The Search for Spock is a bad title. Not in the sense that it doesn’t look good on a poster, or that it doesn’t have a pleasant, iambic pentameter sort of lilt to it. The biggest issue is that it represents a contract with the audience that the filmmakers have no choice but to fulfill. You can’t label your movie as a quest to find one of the franchise’s most beloved characters without having that quest succeed, even if it’s after a few bumps and hurdles. If none of the Raiders had ever found the Lost Ark, we would have been hurling our popcorn at the screen and kicking over trash cans whilst stomping our way out of the theater. There is a certain sense of tedious inevitability that goes along with a story where you already know the ending. I think this goes a long way towards explaining why if you ask a Star Trek fan which of the twelve movies is his or her favorite, The Search for Spock rarely, if ever, tops the list – nor does it fester with the dregs (reserved usually for Star Trek V). It’s not a great movie, but there’s nothing in it that you can point to as spectacularly bad, either. It’s serviceable entertainment, but at the same time feels like a stopover on a more interesting journey, a commercial break in between two much better acts; a push of the reset button on the growth and change in the characters we saw in Star Trek II and a way to assemble the gang back at square one for a (hypothetical at the time) Star Trek IV.
In 1982, after The Wrath of Khan scored both critical and box office acclaim, there could be no doubt among the suits at Paramount Pictures, led now by Michael Eisner (of future Disney fame) that a Star Trek III was a done deal. Harve Bennett was retained as the movie’s producer again and even though Spock had gone out in a blaze of glory, Leonard Nimoy was approached to gauge his interest in participating in the next installment. Nimoy, who had enjoyed his time working on The Wrath of Khan, had begun to feel misgivings about walking away and so decided not only to glue on Spock’s ears one more time but to somewhat brazenly ask to direct the movie as well. Eisner was agreeable at first, but began to waffle. When Nimoy asked him why, Eisner explained that he could not support the notion of an actor who hated his character so much being placed in charge of a major production, citing Nimoy’s insistence at having Spock’s death guaranteed in his contract. Nimoy, perhaps raising an eyebrow as Spock himself would have in the same circumstances, said there was no such clause and if Eisner didn’t believe him, to have a flunky go to Paramount’s legal department and pull the Star Trek II contracts to see for himself. One quick visit to the archives later, Nimoy had the job and production could commence.
Mourning the loss of Spock, a battered U.S.S. Enterprise limps back to Earth from its battle with Khan to grim tidings: the aging starship is to be decommissioned and its crew split up. Not only that, but Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is acting oddly, breaking into Spock’s quarters and mouthing oblique requests to be taken home to the planet Vulcan. Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is facing the winding down of his career, until he is paid a visit by Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard), who reveals that before dying, Vulcans are able to place the essence of themselves, their katra – or soul, if you will – into another being. A quick scan of the Enterprise‘s logs reveals that the only person available was McCoy. Kirk vows to retrieve Spock’s body from the Genesis Planet and bring them both back to Vulcan. However, the controversial Genesis is currently restricted to scientific personnel, so getting there won’t be quite within regulations, and to complicate matters, McCoy’s loose lips in a local watering hole have landed him in the custody of Starfleet security.
Meanwhile, Kirk’s son Dr. David Marcus (Merritt Butrick) and Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis, taking over for Kirstie Alley) are part of the crew of the science vessel U.S.S. Grissom and are exploring unexpected signs of life on the Genesis Planet when they locate a Vulcan child sobbing in the snow. David thinks that the Genesis wave could have regenerated Spock’s cells. But the young Vulcan seems to have no consciousness, no awareness of who he is or any ability to communicate. Before the three can beam safely off the planet, the Grissom is destroyed by a Klingon ship commanded by Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) who wants the secrets of Genesis for himself. Kruge sends a team to the surface to locate the last survivors of the Grissom expedition. As David and Saavik try to stay ahead of the marauders, they notice that the planet’s rotation is speeding up, periodic tremors are wracking the ground, and the mindless Spock has grown rapidly into an adolescent. Something is not quite right, and David reveals that the instinct to change the rules runs deep within the Kirk bloodline – he used an unreliable, unstable substance called protomatter in the Genesis matrix, and that substance is now causing the entire planet to age at an accelerated rate. They may have only days, perhaps even hours, until Genesis destroys itself. As day breaks abruptly, David, Saavik and Spock are captured.
Back on Earth, Kirk and his crew break McCoy out of jail, hijack the Enterprise, sabotage their pursuers and make a warp speed beeline for Genesis – only to encounter Kruge’s ship and suffer an attack that cripples their patched-together ship beyond repair by even Scotty’s miracle-working hands. Kruge forces Kirk’s surrender by ordering his men to murder David in cold blood. Heartbroken, Kirk gathers himself and executes one final gambit, tricking Kruge’s crew into beaming aboard Enterprise under the pretense of surrender before using the self-destruct to destroy it. The two commanders confront each other down on the planet, which is beginning to break apart. Kruge has everyone except Kirk and Spock beamed up to his ship, and demands that Kirk give him Genesis. In a fistfight echoing the mano a mano faceoffs on the TV series which would usually end with Shatner’s shirt getting torn, Kirk kicks the murderous Kruge into a sea of lava, grabs the now-adult Spock and does his best Klingon impersonation to get them beamed onto the Klingon ship. The good guys seize the vessel, throw the last Klingon into the brig and flee the exploding Genesis planet on course for Vulcan, where a high priestess (Dame Judith Anderson) performs a ritual to extract the katra from McCoy and place it back into Spock. Spock is still not quite himself, and is only vaguely aware of what has happened, but as he achieves a glimmer of recognition in remembering his friend – “Your name is Jim,” the movie comes to a close with everyone reunited and a subtitle indicating that the adventures will continue.
Star Trek was born on television; it was created and designed for the limits of television, and while it is a universe rich enough to suit the broad canvas of a movie screen, it has often struggled to inflate itself to that larger, more theatrical sensibility. The Wrath of Khan did that very well – that is a movie from top to bottom, and feels like a movie at every stage, both in the scope of its themes and in the execution of individual scenes. The Search for Spock, while promising a grand adventure in its title, feels more confined, smaller in its ambitions and more hesitant to push against the frame. Some of this can be traced to the respective screenplays: Nicholas Meyer, who wrote The Wrath of Khan, is a more literate voice, steeped in traditions of the great novels and big operatic moments suited to motion pictures, while Harve Bennett, who penned The Search for Spock (and who commented that any one of a dozen people could have written it) approaches story with the TV producer’s mentality of hitting beats with clipped efficiency and never daring to stray from the path lest next week’s episode be compromised. The character moments in Star Trek III are good, but fairly perfunctory, and we never really peel back more than the most superficial of layers. We see TV tropes such as the “previously on…” recap that opens the movie and a reset button ending where the character evolution from II is completely dialed back. As a first time director, Leonard Nimoy is effective at keeping things moving (albeit at a more leisurely pace), but there’s nothing here that suggests of daring, of risking alienating the audience with anything truly unexpected – not that we should have hoped for such with a gang of studio executives undoubtedly peering over his shoulder the whole time, worrying that the novice was going to cook their golden goose.
The same can be said of the performances that Nimoy elicits from the actors. Meyer was able to get Shatner to dig deep beneath the persona of the movie star to get at the fragile human lying within; here, Shatner is back in his comfort zone puffing out his chest again and reaching for the rafters, and while it’s more in the vein of the Kirk persona we know and love, it’s still a letdown when we’ve seen the depth of his range in the previous entry. (Admittedly, the scene where he collapses with grief upon learning of the death of David is a powerful moment, if a bit overwrought and too easily overcome.) The standout among the cast is DeForest Kelley, and with Nimoy off camera for ninety percent of the running time, he gets a rare opportunity to show some versatility beyond McCoy’s usual single note of irascibility. Gene Roddenberry once wrote that he expected Kelley would win an Oscar one day, and like the fate that befell many of the Star Trek cast, it’s lamentable that he had become so identified with the character of Bones McCoy that he never got a role that would give him the chance to earn one. In The Search for Spock he’s the heart and soul of a movie that fundamentally doesn’t have much of either, and it’s fun to see him impersonate Nimoy in scenes where Spock’s personality has taken him over. Everyone else is pretty forgettable: the “other four” (James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols) hit their marks with varying degrees of interest, and the supporting players are largely a who’s who of 80’s TV actors giving TV-caliber performances (Doogie Howser‘s dad shows up as the captain of the starship Excelsior, and Dan Fielding from Night Court is buried under makeup as the last surviving Klingon!). Even the wonderful Christopher Lloyd as the Klingon captain Kruge, who won the role over runner-up Edward James Olmos, is a bland thug with little nuance to him, and Lloyd’s usual larger-than-life charisma buried under the latex. Kruge is drawn from the TV model of the “villain of the week,” where a bad guy has to show up out of nowhere and be single-dimensionally evil because there simply isn’t the time nor the inclination to delve into his motivations. He’s nothing but a plot obstacle, and as there are no lasting consequences to his actions (even David’s death is largely glossed over), we’ve forgotten about him the moment he plummets into that river of bluescreen… sorry, er, lava. (On that point, a real weakness of the movie was the choice to shoot the entirety of the Genesis Planet on indoor sets. I suppose you could say that this subtly reminds you that the planet was artificial in origin given that its environs look equally artificial, but it unfortunately just makes it seem like the budget couldn’t handle a location shoot. Shame.)
Though it’s a well that has been plumbed deeply since (and appears to be again in the forthcoming Star Trek Beyond), this was the first time we saw the Enterprise destroyed on screen. There was a reverence given to the big ol’ girl throughout the original series that has become less and less prominent as succeeding generations of writers have grown up farther removed from the era where the vessels in which men flew were as much a part of the humanity of the experience as the flesh and blood creatures at their controls. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the camera caressed the Enterprise as lovingly as it ever has any starlet. In The Wrath of Khan, the ship protected its crew valiantly under blow after merciless blow. Here, the Enterprise is pummeled into submission by one torpedo hit and sacrificed to take out half a dozen fairly clueless Klingon soldiers. The problem isn’t necessarily the decision to destroy the ship – in a story about sacrifice, it’s a logical, important beat – as it is the precedent it set for lazier writers to rely on. The characters should always be the heart of the story, not the surroundings, but in Star Trek, the ship has always been a character in itself, and to see it rendered as disposable as a redshirt in only the second act must have felt to Gene Roddenberry as if the inheritors of his legacy were doing everything they could to expunge him from it. Like Spock, the Enterprise turns out to be a temporary sacrifice remedied by the end of the next movie – and in hindsight, this effectively neuters the impact of the moment.
By the end of The Search for Spock, the contract implied by the title has been fulfilled and everything is more or less back to normal. The new members of the family we welcomed in The Wrath of Khan are gone, save one who has been recast and relegated to the sidelines, and one (Carol Marcus) didn’t even show up to the party. The intriguing promise of the Genesis Project has been proven to be a fraud and the planet itself has been blown to smithereens. The ship is gone, but the crew managed to score itself a temporary replacement. The slate has been erased and the band is reunited and ready for a brand new gig – it’s a bit like the tale of the man who hears of a fabled land of prosperity down the river and sets out on a journey to discover it, only to find that the river is circular and has brought him back home. As I said in the introduction, there is nothing egregiously wrong with any of this, it just makes the movie kind of a non-event. There are certainly more than a few pluses within: it’s great to see the planet Vulcan given a big-screen makeover, any movie earns points for a James Horner score (even if a lot of it is recycled from The Wrath of Khan), Sulu’s “Don’t call me tiny” scene is terrific, and that Klingon babe at the beginning was kinda fetching in a mysterious, alien sort of way. And inasmuch as Star Trek III sets the table for the merry romp that is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, it’s a necessary step – just not one that you find yourself compelled to take again and again.
In summary: Meh.
Next time: No dying, no sacrifice and not even a bad guy: Star Trek takes a cinematic U-turn and hits new heights of popularity – after a momentary ill-advised detour with Eddie Murphy.
Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.