOK, Spock, anticipating his death and knowing that he’d be segregated from other people, mind-melded with Bones to so that his “katra” (living spirit) would have somewhere to go (as opposed to just flying loose into space). In Vulcan dogma, the body and soul have to be laid to rest together. For some reason, at the end of TWOK, instead of returning Spock’s body to Vulcan for burial, they fired it onto the surface of the Genesis planet in a photon torpedo. As it turns out, a byproduct of the terraforming work being done down there somehow reconstitutes Spock’s corpse.

In a bar scene that’s a little too close to the Star Wars cantina, McCoy, under the influence of Spock’s katra, finds himself arrested for trying to illegally book passage to the Genesis Planet. Later, Kirk is visited by Sarak (Mark Lenard), Spock’s father, who informs him that the only way to cure Bones and save Spock’s immortal soul is to free McCoy from his incarceration, steal the Enterprise, make an illicit trek to the Genesis Planet for Spock’s body, and return with the whole kit and kaboodle to Vulcan. I’m not sure why it HAD to be the Enterprise, but that’s the plan. Of course, Kirk enlists his old crewmates, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov. As this isn’t an official “mission,” they’re all wearing ridiculous futuristic civilian clothes. (By the looks of it, for TSFS, Barry Manilow’s tailor from ST: TMP was replaced with Prince’s for Purple Rain.)

Meanwhile, a Klingon named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) is hot on the trail of the Genesis device introduced in TWOK. While Federation scientists see it as a way to create life on barren planets, Kruge only sees its WMD potential.

I’ve read complaints that characterize Lloyd’s performance as Taxi’s Reverend Jim Ignatowski in Klingon garb. I couldn’t disagree more. Both humorous and dangerous, Kruge is one of my favorite Star Trek movie villains. Lloyd picks up where Michael Ansara’s prototype Klingon, Kang, left off in “Day of the Dove” and fleshes out the now familiar warrior persona. Until then, the smooth foreheaded, goateed Klingons from the original series were either sinister Bond-like villains (Kor in “Errand of Mercy”) or sniveling pirates (Kras in “Friday’s Child”).

Roddenbery had filmed a TV pilot in the mid-seventies called Planet Earth that was set in a post-nuclear future. One of the races left on Earth were warlike mutant humans called the “Kreeg” who sported prominent bony ridges running across their bald heads. Roddenbery must have liked the look because he took advantage of ST: TMP’s budget and incorporated it into the Klingon makeup. However, Klingons only make a cameo in TMP and don’t show up at all in TWOK. TSFS is the film that establishes them as more than just stock adversaries for the Enterprise to do battle with.

There’s a great moment with Kruge in his bird of prey talking via viewscreen to a sexy Klingon female spy named Valkris (ST can’t seem to decide if Klingon women are alluring or butt-ugly). Valkris has purchased crucial data on the Genesis device from some mercenaries and, while transferring it from their ship to Kruge’s, inadvertently admits to having read it. They both instantly recognize that this is a fatal error on Valkris’ part and without hesitation Kruge destroys the mercenary ship with her still aboard. It’s clear from the context of their interaction that Kruge and Valkris are romantically involved; yet each dutifully resign themselves to do what’s best for the sake of the Klingon empire.

TSFS may not withstand close scrutiny (none of Trek films really do), but, as I said, Nimoy adds touches to the action yarn that evoke TOS. Lieutenant Uhura, who often functioned only to “open hailing frequencies,” is given a wonderful moment where, as part of the plan, she gets the best of a bored crewman who had just minutes before complained about the lack of “adventure” his post offered.

Likewise, Sulu overpowers one of the obnoxious security personnel guarding McCoy by flipping him onto the floor while explaining that he doesn’t like to be referred to as “tiny” (I’m not sure why Star Fleet’s Security division always seems like an island of fascists in an otherwise benevolent organization).

On the Genesis planet, Lt. Saavik (played this time with appropriate stoicism by Robin Curtis) and Kirk’s son, Dr. David Marcus, locate Spock’s empty coffin. They follow a trail to find a live Vulcan teenager who resembles Spock. As with everything else on the planet, he is undergoing a conveniently expedited maturation process.

The scene in TWOK where Kirk screams “KHAN!” into the communicator is often cited res ipsa loquitur of William Shatner’s poor acting skills. However, in Shatner’s defense, he wasn’t really playing a rage-filled Kirk there. He was playing Kirk PRETENDING to be filled with rage. In TSFS, Kirk’s son is brutally murdered by a Klingon on the Genesis planet. When Lt. Saavik matter-of-factly informs the captain, Shatner effectively shows Kirk’s breakdown as a mixture of restrained anger appropriately tempered by grief.

Kirk and Kruge engage in a battle of wits that leads up to the Klingon being tricked into beaming most of his crew onto the Enterprise, not realizing that it’s empty and the infamous “self-destruct” process is winding down. Blowing up the Enterprise is an interesting solution for this situation. Intentionally or not, the Star Trek franchise was always ahead of its time in the “viral marketing” department. Just as news of Spock’s impending death leaked well before the release of TWOK, so had chatter among Trekkies about the loss of the Enterprise. This created a pre-release grassroots buzz for the film. DeForrest Kelly once humorously commented that part of the reason he agreed to make a cameo as an old Dr. McCoy in the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was to set a canonical precedent that would make it impossible to kill him off in any of the subsequent films. Clever.

To make a long story short, Kirk and crew, having escaped the exploding Enterprise, end up in a face-off with Kruge on the Genesis planet, which itself is about to disintegrate. Kruge allows McCoy, Scotty, Sulu and Saavik to beam up to his ship as prisoners. Kirk stays behind ostensibly to give Kruge the scoop on Genesis. Just to be annoying, Kruge snidely does not allow the new Spock to leave either.

This leads to good old fashioned Star Trek fisticuffs as Kirk and Kruge go mano-a-klingon. Watching the ground crumble and burst into flames under their feet as they battle, I always play the famous fight music riff from the series in my head: “Da da daa daa daa daa daaaaa da da daaa daaa.”

Of course, Kirk is victorious, beams up and gets the drop on what’s left of the Klingon bird of prey’s crew. They head to Vulcan where T’Lar, a Vulcan High Priestess, administers a mystic protocol known as the Fal-tor-pan to remove the katra lodged in McCoy and transplant it into Spock’s body. The process is given too much screen time and comes across as only slightly less silly than the brain surgery scene from a third season Star Trek episode appropriately titled “Spock’s Brain.” It also leaves open the question of why Vulcans don’t see the logic in ensuring their own immortality by cloning a stable of waiting bodies to Fal-tor-pan into whenever needed. But, once again, I digress.

While the ritual is successfully completed, it’s not clear if Spock will totally regain his memory. Being led away from his crewmates, Spock stops, turns to look at Kirk and says: “Jim. Your name is Jim” as the original Star Trek theme plays in the background and the old comrades circle together for a group hug. Call me a sentimental softie, but this has always been a bombshell of a moment for me. Just as the cinematic Spock seemed to finally make peace with his own conflicted nature after his encounter with V’Ger in ST: TMP, I’ve always viewed Nimoy’s final raised eyebrow after recognizing Kirk and company at the end of The Search for Spock as a personal acknowledgment of his coming to terms with a character that he’d been at war with since the series ended.

 

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If you haven’t done so already, I recommend checking out “Vulcan: The Soul of Spock” a neat video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz.

Star Trek: Search for Spock Trailer:

 

Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.