part 3 of our series reviewing past Trek movies
In the wake of 1982’s enormously successful The Wrath of Khan, and particularly before the universally despised Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Leonard Nimoy’s directorial debut, Star Trek III, was the whipping boy of the burgeoning Star Trek movie franchise. On the face of it the movie was a success—feverishly anticipated, given extra buzz by Nimoy’s presence behind the camera, the mystery of the fate of Spock after his death in Trek II, and the “final mission of the starship Enterprise” tagline that teased the movie’s shocking destruction of the beloved space vessel at the movie’s climax. Reviews were good, if not as glowing as the ones for Nicholas Meyer’s Wrath of Khan (one of the few Trek movies to garner non-condescending raves from the mainstream press), and box office business was brisk.
Maybe the self-explanatory title helped. After the Wrath of Khan, it was time to Search For Spock—the Vulcan’s death had been Trek II’s trump card, there hadn’t been a dry Trekkie eye in the house and devastated fans wondered what they would do on an Enterprise bridge bereft of their favorite first officer. But the title implied hope, when interviewed Nimoy was coy about whether he actually appeared in the film, and suddenly a sequel with a quite logical and emotionally satisfying—if open-ended—wrap-up suddenly became the beginning of a three-movie arc.
The Search for Spock indeed picks up almost exactly where The Wrath of Khan left off, with the Enterprise limping home after its battle with the genetic superman and Kirk licking the “open wound” of his Vulcan friend’s death. And the emotional dividends of that bummer of an ending start paying off immediately when a young ensign (actor Greg Morris’ son—and future Seinfeld semi-regular—Phil Morris) asks the grieving Kirk if there’ll be a ceremony when the Enterprise gets home. “A hero’s welcome, Ensign—is that what you’d like?” Kirk asks, and the audience cringes—you wonder if Kirk is going to hit the guy. Just as effective is the eerie scene in Spock’s quarters with McCoy briefly channeling his Vulcan sparring partner’s voice. This is a whiff of classic Trek not seen in the movies up until this point—the old trope of weird “mind controlled” behavior that showed up in so many episodes—and the exercising of these vintage beats from the TV series immediately connects Trek III to its lineage in a way the less conventionoal TMP and Wrath of Khan never quite did.
The effect is redoubled when Mark Lenard shows up as Sarek. Classic Trek’s weekly parade of high-powered guest stars was one of its great pleasures, and one completely unexplored in TMP. Khan’s Ricardo Montalban returns the tradition, but Search for Spock offers not just the beloved Lenard but the oddly—but enjoyably—miscast Christopher Lloyd as Klingon villain Lord Kruge, James Sikking as the Captain of the Excelsior and no less than Dame Judith Anderson as a Vulcan High Preistess, plus Morris and Miguel Ferrer in supporting roles. Of course not all of the casting decisions are so stellar.
Trek III is probably the first of the Trek movies to embrace the original show’s strangely charming vices as well as its obvious virtues. It’s a grab bag of mixed greatness and pure cheese, just as the original show was mesmerizing when it was good (your Cities on the Edge of Forever) and deliciously, unforgettably cheesy when bad (your Ways to Eden). Trek III’s weakest element is easily its storyline, a collection of fun sequences haphazardly arranged around the title concept—finding Spock and restoring his “katra” back inside his physical body. They playoff from a throwaway bit in The Wrath of Khan—Spock’s “Remember” line to McCoy—is the story’s most convincing element, probably more due to the performances of Lenard and Deforest Kelley than anything else. As for how Spock is ultimately recovered, it hinges on science worthy of Lost in Space—with a rapidly growing Spock discovered on the now disintegrating Genesis Planet. Seems he’s growing at just the right rate to be exactly the way Kirk left him by the time Kirk and Spock are finally reunited at the end of the film. It seems remotely believable that McCoy might carry some psychic aftershock of Spock’s mentality inside his brain; less believable is the idea that this one-second burst of thought could successfully download a functioining Spock “soul” in McCoy that can be used to restore the empty shell of Spock’s body to consciousness.
The claptrap sequences involving Kirk’s son and Lt. Saavik exploring the Genesis Planet from the U.S.S. Grissom are mostly clumsy and awkward. The Grissom’s smug, fey Captain Esteban might be the most annoying Starfleet captain ever shown in the franchise, and the Genesis “protomatter” technobabble is embarrassingly lame. It doesn’t help that Robin Curtis is impossibly wooden as Saavik, despite looking more convincingly Vulcan than the openly emotional Kirstey Alley (oddly, Curtis was quite good as a Vulcan gone bad in the TNG episode “Gambit”).
The mix of good and bad reaches its zenith in the pre-departure scenes, as McCoy enters the franchise’s attempt at a Star Wars cantina and makes conversation with a weird, big-eared alien. The mise-en-scene is appalling—cartoon animated holographic biplanes, crappy makeups, and a cocktail waitress who looks like she lost a sorority hazing dare. Yet De Kelley makes the scene work by playing out McCoy’s always barely-concealed xenophobia (“How can you be deaf with EARS like that?”). When Bones, cornered by Starfleet security, frantically tries to give the guy a Vulcan neck pinch, it’s the movie franchise’s first dose of laugh-out-loud comedy.
Kirk’s hijacking of the Enterprise from spacedock is another immensely satisfying extended sequence, juiced up by James Horner’s derivative but effective score and Nimoy’s simple but evocative use of color (deep steel blues for the spacedock, greens for the Klingon Bird of Prey, oranges and browns for the Genesis Planet and Vulcan). The opening beats with Uhura’s “Mr. Adventure” and Sulu’s bullying security officer (in his ridiculous Jetsons space hat and mustache) are enjoyable just because these poor bit players are finally getting a little something to do, but the throwaway humor (Kirk’s “How many fingers am I holding up?”, McCoy’s “That green-blooded son of a bitch!”, Scotty’s dismissive “Up your shaft.”) still works. And the masterstroke of pitting the outdated Enterprise against the gussied up, gaudy Excelsior and its stuffy, egotistical Captain (the always good James Sikking) beautifully plays on the underdog idea of the aging crew (with her aging, sympathetic fan base).
The same trick works as the Enterprise faces down the beautifully-realized Klingon Bird of Prey, impressively revealed in an early decloaking scene and commanded by the eccentric Lord Kruge. Apparently Christopher Lloyd had little grasp on the conventions of Trek when he played the role, addressing lines to the heavens when he was supposed to be talking on his Klingon communicator, but the effect makes for some priceless reaction shots and line readings. The fact that the Klingons (and their mangy space dog) are played somewhat for laughs makes their easy defeat of the Enterprise that much more pathetic, and Kirk’s reprise of the “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” self destruct code sequence a little more convincing (even though Kirk has gotten out of worse scrapes without destroying his ship before this).
For all the raggedness of the plotting, the set up results in some of the movie series’ greatest moments. Kruge’s casual execution of Kirk’s son (“Kill one of them. I don’t care which.”) leads to a tour de force from Shatner, the once indomitable starship Captain stumbling backward into his chair in shock and grief. We buy the destruction of the Enterprise because Kirk now has nothing left to lose. ILM’s visual effects work on The Search for Spock is arguably their best for the series, from Nilo-Rodis’ distinctive design work (both the Bird of Prey and the new Starfleet ships are huge infliuences on the franchise from this point on) to the choreography of the BOP’s initial appearance, the quick and dirty space battles, the horrific destruction of the beloved Enterprise, and the money shot of the BOP warping out of orbit as chunks of the exploding Genesis Planet fly with it out of frame. And it’s all topped by the juicy confrontation between Kirk and Kruge on the disintegrating Genesis Planet, which even Roger Ebert described as “the last word in fight scenes on the edge of exploding volcanoes”). In interviews Gene Roddenberry always chafed at the “action/adventure” label the original NBC Star Trek had to wear, as if he’d been forced at phaser-point to insert fistfights at the end of every episode. But let’s face it, Shatner loved doing those scenes, and part of the mystique and fun of the Kirk character is his two-fisted, drop-kicking, pro-wrestling action star persona. Kirk was a hero who loved to think his way out of a problem, but he wasn’t above enjoying a damn good fistfight either. His set-to with Kruge might rank as the best Trek fight ever done, beautifully built up to with Nimoy’s camera work and sold with Shatner’s fiery performance (his animal roar as he dives into a pit on the waiting Kruge is pure Shatner magic) and some classic Trek stunt man moves that recall the seminal brawl between Kirk and Gary Mitchell in an equally apocalyptic setting in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Kirk’s “I…have had enough…of YOU!” is a line that only Shatner could make work so well, and the aftermath shot of Kirk looking off onto the fiery horizon of the planet is perfect. So’s the Kirk and Spock beam-out, a fantastically dramatic shot to the tune of a great James Horner music cue, excellent miniature effects and a wind-tossed pair of Trek heroes disappearing in a glowing haze of transporter energy—this is the way movie Trek should always be: pushing all the familiar conventions of the series onto a big, mythic canvas.
The film’s final beats are largely small-scale apart from the spectacular landing on Vulcan: McCoy’s touching private moment with the still inert Spock, the meeting with Sarek and Dame Judith Anderson’s Vulcan High Preistess (it’s Star Trek meets The Ten Commandments!), and Nimoy’s effectively fragile playing of his reunion with Kirk. Only a franchise with Trek’s character-hungry fans could wrap up with this gentle, metaphysical reunion scene instead of more pyrotechnics.
So does the good outweigh the bad? The Search for Spock doesn’t really hang together that well as a movie, yet its high points dwell in the memory better than most and its balance of action, humor and genuine drama makes it highly satisfying to revisit. In retrospect the wildly popular follow-up The Voyage Home is altogether too cutesy, and The Final Frontier clearly pushed the humor envelope into full-on disaster. Trek III takes its characters seriously, but allows humor to break up a potentially depressing storyline. It’s a bridging movie and as such suffers the same way The Empire Strikes Back did—not that there’s any comparison, butTrek III will always depend on Treks II and IV for its set up and resolution. But in its way The Search for Spock digs up the thrills of the original Sixties show superbly—so cut at least half of it a break.
Lessons for Star Trek XI
Think Big: the reason the original cast produced the most successful Trek movies is that they were inherently larger than life. Abrams shouldn’t be afraid to paint on a big canvas, go for bold emotions and imagery. The TNG films practically drowned in their own classiness, but the best Trek embraces its pulp origins and raises that game to the point of looney brilliance.
Cast Stars: Unknowns have their uses, but Trek has floundered with its budgetary philosophy of finding cheap players who won’t cost too much down the road in further sequels or TV episodes. The original Trek featured established actors, familiar character faces and experienced, reliable thespians who delivered the goods. I still can’t imagine any well-known actor filling the boots of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, but would it kill us to have Matt Damon’s Kirk and Gary Sinise’s Bones?
Make Your Own Look: Unless you’re going to dedicate yourself to promulgating the great design aesthetic of Star Trek Enterprise, the TOS universe is still fairly wide open to interpretation. Take a note from Nilo-Rodis and don’t be afraid to push some groundbreaking reinterpretations of the Trek universe. The BOP and Excelsior looked radical in their day; now they’re the templates for half of the franchise’s ships.
Think Story, then Sequences: Trek III’s parts add up to more than its whole—it’s full of great moments and some superbly sustained sequences, but who gets jazzed by the plot? Yet today’s blockbusters often feature by-the-numbers action set pieces that could work in any movie and often have little bearing on the story itself. Abrams came up with some clever sequences in MI:III and he’s shown himself to be in tune to the possibilities of technology, so how about showing us cool new twists on the standard phaser shoot-outs and transporter trips? And isn’t there something else starships can do other than broadside each other like galleons in the Spanish Armada?
Kirk Kicks Ass: Love him or not, Patrick Stewart was never a very convincing action hero (putting both him and Kathryn Janeway in sweaty tank tops to show how rough and ready they were had to be two of the low points of the franchise). Shatner was, and should you cast someone like, say, Matt Damon, you’ve got a guy who’s clearly no slouch in the butt-kicking department. So forget Paramount’s (and often Roddenberry’s) PC mantra that “Star Trek is not about action”—of course it is! Give us a Kirk who sweats, punches and gets his shirt torn again!
Shake Things Up: Sure, you’re constrained by a future history we’ve already seen—but a real writer/director should be able to shock us, surprise us, make us really worry about our heroes. Trek has been too tame for too long, afraid to confront real conflict and drama, too content to make its fan base feel cozy and comfortable. Yes, we love these characters, but we want an adventure, not a warm family reunion.
JEFF BOND is the Editor-In-Chief of Geek Magazine and author of The Music of Star Trek. His short story, “Fracture,” appears in a 40th anniversary collection of Star Trek fiction, Constellations, from Pocket Books.
images courtesy of TrekCore.com…click to see their entire collection of TSFS images