The Search for Spock at 30: A Retrospective June 1, 2014by Steve Vivona , Filed under: Feature Films (TMP-NEM) , trackback
Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the theatrical release of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the highly anticipated follow-up to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The film, which marked Leonard Nimoy’s feature film directorial debut, was a critical and financial success and pushed the Star Trek format in new directions, ultimately being the middle film in what is sometimes referred to as “The Genesis Trilogy”, which culminated in the release of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986. TrekMovie is marking the anniversary with a retrospective from guest author Steve Vivona, who tells us why he loves this film, and gives a sense of what it was like to be a sci-fi and Star Trek fan in the early 80’s.
I’ll always remember June 1, 1984 as the day I became a Star Trek fan.
We all know that was the day Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was released, and while it is hardly the high watermark of the film series, I believe it occupies a special place in every Trek fan’s heart (and if it doesn’t it should). It certainly does in mine.
Yes, it has some plot holes you could drive a truck through (not nearly as bad as say, The Undiscovered Country), and its title is a dead giveaway for its resolution, but for me, Trek III is the first of the films that really focuses on the familial bond between our intrepid crew. They throw their careers away, risk their very lives on the vague promise they can restore their dear friend to life.
I was born in 1970, and I’d say it’s a safe bet most people of my generation came to love Trek through endless airings of the Original Series in syndication. My Dad, who always had a sci-fi bent, loved classic films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and 2001. On television, he watched The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Naturally, he gravitated to Star Trek with its intelligent and thought provoking brand of science fiction.
He stayed with it in syndication, and I can vividly remember him watching it and encouraging me to do likewise. Here’s the problem: by my recollection (and it’s murky at best) every time it was on there (seemingly) was some woeful third season episode being screened. One that springs to mind is the “way too on the nose” Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.
The other problem is that (for better or worse) I am a child of George Lucas. Star Wars blasted into my nascent consciousness at the tender age of seven, took hold, and never let go. To me, this was science fiction, not the cheesy sets of Star Trek. Star Wars dominated my life for the next six years. Each new movie brought breathless anticipation, and the wait for each was interminable.
Thanks to Star Wars, Trek got a new lease on life. A proposed 13-episode series entitled Phase II was scrapped in favor of a big budget feature film, with a big-name director and state of the art special effects. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit the dollar theater Dad insisted we go and nine-year old me….promptly fell asleep.
Obviously, I was still unmoved toward Trek. Star Wars was all consuming for me: the toys, the comics, the novels, the cards. I devoured all of it. I was an enormous comic fan and felt compelled to buy some of Marvel’s Trek comics, and again, nothing.
Around 1982 something began to change. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released, and again Dad took me to see it at the dollar theater. I came out thinking, “That wasn’t so bad.” Mind you, I was still wrapped up in the fervor emanating from a galaxy far, far away, but Return of the Jedi was still a year away.
A few months later, WPIX-TV, which aired Star Trek in the New York area, screened “Space Seed”, the episode that begat Khan Noonien Singh, the villain of Star Trek II. Dad suggested I watch it in order to better understand the events of that film. I did. Again, “It wasn’t so bad.” I was becoming more than a bit intrigued.
Around that time, my family finally took the cable tv plunge, and when Trek II arrived on HBO sometime in 1983 I watched it every day it was on. It was compulsory viewing. And yet, I still wasn’t watching TOS. I can’t quite put my finger on why. To some degree, I think the look of it hampered my acceptance of it, much the same way the look of classic Doctor Who did (and still does to an extent). I’m not proud of that, but in my defense, I was 12, and Star Wars looked amazing.
Return of the Jedi came and went, and my enthusiasm for Star Wars began to abate somewhat. To this day, I still love SW but it has taken a back seat to Trek.
In 1983, our main conduit for science fiction news and gossip was Starlog Magazine. Through it, I learned a new Star Trek film was on the horizon, and that Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy would direct. I was excited, and what cemented that excitement was a special that aired late in 1983 entitled Star Trek Memories, hosted by Nimoy.
An obvious promotional tie-in for Trek III, Star Trek Memories was like “Spock for Dummies,” and it saw Nimoy recounting the various iconic moments that shaped the Spock character during the Original Series (ones we can all recite verbatim now). He teased Trek III brilliantly, whetting my appetite for the new film while simultaneously piquing my curiosity for what came before. When the special re-aired early in 1984 I taped it with my new VCR and watched it constantly.
Around this time WPIX aired Star Trek late at night and possibly on the weekend at the dinner hour. Of the latter, I cannot be sure, but I vividly remember not being able to make it to 11:00 or midnight to start watching Trek. Having a VCR and the ability to time shift recordings changed all that.
My excitement for Trek III was reaching its crescendo in the spring of 1984. A few photos were released and Starlog gave us a few crumbs to gnaw on. I started taping (and saving) every episode of TOS. The first episode I ever taped was The Enterprise Incident. Ironically enough my collection started in the third season. I had to suffer through about a month’s worth of Trek at its lousiest before I got to the good stuff.
I was in such a froth to see Trek III that I outlined a plan for my friends and I to see it opening day. A friend’s mother drove the four of us to the theater, but not before I got my hands on the official movie magazine featuring Leonard Nimoy as Spock dead center on the cover, newly resurrected and wearing his Vulcan robes. I proceeded to spoil the ending for all my friends, as if there was any doubt.
So how was it?
Star Trek III is flawed, to be sure. As a friend recently pointed out, why does Kirk need to return to Genesis with Spock’s body? What’s the point of that? Once it’s established that Spock’s katra resides in McCoy that should be all that is needed to deposit Spock’s essence in the Hall of Ancient Thought. Sarek cannot know that Spock’s body has been regenerated on Genesis, nor can Kirk.
I remember reading Vonda McIntyre’s excellent novelization of Trek III, and I vividly recall that the movie does not pick up until about 100 pages into the book, so it’s possible I am not remembering some detail that explains this seeming hole.
Star Trek III is no Star Trek II, but it provides some of my favorite moments of the film series: Kirk and Co. steal the Enterprise accompanied by James Horner’s rousing score, the gradual injection of humor in just the right spots setting the stage for the all-out fun of Trek IV, the depiction of that bond I mentioned previously as evidenced by every member of the cast having their moment in the sun, my favorite being, “Don’t call me Tiny.”
As a director, Nimoy inherently knows how to pace a film. He steps back and allows these actors who have lived in the skins of their characters for nearly 20 years something of a free hand to express themselves the way they should. He carefully and gently guides William Shatner through one of the most poignant scenes of his storied career: Kirk’s reaction to the death of his son.
Thanks to the seeds planted by Producer Harve Bennett, in concert with Nimoy, Spock’s return to life is neither contrived (by sci-fi standards) nor silly. No “Obi Wan shimmer” here. It is obvious that while the grand mysteries of life and death have not been solved by Vulcan mysticism, they have a better handle on them than we do. It is a happy coincidence, however, that they happen to have a ceremony meant to reunite body and soul in case of…you know….unexpected bodily resurrection.
Trek III marked a return to prominence for the Klingons, and a offers a characterization that would be adopted for subsequent films and The Next Generation. Christopher Lloyd blows the doors off as Kruge, an obsessed Klingon captain who is more than a match for Kirk. Robin Curtis does her best trying to fill Kirstie Alley’s shoes as Saavik, but she brings little dimension to the role. She’s become a great ambassador for Trek though, and I applaud her for that.
With the release of Star Trek III, I began consuming as much Trek ephemera as I possibly could and none more so than DC’s excellent comic series that began eight months prior to Trek III’s release. Writer Mike Barr did an amazing job weaving his story into and out of the film, setting the stage for the incredible “Mirror Universe Saga” which in my opinion is the finest Trek comic storyline ever.
Star Trek III is also famous for being the first budget priced video cassette released at that price point ($29.95) when it debuted on home video. Paramount had already experimented with cassettes priced to buy, but only after they had been priced for rental for several months. That meant I could get my grubby little hands on the actual VHS! I remember pre-ordering it at my local video shop, picking it up sometime in February of 1985 and sitting through a lengthy dinner at a restaurant with my parents before I could go home and watch it (twice). Paramount continued this trend with other high profile releases such as Beverly Hills Cop and Star Trek IV.
Star Trek III was definitely a hit, ensuring yet another sequel and a return to the director’s chair for Leonard Nimoy. Does it suffer from the odd-numbered slump? I suppose if you measure it against immediate predecessor and successor Trek II and Trek IV, it does. It’s a film whose existence is predicated on the need to resurrect a beloved character that had an amazing send-off and a subsequent change of heart. Is anyone really annoyed at the fact Spock came back and the manner in which he did? Pick nits all you want. It was wonderful.
It’s the film that proved Nimoy could direct. It’s the film that showed us what was at the heart of Trek: the friendship of these amazing characters. It’s a brisk, rousing adventure with an uplifting score (no offense to maestro Jerry Goldsmith but James Horner is the right man for this job). It’s a film with heavy themes punctuated with humor and levity at exactly the right moment every time. It’s the film that made me love Star Trek.
Here, in 4 parts, is the “Star Trek Memories” special mentioned earlier:
And as an added bonus, we also have the spoilerific theatrical trailer that made producer Harve Bennett blow a gasket: